How to Dad Like a Girl

4 min read

It’s been so busy around here lately, I feel as if 2015 should be about half over. And yet, here we are, a mere month under our belts, the Super Bowl just barely behind us. Regardless of what happens today with the groundhog’s shadow, we almost certainly have more than six weeks of winter to get through.

As the film Groundhog Day teaches us, time is not a straight line but rather a theme park ride that races, crawls, and sometimes loops the loop. Still, I was surprised when I did the math recently and realized that it’s been just eighteen months since my return to full-time, paid work. Before that, for five years, I had two jobs: a half-time paid gig at a local bookstore, and a forty-hour a week unpaid job taking care of first one, then another of my young daughters.

As many have noted, this year’s Super Bowl commercials continued a trend toward dad-positive ads, whereas in the past they have tended to portray us as bumbling, drunken, sex-obsessed gear heads. Please. Let us be defined not by our hobbies, but rather by our callings.

EPSON MFP imageI didn’t plan to be a stay-at-home dad. My wife would have preferred to be the one staying home with our kids, and was home with our older daughter for almost two years while I worked a not-very-well-paid job and looked for a better-paying one. Finally, we realized that her speech language pathology masters would probably always earn us more money than my fiction M.F.A. Money was not just an abstract desire, suddenly. The kid seemed to need new clothes every other week. Also, we wanted to have another child.

To the extent that I could manage it, my older daughter and I stayed at home as little as possible. This wasn’t easy. She was a bit of a homebody, dragging her little feet at having to leave the house. I borrowed an idea from the social stories that my wife used when working with autistic kids and made a daily schedule: crudely drawn illustrations of the two of us, showing everything we were going to do that day. Suddenly, it was like a game. She got to go through the itinerary at home, then have the satisfaction of checking off the items in her memory as we actually did each one. We went to a playgroup at the Y every week, to the library every day, to the park whenever the weather was remotely fair.

Like the BabyBjörn dads in Similac’s recent “Mother ‘Hood” ad, I got my share of “mommy’s day off” comments. (Not so snide, of course. In my experience the smug, self-satisfied parents of that ad are creatures of parenting forums and article comment threads. I didn’t encounter anyone nearly so caustic in real life.)

I also got lots of references to Mr. Mom, which, as a fan of Michael Keaton’s comic acting, I mostly never minded. I did find it telling that most people, when attempting to place my situation in a pop-cultural sense, couldn’t put their finger on a reference that was less than twenty-five years old. To me, that said we really hadn’t come as far as we thought we had.

Regardless, most people I encountered seemed to find the two of us sweet. Cute. Heartwarming. Like the dads and their kids in the Dove #RealStrength ad. At first, I reveled in it. It feels good to have people smile at you wherever you go. But then that part of it—the instant sainthood—came to seem kind of undeserved. My wife also worked long hours during the week and spent the rest of her waking moments taking care of our kids, but not so often did anyone incline their head at her and say “I think what you’re doing is really special.”

So when I watch the ads, I’m glad that more “guys like me” are showing up during the Super Bowl ads. It’s tough to be a human of any kind, in any time, and measure oneself against an external set of expectations. But as the Similac ad shows, there are a lot more ways to be perceived as doing the mom thing wrong. Or, to put it more generally, the woman thing.

Which is why I was even happier to see the Always #LikeAGirl ad get a Super Bowl airing. That’s a huge audience for Always, but an even more important audience for their message. There’s real strength—as well as brand strength—in ignoring the labels that try to confine us.

P.S. Missy Elliott was pretty great, too, right?