As Dads, We Need Parent Friends Just as Much as Moms
A couple of months after my daughter, B, was born, I started participating in a parents' group near my home at my wife's encouragement; she'd heard about the group through a grapevine made up of other new moms she'd met through her own support networks. The arrangement made sense. I was, after all, the stay-at-home parent. If it truly takes a village to raise a child, then why not expand my village to include men and women who are also enjoying the euphoria and anxiety of parenthood? Having a supportive spouse plus both sets of grandparents in driving distance of us have always been huge advantages, but there wasn't a good reason not to take all the help I could get. I figured I'd give it a whirl.
Thanks to my wife's intel, I knew going in that I'd be just one of two dads present at the group. That didn't bother me. I'm typically more comfortable around women than men anyways. I did, however, feel like an outsider before I even set foot in the door of the temple where the group convenes each week. That's partly because of the "new" in "new parent." Like a nervous transfer student on the first day of school, I felt raw nerves walking into group as a newbie. What would the other dad think of me? What would the moms think of me? What if—and I cannot stress enough how profoundly childish this thought was—none of them liked me? Where would I sit? Would anyone listen to me, or care, when it came my turn to open up about my personal ordeals?
This was, of course, an absurd concern to have. Think about the type of person who goes to a function like a parents' group. If they're willing to sit down with strangers and speak frankly about the intimate, personal details of their experiences as parents, the odds are good that they're probably not judging you. In fact, they might be just as nervous as you are, or as I was, to talk about their babies in front of people they don't know. This is an important lesson to learn. It's certainly the first I learned, and learning it made me more comfortable not only in the group (where comfort is essential), but at home caring for B. Everybody's new at this. Everybody's trying to figure it all out. You're not alone. Moms need the reminder that they're not alone, of course. Dads do, too. I really needed it. Even in 2020, the idea of stay-at-home fatherhood is still received, if only occasionally, as a novelty instead of a new norm.
Engaging with my parents' group gave me exactly that—a sense of normalcy. Parenting B at home with my wife acclimated me (both of us, really) to the realities of fatherhood for sure, but I still lacked confidence in myself outside our home; I'm prone to wonder what other people think of me and how they see me. Going to my parents' group didn't change that—that's a job for therapy—but it did arm me with self-assurance. Everybody who has kids of their own shares the same fundamental experiences. Knowing this means going out in the world feels less like I'm showcasing myself for public scrutiny.
- RELATED: The Stay-at-Home Dad Survival Guide
This leads to the second lesson going to my parents' group taught me: We all have our stuff. But for all the stuff parents—whether moms or dads raising daughters or sons—have in common, the truth is that parents aren't monoliths. Having a child can mean so many different things and expose people to so many different circumstances. The other dad in my group had struggles with his baby that I can't possibly imagine, and the moms even more so. B came early, and quickly, and apart from being really bad at eating—she has a weird habit, for instance, of grabbing at the bottle's nipple while it's in her mouth, a method of feeding so counterintuitive that I'm at a loss as to where she got it from—she's been an easy baby all around. Hearing stories from parents who have endured, among other things, loss, loneliness, and sleep deprivation, or who worry, as I did but to a higher degree, that they're not parenting the best that they can, taught me empathy.
I'd be lying if I said I haven't had moments of parenting epiphany while listening to the most tragic and heartbreaking accounts of my peers in group. But I want to stress that my takeaway from talking with the folks I've gotten to know over the last eight months of going to group is not that as bad as I think I have it, someone else has it worse than I do. Rather, my takeaway is that parenting is one of the hardest endeavors anyone can take on, and having a strong support net to help get through difficult times is essential, particularly now that the COVID-19 outbreak has forced everybody indoors.
The good news is that groups like mine are going virtual thanks to apps like Zoom and BlueJeans, because they're more important now than ever. As if parenting doesn't have its share of natural stresses, the stress of caring for children under the storm cloud of the coronavirus is even worse.
Compassion is key: for others, and for myself. Because dads need validation as parents. They need to know that they're worthy of serving as their children's primary caregiver, and that caregiving isn't mom's job alone—especially given that more and more men are staying at home with their kids. Parents' groups are a great way for dads to grow comfortable with their new role, make friends with people who are going through the same thing they're going through, and to embrace fatherhood.