Left to right: Phil Smeaton, Douglas Miller, Michael Schwartzberg, Jamil Khan, James Mahaffey, Jeff Cram, Walter Greer, Mark Gorman and Mike Paque at a Boston Dads Group event.
by Brian Spero
Throughout the history of human culture, child rearing has primarily been the woman’s domain, but things have changed dramatically over the past few generations. Not only do the ranks of men in this country who serve as the family’s primary caregiver now number in the millions (tens of thousands of which are stay-at-home dads), but across the board males are much more active and engaged in their children’s lives. Yet, as rapidly as the practical landscape of parenting is shifting, parenting culture has in some ways been slow to adjust.
One example of this “parenting gender gap” manifests itself in regard to finding useful and fulfilling outlets for networking, support and socialization. While there are seemingly endless options for moms to get together with other parents (mainly other moms), for men it can often be a struggle to find a single group that is truly inclusive, much less one that actually caters to their needs.
The Search for Camaraderie
About four years ago James Mahaffey moved back to Boston with his significant other, and soon after they gave birth to a baby girl. As many modern families do, he and his partner weighed their childcare options and decided it would be best if he became the primary caregiver. Not only did it make sense financially, but it was also something Mahaffey says he really wanted. And while the experience of taking the leading role in raising his daughter has been everything he could have hoped for and more, at times he has felt, as a dad, a little left out.
He tells of taking his daughter to the neighborhood playground every day and seeing the same faces, almost all belonging to mothers and nannies. “After seeing them so long and them not socializing with me, you know, it gets lonely,” says Mahaffey. “It’s a lonely existence sometimes as a dad, a stay-at-home dad, in particular.” But when he began to search for parenting groups that could satisfy his desire for fellowship, he found the offerings severely lacking.
Boston Dads Group
On a trip to New York City for a parent blogging event, Mahaffey made the acquaintance of Lance Somerfeld, who was running a successful dads group locally on Meetup.com. Intrigued by the prospect of having something like this at home, it wasn’t long before a plan was hatched to launch a similar group in Boston. Within a month or so, Boston Dads Group was up and running with Mahaffey and co-organizer Mark McNulty scheduling and hosting events. Within the short period of time since its founding in October 2013, the group has expanded to nearly 90 active members while joining a larger network of dads groups (currently there are eight) spanning the nation.
by Brian Spero
Boston Dads Group operates on the fundamental principle of bringing together a diverse community of men taking an active role in their children’s lives. They hold a variety of programs ranging from small meet-ups with their kids in parks, playgrounds and museums to parenting workshops and dads’ nights out. The guys who have gravitated to the group represent a broad spectrum, including stay-at-home dads, full-time working dads and single dads.
Dads Being Dads
Walter Greer is a stay-at-home dad who moved to Boston from Nashville, Tenn., with his wife and two sons. He found Boston Dads after a friend tipped him off about Meetup.com. “I put in ‘dads’ and there it was,” he says. “I was looking to connect with other guys because I didn’t know anybody here in Boston. The first event was at a sports bar. They had a 25-cent wing night … football was still in season. I was like ‘wow!’ It was really relaxing just meeting other guys.”
For Greer and many others, somehow the group dynamic, as opposed to going out and trying to meet other dads in a less structured environment, was just what the doctor ordered. “Living in Cambridge, I see dads walking around, but it was a little more comfortable meeting up with other men and just talking about life and raising your kids.”
Matthew Webster joined Boston Dads Group a few months ago and has attended a handful of events, including a concert series called Rock & Romp that was a blast for his daughter. Both Webster and his spouse have full-time careers that require frequent travel, making them acutely focused on spending as much quality time with their child as possible.
“We were looking for ways to connect, not only with the community, but with other dads,” says Webster about the group, which serves a twofold purpose for him of being somewhere “to take the kids out and play and build a little network of playmates” and also to meet other dads “to bounce ideas off, vent to, or get advice and feedback.” He notes, “Having a group and resource to support that, and a network of folks who understand what you are going through, is big.”
Mahaffey describes events as well-organized and laid-back, adding the group recognizes time is scarce for parents and tries to make things as worthwhile and relaxed as possible. “There’s no agenda,” he says. “It’s a good low-pressure scenario, and I think any dad in the group would say that.”
Greer admits one of the things he likes best about the group is the conversation, a dynamic akin to a men’s support group. “Guys aren’t sitting around crying and holding each other,” he says. “Guys are actually sitting there being guys, talking about the struggles they have staying at home, maybe some marital things that come up or whatever. It creates a bond with a group of people who are in the same situation.”
by Brian Spero
The organizers strive to provide a balanced schedule of events. Recently they held the first installment of a three-part author series. Nicer weather brings weekly outings where dads meet at the park with their kids. Says Mahaffey, “I sometimes get caught up in the organizational part of it, but every time we have an event and end up hanging out with the dads it’s like, ‘oh yeah, this is exactly what I wanted.’ It’s therapeutic.”
Moms Like It Too!
An interesting side story about the Boston Dads Group is how enthusiastic female partners have been, says Mahaffey. “Lots of times, you’ll find the wife or significant other trying to sign [the dads] up,” he says, and while he understands it’s coming from the right place, the rules of the group require that the dads supply their own email addresses when joining.
Greer says when he’s a little low on energy after a day of chasing a pair of energetic boys around, his wife pushes him to go. “She knows it’s a stressor being with a 2-year-old all day, or in my case, when school lets out a 2- and 5-year-old. Having that support is very important. It has helped me become a better dad, better husband and all-around guy.”
Webster believes the Boston Dads Group helps keep him on his toes. “The events get you and your family out and moving. It promotes being an active dad by being involved with your child in a setting where other dads are doing positive things,” he says. With some events for dads and their kids, some just for dads and the rest for the entire family, it fills many voids. Adds Mahaffey, “This is a rare situation in life where it’s a win, win, win. I feel like the women are excited about it. They want this to happen.”
A Simple Message
The Boston Dads Group supports men being actively involved in their children’s lives. “Kids remember so much,” says Greer. “And the key thing these boys are going to remember is their dad spending time with them.”
For Webster, who is a huge proponent of networking, the group is a way to expose his daughter to different people and experiences. “It’s tough doing that alone. … [She’s able] to do different things that I wouldn’t have known about if I wasn’t part of the group,” he says.
“I’m passionate about being a father. I love it,” says Mahaffey. To guys thinking about joining, he adds, “You can take what you want from it. Hopefully you will leave with something tangible. There’re no reports to fill out or anything like that. It’s just dads.”
Brian Spero is a freelance writer and father of a school-age son.
Want to join Boston Dads Group? Visit www.meetup.com/BostonDadsGroup.