To this dad’s delight, anger at the so-called “daddy-proof” onesie went viral yesterday. For those who didn’t see it, the photograph shows a pink onesie—originally posted by an irate father on Reddit—that includes arrows with directions for where to stick your baby’s arms and head. You could say the item is like a bad “dad joke,” but it’s even worse than that—and not just because it’s outdated and less funny. Its underlying purpose is to reinforce the stereotype of the ignorant, uninvolved father at a time when we need to continue making progress breaking free of that. And sadly, that tired dumb dad gag sold by kids’ retailer Sara Kety is not the first time I’ve been hit over the head with that hoary message.
When my wife was pregnant with our now three-year-old son, one expectant parent book she received at her baby shower included sidebars addressed to men at the end of each chapter. At the time, the implication that I only needed to read this one section made me laugh, but it also made me mad—I needed to learn about caring for my infant just as much as my wife did, and not just the Cliff note version. I can admit it’s still true women in heterosexual partnerships take on more of the child-rearing duties. And I’ll also admit that the author of that parenting book did in fact accurately estimate how much of that book I’d actually read. But that’s not the point—I’ve worked to improve the balance in my household, even spending two days a week at home with my son during his second year. And in the last several decades, so has the average Canadian father.
According to one StatsCan survey, fathers’ participation in daily household work increased from 50 percent in 1986 to 76 percent in 2015. And the same survey reported that one in two dads is now involved directly in their child’s care—getting them dressed, dropping them off at school, helping with homework—instead of the previous one in three. It’s not like we can hang up the dish cloth and say our work here is done. Mothers’ involvement in housework is still much higher, staying stable at 93 percent during that whole period. It’s also terrible that only half of all dads are actively raising their kids. Why is this?
For one thing, we’re not expected to. “The handy thing about being a father is that the historic standard is so pitifully low,” writes Michael Chabon in the opening essay in Manhood for Amateurs. Chabon goes on to relay an incident when he received high praise for being a great dad simply for doing groceries solo with his 20-month-old. Positive acknowledgements like that may seem progressive-minded—at least that person was not horrified that a father was alone with his child—but ultimately it’s a back-handed way of saying thanks, but no thanks.
The bar has been set low indeed, and the assumption that men are uninterested lingers. When I wanted to join a parents group on Facebook to ask about finger foods for baby-led weaning, I had to practically sneak into one exclusively for moms. And meanwhile, decades of TV shows that trade in idiot fathers—Homer Simpson king among them—and the perennial advertisements depicting dads as domestically clueless has ingrained in us that we may as well not try.
Maybe that sounds like just another excuse (like a lot of dads, I’m pretty skilled at making up good ones). But when you come across a counterpoint, a piece of pop culture that shows dads who do more or want to do more, you can immediately sense the kind of inspiration that we sorely lack. Around the same time that I was not reading that parenting book, I also watched The Other F Word, a documentary about punk rockers whose lifestyles were dramatically changed once they became fathers. At one point in the film, Jim Lindburg of Pennywise laments the fact that he has to go on tour and keep up the appearance of being an angry nihilist when all he really wants to do is be at home taking care of his daughters. He’s trapped, because his family’s livelihood depends on him carrying on this double life, one which also keeps him away from that family. It’s an extreme example, but it epitomizes a modern father’s dilemma. One cannot perform the generally accepted version of manhood, we are told, while also performing as a competent parent. Lindburg eventually quits the band to spend more time with his family, for real.
The fallout from a lack of equity in raising children is potentially severe. On the flip side of the low expectation of fathers is the ridiculously high one of mothers, who are considered failures if they aren’t perfect. Relationships between parents suffer in these straitjackets, and the kids suffer, too. Thankfully, the doofus dad trend does seem to be on the wane. So let’s be grateful to all the dads who got mad at that onesie yesterday, as trivial as it may have seemed. We need to keep telling purveyors of damaging stereotypes which of their holes to stick themselves in.