Jenelle Persley, 39, associate director at a pharmaceutical company; Camilla, 6; and Christopher Persley, 43, writer/blogger, adjunct professor and stay-at-home dad. “We don’t look and sound like stereotypical parents, so it’s important for Camilla to see a different perspective validated,” says Christopher.
On weekend mornings, it’s not unusual to find 6-year-old Camilla up early and dressed in full superhero regalia. Blame it on her father, blogger and stay-at-home dad Christopher Persley. “I’ve always been a fan of superheroes, and I used to read comics with my mother before going to bed. But I never wanted to pressure Camilla to like the same things I like.” He says that when she was around 3, she found his Marvel Encyclopedia. “From that point on, her level of interest has only blossomed, and she’s become a big fan of female superheroes. She loves their strength. I had a talented former student create artwork featuring her in her superhero persona—Courageous Kid.”
Christopher was raised by a single mother who helped him understand the need for and importance of gender equality. “I genuinely feel that women are still not considered equals in our society. It’s my job to empower my daughter so that she’ll have a strong voice and sense of self to be able to diagnose and handle any bias she might encounter,” he says. “I want her to see and learn the stories of inspiring role models who overcame obstacles, like Michelle Obama, Misty Copeland and Skylar Diggins. I think representation matters.” Christopher believes that you have to see it to be it, which is why he tries to expose his daughter to successful women.
Luckily, she wakes up to one every morning—her mother, Jenelle. The former scientist is now an associate director at a pharmaceutical company. When asked if having her husband as the main caregiver causes any problems, Jenelle shrugs it off. “Seeing how successful a partnership we have and how we’ve always stood up for what works best for our family is inspiring not just for us but also for others.” She says the biggest falsehood about parenting is that women are better suited to being the primary caregiver. “I find this a reflection of deep-rooted gender stereotypes in our culture.”
Christopher, who in addition to being a writer is an adjunct professor, delights in his role. “What surprises me most about parenting is how little I get tired of it. I love talking about Camilla and witnessing her development, planning activities for her and discussing the occasional frustrations with a fellow father. I love it all—good and bad.”
Still, as one of only two dads at Camilla’s school who serve as primary caregivers, he can find it daunting to see the moms warmly chatting and planning get-togethers while he waits to pick up his daughter. “I do feel left out, and I can’t help but think that my being a father is hard to overcome,” he shares. However, Christopher doesn’t let that stop him from trying to create more social interaction for his daughter.
One of the reasons Christopher started his blog, The Brown Gothamite, was to document his experience. “I love the idea of Camilla reading the entries years from now for advice and hopefully gaining an appreciation of my parenting efforts. What I didn’t expect was for my blog to achieve any level of success,” he says. “A few of my early pieces, especially one about my absentee father, got some attention and led to opportunities to discuss fatherhood in the media and do advocacy work for causes like paid parental leave.”
As an interracial family, they’ve had their share of unpleasant encounters. Christopher has found that for the most part their relatives have been supportive, but they sometimes get negative vibes and comments when just the two of them are out together. Jenelle also admits that they’ve had challenges, “particularly with white friends and family when we ask them to try to be more understanding about blackness and diversity. It can force them out of their comfort zone—not everyone wants to go there. We’ve had to step back and reevaluate a few of those relationships.”
The couple, married since 2008, don’t let any of it get in the way of how they feel as a family. “Camilla’s spirit is so admirable,” says Christopher. “She’s probably the happiest person I’ve ever met.” Jenelle loves her daughter’s sense of empathy and infectious giggle. “We have a core set of values that brought us together, and those are the same ones we’re instilling in Camilla,” she says. “We are proud that we’ve been able to recognize what works best for our family and have gone to great lengths to support each other.”
“A big misconception about stay-at-home dads is that we’re not capable of caring for our children. I get way too much unsolicited advice.”
How did you two meet?
“We met on a dating website called Chemistry nearly 11 years ago, after Jenelle moved to NYC. I like to remind her that it’s okay to tell people she fell in love with me on our first date. Jenelle seems to remember things differently. We were married two years later, in November 2008.” —Christopher
What are your favorite things about each other, and which habits still drive you crazy?
"Some of my favorite things about Christopher are the same ones that drive me crazy—he is incredibly prepared and organized for any and all situations, which is admirable. But there’s a shaking of the head when I’m looking, again, for my keys, because of course he has a system for his stuff. Christopher is also the most dedicated teammate and patient father." —Jenelle
“I admire Jenelle’s intelligence. My wife is just brilliant, and I love witnessing her passion for science. She’s so compassionate, and I see that most when it comes to her concern for friends and family. She is a master motivator and has pushed me when I needed it most. I give her credit for inspiring me to apply to, attend and thrive in grad school at Columbia. Somehow that happened even with Camilla being a newborn.” —Christopher
Jenelle, tell us about your work. Was science always a passion?
"I work for a growing biotech company in Westchester County. We focus on bringing innovative therapies to patients. We pride ourselves on our commitment to research and technology. My role is to drive our technologies to proof of concept and manage major collaborations with academic institutions. I started there years ago after a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow my role as the company has grown and that’s allowed me to learn many aspects of the biotech industry.
"I was always curious as a child, mostly about animals and ecosystems (though I didn’t know then that’s what they’re called). This continued into high school, where I was very interested in biology and particularly in the dissection of animals to understand how they worked. At that point I wanted to be a teacher because I looked up to my 10-grade biology teacher. In college I was a two-sport athlete, but my career was ended abruptly by injury and I had to reinvent myself. A professor saw potential in me to be a scientist and suggested graduate school, where I completed my PhD in cell and molecular biology.”
Christopher, I read that you were a teacher for many years. What did you teach?
"I primarily taught middle school English and American history. I also coached middle school girls’ basketball. I moved into administration and served for nearly a decade as a director of diversity, which allowed me to work with every constituency within the school community, from students to the board of trustees. I especially loved that! Currently, as an adjunct professor, I work with teachers who are moving toward graduate degrees in special education. I teach a course as well as observe teachers in their classrooms."
What has been the most surprising thing about parenthood?
“How it invites you to focus on yourself in very specific ways. Parenthood shines a spotlight on the exact part of yourself that needs attention, so as to allow you to grow in ways that make you a better parent and/or partner and an improved version of yourself.” —Jenelle
Christopher, what’s your typical day like?
“Usually, we’re awakened by an incredibly happy child jumping on our bed. Jenelle and I tag-team Camilla’s morning so I can get her to the school bus. We recite her daily affirmations before she boards. After I drop her off, I head home. Depending on the day, I might clean or do laundry. I try to carve out the time to work out. I usually do some reading and writing for my website. Nowadays, I also set aside time to plan for the college course I teach. Then I go pick up my daughter from the bus, and we talk about her school day. I have very specific questions that I ask to help her give me details about what happened. We usually do some type of activity: anything from playing with LEGOs to going to the library to find books for her to read, or perhaps an art-based project. I make dinner for Camilla. Jenelle usually comes home during dinner, and we might trade off some Camilla responsibilities at that point.”
Tell me about the work you do for as co-organizer of NYC Dads Group and fatherhood advocacy.
“My story has resonated with people. Because of that, I’ve been given a platform to discuss and celebrate fatherhood. It has led me to work with NYC Dads Group planning diverse events for fathers to connect and bond together. Or serve on the board of the National At-Home Dad Network and create ways to recruit a more diverse group of fathers and raise awareness of dads as primary caregivers. I’ve interviewed Christy Turlington about her charitable organization, Michael Strahan about health and parenting, and Rasheed Wallace about his children's book and our experience having absentee fathers. I’ve worked to enlighten people about the need for paid parental leave. Recently, I was interviewed by Anne Hathaway for a video UN Women produced for their new parental leave initiative. To be honest, this has all been overwhelming. I never imagined reinventing myself to be a voice in redefining parenthood and fatherhood advocacy, but I take the work very seriously. It's such an honor to have a voice and perspective that is respected enough to potentially do some good in this country.”
What are your favorite things to do as a family?
“One of our secret favorites is to head to Costco. We sample food, try out Barcaloungers and get silly with the push carts. And we love having dance parties!” —Christopher
For more about Christopher, check out his blog, The Brown Gothamite.