One afternoon, when my daughter, Freya, was 6 months old, she was sitting in my lap at my parents' kitchen table. I was chatting with my folks when I caught a familiar odor. I did something that my pre-fatherhood self could never have envisioned: an olfactory diaper check—I hoisted her up and sniffed her bottom.
My father flinched. "Did you just stick your nose in her butt?" Well, yeah, I replied—I thought she might need a change. "In 30 years of parenting I don't think I ever sniffed a single butt—yours or your brother's." My mom raised an eyebrow and shot back: "No, I don't believe you ever did."
There, wrapped in Huggies, is the difference between my dad's generation and my own. I am not foolish enough to claim to speak for every father of my cohort (which, according to most calculations, would be the lamentably labeled Generation X—I am 32), but along with many of the guys I know embarking on their first years of parenting, I am part of a broad generational shift: I took nine months off from work and am still home every Monday feeding, changing, teaching and exploring with Freya, now nearly 2i, while my wife works. I want to be clear: I am not asking for a medal; it is undoubtedly true that mothers still bear the vast burden of child rearing. But it is also true that many of the decisions I am making now as a parent are very different from the choices my folks made three decades ago.
Not—let's get this straight from the beginning—that they did anything wrong. My dad is a surgeon and worked hard to provide for my brother and me. Even now, he is out of the house most days by 7 or 8 a.m. and at work for the next 12 hours. My brother and I never wanted for anything materially. But the corollary to all those hours: we didn't see a whole lot of Dad during the week. Even on weekends, he'd go on rounds. (Shoot me if this is starting to sound like a Harry Chapin song.)
In 1960, American men married at an average age of 22.8 years old; in 2003, it was 27.1 years. My dad's was the first generation in which half of all men and women attended one or more years of college. The women of his generation were the first to choose to pursue a career in large numbers—my mom never once considered trading her real-estate job for diaper duty. I was in day care at an early age. Still, although we were a dual-income family, traditional gender roles still applied: my father was the primary breadwinner—and it was Mom who drove carpool and made sure the fridge was full.
So what's changed? When Freya was 3 months old, my wife (who out-earns me by several glorious miles) went back to work, and my own extended paternity leave began. The very words "paternity leave" set my dad's teeth on edge. This is a man whose first question to me in every conversation is "How's work?" I initially took six months' unpaid leave. As I might have predicted, this drove my dad nuts. "What do you do all day?" was his new conversation-starter. "When are you going back to work? You are going back to work, aren't you?" But Freya and I were getting along so well that I asked for—and was granted—three more months off. If my career was going to slow down for a spell—and I'm fortunate enough to be able to afford it—so be it.
While I was on leave, I fell into a predictable, if occasionally dull, routine. We spent a lot of time at playgrounds or on playdates (stay-at-home-dad perk: a glass of wine at the end of the day with bored young moms). I did the shopping and the cooking, the diaper changing and bathing. I became fluent in sleep schedules and stubborn dietary whims (I'd die happily without enduring another all-macaroni Monday). It was the most rewarding time of my life—and a bonding experience I wouldn't trade for anything. But when Freya turned 1 it was time for me to get back to work, as much for my sanity as my bank balance. All this is not to tell you what an awesome dad I am (although, if pressed, I will admit to being a little awesome). But I like to think that I will get something out of parenting that, maybe, my dad didn't. Clearly I'm not alone: in 1965 men spent just 2.6 hours a week with their kids—today that number is up to 6.5 hours. An impressive leap, but still shockingly low—that's less than an hour a day. What did Average '60s Dad do with his free time if it wasn't hanging out with his spawn?
In the last decade, the number of stay-at-home dads has tripled. "There's been a fascinating cultural shift," says Glen Palm, professor of family studies at Minnesota's St. Cloud State University. "Fathers today put much more focus on nurturing and caring for their kids than on the traditional breadwinner role." And they're willing to fight for it: since the mid-1990s, the number of men and women suing their employers for family leave has soared 300 percent. Men make up a growing segment of that group—11 percent, compared with 5 percent a decade ago. Why take such a risk? A survey released earlier this year by Minnesota's Department for Families and Children's Services shows that men consider child care to be far more important than a handsome paycheck. Out of 600 dads surveyed, a majority said their most important role was to "show love and affection" to kids. "Safety and protection" came next, "moral guidance," "tak[ing] time to play" and "teaching and encouraging." "Financial care" finished last.
These are the precise reasons I took time off to be with Freya. Some dads, and quite a few moms, jokingly questioned my sanity. For me, it's a no-brainer: beyond a sense of obligation, there is also the simple desire to get to know her. Also, she's ridiculously fun. Mind you, I'm not trying to be her friend. Rather, I want her to know that in me she'll always have a place to turn to feel safe, to calibrate her values, to seek counsel, to receive encouragement. For many dads, it's about reclaiming our share of nurturing from moms. (I have no doubt there are several states where saying that last sentence out loud could get me beaten up.)
Still, the stereotypes persist. Martha Stewart Living recently hosted a "Mr. Mom Show" in honor of "National Men Make Dinner Day." This was annoying on about 642 levels. First of all, "Mr. Mom"? That 1983 Michael Keaton movie relied on tired gender stereotypes for its equally tired gags about dads' getting peed on while changing diapers. Second of all, who gets away with cooking dinner only one night a year anymore? Then there's Parenting magazine. Look above its cover logo: you'll see a slogan that reads WHAT MATTERS TO MOMS. Oh, really? This would be like NEWSWEEK's suggesting that on its pages you'll find "Stuff that concerns menfolk."
Don't get me wrong. I'm no saint. Ask me when my kid's next appointment with her pediatrician is. No clue. Want to know her shoe size? You'd be better off asking Mom. I've been known to leave the house without a sippy cup. Or snacks. Or extra diapers. Once I locked my napping child along with my keys inside our apartment for an agonizing hour.
Still, the bottom line is that today's guys are procreating, parenting and pleased with ourselves. Sure, you'll have to endure the occasional hipster dad who slaps a Sex Pistols decal on his $800 Bugaboo stroller. Some of us will give our kids offbeat names like Freya and diligently document our every self-important, profanity-laced insight on our blogs. And it will be another generation who will tell us if this grand experiment has worked. But one thing is clear: we tend to have a different outlook than our fathers did. Maybe we take a little more active delight in our children. Maybe not.
At least we can tell you whether their butts smell funky.