In Praise of Dadfluencers

All around me, I see good dads. They're kissing boo-boos at the park, rushing to pick their kids up from daycare, they're posting proud photos on Instagram and funny conversations they have with their children on Twitter and Facebook. The role of fathers in America is rapidly evolving, with millennial dads on average far more involved in daily parenting tasks than their own fathers were. Evidence of this shows up in surveys, academic research, and across the internet. Proof of good paternity is everywhere.

On Instagram, dads have posted 3.7 million photos and videos to the hashtag #dadlife. (#Fatherhood has 2 million.) On Twitter, dads sharing gross, relatable, and heartwarming looks at fatherhood have amassed huge followings. Take father of four James Breakwell, aka Xploding Unicorn, who has earned over a million followers sharing observations like, "Just overheard my 5-year-old tell her sisters, '…and that's how you defuse a bomb,' and now I feel like I should probably pay attention."

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  • Some of the most viral content on the internet celebrates dads. Last week, a video of a dad DJ Pryor having an animated conversation with this 19-month-old son—who can only speak in baby gibberish—got more than 57 million views on Facebook, and landed Pryor on Good Morning America. (If you haven't watched it yet, stop reading and do so immediately.)

    Pryor's video was more than cute, though. Pryor was demonstrating in his conversation with his son a vital parenting skill that helps kids learn to speak, as Quartz and linguists like Karla Holloway pointed out. By actively engaging with his son's emerging language skills, Pryor was encouraging him to develop complex verbal abilities. In that way, Pryor's viral video modeled good parenting for millions of people. He became, in that sense, an accidental dadfluencer—a proud social media father offering an example of modern fatherhood for all to see.

    Dadfluencers can be anyone from Pryor, who went viral by accident, to a guy on Insta with 100 followers who posts about his toddler's breakfast. Of course it also includes traditional influencer-type dads on YouTube giving straight-to-camera advice about parenting—much like YouTube beauty gurus do—but dadfluencers don't need sponsorships. They make an impact just by being visible to other fathers. When I polled people on Twitter about who their favorite online dads were the answers ranged from Rob Delaney, whose fatherhood is part of his identity and comedy, to journalists who tweet about their kids.

    Active engagement from fathers like what Pryor's video showed is on the rise. More fathers in the US are staying home with their kids full-time than ever before, according to the Pew Research Center. Fathers are spending, on average, twice as many hours per week with their kids as fathers did in 1965 (eight hours versus four). More than half (57 percent) of fathers Pew polled in 2015 said they see parenting as a crucial part of their identity. That shift is reflected in their social media posts, and in the public's appetite for #dadcontent of all kinds. One of the reasons Pryor's video went so viral last week is because the public is hungry for everyday images of engaged fatherhood. We eat it up because in so many ways it's new.

    Fatherhood hasn't always been considered central to male identity, the way motherhood has been for women. But cultural norms around masculinity and what it means to be a good man are shifting, and the idea that fathers matter to the family mostly by being the breadwinner is no longer true. "Fathering has changed a lot," says Jeff Cookston, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University who studies fatherhood. "We asked 400 dads to tell us what they do well as parents. Very few mentioned providing for their families. The dads celebrated the time they spend with their kids and nurturing a balanced emotional relationship." That finding is also born out in Pew surveys, which have found that households where the father works and the mom or partner stays home are on the decline—the most common work-parenting balance for two-parent households is that both parents work.

    Of course, performative parenthood on social media can inspire eye rolls. I have a dear friend who would prefer all parents to silo photos of their kids on Instagram into a separate account so that she can unfollow them. But dadfluencers, and all the dads out there stanning for #dadlife, are doing important, needle-moving work. The more people see fathers actively fathering, the more it becomes a normal part of society.

    This kind of celebration of everyday fatherhood on social media and out in the real world is distinct from the long and insidious tradition of "family as performance," which uses family as props in a social charade. Examples of this are the recent rise of the Wife Guy meme, which uses a wife as an accessory to give a husband credibility, to the way men have historically trotted their kids out to make them look like family men—politicians trotting them out during campaign events but ignoring them while they run for office, or using their family as an excuse when they are fired or need to quit a job ("I want to spend more time with my family"). Sure, some #dadlife content is probably a version of this; there are likely dads who hold their kids for Instagram shots and then hand them back to the other parent the moment the photo shoot is over. But the majority of these viral moments, these photo collections, these tweets, are snapshots of mundane daily events, like Cheerios spilled on the floor. Seeing dad pick up each little O matters.

    Active fatherhood is not the creation of social media, but like all social norms, it can be influenced by pressure, which the internet is incredible at turning up or down. And perhaps the most important way influencers help create a world where fathers are a normal part of their children's lives is by making it clear how much they want to be, which can in turn help create structural change that allows fathers to be more involved in their kid's lives.

    Consider this: While it's wonderful that dads are spending twice as much time with their kids a week as they did 50 years ago, moms are still spending nearly twice as much as that (eight hours for dads versus 14 hours a week for moms, even moms who work full time). It's important to be clear that most households have yet to achieve equity in parental duties. But a lot of that has to do with social supports and structures not catching up to changing norms. Sixty-three percent of fathers polled in 2017 told Pew that they aren't spending enough time with their kids. As I've reported before, the American work week and school schedule, as well as family leave policies and workplace cultures, are designed for households where one parent (the father, traditionally) works, and the other parent stays home. These systems make it hard for dads to be as present as they want to be, and it hurts everyone in the family. It leads to uneven parenting loads, puts stress and pressure on women, hurts women's working prospects, disables dads from being with their kids as much as they want, and prevents kids from quality time with their fathers.

    One dadfluencer in particular thinks this is where social media could help. Serena Williams' husband Alexis Ohanian sees viral dad content as a bellwether for social progress, and a lever by which progressives can encourage change. Since the birth of his daughter Alexis Olympia, the co-founder and managing partner of VC firm Initialized Capital has been on a crusade to support fathers, to encourage paternity leave, and to get more dads to be involved in their children's lives.

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    "Let's turn FOMO culture on its head; we can use the same motivations that can get people excited about Fyre Festival to get people to normalize everyday fatherhood," Ohanian told me in an interview earlier this year.

    "Take the Swedish latte papas," he continued. "Bearded Nordic men who are very out and about with dad life, and they're out drinking lattes with their dad buddies! This is an internet meme that took Scandinavia by storm." Ohanian increasingly sees friends he grew up with, across industries, geographies, and income levels acting more and more like the Swedish papas, repping that #dadlife on Instagram and Facebook. To Ohanian, all the posting about fatherhood helps people to see dads wiping butts and caring for sick kids as normal. That can encourage more fathers to act on their desires to spend time with their kids, to take the paternity leaves they are offered, and to show employers that #dadlife matters.

    And look, to those good dads out there who hate social media or are against posting photos or information about their kids online, you're still having an influence. You don't have to be public online about your kid to have an impact. When I spoke to Melinda Gates last month about the shifting gender parenting norms, she said she had just recently been in the park and seen a bunch of fathers wearing their children in "snuggly" baby carriers. "And I thought, good for them. Right? I mean, I have to say back when I was having my kids, you didn't see very many men with snugglies," Gates said. "But I'm thinking great, they're not only doing it, but there are also other men in the park who notice them. And women notice it, and maybe go home and ask for it."

    And being out in the world with your child is just one way to set an example. The point is: Dads, good on you. You make your kids and your partner's lives better with every funny tweet about your toddler, every school pickup, every wiped nose. You matter. We see you. Happy Father's Day.


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