It's Hard Out Here For a Pop
Illustrations by Thom Glick
With all the pixels expended on the annual female-blogging extravaganza known as BlogHer, you might be forgiven for having overlooked the very first Modern Media Man Summit, a heavily sponsored and branded affair held this past September in Atlanta. Targeting “the blogosphere’s top men and dad bloggers,” M3 promised to “change everything”—presumably by connecting dad bloggers to new and improved products and branding opportunities from corporations like GM and T-Mobile. While some BlogHer attendees complain about the ever-increasing commercialization of the convention, the organizers of M3 are eager to get in on the brand-pitch action, cleverly positioning the newest iteration of the New Man as, well, a housewife: “Today’s Modern Media Man now is a domestic engineer. He cooks, cleans and often times stays home while the woman of the home goes off to the traditional office job. Men do an increased level of the family shopping, are taking an increasing role in rearing the children and are creating a new definition of what happens in a home.”
If branding opportunities and sales pitches aren’t a dad blogger’s thing, the At-Home Dad Convention might be more appealing. Far from the chic and madding crowd—in Omaha, Nebraska, this year rather than New York City or Atlanta—the At-Home Dad Convention is a decade older than BlogHer and M3. Now in its 15th year, the convention is put together by the national nonprofit Daddyshome, which provides support, education, and advocacy for fathers who are the primary caregivers of their children. Their slogan—Men who change diapers change the world!—is a nice twist on the old maternalist maxim, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” Focused more on creating community than chasing commercial opportunities, the At-Home Dad Convention brings together a diverse array of men from around the country to swap daddy war stories, share parenting strategies, and continue the discourse around what it means to be a father today.
These two conventions represent two points in a very broad continuum of fatherhood experiences, particularly of the online variety, and in many ways reflect the heterogeneity of the dad-blog scene. They also raise a host of interesting questions about the curious liminal state of fathers as a force—be it political, economic, or, well, bloggy—today. Are dad bloggers truly becoming a solid enough market to be sold to, or is this a lot of wishful thinking on the part of social-media entrepreneurs? Are fathers established enough as social movers—as opposed to social marketers—to really foreground the serious economic, social, and political issues about parenting in general?
Whatever your stance on monetizing blogs, it’s clear that interesting things are happening out there in the blogosphere—and that new male voices are clamoring to be heard. So who are these dad bloggers, and what do they want?
As you might expect, the thousands of dad blogs out there vary widely in tone and intended audience, from the mostly product-based (GeekDad) to the literary/photographic (Sweet Juniper!, Pacing the Panic Room) to the political (Daddy Dialectic) to media watchdogs (Rebel Dad) and far, far beyond. There are group blogs by men with a common identity or interest (Rice Daddies, DadCentric), personal blogs that read more like updates for family members, humorous blogs, whiny blogs, blogs focused on the nuts and bolts of parenting—you get the picture. Many are written by stay-at-home dads—or, perhaps more accurately, dads who are primary caregivers but who may also do work from home during naptime and in the early and late hours as writers, photographers, marketers, entrepreneurs, and the like. What they all share is an interest in centering fathers in popular discourses about parenting. This doesn’t mean, however, that all “dadvocates,” to borrow a term from Backpacking Dad’s Shawn Burns, are cut from the same cloth.
If the Modern Media Man hype is to be believed, dad bloggers are eager for a way to commercialize their experiences. (The reality, however, suggests otherwise: Wrap-ups indicate that M3 was a rather more intimate affair than its organizers had hoped, and in fact many of the attendees were also presenters, whose registration fees had presumably been waived.) There may also be a certain amount of pride involved, given the general lack of attention—let alone respect—paid to fathers as consumers. As Backpacking Dad’s Burns points out, “I think the attention mom [bloggers] have received in media and from brands on the Internet has come at a time when many men are moving toward stronger parenting roles, and so for the male parent blogger there’s a lot of ‘dadvocacy’ involved in expressing feelings and perspectives, because they feel the pressure on the minority to not be overlooked.”
Don’t think this is just sour grapes from men who don’t get, say, packages of freebies from Glade and Baby Gap. Let’s face it: Advertising culture has never had a particularly high opinion of fathers. For years, it’s perpetuated what Donald Unger, author of Men CAN: The Changing Image and Reality of Fatherhood in America, calls the “Sad Bad Dad” or “Doofus Dad” chimera—that bumbling fool who can barely take care of himself, let alone a dependent offspring. (Which end does the diaper go on? How does that bottle-warming thingy work? What’s with all the aisles in the supermarket?) It’s true that advertising has always relied on the lowest common denominator, and that old-school gender roles are the lowest of them all, but this inability to even entertain the notion of fathers as capable caretakers is pervasive enough to affect brands and media that ought to know better.
Even more insidious is the outright erasure of fathers from the picture, a sin committed by a remarkable array of companies and media. Amazon.com recently premiered its “Amazon Mom” subscription program for “Anyone who is responsible for caring for a baby or young child.” Wouldn’t a better label for such a group of people be, say, “Parent” or “Family”? The e-tailing giant’s FAQ hastens to reassure us that the company does “not want to alienate dads or other caretakers, and we openly welcome anyone who has a young child and wants deals on diapers, fast shipping, and tailored offers that help them get through the newborn to toddler years unscathed.” Dad bloggers like Greg Allen of Daddy Types, as well as peeved moms like yours truly, responded swiftly and scathingly, pointing out the utterly unnecessary maternalism at work. Some also noted how successfully Amazon Mom’s main competitor, Diapers.com, has been with its gender-neutral approach to shilling Pampers. But as Amazon clearly knows, even outraged consumers have trouble resisting the appeal of free shipping and significant discounts, and so the program continues unaltered.
About the most dads can hope for is a little love and acknowledgment once a year. As bloggers like Daddy Types’ Allen and Brian Reid, who blogs at Rebel Dad, regularly point out, there’s a curious explosion of dad-themed ads for diapers, minivans, and the like around Father’s Day. But come July, it’s back to mom’s business as usual. The New York Times took note of this phenomenon in a 2010 article (“Getting Dad to Do Diaper [Buying] Duty,” June 22) reporting on activities like a Father’s Day “playdate” in Manhattan, organized by Pampers and featuring celebrity fathers, and a web-only video, also advertising Pampers, starring New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In the face of such bald and base treatment, it’s not surprising that some dad bloggers would welcome the opportunity to be taken seriously as consumers and potential moneymakers.
Still, although it’s a fascinating twist on the status quo, is creating equal opportunities for fathers to be consumers really the change we’re looking for? On one hand, it’s refreshing to see a thoroughly mainstream, consumer-focused event like M3 not merely acknowledging but celebrating men as domestic engineers and household consumer decision makers; on the other hand, progressive men and involved fathers might yearn to be acknowledged as something more than a market niche.
Rebel Dad’s Reid is certainly one of the latter. He argues that, in his experience, dad bloggers are “a lot more interested in building something in the interest of connecting with others, or making some kind of social statement—battling against that isolation that all parents face.” And that’s why he’s a frequent attendee of the At-Home Dad Convention, which is focused on building community, not ad networks, and on exploring the nature of fathering in the 21st century, explicitly delving into hard questions about gender, societal expectations, and family dynamics.
The most compelling of the dad blogs explore similar questions, albeit with a restrained tone and, often, an abiding concern not to undermine women’s and mothers’ efforts toward equality. Being a dadvocate is a tricky position to be in, especially considering the not-so-illustrious history of men’s and fathers’ movements in the United States. As Unger rightly points out in Men CAN, “Characterizing fathers’ groups is difficult.... They range from pro-feminist egalitarian groups like Dads & Daughters...to much more conservative groups that essentially argue that the maintenance of marriage and male prerogatives is the key to healthy families and stable society.” To speak in wildly general terms, the most visible faces of the “fatherhood movement” have been—as with the men’s rights movement before it—those of reactionaries seeking not to improve conditions for all parents but to undo what they see as the gender-equity damage created by modern feminism. As a result, it’s tricky for fathers to talk about a movement of their own without appearing to threaten the fragile gains made by mothers. Blogger PJ Mullen, of Real Men Drive Minivans, acknowledged this difficulty when he wrote, “It sounds rather hollow as a stay-at-home dad to sit around and whine about things like the editorial focus of ‘parenting’ magazines or the marketing practices of baby product retailers when women have fought hard, and in many ways still do fight, for their equality.”
Our culture has a whole language and history of progressive maternalism, but there is not yet a fathers’ equivalent. Riffing off a recent book of essays by women about the “intersection of motherhood and social change” titled The Maternal Is Political, can the paternal be political too? Linguistically, it’s hard to even use “paternal” in a value-neutral, let alone progressive, way, but pragmatically the answer is, of course, yes. Just as women have become politicized, energized, and inspired in new ways by becoming mothers, men are finding the same happening upon becoming involved fathers. Their awakenings tend to be twofold: First, there’s the epiphany that caretakers get a raw deal, and second, the realization that involved dads are often still perceived as enigmas.
Thanks in large part to the hard work of many of these newly engaged women, the plight of mothers—and, by extension, families—in the United States is finally garnering political, legislative, and media attention. From the activist group MomsRising to books like The Motherhood Manifesto, The Maternal Is Political, and The War on Moms, a flurry of mothercentric media and political organizing is utilizing a new maternalist paradigm to transform the lip-service “family values” into truly family-friendly public policy and public opinion. While these groups are doing undeniably crucial work, their very approach relies on a mother-knows-best/mother-is-more-oppressed approach. Of course, discrimination does hit mothers differently from fathers, thanks to the biological functions of childbirth and breastfeeding and the not-so-biological wage gap faced by women. But when fathers try to take advantage of, say, family leave, they’re more often than not treated like moms—which is to say, they face hostility, discrimination, and potential wage stagnation. And with growing, if still statistically small, numbers of men taking time out of the workforce to be primary caregivers, they are likely to encounter increasing discrimination.
As fathers experience this type of discrimination, discomfort, and isolation, they start to have their own click! moments of awakening. One of their first—and, it must be said, easiest—targets is advertising culture, as previously noted, quickly followed by “parenting” (read: mothering) magazines. But many dad bloggers have taken it a step further, engaging in a deeper, ultimately more powerful exploration of what fatherhood is and can be.
Jeremy Adam Smith, author of the 2009 book The Daddy Shift and founder of the blog Daddy Dialectic, has written a series of posts for Mothering magazine’s website on “25 Ways for Dads to Change the World.” Most of them are small but radical ideas, like including children with disabilities in able-bodied children’s play, taking your kid to a political protest, or attending a gay wedding. Step by step, he argues, the way men father can have a profound impact on the next generation.
Others agree. As Mullen wrote on Real Men Drive Minivans:
There has been a lot floating around the blogosphere about how dads deserve respect.... The dads I have met from my online escapades, whether they are stay-at- home, work outside of the home, single, step, straight, gay or whatever, deserve respect because they take their role in their children’s lives seriously. Unfortunately, there are still many who don’t, which helps perpetuate the stereotypes about dads and fatherhood that the media continually thrusts in our faces.... In my highly unscientific estimation we are another generation of fathers away from earning that respect. As a result, it makes the strides the fathers of this generation are making all that more important.
This brings up the readership of dad blogs. Though the tone and design of many dad blogs seems to be for the fellas, men definitely aren’t the only ones reading them. It turns out that many of the active participants on dad blogs, those who read and comment regularly, are women. In many ways, this makes sense: Mom blogs are an established genre with an established audience, and dad blogs can naturally draw from that audience, especially if they become part of advertising networks and communities like BlogHer or Federated Media. It’s also perhaps not so surprising when you consider the appeal of a male point of view that shows an involved, charming, and sensitive father: exactly the kind of sensitive New Age guy many women want, or think they want. As Shawn Burns told me, “There’s something charming about a man expressing fatherly sentiments, without acrimony toward women. If a dad writes a blog like that he’s going to make his readers feel safe.” Urban hipster dads who enjoy spending time with their children, who craft, explore, caretake, and model a new style of masculinity, all with a sense of humor? Yes, please: It’s like the only-half-joking gift book Porn for New Moms that’s filled with photos of shirtless men changing diapers. Alternatively, Rebel Dad’s Reid suggested to me that moms might also enjoy the refreshing change of tone in many dad blogs, reflecting a more laid-back, less competitive approach to parenting. And non-mothers might be more inclined to assign value to dad blogs over mom blogs: The site Jezebel, for instance, has never employed an actual mother to blog about parenting but recently introduced a series called “Daddy Issues,” in which Mike Adamick of the blog Cry It Out seeks advice from Jezebel readers on raising his daughter.
Much as they might offer moms, dad blogs have even more to offer to men, particularly the powerful potential for creating communities, such as stay-at-home fathers. The At-Home Dad Convention, for instance, got its start in the 1990s via old-school e-mail listservs and photocopied newsletters; with those roots already established, transitioning to an online community was natural. Nowadays, there are dozens of group blogs and online forums for dads to connect with one another, and individual blogs also serve, through the give-and-take of posts, comments, and links, to create mini-communities. What has always been fascinating about the Internet is its ability to bring together people who, in their offline lives, might never have crossed paths. Dad blogs and the At-Home Dad Convention are doing the same—and the cross section of American men they are attracting is about as diverse as it comes.
Reid described his first trip to an At-Home Dad Convention eight or so years ago, telling me, “I thought it was going to be a bunch of guys from Park Slope [Brooklyn] and Silver Lake [Los Angeles], who have ponytails and tend to eat organic, and have wives who are executive VPs—that’s my own bias, I can mock them, but that’s essentially the class I’m in—basically guys who are making the same choices as the ‘opt-out revolution’ people that Lisa Belkin wrote about: well-educated guys who are married to well-educated women who made a cultural choice not to grab the brass ring. What I found is that the guys who are schlepping all the way out to the convention and staying in $99-a-night rooms—the demographic of that group is much more working-class: guys who are making a financial sacrifice to [stay at home], [who] think it’s the right thing either economically or otherwise. They’re not making a social statement; they’re there for their kids. It was much more varied than I would’ve expected.”
Indeed, although U.S. census statistics are notoriously squirrelly on at-home dads (for starters, they only count non-wage-earning fathers, which automatically disregards those who work part-time from home), it’s becoming abundantly clear that demographic shifts combined with an ongoing recession, high childcare costs, and a twist on the notion of family values are leading more and more hetero families to split childcare in nontraditional ways. Inspired not necessarily by gender deconstruction or feminism but rather by a belief that children are best cared for by a parent, a growing number of families are relying on dad to stay home, maybe because mom’s job offers better benefits, maybe because dad was laid off, or maybe because dad simply prefers it. These families may well be the true vanguard of a new vision of family life, and the children raised in these households the most interesting bunch to watch in the future.
It might seem odd for a feminist magazine to bemoan the plight of men, usually the standard-bearers of privilege. But as more and more men are becoming caretakers, they—and all of us—are learning that, for all our society’s handwringing about the children, their caretakers, whether moms or dads, just don’t get enough respect. As advocacy groups work hard to change that, and as politicians slowly embrace such novelties as paid leave and lactation rooms, it’s well worth remembering that not all parents are mothers. Blogs may offer fathers the much-needed opportunity to express themselves and to build community, but dads also need to be welcomed into the mainstream of parenting culture, parenting advocacy, and parenting policy. It’s not just moms who are rising; the pops are staging an uprising, too.
Rachel Fudge is a former Bitch editor who now serves on Bitch Media’s National Advisory Board. She writes, edits, and resides with her family in San Francisco.
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