Every day, attractive women come by my office to chat. Breast health is a common topic. We also look at pictures of naked bottoms and pick the best one. On a really good day, I'll receive a box of yogurt puffs to sample. Based on this description, some guys might think I have a killer gig. My job title: executive editor of Babytalk.
That's right: a dad editing a baby magazine. Let's be honest. This is not a traditional role for a guy. I push tandem strollers through the halls of our building, inspiring all manner of rubbernecking. I receive emails that read, "Shawn, as a mom I'm sure you'll love this new bouncy seat." I am a pro football fanatic who knows the best brand of binkies. I can hook up a DVD player and swaddle a newborn.
I am a 21st-century pop.
This new species of father can be found reasserting his place in America's homes and play groups, territory that has traditionally been dominated by moms. He's also shattering societal norms that were established generations ago. Take, for instance, my own family's birthing history: My grandfather didn't go to the hospital during my father's delivery. My father sat in the waiting room when I was born. I held my wife's leg as my first son, Jackson, came into the world.
"The traditional image of the father is one of lawgiver, moral arbiter, disciplinarian and CEO of the home economy," writes Jeremy Adam Smith, author of The Daddy Shift: How Stay-At-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family. "[This was] the opposite of the mother, who submissively cared for husband, children and home."
A number of factors -- a growing population of women in the workforce, an unsteady economy and stale cultural stereotypes -- are forcing modern parents to redefine gender roles and change the very definition of father and mother. "Historically, dads have had a good understanding of needing to be a provider," says Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting responsible fatherhood. "Today's dad understands that's not enough. You must provide, but also nurture and guide. That heart-to-heart connection is critical."
Forget about the guy who came home from work, patted his kids on the head, fell into a recliner and reached for the remote. Today's dad has more of himself invested in the role. He's the guy who, ahem, works at baby magazine. He's also the divorced dad sharing custody of an 8-month-old daughter. And the stay-at-home dad who works at night, the dad blogger with a devout female following, and the multiracial, multi-tasking Washington, D.C., father known to take daughters Sasha and Malia out for snow cones.
On the cusp of Father's Day, we ask: What do we really know about the 21st-century pop? And what do moms think about him?
The stay-at-home dad population is growing, and a lot of guys want a piece of the action.
More fathers than ever are participating in their children's nurturing and upbringing. A fair bellwether for that statement is the ever-increasing population of stay-at-home dads. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 105,000 fathers stayed home to care for their families in 2002. Six years later, that figure jumped 33 percent to 140,000. Of course, that number does not include fathers who work from home either full time or part time, or same-sex couples who have adopted. Nor does it include the recent trend of more men than women being laid off during the recession, a likely contributor to the stay-at-home dad population.
Let's not forget the dads who wish they were home. In 2007, Careerbuilder.com conducted a survey of 1,521 working dads and found that roughly 37 percent said they would leave their job if a spouse or partner made enough money to support their family; 38 percent would take a pay cut to spend more time with their children. In a survey conducted by the NFI, men were asked to specify the biggest obstacle to being a good father. Nearly half of all respondents said "work responsibilities."
Lance Somerfeld is a 36-year-old father in New York City. When his son was born in 2008, the public-school teacher decided to take advantage of the school system's child-care leave policy: A parent can take unpaid time off for up to four years, with a guarantee that a similar position will be available upon his or her return. Thanks to his wife's well-paying job as an actuary at an insurance company, Somerfeld has been a stay-at-home dad for all 22 months of his son's life. "A lot of my dad friends are envious," says Somerfeld. "They wish they had as much time with their children."
What mom should know: Fathers participating more and more in their children's upbringing isn't a trend but a permanent shift. "More men are organizing their lives around their families," says Ben Siegel, M.D., FAAP, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, which shapes policies regarding family well being and parenting. "In the past, men have been expected to work and provide financial support for the family. More recently, many men are choosing to share in child rearing and participating in running the household."
The 21st-century pop has to learn to be a father.
The connection between mother and baby begins long before the water breaks. Mom must make conscious diet and lifestyle choices during the conception period. Once pregnant, there are nine months of growing and showing, kicking and elbowing. For dad, the connection largely begins in the delivery room. In other words, when baby is born, dad is on Day 1. Mom is on Day 462.
"Fathers and mothers come into the parenting process differently," says Warren. "For the mother, the connection is biologically constructed. It's a part of her. Fathering, on the other hand, is less so. Therefore, it's important for men to learn the skills they need to be a good dad. For some guys it's more intuitive, like a jump shot, but most guys need a coach."
After identifying a lack of support and resources in his own community, Somerfeld founded NYC Dads Group, a social network that connects at-home dads in the New York area. The group currently has 190 members. Somerfeld also is fielding inquiries about setting up stay-at-home dad groups in other cities. When I speak to Somerfeld via phone, he is leaving the Central Park Zoo, having just browsed the penguin and puffin exhibit with five other fathers and their children.
"When I started the group, I was seeking out other people like myself," Somerfeld says. "There aren't a lot of resources for new dads. Moms have mommy-and-me classes, breastfeeding classes and lactation consultants. There's nothing like that for dads."
What mom should know: Having dad present for the delivery is critical to the father-child connection. "In the last 35 years, hospitals have been encouraging fathers to be at the delivery and to cut the umbilical cord, encouraging them to be a part of their child's life right from birth," says Dr. Siegel. You can also suggest one of the NFI's workshops, training sessions, online webinars and a variety of brochures including the New Dad's Pocket Guide for new and expectant fathers.
Some moms feel threatened by the 21st-century pop.
There are more women than ever in the workforce, and 18 percent of them earn more than their spouses. It's a recipe for men spending more time with their kids, and women spending less -- and some women are a little uneasy about it.
Earlier this year, researchers interviewed 78 couples with 8-month-old infants. They found that a mother's self-esteem was lowered if they thought the father was capable and hands-on and spending more time with the children.
"Many women are ambivalent and conflicted about needing to stay home to care for their child or be in the workplace," explains Dr. Siegel. "With fathers sharing more of the child care, this may help women address some of these conflicting issues."
What mom can do: Be thankful, says Dr. Siegel. "What we're seeing is more equality in the gender roles," he says. "Fathers are sharing more of the workload traditionally associated with women: scheduling doctor's appointments, doing household chores and participating in child care. Nothing but good can come from it."
The 21st-century pop is a tale of two daddies.
While the 21st-century pop may be the latest in parenting technology, there are still plenty of fathers in need of an upgrade. One in three children live in a fatherless household. "We have more absent fathers today than at any point in the past," Warren says. "In these cases, the definition of fatherhood has been reduced to the act of conception." In addition, many of the dads who are home aren't sharing any emotional insight with their partner and family.
This dilemma caught Ryan Marshall by surprise. A freelance photographer living in Orlando, Florida, Marshall is a stay-at-home dad to 10-month-old Tessa and his 5-year-old stepson. Last year, Marshall decided to point the lens at his wife's baby bump. He started a blog (pacingthepanicroom.blogspot.com) to chronicle her weekly growth; each snapshot was accompanied by a tender note to their unborn daughter. ("Week 31: You are still knocking in the belly all the time and we have been watching you move ? Your mama continues to feed you loads of fish, almonds and strawberries.") What began as an album for family and friends became something much bigger. Thanks to the attention of American Apparel (which highlighted the blog on its website, and sent clothes for the photo shoots) and a plug in Glamour, the blog took off. At its peak, it was getting 25,000 hits every day.
"My readership is mostly female," Marshall says. "I've gotten a lot of notes like, 'I wish my husband could see things the way you do.' You feel bad for the person because they're not getting the communication they need."
What mom can do: "Women have two choices: They can live with it or nudge him to do more," says Dr. Siegel. "When fathers care for children, there are amazing benefits that accrue to both fathers and their children. For those fathers who have not participated as much in raising their children, it's never too late to change behaviors. This will help fathers become closer to their children no matter when they increase their involvement."
Even as researchers and writers try to categorize and encapsulate him, the 21st-century pop continues to grow, change and gain ground. He is everywhere: in line for day-care pickup, wearing a baby sling at the grocery store, awake at 3 a.m. for a feeding, and sitting back in his office, happy that you finished reading his magazine article.