Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
The New York Mets are—and I say this with all the love and frustration of a lifelong fan—a woeful team that even the most optimistic among us expect to have a lousy year. So, of all the players on the team, why is second baseman Daniel Murphy taking heat from sports commentators? Because he missed the first two games of the new season, taking a paternity leave to be there for the birth of his son.
Yes, you read that right. Two games. To be at the birth of his son. And here’s what that oh-so-lengthy absence left some well-known sports-radio personalities saying, according to the New York Daily News:
“Assuming the birth went well, the wife is fine, the baby is fine, 24 hours and then you get your ass back to your team and you play baseball.”
And from another: “One day [off] I understand. And in the old days they didn’t do that. But one day, go see the baby be born and come back. You’re a Major League Baseball player. You can hire a nurse to take care of the baby if your wife needs help.”
For dads, how long to take off after baby’s birth can be a tough call. Despite the fact that the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees up to 12 unpaid weeks of leave for men and women alike, not many fathers take more than a few days off when their little one arrives. There’s pressure from employers to contend with, and the self-imposed pressure (real or imagined) of wanting to be seen in the best light at work, not to mention cultural forces about men’s roles to content with. And, of course, unpaid leave is an economic pressure for nearly everyone and an impossibility for many—major-league ballplayers excluded.
To slam Murphy’s two-game leave as treasonous is absurd. Here’s what he had to say to ESPN about the brouhaha, referring to his wife and his desire to be there for her:
“It’s going to be tough for her to get up to New York for a month. I can only speak from my experience — a father seeing his wife – she was completely finished. I mean, she was done. She had surgery and she was wiped. Having me there helped a lot, and vice versa, to take some of the load off…. It felt, for us, like the right decision to make.”
While he was away, I am sure Murphy was thinking of his team often and even missing them, just as he will be thinking of his newborn back home as he dedicates himself to his team for the remainder of the season. Finding the right work-life balance is no easier for a multimillionaire baseball player than it is for you and me, and we all feel torn between our commitments to our families, our jobs, and ourselves.
I struggled with these issues as well. Taking two weeks off when each of my daughters was born was a no-brainer. But now, as my wife heads back to work after her own five-month maternity leave, I am on the threshold of a longer paternity leave—five weeks, starting Monday. Making the decision to take the time off involved a lot of intense discussions with my wife and internal soul-searching about what is most important to me and how I want to spend and remember this time in my life. Stepping back, even for a few weeks, from a job that is busy and that means a lot to me, is scary, and it remains something that is never easy.
Far from criticizing Murphy’s leave, we should be celebrating it. The more of us who take time to be with our families, the better it is—for ourselves, our kids, and our wives or partners. And the more men who take paternity leave, the better it will be for all new fathers, because over time, it will become normal and expected, not something to criticize or even remark on. Especially seeing athletes do it, those most manly of professionals, will hopefully encourage others to do the same. Yes, there are occasionally things that are more important than supporting the team. Instead of criticizing, let’s look to a future in which taking time to be with our kids is the norm, not the exception, and in which a mere two days is laughably short.
See you in May. Until then, I’m off daddying.
Murphy and his wife named their newborn Noah. Try our Baby Name Finder to discover the perfect name for your newest addition!
Image: New York Mets Daniel Murphy and wife Victoria Tori Ahern attend the Aces, Inc. All Star party at Marquee on July 14, 2013 in New York City via Shutterstock.
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Wednesday, March 26th, 2014
About a year ago, many of my friends, along with a certain segment of the Jewish world, were excited about the publication of a new children’s book, an event that is usually so routine it rarely elicits notice, let alone comment. This book, however, was different: The Purim Superhero features a brother and sister who live with their two dads. It is billed as the first Jewish kids’ book to feature same-sex parents or any type of LGBT characters, and was on Parents.com’s recently published list of great children’s books with same-sex parents. (The title refers to a Jewish holiday that, coincidentally, was celebrated earlier this month.)
I recently thought of the book and the enthusiasm it provoked when I read about a study showing just how few newly published children’s books portray characters from racial and ethnic minorities: Of 3,200 books published in 2013 and studied by researchers at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, they found only 93 about black characters; 57 about Latinos; 69 about Asian; and 34 about American Indians.
That amounts to… not a lot.
This is a shame on so many levels. Most obviously, for kids who themselves belong to any of these terribly underrepresented groups—but also for all of us. The problem with these stats is the flip side of the excitement my friends and I felt for The Purim Superhero. The stories that we tell ourselves—and certainly the stories we read to our children—matter. Deeply. They help us understand and make sense of our world, they help us define ourselves and our values, they help us appreciate how others feel and how to put words to our own feelings. It is not just a matter of seeing myself in these stories, it is a matter of seeing my world—and the world I want to live in.
The American family is changing, fundamentally, rapidly. Whatever the world of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents looked like, today’s world, and certainly tomorrow’s world, will look very different. I want to be able to help my children understand, value, and cherish other people and other families, regardless of what they look like, where they come from, how they worship, or who they love. If the kids’ book world cannot capture in any adequate way the range of racial and ethnic diversity among American families, what hope is there for depictions of newer and less traditional family arrangements?
Books are a big way to help us accomplish that. Without them to aid us, the task is that much harder.
As our values and the realities of our world change over time, so should our books, which can help our kids feel comfortable with and accepting of ideas–and people and family arrangements–that are new, different, and perhaps at first unusual to them. In addition to its two-daddy household, The Purim Superhero features a woman rabbi as the spiritual leader of their synagogue. Depicting a woman in the historically male role of rabbi would have been remarkable a couple of generations ago, and virtually unthinkable before then. Today it is hardly mentioned, if at all, in coverage of and discussions about the book. My kids shrug at it, just as they shrug at the idea of a family with two daddies, and that’s in part thanks to the book they’re asking me to read again and again.
It’s important to note that The Purim Superhero wasn’t created in a vacuum and it wasn’t a happy accident of writer meets publisher. It was the product of a writing contest held by Keshet, an advocacy group for LGBT Jews (the name means “rainbow” in Hebrew)–which saw the contest a great way to find, publish, and publicize an engaging book with the character, themes, and message of so important to the organization.
Perhaps it’s time for others to follow that model. Strangely, the University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that the number of children’s books featuring characters from the groups it studied dropped over the past decade.
We’re going the wrong way. It’s time for our kids’ books to look like America.
Plus: What career will your child have? Find out!
Image of girl reading book via Shutterstock.
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Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
Ever feel that you’re hopelessly addicted to your mobile phone—and that your kids are quickly learning to be just as tied to their devices? Welcome to the club. Between iPhones, iPads (and electronic-toy replicas thereof), and of course, television, I think it’s safe to say most of us, and most of our kids, are too absorbed with our technology at the expense of experiencing the world around us and interacting—face to face, not virtually—with each other.
One movement is proposing a solution, at least for one day: The National Day of Unplugging, scheduled for sunset Friday through sunset Saturday, aims to have families put down the devices for 24 hours. Modeled explicitly after the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat in Hebrew), the idea is the brainchild of a Jewish cultural group called Reboot.
Our family has a day of unplugging not just once per year, but every week: We are Jewish Sabbath observers, and as such we are offline Friday evening through Saturday evening every week. Aside from just putting away our devices and turning off the television, during the Sabbath we avoid spending money, driving in a vehicle, talking on the phone (even a landline!), and many other activities of everyday life.
And it works for us. Though we hear occasional grumbling from our kids, such complaints are rare. Instead, our kids play with old-fashioned, creativity-inspiring toys. We have family meals together, visit with friends, read together, and go to synagogue. We talk. Crazy, I know.
So is a “technology Sabbath” a good idea for your family? I highly recommend the idea of a day-long, family-wide device-free day (no need to go quite as tech-free as we do), but not without some advice and warnings. And while the idea of a specific, nationwide “Day of Unplugging” is a nice idea, this can be accomplished any day you think it would be successful.
For starters, have a plan for what to do on your day of unplugging. Merely putting down your devices without making this gesture part of a larger idea of connecting as a family is bound to fail in a blizzard of protests. Shabbat works for us not just because we disconnect from modern technology, but because we spend it as a family. For us that means good meals (with extra snacks), time with friends, and synagogue. For you it might be a day at an amusement park or other local fun destination, or a series of smaller activities at or around home.
Secondly, don’t feel a need to spend every minute together. My oldest is increasingly occupied with afternoon play dates, but even then, I know she is interacting with her friends and not just playing video games in parallel with them. And even if she’s out for the afternoon, chances are strong that we’ve spent far more time together as a family—and quality time at that—than any other day of the week.
However, don’t expect miracles. My kids don’t become little angels when the sun sets on Friday. They still fight, nag, refuse to eat anything healthy, demand to get their way, and otherwise act like the 7- and 3-year old they are. Not that I am complaining (well, maybe a little). It’s not like human nature is suspended for 25 hours, as this Kveller.com blog post, which made the rounds among my Sabbath-observing friends recently, so vividly dramatizes.
Lastly, despite the good intentions and enthusiasm of those behind the National Day of Unplugging, it’s hard for me to see how a one-off day of disconnecting would make much of a difference, other than giving families a small glimpse at what can be. Unplugging for one day per year is, I would guess, just as likely to cause intense grumbling and fights over the suddenly-changed rules as it is to foster a memorable day of communication and interaction.
So yes, I’d still strongly recommend you try unplugging for this National Day of Unplugging. But I’d recommend even more strongly making it a regular thing—as long as you make those days filled with togetherness and meaningful, fun interaction.
Plus: What’s your parenting style? Take our quiz and find out!
Image: Kids using mobile devices via Shutterstock
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Big Kids, Child Development
Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
We’ve all heard countless “jokes” about the sleeplessness of parenthood, whines about never seeing a movie, pleas for a glass of wine. If you’ve ever thought that being around us parents is enough to scare off the young from having children, here is the Slate essayist Ruth Graham saying just that and decrying the “pissed-parent genre”:
“My Facebook feed goes wild for this stuff… because apparently parents never get their houses clean, never have sex, never read books or have adult conversations, never shower, and never, ever have a moment to themselves,” Graham writes. “But for me, a childless woman, the cumulative effect of all of this ‘honesty’ is a growing sense of dread.”
Graham’s piece—subtitled “Why do parents make parenting sound so God-awful”—stuck with me, for its level-headed analysis of this constant drumbeat of unhappiness and the pathos of her terrified reaction. “It’s not your responsibility to promote the parenting brand,” she concludes, speaking to parents directly. “But if you can manage it, consider occasionally sparing a thought for the nonparents among you who are eavesdropping on your online conversations.”
Graham was motived to write her piece in part by the publication of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by the journalist Jennifer Senior. Building on research that shows parents are no happier, and may be less happy, than non-parents, she suggests that the realities of modern parenting conspire to make this the case. We’re having children later in life (and are therefore more aware of what we’re giving up) and working more (and therefore struggling to carve out time for our children).
And, Senior argues, the very institution of parenthood has transformed: In the past, children served an economic purpose, helping in the fields or learning a trade as early as they can. Today’s parents are more focused on their children’s psychological and emotional developments, goals that are murkier and harder to define. “Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard,” Senior writes. “Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”
We parents are in a bind when it comes to discussing the realities of parenthood. Focus on the negative too much, and you’re scaring the young folks, like Graham, not to mention becoming what we tell our children to avoid being–constant whiners. Focus on the positive too much and you’re accused of being unrealistic, sugarcoating the difficulties, and making other parents feel they are alone in their challenges.
Years ago, when my wife and I started to tell people she was pregnant with our first child, we were struck by how many friends responded with that now-trite, “Get all the sleep you can now!” or some variation thereof. Hearing these exhortations one time too many, I committed to having a different reaction when friends broke their pregnancy news to me. Instead of launching into the obvious warnings and complaints, I tell them honestly that, despite what they’ve heard, parenthood is incredible, and assure them they will make fantastic parents. Still, there’s no escaping the negativity.
The issue seems to have struck a chord with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who likewise connects Senior’s book and Graham’s essay. He issues something of a mea culpa—admitting that parenthood has made him a “whiner”–and pledges to do better. He calls on parents to be “cheerful warriors, to emphasize the joy rather than the misery, while also extending tolerance and understanding–rather than judgment infused with envy–to friends and neighbors who choose a different path.”
Douthat picks up on a fascinating part of Senior’s argument about why so many parents are unhappy, contrasting the parent-child relationship to virtually every other connection we have in our lives today. Being a parent is in some ways counter-cultural. In a society where so many of our connections are fleeting—where we switch partners and careers more easily than ever, where we expect instant gratification and endless personalization—the unbreakable nature of the parent-child relationship is unique.
“It isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations,” Douthat comments. “Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways–because babies still need what babies need–while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.”
That can be scary for many people, and the sacrifices it entails can be daunting, leading to greater unhappiness among parents and even lower birthrates.
Ultimately, comparing the happiness level of parents and non-parents seems to me to be an apples-oranges question and one for which much depends on what definition you have in mind for “happiness.” Defined by our culture’s insatiable desire for instant gratification, we parents probably are not very happy. But that’s not all there is to life.
Though the comparison is imperfect, there are parallels between parenthood and the life of an Olympic athlete. Are Olympic hopefuls happy? Are they having fun? After all, they’ve sacrificed greatly, choosing a difficult, risky path often from a very early age and forgoing much of the normal rhythms and activities of childhood and their teenage years. Those countless hours on the ice or the slopes must be at times monotonous, frustrating, disappointing, grueling, even crushing—and at times joyful, hopeful, inspiring, fun, and deeply fulfilling. Kind of like parenthood.
It’s their choice, sure, and unlike us parents Olympians can walk away. But why don’t they? It’s something deep inside them, like it is with us parents. That’s not to say we parents should be miserable today in order to be happy later on—anyone who is truly “all joy and no fun” is doing something wrong, for sure—but it does mean that parenting is a mixed bag, and its reward is deeper and different than anything else we experience. It’s indescribable. Like love. Like life.
What career will your child have? Take our quiz to find out!
Image: Kids fighting and crying with desperate mother in the background via Shutterstock
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Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
Let loose 200+ guys for a weekend in New Orleans—sans wives, partners, and kids—and you may expect the equivalent of a Judd Apatow plot. And there we were, doing what guys do: welling up at moving descriptions of father-child bonding, discussing how we can be better fathers, and dissecting how the role of dad is reflected in our broader culture. It was my first Dad 2.0 Summit, and I am so grateful to have spent these days doing a deep-dive into the meaning of fatherhood with some of the best observers and chroniclers of the topic out there today.
Here are seven key points I came away with:
There is a new dad in town. The conference, more than anything, celebrated the “new face of fatherhood,” a phrase that was repeated often in one way or another. This new model of father is unafraid to show and discuss his emotions, prioritizes family over work and struggles with work-life balance, expects to be treated in the media—as in all aspects of life–as a competent, involved father and not a Homer Simpson-type fool, and defines his identity as father first, everything else second. He is conscious of how new this is, so different than fathers past, and eager to celebrate it, even as he admits freely to the fears and insecurities that so many of us face. And he wants you to know how much he loves being a father and how much he loves his children. Suppressing emotions is so yesteryear; today’s guy gushes. Stoic is out, sappy is in. (Personally, I am guilty as charged.)
We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet. A couple of years ago, Huggies put out a commercial that was widely seen as demeaning to fathers. Thanks in large part to the efforts of many of the dad bloggers I met in New Orleans, the commercial was pulled and new, completely different, better one was created in its place. The incident has come to be seen as a turning point, showing the power of the dad community and heralding a new assertiveness, a willingness to fight the old, insulting portrait of dads that the media often painted. However, plenty of examples of the bumbling dad remain, and nearly three-quarters of men say they feel falsely depicted in advertising, according to Rob Candelino, the VP of marketing for Unilever, who spoke at the conference as part of Dove Men+Care’s sponsorship of the event. Falling back on the easy stereotype is always tempting, I am sure, for someone trying to get a laugh or sell a product, but these fathers are ready to stand up to depictions of dad as unable to change diapers or make a decision about their kids’ lives. Of course, we all went home and watched the Super Bowl hours later, happily seeing plenty of sweet examples of the “new dad” being depicted in the commercials. Proof that our culture is changing its view of dads, for the better.
Fathers are important. While there was a lot of talk about how dads are more involved than ever in their kids’ lives, there was also some talk about how more kids than ever are growing up without a dad in the house. For many kids, dad remains an important presence despite their not living together—but for many others, there is no father in the picture. A growing area of interest is research into the impact on kids’ lives and their future successes of having, or not having, an involved father. One example is the upcoming book, Do Fathers Matter: What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We’ve Overlooked, by science journalist Paul Raeburn, which will be released in advance of Father’s Day this year.
Being a new kind of dad can be lonely. This is especially true of the stay-at-home fathers, who were well represented at the conference. One spoke of being the only guy at mommy-and-me classes, and I imagine that that experience is not uncommon. They look to the blogging world for community and connection with other dads who are like them, amd a conference like this offers a rare opportunity to spend time in person with other dads whose lives are as focused on their kids.
Dads are making more buying decisions. Marketers have generally targeted moms as the decision makers in the household when it comes to kid-related purchases large and small. While that’s not going to change anytime soon, there was a sense that as dads become more involved in their kids’ lives overall, they are also making more purchasing decisions. In addition to Dove, conference sponsors included, among others, Cottonelle, Kraft Cheese, and Lego (as well as Meredith’s Parents Network, which includes Parents.com). All of these would likely have been considered mom’s territory in the past. There was also a panel dedicated to marketing to men and understanding how dads make buying decisions.
Fatherhood can be good business. Many of the dads at the conference derive a steady income from their blogs and/or the books they wrote (which often spring from their blogs). But beyond that, some dads are venturing into new money-making projects that are intimately tied to their identity as fathers. Most riveting was the Family Adventure Guy, Charles Scott, who quit his high-level job at Intel to spend more time with his kids (not a euphemism in his case) while also pursuing his passion for extreme sports: He takes his kids on amazing adventures, such as biking the full length of Japan, and makes money by blogging about it, soliciting corporate sponsorships, doing speaking gigs, and writing a book.
We love moms. Speaker after speaker made clear that they do not want to incite a competition for who does more or who has it harder. They were conscious that discussions of dads’ roles and the challenges we face can easily devolve into yet another war of the sexes. But the challenges and accomplishments of one group need not imply anything about the other. Moms paved the way—as involved parents and as bloggers—and the dads at the conference looked to them for inspiration and advice, and several great mom bloggers were in attendance.
Of course, the weekend wasn’t all panel discussions and keynote speakers. It was New Orleans, after all…
See all of my posts from and about Dad 2.0 Summit here. For a laugh watch this video from the Lords of the Playground, who attended the conference as well:
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