I was at the Imagination Playground in South Street Seaport, NYC a couple of years ago, doing playwork training with the staff there. It’s a wealthy neighborhood to say the least, and we’d see a mix of parents, nannies and tourists alongside the children. I’d hung some blankets from the railings above, creating a series of hammocks that swung beneath the shade – inviting lots of play from older kids who were otherwise left cold by the sand pit, and more than one parent taking a surreptitious nap.
There was a Dad in one of them on a sunny afternoon, his tiny baby girl patting the sand between her knees and cooing to it softly. He pushed the sand with one leg, his iPhone resting on his other thigh so that he could tinker at it while keeping an eye on his daughter beyond.
“You look comfy!” I said, laughing. He looked up and grinned.
“Yup. This is a pretty sweet set-up,” he said. “Have you considered getting it catered?”
We sat and talked for while, while his daughter played happily by herself. He was a former finance specialist, laid off when the crisis hit, now very content to be a stay-at-home Dad. He talked about the tension of his previous job, and how he felt just as busy as a full-time parent but that “the stress was different”.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s bound to be.” He shook his head.
“No, it’s different for my wife too. When we were both in finance, we understood it as the same. We both worked that job, and worked very hard at it. But parenting…” he looked at his little girl, who looked up at him and grinned, sand sticking to her toothless gums. “We hadn’t expected that to be so different.”
“How do you mean?”
“When my wife takes her out, to the park or whatever, she’s always getting grief from the other mothers. And she’s a good mother! But they’re always asking about why she does whatever she does, looking at the snacks, are they organic enough. She loves our daughter, but hates the pressure from outside.”
“How do they respond to seeing you at the park?”
“Well, I’m a Dad,” he said. “So I win just by turning up.”
He went on to explain that he was “allowed” to let his daughter roam further, play harder, get messier than his wife was, and that the peer pressure bypassed him almost entirely. I wondered what that might mean for his daughter, the chances she could take, the invaluable ‘mistakes’ she’d get to make for herself.
From reading a series of recent articles, you might think this was part of a massive growing trend. A NYTimes article, “Just Wait Until Your Mother Gets Home” would give you the impression that Dads are becoming the new default caregivers, as would a rash of Daddy Memoirs, such as the very funny Alternadad. The statistics behind these changes (in the US) are shown more clearly by Sociological Images and their graph below:
That blue line might not have risen dramatically, but it is rising – and so are reports of how much direct involvement fathers are having, even when they (or both parents) are working outside of the home. And many of the write-ups about this trend point to increased social support for father’s parenting, more flexibility in employment, rises in unemployment, but still tend to frame it as a choice. Of course, as with anything, the truth is far more complicated.
In the Cardiff Pop-Up Play Shop, we encountered a far more mixed demographic than at South Street Seaport. Some of the poorest parts of the city were a ten minute walk from the shop, and its downtown location meant that we were a first stop for many parents and caregivers who didn’t yet know the other services the city offered. People seemed to find us when they needed us – and one regular visitor was a father who had abruptly become sole caregiver for his three daughters (aged 7, 5 and 2).
They had been removed from their mother, who struggled with addiction, and brought to his house in the middle of the night. While they made collages and climbed the soft play den, he admitted to me that he had felt lost.
“When they arrived, I didn’t know anything,” he said, after describing his bachelor existence of takeaways and beers. “I couldn’t even braid hair.” At the same time, he wanted to make sure that the eldest didn’t take on too much responsibility for the younger ones, that she have time to be a child herself. It was all a bit much.
He began asking me and the other volunteers for suggestions, for opinions on birthday presents and weekend trip ideas. He brought the girls in whenever he could and watched them play carefully, as if looking for clues. He watched the volunteers carefully, as well.
“I get it,” he said. “You listen to them.”
“Yes,” I said. “I think it’s important.” He nodded.
“I don’t think I realized that. No one listened to me. And it’s easy to think that you’re supposed to know everything, once you’re a grown-up.” We talked some more, about how a parent might admit that they were working it out as they went along – how children generally prefer to know the truth, and that they are loved. He went quiet for a minute, drinking his tea.
“This place is good, you know. You girls are good for the kids. I worry sometimes that they won’t be able to trust women, with their mother being what she is, and that’s why I bring them here so often.”
Running behind these words, and through our many conversations by the kettle, I thought I heard the whisper of another sentiment, of one man’s slow beginning to trust himself as a father.