The unveiling of the newest heir to the British throne on the steps of St. Mary’s hospital in London was a sweet if staged tableau and the message it sent was refreshing. Kate emerged holding the baby but quickly passed it to William, who held his son no less capably than she had. Yes, he had already changed a nappy, they both chuckled. It was he who then buckled the baby’s car seat in place and drove off toward home with his family. They were an ordinary young couple, the stagecraft said—or at least as ordinary as they could hope to be when several billion people were following the news of their firstborn—and they’d be raising their son in a collaborative and hands-on way.
(Complete Coverage: The Royal Baby)
But that’s not how the media saw it. The scene, chirped one commentator, was a message from the royal family to feckless fathers everywhere: If the prince can buckle his baby into the car by himself, surely you can learn to do it too. It was a remarkable—and remarkably anachronistic—observation. Is there a 21st century man anywhere who has a) a baby and b) a car and really doesn’t know how to put the two together safely? Is there a 21st century man who doesn’t see the value in mastering that skill?
The persona of the doofus dad was not something I signed up for when I became a father 12 years ago. I felt no less capable than I’d ever been, but in the popular culture, I’d crossed a line: Like all fathers, I’d become the sitcom buffoon who can’t boil an egg, warm a bottle, or be trusted to do the laundry without neglecting to add detergent and then exclaiming afterwards, “So that’s what that bottle of blue stuff was!” Round about the time women began pouring into the workforce and men began carrying their weight at home, both the responsibilities of parenthood and, critically, the presumption of competence ought to have shifted. But the change has been halting.
Last month, Clorox earned itself a cannon blast of scorn for a breathtakingly tone-deaf story on its website called “6 Mistakes New Dads Make,” a bit of ostensible whimsy that started off bad and wound up jaw-dropping. “Saying ‘No-no’ is not just for baby,” the ad read. “Like dogs or other house pets, new dads are filled with good intentions but lacking the judgment and fine motor skills to execute well.” New fathers, readers were warned, would take a child for a walk in a cold, rain-soaked stroller and then ask “Why is this baby crying so much?” And as for dad’s behavior around the house? “Prudence won’t stop Daddy from relaxing with a brew and blaring inappropriate shows while baby stares in horror/awe/wonder at the colorful moving yell-box. Tell Dad to embrace parental sacrifice and crack a book.”
The ad, no surprise was quickly pulled and Clorox made the usual anodyne statement about having respect for all parents and the hard work of parenting. “We’re in new territory with today’s modern families and changing family roles,” the company added, “and we appreciate all feedback to help us get it right.”
But it’s not new territory, is it? And you shouldn’t need help to “get it right”—any more than a man in the workplace should need help any longer to know not to harass or condescend to a female coworker. We’re all better than that and smarter than that by now—and yes, smart includes fathers too.