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Fatherhood: The Big Easy

Photograph by Twenty20

There is a strange subgenre of movies, often headlined by kiddie icons like Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler, about workaholics dads who are just too obsessed with business and their professional lives to spend enough time with their families, particularly their adoring sons, until some manner of metaphysical tomfoolery—being unable to lie, only having a thousand words left in a lifetime, being given a magical remote control—teaches them the error of their ways and the importance of family.

Movies like these place a disproportionate emphasis on dads popping up in the stands for their son's big game, and for whatever reason, these movies tend to focus on sons, which is why I'll also be focusing on sons rather than daughters here. Perhaps because they so wholly embody the lazy, casual sexism of our day, and particularly the movie world, these movies prioritize the bond between fathers and sons in a way they do not fathers and daughters.

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Indeed, these overworked papas' misplaced priorities are often illustrated by early scenes of an adoring, cherubic, shaggy-haired little boy sadly staring at his baseball glove in resigned disappointment after the mother tells them that even though he promised he'd make the big game no matter what, Dad's business meeting ran late yet again and he won't be able to make it. Sometimes a musical recital or a play takes the place of the big game but the arc remains consistent: a dad who prioritizes business over family must climactically choose family over business, even if doing so harms him professionally or costs his family financial security.

These movies place an enormous emphasis on dads nailing the sort of symbolic gestures movies love, but it's telling to me that they don't really seem to expect or demand more of these harried, overworked dads other than symbolic gestures. Watching movies and TV shows in our country, it's easy to get the sense that if a dad goes to his son's games, reads a bedtime story every now and then and doesn't forget his birthday or publicly harangue the boy's mother, then he is Father of the Year material. But the standards and expectations for mothers are so much higher.

It's unforgivable that men and women are held to such wildly differing standards when it comes to parenting but I realize that I have internalized some of this social conditioning as well.

It doesn't seem like too much of an exaggeration to state that if a man does more than the bare minimum as a father he is hailed by society and rewarded disproportionately whereas women are expected to give up everything for motherhoods—to sacrifice their professional and creative ambitions, figures, discretionary incomes, free time and sanity, and to do so lovingly, willingly and with a smile on their faces—or be considered hopelessly deficient in a way the world has difficulty forgiving.

It's unforgivable that men and women are held to such wildly differing standards when it comes to parenting but I realize that I have internalized some of this social conditioning as well. I'm guilty of seeing a man out alone with his baby and automatically thinking, "What a great, concerned dad!" and seeing a woman out with her children and simply thinking she must be a mother.

We all get a lot of our ideas about the world and our role in it from popular culture, from the TV shows, movies, music and books that tell us how the world works when our minds are little sponges eagerly soaking everything up. This is particularly true of me, since I have written about pop culture as my profession for the last 18 years. So it's not surprising that my conception of fatherhood is wrapped up in the conventions of movies and TV shows about dad's, and those conventions focus on sweeping and not-so-sweeping symbolic gestures that I have internalized as being essential to parenting.

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This includes playing catch with my 11-month-old son, which my wife finds about as ridiculous as my earlier stubborn determination to begin playing basketball recreationally as a middle-aged man, a goal that dead-ended with me buying a glow-in-the-dark basketball I have used for probably less than ten minutes.

I'm fixated on this because I genuinely think that playing catch with my son will be a wonderful bonding experience but also because that's what good dads do in movies and TV shows: they take some time out of their busy schedule to toss the ball around with kids who are overjoyed to be gifted a little quality one-on-one time with dear old dad. I think I'm a good dad, but I realize that might be because subconsciously or not, I am grading myself and all other dads on a lenient curve and that's not fair to my wife, my son or to me.

We all need to hold fathers to higher standards, and I should begin with myself. Because despite what the movies would have you believe, there is a whole lot more to being a good dad than showing up at the big game, delivering the "facts of life" speech and teaching Junior to ride a bike. It's not a matter of nailing all the big, not too terribly difficult symbolic gestures that determines a father's worth, but the in-between times between those big milestones that really matter.

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