How Dads Become the New Moms—And Why It Might Be Better for Our Kids

This city’s Ergo-wearing, playdate-arranging, totally involved fathers are anxious to discuss breastfeeding … with their friends. A look at the new Philly father.

The IDEA Group meets the first Wednesday of every month at a different Center City bar. They haven’t missed a meeting in two years—although this year, they had to push the July meeting back a week because of the Fourth. Many of the members are lawyers. A few are named Eric. There are also do­ctors, and at least one guy each in real estate, finance and politics. They wear artsy glasses and black tees, or banker blue dress shirts buttoned almost to the top. Mostly, what they are is this: Center City dads who need a night out.

At 9:15 on a September evening, they begin to trickle into the Cambridge on South Street, a new bar that only looks old and has a beer list that reads like an Excel spreadsheet. The dads, mostly in their 30s and 40s, take over two tables, then four. They jump among topics—the Eagles, day camps, Bill Clinton, how tomorrow is the first day of school, baby monitors that work via apps. They are giddy and loud. They talk over each other and play musical chairs. It could be a college reunion.

[Click here to see more photos of the New Philly Fathers.]

Their official mission statement has something to do with not drinking alone, but it could just as easily be their oft-rep­eated mantra: If it’s after 9 p.m., it doesn’t count as a night out. The kids are already in bed. They’ll no doubt say it again to their wives when they get home after midnight.

They tear into layered nachos and bulging burgers. The waitstaff is busy bringing rounds of Russian stouts and IPAs. The dads long for this downtime because—in a turn of events that would no doubt make previous generations of men either chuckle or choke on their beers—they’re so taxed from taking care of their kids that they need their very own version of book club.

“The fact that dads have to schedule time is, I guess, a testament to the fact that we’ve left the Mad Men generation. The father has a real responsibility to the home,” says Eric Berger, 44, the sociable founder of the IDEA Group. “I basically started the group as an excuse to get out. We decided the only time we can get out is if we have a set, structured appointment.”

As a pediatrician, Berger is already attuned to children. But he’s also a very dedicated dad. In 1998, he opened his popular practice, Center City Pediatrics, within walking distance of his home in Fitler Square because “I wanted my son and daughter to come visit.” Until his son was 18 months old, Berger actually took him to work; his daughter now attends the daycare in his office building. (His wife, also a physician, works full-time.)

Berger started to notice that more and more dads were coming to appointments, with or without their partners. “We offer services like mommy groups and lactation groups, and I heard the occasional complaint that we don’t have anything for dads,” he explains.

In the middle of all the chatter at the bar, he looks around at his boisterous buddies and nods. “I’ve seen a lot of oppressed dads,” he yells over the din. It’s obvious why this is a meeting these guys never miss.

For decades, parenting chatter has been dominated by motherhood. It’s made for some good fodder: Opting in and out. Having it all. Balancing. Tiger, helicopter and stage moms. The crescendo may have come this past summer with Time magazine’s buzzy “Are You Mom Enough?” breastfeeding cover, which delved into the controversy over attachment parenting.

But in truth, the real changes when it comes to raising kids are happening among dads, not moms. As the guys here at the Cambridge show, a new generation of men is challenging stereotypes, warping gender roles, and morphing into a group of Superdads. (Capes not included.) They’re staying home full-time. They’re working from their houses, or shifting their schedules to be there for bathtime. Every night. They’re strapping on the baby carriers with pride, grabbing their messenger diaper bags, and hitting the pavement—or gymnastics class. They’re spending mornings with their kids in coffee shops or at Whole Foods, and lining up to pick them up from school. They’re talking about the challenges of breast­feeding … with their friends.

This new dad dynamic is hard to miss. This fall, Guys With Kids, a new NBC sitcom about child-rearing dads, joined Up All Night, a comedy starring Will Arnett as a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home dad. This year, Jimmy Rollins took advantage of the new MLB “paternity-leave list” rule and took time off for the birth of his child. Bubba Watson, fresh off a 2012 Masters win, tossed out this tweet about why he was skipping the next big tournament to spend time with his newly adopted son: “The Players is one of the best weeks of the year but bonding with my son and wife is what it is all about right now #familytime.”

“There’s no question that I’ve seen more consistent involvement from fathers,” Berger says. “Whenever I have other pediatricians come in and observe, they’re always struck by how many fathers come to appointments.”

Which is not to say these men are just filling in when their wives aren’t around. Even as they take on more of the responsibilities and roles traditionally handled by women, these Gen X and Gen Y Philly dads—raised in an era of second- and third-wave feminism—are doing it their own way, and essentially turning baby-raising into a guy thing. And a generation of kids might just be better off for it.

Among men with working wives, 32 percent were the regular source of child-care in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s up from 26 percent in 2002. Money plays a huge role in this shift: The economy tanked, and men lost jobs. But many women also have higher incomes and more promising career paths than their husbands. So when a couple decides to start a family, everyone throws the cards on the table: Do we want to outsource child-care? Who has more leeway with work? Who has a higher salary? Decisions are based on logic, not chromosomes. And in turn, the at-home responsibility is increasingly being dealt to the dudes.

Center City couple Alice Cathcart and Andrew Reback are a prime example of how the child-rearing decision now gets made. Alice has a lucrative sales job that keeps her on the road a few days a week, so Andrew is the point person for 16-month-old Beatrice’s daily caretaking. Andrew, who’s in technology, works on his own start-up from home and spends the rest of his time getting Beatrice to and from daycare, as well as hitting up their favorite restaurants, going to the playground, and hanging out at the pool in the summer.

Andrew, 42, tall and bespectacled, was born in Jersey but grew up overseas. His dad worked, and his mom stayed home. “I knew I wanted to be more actively involved in my daughter’s upbringing,” he says. Like the rest of his post-boomer generation, Reback came of age in an era when gender roles had been revolutionized. It’s not simply that he and other guys his age were surrounded in school and at work by women whose goals, ambitions and opportunities were equal to their own; it’s that they themselves have a far more pragmatic approach to relationships.

“I didn’t need to get my head around it,” Reback says of the decision to be his daughter’s main caregiver. He had more flexibility, his wife makes more money, and he wanted to be as involved as possible. “I don’t think it would have been acceptable 30 years ago. I’m happy now that I’m able to do this.”

At the same time, he and other new dads have recognized that satisfaction doesn’t have to come solely from a monetary contribution to the family unit. “I take a certain amount of pride in knowing my wife can leave me with both girls and things won’t go to hell,” says Nakul Warrier, 37, an attorney who lives in Wynnewood. His wife works full-time as a doctor in the city. It wasn’t long after the birth of their first daughter that Warrier decided he was going to leave his Center City firm, take a pay cut, and look for an in-house counsel job. Now he works from home one day a week and has more flexibility for things like daycare runs.

What’s surprising is that most of these dads don’t really see what they do as a big deal. Nurturing their child is a reality of life, not a chore. They don’t say things like, “I’m on baby duty this weekend.” The culture at large, on the other hand, hasn’t quite caught up.

“The expectations are so low,” says Andrew Reback. “Did you expect me to drop the baby? I’m great because I’m feeding my daughter?”

Pennsylvania Hospital family and child therapist Michele Gill McKenna has seen the evolution of fatherhood in her professional and personal life—she’s a Center City mother of four. “When my husband is out with all the kids, people stop to tell him what a great dad he is,” says Gill McKenna. “I do that every day, and no one stops to talk to me. Dads get a lot more credit for parenting. Even if the kids have uncombed hair and mismatched socks. If I brought my kids out like that, people would roll their eyes.”

“As a guy, I still get marginalized in parenting circles, which are heavily populated by women,” says Ben Goodman, a Main Line dad whose wife works full-time. “They’ll talk to me about parenting as if I couldn’t possibly know what my child needs. I’ve had to say at times, ‘I’ve probably spent a lot more time with my child than you have with yours.’”

In a way, the low expectations are a huge advantage. In the parenting classes she facilitates, Gill McKenna sees the effects of the way society has made motherhood into a competitive sport: “Dads can rise above that. Their parenting can be more pure, basic and relaxed. They haven’t been beaten down and berated with images of what it’s like to be the ideal mom.”

Those with playground expertise know the slides will be wet the morning after a storm. “I usually have the Phillies rally towel,” Tim Pell says with a grin, “but I left it in the car. I’m such a bad dad.”

Pell is explaining this to his four-year-old daughter Ellie as he darts around Penn Wynne Park in Wynnewood, sopping up puddles with a neatly folded paper towel. He manages to make a polo shirt, shorts and flip-flops—his daily uniform—look pulled-together and neat. Ellie, petite and coy—with rad pink Vans and brown ringlets that graze her shoulders—waits patiently. That is, until their playdate arrives.

Bounding down the steep concrete path are the Joneses: mop-topped, bright-eyed Desmond, three, and Wes, almost two, plus five-month-old, chubby-cheeked baby Penny. Chris, their tall, vibrant dad, in shorts and a vintage-looking tee, is pushing the hunter green double Maclaren stroller, sunglasses on, bottle in hand. “The slides are wet and I only have a paper towel,” Pell laments. Jones digs through the worst-case-scenario hodgepodge in the bottom of the stroller and pulls out a bath towel.

Dad. Always prepared.

Jones, 31, and Pell, 40, are on the most extreme end of this new-dad scale: the stay-at-homers. They do everything needed to keep the house in order, the babies happy and the families fed. Their wives worked together as attorneys at Morgan Lewis a few years ago, which is how they met. Both women have since moved into in-house counsel jobs and continue to expand their broods. The families get together for pizza once a week, and the guys meet up during the day when they can.

At the Wynnewood playground, the kids run, jump, fall, and chase each other around. Pell and Jones get a second to enjoy the rare cool August morning and talk a little English soccer. They trade war stories—apparently Wesley, who will be two this month and who makes Usain Bolt look slow, pushed a chair over to the china cabinet last week, climbed his way up to a bottle of wine, and successfully smashed it on the floor. “I swear, I was in the bathroom for 30 seconds,” Jones says, shaking his head in defeat. “Thirty seconds.”

Penny wakes up from her nap and stirs in the stroller. Desmond takes a spill and cries out. “One kid isn’t even parenting,” Jones says to Pell, as he casts an eye over to his oldest son to make sure there are no misplaced limbs or open wounds. “You okay, Des? You got it, shake it off.”

Three years and about 10,000 diapers ago, Jones was a prosecutor in the Delaware County D.A.’s office. Pell cooked at the Four Seasons for six-plus years. “Being a cook is the best profession to prepare you for this,” Jones says admiringly of his friend. “I had to learn how to cook.”

These guys are impressive. But what’s most striking—and what ultimately might be the most significant part of the new-dad phenomenon—is what they don’t do. They don’t follow their kids around the playground like the moms, who are often waiting at the bottom of the slide with open arms. There are no kissed knees for a little trip. They slip in some kid talk—the fact that soccer is starting soon, how the baby is napping—but the phrase “Ferber Method” never comes up, and there’s no mention of height percentages.

The guys also don’t apologize for finding child-rearing to be an exhausting, mentally challenging job. Jones notes that he’s got Penny taking three-hour naps, and that he goes running—which he doesn’t actually enjoy—solely because he needs the break. For the most part, these guys seem able to talk honestly about the challenges of parenting without the guilt. Women aren’t so quick to admit they need naptime to happen as much as their kids do. In mommy groups, if a woman breaks down, shows up unshowered or expresses frustration, it’s always accompanied by mumblings of remorse, not only for actually having the frustration, but for admitting it. Confessing that parenting is hard might mean she’s not “mom enough.”

Even the full-time working wives of these guys can’t shake the feeling that they should be doing it all. They grapple with the setup even though they’re the primary wage-earners. “There is such a burden out there that my wife does feel like, ‘I’m not being a good enough mom because I’m not doing the drop-offs and pickups,’” says Andrew Reback.

Maybe because of that uneasiness, the working moms still seem to be the driving force behind a lot of the essential kid things. “Since I’m not at home, I like to take the kids to the doctors’ appointments,” says Chris Jones’s wife, Angela. “When we decided to do potty training, I took the week off and we did it together.” She gets weekly developmental emails from BabyCenter, reads through them, and forwards them to Chris if she thinks there’s something worth knowing.

In contrast, dads bring their very male everything-will-work-out perspective to parenting decisions. “There is a difference between how my wife and other moms I’ve seen respond and react to things,” says Reback. “They talk to each other and ask lots of questions about every activity. For me, it’s more, ‘Beatrice didn’t eat well today? Okay, maybe she’ll eat well tomorrow.’”

Dads don’t pore over parenting books or websites filled with techniques and p­hilosophies. They go on a paternal instinct. Andrew Reback says he read only one book, about transitioning children from bottles straight to finger foods, and that was because “We pureed food once and it was a pain in the ass.”

“The way men are raised, they’re more comfortable learning from experiences and taking risks. Women want to talk to experts and do research and gather info,” says Gill McKenna. “Guys have the philosophy that if I try it and the child spits it out, I’ll just try again later.”

And the kids of these dads seem to be less doted on, less hovered over, less judged against one-size-fits-all developmental milestones. In the recent book Bringing Up Bébé, author Pamela Druckerman explores how the French tend to parent—which, she concludes, makes for well-behaved, rational, mature kids (who also love brie). The French create a strict outline of rules and boundaries, but let their children have freedom within that framework.

The new dads, possibly unbeknownst to them, approach parenting the way the French do. And it’s not hard to surmise that these Superdads are raising independent-minded, well-adjusted children—who don’t need a trophy just for joining a soccer team.

One of the members of MainLineDads is an art teacher. “He has creative stuff to do,” explains Eric Raymond, the president of the no-moms-allowed group. “I’m not an artsy guy, but we dabble.” With a wife who works full-time, two kids and a third due this month, Raymond needs to have activities planned. Finger painting gets old. Since his daughter started school, he’s gotten some of his day back. He now meets up with other fathers to work out at the L.A. Fitness on City Line. It has a daycare.

MainLineDads has about 30 members and a standing every-other-Saturday park-then-froyo gathering. The men also plan outings without the kids, like nights at the Great American Pub. Raymond spearheads the group because he’s disappointed in the lack of resources for dads. He’s not alone—many dads express the same sentiment. But they’re clear about what won’t work: a male version of the mommy-and-me group. Sitting in a friendship circle isn’t the only way to share ideas and express feelings.

Similarly, baby-gear companies have noticed that men need their own stuff. Carriers and strollers are now sold in gender-neutral colors and fabrics. Eric Raymond’s diaper bag has skulls on it. (“You can still be a dad without having to give up your guyness,” he says.) The Diaper Dude company makes diaper bags even bike messengers would be proud to tote, plus Army green bottle holders and camo pacifier pouches. Better yet: DadGear makes diaper vests and jackets—they can hold all the stinky-nappy essentials—in a Patagonia-looking fleece. As the company’s website says, “Carrying a diaper bag sometimes just isn’t natural for a guy.”

“Even seven years ago, you never saw dads wearing babies,” says Gill McKenna. “Now, it’s like a badge of honor to be walking and wearing the Ergo.”

These proud papas are getting vocal. Earlier this year, Huggies ran a commercial that featured incompetent dads chaotically attempting to take care of their babies. The outdated message was clear: Huggies diapers were even strong enough to stand up to a day with dad. Bloggers went nuts. Lehigh Valley dad and blogger Chris Routly started a petition on his blog, The Daddy Doctrines, that caught the attention of the brass at the diaper company. “They are eager to change their perception,” says Routly.

Dads, obviously, really care and aren’t afraid to show it. Not knowing your kid’s diaper size or nap schedule is actually not cool anymore. Being able to run a household and raise the kids is, as women have known forever, really fulfilling. This new perspective has the potential to shift the way children approach life and look at gender roles.

That is, if these dads can stay above the increasing fray. “There seem to be so many terms out there for contemporary dads—engaged dads, active dads, primary dads, stay-at-home dads, Mr. Moms, what-have-you—but there doesn’t seem to be any one term that stands out,” says Andrew Reback. “Personally, I just consider myself a dad, with no qualifiers. And what that looks like at any particular time is based on what works for my wife, my daughter and me.”