The Forgotten Parent?

06.09.14

Is 2014 ‘Year of the Dad’?

Sure, Father’s Day is coming up—but it seems like the ‘other parent’ is getting more than just a day this year. Dads are the focus of not only TV shows and books, but also policy making and scientific study.

It’s officially Father’s Day Season, so of course we’re hearing more about dads than we usually do. But even though 2014 is only halfway over, it already seems like an auspicious year for the “other” parent.

“Dad books,” traditionally considered a waste of pulp by publishers, have finally been making it past agents and editors and into bookstores.  Fathers are going viral on the Internet, appearing as more than just fodder for slapstick on TV, and finding themselves the subject of policy conversations and scientific research.

There are dozens of dad books out right now, and some of them are actually really good—and they’re selling. There’s science journalist Paul Raeburn’s recently released Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us About The Parent We’ve Overlooked, a meta-analysis of the research on fatherhood that has come out over the past 50 years or so, from genetics and animal behavior to sociological studies on the division of labor within families. There are collections of fatherhood stories, such as Al Watts’s and Hogan Hilling’s Dads Behaving Dadly: 67 Truths, Tears, and Triumphs, and Brian Gresko’s When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood.

DIY dad books have become a genre. After the success of last year’s Dad’s Book of Awesome Projects, Mike Adamick followed up with Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments, a collection of recipes for messy and explosive fun that also includes explanations of the science behind the eruptions. Mark Frauenfelder, editor of Make magazine, walks parents and their kids through 23 inventive and hack-y projects that incorporate carpentry, crafting, programming, electronics, and more in Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects.

There are a number of advice-type parenting books written by dads, but the one that stands out as a departure from the standard, know-it-all, sanctimonious snake oil is Whit Honea’s The Parents’ Phrase Book: Hundreds of Useful Phrases, Scripts, and Techniques for Every Situation. The hardest, most crucial part of parenting is communicating effectively with your kids, and Honea humbly offers brilliant frames for talking with kids about difficult issues, all geared toward teaching children empathy while making them feel safe and loved. And despite the often-heavy subject matter, Honea’s warmth and humor make this a fun read as well as a useful resource.

Then there are the funny dad books. Stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan’s Dad Is Fat is a self-deprecating, joke-filled collection of stories and observations from a father of five. Jason Good, whose riotous blog post “46 Reasons My Son Might Be Freaking Out” almost burned down the Internet last year, has a book out now called This Is Hilarious This Is Amazing: Parenthood in 71 Lists. In another blog-to-book leap, Dave Engledow parlayed his wildly popular Tumblr, mainly consisting of staged and tweaked photos of his family in absurd and often life-threatening situations, into a book of funny photos and commentary called Confessions of the World’s Best Father.

And many dads who have not published any books (yet) this year went viral online with parenting content. Dad blogger Bo Coffron, aka Lunchbox Dad, took the Internet by storm with themed lunchbox creations that caught the attention of major news websites and TV talk shows, and made those of us who simply throw PB&Js and carrots in a brown bag for our kids kind of hate him. David Vienna (of CTFD Parenting fame) teamed up with the guys from the perennially popular dad-site How to Be a Dad (credited with the rise of the ubiquitous “banana added for scale” meme, among others) to create an “instructional diagram” about the most appropriate and lethal ways to respond to unsolicited parenting advice. The post resonated enough with parents to garner nearly 100,000 social media shares.

Depictions of fatherhood on the flatscreen have also made notable progress recently. While dads have traditionally been portrayed as hapless boobs on TV, there are signs that the tide is turning. In an exhaustive analysis of commercials featuring fathers, Zach Rosenberg of 8 Bit Dad concluded that advertisers are slowly but surely realizing that there is less appetite for the message that a dad’s role in the family is little more than that of an extra child.

This is good news for those of us who think men should be encouraged to take on their share of parenting and other household responsibilities, rather than told we may as well not try since we lack the natural aptitude. Morning shows, too, seem to be banking on the notion that viewers are interested in more complex discussions about fatherhood, as evidenced by both Good Morning America and Today featuring a week of segments about dads for Father’s Day, rather than the usual grills-and-gadgets gift guide.

And straight dads aren’t the only ones in the spotlight. Brent Almond, creator of the website Designer Daddy, celebrated the appearance of two-dad families in commercials from both Chevy and HoneyMaid. Network TV programming also reflected greater acceptance of gay dads, with ABC’s Modern Family winning the ratings race during the week it aired an episode about the big wedding of two of its main characters, Cam and Mitch.

Beyond the realm of pop culture, fatherhood has also become an area of interest to researchers and policymakers. A new study in Israel monitored brain activity of three different groups of parents as they interacted with infants: primary-caregiving moms, secondary-caregiving straight dads, and primary-caregiving gay dads. The results were rife with nuance, but overall the researchers concluded that “parenting implemented a global ‘parental caregiving’ neural network,” in subjects regardless of gender or sexuality, which is bad news for people who think men are not built for parenting.

Meanwhile, researchers in British Columbia found that daughters of men who do their fair share of household drudgery are more likely to eschew “gender-stereotypic” constraints when expressing their career aspirations; for example, if girls see their dads folding laundry, they are more likely to dream of becoming CEOs and firefighters than girls whose fathers watch sports while Mom does the dishes. The most recent study on dads just came out this week: The Pew Research Center studied the increase of men who chose the “Daddy Track,” and explored some of the reasons men chose (or are thrust into the decision) to become stay-at-home dads.

The code of silence around the “open secret” of involved fatherhood is finally breaking down

A common thread in the parenting conversation is “work-life balance,” and it’s often framed in terms of high-earners trying to manage both their lucrative careers and the needs of their families. But the stress experienced by the average American of raising a family in this sputtering economy is much more acute than executive guilt. On June 23, the White House is sponsoring the Summit on Working Families to address these difficulties, and hopefully to use the findings to shape relevant policies. As part of this summit, there is a conference specifically meant to address issues faced by working fathers.

I asked Scott Behson, who will be a panelist at the White House Summit on Working Families, if he had a sense of why there seems to be more focus on the economy’s effect on fathers lately. Behson, a professor of management at Farleigh Dickenson University, said, “While it has building for some time, I believe that the pressures on modern dual-income couples have necessitated dads becoming more involved in child care and that their contributions deserves appropriate consideration. Also, I think the modern workplace is beginning to realize that its ‘culture of overwork’ is untenable considering the family demands working dads face.”

When I asked him about his take on why fatherhood in general has become more of a newsworthy topic lately, Behson, who writes about working-dad issues on his blog, Fathers, Work and Family, he answered, “The code of silence around the ‘open secret’ of involved fatherhood is finally breaking down. In large part, I think we have working moms to thank. We are all recognizing that the equality of women at work is inextricably tied to the equality of men as parents.”