Deal with It: Dads are Changing the Face of the Primary Caregiver

Olex Carrigan was at the park with his daughter, Harper, the first time he got the police called on him. It was his seven-month-old’s first time at the park and after the two played on the swings, Carrigan gave his daughter a bottle. As he did, three police cars drove up with their emergency lights on.

“I started packing up and all of the sudden there were several uniformed officers surrounding us. Not sure what was going on, I told them that I would be out of their way in just a minute,” Carrigan recalled. “That's when they informed me that they had received a call about suspicious activity in the park. They claimed that they had several calls about a child in potential danger.”

Carrigan told the police he hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary and he continued to pack up his things. Then things changed.

“They asked me if Harper was my child and when I answered in the affirmative, they asked me where her mother was,” Carrigan said. “Now I get it,” he remembered thinking. “I told them that my wife was at work and asked if I was being detained.”

The police told Carrigan that he wasn’t being detained, but they wanted to ask a few questions. Knowing his rights, Carrigan thanked them and started toward his car. At that time, an officer stepped in front of him and placed one hand on his gun, and the other hand around Carrigan’s wrist. He demanded to know where the baby's mother was and why she was not at the park with her.

“I offered my wife's cell and office phone numbers, but they insisted that I give them her boss's name,” Carrigan said.

One of the officers called Carrigan’s wife's employer. He identified himself as a law enforcement officer and told Carrigan’s wife's boss that Carrigan was in custody.

“Eventually my wife was put on the phone and was asked to describe me, the clothes I had been wearing that morning, what Harper had been dressed in, etc.,” Carrigan said. “When the officers were finally satisfied, or at least had nothing concrete to continue harassing me about … I got a lecture about wasting the time of the police department and then they followed me home.”

Over the next five years, Carrigan was approached by police three times when out in public with his children. “The last time they actually physically took all three of my kids and placed them in [police] cars while we went through the same bullshit,” Carrigan said. “One of the officers recognized me from responding the two previous times and jokingly suggested that perhaps dads should wear a special patch that was registered with the police, just so everyone knew that we were just playing with our kids.”

Daily, fathers who are the primary caregiver in their homes face societal challenges like Carrigan’s. In various domestic settings, dads get heavily scrutinized by a society that seems unwilling to accept that more and more men are becoming primary caregivers to their children. It is a mindset that organizations like the National At-Home Dad Network (NAHD) tries to change.

“Society is evolving and changing but it doesn't happen overnight,” Keith Nagel said. He is the vice president of the National At-Home Dad Network. “For a long time, bumbling fathers were a media gold-mine for TV, movies, and advertising. This is changing as you see more media depictions of competent and capable fathers showing up in the media. As that public perception evolves, public policy is following suit.”

Nagel points to the recent passage of 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all federal employees this last December as a measure that progress is being made. “The key note in this leave benefit is its availability to both men and women federal employees, a public statement that fathers need that time with their newborn as much as women do. One of the biggest things that fathers can do now to change the mindset is to take the full 12 weeks of leave offered to them and spend it with their child.”

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2013 there were more than 1.5 million stay at home dads (SAHD) and the number is growing. The U.S. Census in 2011 stated that 7 million fathers or roughly 32 percent of married fathers are a regular source of care for their children under the age of 15.

Doug McLean and his two sons.

Doug McLean is one of those men. At 45, he cares for his two boys in East Los Angeles although his 12-year-old son from a previous marriage spends much of his time with his mother in New York.

“When my older son was born, I was working 40-80 hours a week and missed out on all of the experience I'm getting with my youngest now,” McLean said. “When my wife and I found out we were having our youngest and did the math it just didn't make sense to go back to the entry-level job I had started with the hope of working my way up in the company,” he added. McLean and his wife decided he would stay home.

“My wife is a costumer for television and film which is a bit of a chaotic career,” McLean said. “Hours all over the place which changes on every project. Not the most conducive career to scheduling consistent and affordable child care for a toddler. I'm the primary caregiver and homemaker so I've got my hands full taking care of everyone and everything when my wife is working.”

McLean says that his family and friends were very supportive of his decision to be a stay at home dad. A bigger issue, he thinks, is that he is an anomaly in the social fabric of American society.

“There's not the same support or reaction when it comes to me taking the primary caregiver role with the kids compared to a stay at home mom,” McLean said. “Sure, there's things like no changing tables in men's restrooms, etc. What I specifically mean is that I'm seen as an unexpected male presence in places that have traditionally been seen as more stay at home mom places. At worst I'm seen as a potential threat or at best an unknown variable to keep an eye on.”

For example, McLean says that daily he walks through his neighborhood to take his son to the park. When he arrives, there are so many cliques it makes him feel as if he walked into a high school cafeteria.

“Stay at home moms I constantly see in this park won't talk to me other than briefly when our kids interact in passing,” McLean said. “Next time I see the same person, nothing. My wife notices it too because these same moms will talk with her when she's with the kiddo and ignore me.”

McLean says he knows he will be unable to challenge people's perception with an open debate at the playground about what a primary caregiver looks like or what gender they should be. He merely tries to let it go, and leave a good impression. But he feels that he is not welcome in those spaces.

“I try to be respectful of these feelings and attitudes because as a straight white male I understand I'm coming from a position of privilege and an unknown male presence, sadly, can be perceived as a real danger.” McLean said. “I just wish perceptions could change so I'm not an anomaly after they've seen me there for the billionth time.”

Marc Crabtree of Hamilton, N.J. is a 39-year-old father of two who like McLean is the primary caregiver in his household. He works part-time as a driver and as an HVAC master technician, he has a 20-year-old daughter from a previous relationship who does not live with him, a two-year-old daughter, Annabeth, and his wife works as a county librarian.

“My oldest daughter … I was just 18-years-old when I had her and her mother has always had custody,” Crabtree said. “Although I saw her every other weekend, it was not nearly enough to build the type of relationship a dad should have with his child. Up until Annabeth was born it was hard for me to feel like a dad, something I hadn’t realized until I experienced having kids full time.”

Crabtree admits that being a SAHD wasn’t something he had pondered. He did not think that men could be SAHDs. Like others in American society, there were things that he viewed as cultural norms.

“I grew up in a split home, my parents were divorced when I was seven, and in both my mother’s and my father’s household the man of the house got up early for work, came home near dinner, spent a couple hours with the kids and went to bed early to be up for work,” Crabtree said. “The only time I, as a kid, got to spend time with my dad or stepdad was on weekends. And even then, the types of jobs they both had, it wasn’t uncommon for either of them to work OT (overtime) on Saturday and/or Sunday. Not only did the family structure look that way but it was taught that way. Everything was geared around the men going out to earn money to put food on the table.”

Marc Crabtree gives a nebulizer treatment to his daughter.

It is these societal “norms” that Nagel insists men challenge. But simply being a SAHD will not help remove old stereotypes. He recommends that men be seen in public with their children, especially as school volunteers.

“This is a space that is very much dominated by mothers and having more fathers involved helps immensely to change the perception,” Nagel said.

But the challenges persist. SAHDs who have volunteered to help out at their children’s schools have shared stories about being rejected by teachers who were looking for a “class mom.” They were told that they could patrol the hallways, almost like a security guard because “that’s something that the dads do.” When SAHDs expressed interest in joining school organizations like the PTA, they were marginalized and leadership roles were given to moms. The dads were told they could help as laborers to help move chairs and tables for events.

Forty-eight-year-old Kyle Bengel of Dallas has faced his own challenges with schools that are unwilling to accept the role of SAHDs. One day the retired chef and former entrepreneur was at home when one of his two sons had a minor medical incident at school. The boy was taken to the nurse’s office to have his abrasions treated. Despite having multiple previous conversations with the school, the nurse called his wife instead of Kyle.

“My son's school records indicate that I should be called, not the mother, as I am the primary caregiver,” Bengel said. But this did not stop the nurse from calling Bengel’s wife who was scrubbing up to perform surgery on one of her patients. Naturally Bengel’s wife took the call since it was from the school nurse and she assumed that Bengel might have missed an emergency call from the school.

Once on the phone, Bengel’s wife reminded the nurse that her husband should have been called first and the nurse replied that she was just checking to make sure it was okay to call Bengel. Upset that his instructions had not been followed and that the nurse’s call had interfered with his wife’s work, Bengel went to the school and met with the principal and the nurse. The principal apologized for the breakdown in communication, but she added that Bengel needed to be more polite and understanding in the future. “After all,” she said, “We usually take the mother's word for things not the father’s.”

Other SAHDs say that tending to regular domestic logistics also rouses curiosity from others. When SAHDs shop at the grocery store or get their haircut during the day, they are regularly asked by the clerks and hair stylists if they have taken the day off from work. “My employment status is a significant and consistent topic with others who are on the periphery of my suburban life; teachers, mechanics, dentists, doctors, orthodontists, dry cleaners, you name it, are curious about why I am managing errands during business hours. I have been asked when I’ve taken kids to the dentist, “Is mommy sick today?” one Austin area dad said who did not want to give his name.

Another SAHD from New York stated that he once tried to volunteer as a team parent, but he was told by the coach that moms usually were given the role of “Team Mom” so women could be a part of the team too. He recommended to the SAHD that he sign-up to bring post-game treats and that he could help in that manner.

What kind of a message does this send to kids? There is so much focus on gender neutrality, yet male parents face gender bias daily. For our daughters it reinforces stereotypes that women are the sole nurturers in families. It supports a point of view that women are the only ones who can be relied upon to get involved in the kids’ lives; only women can care for kid. For boys, it sends a message that men are not required or expected to invest in their families. Men earn money. Men are detached from child rearing and when they are involved, they coach little league, but they do not cook dinners, clean houses or raise kids. What messages are we sending?

As Nagel alluded to, part of the problem is that there are hardened cultural norms in the United States especially in media. While trends are changing, the parenting culture still revolves around mothers. For example, in Huff Post Parents a reader might expect to find a fair balance of articles that can be used by male or female parents, but overwhelmingly the content is structured for mothers. Most of the Huff Post Parents social media posts this week included “This month we were all about healthy hair, statement shoes and glossy everything.” Another social media post said “I realized I wasn’t alone after I asked a handful of women if they’ve ever picked at their split ends.” Huff Post Parents has 1.6 million Twitter followers.

Similarly, Parents magazine, which more realistically should be renamed something with a maternal title, recommended in a social media post linked to one of their articles that “Women should go out with their girlfriends twice a week, according to research” and “The Eleven Best Mascaras according to beauty influencers.” Not to mention, “This mom accidentally wore a car seat cover as a skirt and hey, it’s actually pretty cute,” all from Parents’Twitter account this week. Parents has 4.7 million followers on Twitter.

Parenting magazine’s Twitter account was not much better. Their social media posts this week included “The Best Organic and Natural Skin Care Products for Pregnant or Nursing Moms” and “These 18 Figure Flattering Swimsuits Will Have You Feeling Like Your Pre-Baby Self” and “Moms Are Raving About the Tummy Control ‘Magic Fabric’ in These $20 Leggings on Amazon.” Parenting has two million Twitter followers.

There is nothing wrong with this type of content. Clearly these magazines have learned that this type of material works well with their demographic, but these gender-neutral titled media are disingenuous. In fairness, they do have content that provides general parenting advice for parents, regardless of gender, and there was some content that targeted fathers (like what Valentine’s Day gifts to buy your wife), but overwhelmingly most of the parental magazines and their social media channels are for mothers.

This, in part, is why I write

Only recently have Americans started to see product commercials shift to portray fathers as competent caregivers. More and more “dadvertising” is showing fathers as caring, emotional and intelligent parents who can fulfill their children’s needs, but about 40 percent of fathers surveyed in marketing studies still feel that companies do not accurately portray them in ads. The American marketing industry has taken notice and is adjusting its messaging because fathers are more likely to switch brands when they become dads, they spend more money when shopping for their households and more than 90 percent of them state that being a father is a key part of their identities.

Crabtree and his daughter play, dad style.

“For me the frustration begins with the attitude people have,” Crabtree said. “It seems like when it comes to being treated equally a stay at home dad is the least thought about. Everything is geared for kids and moms. The stay at home mom groups don’t allow or don’t consider stay at home dads. So, I often find myself alienated. Although Annabeth doesn’t realize or know any better it is hard to get her increased sociability when there is no one to socialize her with. I am thankful that we have church to offset this at least twice a week and we have time to socialize at the library’s story times but play dates and group activities are a foreign concept for her and I.”

Crabtree explains that he believes that the problem isn’t against SAHDs, but rather, that the problem is that most people do not know that SAHDs exist.

“Very few people have an immediate reaction to finding out I am a stay at home dad,” Crabtree said. “This tells me that the problem doesn’t lie in whether people embrace me or accept me but more that people don’t know that I exist, not in a personal way of course, meaning that they don’t think that a stay at home dad is a thing.”

Unfortunately for many SAHDs, the marginalization and lack of understanding they face does not only come from the broader American society. They are often subjected to criticism within their own families. Despite selling his restaurant and winery which enabled him to retire at age 44, Bengel is still viewed by his family as unsuccessful.

“I was called a “kept man” by my mother,” Bengel said. “My wife’s family has never said anything to my face, but I've been told by my wife that lots of them used to consider me a failure for not working.” He is quick to add: “My wife has been great and very supportive. Her career is more important than mine—saving lives versus making a good merlot—and I am happy to support her, and she is very supportive of me.”

But like Crabtree in New Jersey or McLean in California, Bengel, who is in Texas faces the same isolation and discrimination because of his gender. It was a surprise to him when he became a SAHD.

“When I take my boys to the playground, no matter what, all the moms begin to cluster and speak in hushed voices, and, within ten minutes, all the moms and the kids will be gone and my boys will be alone on the playground,” Bengel said. “I have attempted to join eight different parent groups, two of them “accidentally” forgot to ever tell me when the next meeting was, and four of them specifically asked me to understand that the “moms” were uncomfortable with a dad in the group.” His boys have few friends because of the segregation.

Retired U.S. Army soldier and combat veteran Dave Burson had no problems being a SAHD until he moved from Colorado. The 35-year-old father of one is raising his son in Madison, Alabama along with his wife who works in the military. He did not realize that people might have an issue with being a SAHD.

“When we finally got settled into Alabama, I immediately went to work trying to find play groups for children around my son’s age but everything was centered around moms and baby,” Burson said. “This was a huge change for me because Colorado seems to have a solid mix of dads and moms’ groups. Even if you weren’t a stay at home dad there where bonding groups and play groups that did not gender specify for the parent. When I finally found a few groups that would accept a stay at home dad I made plans to meet during their play group times and meeting places.”

Burson got banned from three Facebook parenting groups once they learned he was a SAHD and not a mom. They openly told him they did not want him in the group.

“One of the groups that I showed up to told me that I would have to cover my tattoos if I was going to come to their play groups because I was setting a bad example for their one-year-old children,” Burson said.

The body of academic work that has explored the SAHD phenomena is limited. SAHDs have only been carefully examined for 10-15 years even though the demographic has grown considerably for decades. But reports like the one published in the American Journal of Men’s Health in 2015, show that SAHDs are bending gender ideology and that the definition of what is an American family is morphing so slowly that the change is hard to see, but that the positive change is happening.

“When my first son was born and I took on the role of the primary caregiver, I didn’t refer to myself as a stay at home dad when people asked what I did,” Nagel said. “My answer was always whatever gig I was doing to earn extra money first then ‘I also care for our son.’”

Nagel said he did not fully embrace his own identity as a stay at home dad until he attended his first HomeDadCon in 2017 (a yearly convention for dads hosted by NAHD).

“It realigned my priorities of growing a home business to focusing on the more important role of growing my children,” Nagel said. “Being surrounded by other stay at home dads that were facing the same isolation and doubts I was struggling with was extremely empowering and uplifting.”

Nagel recommends that SAHDs try to attend HomeDadCon 2020 in Cincinnati and look for a local dad group to find other SAHDs. He said that social media can help people find communities and that fathers should not be afraid of who they are.

“We are not broken. We are not unemployable. We are not failures. We chose to do this, just like you stay at home moms, and we are good at it,” Bengel said.

Crabtree says he would not trade his current life as a SAHD. “The opportunity to watch her eyes light up as she sees a penguin for the first time, watching and experiencing her progress physically and intellectually as well as watching her become her own person, making the boo boos go away, the laughs, smiles and love that I get to have every day, all day, is a priceless treasure.”

Crabtree added that other SAHDs should know that they are not alone. He said being a SAHD can be daunting, and that SAHDs can be riddled with insecurities that they never thought they could have, but it is the most rewarding of anything a person can do in life.

McLean shares a similar opinion, but summed it up succinctly: “We are not babysitters and we aren’t giving “Mommy a break.”

When Burb Dad was Major Dad, pre-beard, before retiring from the Army, reading to three of my four kids.


©2020 by Steve Alvarez, Burb Dad.