Not Your Father’s Fatherhood

How being a dad got cool

The other day, at a 1-year-old’s birthday party in Park Slope, I noticed among the pile of toys a few awesome-looking wooden blocks. They were handsome, obviously well crafted, and had the natural, I-want-to-play-with-that magnetism of any great toy. Thinking they’d make a nice present for my daughter, who just turned 2, I asked the dad where he got them.

“Oh,” he replied, “I made them.”

The fact that I wasn’t the least bit surprised says a lot about the state of modern fatherhood. After all, not long ago the stereotypical father was expected to cover food and shelter (and pre-manufactured toy blocks), attend the occasional ball game or recital, and that was pretty much it. Think of the Don Draper generation wheeling their wives into the hospital to give birth (and skipping the stress of the delivery room for whiskey in the waiting room). Or later, Alec Baldwin dressing-down a bunch of hapless salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross: “I made $970,000 last year. How much’d you make? You see, pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing. Nice guy? … Good father? … Go home and play with your kids.”

Fortunately, those days are long gone, replaced by demands that dads be more present and, more recently, by a new breed of dad who isn’t just engaged but also engaged and enjoying it. He aspires to do all the things cool guys do—dress well, work hard, live life filled with joy and curiosity—and he takes his kids along for the ride. For him, “dad jeans” don’t carry a badge of shame—usually, they’re slim-fit selvedge denim.

As a result, being a dad is starting to look, well, cool. But don’t take my word for it. Check your Instagram feed.

Men who not that long ago Tumblr-ed about #menswear now post exquisitely manicured photos of their wives and kids. Fashion editors like Nick Sullivan (of Esquire) and Dan Rookwood (the US editor of Mr Porter) share pictures of their kids alongside snaps from the latest men’s fashion week, and there is no dissonance between the two. (Rookwood also started a “twinstagrammers” feed of his newborn twin daughters. “My wife runs it and I chip in with bad puns/dad jokes whenever I’m allowed,” he says. Dad jeans may have changed, but dad humor is eternal.)

In the past, mothers planned playdates. Now dads reach out and plan things that engage everyone.
Some men are taking it further, building a social media following solely for their lifestyle magazine–worthy family photos. Among the most popular is Josh Davis’ @tiesandfries, which has earned more than 100,000 followers for its joyful action shots of his family’s adventures in New York City. There’s also freelance creative director Keith Weaver (@keithweaver), who also has roughly 100,000 followers for his artfully framed photos of his kids; and Mexico’s José Balcazar (@balcazardescansa), whose oddly affecting snapshots typically star his impeccably attired son framed in front of his country’s natural and architectural wonders. “It’s a really nice relationship,” Balcazar told Instagram’s blog, adding that his son often chooses the locations. “He is not only my son, he is my friend.” Business Insider editor Nicholas Carlson drew a more irreverent conclusion in a recent essay: “Having a kid is great for your social media game. Before having a kid, I was lucky to get 13 likes on an Instagram photo. Now? All I need to do is throw up something cute and we’re talking 30 likes easy, sometimes 100+.”

New media has adapted, too. Where a generation of guys once turned to sites like UrbanDaddy or Thrillist for help planning their weekends, they can now subscribe to newsletters like Fatherly to do the same. Not by coincidence, Fatherly was cofounded by an early Thrillist employee and shares its irreverent approach to its material. “Funny thing happens after marketing to young single guys for seven years,” says Fatherly cofounder Michael Rothman. “Namely, that audience is no longer single or as young.” Recent articles include hide-and-seek tips from a Navy SEAL and photography pointers from legendary Sports Illustrated lensman Walter Iooss Jr.

Images of #fatherhood from the feeds of (clockwise from top left) @backyardbill, @tiesandfries, @balcazardescansa, @dannybowienchinese, @keithweaver, @mazdackrassi, @coltranecurtis, @hello_fathers, @keithweaver, @fatherandsonday, @alliseeisgold, and @fatherlyhq
Images of #fatherhood from the feeds of (clockwise from top left) @backyardbill, @tiesandfries, @balcazardescansa, @dannybowienchinese, @keithweaver, @mazdackrassi, @coltranecurtis, @hello_fathers, @keithweaver, @fatherandsonday, @alliseeisgold, and @fatherlyhq

And then there are the actual lifestyle magazines for dads: quarterlies Kindling—“a handsome journal about handsome dads,” as Slate put it—and Fathers, out of Poland, both of which you can find adjacent to Kinfolk at your favorite local magazine shop. Both make a strong case for fatherhood as hallmark of the modern aspirational lifestyle. Take a feature from the first issue of Fathers, a photo essay by the man behind Jeremi on Planet Earth, a blog devoted to documenting a family’s travels with their young son. The pictures show a man whose style will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in one of the world’s more fashionable neighborhoods: bearded, beanied, ruggedly handsome in a denim shirt or a Henley. And with him is his son, dressed with equally studied unstudied-ness and photographed in such appealing locations as on a mountaintop and in a lush forest populated by beautiful horses. It’s enough to give you serious #FOMO. “When we published photos from one of our workshops,” says Wojtek Ponikowski of Fathers, referring to one of the magazine’s regular events for dads, “someone wrote underneath: ‘A beautiful thing that makes you want to be a father.’ For us, it is very motivating—to see how someone who hasn’t felt such emotions is ready for fatherhood, changes his approach.

“For many years, fathers have not had space for themselves in the media, so we wanted to clearly mark it,” he continues. “The entire project has been designed for all those who derive strength and joy from fatherhood.” Not to mention the guy who once derived (and maybe still derives) strength and joy from a great pair of work boots.

That said, a few new-school dads still take an old-school approach to social sharing: doing it offline, hanging out with fellow-minded families while keeping their iPhones safely tucked away. “In the past, mothers planned playdates,” says one such dad, architect Jeremy Barbour, who moved to a woodsy area of Westchester County with his wife, an artist, and daughter two years ago after 15 years in New York City. “Now dads reach out and plan things that engage everyone.” Like barbecues where, after the kids go to bed, the dads enjoy whiskey around the fire. (Some fatherly traditions are worth preserving.)

So what’s next? Perhaps, as these men go from fathers to grandfathers and technology leads to greater innovations in both picture-taking and social sharing, the cool grandpas of tomorrow will be sending out snaps of their kids through some kind of next-generation VR device. At the very least, they may get their own lifestyle magazine. “Twenty percent of fathers are grandfathers,” Ponikowski says with a laugh. “This is actually a niche; we need to rethink it.”
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PAUL L. UNDERWOOD is the executive editor of Ralph Lauren Digital. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.
  • Courtesy of Jeremi on Planet Earth
  • Courtesy of Instagram