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Is weed the new Little Helper for stay-at-home dads?

The first stoner dad I met was my neighbour, Joe.

Joe is in his mid-30s, lives with his wife (a checkout clerk at our local grocery store), and is the primary carer for their two-year-old daughter.

Most mornings, after Joe's wife leaves for work, he sits in the backyard while his daughter plays, drinking a mug of coffee while languidly smoking a large, pungent joint. The smell wafts in through my office window, but Joe – who, in his dungarees, goatee and trucker cap, looks like something out of a Cheech and Chong movie – has never done anything to hide his morning weed habit. If I catch his eye over the garden fence, he just smiles and waves, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to be hauling on a fatty while singing The Wheels on the Bus at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning.

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At first I judged him. But after observing Joe for more than a year, I must acknowledge he's a great dad: attentive, cheerful and engaged without hovering or being anxious. His daughter, a smiling, confident little chatterbox, does not show signs of being the neglected child of a chronic drug user. In fact, she seems closer to her father than most kids that age.

Watching her flourish under his benevolent, weed-baked gaze has made me wonder: Is marijuana the new Mother's Little Helper for the emerging generation of stay-home dads?

Since meeting Joe, I've spotted stoner dads everywhere. The guy on paternity leave, loping down the street, pushing a buggy with one hand and smoking a doob with the other. Two dudes on the park bench overseeing an afternoon play date and passing a pinner. A group of fathers at a Sunday afternoon backyard barbecue, sharing a joint on a picnic blanket before dispersing to change diapers or jump on the trampoline with the kids while their wives drink wine and chat over the grill.

Statscan doesn't track numbers of pot-head parents in Canada (funny that), but it has tracked the rising number of stay-at-home dads in Canada in recent decades. In 1976, dads stayed home in only 2 per cent of couples with at least one child under 16; by 2014, that number climbed to 11 per cent. As well, one-fifth of Canadians stated in a recent phone poll by Forum Research that they smoked pot last year, and 59 per cent said they support some form of legalization.

Matt Austin, a Toronto-based writer-director and father of a toddler and an eight-year-old, said he sees no harm in using pot to relax while tending to his kids at the end of a long day. "When I'm a little stoned, I'm thinking less of all the things in my life that cause me anxiety, and I'm able to be present and creative with my children," he said. "For me, it's an end-of-day thing, when I know I don't need to be on full parent and responsibility alert."

Then there's my friend Kevin (not his real name). Kevin and his wife moved to Los Angeles from London last year after she got a job in a new design firm. As Kevin waits for his American work visa to come through, he's become primary carer for the couple's five-year-old daughter – a job he unapologetically combines with the occasional (read: almost daily) mid-afternoon joint around the backyard pool. "It sounds a bit wanky to say," he said, "but it helps me get right down to her level and play, like I did when I was her age." Kevin added that he's always conscious of his intake and that, after years of pot-smoking, he knows how to moderate his dose for maximum effect. "By the time bedtime rolls around, my buzz has worn off and I'm back to nagging her to brush her teeth like any boring parent."

Plenty of mothers smoke pot too, of course, but many do it at adult parties, on the sly, or after the kids have gone to bed. For mothers, the stereotype has long been "mommy juice," the cheeky bottle of chardonnay, cracked open at the end of the after-school play date or during the preparation of buttered pasta before dinner. That or the soul-calming effects of anti-anxiety pills such as Xanax and Lorazepam.

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The difference with some of these pot-enthusiast dads is that they don't view their drug of choice as a mere escapist crutch. In moderation, they see it as an effective aid in the difficult and often emotionally taxing job of being a parent.

"The fact is, weed makes playtime more fun, suppertime more delicious, bathtime more relaxing and storytime more interesting," one Toronto-based pot-smoking father of two who wished to remain nameless told me in a phone interview this week. "What's not to like?"

Given that pot is now legally used in a medicinal capacity in many countries in the world, including Canada, it is no more taboo than alcohol consumption where parenting and daily life is concerned. And yet, old social habits die hard. If I saw a group of parents standing around at a toddler's birthday party sipping mimosas, I'd applaud (and probably reach for one myself). If they were passing around a bong, however, I'd find it hard to conceal my horror. This isn't because I don't smoke pot (it makes me queasy), but because I associate it with illegality.

But with the Liberal government keen to decriminalize or even legalize pot completely, that view seems soon to be outdated. After all, most of us shamelessly drink around our kids, and yet excessive alcohol consumption is strongly linked to all sorts of dysfunctional behaviour and social problems (domestic abuse, child neglect, excessive verbal conflict, to name a few). According to a report by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, the main social problem caused by chronic cannabis use is increased professional absences and decreased productivity and work performance. Which raises the question: Outside of an office environment, could small doses of marijuana actually help parents relate better to their children?

Writing in The New York Times a couple of years back, the art dealer Mark Wolfe argued that since receiving a prescription for medicinal marijuana his back pain and insomnia had improved and, surprisingly, so had his parenting: "I swear I am a more loving, attentive and patient father when I take my medication as prescribed."

Cannabis, he added, enhances the user's ability to relax, slow down and perceive beauty in otherwise mundane aspects of life. This mood-altering effect, he wrote, "can be enormously salutary to the parent-toddler relationship. Beyond food, shelter and clothing, what do small children need most from their parents? Sustained, loving, participatory attention."

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Canadian doctors aren't yet prescribing pot lollipops for parenting-related stress, but the future for ganja enthusiasts is looking bright. In the meantime, on the back decks of the nation, Daddy's Little Helper persists. As Austin points out, "Why is it okay for moms to joke about 'wine o'clock' but we can't talk about taking the edge off with pot?"

You've got a point there dad. Now pass the pb&j and stop harshing my mellow.

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About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More

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