Every time the "clueless new dad" character appears on TV, the argument among dad bloggers invariably states that dads aren't maladroit nitwits, that they are as capable as their female counterparts. I'd like to suggest a bold new argument: Yes, dads are clueless when it comes to parenting, but so are moms and everybody should stop kidding themselves.
The new NBC sitcom Guys With Kids shows the tribulations of some men as they bumble their way through newly acquired parenting duties. I haven't seen that depicted since every 10 minutes for the past 30 years. And that's only as long as I've been paying attention.
USA Today's Robert Bianco summed up the overwhelming "meh" reaction to Guys With Kids when he wrote, "Comedy, of course, is made out of striving and often failing, but aren't fathers growing weary of this depiction of themselves as inept bunglers?" The answer is yes, but for me it's because the situation is more complex than displayed. (On a side note, contributors to the Dad 2.0 Summit Facebook page point out that the only company eschewing the stereotype is Google with ads that feature loving, competent fathers.)
Now, I'll admit that we've seen fictional mothers with vast shortcomings -- Arrested Development comes to mind as a recent example. But, most of the unskilled mothers depicted on television are past the early stages of parenting, not struggling to find their way with a newborn. And God forbid that character is depicted in film or made-for-TV movies, mediums that seem much less forgiving of bad mothers -- Carrie, The Grifters, Riding in Cars With Boys and so on.
I asked some of my mom blogger friends if they could name a sitcom that featured an inept new mother in the central role, one in which her absolute lack of parenting skills were the main source of the comedy. No one could come up with a single show. (If you can think of one, please add it to the comments below. My method was by no means thorough. And I know reality TV is lousy with bad moms, which sort-of makes my point.)
The true nature of comedy relies on the audience identifying with the situation. I'll admit that I'm a pretty clueless dad. When my twin boys were newborns, I once attempted to swing them to sleep by rocking them in a Moses basket. I did so with such vigor and generated enough G-force that when I stopped they were both locked in an angry breathless scream. Capable parents don't turn naptime into a carnival ride.
But I've seen my wife make similar mistakes. And I've seen other mothers make them, too. From accidental cough syrup overdoses to surprise highchair ejections to loose bottle lids that provide a nice breast milk shower, there isn't a mother I've met who doesn't bungle their way through their parenting duties.
All parents come into the role wholly unprepared. No advance study or even childcare work accurately mimics the unique challenge of having a baby. I describe the stories on my site, The Daddy Complex, thusly: Read what I do, then do the opposite.
Learning to parent is like being pushed off a building with a tub of glue and some feathers -- you have to build the wings as you're falling. I guess in that analogy, not finishing the wings before impact would equate to your child's first arrest.
It's time for us to admit that none of us know what we're doing and maybe laugh at the experiences we all face, not just the ones dads face.
The media still sees stay-at-home and work-at-home dads as a new thing and sitcom writers and producers think a dad struggling to change a diaper is groundbreaking comedy. Neither is true.
But, show a mom swinging her baby in a basket until the little one is frozen in fear? Now that's funny. And it's real.