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Surprising Science

Are Men Equipped To Be Parents?

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you’ve been treated to a steady stream of ads for what promises to be NBC’s lamest comedy in recent memory: “Guys With Kids.” As a guy with kids myself, I’m planning to spend my Wednesday evenings this fall watching something other than scenes of frat-boy-cum-father hilarity in the 8:30 time slot.

I suppose some people might laugh at images of men drinking beers with babies strapped to their chests or complaining about the unavailability of whole milk at a bar. But why is this stuff funnier than women sipping Chardonnay while wearing their babies, or moms shopping for organic milk for their toddlers?   

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” For an example of the evils of banality you’ll have to look at the official description of the show:

“Guys with Kids” is a new comedy from Emmy Award-winning executive producer Jimmy Fallon about three 30-something dads who try to hold on to their youth as they face the responsibilities of having kids. Thankfully, Gary (Anthony Anderson, “Law & Order”), Chris (Jesse Bradford, “The West Wing”) and Nick (Zach Cregger, “Friends with Benefits”) have each other to help navigate the highs and lows of fatherhood – while still trying desperately to remain dudes.

Balancing work or staying at home, happily married or happily divorced, taking care of the “littles” while maintaining a social life is a daily challenge. Whether it’s hosing down their babies in the kitchen sink or hitting the bar strapped with “babybjorns,” these guys are taking on fatherhood in ways no one has ever seen before.

The work-home-life balance is a struggle for any parent, but the spin of “Guys With Kids” is that the experience is tougher for dads who wish to remain “dudes.” So NBC offers viewers male characters who “tak[e] on fatherhood in ways no one has ever seen before.”

Really, now. No one has ever seen a father change a diaper or move a baby about town? No one has ever seen a dad take an active role in parenting his child without emasculating himself? Before the reader can rebel, the show description offers a tepid acknowledgement of reality, almost admitting that the “Guys With Kids” premise is passé:

Dads today are more involved in their kids’ lives than ever, and these guys are no exception. No tantrum is too loud, no diaper is too dirty – Nick, Chris and Gary are up to the challenge.


“Guys With Kids” won’t be the first bad sit-com, but it might be one of the most nefarious to come along in a while. The show promises to reintroduce stereotypes and gloss over serious gender inequalities in American society regarding parenting and work.

In painting the rise of fathers taking care of children as odd and laughable, “Guys With Kids” ironically reaches back to the 1950s and the idea of separate spheres for the sexes that arose in the 19th century. Here is how Darwin explained the “difference in the mental powers of the two sexes” in his 1871 book, “The Descent of Man”:

Woman, owing to her maternal instincts, displays these qualities [tenderness and selflessness] toward her infants in an eminent degree; therefore it is likely that she would often extend them towards her fellow-creatures. Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. These latter qualities seem to be his natural and unfortunate birthright.

Being a “dude,” it seems, is just the way nature made us. Nothing is more unnatural than a man sacrificing himself for the sake of his offspring. And nothing is more natural than a woman doing just that.

Where do these conceptions of gender roles come from? Many people believe they are instilled in the home, but I think law professor Joan Williams makes an excellent point when she argues that “the salient gender factory is in fact the workplace, which sets nonnegotiable terms within which men and women bargain in family life.”

Williams draws attention to the case of “a young couple, both of whom worked for the same law firm”:

After they had a baby, the wife was sent home promptly at 5:30 — she had a baby to take care of — whereas her husband was kept later than ever — he had a family to support. Negotiating hard with her husband would not have helped this woman at all, unless her husband was willing and able to find another job.

Beyond the assumption that women have the primary responsibility to care for the children, the norm of masculinity in the workplace entails several biases that disadvantage women and men. Here are a few observations Williams makes in chapter 3 of her recent book:

  • The “Maternal Wall”: “mothers often are assumed to be less competent, to have ‘pregnancy brain’” and must “work harder to overcome the powerful negative competence and commitment assumptions triggered by motherhood”
  • Men have the choice between being a “manly, successful ideal worker, or…a wimpy nurturing father” and are often met with “scorn” when they ask for time off for parental leave
  • “Women who are excellent but not stellar are judged much more harshly than comparable men”
  • Williams then takes an appropriately critical look at the conventional picture of masculinity — the view that “Guys With Kids” will begin pumping into Americans’ living rooms next month:

    Is it healthy to associate sensitivity to the needs of others with lack of manliness? Warmth with being a wuss? To assume that one can be analytical only by keeping emotions in check? Neither masculinity nor femininity, as conventionally defined, is a recipe for a centered life that balances sensitivity to the needs of others with a healthy respect for one’s own self-development.

    Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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