Does Paternity Leave Have to Be So Lonely?
More men are ignoring the old cultural stigma and caring for their newborns. The problem is that they are doing it alone.
One day, several weeks into his paid paternity leave from a union job, Mike decided to take his infant son and dog for a walk in the park. Mike’s wife was due back at work soon, and a recent relocation had left most of his friends behind. Aside from his boy and the dog, he was alone. Fraternizing with other fathers had proven difficult.
While he had made friends after moving, none were new dads. What’s more, support groups for parents, he says, were designated “mommy and me” and, while not outright hostile to fathers, didn’t seem very inviting either.
As he pushed his son’s stroller over a paved path in the park, a familiar sight came into focus. Heading in his direction was another dad, son shaded in a carriage. They crossed paths. Mike smiled and nodded. The man did the same.
And that was it.
“I really wished I had stopped him for a conversation and to try and at least get a baby-walking date set up,” Mike says. “I was pretty alone most days except for my son. Infants don’t provide much in the way of intellectual stimulation.”
Mike’s sad, wordless encounter in a park perfectly encapsulates the strange dichotomy in American parenting culture: Dads are expected to be present, and rightfully so, but given comparatively fewer coping tools than new mothers. There was no “Mike, Mommy, and Me” class, or a “Mike and Me” class, or virtually anywhere else for Mike to go had he felt lonely, or scared, or despondent—three relatively common emotions for a new parent, regardless of their gender.
“I definitely got lonely,” he says. “My days were a lot of just trying to figure out how to make it to nap times.” Failing to provide a proper support system for dads, he says, “is a systemic failure.”
Mike would’ve gone to a hive mind meeting of dads. So would plenty of other new fathers. But even as paternity leave is offered by more businesses, new fathers are facing down the dearth of resources tailored to their needs.
According to the Department of Labor, fewer than one in three fathers takes more than 10 days off following the birth of their child. That behavior is a dual product of government policy and economic decision making: Only a handful of states require employers to offer paid leave for new dads, and many employees feel the pressure to keep their income stream unbroken. Though the income gap has narrowed somewhat, men still make more money on average than women, which factors into a calculus that already includes paid maternity leave, which is normative, and the existence of mom-centric services.
“Three moms with three babies is one hundred times easier than one mom and one baby,” says Tanya Wills, a midwife who owns and operates Manhattan Birth, a support program that included a mom-focused meet-up. “Forming that community is incredibly beneficial. You’re connecting to people who are having the same experience as you are.”
The sessions Wills run, like so many others offered across the country, usually consist of moms volleying off one another with issues relating to sleep deprivation, stress, infant care, and the inevitable relationship shifts that come with parenthood. And although mothers have a distinct burden—physically recuperating from the rigors of pregnancy and childbirth—men have another. “They’re typically expected to care for the mother while she’s recovering,” Wills says. “That first solid week or two, she requires an incredible amount of care. It’s something the medical system ignores, but it’s happening.”
Fathers, then, are expected to care for convalescing mothers, not accidentally kill their newborn, sleepwalk through their days, stress over what affect any paternity leave might have on their career, and experience tectonic shifts in their coupling, without anyone asking how they’re coping with it all.
Tom McCoy had his daughter in July 2016. Working for a university, he was able to cobble paternity leave from the scraps of sick days, vacation time, and the normally subdued environment of a college campus during the summer. “Almost right away though, I felt the need for community,” he says. “I felt that urge to talk to others in my situation.”
But a support group was a complete hypothetical. Nothing in his area fit that description. “If that sort of support group existed, it would certainly have been beneficial to a group of guys coming together because of a shared experience,” he says. “Developmental milestones, baby friendly places, experiences. It could be the start of child socialization and interaction. A group of dads going to the park to walk around with baby in tow sounds great. You need to have a sense of community, someone you could reach out to that’s in your shoes.”
Yet it rarely happens. Sam Stevens, a licensed family therapist based out of Portland, Oregon, says that new dads are being ostracized by a culture that hasn’t quite figured out how to offer a helping hand. “You see mommy and me, or mothers and babies yoga all over the place, but virtually nothing for dads,” he says. “And you’re going to be hit by the exact same stresses as new moms are. You’re tired, you’re trying to soothe a colicky baby, you’re changing diapers, and then you’re going back to work exhausted.”
Unfortunately, turning to grandpa for help is also often exasperating. Paternity leave was basically non-existent decades ago. “Those dads didn’t change diapers, push a carrier, or carry you around,” Stevens says. “You’re kind of operating blind.”
Fathers from that previous generation have had one crucial influence, however: Passing along a notion of masculinity requiring that suffering be done in silence.
“I’ve never had someone request we start a paternity leave group,” Wills says.
Stevens didn’t wait for a request he knew probably wasn’t going to come. In 2010, he initiated a Portland-based group that meets regularly at a local coffee hangout to help reconstruct the fragile identity that comes with new fatherhood.
“Every guy gets something different out of it,” he says. “Sometimes they just want to know what other dads are going through. Other times they have specific questions about sleep habits or sex or what the best deal is on diapers.”
Stevens’s group works, he suspects, because it circumvents the male response to being offered help. “We don’t generally bill it as a support group even though it is. Some guys worry about a sense of being perceived as weak for needing support. It took a while for a number of dads to start coming.” Even now, of the hundreds of dads who follow the group on MeetUp, a community organization site, only a few have attended in-person.
That hesitation may be relaxing as more opportunities crop up. When Stevens started his session, it was the only one of its kind in Portland, Now, he says, there are at least a half-dozen others, with more thriving in bigger cities like San Francisco and Atlanta. “It’s getting bigger, but dads have to start them from the ground up,” he says. By reaching out to birth professionals, social workers, and other influencers during lectures, Stevens hopes it will become more normalized.
“Who doesn’t want to have the opportunity go out and get a drink with someone who knows exactly what you’re going through?” McCoy asks.
For Mike and for many other men, that’s a rhetorical question.
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