fatherhood now: redefining dad's roleOn the day of my birth, Mom was in the delivery room and Dad was in the waiting room reading a book. Presently, the nurse approached him and announced the birth of his second child, a son. Dad said something like “great” and returned to his book. The nurse stared at him and after a moment asked, “Well, don’t you want to see him?”

I pondered this during the birth of my own son, Geoffrey, some 35 years later. I was in the delivery room, wearing a blue smock, shoe covers, a face mask and hair catcher, no book in sight. After a spell under the heat lamp, little Geoffrey was mine to hold. I looked into his pale blue eyes and thought, “Dads have come a long way, baby.”

Nowadays, dads have it better than ever. From father-specific instruction in infant care, to a growing population of stay-at-home dads, to father-only parenting groups, fathers have effectively burst out of the hospital waiting room and found their seat at the Apgar test station. But are fathers’ attitudes and habits truly evolving, or are we still mostly changing TV channels instead of diapers?

An evolving role

If you consider yourself the archetypal modern father, hyper-involved and disparaging of the traditional label of “Mom’s helper,” don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back. The fact is dads have been evolving for some time, and we’ve had plenty of help from factors both societal and economic. According to Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association, the shift in fathers’ roles began when women started entering the workforce en masse. Between 1948 and 2001, the number of women either employed or looking for work doubled, from 33 percent to more than 60 percent. As a result, fathers have become important care providers within the household, whether we wanted it that way or not.

Start ‘em young

So are today’s dads really different than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago, or are we still best described as Mom’s helper? “It depends on how we classify the differences,” says Bernie Dorsey, program coordinator for Parent Trust’s Conscious Fathering Program in Seattle. “Are today’s fathers any more committed to their children than my father was or possibly his father? I don’t think so. But I think today’s father is different in the sense that he’s more anxious to participate.”

The typical father of yore was anxious to participate, but only after Johnny was out of diapers and into a baseball mitt. Nowadays, however, we can start at the zygote stage by enrolling in a “Boot Camp for New Dads” program. This program, now in its 16th year and available at more than 200 locations nationwide, is a fathers-only crash course in the finer points of diapering, feeding and caring for an infant. Randy Doyle, father to 2 1/2-year-old Caydon, has been a Boot Camp facilitator for two years at Puyallup’s Good Samaritan Hospital. “We try to bridge that wall between being a father and not being a father,” says Doyle. “We bring in a veteran dad and a baby so the students can change a diaper on an actual infant.”

At the start of class, many fathers are wondering what exactly their wives have gotten them into. (According to Doyle, “The wives make them go.”) As the class runs its three-hour course, the live infant makes the rounds, and the dads realize they don’t know everything. “They begin to understand how often diapers need changing, how often babies are fed,” says Doyle, who also stresses Mom’s needs. “Fathers learn it’s really hard on their wives get up every two hours to feed; sometimes they can step in for one of those feedings and give Mom a four-hour stretch of sleep.”

Daddy Boot Camp, which typically reaches about 10 percent of expectant fathers at Good Samaritan, comes at an ideal stage in Dad’s learning curve, according to Dorsey. “That is the moment a guy is most receptive to look at his definition of fatherhood,” he says. As a result, those men are more likely to create their own definition of fatherhood.

A (mostly) stay-at-home dad

While some of Doyle’s students are nudged into Boot Camp by ambitious spouses, stay-at-home father Greg Reichlin, a Seattle firefighter and father to 6-month-old Anna, planned his parental involvement early on. Originally a manager for Enterprise Rent-a-Car, he was working long hours, making good money and looking ahead to early retirement.

Thoughts of having a family changed that, and he decided to become a firefighter. “With firefighting, I might not be as rich, but could be kind of semi-retired from my entire working career and have extra time off and be more involved with my kids.” His schedule now gives him three or four days at home with Anna, followed by a 24-hour shift at the fire station. Reichlin is content with his career and his mostly stay-at-home status. “It’s worked out very well. I was thinking ahead when I saw this firefighting job, knowing that I would have free time with my family while continuing to make an income.”

Reichlin considers himself fortunate as he heads to the fire station every three or four days to be with the guys. It makes for a mini-vacation and clears his head of excess domesticity. “I’m lucky to get that break once in a while. It’s recharge time … a lot of stay-at-home parents don’t get that break.”

Reichlin’s wife, Laura, spent the first five months at home with Anna before returning to full-time work. So far, Anna hasn’t shown preference for Dad over Mom. Laura, however, does occasionally long for the at-home days with Anna (“wistful” is how Reichlin describes her). “Laura doesn’t have the same connection to Anna that maybe I do … but she never expresses that in a way that’s bitter toward me,” Reichlin says.

While the U.S. Census reports a 77 percent increase in stay-at-home dads since 1998, Reichlin is still often the sole male parent on weekday outings with Anna. “I travel in a mother’s environment,” he says. At home solo for just two months, Reichlin hasn’t found many dads like him. Since stay-at-home-dad sightings are rare, more elusive still is finding one with a compatible playmate for Anna. She can’t exactly hang with a bruising 3-year-old boy.

Not surprisingly, Reichlin’s work schedule lends itself to greater involvement with Anna’s upbringing. A study conducted by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that fathers who worked fewer hours outside the home tended to be more involved in parenting than 60-hour-workweek corporate climbers. If the mother works outside the home, that intensifies the father’s involvement. The study suggests that a household with a career mom requires the dad to take greater responsibility for child rearing.

Keeping their cool: hipster dads

They listen to alternative music, engage in alternative culture, wear defunker.com T-shirts, destroyed jeans and Vans sneakers. I’m not talking about baby sitters; I’m talking about the dads who hire them. So-called hipster dads are today’s media darlings or whipping boys, depending on whom you read.

In describing this new breed of father, the media has focused mostly on fashion and musical tastes. By that limited measure, Ken Fry, a 39-year-old product designer at Microsoft and father of Jackson (5) and Isaac (2 1/2), fits the mold. Clad in a Sonic Boom T-shirt, industrial-wash jeans and chunky plastic-framed eyeglasses, he is not your typical Gant-clad, lawn-dart-playing dad. One of Fry’s passions is music (People Under the Stairs, Tapes ’n Tapes, The Thermals and other artists who aren’t Josh Groban), and he sees other parents with strollers buying the same stuff, and probably playing it for their kids. Are these dads posers, clutching the last vestiges of cool before parenthood and age take over?

Not likely, says the marketing-minded Fry. “Mass marketing isn’t the norm any longer; there’s more niche than before. Society today is more accepting of a wider range of things and that’s reinforced by how material is marketed and consumed.” That’s given Fry access to music, art and culture in a way that wasn’t available to his parents. “For me, music is emotionally and intellectually interesting. I like to find music I’ve never heard before.”

So, apparently, do his children. Jackson loves The Clash’s London Calling. Track six, “Spanish Bombs,” has him bouncing in the booster seat.

Bernie Dorsey of Parent Trust dismisses the sexy “hipster dad” label, instead giving credit to a new breed of dads who define fatherhood on their own terms. “What I think we’re seeing is people’s individual personalities coming out in a way that they’re defining their own fatherhood. We as a society want to label these dads as some type of a novelty.”

A father then and now

Gary Nece first became a father in 1979, when he had three boys, Dan, now 27, Tim, 25 and Nick, 18. Then he divorced, remarried and had Lucy, his 5-year-old daughter. Around the time of his sons’ births, father-specific parenting material was nonexistent. Although he and his then-wife took a Lamaze class prior to the birth of Dan, they relied mostly on the doctor’s advice.

More than 20 years later, with Lucy on the way, Nece discovered a wider range of father-inclusive programs such as Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS), although as an experienced father, he had little need for Daddy Boot Camp. The birthing class he attended with new wife Jodi included more father-specific material. “With Lucy, there was so much more information out there,” Nece says. “With my first three kids, we didn’t have PEPS groups; we really had very little information for fathers.”

Research confirms that dearth. According to a 2001 article in the Review of General Psychology, between 1933 and 1980 there were only 27 published articles exploring the influence of a father’s affection on his children. But since 1980, the year after Nece’s first son was born, there have been nearly three articles each year, the majority of which give equal weight to mother’s and father’s affection on their children’s development.

Has Nece’s parenting style changed over the years? “It’s different now because Jodi and I both work, and there’s more of a 50-50 say in what happens inside and outside the home.” Overall, though, he admits his parenting style has changed little from his first three boys to his daughter Lucy.

The differences in Nece’s outlook as a dad between then and now is largely driven by popular culture’s encroachment on the family unit, something his parents never dealt with. “When I was young, music was clean: Johnny Mathis, Sinatra, Herb Alpert … that’s the stuff my parents listened to. My first album was the Monkees. It’s different now. A father has to be more vigilant with his kids and what they see. I just canceled my Rolling Stone subscription because of the cover.” (That cover, for the May 19, 2007 issue,  showed two young females wearing nothing but bullet belts.)

Still, Nece’s role modeling as a father is a hodgepodge of his own style and that of his parents. “Compared to my father, I’m a lot less formal. My relationship with my kids is more like a buddy. But like him, I usually leave it to Mom to discipline. She has already established baselines that I might intrude upon by stepping in.” Today’s economic realities also play a role. “My parents had a system: Mom deferred to Dad for matters outside the home, because he brought home the paycheck. Dad deferred to Mom for everything inside the home, like disciplining the kids. It’s different for Jodi and me because we are both earning incomes.”

As with his first three sons, and now Lucy, Nece recognizes and accepts his father’s ongoing influence on his parenting style. “There are vestiges of his style of parenting in mine. My role modeling is a hybrid of me and my dad’s. And our kids will be a hybrid of themselves and us.”

Making progress

As evidenced by Daddy Boot Camp’s 10 percent attendance rate and the elusive stay-at-home dad, fathers are not yet on equal parental footing with Mom. Progress is being made, however, and fathers are doing the pushing, with some help from their spouses and other external forces. Speaking to Monitor on Psychology, Jeffrey Shears, a professor of social work at Colorado State University, says most men are anxious to be participatory fathers. “Across demographics, fathers are no longer content just shaking their children’s hands before they go off to work,” Shears says. “Fathers want to, and are, assuming caregiving roles.”

After years of taking a back seat as parents, we fathers are more visible, more involved in our children’s well being, their futures and aspirations. “Like every father, I can see parts of me in my son,” says Ken Fry. “He struggles with the same stuff I did, so I think, ‘What can I do differently as a dad that my parents didn’t do with me? How can I turn that into something good?’”

Derek Blaylock lives in Seattle with his wife and two sons, ages 5 and 1.

Resources for new fathers

Seattle stay-at-home dads
Daddy Boot Camp
Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS)
Parent Trust for Washington Children: 1-800-932-HOPE (4673)
The Conscious Fathering Program

Alternadad, by Neal Pollack
Hit the Ground Crawling, by Greg Bishop


Originally published in the June, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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