In the fall of 2005, I worked part-time and took care of my infant son for most of the day while my wife Olli Doo was at her job.
We didn’t have any family in the area, and we had lost most of our child-free friends, who wondered why we stopped coming to their fabulous parties. Communication between Olli and me was limited to reports on meals, naps, and diaper changes before one of us headed out the door to work. For the first time in 14 years together, we experienced serious strain in our relationship. Our son Liko was our main company, a diaper-clad bridge between her workplace and mine.
On sunny playgrounds I taught Liko to walk, his little fists clenched around my aching forefingers. Pushing a swing, I’d eye the mothers and they eyed me, or so I imagined. I was typically the only father. The moms seldom spoke to me and I was frankly afraid of them. I feared—it sounds ridiculous to admit—that if I initiated a real conversation, they’d think I was hitting on them. Deep in my bones, I felt that I didn’t belong on weekday playgrounds. Not just because I was a dad; I didn’t even feel like a parent, not then. I felt like a spy, an interloper, an anthropologist studying a lost tribe of stroller-pushing urban nomads.
In addition to our drooly, poopy, giggling baby boy, the main thing my wife and I shared during this period was our isolation. Yet in at least one respect, we had plenty of company: Research shows that most parents today face the same challenges we did. “Increasingly, new families are created far from grandparents, kin, and friends with babies the same age, leaving parents without the support of those who could share their experiences of the ups and downs of parenthood,” write University of California, Berkeley, psychologists Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan in the 2003 anthology All Our Families. “Most modern parents bring babies home to isolated dwellings where their neighbors are strangers.”
The Cowans studied 200 nuclear families over two decades and found that today’s parents face a range of challenges that earlier generations did not. In addition to the timeless problems of sleep deprivation, putting food on the table, and learning to take care of a baby—stressful all by themselves—the Cowans found that most husbands and wives with new babies come to feel isolated from each other—as well as their friends, families, and communities—and this isolation can harm their health, well-being, and marriages.
What’s more, the Cowans found that “strained economic conditions and the shifting ideology about appropriate roles for mothers and fathers pose new challenges for these new pioneers, whose journey will lead them through unfamiliar terrain.” In other words, not only are we geographically isolated from family and friends, but we’re cut off from tradition as well: Modern conditions make it difficult—if not impossible—to emulate older family models, leaving us with few clear templates for what our families should look like.
In the Cowans’s findings, I see my family and I see every family I know. But I’ve discovered that the isolation and pressures the Cowans describe are only half the story: Though we might live in isolated times, we are not condemned to lives of lonely desperation. Eventually, Olli and I overcame our isolation, and so did many of the families around us, building new lives, identities, and communities in the process.
As Richard Ross, a 47-year-old dad, once told me, “Sure, kids’ll destroy your life. But don’t worry: You’ll get a new one.”
Against the wall
“Through most of history,” writes family historian Stephanie Coontz in her essay “How to Stay Married,” “marriage was only one of many places where people cultivated long-term commitments. Neighbors, family, and friends have been equally important sources of emotional and practical support.” She continues:
Today, we expect much more intimacy and support from our partners than in the past, but much less from everyone else. This puts a huge strain on the institution of marriage. When a couple’s relationship is strong, a marriage can be more fulfilling than ever. But we often overload marriage by asking our partner to satisfy more needs than any one individual can possibly meet, and if our marriage falters, we have few emotional support systems to fall back on.
Viru Gupte, 40 years old, grew up in India, where most marriages are still arranged by parents and communal life remains very strong, even in the country’s dense urban areas. “In Indian cities, the people around you become your family,” says Viru, who was raised in Delhi. “The kids practically grow up in their neighbors’ apartments. You just walked in whenever you wanted, and they fed you. There’s a lot of intergenerational mix.”
After Viru came to the United States to attend college, he met Beth Saiki, who grew up in New Mexico. For nearly 15 years, they maintained a long-distance relationship (for three of those years, they lived in different countries while Beth served in the Peace Corps), and their plans and social lives were driven by their respective careers.
Then Anna Priya came along. “The hardest part of becoming a parent for me was figuring out what to drop at work so that I could be home,” says Viru, who is the self-employed co-founder of a small information technology firm. He was also shocked at how alone they became.
“You have to really ask for help here in the United States,” he says. “And I’m not talking about friends; I’m talking about family. If something goes wrong, you can’t just expect help.”
In the first trimester of Beth’s second pregnancy, something did go wrong. Beth grew very sick and could hardly leave the bedroom. In India, says Viru, his family members would have dropped everything to help, but in America—with both sets of relatives far away—Viru was forced by their isolation to assume a new caregiving role. He virtually quit working for three months while he took care of both his daughter and his wife.
Even without health complications, living so far from family and friends can exacerbate the typical strains of becoming a new parent. Jackie Adams, 42, grew up in a mountain town east of Lake Tahoe that always felt too small and conservative for her. She left a month after she turned 18 and ultimately settled in San Francisco. Ten years ago, she met 37-year-old Jessica Mass, and from the beginning the couple talked about having a child together.
After Ezra (“the only name we could agree on”) was born in 2005, Jackie says that “he felt like the missing piece of the puzzle.” But with no family in town to help, no friends with children, and her partner at work after just two weeks of parental leave, Jackie faced the transition to parenthood alone—an isolated condition which, note the Cowans, “poses a risk to [mothers] and their babies’ well-being.”
“I don’t think I slept for literally a month after Ezra was born,” recalls Jackie. “I remember being with him 24-7, and I don’t remember sleeping. I remember actually hitting my head against the wall at one point, because I just couldn’t control it at all.”
But this was only one source of stress for Jackie and Jessica. While Jackie was learning how to take care of a baby at home alone, Jessica struggled to craft a new role as a breadwinning, nonbiological mom—one for which she had few role models.
“I definitely didn’t feel like a father, because I’d grown up learning to be a mother,” says Jessica, whose extended family lives in New York. “Jackie was doing the mother’s role, but I wasn’t going to do the father’s role. To call myself the father felt like that was a further step away from being the parent.”
I know something of how Jessica feels, as unlikely as that might sound. Women cast into the traditional fathering roles—as she was—and men who embrace the mothering role—as I did—often find themselves struggling to match their newfound identities against models they see in society at large. As the Cowans point out, pioneers in new family forms, like pioneers throughout history, often find themselves alone in places for which there are no maps.
When nontraditional parents—who today are the majority of parents—step onto the playground, they’re not sure where they stand in relation to other parents. Their fear of not belonging can keep them isolated from potential friends and role models.
Looking for help
While Viru was taking care of Beth and Anna Priya, and Jackie was pounding her head against a wall, I was pushing a stroller up and down the hills of our San Francisco neighborhood—in the early days when I took care of him, this was the only way I could get Liko to sleep. On these foggy afternoons, time slowed, and with every minute I’d feel more and more isolated.
I was of two minds about my isolation. On one hand, I accepted it with a sense of stoic and rebellious male pride. Only in retrospect am I able to say that I was, in fact, lonely—and more than a little depressed about it. And so on the other hand, I secretly craved the companionship of other parents. Most caregivers are still moms, but the simple fact is that dads who take daily care of kids need support and friendship, too. When University of Texas researcher Aaron Rochlen and his team studied 213 stay-at-home fathers, they found that social support was the most important factor that predicted the psychological well-being and relationship satisfaction of these dads.
“Social support seemed important in several different contexts—with their partner, friends, and family,” writes Rochlen. “Conversely, those who had low social support in these areas seemed to be struggling more in their relationships and in life.”
Many of us new parents—moms and dads alike—learned this the hard way. Eventually, sometimes out of desperation, many of us awkwardly sought out the kind of social support Rochlen describes. Some of these efforts were more successful than others. For instance, in an effort to build a community of parents, Jackie and Jessica joined a parenting group—which disintegrated after one of the couples broke up. “They weren’t the only couple struggling,” says Jackie. “And I think their breakup scared people. We felt more vulnerable.”
For Viru and Beth, the turning point came while Beth was sick. Beth describes herself as shy and reluctant to reach out to other parents, but Viru had been raised in a cooperative and tightly knit urban community in India. Thrust into the role of stay-at-home caregiver for Beth and Anna Priya, Viru applied his sociable instincts to his new environment—and consciously set about building a community that could provide help and support.
“You have to work very hard to have a community here,” he says. “It requires planning.”
On playgrounds and at the neighborhood farmer’s market, Viru gathered phone numbers and emails, and he organized family hikes and all-dad museum trips. Their circle grew—just as my own family’s was expanding. Though at first my son seemed to cut me and my wife off from any wider community (as well as each other), at around 14 months he started to show an interest in playing with other kids.
It was Liko’s growing sociability—not my own loneliness, which I denied right up until the moment it vanished—that pushed me to meet other parents. And so I plucked up my courage and started to recruit moms and toddlers into a playgroup of our own. Later my wife and I organized monthly family brunches at our house—an idea we conceived explicitly as a community-building activity. Jackie, Jessica, and Ezra came, and so did Beth, Viru, and Anna Priya; they were joined by a half dozen other families.
“The brunches are so warm and so nice, it’s something that we’re all looking forward to now,” says Viru. “They really structured things in our community.”
We belong here
As a result of all these regular, planned activities—monthly brunches, weekly play-groups, and the weekly rendezvous at the farmer’s market—our bonds tightened and we started helping each other out in various ways. We set up weekly kid swaps so that the parents could take turns going out on dates, and we all developed genuine affection for each other’s children. One day on a beach outing, reports Jackie, a woman next to our little gang said she “couldn’t tell which kids were connected to which parents because all of the adults gave equal amounts of attention to each kid, and each kid seemed familiar and comfortable with each of us.”
Scientists have a name for this kind of behavior: alloparenting, where individuals in addition to the actual parents take on responsibility for children. “Among humans living in foraging societies,” writes the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her 1999 book Mother Nature, “a helpful mate and/or alloparents were usually essential for a mother to rear any infant at all.” In recent American history, childcare fell exclusively to mothers and their female relatives—but perhaps economic and social changes are rendering that arrangement obsolete. In a time when biological families are scattered across the world, we might once again be seeing a need for dads and other adults to form voluntary tribes that can share in the care and rearing of children.
Indeed, I’ve discovered that today, as much as ever, parenting is a social activity that no human can do alone. As our community grew, my wife and I largely recovered from the anxiety and depression that shadowed our son’s second year. “It’s a chicken and egg thing,” says my wife Olli, who is now Liko’s primary caregiver. “Finding friends made me feel better, but feeling better helped me to get more friends. My friendships have given me a lot more confidence in what I’m doing as a parent—I guess because I see other people struggling with the same things, and I’m appreciating their solutions and they’re appreciating my solutions.”
These friendships also provide a combination of emotional and practical help. “I feel like I can call on friends for help when I need it, like watching Liko when I’m going to the dentist or just to be there when I feel like I’m going crazy,” says Olli. “It’s also helped me avoid falling into bad patterns. If Liko wants to go to the playground and I’m depressed and don’t feel like going out, it helps to have someone to call and see if they also want to go to the playground.”
Thus our growing circle of families helped repair our frayed emotional lives, as individuals and as a couple. Other things changed, too—for example, we carved out more time for ourselves as a couple and developed a saner, more flexible schedule—but finding our new community was critical to becoming happy parents. Indeed, Philip and Carolyn Cowan found that creating groups in which couples could talk with other couples, and individual spouses with other spouses, “can buffer men and women’s dissatisfaction and keep their marital disenchantment from getting out of hand.”
“Friends are the secret weapon,” Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told me. “When couples have kids, they tend to look inward and focus completely on each other and the baby. You can see the temptation of doing that, and yet that’s not the only way to deal with that transition. Some couples do [build] connections to friends and extended family, and the couples who do that are less likely to experience the depression that sometimes happens when people transition to being parents.”
Curiously, the families who now form our circle are very different from each other in certain ways—racially, culturally, and economically. But we apparently do not need to be homogenous in order to form a cooperative and caring community. “Respect plays the main role in my day-to-day existence,” says Jackie. “When I see other parents respecting other parenting styles that are unlike their own, I take note and appreciate their ability to be open and accepting. I find myself instantly drawn to them, and I, who used to be an extremely shy person, am sparking up a conversation and making a new friend. Parenthood has definitely turned me into an open person—something I thought I would never be.”
Today when I take Liko to the playground, I no longer feel like a spy. I feel like I belong there—and I know many of the parents around me now feel the same way.
“I remember this one day at the park when I looked around and realized that I knew all the parents and kids playing there,” recalls Beth. “It was one of those moments when I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool. We’re part of this neighborhood. We belong here. This is our extended family.’ It was a great feeling.”