You are there with your child, but you feel alone. You also feel awkward, perhaps a little shy, but try not to show it and smile.
All around you are mothers with their children, who all seem to know each other. You smile as you make eye contact, hoping for a hint of a connection – but nothing.
You try making conversation, but none develops. Your hopes of meeting new people, making new friends, forming bonds with other parents for the sake of your child are dwindling.
You end up sitting alone in a corner, watching your child play alone while all around you a community you long to be a part of continues on oblivious.
I know this dad. Once upon a time, it was me.
Whether in parks, cafes, playgroups, or classes, when we moved to this area gone was our network, our antenatal group, the mothers who didn’t bat an eyelid at the stay-at-home dad in their ranks. Looking back, I realise their unconditional acceptance empowered my self esteem as a father.
Hoping for the same, I found it lacking in my first forays into the local community. While I am more than happy in my own company, for the sake of my child I knew I needed to form new friendships and networks.
And I did. It all worked out fine. I found the right groups. I got to meet mothers and fathers who wanted to engage. We have formed good friendships, and so have our children.
Which is what makes what happened this week so disappointing. Part of my efforts to engage in my new community saw me volunteer to help out at a local playgroup, that a mother with a girl the same age as mine had just agreed to take over. It was the first group I attended where mothers – like this one – talked to me.
However, this group was struggling with numbers, mostly lacking promotion and awareness. It was also the last non-church run group in the area, and for me that was something worth saving.
We changed that, and it is now one of the most popular in the town. So popular, that instead of having time to meet and chat to new people when they arrive, I often only have a chance for a brief hello and explanation of how it works (a very short conversation) while I continue chopping grapes, washing dishes, topping up paint pots, and making sure my now 4-year-old kid is ok.
So when the new dad came along this week, I didn’t have the chance to speak to him. Often new mums arrive with a friend. If alone, and not chatting to anyone, I’ll try and have a brief conversation with them. I usually see them chatting to someone as the morning progresses. But it was particularly busy this morning.
I should’ve talked to this dad, but I didn’t. When it was all over, and people shuffled home while we tidied, I didn’t see him.
It was only later that the image popped into my head. Of him sitting alone. Surrounded by empty chairs. Staring at his child, playing alone.
I had failed him, this dad who had come along – just as I had a couple of years ago – looking to engage with other parents.
I hope that this snapshot memory I have of him was unrepresentative of his morning. That this was simply a brief respite for him from chatting to other parents. But I fear this was not the case.
When I had a similar experience, I stopped going to that particular group. Who could blame me, and who could blame him if he doesn’t return next week. But I really hope he does, to give us another chance.
Next time you see a dad alone with his child, especially at a playgroup or class, please don’t ignore them. Try and chat to them if you can, but at least smile if you catch their eye. It could make all the difference to them, and their child.