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Onaje Lott, a member of the Fathering Circle, helps his 1-year-old daughter, Ajeya, bounce on a pogo stick. (Photo by Darryl C. Murphy)

Darryl C. Murphy / The Notebook

Fathering circle promotes men’s involvement in their children’s lives

“Somebody actually started asking what’s it like to be a dad,” said Marsh. “Which is not a question that most of us actually get a chance to hear, let alone answer.”

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The sun was unrelenting, but that didn’t seem to bother the children playing in the sandbox at the Children’s Community School in West Philadelphia, where fathers brought their kids for their scheduled play date.

Naja, 4, came with her father Onaje Lott, 35, and her sister Ajeya, 1. She said her favorite part of the play dates is the yoga. That’s a regular part of the agenda, right?

“Not every time,” she said while scooping heaps of sand with a small plastic shovel. “Don’t you see we’re playing?”

Fair enough.

The play date is one of two monthly meetings organized by the Fathering Circle, a support group for men looking to have better involvement in their children’s lives.

“When I was around other dads for play dates, there was something really fortifying about it to me,” said Billy Yalowitz, one of the founders. “To see another man be nurturing and attentive and have the same sets of concerns, that was so outside of the usual way that I interacted with men.”

The group was started by three Philadelphia fathers: Yalowitz, Eric Marsh Sr., and Les Rivera, who all met over the course of 2016.

The Fathering Circle grew out of the creation of a documentary film about fathers building a network of mutual support toward equitable parenting, combined with father/children play dates, and the production of a fathering festival as part of Philadelphia Assembled, a citywide exhibition of arts and social justice organizing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Marsh said the process of exploring fatherhood through these endeavors was “cathartic” and that it created a bond that continued long after the exhibition ended.

“Somebody actually started asking what’s it like to be a dad,” said Marsh. “Which is not a question that most of us actually get a chance to hear, let alone answer.”

Now the group has helped about 70 families, Yalowitz estimates, and has 15 to 20 active families involved with the group.

In addition to the Saturday play dates, the fathers meet once a month in Yalowitz’s living room for a listening circle, where the fathers discuss the highs and lows of parenting. Their conversations can lead to an exploration into past traumas or implicit prejudices, especially toward women and other men. These experiences, say the founders, can hinder the ability for fathers to connect with their children.

“We’re trained to dominate or be dominated and we turn that on females,” said Yalowitz. “So we had to look at sexism. And how male domination affects our relationships with girls and women as we were trained into that.”

Also, Marsh said, “The way we were taught to oppress one another and suppress our feelings. We aren’t allowed to tap into our full range of emotions as human beings. So we are very limited in our emotional expression.”

Aside from play dates and deep discussions, there are activities that fathers can implement into their parenting. “Special time,” where fathers give their children their undivided attention for a specified amount of time — no phones, no distractions, as the child “leads the play.”

Noah T. Winer has a 16-month-old boy. He said that being in the group and doing activities like special time has helped him see his time with his son “as a gift.”

“For all of the work that I am doing all the rest of the time,” he said, “my time with him is my reward. I shouldn’t distract myself by feeling like I have to do work. This is what I am doing all of the work for, to be able to be there with him.”

The Fathering Circle is always open to new fathers, but growth is a “tug of war,” said Marsh. They brought the Fathering Circle to the School District’s Office of Family and Community Engagement through eight workshops that ran from March 7 to April 25.

But when it comes to growing the organization, it’s a matter of “breadth versus depth,” said Yalowitz.

“The work that we do is so deeply personal, and it touches on some deeply ingrained beliefs and socializations … it takes time to get to the root of all of that,” said Marsh. “It’s a good idea and a comfortable place for us to stay small and do the work that we do. But it’s needed and life-changing.”