Confessions of a Newborn Father: The Birth of the “Hands-on” Dad

Confessions of a Newborn Father: The Birth of the “Hands-on” Dad

A recent Vicks Nyquil commercial has a typical scenario for an advertisement set in a workplace. A clearly sick man — coughing, runny nose, the whole works — opens what looks like an office door a crack, pops his head in, and delivers the one line of the commercial: “Dave, I’m sorry to interrupt. I gotta take a sick day tomorrow.” While this might seem like a very traditional depiction of masculinity, a guy at the office asking his male boss for a day off, the ad subverts this narrative by revealing an adorable toddler standing up in his crib. The tagline of the ad — “Dads don’t take sick days. Dads take Nyquil” — makes the ad’s argument clear. A real man is one who is so dedicated to his real job — fatherhood — that he continues to parent through his colds and flus. While the idea of moms’ total and complete dedication to their roles as mothers has of course been part of our cultural understanding of motherhood for, well, forever, the shift in the past decade or so of depicting fathers as equal-opportunity martyrs, devoted to the care of their children, strikes many modern viewers as something new.

However, this version of the invested, involved father has been around a lot longer than we might think. Parents Magazine, a broad market, popular magazine devoted to all aspects of parenting, ran a parenting column from 1932 to 1937 aimed at fathers. Called “For Fathers Only,” the column clearly attempted to tap into an expanding market of hands-on fathers and explored the growing role of fathers in the daily lives of their children.[1] As the editor of the magazine stated, “So many fathers read this magazine that we believe they deserve a special department edited by a father.”

In an extended look at the inaugural column of the series published in June of 1932, “Confessions of a Newborn Father,” and written by new dad Charles Pelham, we see the extent to which even as early as the 1930s, fatherhood begins look recognizable to modern readers:

I admit there’s nothing alluring about crawling out of bed at 2 a.m. in mid-winter, getting the bottle out of the refrigerator, heating it up, picking up a twelve-pound, warm, wet bundle, unraveling it, redressing your future heir in a dry one, getting a nipple that has the right size hole in it, and finally sitting for fifteen minutes … Watch him go after that nipple … Listen to him ‘grunt’ (I know no better word for it) for his highball de lait, urging you to hustle along as your clumsy hands adjust the nipple. Hear his sigh of satisfaction when that first spurt of warm milk trickles down his palate … Yes—the first year of baby’s life is the hardest for Mother and Father and Baby, but it can be one of the happiest if you get into the game. (6)

This column could have been written in 2012 rather than 1932. The level of the father’s involvement — and investment — in the newborn’s care is clear: the admission to “crawling out of bed at 2 am,” the knowledgeable preparation of the bottle, the intimate relationship between father and baby. As the column indicates, he is an active, equal, and involved caretaker of his infant child, and this level of intimate care clearly gives the father a great deal of personal satisfaction and happiness. The motivation for this newly involved father taking an active role in the care of his child becomes clear at the end of the column. Pelham makes the argument that while the first year of infanthood is a work-intensive, difficult time, it will be “happiest” if the father is an active participant, one who “gets into the game.” The clear implication is that everyone is happier when the father takes an active role in childcare.

Ads like this 1949 United Aircraft Corporation spot that appeared in Collier's magazine depicted a version of the "modern father" that was encouraged to engage in the daily lives of his children. (Ad*Access/Duke University Libraries Digital Collections)
Ads like this 1949 United Aircraft Corporation spot that appeared in Collier’s magazine depicted a version of the “modern father” that was encouraged to engage in the daily lives of his children. (Ad*Access/Duke University Libraries Digital Collections)

As “Confessions of a Newborn Father” shows, though, the purpose of this series was not only to describe, but also to prescribe, this new role of the modern father. The column begins, “The confession is for fathers only. It is addressed to that gentleman who, coattails flying, waves to you and your adorable one as he runs to catch the 7:45 train or street car to town. This is the man who said he wanted children, loved children, knew a baby would mean a lot to you both — and yet, has seemed only vaguely interested in ‘the cutest, most wonderful cherub on earth’ — your baby.” The prescriptive nature of the column is clear. Although directly addressing the mother, the “you” in the piece, he tells her that this particular column is not for her. This column is for the father who “said he wanted children” but does not engage in the daily life of his offspring. He is encouraging fathers to take an active, day-to-day role in the lives of their children. And the physical, visceral, and emotionally satisfying nature of this new role is clear — after all, he’ll “never forget the first time” that he held those “ten pounds of warm pink flesh.”

He gives fathers a “pep talk” about the fact that fatherhood has a learning curve. Arguing “the first year is the hardest for a father, that he feels like a fish out of water with a diaper in one hand which he is expected to attach expertly to the ten pounds of warm pink flesh in the other,” he goes on to claim that “what is quite as important is that you can’t fully appreciate or love your baby until you begin to do something personal for him.” The use of the term “personal” seems to indicate his essential appeal to fathers — that they make fatherhood personal. He argues that “maybe that’s why mothers really enjoy young babies so much more than fathers do. They make personal sacrifices for them, while most of our contributions are abstract and impersonal — paying the bills, for instance.” In other words, even as early as the 1930’s, writers in popular magazines were arguing that rather than relying on the traditional role of breadwinner as a source of personal fulfillment, fathers would be happier if they developed close relationships with their children by making the type of “personal sacrifices” that women make. Fatherhood is posited here as a personal good, founded on loving, care-based relationships between fathers and their children, and personally beneficial to all involved — the father, the child, and of course, the mother.

October 1928 issue of Hygeia, the American Medical Association's health magazine aimed at a general audience, it ran from 1923 to 1949.
October 1928 issue of Hygeia. The American Medical Association’s health magazine, aimed at a general audience, ran from 1923 to 1949.

As with any new cultural idea, this shift toward a more invested father was not uncontested, and the role of fathers continued to be a source of cultural conflict and debate. Over a decade later in 1942, the medical magazine Hygeia published one man’s tirade against this new “maternal father,” in which the author offers a scathing description of this new figure and exposes the cultural conflicts at work:

The maternal father arrives home promptly after work … . On arriving home, he speedily sheds his hat and coat, scrubs his hands with approved child study technique, then, clucking gently, lifts the baby from the basket and takes over the cares of the mother until bedtime for the small creature approaches, and it is tenderly laid away for the night. He bathes and diapers, and holds the bottle. With his mouth full of pins he coos in ecstasy and calls on the world to marvel the baby’s growth. In the meantime the adoring mother sinks into a comfortable chair to relax, or tiptoes out of the room — leaving father and child together in gurgling bliss.[2]

The mocking tone of the writer makes clear the perceived problem with this picture: the reversed gender roles (the womanly “ecstasy and gurgling bliss” of the father contrasted with the leisure time of the mother, relaxing in a comfortable chair and careful not to disturb father and child) means that the father is emasculated while the mother is empowered. In the same letter to the editor, the letter writer expresses fears about how this new phenomenon of a more involved, care-taking father affects women’s expectations of all fathers “by planting in the minds of otherwise contended wives and mothers the feeling that their Tom or Bill or Hugh was not properly interested in and attentive to the new, squirming baby in the basket” (86). Indicating his true concern about this new “menace” to men’s proper role as distant, uninvolved breadwinners, he goes on to assert, “We have no quarrel with the maternal father, or for that matter the women who refuses to accept maternity … but we protest that neither should he be glorified as representing a standard by which others should be judged” (87). Tellingly, the letter writer places the new maternal father and the “women who refuses to accept maternity” in the same category, indicating the extent to which this emerging prescriptive view of fatherhood was a response to cultural anxiety over the changing societal roles of men and women.

These two cultural artifacts represent a larger societal debate in the early twentieth century about exactly what the proper role of the father was. Was it to be the authoritarian breadwinner, focused on discipline, order, and providing for his family, or was it to be the hands-on, loving caretaker, emotionally invested in his children and active in childcare? This conflict over fatherhood, and the cultural anxiety it provoked, can be seen in the “For Father Only” column’s prescriptive appeal to fathers to “get into the game,” as well as in the Hygeia letter writer’s disdain for the cooing, gurgling father forced into the mother’s traditional role. And arguably, this polarized view of the two iterations of fatherhood came to be the dominant cultural conflict surrounding fathers throughout the twentieth century. Regardless, “Confessions of a Newborn Father” reveals a new version of fatherhood, one where dads get up with babies at night, where they derive emotional satisfaction from the care of their young children, and where they too don’t get sick days.


[1] Despite the fact that the column was clearly an attempt to capitalize on a perceived emerging market, the column does not seem have been successful in doing so. This is evidenced by the fact that the column is highlighted in its early appearances in the magazine, appearing as the first column of the issue, and in each issue throughout the year, but as the series went on, it clearly waned in popularity, or perhaps never took off, as the column appeared less frequently and when it did appear, it did not appear as one of the first articles.

[2] Quoted in Ralph LaRossa’s The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 87.

For Further Reading

Frank, Stephen M. Life with Father: Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North. Gender Relations in the American Experience. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Friedman, Lawrence M. Private Lives: Families, Individuals, and the Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Gavanas, Anna. Fatherhood Politics in the United States: Masculinity, Sexuality, Race and Marriage. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

LaRossa, Ralph. The Modernization of Fatherhood: A Social and Political History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

LaRossa, Ralph. Of War and Men: World War II in the Lives of Fathers and Their Families. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Feature image: Cover photo, by Harold M. Lambert, from the June 1950 issue of Hearthstone magazine. Shows a man holding his child on his shoulder. (Protestant Family, Divinity School Library/Duke University Digital Collections.)

Ginny Engholm recently completed her Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in the department of English. Her interdisciplinary dissertation, titled “The Power of Multiplying: Reproductive Control in American Culture, 1850-1930,” traces the rise of modern birth control in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current work-in-progress examines miscarriage, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth in American culture. She teaches at a small college in the Liberal Arts department in Baton Rouge, LA.