BEARDS, FLIP-FLOPS AND BURP CLOTHS: Stay-at-Home Dads in the Big Easy

There was a commercial on the other day that caught my eye, which is surprising considering I never listen to commercials. They tend to induce a mild state of hypnosis while I wipe the drool off my chin. This one was different, though. It was about a stay-at-home dad and a strange little cylinder with a lifeless robotic voice that lit up every so often to remind him of some random menial task. Creepy, right? Probably records his conversations and sends them to the Russians. The point is, I noticed it because I myself am a stay-at-home dad and we don’t usually get a lot of publicity, social media presence or even actual social presence. Even though it’s not the most common lifestyle for New Orleans’ fathers, this is a great town for a progressive approach to parenting.

What does it mean to be a progressive parent in New Orleans? Never uttering the dreaded NO word? Gluten-free beignets for breakfast? I’m sure there are a million different definitions. To me, it means trying something new by examining my own history and improving where I can. I won’t trash the traditional notion of parental roles. There’s plenty of room for different styles in this city. My kids still kick me in sensitive areas or spit in my face from time to time, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how this turns out.

So why New Orleans? For transplant families like us, it’s a welcoming environment. Where else can you cheer on a parade of half-naked revelers on National Underwear Day? Clearly, it’s an open-minded and supportive town. Parenting is scary and feeling comfortable in your community trying something new is important. None of us knows what we’re doing anyway, so it’s nice not to get criticized. As I walk my kids around Mid-City, the neighbors compliment us on a daily basis, “Doing a great job, Dad!” or “Ya got your hands full, Pops!” It’s appreciated, but I’m not blind to the fact that some of the accolades are because my kind are so few and far between. My wife would not likely garner the same attention, but that’s okay. It’s a positive step. No one throws dirt clods at me yelling, “Get a job, loser!” so that has to count for something.

I found myself wondering if I was the only dad pushing his kids around in a stroller in the middle of the day. In my quest for fire, I met a man from Lakeview named Will, a tall and imposing figure with a heart as big as his obsession for fantasy football. A homegrown Southerner, his life as a stay-at-home dad was just over the horizon. He told me what influenced his decision. “I would often joke that I was a living, breathing version of Peter Gibbons in the movie Office Space. I hated my job, and going there depressed me just a little more each day.” I could relate. In my previous life as an Attorney, I often felt like hauling a massive printer out to a field and demolishing it with a Louisville Slugger (I guess in my current position, I occasionally feel the same way.) “Then it hit me. I was bringing my daughter to daycare and she said something along the lines of ‘Daddy, why do you have to leave? I just want to spend time with you today.’  When I thought about why the only answers I could come up with were superficial or materialistic.”

From a progressive position, the child makes a good point. Why does Daddy have to leave? Because that’s just how it is? Not so much anymore in a city like New Orleans. The family landscape is changing and like the local culture, there’s room for all sorts. Will gave me his impression of the scene for the coolest dads this side of the Bayou. “I find that even though we’re in the Deep South, New Orleans is a progressive enough city that if you align yourself with the right groups of people, there tends to be little judgment.” Whether the next generation of Saints fans will benefit from male caregivers remains to be seen, but it’s reassuring that the culture in the city encourages forward thinking.

Stopping for a pint at Finn McCool’s, my local kid-free safe zone, I ran into a fellow writer named Stephen Rea. An Irishman, soccer enthusiast and author of World Cup Fever: A Fanatic’s Guide to the Stars, Teams, Stories, Controversy, and Excitement of Sports’ Greatest Event, he had spent four years as a New Orleans’ stay-at-home dad and lived to tell the tale. “In this part of the world it felt like I was very much part of a minority and an outlier, but I never felt like I was looked down upon or there was any resentment or anything because of it. It just felt like it was different, but not in a bad way,” Rea says. “Overall it was positive, and even 11 years ago when I started doing it, attitudes had changed quite a bit I feel. There was the odd friend who made a face and said they could never do it and a few jokes here and there, but in general, there was never an issue.”

Everyone loves the commercials of dads frantically chasing after babies with spaghetti sauce all over their faces or YouTube videos of guys in pajamas dueling with their kids dressed as Stormtroopers. Hilarious as those clips may be, they perpetuate the stereotype of the lovable, yet bumbling father tasked with the supervision of his children on his day off. Here in New Orleans, stay-at-home dads like us prove that it is possible to change a diaper without splattering feces on the wall. You can be successful navigating the bedtime routine without resorting to MMA submission holds. We are the new breed of New Orleans’ fathers holding down the fort while our wives’ are away and we will shout it proudly from the peak of Monkey Hill.

P.S. Playdate this Saturday at the Zoo. Be there.

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