Sitting in the sandbox near our new home in London, I recently connected with a fellow American parent.
“I’m Jamie, Eloise’s mom,” I said, after our 3-year-old daughters had declared themselves “best friends.”
“I’m Ed, Mia’s mom – I mean dad,” he said, chuckling over the slip.
While our girls flung sand, Ed, a father of two, gave me the scoop on local schools, parks and other essential details (like how George Michael was caught trolling for love in the same park where we sat chatting).
We gabbed like two typical expatriate wives covering kids, spouses, schools and houses, except Ed was in fact a husband. Forty-five minutes and two celebrity stories later, I had almost forgotten about Eloise’s first ballet class. I packed up, and Eloise and I said good-bye to our fast friends.
As I panted up the hill, rushing toward dance class, my thoughts jumped to our next meeting with Ed and Mia. Then my excitement turned to cynicism. The age-old argument crept into my mind – can women and men really just be friends?
According to the latest census data, stay-at-home dads (SAHDs) do 13 percent of the childcare for working moms in the U.S., but few of my girlfriends with children have actually co-mingled with them in their regular playgroups. Among my 280 Facebook friends, only one mom, 37-year-old Valerie Stivers-Isakova, a New York-based web editor and part-time SAHM, occasionally play-dates with guys in her building.
Stivers-Isakova described her interaction with the two SAHDs she knows as “gingerly” and “scrupulously proper.” She admitted, however, that the situation could be uncomfortable.
“I don’t call [SAHDs] for one-on-one activities the way I do the moms. It feels awkward to me, too intimate, to have some dude lounging on the floor in my living room chatting about diapers and toddler feeding,” she told me.
Before finding Ed, I had never met a SAHD or pondered the predicament of play-dating with a guy. Ed is a cutie with full dark hair, a broad smile and an engaging personality; I wondered how my husband, Brian, would feel about me spending lazy afternoons at Ed’s place while Eloise and Mia played dress-up. But, once I pulled my mind out of the gutter, however, I realized that befriending a cool SAHD could also translate into a new buddy for Brian.
When Tim Maguire, 43, lost his job as a lawyer last fall, he took over fulltime parenting duties from his wife, Heidi Singer. His wife, of course, connected him with her SAHM friends. Maguire said he thought about the potential awkwardness of the co-ed play-date, but his desire to find friends for his 23-month-old daughter, Jane, outweighed his apprehension about crashing the girls-only group.
In addition to his moms’ group, Maguire is the token SAHD in a weekly music class. He has noticed, however, that he never gets invited to join the moms for lunch afterward.
“That’s not a big deal,” he said, “just mildly disappointing because I was hoping Jane would get a few friends out of the class.”
But the music moms have snubbed Maguire more directly when it’s time to partner-up for class activities. “If there are an odd number of adults that week, I am the goose,” he said. “If there is an even number of adults, then there is an odd number of women, plus me. In that case, the female goose – the one who looks to her left and her right and finds her neighbors have already partnered with someone else – gets partnered with me. Occasionally, she’d rather not and we both go without partners.”
To be honest, I’ve done the same. Three years ago, Eloise and I attended a toddler tumbling class, and I remember a couple of dads who came with their kids. At the time, I assumed that the men had taken off from work to come to the class. I never even asked them if they were SAHDs and certainly never considered inviting them for a coffee. Like Maguire, I went to those classes seeking relationships for me and Eloise, but facial hair and camo diaper bags clashed with my image of new-mom relationships.
Many dads I spoke with, as part of my recent SAHD awakening, said their blood pressure rises because of this unspoken boys-versus-girls division on the playground.
For instance, Phil Andrew, 39, board member of daddyshome.org and chairman of the non-profit organization’s national At-Home-Dad’s convention, bristles at the moniker “mommy and me” for kids activities.
“If you see a group that says mommy and me, you’re not invited. That’s how I take it,” he said, talking over the voices of his 6- and 8-year-old sons in the background.
Hogan Hilling, motivational speaker and author of The Modern Mom’s Guide to Dads, attributed SAHDs’ unease to a phenomenon he called “mother’s turf.” The situation, he said, resembles how women have struggled in corporate America against “the good ole boys’ club.”
Hilling’s advice for men is to open up. “If you want a father-friendly environment, you have to be a friendly father,” he said. “I learned how to smile more and be persistent in engaging in conversation with the women.”
As for the moms, he said, they need to “embrace masculinity and fatherhood – not try to turn dads into moms.”
Embracing masculinity inspired Lance Somerfeld, 36, founder of nycdaddysgroup.com, a 220-member network for dads, to bring a little fraternal order to the female dominated stay-at-home world. His mega-playgroup for men organizes dads’ nights out and weekly excursions for SAHDs and their kids. While he’s had positive experiences with moms, Somerfeld said he felt like a misfit when he tried to integrate into moms groups after becoming a SAHD nearly two years ago.
“I couldn’t relate on certain topics they were talking about, like going to an exercise class,” he said. “Some women would breastfeed in the middle of the discussion. I wouldn’t say it made me feel uncomfortable, but it’s not the most comfortable position.”
Somewhere between breast milk and boys nights, stay-at-home moms and dads have a lot in common, and it’s more than our ability to feel uncomfortable with each other. I’m going to try to take a cue from Ed, who accidentally called himself “Mia’s mom,” and embrace a new, more welcoming identity as an SAHP – a stay-at-home parent. I still wonder, however, how my husband will like my new friends.