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Maryland fathers challenge convention with dad groups

As a black father of four, Matt Prestbury was fed up with the stereotypes.

It was 2009, and the narratives around men like him painted pictures of absentee dads for whom expectations were low and praise was scarce.

“There’s that myth that we are not around,” said the North Baltimore native and assistant preschool teacher. “But if you look at other groups, there’s expectations that the father is there. We’re looked at as such an anomaly.”

Out of frustration and the desire to create a supportive network, Prestbury created a closed Facebook group called “Black Fathers,” a virtual place where men could connect, commiserate and shatter stereotypes with their own stories. They shared fatherhood milestones like births and graduations, posted motivating articles and videos, and exchanged tips on overcoming the challenges and confusing moments that fatherhood can bring.

“It’s a place where we can come just as men and only get feedback from each other and not have to worry about [anyone else’s] perspective,” Prestbury said.

Since then, the Black Fathers group has amassed more than 27,000 members worldwide. Its growing community has caught the attention of national media and Facebook headquarters, where Prestbury met Mark Zuckerberg earlier this year.

And Prestbury is not alone in his aspiration to create community among fathers. In the past decade, a number of local and national dad groups have sprouted up, often through social networks like Facebook and Meetup, with many of them challenging stereotypes in the process.

According to a 2015 survey by Pew Research Center, the role of the American father is changing, and today’s fathers increasingly view parenting as central to their identity. They spend nearly triple the amount of time with their children compared to fathers in 1965, according to analysis from 2011.

Fathers are also less likely to be the breadwinners, with a growing number — 2 million as of 2012 — taking on the stay-at-home dad role, according to Pew Research Center analysis of government data. That number has nearly doubled since 1989.

Mike Stilwell, 59, a former stay-at-home dad and co-founder of the nonprofit National At-Home Dad Network, said the organization started in 2001 after he and other co-founders determined there was little space for stay-at-home dads and male primary caregivers in parenting organizations. Some moms’ groups were not welcoming to dads, Stilwell said, sometimes rejecting fathers or voting them out.

Stilwell, of Alexandria, Va., “decided to mirror the women’s sector,” creating D.C. Metro Dads, a “totally and completely comfortable place” where dads could be themselves and be honest about their mistakes.

“We wanted to get some all-dad play groups and activities started. We started lobbying … communicating through a Yahoo group to plan our activities and to keep our membership roster going.”

Five years later, they established the international organization, which today includes chapters for Baltimore and Annapolis. The organization also hosts an annual convention where dads can engage in charitable events, take seminars on parenting and participate in workshops on everything from cooking quick family-style meals to hair braiding.

The community groups are beneficial for full-time stay-at-home parents who sometimes feel isolated from other adults, Stilwell said.

As a stay-at-home parent, “you’re watching [your children] like a hawk, so whenever you do see an adult, you immediately start talking to them because you’ve been talking baby talk all day,” he said.

But working dads can reap the benefits, too, said Scott Posey, 33, a resident of Fullerton in Baltimore County.

Posey started the Baltimore Dads Group, which operates on Meetup and Facebook. The group now has more than 160 members and hosts playdates at members’ homes, libraries, parks and zoos. The group also hosts the occasional Dads’ Night Out at a bar.

Conversations “might start at sports and stuff, but it always ends up on the kids and the struggles we’re going through,” Posey said. “It’s good to be with other dads that can commiserate,” and be supportive — something that Posey, as a new father, saw in his wife’s mom groups but didn’t know existed for dads.

At one of the first Meetups he organized, Posey said his son Jack, now 3 ½, had an hour-long meltdown. The other fathers came to his rescue.

“Everyone tried to help and calm him down,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of dad friends, so I’ve never seen that before.”

Online, the groups are just as helpful.

Catonsville resident Jared Welsh, a part-time working father of a 1-year-old, said insights from other dads help him prepare for the challenges fatherhood has in store.

“I'm a part of two different Facebook groups and the Meetup group,” said Welsh, 36. “There are questions dads ask that I would not have thought of, so if you keep up with it, you’ll see things and be prepared for it.”

Prestbury said he recently sought advice from other dads on how to handle the changes his 10-year-old daughter, Laila, was experiencing through puberty.

“I knew other men who raised their children … but [the group] has really confirmed that we’re out here. We love our children,” said Prestbury, who also has three sons — Braylon, 12; Bryce, 16; and Breon, 18.

But convening in dads groups has its quirks, according to members.

Highlandtown resident Daniel Baldwin, 38, who joined multiple dads groups in 2014 (roughly six months after becoming a first-time stay-at-home father), said membership often dwindles as dads “age out,” or their kids reach school age, and that getting dads together can be challenging.

“I think it’s complicated and multifaceted. Outside of fraternal organization and sports, there has to be a common bond,” to get men together, said Baldwin, who has two sons, David, 3, and Marshall, soon to be 4 months old. “But when it’s kids, you’re sort of beholden to someone else’s schedule. When you have kids, your schedules don’t always match up well.”

But, he adds, “moms have been doing it for eons and there’s a multitude of ways to do it. … It’s becoming more popular, but it’s a new frontier for dads. There isn’t a network or inherent understanding of how making dad friends work.”

Responses to the groups have also been mixed, according to Stilwell. Some compliment the dads for being hands-on and helpful to the mothers of their children, while others say the groups are unremarkable and that women have been taking care of their children for generations.

To a certain degree, Baldwin said, the critics of dads groups are right.

“I think there’s a lot of sort of mysticism surrounding the stay-at-home dads — that it’s amazing and awesome, and it is. But to be honest, it’s men conquering a space that women and minorities have been doing for years,” he said.

Members of dads groups also say their hands-on approach with their children is met with stereotypes of more traditional views of fatherhood — that they’re good at working and making money, but inept at parenting, cooking or providing emotional support for their children, Baldwin said.

“I get asked ‘Oh, you got the kids for today?’ and I say, ‘No, I got the kids every day,’ ” Baldwin said, while Posey said he and the members of his dad groups are sometimes asked whether they’re babysitting.

“I know it’s innocent, and I know it’s not meant to be wrong, but I think [the groups are] changing that perception — that Dad doesn’t parent and sits home on the couch,” Posey said.

Prestbury, too, receives criticism for his group’s focus on black men. (He recently opened a Facebook page — “Black Fathers and Co.” — to be more inclusive.) But the support and camaraderie he sees among the men in the group push him to keep it going.

“The main thing I want people to know is we just love and care for our children, and we’re really just wanting to share that with each other,” he said.

bbritto@baltsun.com

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