June 16, 2004,
I live in the groovy Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, which is home to not only bohemians and gays but also to families who, although they voted against vouchers, still don't want their kids sitting in a classroom filled with the masses; my neighborhood has one of the few public elementary schools in L.A. where most of the kids are middle class and speak English at home. We also have around half-a-dozen preschools within just a couple of miles. Because of all this, my neighborhood is also home to an earnest creature we locals know as Silver Lake Dad.
Often this is a guy whose wife slaves away at an office job so dreamy artistic dad can pursue his dreamy artistic dreams. Sometimes he's divorced; by his "I [HEART] Being a Dad" bumper stickers shall ye know him. And although he and his comrades seem particularly common around here, they seem to populate hip urban centers across the country. Silver Lake Dad is just the local version of a new paternal species I think of as Today's Dad.
By now it's something of a cliché that men often feel they deserve a medal for what women do as a matter of course. To borrow Samuel Johnson's observation about women preachers, seeing a man take care of children is sometimes like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs: It is not done well, but you are surprised to see it done at all.
Not that Today's Dad isn't helpful. On Halloween, he comes up with the best costumes, or trails along with a cooler of gin-and-tonics while bossy mom plans the trick-or-treating route. But while Today's Dad is certainly involved in his children's lives, his childcare skills aren't always quite as honed as he imagines.
Not long ago at Trader Joe's (a Today's Dad hotspot) I saw one of these guys in action. He was bearded (natch), wearing a faded t-shirt advertising some sort of worthy event, and making a big fuss about pork chops with his son: "OK, we'll bread them and bake them! We'll make a project out of it!" The boy looked about four and was standing up in the shopping cart the way the cart warnings always say not to do.
Someone came over to chat with this dad, who said he was organizing an antiwar peace vigil. "Good for you!" said the friend. At which point Today's Dad smiled and nodded, accepting the benediction with that serenely self-satisfied expression I notice these guys often assume. It's sort of like the expression men get when playing air guitar lower lip sucked in, head bobbing up and down only without the eyes closed shut in ecstasy.
Now the problem here was that even though I could see this dad was reveling in his fab daditude, like many guys he found it difficult to do things at once like watch a child while chatting with another adult. Men in charge of small children are like women and parallel parking: Attention must be paid or something's going to get dented. Because at this point, the son was really bouncing around in that cart, to the continued obliviousness of his father and the father's friend. The two men were too busy congratulating themselves on their moral rectitude to notice.
"Sir," I felt like saying, "your child and various pork products are about to spill themselves upon the ground." But I didn't. Because I know from experience that sensitive Today's Dad types are quick to dismiss women like me as Mean Ladies.
Now although Today's Dad is a character who is galling enough in real life, he really rankles when you see him in the concentrated modern pop-culture version. Take the popular WB drama Everwood, whose season finale ended with sensitive, bearded (what is with these guys and facial hair?) Dr. Brown informing his teenage son's pregnant ex-girlfriend that she was not to tell the son about this unfortunate turn of events. Because that would rob the boy who's 17 of the precious last few moments of his childhood.
There was a time when the duties of a father would have included telling a son in such a situation to grow up and be a man. But then Dr. Brown (who speaks in pitch-perfect Today's Dad lingo) always describes himself as a parent, never as a father.
I once went to a press conference for a sitcom about a working mom and stay-at-home dad. The show runners chuckled happily about how their own kids ran wild around the free food that's always in TV-production offices taking bites out of cookies, then setting them back on the tray. Gee, that's cute. And it reminds me of another thing I've noticed about Today's Dad: He's fun, he's warm, and he can't be bothered to enforce proper behavior.
I know, I know; I sound cranky. Blame it on 14-plus years of single Mom-dom. I'm addicted to Everwood, but the episode where Dr. Brown's single-mom neighbor is working herself into the ground with extra waitressing shifts, while her ex-husband just got a new $120,000 job and no one ever says anything about child support really got me.
O.K., so Today's Dad is a fully involved partner in all aspects of the modern child-rearing process, from toting baby around in a backpack at cocktail parties to screaming at third graders on the soccer field. The thing is that, as we all know, in real life the day-in, day-out toting and chauffeuring generally falls to Mom.
My ex-husband was a great diaper-changer, but he left when our daughter was just ten months old. Money became so tight that I was grateful when my own father, who like most men of his generation had never changed a diaper in his life, helped out with babysitting and eventually came to live with us. Before he changed his granddaughter's first diaper, he had to steel himself for a week by staring at dog droppings on the street. And he has no tolerance for contemporary children's lax table manners.
When my daughter had a bad day at school recently her English teacher had called her a racist for writing a paper arguing that affirmative action isn't necessary for women Grandpa still didn't cut her any slack at dinner. "We're going to have to make a videotape of this so you can see where you're going wrong with your fork-twirling skills," he said. "We'll call it, The Racist Eating Spaghetti." Still, over the years I've come to appreciate his retro, Yesterday's Dad ways.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.