"Are dads the new moms?" asked a video clip in a crowded hotel ballroom on Friday.
"No!" said the men gathered for the 19th annual At-Home Dads Convention in Denver. The event, which continues through Saturday at the Marriott SpringHill Suites, drew 105 attendees for its 2014 gathering — up from 73 at last year's event, which was also held in Denver.
Many of these men say they have been mocked, shut out of mommy groups or given the stink eye at playgrounds. But their biggest challenge is the isolation they feel as full-time parents without a mainstream support network.
"We're tired of the backhanded comments and questioning of our masculinity," said Hogan Hilling, a California father of three. "But we're standing up now and the culture is finally starting to change."
Pew Research Group estimates about 2 million American dads to be primary caregivers for their children, compared with more than 10 million stay-at-home moms.
The At-Home Dads Network pegs their numbers a bit lower (1.75 million) but also quibbles with the definition that organizations and others use to define them.
"As a guy, if you have a part-time job or work any amount of hours per week, you can't be considered a primary caregiver," said Chris Routly, a 38-year-old Portland, Ore,. father of two and founder of the Daddy Doctrines blog. "That's not the case for women."
"According to the census, we're 'alternate child care,' " said Ron Farrell, a 41-year-old father of three. "But people are becoming more accepting, whether it's because of the recession and all the out-of-work dads, or just changing attitudes."
Those attitudes were distilled at the event by Al Watts, president of the National At-Home Dad Network.
"This has helped me be a better father, husband and man," he said.
Watts' group is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization with 3,000 members in 70 chapters around the country. Most of its annual budget of $30,000 — which has more than septupled since 2011 — goes toward running its convention.
Attendees of the gathering paid a $135 registration fee for panels, speeches and meet-and-greetsthat covered topics ranging from child safety and neurological development to photography tips, parenting-and-faith, and (naturally) connecting with other dads.
"We had 85 guys show up for our Dad's Night Out at Coors Field last night," said Hilling, media head for the network and co-author of Watts' book "Dads Behaving Dadly."
During the convention's opening lunch and keynote speech on Friday (topic: "Play is Serious Business"), dads munched on grilled asparagus, veggie wraps and chicken-avocado sandwiches in the hotel ballroom, casually trading jokes and parenting anecdotes.
Most were white, between the ages of 30 and 49, and from the Midwest and East Coast, Hilling said. Beards, T-shirts and beer bellies abounded.
"Even if this cost five times as much, I would have scraped together the money," said Ariel Isenberg, a 36-year-old Chicago father of three. "The first one I went to in Omaha (in 2010) was a pretty big deal to me. I felt like I had to meet these people and make sure they weren't a bunch of weirdos."
Attendees roundly despised the term "Mr. Mom," which was popularized in the 1983 movie starring Michael Keaton. It obscures the differences in parenting styles between genders, they say.
They want to be seen as capable and caring, despite a long history of attitudes and media portrayals that paint them as either bumbling or oblivious.
Nonetheless, advertisers are waking up to stay-at-home dads as a target market, attendees said. The convention was sponsored by Huggies and included a car-safety discussion by Sarah Tilton, a representative of child car-seat manufacturer Britax (whose products were prominently on display).
"The image of a dad is changing because people have complicated ways of putting together income these days," Watts said. "At-home dads have been a market for a while, but brands are finally starting to believe the research that says they are.
"For us, though, this is all about camaraderie."
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/johnwenzel