The Lonely Dad in the Corner

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.

26 thoughts on “The Lonely Dad in the Corner”

  1. Wow! This one hit home, as I’ve had a very similar experience as a stay-at-home Dad trying to make friends both for my son and myself in a new city.

    I also involved myself in a playgroup as a volunteer and have made some friends but the misery of wandering around a city pushing a pram with my 18-month-old boy inside has not left me. I also noticed new parents, Mums and Dads both, who looked like they might have needed a chatty welcome, but was stuck in dishes or tidying away or cutting up fruit. I felt bad about it, and bad again now after reading your post.

    The fact I was a Dad made my feel even more awkward when I was effectively asking mothers out to the park and suggesting we swap numbers. It felt a bit too close to actually asking them out romantically, which was never something I took lightly.

    Anyway, great post. And good luck with the ongoing group, sounds like you made a valuable difference to your community.

  2. Love this and I have often tried to catch the eye of those Dads but they rarely look up or somehow seem to not want to make eye contact. Will keep trying though.

  3. I can relate to that dad. I’ve been in that position many times, attending playgroups or on the school run. I’ve been a full time dad for 4 years and it’s still not easy. Sometimes, we don’t need any extra effort to feel welcomed or special, the inclusion is enough. Great blog post 🙂

  4. It’s not just dads!
    I’m the mum who gets left out because everyone else has known each other since they were pregnant etc plus I find putting myself ‘out there’ horrifically difficult.
    My hubby on the other hand could charm the birds from the trees and has no problem chatting to anyone and throwing himself in there and facebooking people after 3 minutes!
    I wish I had that skill!

  5. As a working dad, I’ve only done the playgroup thing occasionally but I often felt isolated. It’s hard enough being the stranger in a group of people who are largely familiar with each other (if on no more than nodding terms), but being (a) a man and (b) being obviously ‘foreign’ in appearance in a part of the world which remains very ‘English’ makes it doubly hard. I should stress that I have never felt anything approaching racism in these groups, but when you’re a minority twice over in a group that is predominantly female and white, it doesn’t engender a huge amount of confidence, especially if you’re the quiet, shy type like me.

    Funnily enough, it’s the same at parent blogging conferences. Dads rarely seem to make up more than about 1% of delegates at BritMums or Blogfest, which means dads tend to huddle together – safety in numbers! – which can make us less approachable. We can do more to integrate ourselves into the mostly-mums community, but a smile and a welcoming hand from others go a long way too.

    1. I’ve not done one of the big mum blog conferences, and your comparison to a mum dominated playgroup rings true to my feelings about them. As a dad, I don’t feel wanted at ‘mother & toddler’ groups, and the same goes for Brit Mums Live, et al…

  6. Gosh this is so like my experience of being a stay at home dad. Lots of awkward sitting on my own point that someone would talk to me. I tried on lots of occasions unsuccessfully to engage people but so many were in cliques. I too got involved with a group and volunteered to open up as a way of meeting more parents, it’s obviously the way to go.

    Great blog by the way!

    1. Thanks Darren. Yes, cliques definitely a common factor, though interesting that many mothers I know feel excluded by them the same way.

  7. You’re not alone. I know it’s not quite the same thing but my mum looks after my son 3 days a week and goes to toddler groups, and she says she feels isolated because no one talks to her because she’s the only granny! I for one will try and make more of an effort to chat to people who aren’t mums.

    1. Yes, I’ve had a lot of feedback about others feeling the same. I guess the thing is to try and reach out to anyone who looks lonely.

  8. Wow! I’ve only just realised how much I gravitate towards the dads at groups. I’m a bit intimidated by groups and so I usually hone in on someone by themselves, it’s really sad that this is usually a guy.

  9. Powerful post mate. I’ve been that dad too, but over the last 8 or so months of being a SAHD have become more confident with it. I don’t mind sitting on my own in the corner and I don’t mind chatting to someone if the opportunity arises. The main thing I’ve found is just to try and hold your head up high as ultimately you’re doing it for your kid. This reminds me, really need to start regularly coming back to the playgroup.

  10. When I first became a dad and started taking my kids to places without their mum, I used to get this a lot. It may only have been 15 years ago but it seems to have improved since then from what I’ve seen. Don’t beat yourself up over one person.

  11. Hi. I can totally sympathise, having led many a playgroup during the past nine years while I was living in Switzerland. I’ve often been in a similar position as you, when the success of our attempts to publicise the playgroup kicked in big time and we suddenly had loads of new members arriving every week, whose names I forgot the second they told me! (When I joined the English Playgroup Schaffhausen in 2010, there were 15 members meeting one morning a week; when I left it in 2013 we were heading towards 50-odd, split over two mornings!) It’s hard to keep track of everyone as a Playgroup Leader, which is where your long-term members come in. Charge them with welcoming new joiners and making them feel at home. I had two dads in my group, both of whom were as well-integrated as any other member (though not necessarily through my efforts – I had a great group of friendly parents who always welcomed new people!) I think it also helped that the way we ran the group, every member took their turn bringing the snack and helping with the washing up/hoovering, etc. We found it freed the Playgroup Leaders up to concentrate on crafts, welcoming people, and other stuff, while also making new joiners feel like they were part of a community from the get-go. Just a thought.

    1. Thanks Jess – reading this makes me think a more organised approach would be a good thing for the group. I appreciate the comment 🙂

  12. Pingback: Don’t Ignore the Lonely Dad
  13. Well said.
    It sucks to be the only Dad in a room full of Mum’s that seem to have know each since birth. I end up focusing entirely on my child, which makes engaging with someone else even harder, but it hurts less and at least I have time with that child.
    I think what is most annoying (for me) is knowing that once the ice is broken, once one conversation starts, it will be fine.
    And the ice does always break if you stay long enough.
    But until then, as you have perfectly described, it can be very lonely…

  14. I’m not a dad myself yet, but planning on becoming one in the near future, so I find this particularly interesting for the prep time! But I’m also a curious at heart and can’t help but ask: have that dad ever come back? How did this story unfold??? Cheers!

  15. Just found this, excellent post,
    however it is an ongoing struggle with me.
    I am a single father of 3, 24×7, 365. And my daughter has special needs.

    The loneliness you feel in a room full of people is overwhelming. I used to be very outgoing, and had no trouble meeting new people. However, that was years ago, and the continual isolation while in groups has taken its toll. I work full time+ and then take care of my kids, there is no social time, no way to let the world know just how lonely you really are.

  16. I think that this type of thing is even more ingrained that dads simply being ignored or isolated. I regularly attend a toddler group at a church which I am a member of the congregation at. Even though I have been along for two long periods (first with my eldest son, when the group started, and secondly a couple of years after my eldest went to school) and know enough people by name, I still almost entirely ignored by the mothers.

    I tend to few this as being “we don’t have a problem with you specifically, but don’t really feel happy having fathers poaching mothers’ territory”. These groups are almost entirely owned by cliches and outsiders have to work hard to get in; if you are ‘different’ in any way (a man, someone from a different ethnic background, etc) then it can become almost impossible.

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