Diapers and Hormones: An Account of 21st Century Fatherhood
- Reviewed by Matt Reed
About halfway into The Daddy Shift, Jeremy Adam Smith's thoroughly researched and deeply felt book describing the experiences of stay-at-home dads in America, I learned an unsettling fact. When a child is born not only does the father's levels of testosterone fall dramatically, but those fathers who are physically close to mother and child will also experience increases in prolactin (the hormone primarily responsible for lactation) to aid in the bonding process. As a thirty-three year old man who read a good part of this book with his three month old daughter tethered to the front of his chest, has taken to carrying a diaper bag over his shoulder like a purse, and recently caught himself singing to his daughter in public, it seemed now like I was fighting a war for the definition of manliness on two fronts – as both society and biology were squeezing me out of the pleasantly unfocused plan I'd had for my future.
|The Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family
By Jeremy Adam Smith
Paperback, 256 pages
Beacon Press: 2010
List price: $16.00
I had spent a good part of my life since graduating from college avoiding the forward-looking milestones (such as marriage, careers, and home ownership) that college graduates in my parents' generation expected to reach in what seemed like weeks after setting off on their own. Instead I spent the decade living on the cheap, trying to accumulate as little life clutter as possible as a full time ski instructor, then grad student, then dorm Parent and prep school English teacher. I learned that my girlfriend was pregnant one night last March after returning from visiting Ph.D. programs and I was so taken aback, I had trouble finding my way out of the airport parking garage. My daughter was born eight months later in November. In the short time since, my girlfriend has gone back to work, and I care for our daughter during the day. We live in a small two-room apartment as we try to save money to buy a house and we marvel at how strange and wonderful it is being parents.
When I stumbled into fatherhood I understood I was taking on a new role, but I never expected to be shaped into a caregiver from the inside out, or as this book suggests, that I was joining a modern revolution of dads.
Smith's goal in The Daddy Shift is not to undercut the traditional role and image of fatherhood but to augment them with new ways of approaching stale ideas of dad. He recounts the history of fatherhood in America starting with the Civil War from which he excerpts affectionate letters (though they seem formal and stiff in the diction of the day) from soldiers to their children and wives. He continues up to the 1980’s which marked the moment when the stay-at-home dad and pop culture first crossed paths with the release of the movie, Mr. Mom.
What's interesting about this history is there is very little documentation about the state of fatherhood until the last twenty years. The evidence in the book is either anecdotal or closely linked with economic studies. For instance, we know that stay-at-home fathering spiked amid the vast male unemployment of the Great Depression, but we don't know much else about the practical side of fathering history. Things that new dads might like to know - like how those fathers of yore transitioned their kids from breastfeeding to bottle feeding or how they prevented diaper rash was left for the mothers to share amongst themselves, these weren't the lessons passed down from male to male.
But just because that practical information hasn't been recorded doesn't mean it isn't being experienced. As of the 2000 census, Smith writes there are approximately 170,000 stay at home dads in the United States. He guesses this is a vast under counting because this number doesn't include those dads who work part time or in some other way contribute to breadwinning. But his point is that the numbers only serve to illustrate that dad as primary caregiver is a growing trend and that it's as much a question of identity as economics. A large part of this book, then, is devoted to shaking the reader free of the traditional notions of American fatherhood, (ie., breadwinner and authoritarian), and it's the nooks and crannies of this argument (and the peeks into other cultures; China, for instance) where the book shines.
Throughout the book, he interviews a variety of stay-at-home dads and asks them questions like: “What kind of role model is [your dad] for you as a father… What are some things a good father does?” While each of these conversations are earnest and sincere, they represent a weak spot in the book, in part because it's obvious these men usually don't talk about this kind of stuff - at least not face to face. There is none of the stilted discourse, though, in his blog, Daddy Dialectic where discussion topics (contributed by upwards of 100 stay-at-home dads) have included Rad Dad, Poop Banter, and Space Travel, making it a much better tool for those of us making do in the trenches.
While it might be packaged as a book on parenting, The Daddy Shift is more of a call to solidarity - a rallying cry for those of us who occupy what might be considered a difficult circumstance - to see fatherhood as a privilege. Towards the end of the book, Smith proposes a thought experiment in which he lays out what a father utopia might look like and makes no bones that we have to be proactive in order to make stay-at-home fathering a lasting part of American society. I have to say, though, that it's an awkward dynamic - reading a book that proclaims revolution (at least in modest terms), then closing it to return to the messiness of my own experience.
But, just this week and with the help of a medicine dropper, I finally managed to feed my daughter by myself and even with a good portion dribbling from her chin the accomplishment felt like utopia enough for me.