Eric Bright is out on his West Barnstable deck clearing plastic lunch plates from a knee-high picnic table. His four children, Owen, 5, and 3-year-old triplets Faith, Reece and Sydney, clatter down the back steps into a fenced-in yard, replete with swing sets, playhouses, four bikes, four little scoot-scoot cars, four skateboards and a slide.
He smiles and reminds the oldest to wear his helmet. It's Thursday, Daddy Day in the Bright house. While his wife works part time as an assistant district attorney in Barnstable, Eric uses one of his days off from being a professional chef to take care of the clan.
"I actually enjoy it," he says. "And I'm used to it. I was lucky enough to have nieces and nephews and I'd help out watching them. To me, it's just fun, and natural."
And necessary, he says. Both parents need to work in order to meet their financial obligations, and with four small children, the couple make an effort to pull together to meet the challenges they face. But not without a few raised eyebrows from outsiders, he says.
"Everyone has a lot of advice on how to do things, and our parents don't really understand. They don't understand that I'm doing dishes and laundry. But it's more of a teamwork atmosphere; there are no certain set roles that say she does that and he does this."
According to Paul Melville, a family support specialist for the Cape Cod Neighborhood Support
Coalition in Mashpee, the teamwork dynamic is creating a win-win-win situation.
"Kids benefit, undeniably," he says. "Moms benefit by getting a break, and dads benefit by being closer to their children."
Melville leads groups of dads who get together to learn about child-rearing and to get peer support. He says the involvement of dads is critical to a child's success.
"Statistics show that kids do much better in school, and in life, when their fathers are involved with them. They get better grades, they're going to make more money down the road, they're going to be happier, they're less likely to be in prison. The numbers are really staggering," he says.
"Societally, we have undervalued dad's role with the kids, although it's getting noticeably better," Melville says. "Moms, in general, have been thought of as the more nurturing parent and have raised the kids, probably because, traditionally, mom was in the home and dad was out making money. But when moms went out to work more, the parenting dynamic didn't change all that much. Now lots of moms are working, but still have that responsibility of raising kids. It's changing, but slowly."
He should know. Melville became a stay-at-home dad in 2003 when his first son was about 5 months old. He didn't know any other men who chose to be the primary caregiver back then. He would take his children to story hours at the library, or to parent-child play groups and would, invariably, be the only father.
Back in the workforce, he now runs some play groups and sees an encouraging shift. "Now, there are a number of dads who bring the kids. Either they are regular caregivers, or the mom has an appointment and instead of the child missing the group, you're more likely to see dad take time off from work to take the child."
Because of this trend, Melville says, his agency and others like it are starting to get more funding for dad-specific programming, mainly through The Children's Trust Fund in Boston. When targeting activities specifically for dads and children, the facilitators have found that "hands-on" activities have been the most successful. "Touch a Plane" at Barnstable Municipal Airport had a great turnout, and pizza-making nights have also been a hit.
"Dad's Talk," a nontherapeutic support group that has been held in several Cape communities, also has won a positive response. Eric Bright attended a six-week class at Harwich Community Center sponsored by Cape Cod Children's Place in Eastham. He brought all four kids with him, because free child care and pizza dinner were provided.
He describes the group atmosphere as accepting and confidential. Family support coordinator Cindy Horgan "just made you feel normal with all the mistakes you make along the way. She encourages you to make an effort to do the best you can. That's much better than most people even attempt to do," he says.
"I knew that having triplets in addition to our first was going to be a very challenging time. So I wanted as much ammunition as I could get."
Warren Nash of Chatham also participated in a Dad's Talk group and found it enlightening. His wife works most evenings, so Nash picks their son, Carlisle, up after school and takes care of him.
"The program was showing us how to be better dads, and it brought up different issues that dads deal with. It was just men, no moms there, and it was really, really great. Guys were able to say things like, 'I don't get my wife,' and we knew that our confidentiality would be respected, because that's one of the things they make really clear in the group. The other thing I liked is that you could participate at any level you wanted. Some guys would get right in, and other guys would just sit there, and both things were OK."
Nash's desire to do things differently from his father led him to take the class. "I'm originally from South Africa, and my dad was very strict and controlling. I don't want to be like that, but I also don't want to be too loose. For me, I'm just trying to be a good dad — just to be around, to be available. To me, that is a blessing."
Melville says a growing number of fathers understand the importance of being involved with their kids and are making choices about their careers their fathers would never have considered — perhaps making less money, working fewer hours or opting out of promotions — based on the quality time they want to spend with their children.
"How can you put a price on spending time with your kids? They only grow up once, they are only small once, and they flip through those stages unbelievably fast.
"It's a really precious time," he advises parents. "Enjoy it."
There are about 159,000 stay-at-home dads in the U.S.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Families and Living Arrangements report for 2006