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Here Come the Daddy Wars

The average American spends $144 celebrating Mother’s Day, while for Father’s Day, the figure is $82. And that Father’s Day was inspired by Mother’s Day rather than vice versa is probably the least surprising fact you will read today. Mainly, Mother’s Day’s relative prominence is a vestige—and, to a lesser extent, a reflection—of society’s view that women are primarily mothers whereas men are fathers but also other things. This view not only gives women whose ambitions extend beyond the household a bum deal—for reasons I hope I don’t have to elucidate!—but it also fails men who might like to be more prominent as fathers and caregivers than societal norms currently encourage.

Women have fabricated a way of talking about the conflict between women who hope to find most of their self-fulfillment in the home and those for whom being a homemaker and childrearer is not enough—and not only that, but believe it should not be enough for most women. This is the enlightened, productive side of what are commonly called the Mommy Wars. My question, as Father’s Day approaches, is: Where are the Daddy Wars?

Every day I see smart, career-ambitious women having an intelligent, heated conversation, informed by personal experience and strewn with first principles, about what a woman’s proper roles are, and what society, men, and other women could do to realize a better world. I don’t feel as though I’ve been kept out. But I do think men have been altogether too shy about joining this conversation or, perhaps, starting their own.

However, in the past few weeks, there have been a bevy of articles and studies that all point to this news: At long last, the Daddy Wars are coming.

The trends are both economic and sociological. Economically, as writers like Hanna Rosin have amply documented, women are finally gaining some level of equality with men—not at the very top, but at least in the middle. A new Pew report found that four in ten households with children have a woman as the prime or sole breadwinner, up from one in ten 50 years ago. Partly this is a function of single mothers, but in more than five million of such households, the mother is married yet simply makes more than the husband—and in such marriages, median income is higher. A Third Way study noted that employment trends are better for women than for men. 

Esquire recently published an essay by Richard Dorment on the work-life balance that men face. It was fashioned as a response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” Atlantic feature (which made mention of how men face similar quandaries) and unfortunately was riddled with condescension for the same people—chiefly, feminists—who should be his allies. (Salon’s Irin Carmon did a good job pointing out this curious dynamic.) Still it captured, I think, the feelings of many men, fathers and not, who were brought up to think in terms of career and providing for their families financially, with actual work at home getting short shrift.

Most men stress over the next step in their professions, with the attitude that if they happen to fall in love and settle down, well, that’s great, too. But recently, in many cases inspired by the women in our lives and the conversation they are having among themselves, we have begun to question whether our most basic priorities aren’t out of whack, and to wonder whether, for reasons both social and surprisingly biological, we shouldn’t be as “ambitious” to have children as we are to land the next great job. Plus, having had children, many of us hope to play a more active role in their upbringing than has typically been expected of fathers. Many of us were lucky to have mothers who, whatever other ambitions and accomplishments they had, clearly took great joy in raising us; some of us were even lucky enough to have similar fathers. Do we want it “all”? Who knows (or cares). But we want that.

In a smart response on New York’s The Cut blog, Kurt Soller noted that men will probably have to take their cues from ladyblogs and the like as they navigate this issue, and offered several smart thoughts, including the observation that when men mentor other men, the subject matter is almost exclusively confined to the professional and romantic, not the domestic. (He also noted that as a late-twenty-something he should be as fretful as many of his same-aged female friends are about the looming having-kids prospect, which is true, if also—gulp—terrifying.) Yet even Soller seemed somewhat uncomfortable raising this topic: “As ridiculous as this seems,” he wrote, “the Esquire article had me realizing that a lot of the anxiety surrounding ‘leaning in’ or ‘having it all’ does feel relevant to me as a man.”

The next step, therefore, is to make this not feel at all ridiculous. Because it isn’t. The next step is to make a magazine devoted to artisinal Brooklyn fatherdom more than a quaint Talk of the Town subject. It is to encourage, socially and even legally, paternity leave, which a large share of men don’t take, as well as respect at the office for caregiving fathers, which according to two new studies such fathers currently do not generally enjoy. In the future, when a man voluntarily gives up great responsibility to “spend more time with my family,” I do not want the notion that this could be a euphemism to even occur to me.

In short, it’s going to be the Daddy Wars. (Want that url? Don’t bother; my friend and I have been cybersquatting at for weeks.) The Mommy Wars consist of people—primarily other women—convincing women that it is in society’s interest, their children’s interests, other women’s interests, and their own interests for them to be more than stay-at-home moms. The Daddy Wars cannot be the exact obverse, since the playing field is already asymmetrical (for generations, the default for men was to find some balance between work and home, whereas the default for women was home). But they will be something like that.

Like the Mommy Wars, the Daddy Wars are going to require, as Carmon put it, “a negotiation between what’s possible, what they’ve been taught to expect is normal, and what they might really want.” Like the Mommy Wars, they are going to require walking a fine line between the ideology they forthrightly advocate—men should be home more—and respect for individual choice, of the “I choose my choice!” variety, accounting for not only the choices of the men themselves but also of their childrearing partners. (Yes, eventually, the Mommy Wars and the Daddy Wars will likely have to become one big Parents Wars, but first the right side will have to win the Daddy Wars.) Let’s see if we can’t get a generation of American men to think more of themselves as “Dad” or “Dad-to-Be.” That would be a good start.