When I first saw Ben Stone, the 23-year-old slacker in the movie "Knocked Up," get mushy over his prospective woops-baby, I thought, what a bunch of malarkey. Guys in their 20s don't want to be papas.
I may have been wrong. In a new, nationally representative survey of 18-29-year-olds, men were as likely as women to say that if circumstances allowed it, they would love to have a baby right now. We're not talking small numbers here. Among the 1,800, 20-somethings surveyed by the Guttmacher Institute, 53 percent of men and 52 percent of women gave this answer. For those 25 and older, it was two-thirds.
Most of the men and women also said that pregnancy should be planned. More than a third of the men, though, and almost half of the women, admitted they weren't using contraception regularly. Maybe they're irresponsible. Or maybe they secretly think it wouldn't be so bad to be a parent. More likely, it's a little bit of both.
"Men and women are not that different," says Freya Sonenstein, a research professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies adolescent males. "There's a high value given to having children. That's one reason why using contraception consistently is a hard job."
No young men I knew coming of age in the 1960s and '70s would have admitted to baby lust. When a young woman got pregnant, she either disappeared to Auntie's house or into a doctor's office. We whispered about her and said next to nothing about her partner.
During these years, we didn't see much of our own daddies. Like AMC's "Mad Men," they were moving up the company ladder, chasing money and pretty girls. Something happened, though, when we had our own children. "Mad Men"'s Don Draper turned into "Glee"'s Will Schuester, Fox TV's charming glee club director who wants to be a father as much as he wants to take his singers to sectionals.
Our husbands and partners have formed fatherhood groups, appeared on TV and Capitol Hill, made parenting books by fathers into bestsellers, appeared in news stories about stay-at-home dads.
Meanwhile our sons, along with our daughters, were assigned in high school to take care of plastic baby dolls in an effort to stop the rise in teen pregnancies. They listened to rappers singing about baby-daddies. Today, they see a telegenic baby-daddy in the White House who makes fathering seem more fun than running the country.
They've also come of age as the sequence of love, marriage, and baby fell apart, and this surely has affected their views on when a man can become a father.
There were several sobering findings in this survey, including how little men, in particular, knew about fertility and contraception. But let's not downplay their basic baby interest. One of the most telling things - which surveyors didn't expect - is that men were as willing as women to answer the survey's questions. And they didn't just breeze through. In fact, they took longer to finish than the women. Health professionals, hoping to reduce the high rate of unplanned pregnancies, can seize on that interest to talk to men about how much better it is for babies to be born when both parents are ready to take care of them.
Not long ago, I heard a speaker at a conference on urban fathers describe a young man who was raising a daughter of pre-school age. Some of the young man's pals paid him a visit early one morning while he was braiding her hair.
"What you doin'?" they asked.
"I ain't no punk," he answered. "That's what daddies do nowadays."
"Sure, some men still want to get their Tigers on before things settle down," says Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which commissioned the survey. "But the idea that there are a lot of free floaters in this generation who don't care about kids doesn't seem supported."