Reflections on Surviving One Year of Fatherhood

My father claims that he’s never changed a diaper. Not once.

As for myself, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have Desitin filling the cracks of my knuckles … and I’ve only been a father for a little under a year.

I’m a dad of the twenty-first century, which means I’m part of a two-parent tag-team. My wife and I work alternating schedules, so one of us spends the day working outside the house while the other holds the fort at home. And, like many twenty-first-century dads, I’m under-employed—having not had a full-time salary in over three years despite teaching up to five classes a semester. Thus, as one of the new breed of semi-stay-at-home dads, I spend half of the workweek on the floor trying to keep an infant from self-destruction—sometimes for thirteen hours at a stretch. I not only change diapers, I cook and clean and push the pram through the park, as well. (I might not do laundry as often as I could, but that has more to do with competence than adherence to traditional gender roles.) Michael Keaton’s Mr. Mom film seems downright prophetic. And I am not alone. In 2014, the Pew Center indicated that two million fathers were staying at home to raise children—nearly twice the number from 1989.

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Perhaps the biggest challenge I have faced in this strange new world of redefined fatherhood is that I have had virtually no training, preparation, or modeling for it.

My own diaper-free dad fulfilled the standard, traditional approach to his role: he threw himself into the machinery of a corporation, worked ungodly hours, journeyed on extended business trips, and came home to engage his kids in whatever trivial games we demanded from his exhausted mind and body. Whatever we played when I was a one-year-old, however, is buried deep in my subconscious at this point.

And being the youngest in my family, I have no recollections of how my dad handled babies at all.

Really, I have had no models for early parenthood … at least not outside of fictional media.

By the time I became an uncle, I had left home to pursue a doctorate, so my exposure to my infant nieces was pretty much limited to holidays and baptisms.

By the time my friends at graduate school were having babies, I had already moved for my first job, so I didn’t see much of their child-rearing either.

And my spirituality has provided minimal comfort. Although I pray to St. Joseph for gainful employment on a daily basis, there aren’t a lot of stain glass windows where he tries to give a bath to a thrashing baby Jesus. When our little guy is throwing handfuls of oatmeal around the dining room, Mary’s “So be it” offers more consolation, but even she had Elizabeth to consult.

Maybe we need less iconography of Joseph the Worker and more of Joseph the frazzled-and-sleepless-new-dad.

By the time my own son was in his crib, the extent of my baby training was a one-weekend retreat at a hospital where I learned to perform CPR on a limbless mannequin and dress a plastic doll. I would have been better prepared if they had asked me to dress a particularly wet moray eel. Sure, there are books-a-plenty to read, but these always seem better theoretical models than practical ones (although I did find the Baby Owner’s Manual to be the most useful text by far).

So, still living away from home, I’m pretty much making this fatherhood thing up as I go along. I feel like Adam.

I suspect a lot of twenty-first-century, middle-class dads are sharing this experience—only we don’t necessarily get to compare notes. We are too busy trying to keep our babies from eating bugs and climbing stairs to consult with one another. Plus, we’re dudes, so the idea of sitting around and talking about babies doesn’t occur to us that often—either because we lack the instinct or the training. We are fathers who are basically reinventing the wheel.

I’m no sociologist, but I have some theories on how we ended up here. Obviously, economic necessity has forced us to redefine family duties, whether or not we agree with the theory of “fluid gender identity” being taught in universities. But there are other factors. The rise of the nuclear family means that many of us are no longer as close to home as we used to be. Plus, as the pressures of school and the economy force more and more of us to push babies back, we lose the family networks that were vital to making it through the hard parts (I’m fairly late in the game to start this fatherhood business myself). In households where daddy still has a full-time job, many of my friends and co-workers still have to send their babies to “school”—a euphemism for infant daycare—because they don’t have family available to help.

More importantly, as the sizes of families shrink, we also lose the experience of watching models of parenthood—especially care for babies. A lot of us just never see how it’s done anymore.

The lore on my father’s side contains stories of extended family units—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all living under the roof of a single row home. Such accommodations sound barbaric in an age where a townhouse doesn’t provide enough space for all the junk that the three of us now own. But that sort of cramped, more frugal life meant a constant support network and the opportunity to watch and participate in the raising of the next generation. You could learn how to raise your children by watching your relatives raise their children.

How many timeless customs, traditions, and just basic techniques for childrearing are becoming lost or forgotten simply because the upcoming generation never saw them modeled at an age when they could remember it? The other day, it occurred to my wife and I that neither of us even know any nursery rhymes. I’ve been humming video game theme songs to put my son to sleep, and those are hardly known for their calming effect.

The late Michael Crichton satirized precisely this kind of phenomenon in The Lost World, his sequel to Jurassic Park. In that novel, he reflected on a theory that dinosaur extinction might not have been owing to meteors or disease, but instead might have occurred through a societal collapse. That is, if certain species of dinosaurs survived because of learned behaviors rather than pure instinct, then the erosion of those behaviors over time would also jeopardize their survival.

I hadn’t thought much about that book when I was reading it as a teenager, but it came back to mind as I was trying to convince a screaming baby to take a nap. The sacred tomes of modern infant-care seem to have theoretical conflicts over precisely the best approach to napping: is crying it out best? Is it better to play until exhaustion? Is it better to create a sleep ritual, or do sleep rituals then jeopardize sleep when some element is missing? Did we always debate this, or did people used to know something that we’ve forgotten? (The idea that middle-class Americans have forgotten simple, ancient tactics to calm babies is the premise of the book/video Happiest Baby on the Block, which I also recommend, although your mileage may vary.)

Perhaps the last vestige of parent training is childhood play itself. To overgeneralize, children still practice future gender roles when they play with their toys. Dolls are for girls, action figures are for boys. Girls practice being traditional moms, and boys practice being adventurous protectors. However, traditional childhood play does not necessarily seem to prepare children for the world they will grow up in. All of those years playing G.I. Joe and Nintendo provided me with almost no skills, and, perhaps more problematically, no appetite for changing diapers or putting a baby down for a nap. I’m from the generation of kids who were raised in the 1980s: a decade super-saturated with marketing entertainment. As we’ve grown up, a lot of us are discovering we still have pavlovian responses to our childhood fun. The seeming ubiquity of The Avengers in modern media? Yeah, that’s our fault. We have a serious Peter Pan Complex, and like my father, Peter Pan doesn’t do nappies.

While I would not be so foolhardy as to even imply that any mother enjoys changing diapers or putting our ever more sleep-resistant son to sleep, a childhood spent pretending to do these things at least gives girls healthier expectations of parenthood. A girl who played mom is most certainly the psychologically healthy Wendy to the masculine Peter Pan. Obviously, I’m not saying women learned everything they needed to know about motherhood through childhood role-play. I’m not going to speak for their experience.

So should we change how children play? Progressives are all too eager to take down what they see as atavistic toy companies still insisting on gender-identifying their products. Because so many progressives see stay-at-home mothers as a threat to their form of feminism, there is a real push to degender toys. Keep in mind, very few people suggest that boys should play with dolls. Rather, the idea is to open up traditionally male markets to girls, and to stop making them think that playing with simulated babies is what’s good for them. Girls are being trained to become future employees not future mothers—and maybe that’s a necessary thing since they are becoming the majority of college graduates and professionals.

But, taken to its absurd conclusion, if no kids pretend to take care of babies, then no one is preparing to take care of babies when they are parents. In fact, a 1993 study showed a connection between women who intentionally remained childless as adults and childhood memories of rejecting dolls and other female-targeted toys.

We’re preparing for a generation of Peter Pans, but no Wendys, a world in which no one has any clue what to do all day with a baby. In the meantime, I’ll keep changing these diapers and saying, “Saint Joseph pray for us.”

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Saint Joseph and the Christ Child” was painted by Guido Reni in 1640.


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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