At mid-morning at the neighborhood playground, I stood where the recycled-rubber mat meets the grass, across from a group of mothers gathering and chatting and locking their stroller brakes. I sipped my coffee as they sipped their coffee, and we listened to our children scream in the tunnel slide and then watched them inch off the end.
I remained on my side in my yogurt-stained gray sweatpants and they remained on their side in a yoga pants semicircle. I made no attempt at conversation because my past attempts had fallen flat, never getting beyond greetings. They made no attempt to speak to me not out of ill will, but rather because we all knew that when a dad joins the mommy circle, it kills the vibe. This is simply the practical observation of an at-home dad orbiting the rings of a mom planet.
As I sipped, I noticed two men ambling toward us with kids. I guessed they were on vacation or from out of town. They joined me on my side of the playground in their T-shirts, cargo pants and short haircuts. The mothers looked at us with knitted brows as we made small talk that evolved into real conversation, and then one of the fathers invited me — yes, me, the lonely dad in his gray sweatpants — to their Wednesday play group. It took a minute to wrap my mind around the invitation. Who joins a dads’ play group?
I had heard of dads’ play groups but never made an effort to learn about them. My wife had suggested at least a hundred times that I explore one, but anyone who’s married knows you have to say something a hundred times and then wait for a complete stranger to suggest the same idea for it to catch. I was reluctant to embrace a dads’ play group because it didn’t sit well with my ego. Now, I’m not the macho type, and those who know me would describe me as the opposite, a sensitive guy in touch with his emotions. However, I still felt a resistance to the group, perhaps because of the conditioning of our hyper-masculine culture, a culture that says play groups are for mothers and that men should be doing something more productive. As if raising children is not some of the most important work we do.
After further considering the play-group invitation, I read more online about this network of fathers that formed in 1996, calling themselves Nash Dads and committing to weekly meetings around Nashville. Despite my reluctance, I chose to attend a meeting, telling myself it would be helpful for my son, and not realizing I would be the beneficiary.
There are groups you want to join and ones you need to join, and the dads’ play group fell into the latter for me. A well-hidden reality of stay-at-home parenting is how it exhausts you in a completely different way from a 9-to-5 job, isolating you from other adults, depriving you of sleep and chipping away at your ego. It is a recipe for poor mental health. Unless you provide daily care for small children, it’s difficult to understand how it depletes your energy. Often I’m asked by friends without children what I do during the day, their tone implying that I sit around watching YouTube videos and scrolling through my news feed. I wish!
I needed the play group because it connected me to other adults who wanted to be not only good fathers but also healthy individuals. At the meeting, I found what I needed in the Nash Dads, a group of interesting and thoughtful guys who care about their children. So who attends a dads’ play group? Well, there is Rick, an attorney turned at-home dad, who organizes the group, and there is Nate, a video-game store manager turned at-home dad, and there is Alan, a pediatrician who attends on his off day. These are only a few of the dedicated dads of about a dozen kids, from infants to early elementary school age, who contribute to the supportive atmosphere.
While our children play, we discuss movies, sports, television and complain about our spouses. During the week, we chat in a private group with a healthy dose of memes and dad jokes. We function in a similar way to a moms’ play group and seem to have more in common than we do differences. The only defining characteristic of Nash Dads is being a dad.
Looking at the group from the outside, you will see fathers gathering and chatting and watching their children play, but on the inside is a social web woven with men who understand that parenthood is a passage best shared with others. When I discuss highs and lows of the week with fellow dads, my soul feels lighter and my spirits are renewed by the time I strap my son in his car seat and head home. After a play-group meeting, I am reminded that the joy and burden of raising children is best shared in community.
In hindsight, my encounter with the two dads on the playground seems like a sign from the universe telling me to stop going it alone, to lose my pride and go to the group. I’m glad I went. Nash Dads has been instrumental in helping me be a healthy parent. Now the only parenting advice I’m comfortable offering (besides investing in a quality coffee maker) is not to attempt parenting without a support network. Why would you perform your most important role in isolation?
What being part of a dads’ group really means is that I am a human being who desires social interaction, friendships and support. There is no shame in these essential needs.
I choose to be a Nash Dad. I choose to be a healthy father. And just last week, the guys gave me a Nash Dads T-shirt, so it’s official now. And I’m proud of it.