The moms had seen him at the ballet school every Thursday -- an attractive 30-something guy with earrings and cropped blond hair. They gossiped about him -- Who is he? Is he unemployed? Is he a trust-fund baby? What is he doing with that cute little girl? Where's her mother? What is he doing here? He just doesn't fit in.
Finally, a mother got her nerve to walk up to him. "I see you here every week. What are you doing here?"
He was taken aback. What did this mother think he was doing at 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday, the exact time of the beginners' ballet class?
The answer was embarrassingly obvious: "Taking my daughter to ballet class."
It's a scenario that seems to be plucked off of the pages of Tom Perrotta's brilliant novel "Little Children," or the movie starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson based on it. But this isn't a scene from a novel or a movie -- it's real life if you are a stay-at-home-dad or a single or divorced father.
As much as we love the idea of men being an equal partner in a marriage, we don't necessarily embrace the idea of men being an equal partner in a divorce. The divorced father who shows up for his kids in meaningful and obvious ways, such as taking a daughter to a midday, midweek ballet class, is still considered odd.
It's a similar but slightly different reality than that of stay-at-home dads -- the trail-blazing "feminist, father, and husband who doesn't care what the gender roles are," is how Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, sees them. There were about 154,000 men in 2010 who stayed at home to care for their kids while their wife worked. But the recession, which hit men hard, has kept many more men at home, willingly or not. Given the many dads who work part time or consider themselves consultants but who are still primarily the caregivers to their children, that number is probably closer to 2 million at-home dads, according to Aaron Rochlen, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
That number is sure to grow; some 45 percent of men said they'd stay at home if their wife made more money than they do, according to a recent survey by Men's Health and Spike TV.
And then there are single fathers, about 1.8 million in the United States -- a 27 percent jump in the past decade, according to the latest Census. Of those single-father families, 46 percent are divorced, and another 19 percent are separated. That's about two-thirds of all single-father families -- a pretty substantial portion of men taking their children to ballet classes or Little League practice.
So why are we surprised that many of them are either co-parenting or have full custody? As Sally Abrahms writes in Working Mother magazine:
"Today, it's not uncommon for fathers seeking sole custody in a contested case to prevail at least 50 percent of the time. And Dad is asking for joint or primary custody more and more: Over the past decade, the number of fathers awarded custody of their children has doubled, according to the latest data. In the current generation of dads, gender doesn't dictate who changes a diaper or consoles an infant. And as fathers become more entrenched in their roles as co-caregiver, they're less willing to hand off that role when a marriage breaks down."
We should applaud that -- dad's an equal partner, exactly what women want! Yet as a society, we still aren't used to seeing dads being so hands-on with their kids in public. The stereotypes are challenging. All dads -- whether stay-at-home, single, co-parenting or full-custody divorced dads -- are likely to hear comments rife with judgment, such as, "Are you babysitting today?" or "Giving Mom a break?" if they're out with their kids. And they are suspect if they volunteer in classrooms, hang around parks while their kids play, or try to join in a playgroup, typically made up of moms. As one stay-at-home dad tells Andrea Doucet, a Brock University sociology professor and author of Do Men Mother, "It's kind of bad for men to be interested in other children."
But divorced dads often experience another layer of judgment and gender-based expectations. "When men parent as single parents, they're expected not to be as good at it," says Dr. Wendy A. Paterson, dean of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. School of Education at St. John Fisher College in New York and author of Diaries of a Forgotten Parent: Divorced Dads on Fathering Through and Beyond Divorce. "We don't trust men. A lot of women, and they don't even understand they're doing this, take on all the mothering and they 'allow' the father a peripheral role or an 'invited in' role, and then when the father isn't as big a part of the lives of his children, they get blamed for not participating."
It isn't unusual for divorced fathers to hear comments like, "How often are you allowed to see your daughter?" As Sam Magee, a divorced co-parenting dad, writes, "despite having a solid full time job, a regular salary, and no concerning habits of any kind, people were stunned that I got 50% custody. 'Wow, that's a lot,' people would remark. 'Every weekend?' They were shocked that I was actually going to be a consistent and active part of my son's life post-divorce."
When people react that way with words, they react that way with behaviors, too. While they may have been fine letting their young daughter have a sleepover when a guy has a wife, not many feel the same when he gets divorced. Now it seems creepy.
That's on top of the general stereotypes that all divorced men are womanizers, cheaters and dead-beat dads; after all he must have done something wrong for her to dump his sorry butt.
"There's a huge need for people who can mediate the separation of a family into two families, and not one family with a visiting dad. Calling someone a visitor; the language of that has to change," says Paterson, a single mom. "Women will never be liberated until men are."