There’s No Such Thing as Daddy Daycare
Fathers' roles are changing, and it’s time to support them
A friendly woman passing by in the town square smiled at me and my two daughters as we enjoyed the crisp morning. She clicked her tongue in a way that suggested she thought our tableau was cute. But then she followed up with: "Daddy daycare today, eh? Bet Mom appreciates the time off."
If I hadn't been feeding my 3-month-old a bottle while simultaneously using my feet to kick a soccer ball to my 4-year-old, I might have fired back a pithy witticism. Instead, I just nodded and smiled awkwardly.
As a work-at-home dad with three daughters (the 7-year-old was at school that day), "daddy daycare" happens almost every day, usually from the moment my wife leaves in the morning for her job as a college professor until the moment she comes home. For the most part, our family's childcare solution revolves around moi, and it's a role I relish. But we don't call it "daddy daycare." We call it "life."
I'm no stranger to this kind of retrograde stereotyping. Over the years, many people have noticed my mere involvement in my girls' lives and said it makes me a "good dad." I wrote about the phenomenon in The New York Times a few years ago and the story was shared thousands of times.
What gets me about this type of thinking is that, in an instant, it both negates the depth of my parental relationship by complimenting me for having one at all, and then belittles that relationship by implying I'm a stand-in for the real parent: mom. It also supports the equally anachronistic idea that mom is the one who must be the primary caregiver, a viewpoint that burdens moms, sidelines dads, and completely undercuts two-father families.
Numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate there are more than 215,000 stay-at-home dads – a small percent of the more than 70 million fathers across the nation but a larger number than ever before. In addition, census numbers from spring 2011 also indicated that 18 percent of preschoolers were regularly cared for by their fathers during the day.
Other data supports this trend: In a report released by the Pew Research Center in 2015 the researchers concluded that "fatherhood is changing in important and sometimes surprising ways," the roles of mothers and fathers have begun to converge, and fathers who live with their children are taking a more active role in caring for them and helping out around the house.
In my six-plus years as a dad, parenting has included masterminding arts and crafts projects, listening to stories about fantasy cat lands, memorizing the names of characters on Monster High, and pretending to be a princess pet in addition to all the traditional stuff like helping with math homework and discipline and managing tantrums.
It has also included making many mistakes – overreacting, getting stuff wrong, and allowing anger, stress, or exhaustion to get the best of me. Like the time I yelled after one daughter accidentally squeezed toothpaste on my sneaker. Or when I went "Office Space printer scene" on a playhouse because I couldn't, for the life of me, decipher the directions.
Sometimes we dads falter. But this is the work of parenting. And I'm as fully engaged in it as any mom out there. And, like many moms and dads, I have struggled.
In fact, on the very same day that friendly woman casually dismissed me as a primary caregiver, I was actually suffering from anxiety brought on by the birth of my third child. And that’s not uncommon. Research has found fathers experience mental health disorders at about the same rate as moms, yet they are receiving almost no support for the depression, anxiety, and stress that can come with taking on this new and important role in life.
In order to support fathers, whether they are struggling or not, we have to see them fully.
So when you see a dad spending time with his kids, understand that he is just a parent in the act of parenting. If you want to connect, open with a comment about the weather, the child's cuteness, or the latest episode of "Goldie and Bear." Anything but the obvious fact that the kids are in their father's care. And if it seems like he is having a hard time, ask how it's going. I know I appreciate it when outsiders – men and women – treat me as if there's nothing out of the ordinary about me minding my kids and offer understanding for all the experiences of parenthood. I'm sure other dads feel the same way.
We need to support all parents to help them do the best job they can do taking care of themselves and their families. Changing how we think about – and talk to – dads is a small, but significant, place to start.