Maybe it was Will Ferrell posing deadpan on the red carpet with his wife’s breast pump at this year’s Golden Globes that prompted me to think about fatherhood. Maybe it was that Simpsons episode when Homer totalled the family car. Maybe it was the tawdry moment that Zsa Zsa Gabor’s prince of a husband claimed bragging rights to Anna Nicole Smith’s baby. Whatever the cause, the subject has been much on my mind.
For me, any discussion about what it means to be a father begins with Robert Young. Young played the iconic dad in the ’50s family sitcom Father Knows Best, and he’s inextricably bound up with the notions about fatherhood that I imbibed as a child. He did what most TV dads of that era did: wore suits, came home from work, pecked his apron-clad wife on the cheek, read the paper, waited for dinner, and called his daughters names like Princess and Kitten. Jim Anderson, the insurance salesman Young portrayed, was bemused, steadfast and true – the go-to guy for sage advice. The man had gravitas. You don’t see it around much anymore.
There are some things you could never imagine a dad like Jim Anderson doing. One is buying his kid a black bib with the slogan “My dad kicks ass!” Two is embarking on fatherhood by donating his sperm to a neighbourhood bank. Three is boffing the babysitter. To be fair, you could also never picture him boiling an egg, picking up a dishtowel, or having the faintest clue where to find his wife’s clitoris, so I’m not suggesting that we turn back the clock. All I’m saying is that there was something unmistakably fatherly about Robert Young – at least as I grew up understanding that word. Whatever Young was selling, it was heady stuff, and it’s a quality I miss when I observe the prototypes of fatherhood today.
If you’re looking for a dad to admire in the culture-at-large right now, the pickin’s are slim. You can go with the absentee dad (the one who chooses to disappear, not the one who’s had leaving thrust upon him); the doofus dad (that cute but incompetent arrested-development case forever cropping up on TV sitcoms); the rampant seed-sower dad (a.k.a. the baby daddy, that fatherly paragon who thinks his obligations end with a sperm deposit. In this niche, your choices are Kevin Federline, or that chorus of dads gone wild who so fondly remember Anna Nicole Smith).
Sadly, ours is not a golden age for inspirational Father Knows Best models. Still, confessing to a sentimental longing for a ’50s dad is a startling admission for me to make, since I’m of the generation that pilloried guys like that. We wanted our men to be more domestically democratic, to become more involved. Little did we know that, one day, the offspring of our fantasy – alterna-dad, as he is known – would be strolling the red carpet accessorized with a breast pump. All that I can say is be careful what you wish for.
Not that I wish to sound ungrateful. As inspirational role models go, alterna-dad looks like real progress – at least at first glance. He talks the talk, gets down with the doula in the delivery room, and seems so utterly feminized that, fully loaded, he probably now comes with a uterus.
Why is it, then, that whenever I see this breed of guy strolling down the avenue with his indie-labelled offspring in tow, I so often have the feeling that, for him, fatherhood is more about image than about substance – less a higher calling, or grown-up responsibility, than an opportunity to extend his brand?
For my generation of women, the ideal of the domestic dad was a guy who assumed half the slog of parenthood. Not that I actually knew any guys who did that in real life, but, as aspirations go, at least we shot for the moon. It’s more than I can say for today’s model. Sure, we can all trot out dads who are boldly re-imagining fatherhood even as we speak – but, more and more, the ideal of domestic fatherhood seems to be about its accoutrements, and not its heavy lifting.
Which is where it loses me. Because it doesn’t matter how aesthetically enlightened a parent you are, whether you make your kids listen to Raffi or force-feed them Wilco: One day they’ll roll their eyes and turn on you just the same. In the end, what truly defines a father has nothing to do with the trappings. It has to do with whether he shows up, stands tall and points the way. Just ask Robert Young.