In today’s world of instant information, the secrets of parenthood are still passed along in the old-fashioned way, from person to person. Despite the miles of books and scores of magazine articles that have been written on the way children need to sleep or love or eat or use their words, most of us with kids running around are more likely to have learned the survival skills of parenting by listening. We’ve listened to our mothers and fathers dispense advice, we’ve listened to the guidance of the pediatricians and their nurses, we’ve been held rapt by the stories of parents with just a little more experience.
The power of that oral tradition was on display this weekend during the 12th incarnation of one of the more unusual gatherings around: the annual At-Home Dad Convention.
That’s right, every year, around a hundred American fathers gather together to spend two or three days eating barbeque, drinking beer and – most importantly – swapping stories about their gig as primary caretakers.
I first went to the event five years ago, more out of curiosity than anything else. I wondered what kind of guys would travel across the country – or across the continent – to a suburban community college to learn more about fatherhood?
When I attended that first at-home dad convention, I arrived prepared for the absurd. I wasn’t disappointed. Amid the trappings of professional life, the PowerPoint presentations and the notepads and pencils, the meeting was notable for its general zaniness. One dad grabbed a guitar and sang a number about his impending vasectomy, another warned of the perils of playing James Brown for his toddler.
A year later, I felt a compelling need to travel to the convention again. I had realized that the event offered a solution to a problem I only dimly understood: the isolation of the at-home father.
Isolation takes many forms. For some guys at the convention, it’s acute: they feel like they get the cold shoulder at the playground or ignored when offering to volunteer at school. For me, it’s more subtle. Right before the conference, my daughter and I walked into a busy family restaurant on a Friday night. The hostess’s first reaction, upon seeing a father and child together, sans mother, was to assume it was the result of a custody agreement. “Sweetie,” she cooed, “are you spending the weekend with your daddy?”
It’s hard to explain those kinds of stories to the guys on my old softball team, and the even the wonderful, accepting, forward-thinking mothers in my neighborhood can’t relate to those kinds of snubs.
But at-home fathers understand it perfectly, and that’s what makes the convention powerful. The men who make the trek are the ones who are incredibly passionate about fatherhood, and who want to share that passion with dads who feel the same way.
I left that first convention elated, ready to build couch-cushion forts and try out new sleeping strategies and turn the kitchen inside out in the name of science experiments. I was jazzed, too, just being around guys who took what they did so seriously (and yet had so much fun doing it).
The attendees each year range from grizzled veterans of the at-home dad thing, looking back over decades of change, sitting next to guys who have only just learned that they’ll become fathers.
There’s a formal program with presenters and biographies, but the heart of the event is the breakout sessions, a chance for guys to sit around and talk about a given subject: fighting the bugaboo of isolation, tackling everything from the challenges of toddlerhood to the teen years to keeping a marriage fresh while juggling kids. It’s that informal sharing that gets to the heart of things and makes everyone who goes a smarter and more passionate parent.
While the convention is the central where dads can go to recharge their parenting batteries, it represents the hub of the network of support – from online forums to at-home dad groups across the globe, offering a hundred smaller forums for swapping stories and seeking advice, not to mention the ability to do it online.
And there are countless other ways to connect, from informal run-ins with neighborhood moms and dads at the playgroup to after-preschool coffee and bagels. When it comes to parenting, the oldest and best to learn face to face, with other parents.
As absurd as a stay-at-home dad convention might seem, it is, in fact, a vaccination against isolation, a reminder that there are lots of guys in our exact position, however rare at-home dads seem to be when we saunter into the coffeeshop or the playground.
Brian Reid, a former at-home dad who remains interested in the question of how modern fathers can maximize their connection to family, blogs at Rebel Dad