Playground Pioneers - Looking for Help

Author // Jeremy Adam Smith

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Playground Pioneers
Looking for Help
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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 e-mails, 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 we 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 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.”

About the Author:

Jeremy Adam Smith is a Knight fellow at Stanford University, author of The Daddy Shift, and co-editor of Are We Born Racist? Visit his website at

Pathways Issue 29 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #29.

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