Landing a job at a company that offers substantial paternity leave is difficult in its own right. Even harder? Finding a community of stay-at-home fathers with whom you can connect and communicate when you’re doing your dad thing from home.
Lance Somerfeld and his buddy Matt Schneider understood this. So, the two friends and new fathers formed a turned a weekly lunch between two fellow dads into City Dads, a nationwide group of 9,000 fathers in 30 major cities. Their flagship group in their native homeland of New York City boasts 1,800 guys who get together to watch games, hit museums, and shoot the breeze about wiping butts and burping (you know, guy stuff). Apart from giving dads a network, City Dads Group has grown into a small business through partnering with brands, and evolved into a deep resource offering parenting boot camps and a podcast. Fatherly spoke to Somerfield about forging a community of stay at home fathers.
Facebook / City Dads Group
How did this all begin for you?
Out of college I was in corporate finance but got incredibly burned out. I was looking for something more intrinsically rewarding, so I resigned from my job and became a teacher at the largest elementary school in the Bronx. Out of a staff of 200, only 12 were guys. The men bonded, and I befriended a guy who was also a 6th Grade teacher, Matt. When he was going to have a kid he took an unpaid childcare leave of absence. He left to become a stay-at-home dad, and that planted a seed for me.
Around 2008, my wife was pregnant and we were trying to figure out what made sense for us logistically. We wife’s career earns a higher salary, so when you factor in all the pieces, it worked. We made a conscious decision — it wasn’t through a layoff or being forced out of my role. When I told the principal, he got on the loudspeaker and said, “Somerfeld is leaving to become a modern man.”
The way the city works, they can hold a position for you until your kid turns five, and you can get an extension if you have another. My wife was able to get four months maternity leave, so the two of us created a parenting partnership, which was good because I had zero experience.
What was your experience on paternity leave?
When the baby was born, I didn’t know how to hold, feed, change, burp — all of that was foreign to me. I failed and made so many mistakes, and I’m still a flawed parent. In a job, you can work and hone your craft and eventually get a good grasp. With parenting, every time you feel comfortable, they’d go through another phase and you’d be at a loss. I realize I’m fortunate because my wife and I were together every day to learn our strengths and weaknesses. That helped us become much more confident. If we were having a frustrating time, it was nice to have someone to hand the baby off to.
How did you start City Dads?
Matt was having his second child as we were having our first. I found it great to meet with him for lunch once a week. In November 2008, my wife went back to work and I lost that crutch I had at home. I’m a big networker, and I like being social. That winter, I didn’t want to be stuck, so I sought out resources for like-minded dads. We ended up creating an online platform m using Meetup, which selfishly gave me what I was looking for — a platform to get people together face-to-face. I wanted a physical community of dads.
In those early days, it was Matt, myself and one or two other dads. We wanted to cast a wide net but early on there were three of us from the Upper East Side and Matt, who lived downtown, and one who came from Long Island. We’d meet for lunch or watch a ballgame while the kids napped, or meet at art museums on weekdays when they weren’t packed. We found it easy to strap our babies in carriers or strollers and cruise and museums. Our babies were only a few months old and we recognized that this camaraderie was more for us than our little ones. I liked sticking around Matt because he had a similar-age son but he was like a veteran dad because he had another boy two years older.
If I was going through a rough time with my son climbing out of the crib or something, he was like “This too shall pass.” It was great to source those things with a community of guys and get unbiased feedback. Whether or not I used their advice it was cathartic to crowdsource it with guys going through the same thing.
What was the tipping point for the group?
We wanted to make our community as open as possible for dads of all stripes. If you were gay or straight or young or old, if you were working or at home or freelance, we wanted this to be the group for you. We did a good job of being transparent about what our group was all about, blogging about activities we did, posting photos. Dads would often come across our group as a gentle nudge from their wife because a lot of moms are part of groups. Recognizing that we had some skittish dads, we wanted them to see the reality of dads and kids going to the gym or music class together or a dads night out.
The other thing was in early 2008 when the economic downturn was all over the news, lots of stories looked at fathers who were forced into the at-home role after getting laid off from a finance job. We only had a few of those in the group, but when we were interviewed we turned it into an opportunity to highlight that we weren’t all dads who were laid off, but we were a resource for dads.
What advice do you have for guys navigating this time in their lives?
Parenting can be isolating. My first bit of advice is to seek resources so you’re not alone, whether in the form of blogs or websites, forums, or good books. Seek out a community of dads to meet up with or create a brown bag lunch group at work to learn from so you’re creating a dialogue for guys who’re experiencing fatherhood and want to discuss more than sports, politics or the latest Netflix show. I learned some of my best parenting hacks from hanging out in a corner of a playground with other guys seeing what they use to soothe their babies or what paraphernalia that whip out of diaper bags. You don’t have to feel like you’re doing it alone. There are conferences for daddy bloggers, the Dad 2.0 Summit, the convention by the National at Home Dad Network.
In your parenting, be involved early and often from the get-go. Learn the craft. It’s not rocket science but it takes time and commitment. The only way we’ll be more confident at mundane tasks like middle-of-the-night bottle feeding is just to do it. That foundation you build in the first few months creates this dynamic in the household where you’re bonding with your baby and your significant other.
What has all of this taught you about the state of modern fatherhood?
Expectations for fathers need to be elevated. We get applauded and recognized for doing simple parenting tasks like being at the dance recital or doing grocery shopping with kids. Moms do that all the time but we get rewarded for it.
As far as parental leave, we are so far behind the 8-ball in offering the right model for dads to take leave, and in companies encouraging guys to take advantage of the policies. A new dad is not going to take it if he’s not being pushed to and seeing his supervisors do it.
I think we’re finally moving in the right direction in portraying fathers in a realistic and positive way in brands, and on TV and in movies. No one likes to be the butt of the joke. We’re trying to change the stigma that dads can’t be confident and capable and enjoy our role as a parent. We can do it just as well as moms, we just need the tools.