My mother used to tell my father that he was a very good mother. This was her way of praising his attendance at every concert and game, his patience and care. In those days, “good mother” was the highest domestic achievement; to have called him a good father, given how low the bar was set, wouldn’t have done him justice.
But that was long, long ago. Now fathers sing to their babies in utero, come to birthing class, coach mom through delivery . They can buy strap-on breasts, so they can share in the bonding without the sore nipples. And baby toupees, for those sensitive about hairlessness. I can’t help thinking that the increased engagement of fathers has some direct connection to the increased availability of baby gadgets, since having two fanatically engaged parents offers twice the target for retailers. The typical father spends about seven hours per week in “primary child care,” which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize it’s more than twice as much as in 1965. Roughly 60% of male high school students told researchers they planned to cut their work hours when they become dads; the recession rushes the trend, as men get laid off at three times the rate of women and the division of labor gets a sudden jolt. Among other things, this all means fathers are now much better positioned to write parenting books like Michael Lewis’ Home Game and Sam Apple’s American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland. These are nothing like the self-punishing Momoirs of old, nor the earnest advice books, nor the new genre of Bad Mom confessions that somehow manage to be self-flagellating and smug at the same time. The dad diarists approach their subject like anthropologists, engaged in rational inquiry into an alien culture and the nature of nurture. Thus I learned from Apple things I never knew from reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, like the Stalinist roots of Lamaze and the fact that in the 1st century Pliny the Elder recommended that women in labor drink goose semen mixed with water to ease the process along. Maybe the respectful distance men keep reflects the obvious ambivalence so many women show about male involvement. We talk about fathers like puppies tripping over their big paws, a portrait long mirrored in a culture in which Father Knows Least, from Fred Flintstone to Homer Simpson. We diminish with faint praise; dads still get points for returning children at the end of the day with all their limbs in place. But the more engaged fathers become, the more women have to reckon with what a true parenting partnership would look like. Maternal condescension only really took hold in the modern age, when we turned parenting into a profession with its own implicit peer-review boards and competitive frenzy. Rather than uniting to promote a culture that would make parenting easier for everyone, we have wasted a huge amount of energy and airspace on fighting among ourselves over what constitutes the perfect balance between head and heart and work and home. “I avoid old friends on Facebook,” reads the post on Truemomconfessions.com “because when I compare my life to theirs, I am so ashamed of where I am.”