The New Face of Fatherhood, on Display in New Orleans
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...
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