While out to dinner with work colleagues, my wife’s friend Lucy noticed her in-laws at a nearby table and walked over to say hello. After chatting for a moment, the father-in-law asked Lucy who was babysitting her kids. “Your son,” she replied. “And he’s not babysitting.”
I love that story (which I recounted in this blog post) because in a very unceremonious way, it captures how we think fathers fit into modern culture. And it’s not just happening in anonymous Italian restaurants in the Florida 'burbs. It’s a culture that’s fed in part by the very institution responsible for telling us who we are, what we do, and how we act. Last week, a U.S. Census report titled ‘Who’s Minding the Kids?’ made its way around the Interweb. The report notes that when both parents are home with the children, the mother is labeled the “designated parent.” You know, like the designated driver. You never know when Daddy will be unable to play airplane with the mashed bananas.
The report also notes that when Dad takes care of the kids while Mom is away, that’s deemed a “child care arrangement.” When Mom takes care of the kids while Dad is away, it’s not a “child care arrangement.” That’s just Mom being, you know, Mom. In an interview with the New York Times, Lynda Laughlin with the Census Bureau’s Fertility and Family Statistics Branch said, “Regardless of how much families have changed over the past 50 years, women are still primarily responsible for work at home.”
Okay, okay. I get it. Women are the designated parents. Men are the childcare associates. No matter how many piles of laundry we fold or how many bubble baths are drawn, Mom is CEO, and Dad is regional vice president of operations. Let's move on.
No wait--let's not. There’s just something about that study that feels like an itchy wool sweater. I can’t quite get comfortable with it. Seeing fatherhood described in such clinical, demoralizing terms points to a much bigger issue: There is no positive mystique surrounding becoming a father. Think about it. For little girls playing with dolls and pushing pink strollers, Mom is a superhero. Little boys are outsourcing heroism to make-believe men from Krypton and Gotham City. I've never seen a Cliff Huxtable figurine.
The second most important job in the history of the world has a really s$@!#y public relations team.
Women cheer when friends announce they are pregnant. Baby showers shower babies with gifts. And most importantly, the role of Mom is a sun cresting the horizon: It’s something women see coming. While the plus sign on the Clearblue stick might be surprising, the arrival of the moment most often is not.
Why don’t men talk about parenthood, even in a fun, nonchalant way? When a woman tells another woman she’ll be a good mom one day, there is a blush, a smile, a swelling of the heart. (It's like telling her she looks like Gisele Bunchen.) When a guy tells another guy he’ll be a good father, there is a cocking of the head, a tugging of the collar, a “whoa whoa whoa” eyebrow lift. (It's like telling him he looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman.)
And where are the mentors? Been-there-done-that fathers don’t seem to share anything with go-where-do-huh? fathers. Did they take an omerta pledge? Someone please write a fatherhood book titled What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting Anything.
Add it all together, and this is what you get: Young men don’t grow up wanting to be fathers. I didn't grow up wanting to be a father. To me, children were like the Tunisian economy: Small and unpredictable.
And why would I want to be a dad? You can’t aspire to something you know nothing about. Which is why young guys view fatherhood as just another grown-up duty like changing the oil or building a patio. Becoming a dad is simply a software update for adulthood. Fatherhood is the heart-wrenching sequel to the blockbuster action-adventure hit Marriage.
Teens spend years dreaming about what it will be like one day to have a car. (How about a Corvette? Or a Jeep!) But there is no anticipation for fatherhood. That may be why so many men don’t take the job seriously: One in three American children don’t live with their biological father. If we talked about it more, gave it credibility, and treated it as a duty and not a job, maybe we’d take it more seriously. More men would treat it like a major responsibility. Because I have no interest in being a childcare associate. But I’d love a Corvette.