Outside his small apartment in Richmond, Travis McGee’s 9-month-old daughter, Honesty, clutches his chest as he shoos his two other little ones back inside a living room littered with toys and laundry. Like all new parents, McGee has been exhausted, freaked out and in love — for the past six years.
“Sleep?” he says, laughing lightly, “I don’t even know what sleep is anymore.”
Since he lost his job last fall, McGee has been staying home with the kids while their mom works.
“As much as I would like to be working right now,” McGee says, “[I] can’t beat the experience I’m getting being here with them every day.”
McGee isn’t alone. More dads are staying home to take care of their kids than ever before, according to a 2014 study from Pew Research Center. And as McGee points out, along with the joy of watching your kids grow up comes a lot of work.
In low-income neighborhoods in Contra Costa County, men like McGee have been showing up at family resource centers with their kids in tow asking for help. In response, First 5 Contra Costa and the nonprofit Brighter Beginnings have launched a new home-visiting program just for dads.
Since January, McGee’s been getting some much-needed help from Chris Gibson, a fatherhood involvement coach for the new program.
“When Travis first got into the program he was standoffish, wouldn’t open up,” Gisbon says. “It was cool, but it wasn’t cool. One day we had a sit-down and a talk, and things just opened up drastically.”
For McGee, dealing with unemployment and three kids under the age of 5 has been stressful. But he says being able to open up to Gibson helped relieve some of that stress.
“If I need somebody to talk to about what I’m going through, ain’t nobody listening, he listens,” McGee says. “ ’Cause you just build up, keep building up that pent-up emotion, it’s just going to explode one way or another. So I mean, Chris, I can’t even explain how helpful he’s been.”
It would be very difficult for McGee to get this help if Gibson didn’t come to his house once every couple of weeks. With three kids in tow, McGee says making it across town on a bus to the office would be nearly impossible.
Many of the dads that Gibson visits have limitations of one kind or another -- they might be unemployed, on parole or have health problems -- but they all want to be better dads. He gives them practical advice on child care and coaches them to trust their own instincts.
“You’re the expert on your child,” Gibson tells the fathers he works with. “You know your child, you spend most of your time with this child. You know what certain cries mean. Little baby Travis, sometimes it’s hard to understand him, but Travis -- I know what you want, this that and the other.”
There aren’t a lot of resources for dads like McGee. But noticing a growing demand, First 5 launched the home-visiting program last fall.
“We saw a real shift during the recession, and a lot more fathers were staying home with the kids because at that point women could go out and get a job,” says early childhood development program officer Lisa Morrell. “And so all of the sudden they were the ones that were in charge of taking care of the kids. And we have family resource centers in these communities, and all of the sudden they were showing up with their kids saying, 'What do I do? My wife said to come here.' ”
First 5 has been supporting home visits for moms for 10 years. Research shows they can make families more resilient.
“They can reduce child abuse. They can, if you’re in the home with the families, you can catch things as they arise,” Morrell says.
Although it’s just a pilot program right now, she says that if all goes well, they plan to expand it to reach more low-income dads and their families over the next few years.
Here in Richmond, where unemployment, poverty and crime can all be major barriers to health and development, dads need all the help they can get.
“I don’t want my son to have to grow up and see stuff I’ve had to see,” McGee says. “Go through stuff I had to go through. I mean I’ve been shot at several times, just walking. And I don’t want one of my kids to be a statistic.”
Gibson also grew up in Richmond. As he helps McGee look for a job and fill out child-care applications, he sees himself changing his hometown.
“As long as we can change the community by changing individual families, it’s huge,” Gibson says. “It’s huge. And it’s just one family at a time.”
Still, Chris Gibson says he’s just one guy working for one program part time -- and there are a lot of new dads being born every day.