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I’d Rather Be a Dad
I didn’t always want to be a dad.
They used to be so square. Dads threw footballs with sons, apologized for missing dinner, gave permission for daughters to get married, and perfected the art of withholding emotion. Dads were the household enforcers, cops in sweaters. No thanks.
But things are changing. First with dadbod and now with zaddy, the modern, involved male parent is an attractive specimen these days — and pop culture has taken notice. Paparazzi shots of doting celebrity dads are everywhere; Steph Curry, who famously lifted up his toddler in a postgame press conference a few years ago, now stars in car commercials featuring trips to buy milk. We debate the relative hotness of DILFs like Idris Elba and John Corbett from Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Male politicians launder their images through the patina of fatherhood; witness Tim Kaine’s rollout in 2016, where he went full dad on late-night TV. Then there’s the magazine avalanche of recent years: Fatherly (“Dad Advice for Parenting, Gear, Life & More”), The Father Life (“The Men’s Magazine for Dads”), Dads Adventure Magazine (“a publication handed out in childbirth classes around the nation”), among others.
Parenting has replaced mothering, if not in reality, then at least in the popular imagination. Being a dad is a #relationshipgoal. So I want in.
I am a cisgendered woman with a small baby, so by definition, I am a mother. But still, the question lingers: Do I have to accept the mom identity just because society (and the dictionary) says so? Who wants to take on the burden of “kinkeeping” for your in-laws? Who wants to make less money even after parity in parental leave laws? This is to say nothing of the exhausting debate about “having it all” as the female parent, or the assumption that family decisions still default to the mother.
Protecting your time is a great dad quality.
It’s not that being a dad is easy. Raising a child is grinding work, psychologically difficult and physically draining. Plus, paternity leaves are generally paltry or nonexistent. Being a dad means living in a society that mocks your desire to be a dad much of the time, when it’s not celebrating ordinary things you do, like taking your kid to the playground or changing a diaper. And as a 2015 story in the Atlantic pointed out, stay-at-home dads are taxed as much as or more than their female counterparts. Leaving the labor force for even a few months can have long-term career consequences for both parents.
But it’s still different than being a mother. As I’ve watched dads-as-performed-identity achieve social currency, it has occurred to me that being a dad is often seen as a way of achieving adulthood. The modern blurring of lines between late childhood and reproduction has even borne a verb: “adulting.” You get to a certain age and it’s just not cool to be spending all your time at after-work drinks with younger co-workers. You had your twenties to be a kid in the big city, drinking, smoking, maybe traveling. You have to grow up somehow.
But how does one grow up, exactly, when you and all of your bosses are wearing Converse sneakers and elevated yoga pants to work? Buying a house is something you should have thought about before you got a degree or ordered avocado toast. You and your partner have cohabited for years, so marriage is more state of mind than tangible advance in maturity.
Marriage does mean something, though. It signals that you are readying yourself for the greatest adventure of all: being a dad.
Being a dad deepens you. Life is not the same after you have a kid, of course. It’s richer, weirder, sometimes more stressful. But it’s not your total identity, either. Being a dad is an additive. Whatever you were before you were a dad, you generally still are — queer, stockbroker, mountain climber, champion crossword puzzler, novelist — but you have this new thing around, sometimes strapped to you in one of those cool backpacks.
Not so many adjectives fit after “mom.” It tends to elbow everything else out of the way.
Parenting has replaced mothering, if not in reality, then at least in the popular imagination.
Of course, not all dads are represented in the new dad culture; in fact, it seems to be speaking exclusively to a select group. While the majority of stay-at-home fathers do not choose that role (disability leave or lack of work are the motivating factors), it’s no coincidence that my exposure to dads is higher where I live, in Brooklyn.
Kindling Quarterly, which came into the dad-mag world in 2013, opened with an essay on precisely this phenomenon — “upwardly mobile dads” with seemingly infinite time and resources to make toys from scratch and banter with other parents on the playground. Google “Brooklyn dads” and an amazing array of results pops up, many of them achieving some kind of state beyond parody. (Sample headline: “Style Tips for Cool Dads from the Owner of Goose Barnacle.”)
So, how can I become a dad? Every day, I try to imagine life as my male partner lives it. When the baby was very young, we took turns having time out of the house, but often I would linger by the door before I left, wondering if I should turn back. Not so with my husband. He is a writer, and he sets a daily goal of writing a certain number of words. Choosing to fulfill that goal does not seem emotionally complicated for him — and why should it be? Protecting your time is a great dad quality.
I see dads as people who do not feel this great weight strapped to their chest by dint of having a kid — and five months into being a parent, I’m getting there. Picture the cliché of a harried mother lunging for a bottle of wine (don’t get me started on “wine moms” as a thing, something that has almost put me off wine entirely), and then imagine a dad cracking open a beer with the sound of carbonation escaping the container. I feel like that married woman, but I try to channel that confident, satisfied dad.
Maybe there’s a middle ground. Maybe there’s room to add a few more words after “mom.” Maybe. Meanwhile, dad culture marches on. It seems that it might even be possible to become a dad without having kids, just by shopping at the right stores or reading the right websites, which could be an interesting option, if a little late for me personally. If anything, the real reason I shouldn’t become a dad is that no one should have kids to fulfill a fantasy of self-actualization. Just ask your parents.