This fatherhood thing can be a lonely business. I’m not suggesting motherhood isn’t, but life as a dad, especially an at home dad such as myself, can present a few challenges and a lack of strong social connections is one of them.
I’ve written about social isolation and dads in the past. On this occasion I wanted to look at the impact it can have on the entire family unit when dad is the main carer for the kids instead of mum.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not suggesting I have no friends or never socialise. That’s not the case at all. When it comes to having strong social connections, they’re lacking and it’s because I’m the main carer for my kids, not my wife.
A dad such as myself is very often the only man in the room at birthday parties, the only man doing the school drop-off and collection five days a week and the only guy sitting on the sidelines while the kids participate in some kind of sporting event.
It’s not that mums don’t speak to me. They do, but not as much as you might imagine. That puts me in the position of having to make an extra special effort to break the ice. Every time I go to a birthday party or sporting event etc. I find myself explaining why I’m present and not my kids’ mother.
I’m not anti-social. Quite the reverse in fact, I really like meeting and speaking to new people. When you find yourself the odd one out time and again, year after year, it gets exhausting. Time after time I have to explain why I have brought the kids along and that no, I am not unemployed, between jobs or a single dad, all of which are assumptions people frequently jump to.
The social standards that govern how men and women mix are very different in the workplace compared to the domestic sphere. In my experience, men and women in the workplace seem to socialise with a lot more ease.
Is it possibly because arranging play dates and that kind of thing involves entering people’s family homes? Is it because such behaviour could lead to rumours of impropriety? Is it because society still works along very rigid gender lines? I think it’s a mixture of all these things.
I’ll freely admit I feel very awkward about approaching a mum I don’t know if one of my kids wants a play date with their child. I just feel there’s a huge, invisible barrier between the genders in these situations. I’ll tell you a story of how this impacted on my eldest daughter.
When Helen started school, Mrs Adams and I were surprised to discover she was the only child from her nursery to be going there. The previous year, about 20 kids transferred from her nursery to this school. Not the year she started. Helen was starting school with no friends in Reception class at all and I, as her main carer, would be equally adrift with nor friends or acquaintances.
Being new to the school community, I hadn’t appreciated that many of the parents already knew each other because they had older kids in other years. Oh yes, I quickly realised I had a challenge ahead of me, getting to know these mums and dads.
Months passed and I could see the other kids were making friends. They were being invited back to other kids’ houses for play dates or for birthday parties, but Helen wasn’t.
I was sensitive to the fact Helen was being collected by me, her dad, every day. I wondered if she wasn’t being asked because mum wasn’t the one in the playground. There was one particular girl she was talking about a lot. I asked Helen if she wanted to have her round to play.
I eventually approached the mum and the two kids went on a play date. It went very well and to this day they are very good friends. It was an important play date because after that one, more followed with other kids, but I had to kick start that conversation and overcome that barrier with that one child’s mother for the rest to follow.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. In his superb book Men Can Do It! The Real Reasons Dads Don’t Do Childcare, equal parenting campaigner Gideon Burrows told the story of how he arranged for a group of mums to come round to his house for coffee one morning with their kids.
Feeling awkward about doing this, he arranged the coffee morning so his wife was present at the beginning of proceedings. She left once things had got underway, but Burrows felt it was necessary to have his wife present, at least at first, to avoid any social awkwardness.
The suggestion that’s been put to me in the past is to go and make ‘dad friends.’ Sure, I have my compliment of dad friends, but as more and more time passes with me as my kids’ main carer, I find most other men exist on a different astral plane.
Most fathers I come across are unquestionably dedicated to their families. I wouldn’t question this, but your average, common or garden, full-time working dad has very little in common with a guy such as myself. After years of being both a stay at home dad and work from home dad, I feel very confident saying that.
What follows may sound a little random, but how many full-time working dads have approached a mum they don’t know and asked about arranging a play date for their kids? Or taken their children overseas without mum? Or taken them camping without mum? Signed them up with a dentist, General Practitioner or optician? Taken them to have vaccinations?
Some fathers will have handled these situations, but many won’t, or their experiences of such things will be minimal. I have handled all these situations and many more without a second thought, as have most mums. It’s because I’ve had these experiences that I have more in common with most mums than dads.
That’s not a criticism of dads, but, generally speaking, dad friends are unable to help if you’re unexpectedly stuck in traffic and need someone to collect your kids after school. They aren’t going to offer to lend you bits of clothing for the costume your kid needs for the school play. Most have probably never used WisePay and have no idea what it is.
I’m not alone in recognising this. Over recent years a variety of online support groups for dads have been established to meet this need. I’ve used a few myself. They’re great, but they are no replacement for face to face, physical interaction, the kind of thing that builds genuine social connections.
What about my wife? You’re probably thinking she has ‘mum friends’? She does not. She’s a superb mother but she’s much more concerned with the world of work than domesticity.
Mrs Adams has never approached a mum or dad she doesn’t know and asked about arranging a play date with their kid. She’s never taken the kids overseas or camping without me. She’s never signed the kids up to a GP, dentist or optician and she hasn’t taken them to have vaccinations since they were tiny babies. I can only remember her being invited for coffee by a mum friend the once and that was a decade ago. In her case, family-centric social connections are non-existent.
We once went to a barbecue (interestingly, organised by a playground dad) and when one woman met Mrs Adams she exclaimed “Oh, I thought you were dead!” It was a joke and I confess I found it very funny, but that comments illustrates how many people think.
I should, by the way, add that I find the phrase ‘mum friends’ incredibly irritating. It’s an exclusive phrase and suggests you must be a mum to understand what this group of friends is going through or appreciate their life experiences. I may have never given birth, but a man such as myself has more in common with most mums than dads (and no, I’m not a fan of the phrase dad friends either).
I don’t for one moment think that being a dad is necessarily any more isolating than being a mum. I know mums who are dreadfully socially isolated.
After many years of experience I’ll say this. Stay at home dads, work from dads, grandfathers or any man with a significant caring responsibility faces some major social challenges because people don’t expect men to be carers. It’s not just the man that is socially isolated, it affects the entire family unit.
I want to see more equality in the workplace for men and women. I want to see equal parental leave and I want to see more men taking on significant caring roles within their families. This, however, only solves part of the issue. I also want the social barriers that exist between men and women to be torn down. They prevent men from being forming good social connections and being fully involved in family life.