The snow has fallen, the Christmas trees have gone up, and the lights have been strung. The Holiday season is here. New York City is known for going out all out with decorations. It is also known for being home to over 62,000 homeless people, for whom the holidays may have a different tone. For those who call the streets their home, the holidays may be a reminder of the things they don’t have like a Christmas tree, someone to celebrate with or even being able to be inside for a week.
Christopher Persley with his wife, Jenelle, and his daughter, Camilla. Persley is a stay-at-home father who wants to spend as much time with his daughter as he can.
Christopher Persley woke up around 7 a.m. He got breakfast and lunch for his five-year-old daughter, Camilla, before she left for school. For the rest of the afternoon, Persley did dishes, finished laundry, cleaned the house, and squeezed in some reading and writing. Once his daughter got back from school they played, ate a home cooked meal, and started getting ready for bed.
It was a typical day for Persley, a stay-at-home father.
“I have a truly wonderful relationship with my daughter,” said Persley, 42, of the Upper West Side. “There is nothing more fulfilling than that. I get to be the one who picks her up from school, who helps her maturation, who supports her identity development.”
Since 1989, the number of fathers who stay at home with their children has nearly doubled, reaching its highest point at 2.2 million in 2010. The number of stay-at-home fathers who say the main reason for staying home is caring for their family has also grown significantly since 1989, increasing from 5 to 21 percent.
Dr. Caryn Medved, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Baruch College, did an in-depth study on stay-at-home fathers. Her inspiration for this study actually came up when her own brother became an at-home father.
Medved believed that one of the most important takeaways from her project was the establishment of parenting roles with at-home dads and breadwinning mothers was not just a result of economic issues.
“You read a lot in newspapers and things like that, that often times this arrangement is brought about because of economics,” she said. “But I was surprised at the number of couples who were there for all sorts of other reasons.”
Many couples also felt more comfortable with a parent staying at home with their children instead of using daycare facilities or hiring a nanny.
For the Persley family, Christopher and his wife, Jenelle, knew that they wanted someone within the family watching their daughter.
“I think our biggest fear was how much of an influence would someone else be on our child,” said Persley. “Would they stifle who she is and lead her to become someone who she’s not?”
Because his wife had stricter hours at the lab she worked at, it made more sense for Persley, who worked at an independent school, to transition into being the at-home parent. He had worked with kids for a long time at his school and was excited about filling that role
“Jenelle loved the idea of it being me,” he said. “She always felt that I was the parent better suited for that sort of extended time with our child.”
Once the couple officially made this decision, Persley told his supervisor that he was going to be leaving work to be a full-time dad. He was surprised to see that some of his co-workers weren’t as supportive of his decision as he thought they would be.
“There were some other people in the community that really didn’t get it, who thought that I was being fired saying, ‘There’s no way this guy is walking away from this job to be home with his kid,’” he said.
Persley also had trouble finding other stay-at-home fathers he could connect with.
Eventually, he found NYC Dads Group, a community of fathers who get together for playdates, classes and other social events
Medved discovered through interviewing her participants that these societal perceptions of the traditional male role does affect how stay-at-home fathers define themselves. Some of them own their title, but others get more insecure in certain social situations, like at a wife’s work party or an outing at the park.
“They might be at a party and someone asks, ‘So what do you do?’ And there certainly were plenty of men that I talked to that said, ‘Oh it depends on the day. Sometimes I’m a photographer,’ which is maybe a part time job or a hobby they do,” she said. “And sometimes they own it. But those kinds of situations are the most challenging for them.”
For breadwinning mothers, similar social situations can be challenging for them as well.
Cherry Vasquez, is a working mother of two. She currently lives with her husband, Jim, in Dallas, Texas.
When Vasquez first became pregnant at 21, she was making more money as a federal government worker than her husband, and that’s when they decided that he should be the at-home parent. Both Vasquez and her husband immigrated to the United States from the Philippines at a young age, and because of cultural differences, not all of the couple’s friends and family understand their household dynamic. Vasquez said that in traditional Philippine culture, the father is supposed to work and the mother is supposed to stay at home with the family.
That is why Vasquez’s mother envisioned a different life for her daughter.
“My dad always stayed home too,” said Vasquez. “My dad took care of me, so that’s not something new to me. But my mom would have preferred for that not to be my family situation as well, because she was the one working. I’m sure she was hoping that I would change things.”
But she knew that having her husband stay at home was the best decision for their children.
“They actually really appreciate having one of us stay home,” said Vasquez. “So like when dad asks, ‘Oh can I go back to work now? You guys are older.’ They say no.”
And Vasquez doesn’t mind coming home to a cooked meal and a clean house either, since it gives her more time to spend with her family.
“He takes care of cooking and takes the kids wherever they need to be and that way, when I’m off of work, I don’t have to worry about all of that,” she said. “I can just spend time with the kids once I get home.”
Although stay-at-home fathering is still viewed as ‘non-traditional,’ the increase of this family dynamic over the past decade indicates that it is becoming more socially accepted in society. Even big companies like Lego, have introduced a stay-at-home dad figure as part of the brand’s new Lego City line. And many stay-at-home fathers, like Persley just want people to realize that dads are parents too.
“Most of us want to be just as involved as moms in the raising of our children,” he said. “And a man can be an at-home parent just as easily as a woman.”
A Public School 55 student enjoys her second cup of salad at lunchtime. The salad was grown at the South Bronx school by students. Photo by Elizabeth Arakelian
The fluorescently lit cafeteria of Public School 55 in the South Bronx sparked to life as kindergarteners and first-graders file inside. Lunch ladies shush the students as they buzz with excitement: lunchtime today is special.
Although the kids’ lunch trays have the usual items of chicken and milk, even cookies for dessert, the star of the show is the side: a spinach and kale salad with cherry tomatoes and shallots, tossed in an oregano vinaigrette dressing.
Most students receive their cups of salad with a smile. Others push it away with a crinkled nose.
“There are tomatoes,” said one brown-haired boy in disgust.
Another first grader is on her third serving, the vinaigrette still slick on her full face.
“It’s good,” she said. “It’s really yummy.”
The gourmet option wasn’t shipped in or catered by a guest chef. It was grown by the students themselves. While gardening in schools is nothing new, at PS 55 students are farming 37 varieties of fruits and vegetables in the most unlikely of places.
The K-5 school sits in the middle of the South Bronx housing projects in the unhealthiest county in New York state. The concept of fresh and natural greens meeting the mouths of developing children was a relatively foreign one, but the Green Bronx Machine now has students planting, cooking and eating produce all within the same city block.
Green Bronx Machine is a nonprofit that has partnered with the South Bronx school to repurpose an unused fourth-floor library, in a 100-year-old building, into a green sanctuary called the National Health and Wellness Center, which opened in January 2016.
The nonprofit is the brainchild of Stephen Ritz, the founder of Green Bronx Machine and self proclaimed CEO or “Chief Eternal Optimist of Bronx County.” The South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country, but where most see poverty, Ritz sees opportunity.
There are also outdoor gardens at PS 55, which sit behind a chainlink fence in the shadows of the towering brick projects. PS 55 is a zone school, so the students who attend it live in the South Bronx. The area has an abundance of unhealthy options and few fresh ones, said Ritz, who calls the cheap, corner store snacks a “MESS”.
“MESS is what I call Manufactured Edible Single-serve Substances,” said Ritz. “This is a very food challenged community. I mean you’re going to see a lot of very heavy kids walk around this community.”
One in four children in Bronx public schools is obese, according to the New York City Department of Health. But the bright red doors at PS 55, and the garden beds that flank them, have become a welcoming sign for students. Behind them there will be hands-on learning and soil-stained clothes. Students that enter the school won’t just go to class, but they will also learn that they have the power to decide what goes on their plate.
“We find that when kids do cooking or grow vegetables and learn about the food on their own terms, that they’re much more likely to eat it,” said Bill Yosses, former White House Executive Pastry Chef and Green Bronx Machine partner. “ They’re learning this about themselves. They own it.”
What started as an afterschool program in the Bronx in 2006 has since blossomed into an international movement with Green Bronx Machine chapters opening across America in Florida, Washington, DC, California, Vermont and Missouri, said Ritz. The organization is also partnering with 20 schools in Canada and Ritz has scouted opportunities in Mexico and Dubai, as well.
Green Bronx Machine has gained international attention and Ritz has taken students to be honored at the White House and featured in TED Talks. His work has led him to meet Pope Francis, present in the United Arab Emirates and he was a 2015 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize.
While Ritz has been successful in drawing attention to the needs of the South Bronx, for the past year and a half he has remained rooted at PS 55. It is here Ritz fosters growth in the students and their gardens. The indoor vertical farming towers in the National Health and Wellness Center burst with kale, chard and other lettuce varieties year-round. Soon, students will plant fruits and vegetables in the outdoor garden boxes. During harvest, they take home pounds of vegetables each week.
But farming at PS 55 is more than a fun activity — it’s actually school work. The Green Bronx Machine curriculum is aligned to Common Core educational standards, so the students are learning age appropriate skills in a hands-on way.
“It’s fractions, it’s decimals, it’s ratios, it’s proportions. It’s the art and science of growing vegetables aligned to content area instruction that allows everybody to benefit instead of just being a fun place where they come and cook and get their hands dirty,” Ritz said.
Plus, the students take on leadership roles.
“I mean I have plant police, leaf monitors, PH patrol, everything that you see here is kid maintained,” said Ritz, gesturing to the vertical farms.
The fourth-floor also boasts a mobile cooking station, equipment to record cooking demonstrations, and bicycles where kids can pedal to generate energy to charge their phones, or see how long they have to ride to burn off a soda.
Ritz even implements a reading to plants program where students sit by the vertical towers and read to the leafy greens. At lunch, Ritz swaps the plants out for bigger, more developed plants and tells the students “‘You did such a good job! Look at what you’ve done!’ So the kids really feel great and they want to perform,” Ritz said.
While the real benefit is students’ appetite for healthy and fresh produce, standardized test scores are also on the uptick and attendance has increased to 97 percent, according to Ritz.
Since its inception the Green Bronx Machine has also linked up 2,200 graduated students with jobs at places like Whole Foods and Fresh Direct.
When students aren’t learning in the National Health and Wellness Center, it is used for adult workforce development. Students and their families visit and tend to the garden throughout the year, as well.
“You literally see parents and community members shopping there for groceries,” said Ritz of the outside gardens which remain open 24/7 in the summer.
While the ultimate goal of the Green Bronx Machine is to move students up the food chain, the nonprofit is also shaping students’ self-esteem.
Fifth-grader Zuhaiti Arias said she likes being acknowledged for her hard work with the school’s gardening. “People are going to get to know me better and see who I really am,” she said.
At PS 55 choosing swiss chard over chips may be a small success, but it could lead to something greater, which students like Arias are reminded of each time they enter the National Health and Wellness Center and see the phrase “Si Se Puede” painted on the wall.
“That means ‘Yes we can’,”explained Arias. “ It means that we can do anything in the world if we believe in ourselves and do hard work.”