During the Mad Men days of American life, children only further reinforced traditional gender roles. Girls who’d been coached to value pink and pretty things, play with dolls and help their mothers bake cakes were suddenly thrust into the womanly role of homemaker. Meanwhile, boys who were raised to appreciate athletics, pragmatic wage-earning and inscrutable emotional expression played their manly part by bringing home the bacon and eating it, too.
Decades later, there’s a bit more room for nuance. Couples, not to mention single moms and dads, can arrive at parenthood as who they are−be it gay, straight, a wiz in the kitchen, aces with home-repair tools, none of the above or some combination thereof and more−and let the experience of raising children define their work/life balance.
That first year-plus of doting and pampering will leave you questioning your relationship to manliness, no matter how you defined it before.
As a heterosexual, married male in my mid-30s who’s immersed in raising a 16-month-old son, fatherly duty has been no less influential than growing up as my mother’s baby boy. And similarly, it’s been just as emasculating. So I implore all you new and soon-to-be first-time dads: Dive in hands-on and heart open. It’s a socially accepted privilege of this generation that most elder males would envy, even if they wouldn’t trade their Don Draper heyday. But also be warned: That first year-plus of doting and pampering will leave you questioning your relationship to manliness, no matter how you defined it before. With that solidarity, and appropriate transparency, in mind, here are five of the most jarring ways in which being a dad has grabbed me by the balls.
5. Just another case of that old P.T.A.
I consider myself many things: marginally talented writer, pop-culture literate and cartoonishly neurotic, to cherry-pick a few. Visually skilled, however, I am not. Nor do I own or know how to use a digital camera. Yet, I am part of my son’s daycare facility’s photography committee. Me and a handful of moms. And I’m generally consulted on matters pertaining to the newborn through pre-K student body. And I’ve lodged formal complaints about parents wantonly parking in infant-family spots. My future participation in bake sales and brainstorming sessions with administrators is a mere formality. Despite my child being shy of two years old, I am already the stage dad of toddler school.
4. Second to one
While it’s amusing, or at least conjures Austin Powers memories, to be designated as number two, it can be a hard adjustment in the home. It takes years of work for two individuals to transcend their individual histories and function as a unit, only for a tiny homo sapien to emerge and wedge itself in with the unlikely persistence of a brazen sperm penetrating one single fertile egg. While that metaphor makes it seem like having birth is tantamount to divorce by force, it’s much more sinister: You’re still important to your partner, even loved and protected in ways that have taken on new resonance. But unless you’ve been stabbed and are bleeding out in the driveway, that baby will always come first−at least until it’s a vindictive teenage asshole and you’re backing to being ally number-one.
Indoor Kenny has gone public, and there’s no undoing what’s been seen and heard.
3. Say cheesy
You will show pictures of your kid to people, be they best friends, local bartenders or hibachi chefs (the latter may be unique to me). I personally have gotten responses ranging from a matter-of-fact, “I don’t care” to more polite-if-begrudging, “Ha, oh yeah, that’s amazing.” But it’s not. And those without kids can’t relate, while those who have them invariably take your slideshow as an affront to their own offspring’s exceptionalness. Yet, as I have and do, you will continue to pull up jpegs on your phone or flip open to that wallet-size school portrait, flashing them like a detective searching for kidnapping victims. In reality, you’re merely holding that moment’s company−and your pride−hostage.
2. Invisible friend
With or without kids, we all have private, eccentric rituals for our eyes/ears (and maybe that of a close friend or significant other) only. For some, it might be silly in-jokes, while others might sing arias in the shower. But post-baby, those embarrassing little rituals and cute behavioral short hands fully flourish into casual routine. As a result, I’ve accidentally lapsed into nursery-rhyme cadence among friends over beers, squealed “Weeee!” with delight when the Mets have come from behind and, most embarrassingly, unconsciously rocked my arms even when they’re empty. Indoor Kenny has gone public, and there’s no undoing what’s been seen and heard.
1. Hangin’ with Mr. Pooper
On two recent occasions, while crashing with friends in an attempt to reclaim our debauched camaraderie, I fell asleep somewhere between a late dinner and nighttime news. On nights when my wife’s held the fort so I can watch a game at the local watering hole, I’ve generally come meekly back through our front door before the score’s been settled. Parenting is exhausting, but in a sneaky, cumulative sort of way. Even as you acclimate to the routine, your capacity to stay alert and awake fights against the tide. Eventually, you make less ambitious plans, resign yourself to less frequent adventures outside the house and rehearse a myriad of caveats for your childless pals about self-imposed curfews and drink limits. You’re no longer just raising a kid, but basically parenting yourself, which is a real bummer for other adults in your life. The upside is all those domestic nights in get stored up like social equity and purged on some cathartic getaway weekend with you and your partner. But the tradeoff is that you’re otherwise the ultimate buzz kill. Fortunately, unless your kid’s a total asshole, it’s worth it.