As a culture we collectively lament what happens to women when they become mothers: We watch friends, colleagues, and perfectly respectable acquaintances who once had legitimately interesting opinions turn into half-wits who won’t shut up about cloth diapers and choking hazards. But the thing is, this happens to men, too. We just don’t really portray it that way.
Because women, historically, have done the lion’s share of the cooking and nurturing and cleaning in the world, we are retroactively defined by it even as egalitarianism becomes more of a domestic norm. (And what’s more, we like all that lady stuff, right!) When a hetero couple becomes pregnant, the expectations for what roles the man and woman play when it comes to the prep work of baby life feels a lot like planning the wedding: The woman will naturally have all the opinions, the man will be allowed approval on some of them.
But decades of feminist mothering, economic progress, shifting attitudes, and the increasing rejection by women of those traditional roles has both encouraged and necessitated male involvement in the domestic realm. Men may still not do much in the way of planning weddings (the groomzilla excepted), but as fathers, they’ve begun to get their own unique brand of soul-deadening caregiving on. And they can be just as fixated on the minutia of childrearing as anyone.
Of course, when they do, it is portrayed with respect and validation, just like you’d expect. Take strollers. A little style piece in the New York Times looks at one man’s quiet obsession with strollers, and then eventual relief when he discovered other dads just like him with a lot of money and a fresh outlet for spending it are into strollers too. Nick Bilton confesses that he had been into them long before fatherhood was in his sightlines, just as obsessed with them as he was with café racers (which: what is it with dudes and café racers? Every dude!) Bilton writes:
The one difference is that baby strollers are not something you brag about at a bar with your buddies. My obsession was something that only my wife knew about, and appropriately made fun of me for.
Then, a few weeks ago, we were at brunch with several couples (some with babies) and the subject of strollers came up. At first, I kept quiet, but the men at the table began voicing very strong and considered opinions about their favorites.
“I’m totally into the Uppababy Vista,” one dad in his 40s said matter-of-factly, noting that the one he owned cost $750. Another man said he loved the Baby Jogger City Mini because it is light, agile with little wheels and costs around $400. He added that his “dream” stroller was the Stokke Xplory, which can cost more than $1,700, if you include the carry-cot.
Hahah, $1,700. Unlike its female equivalent, marketed man-gear gets to be both fetishistic and socially approved, whether we’re talking grills or watches or sporting equipment. Fatherhood accouterment is no different, particularly the daddy diaper bags that are functional but disguised, careful to convey that you’re still a man even though you’re doing this baby thing and, hey, you probably have the equipment to change a flat in there, too, in case anyone wondered whether you still have a dick.
But there are two ways to look at this underneath the obvious class privilege in dropping a cool grand on a stroller. One the one hand, it’s a bummer: While every woman is a natural would-be mother who is in it for the actual baby and untold joys of nurturing, it seems we still have to find acceptable, gender-coded ways to make fatherhood something it’s OK for men to be into. I know: the gear! That’ll make it worth it. Fuck the baby, check out these wheels. Even the headline: Fatherhood has its rewards. As if fatherhood is a baseline Shit Thing, but hey, sometimes there’s an upside, and it’s dropping mad dough on a new kind of transpo, bro. Can you imagine any headline about motherhood framed this way? Motherhood has its rewards: a $2600 diaper bag. Only in Selfish Monsters Daily News (full disclosure, I’ve been a regular contributor since birth).
The message here seems to be that if men can just apply their interest in cars, facts, figures, safety or competition to the enterprise of baby stuff, then they can get their head around it and it makes some kind of sense. This is totally opposed to the world women are said to enter as they become mothers: lotta feelings, lotta stuff, nothing quantifiable.
Not that men don’t have feelings and women don’t care about safety or competition or facts: they do; they do. But we’ve yet to reach a point where we portray parents as capable of caring about both at the same time, or caring about either thing as a function of personality rather than gender. We rarely show women as baby gear geeks, and sweet ads that show dads fully immersed in dad life—like this quite poignant VW ad—are still pretty rare.
Furthermore, we’ve yet to show that men and women can both get brain mush when they are fully immersed in parenting—that they both can have significant shifts in their interests, concerns, personalities, focus, and ability to be a cool person at a party. We just still don’t hold this against men, if we even acknowledge it at all. A woman is a baby-obsessed shell of a former person; a man is a sheepish secret stroller obsessive who will soon be validated.
But the other way of looking at a style piece on expensive strollers is that even though it’s gender normative, it’s still a shift toward a world where being into fatherhood and diving in however you can—even if that entry point is high-end strollers for bragging rights at brunch—can finally be talked about, celebrated, joked about.
There is of course, nothing wrong with women being however they are and using those skills as mothers, and men being however they are and using those skills as fathers. In my house, my husband, a former Boy Scout, oversees the building of all robots. It falls to me to do most of the emotional work of helping my daughter sort out her feelings. But the difference between us and the ads is that we know the cultural conditioning behind why we’re like this—that it’s not because this is “how we are” but rather “how we’ve been raised.” It’s as arbitrary as being able to buy a $1700 stroller. So we spend most of our time trying to make sure our daughter gets the best of our respective skills to be more well rounded than either of us is individually. If only that was how advertisers thought.
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Image via Lionsgate