Life

The Dad Canon (Circa Now)

In the spring of 2020, a few months after we became parents, my wife asked what I wanted for Father’s Day. Being a dad still had new-car smell, so I felt a little funny about celebrating what is already a contrived holiday. My instinct was that I wanted a bunch of “Number One Dad” gear: chintzy junk declaring its owner the top living father.

On the big day, my wife gamely brought home a Number One Dad mug, which I sometimes drink coffee out of, and a Number One Dad t-shirt, which I sometimes sleep in, and a Number One Dad grilling spatula, which can be used to brand hamburgers and tuna steaks. This all made for a well-received Instagram post. But to be honest, it didn’t really make me feel like a dad, let alone the number one dad. Instead, I felt like a guy whose response to a major life milestone was to hide inside a bit.

When I think about my stepfather, who raised me, I think about the way he wielded his grill tongs, padding around the deck in his tapioca-colored apron, as if it were the most natural act in the world. Or the way he turned down the volume on the national television broadcast of N.F.L. games in favor of the local radio announcers, who “weren’t idiots.” Or the way he sought out a maritime museum anywhere we went on family vacation. I’m now a father of two with three years of experience, but if I tried any of those things today, I would hear a little voice in my head, saying “look at the big dad man, dadding it up for his family!”

“Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora that I have ever owned — not out of any wish of mine, but out of necessity,” the essayist George W.S. Trow wrote in 1980 of his father’s beloved headwear. “A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me.”

So many of the signifiers that spring to mind when we think about dads are like this: Dated, or goofy, or vestigial, or naive. Take the riding lawn mower, a relic from a time before climate change made us cringe at the smell of burning gas. Or the Playboy stash, an anachronism of print culture. Or the mechanical wristwatch, an antique you can’t even use to order pizza.

After three years of diaper blowouts and daycare-spawned plagues (ever heard of something called “pleurisy”? Neither had I), I’ve come to see the old dad ways a little more sympathetically, and with some measure of recognition. After all, our dads were responding to the same essential dad conflict we are: the tension between giving your life over to the needs of your family and keeping enough mental space for yourself to stay sane. In that context, the rider mower makes brilliant sense. It’s alone time (“What? Honey? I can’t hear you! This thing’s loud, huh!”) that accomplishes a putatively necessary domestic task.

Still, the touchstones of Boomer dad culture have outlived their descriptive usefulness for younger generations. What, we might ask, is dad culture in 2023? Does it even exist?

Over the past month, I’ve reached out to dozens of millennial fathers — friends, colleagues, perfect strangers — to help me conduct a bit of qualitative research into the customs of the newish American dad.

I asked them what are the clothes, appliances, skills, movies, TV shows, books, video games, opinions, conversations and habits of mind that define being a dad today?

The warmth and eagerness with which they responded, often at great length and featuring Talmudic levels of nuance, suggests it’s a question many of us have been mulling, privately, for quite some time.

Behind that enthusiasm, I think, is a real desire for many fathers to better define the social role they’ve taken on. One that has been deeply, if nebulously, changed by our evolving understanding of masculinity and who is responsible for household labor. What is the right balance between provider and caregiver? What is the amount of dumb bro stuff that can be retained? What positively distinguishes fatherhood from motherhood — and why do even the more gender-enlightened, egalitarian among us still seem to want that identity to feel distinct?

Looking at the list as a whole, a few patterns emerge. The first is that technology and convenience have rendered optional many of the stereotypically analog dad skills of yore: Navigating, oil changing — things of that nature. Our shows of skill are more likely to occur deep within a set of nested digital menus.

Or instead, we might demonstrate our authority through displays of taste. The millennial dad, who has spent his young adulthood becoming a sophisticated consumer, has had to negotiate a place for all this miscellaneous expertise in his family life. (Doing so can be complicated. There is no entry for coffee in the canon; those surveyed were split between dads who favored ever more complicated coffee setups and those who have made a brave — and highly symbolic — break with their Hario V60 in favor of a cavernous Mr. Coffee.)

Finally, the new dad culture has definitely not found it necessary to put away childish things. Fantasy football, old video games, Star Wars — dads are finding ways to preserve the pleasures of boyhood.

There’s an argument to be made that the millennial father is trapped in an eternal adolescence. But that doesn’t feel right, at least to me, and certainly not to my knees, which feel every day of 38 years old. I happen to think the new dad culture reflects something positive, and even sweet: that the American father is expected, rightly, to share more of himself — his time, his feelings, and even his most childish hobbies — with his family.

That’s why we have strong opinions about children’s television and baby hiking carriers: We’re trying our best at this thing. This thing, which lasts a lifetime and doesn’t even come with an instruction manual. Can you believe it?

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