Every once in a while, life throws at you a moment that shifts your perspective as if someone has bumped your viewfinder, leaving you scrambling to refocus. These moments, by definition, happen when you least expect them. I had one while sitting in my hairdresser’s chair.
I was making conversation, as one does, with this woman who’d been cutting my hair for a few years, and she started rattling off the reasons she loved the location of her Brooklyn storefront shop. “I get all sorts of different kinds of customers,” she said. “Artists, writers, dancers, actresses, lawyers, businesswomen …”
When I replay this part in my mind, as I often do, I always pause for a split-second to prepare for what I was unprepared for at the time.
On that word, with a tilt of her head and a gesture with her scissors, she indicated me.
Never mind that I had spent almost two decades building a career as a writer, that I took pains to engage in the world as a person with interests that went way beyond diapers and sleep schedules and preschools (parenting topics that, as far as I knew, I’d never discussed with my single, childless hairdresser), and that I was right then thinking not of my two small kids (whom my husband was watching), but of all the projects I’d slipped away from in order to get a quick midweek trim. As far as this woman—who I paid, after all, to help shape the image I presented to the world—was concerned, I was defined by none of this.
Regardless of how many angles and dimensions I saw in that mirror, she looked at me and simply saw a mother.
I’m sure there are women who would have embraced the image—frumpy hairdo, mom jeans, under-eye bags and all—as if they had been handed the cuddliest of crib toys. Me, I felt gut-punched. Hot steam shot into my cheeks. I was not only angry, but embarrassed. How could I have been so naive as to imagine that, as soon as the doctor had placed my first delicious pink newborn on my chest in that delivery room years prior, the world would define me in any other way?
I might be more inclined to accept this image if it weren’t for the double standard. Men have long been allowed to wear their “dad” label much more loosely than women are expected to wear their “mom” tag. When they have kids, men generally tuck their “dad” persona wherever they like on the long list of things that define them, usually somewhere under their professional identities.
Dads get to “have it both ways” in terms of identity, says Nathan Thornburgh, cofounder of the blog DadWagon. “We want to be recognized as fathers, but we do—thanks in large part to leftover social conceptions—have the ability to be chameleons about it,” he says. “Once we leave the home or the playground, we get to be captains of industry, drunks, amateur fishermen, whatever the hell we want to be.”
Thornburgh, as a dad blogger, obviously supports fathers who boldly identify themselves as such. An increasing number of other bloggers do so as well: Mike Adamick writes about fatherhood on his blog Cry It Out. The Huffington Post recently launched a blog for both dads and moms, Parentlode, helmed by Lisa Belkin. The parenting site Babble, which has long had mothers squarely in its sights, has just announced a new dad channel and blog for fathers, called Dadding.
Babble’s director of content and community, Jack Murnighan, says Dadding reflects a recognition of “the increasing relevance of dads in contemporary families, even if the vast majority of our readers are still women.” Murnighan hopes the new content will help spur change, adding, “Dads aren’t yet entirely the force they could be, but we’d like to help them along.”
We’ll see how that goes. Dad blogs have hardly enjoyed the popularity of their female counterparts—the ever-growing slew of so-called mommy blogs. It seems there’s a blog for every kind of mother now: hippie mom, corporate mom, alternative mom, religious mom, organic mom. It’s a mom-o-rama.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m in love and obsessed with my children, now 6 and 8, although I’ll do you the favor of not parading evidence of my love and obsession before you. My life has, of course, changed dramatically to accommodate them. At the same time, I have made sure not to rely on my role as their mother as my primary identity. Just as they are people in their own rights, with interests as diverse as baseball and baking, I consider myself a person separate and apart from them: a woman with a career, a born-again bike rider, a just-learning cook, a closet karaoke singer, an occasional watcher of crappy TV.
All those things define me just as much as my role as a mother, and yet we women, once we have children, are expected to shift not just those activities but also those identities to the deep background.
Men get to choose.
Interestingly, more men do appear to be choosing their “dad” personas of late—but that might just be an aftershock of the recession. Because men lost their jobs in greater number than women in the downturn, an increasing number are now staying home with their kids, and they’re redefining themselves as a result, a recent study shows.
Adamick of the blog Cry It Out thinks it’s more than that. “I do think more and more dads are starting to own the dad label,” he says, noting that he’s seeing more fathers—even those working outside the home—picking up child-care duties around the house. “I notice that dads seem more engaged and willing to do the dirty work of raising kids,” he says. “That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of asshat morons who look on their one-hour weekend trip to the park as ‘babysitting.’”
Social media have certainly provided a welcoming place for those fathers who want to burnish their involved-dad creds. Says Christopher Healy, the author of the book Pop Culture: The Sane Man’s Guide to the Insane World of New Fatherhood, “Some days I feel like half the status updates I see on Facebook are guys posting hey-check-this-out pictures of the awesome things they do with their kids. Sometimes there’s almost a feel of one-upsmanship to it. ‘Here’s me doing something totally classic with my toddler, like riding in an old Radio Flyer wagon.’ ‘Oh, yeah? Well, here’s me doing something totally unexpected with my preschooler, like teaching him to tango.’”
Babble’s Murnighan sees the rise of such involved dads as more evolution than revolution. “It’s certainly true that more guys are identifying themselves as dads these days, but I’m not sure there’s a full-scale revolution going on,” he says. “I’d suggest instead that men are evolving and maturing culturally, in part because women’s roles are becoming that much more diversified and empowered, and the result is men both must and can embrace parenthood in increasing degrees.”
DadWagon blogger Thornburgh believes that, as families adjust to accommodate a growing number of women who are the primary breadwinners, cultural norms will shift with them. “It’s sort of an anti-Rosie-the-Riveter moment,” he says. “Can we put a good name on that? Dan the Diaper Changer?”
I say bring it on.