As Father’s Day nears, I contemplate the delightful ways fatherhood is changing. Men are increasingly involved in their kids’ lives, having more meals with their kids than their predecessors did, choosing more family time over more money. (I’ve used the stats in a previous column, so I won’t repeat them here. And yes, I’m generalizing about my own Judeo-yuppie cohort. Sue me.)
My own dad was a medical resident when I was born. I’m not sure he ever changed a diaper. Sure, he was loving and hilarious and tremendously proud of my brother and me, but we always knew that Mom was the go-to parent. Dad spent much of his free time doing mysterious dad-things in his basement workroom. (Many of these things involved a hot-glue gun. When I think of my childhood home, I think of dried globules of hot glue on an infinite number of surfaces.) When my dad came home from work, he sat down with a glass of Campari and a bowl of pistachios and opened the mail. When he was done, Andy and I were allowed to climb on him.
Jonathan doesn’t come home from work, because he works at home. He often makes Josie’s lunch. He usually makes dinner for us grownups. He and Josie have gone on several pleasant jaunts to the nail salon — they both enjoy pedicures. (Jonathan’s toes are currently a festive, sparkling lavender. Josie’s are pale pink.) He listens to the Dixie Chicks as well as to Kanye West. I’d say he’s comfortable with his feminine side, except why should all that stuff be labeled feminine? Our nation would be a better place this summer if more men were as devoted to nail care.
And yet, in many ways, Jonathan’s awfully Guy. He’s wired our home like a data center at “Mission: Impossible” headquarters; improvised a fabulous toy-storage system by conjoining two IKEA “Lack” shelving units (what they lack in umlauts, they gain in stuffed-animal-hiding fabulousness) and a bunch of birch baskets; and childproofed our formerly chic and jauntily fatal wrought-iron spiral staircase and mezzanine loft space with slabs of Plexiglas purchased on Canal Street and a bag of cable ties.
His idea of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a trip to the new Apple Store. I’m pretty sure we’re the only people in our tenement building with both a file server and a backup server in the basement. When anyone in either of our families has a problem with a Treo, a Palm Pilot, a TiVo or inexplicably bouncing e-mail, he’s the guy on their speed dial.
I love that I married someone who knows his way around both a brisket and a power washer. And I think I’m not alone. When you ask around, more and more women seem interested in marrying someone in the middle of the Alan Alda/Wolverine spectrum. And more and more men seem interested in stuff that was once the province of the chick.
Vacuum cleaners for instance. My husband is obsessed with the Dyson, a British machine that has won numerous industrial design awards, claims to have the highest suction power available, is marketed with words like “cable oscillation” and “laser visualization” and comes in eyeball-singeing purple. (I think he also likes that our model is called “The Animal.”) He also enjoys the clear canister that allows him to watch the cat hair getting viciously sucked into the machine and whirled around violently. It’s no accident that he’s drawn to something that’s being positioned as the bastard child of a tornado and a hot rod. The thing has so many bells and whistles, I barely can use it. And consumer publications differ as to whether it actually cleans better than an ugly, cheap vacuum cleaner. But hey, who cares? A once un-glam task, cleaning the floor, can be repositioned as a guy thing if it’s done with bleeding-edge technology and snazzy looks. I’m down with that.
Similar marketing-and-design makeovers have occurred with kitchen appliances. Grills, of course, always have been manly. But now men are interested in the design and power of ovens and refrigerators. Which came first, the marketing to guys or the killer BTUs and nifty chrome-and-steel good looks? The balsamic-roasted chicken or the coddled egg?
Kid-gear manufacturers have seemed a little slow to pick up on the if-you-build-it-dads-will-come aesthetic. The only item that clearly appeals to men is the biggest-ticket item, the stroller. Josie was born in the dim pre-Bugaboo recesses of time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the only question was “Maclaren Techno XT or Quest?” Back then, the notion of an $879 stroller would have seemed about as real as the corporeal Elijah strolling into your Seder and chugging from his cup. Even today, the Bugaboo brand is a source of divisiveness and tension, a symbol of yuppie excess and a perceived triumph of money over sense. Sure, it’s got shmancy design and engineering and is favored by such celebs as Sarah Jessica Parker, Liv Tyler and Gwyneth Paltrow, but can it really be worth that much? (One of my favorite dad-bloggers, Greg Allen of daddytypes.com, refers to the cost of items in “Bugaboo Units”: A $150 item, for instance, will set you back .17 Bugaboo Units. And he actually drives a Bugaboo.)
Appealing to men’s snobbery, love of good engineering and design sense is just smart business. As Greg puts it, “The stroller is the flagship of the baby-industrial complex.” You are what you drive. Who cares whether your passenger is a bald, drooling, toothless babe or the more traditional babely babe you could surely get if you weren’t so devoted to your wife?
I’m hardly one to talk. Jonathan and I are both fiercely devoted to our Phil & Teds E3 Double Stroller. It’s a double stroller that’s as narrow as a single, handles beautifully, folds easily, fits through bodega aisles, converts easily to a single and can be bounced down subway steps. It costs a still-ungodly .53 Bugaboo Units, but at least it carries two kids.
Sadly, a lot of good, clean, gender-neutral design is expensive design. There’s now a lot of super-spiffy midcentury modern furniture at heart-stopping prices, groovily patterned nonfrilly crib linens and, of course, baby clothes that convey (your choice) vacationing-in-Nantucket-mini-mogul, Joe Strummer or Prince Pavlos of Greece. At least there’s also IKEA, which brings simple, clean-lined, non-ungepatshkete cribs and highchairs to the masses. And that’s pretty much it. Today, even Target fails us. When Josie was born, Jonathan insisted we check out the Philippe Starck line of baby goods at our favorite bull’s-eye retailer. Five years later, Maxine is still enjoying the faux-cut-crystal sippy-cup goblet with acid-yellow lid that we bought for Josie back then. (Alas, the silver-and-acid-yellow diaper backpack looked great for a week, then got permanently stained by a single smear of sunscreen. Lame.)
Obviously, Jonathan’s interested. So why aren’t more mid-priced manufacturers and retailers trying to appeal to clued-in dads? “There’s an institutional bias against any attempt to reach men,” Greg said. “Where would you advertise? There’s no dads magazine. Even if Time Warner wanted to start one, it would be under a corporate umbrella that said ‘women, family’ — it would be shunted into the women’s section. You wouldn’t advertise in Sports Illustrated, which is a different target. Bugaboo has advertised in New York magazine and Dwell, which fits their specific demographic — men and women readers, a wealthy audience. But I think what most dads want anyway is not to be targeted, but to be included.”
I write for parenting magazines, and some try a lot harder than others to include fathers. (Don’t even get me started on their minimal efforts to speak to gay and lesbian parents.) The need to present a monolithic (and happy, and lipsticked) face to advertisers is a pretty huge barrier. Which is a shame for all of us. I love reading dad blogs because I so seldom read unfiltered, unperkified dad perspectives in the mainstream media. I love that dads seem to self-flagellate a lot less than moms; we can learn from them. I love watching Jonathan MacGyvering his way around our apartment — creating a rumble seat out of rubber bands for Maxine’s stuffed bunny on her pushbike, repurposing old window bricks as flowerbed edging, using a (new!) paintbrush to apply melted butter to corn on the cob.
This Father’s Day, I raise my brunch beverage (Bloody Mary, extra spicy) to the dads who, like Jonathan, are remaking dad-dom in their own image. Here’s to their raising boys who make dinner and girls who change tires. And here’s to all you dads who do the work, who read “The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote” for the millionth time, who teach the preschooler how to stake tomato plants and who pore over consumerreports.com to figure out the safest car seat for the baby. Sleep late, guys. You’re the best.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.