The stay-at-home dads swooped in from Chicago and Canada, from Houston and High Point, flooding into Raleigh with their diaper bags, BabyBjorn carriers and minivan keys – full-time caregivers with whiskers and testosterone.
I met them at Marbles Kids Museum downtown, where they assembled between the fire truck and the jump ropes: 145 men who proudly wash rubber nipples and mix formula, juggling naptimes, playgroups and stroller maintenance.
I saw no Ward Cleavers. No Fred MacMurrays. No pipe-smoking breadwinners lounging with the sports page. At the 20th Annual At-Home Dads Convention, it’s OK to wear pants stained with strained bananas. Go ahead and nurture in public.
“You come here and there’s 145 dads that have got your back,” said Al Watts, president of the At-Home Dad Network. “There’s nothing wrong with you. If there’s a guy out there who thinks maybe he shouldn’t be changing diapers, there’s guys here who own that. I change diapers. I wear my baby.”
What’s happening here is nothing short of a paradigm shift, explained Ariel Isenberg, a 37-year-old father of three from Chicago, who spoke to me wearing a T-shirt with “Dork” across the front in a Lego-style font.
When he started his home-fathering odyssey, he’d be the only man pushing a cart full of kids through the supermarket on a weekday afternoon. But the U.S. Census Bureau now reports that one third of all married fathers act as primary caregiver in the family. Jif peanut butter now calls itself the choice for choosy moms and dads. Peanut Butter Cheerios calls itself the “official cereal of dadhood.”
“You see the ads with minivans being marketed to dads,” Isenberg said. “Minivans are cool now. They’re all tricked out.”
The fathers at Marbles on Sunday qualified as DadCon veterans, following the annual gathering from Denver to Philadelphia. For a newbie, attending can be the first glimpse at another father who assumes the role historically assigned to women.
Watts told me that women now earn more college degrees and more advanced degrees, launching them into better-paying jobs and giving their families flexibility less available two or three generations past. But dads rarely decide to stay home out of economic necessity. Rather, they make the choice based on their own strengths and preferences.
For Jeffrey Taggart, a 49-year-old dad from Washington, D.C., who toted an acoustic guitar, Sunday at Marbles marked his fourth DadCon. People assume that convention-goers like him are desperate for company or frustrated by isolation, and there’s some of that. But weekends like these charge his dad batteries, and he comes home with double strength.
“ ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’?” he asked. “Harry Chapin? You’re familiar with that song? I always knew I wanted to do right by my kids.”
While we spoke, I remember the earliest days of my own fatherhood, when I inherited my parents’ 1970 copy of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s child care manual. I recalled laughing at Spock’s suggestion that fathers should maybe change a diaper once or twice – or even, gasp, prepare a meal – to get a feeling for the wife’s world. Come check out the 21st century, Dr. Spock. Dads of my generation would be happy to show you our diaper-changing callouses.
Near the end of my visit, a crowd formed a ring around Eddie Barnett and Michael Bryant in the middle of the Marbles lobby, where this pair of caring fathers competed to see who could assemble a car seat the fastest – taking care to keep the chest clip at armpit level.
As if from fussy kids, taunts flew from the audience as Barnett and Bryant buckled and snapped.
“Dad, I have to go to the bathroom!”
“Daddy, you’re hurting me!”
“I forgot my ba-ba!”
If you closed your eyes and judged by the shouts and jeering, you guess these men were arm-wrestling or chugging beer. And when Mom gets home from work, if they’re lucky, that’s just what they’ll do.