I might look ridiculous in acid-washed jeans and a thick moustache, but that would be a small price to pay for the freedom that dads enjoyed during the golden era of fatherhood—the 1980s. Nobody expected you to know how to change diapers or help with middle-of-the-night bottle feedings. Heck, I think your biggest job when your baby was born was to hand out cigars to all your buddies. And since it was the ’80s, you were probably allowed to smoke them on hospital grounds while your wife was in recovery and a nurse looked after your newborn.
The daily routine for a dad back in the 1980s looked something like this: Wake up, go to work, come home, maybe play catch with your son in the backyard, go to sleep, repeat. The biggest responsibility you had with your little girl was to make sure you killed any spiders in her bedroom. The modern dad, on the other hand, is expected to be an equal partner in every way—pitching in with chores, chauffeuring kids around town and sensitively handling the emotional needs of teenage daughters.
The proof of how easy it was to be a dad in the ’80s rests with Hollywood, which has preserved these moments for us to enjoy. It started with the 1983 film Mr. Mom, in which Michael Keaton plays a father who has lost his job and has to (gasp!) stay at home with the kids while his wife goes to work. Of course, Keaton’s character doesn’t know the first thing about domestic life, so he does things like make grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron. His attempts to do the laundry and vacuuming end in disaster.
Fast-forward to the year 2015. If my wife came home to find burnt cheese on the ironing board and a busted washing machine, there would be hell to pay. Modern dads can’t get away with this kind of ineptitude and be greeted with an, “Aw, at least you’re trying. That’s so cute!” Every morning, I’m expected to get the kids ready for school by making their breakfasts and lunches, and I’m the one tucking them in at night at least 50 percent of the time. Nothing explodes, and nobody is headed to the emergency room like it’s a slapstick comedy.
But back then, it seemed as if dads were almost rewarded for their negligence and buffoonery. Don’t believe me? A few years after he was Mr. Mom, Michael Keaton was cast in the starring role in Batman. He managed to go from incompetent househusband to Gotham’s biggest crime fighter, and nobody batted an eye. I would love to be Batman in my spare time, but I’m pretty sure I have to pick up a kid from gymnastics on most weeknights.
The 1980s TV show My Two Dads clearly proved that a single father was incapable of raising a child—hence the need for a second one. But then, greedy Hollywood executives looked at one another and said, “Do you know what would be even funnier than two dads? Three dads!” And so they released the movie Three Men and a Baby, which took the idea of bumbling fathers to a whole new level. At one point, Tom Selleck’s character—an accomplished architect—says, “I build 50-storey skyscrapers. I assemble cities of the future. I can certainly put together a diaper!” He proceeds to have all sorts of trouble, as baby powder predictably shoots into the air.
The bar was set so low for the 1980s dad that it was possible to clear it by a healthy margin as long as you were breathing and didn’t set the house on fire. However, in the new millennium, it’s as if fathers are supposed to be half-mom and half-dad.
But I have to admit I would have missed out on quite a bit if I were raising my kids back in the ’80s. I wouldn’t have pushed my youngest daughter to play T-ball; instead, I probably would have just been in another room while she was using an Easy-Bake Oven. And while I often detest the chore of packing school lunches, there’s something strangely validating about knowing which daughter likes a touch of mayonnaise on her sandwich and which one doesn’t. It makes me feel more connected to them on so many levels.
And if I ever get bogged down by the responsibilities of being a modern father, I can just pop in an old VHS tape and watch a 1980s comedy for a good laugh.
A version of this article appeared in our June 2015 issue with the headline, "The '80s dad," p.40.
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