, June 13, 2003

    The Real Stuff of Fatherhood
    Bruce Kluger on what makes a top Pop.

    By Bruce Kluger

    Around this time every year I am called by
    some journalist working on a Father's Day
    story. "I understand you write about
    parenting," the reporter says, "so I'm
    wondering: If you could select one person in
    the nation who qualifies as the year's best
    dad, who would it be?"

    As often as I've been given this assignment, I always find it puzzling. Only one
    month before, the country breathlessly hauls out the flowers and bath soaps to fete
    the American mother; yet, come June, it's less celebration than evaluation. Are
    dads holding up their end of the parenting partnership? experts wonder. Have they
    gotten it yet? In this sense, fathers are a lot like baseball rookies. Even when we
    make it to the big leagues—and data indicates that the American dad's on-site
    batting average is, indeed, on the rise—we're always being closely watched, ever in
    danger of being sent back to the triple-A of second-class parent.

    Still, I have to answer the question. So who would I select as this year's top pop?

    I guess I'd have to consider the President first. George W. Bush is the man who
    promised the crowd at the 2000 Republican National Convention to protect
    American children. "There's nothing more important to the future of the country," he

    Unfortunately, the numbers tell a different story. After Bush took office, the child
    poverty rate increased for the first time in eight years, to more than 16 percent.
    Furthermore, because the President has not spared the rod on his proposed
    budget, he has left the national child anything but spoiled. Spending has flat-lined
    on a host of child-friendly services, threatening everything from school lunches and
    Head Start to child care and college grants. Even his own No Child Left Behind Act
    is underfunded to the tune of $9 billion, leaving local communities to scramble to
    meet yet one more set of unfunded regulatory mandates. To the wealthy, he's the
    Tooth Fairy. To kids, the dentist. Sorry, Mr. President. Maybe next year.

    Peter Baylies is always a fine choice for father of the year. As the founder of the At-
    Home Dad Network, Peter continues on his nine-year quest to establish a bona fide
    home front for the more than 2,000,000 American dads who have left the cubicle
    for the small desk in their den. But when I called Peter to get the latest at-home
    daddy scoop, he glumly informed me that no new data exists. "The Census tries to
    track us," he said, "but their efforts fall short. They never ask who the primary
    caregiver is."

    According to a national study conducted by University of Alabama professor Jordan
    I. Kosberg, heterosexual men (which would undoubtedly include fathers, at-home or
    otherwise) are routinely overlooked in social work literature. Of the thousands of
    articles, advertisements and book reviews culled by Kosberg over ten years, half
    the males represented in the study were gay, while the rest were divided among
    absent fathers, abusers, prisoners, AIDS victims and the homeless.

    "If you want a good look at how America views Dad," Peter suggested, "turn on the
    TV." Since the advent of television, parenting has been a staple of prime time;
    during my childhood, I regularly found patriarchal paragons across the dial—from
    Father Knows Best to Little House on the Prairie to the Cos. This year, comedian
    Bernie Mac would be the obvious choice as TV's favorite dad. His show has a bold
    spin (he plays a childless husband who takes in his sister's kids while she's in
    rehab), and the ratings are strong.

    My trouble with Bernie, though, is his kidside manner. "I'm gonna bust your head till
    the white meat shows!" he hollers in one episode; "I'm gonna kill one of them kids,"
    he says in another. All in good fun? Perhaps. All too common? You bet.

    "Fathers are depicted somewhat better in commercials," says Roland Warren,
    President of the National Fatherhood Initiative, which tracked 102 prime time
    programs over the course of five weeks to determine how fathers fare on the tube.
    "But on your typical TV series, I'm sorry to say that Dad still falls into the 3 D's
    category—dumb, dangerous or disinterested."

    With no likely candidate in the White House, on the internet or on TV, I almost gave
    up my quest for 2003's best dad. But then I found him—right down the block: My
    pal, David.

    Newly divorced, David is one of 1.3 million Americans currently sharing custody of a
    child—or children—with an ex-spouse. Since his wife split from him (she decided
    she liked another man better), he has navigated his way through a dusty American
    legal system that favors motherhood while undervaluing dads. He struggles daily to
    reestablish the career he'd given up in order to help his wife nurture hers. As the
    primary parent, caring for the children often for weeks at a time, he maintains a
    breakneck schedule, juggling job interviews to attend class trips with his son, or
    escort his daughter on a playdate. He routinely number-crunches his shamefully
    inequitable child support payments in order to see to it that his kids are clothed, fed
    and, on good days, equipped with a GameBoy.

    Most astonishingly, David's transformed his tiny new apartment into a warm family
    nest—papered with crayoned drawings, overrun by two cats and a hamster—in
    which his kids feel the freedom to exercise every child's birthright: watching too
    much TV, making too much noise, and loving their daddy to death.

    What I have not witnessed firsthand, however—and hope I never will—is that
    unimaginably heartbreaking moment, when David drops the kids off with their mom,
    then walks home alone.

    This is the real stuff of being a father. Data currently unavailable.