It’s my deep pleasure to introduce Andrea Doucet, who is a guest contributor for Global Mama this month. Andrea is Professor of Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of the award-winning book Do Men Mother? and is currently completing research for her book, tentatively titled The Bread and Roses Project: Breadwinning Moms and the New ‘Problem with No Name’. She is delighted to be a contributor to Girl with Pen. (And we are delighted to have her!)

Are Dads Facing Discrimination at the Playground?

Are men being kicked out of playgrounds? Are dads facing playground or playgroup discrimination? These questions, and some answers, were floating on the blogosphere and twitterverse over the last few weeks. It all started with a conversation between three leading and admired voices in parenting – Dad Labs, Free Range Kids’ Lenore Skenazy, and Jeremy Adam Smith’s Daddy Dialectic – on fear and mistrust of men in public spaces.

The pace with which this discussion unfolded would make any slow-moving scholar’s head spin. A newspaper article, then a blog post, a tweet, the creation of an online survey and voilà: the results were up on Daddy Dialectic and on The New York Times Motherload.

I’ve had a 20-year academic and personal interest in male exclusion and surveillance on the landscapes of parenting, so I followed the discussion with great interest. It speaks to an important social dynamic, one that is largely absent from much of the current thinking on (heterosexual) couples working to reverse traditional gender roles.

Yet, as I sat at my desk, watching the words ‘playground discrimination’ and ‘stay at home dads targeted’ tweeting from my computer, something troubled me.

I think the discussion, thus far, overstates the issue of discrimination. It also underplays change over time and the growing acceptance of fathers in community sites. Playground discrimination? With all due respect to those who blogged and tweeted about this, I disagree. Only 3 fathers (4.5%) who filled in the ‘playground discrimination’ survey were asked to leave a playground.

What about the nearly 25% (18 men) who reported being refused entry to a group setting? We need to know more about why, when and where men were refused entry. Was it direct or implied? Was it in an infant group with breast-feeding moms or a group with older children? Was it recent or 10 years ago? Was the father a new or a long-time caregiver? Did the community know him?

As for the 55% of fathers who indicate that their parenting skills are criticized or corrected in a public setting, this does seem to be a recurring problem, especially for fathers of infants. According to the Daddy Dialectic survey and many recent media articles, fathers who are forced into primary caregiving roles during this man-cession, can still face those ‘looks’ and questions from friends, an elderly neighbor, and the ever-present ‘woman at the grocery store’.

I also see positive changes. Looking back 20 years, many stay-at-home dads and single fathers did face serious discrimination as they tried to navigate through, what one of the fathers in my book Do Men Mother? called ‘estrogen filled worlds’. That was long before daddy blogging and the daddy shift. Today, many caregiving men have the support of their breadwinning partners and/or kin networks, access to amazing dads groups, and an overwhelming litany of online and community resources. Like women who enter work fields dominated by the other gender, men are also actively creating their own networks (often through children’s athletic activities) – and their own playgroups.

Mothers, of course, are also targeted with criticism, although in different ways (which Smith also notes). Some of the breadwinning mothers I’ve recently interviewed avoid those same playgroups that are turning some fathers away.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of radical change in daddy discrimination is a Canadian couple I’ve interviewed several times over the last 10 years. When Richard, a former mechanic, started staying home in 2000, he and his wife Aileen told me that “nobody spoke to him in the playgroups”. He kept going. By 2001, he went to three weekly playgroups as well as a library group. He also began caring for a few children in his home. Yet his desire to open his own day care was continually greeted with disapproval and rejection. The reason: he was male.

After four years of patiently waiting, Richard was finally granted a licence to open his daycare. In 2009, he told me: “The praise that I receive from the parents and the agency personnel and mostly the love I feel from the kids, make this the most satisfying job ever”.

Richard also captures the incredible change for men in community settings along with a subtle reminder that full gender parity on this issue remains a formidable challenge:

“Today my daycare is full with 5 kids and I have 8 kids on my waiting list who want to come to my daycare specifically. But I am not accepted by all. Some parents refuse to have a man as childcare provider. And I can respect that. But to many, it is an alternative they favor.”

Playground and playgroup discrimination, where and when it occurs, is undoubtedly an uncomfortable experience. The Daddy Dialectic’s survey was, according to Smith, meant to be a “catalyst for conversation”. I want to add a few questions to this ‘daddy discrimination’ conversation: What key changes are fathers observing on this issue over time in their own communities? What is supporting or inhibiting that change? What challenges remain, where and why? What can mothers, fathers, community organizations, policy activists and feminist scholars do to help facilitate more father-inclusion? Is it reasonable to accept some women-only, as well as men-only, spaces when it comes to caregiving?