The Making of the Modern Dad

Jed Oelbaum

“To prove Huggies diapers and wipes can handle anything,” announced a voiceover in a 2013 ad for the baby products, “we put them to the toughest test imaginable: Dads, alone with their babies.” The spot was a play on the TV trope of the “bumbling dad,” whose family responsibilities ended when he punched out of work, and who couldn’t change a diaper or dress his own kids if his life depended on it. But to some modern pops, the commercial perpetuated a frustrating stereotype that simultaneously devalued caregiving and implied that men were hardwired to fail at it.

Chris Routly, a dad blogger in Portland, Oregon, started a petition against the commercial and its dad slander that garnered more than 1,300 signatures, spurring Huggies parent company Kimberly-Clark to alter the ad to feature the fathers in a more competent light. Huggies also reached out to Routly directly, with a four-point plan to reexamine their dad-related marketing and engage real dads in a conversation about modern fatherhood.

The Huggies incident was a turning point, says Doug French, cofounder of the Dad 2.0 Summit, a conference for parents, bloggers, and marketers interested in reaching the emerging dad market. “It was the first real sense for marketers that reaching moms by collectively rolling their eyes at dads wasn’t going to work anymore,” he says. In the ad, “the kids were miserable, the dads were clueless, and it really didn’t resonate with anybody.” But now, French notes, “You don’t see a lot of ads with dimwit fathers anymore.”

While today’s male parents might not be the negligent, breadwinning boobs of the Huggies commercial, the question for French, household brands, and society in general is: Just who is the modern dad?

Now in its eighth year, Dad 2.0 brings together hundreds of participants to network, bond, and brainstorm about what “being a good dad” means in the 21st century. Women earn an increasing share of household income in the U.S., and young people of any gender are more likely than previous generations to work more flexible schedules, often from home. These factors contribute to why a given dad might be spending more time with the kids and taking more pride in his diapering skills, but the domestic-dad trend also goes beyond household economics. Fathers want to offer their little ones more than the inept, grunted portrayals used to satirize dads of yore. And as traditional gender norms blur, many men are just finding themselves suited to stay-at-home parenting—the number of fathers caring for kids full time has doubled since the late 1980s.

The world around us is shifting quickly, says French, and “we have to take women seriously as businesspeople, legislators, and everything else that professional life entails. It also makes sense to take men seriously as caregivers, and paddle the same canoe there.” But as more men happily take on roles traditionally held by women, they’re also getting a taste of some of the struggles faced by their female counterparts. “Dads are only just discovering some of the work-life balance issues, some of the conundrums that have plagued women forever, like being judged for the decisions you make about committing to your career and your family, the pressure to ‘have it all,’” says French.

Lance Somerfeld, cofounder of the City Dads Group, started the fathers’ organization when the Upper East Side dad took leave from his teaching job to become primary caregiver to his two children. He noticed many get-togethers, group activities, and classes for new moms, but very few for fathers. “As I was thrust into parenthood,” says Somerfeld, whose wife is a corporate actuary, “I was looking to surround myself with other men who could share experiences and vent frustrations, and certainly guys with kids a little older than mine, who could share some anecdotes and best practices to help me on my way.”

via City Dads

The meetups he and cofounder Matt Schneider organized for stay-at-home dads, as well as those who work non-traditional or flexible hours, have grown into a national organization, with just under 10,000 members in 34 cities across the U.S. In the week I spoke with Somerfeld, New York City cohort members attended a talk with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon on his essay collection Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces; hosted a parents’ lounge at a popular baby products convention; and gathered with their children at a carousel in Brooklyn. The cohort also holds parenting enrichment workshops and hosts “New Dad Boot Camps,” where new and expecting fathers receive a crash course in everything from diaper-changing to work-life balance.

The men in the City Dads Group “really put on display the reality of the current modern day dad, who does want to be at the doctor’s appointments, who does want to be at the dance recital,” says Somerfeld.

French says that in the past, the role of a dad was “more of a paycheck than a nurturer,” but now “we have to accelerate, we have to get our game up” as parents. A support network is especially important today, he notes, as fathers of the previous generation just don’t have the answers to modern-era dad problems. “There’s a lot more to be aware of, a lot more to be sensitive to,” he says, citing conversations at recent summits about how to speak to kids about the #MeToo movement.

French got into the full-time dad business when he lost his job as the editor of a financial publication in the early aughts, and started writing online about being a laid-off father. After finding few conferences or groups for dad bloggers, he started attending events for motherhood-focused writers and came across the Mom 2.0 Summit, which inspired him to start a parallel men’s event. (The two summits have a lot of staff overlap, but are produced by separate companies.)

Because the conference itself is only a few days long, he says, Dad 2.0 keeps the fatherhood discourse going the rest of the year through social media—especially on Twitter, where the group has nearly 28,000 followers—and blog posts about positive fatherhood role models, like dads who built elaborate, life-size space shuttles and pirate ships for their kids. “It’s relatively boring to say, ‘Dad loves his kids and does cool thing,’” admits French, and yet he still believes “people deserve to know about it.”

French’s blog posts also pick up fatherhood angles in current events or sports stories, and he promotes both the summit’s sponsors, like Dove Men+Care, and bloggers and podcasters working in the dad space. He mentions Mike Reynolds, a dad blogger covered in tattoos of his kids’ drawings who’s into cross-stitch and recently detailed his experiences getting sexy, “dudeoir” pictures taken of himself in an essay for HuffPost. The Life of Dad network, a collection of podcasts and writing that offers a broad range of dad-centric takes on news and culture, is also a favorite, says French.

Dads speaking out as a demographic and picking up the domestic slack has also been an opportunity for brands, now probably keenly aware that fathers are doing more child care and household shopping than in the past. The City Dads Group, for example, consults with businesses looking for a ready-made test audience for child care products. Sponsors, which have included BabyBjorn, Hasbro, and Nestle, also cover the cost of the group’s activities and events, keeping them free. In return, the City Dads provide social media posts featuring sponsors’ products, like baby carriers, essentially influencer marketing from everyday guys.

In addition to targeting detergent and diaper commercials toward fathers, parenting companies are also coming up with products specifically designed for the dad market, ranging from the unisex and practical to over-the-top dudely—say, diaper bags and baby carriers disguised as macho tactical gear or brass-knuckle-shaped teethers, so hands-on fathers can keep it manly on the playground. These dad panders may be trying too hard, says French, modern paternity should be an opportunity “to reevaluate what fatherhood is, and reevaluate what masculinity is.” But he also admits that in the meantime, such macho items show new fathers that at least the parenting space is trying to speak to them.

On a more progressive note, some companies have explicitly taken on social issues tackled by organizations like Dad 2.0 and City Dads Group. Unilever, has prioritized dropping gender stereotypes—like the incompetent dad who does no household work—from their marketing materials, as part of a group of some 24 organizations from Mattel to Microsoft that make up the UN’s Unstereotype Alliance.   Dove Men+Care, a Unilever brand which has worked with both French and Somerfeld, champions paternity leave for new fathers.

“I think family leave is going to be the next big topic” among young dads, predicts Somerfeld, pointing to a palpable desire to normalize male parent bonding and caregiving time during a child’s early life. He says young men in his group’s fatherhood “boot camps,” are asking more frequently: “How do I talk to my employer so I can get more than a week or two weeks [after the baby is born]? How do I talk to my employer about leaving early to make dinner a few times a week, when I’m supposed to be working a full schedule?”

French mentions Daniel Murphy, a Mets second baseman who was fiercely criticized by some baseball fans and commentators for taking paternity leave after the birth of his son in 2014, causing the player to miss the first two games of a season. Amid the dustup, sports radio host Mike Francesa called paternity leave a “scam and a half.” Former footballer Boomer Esiason said if he’d been in Murphy’s position, he would have scheduled a C-section for his wife before the season started, whether doctors recommended it or not, just to get the whole thing out of the way. But the public was overwhelmingly on Murphy’s side: Today surveyed more than 30,000 audience members, and “96 percent said the baseball player did the right thing by taking paternity leave.” (Esiason later apologized for his comments.)

“Because that happened in 2014, no one bats an eye now when [athletes take leave],” says French. Even with progress though, according to a recent Pew Research Center report, “About seven-in-ten fathers who take paternity leave return to work within two weeks.” Somerfeld says a lack of early time with newborns deprives fathers of a crucial bonding experience that could impact their parenting skills for years to come, entrenching the stereotype that dads can’t change a diaper. Still, he’s optimistic about “people in leadership positions, CEOs like [Mark] Zuckerberg, who are saying, ‘I’m going to take some time off to be with my kid.’” (The Facebook CEO took two months of paternity leave after the birth of each of his children.)

Parental leave, of course, is only one piece of this changing narrative about families. “Changing a diaper is nothing,” says French. “Fatherhood is for the long haul. It’s one thing to come home and change a diaper, but holy cow, that’s 45 seconds of gross, get over it. It gets hard when you have to talk to your kid about how to avoid drug use, how to get involved with girls in a healthy way, or what consent is.”

Being a dad is challenging, and fatherhood is serious business, says French. But the fact that some dads don’t get a chuckle from negligent stereotypes doesn’t mean we can’t laugh at our papas anymore. Dads are definitely still funny. “You have your dad bods, dad shoes are very popular, like Steph Curry’s white shoes. Dad fashion, dad jokes,” says French. “And so rather than the old [incompetence] stereotypes, those other elements have kind of taken over the narrative. … It’s much better to laugh at dorky but loving dads than incompetent and indifferent ones.”