In a culture that has moved beyond “Father Knows Best” and grown weary of Homer Simpson, what does it mean to be a dad? That question is especially salient in a nation where economic and cultural changes have reduced the likelihood that a man is his family’s breadwinner or even living with his children. In the interest of learning more about contemporary fatherhood from the inside, this mother recently dropped by the Dad 2.0 Summit.
Now in its fifth year, Dad 2.0 is the conference where dads meet parenting-related activists, marketers, and the media. Dad 2.016, as they called it, attracted a varied and interesting crowd, with a female minority and a boatload of bearded men.
In all, 450 participants descended on Washington DC to discuss issues of concern to men, both as fathers and as influencers — whether as published writers, filmmakers, or social media stars. They engaged in important, practical discussions about improving video quality and properly tailoring blog content to your audience, but what captivated me was the fatherhood component.
Men’s Singular Approach to Life
As I’ve written before, I enjoy listening to men discuss parenting. Not only does it warm the heart to hear men talk lovingly about their families, but the conversations tend to be much mellower than those women have about motherhood. Perhaps the most fascinating part, from my point of view, is just how differently men talk about parenting (and other things).
During one session I sat in on called “Mastering the Moving Image,” the all-dad panel shared helpful hints on improving videos across online platforms, while good-naturedly ribbing one another. I liked one panelist urging an audience member to both fail often and fail in ways unique to him. That struck me as good life advice, but something I couldn’t imagine hearing from a fellow mother in a similar context.
American society has so many negative cultural stereotypes of men, especially as useless, overgrown children. Yet the men I encountered at Dad 2.0 proved how mythical those negative stereotypes are. In an interview, Jen Bremner, brand manager for conference sponsor Dove Men+Care, noted that only 7 percent of men can relate to media portrayals of men. Ninety-two percent of men say it’s their emotional strength that defines them as men.
Emotional openness, awareness, and strength were certainly on display all around me. On stage, author Brad Meltzer delivered an opening keynote urging the audience to consider our legacy — to both family and community — and how we want to be remembered after we’re gone. Drag racer Doug Herbert spoke about losing his two sons in a car accident, and how that inspired him to found a special defensive driving school for teenagers.
Elevating Expectations for Men
Out in the audience, I met a life coach who specializes in helping fathers resolve their own work-life balance challenges. Another attendee co-founded a nationwide group to help dads get out and socialize together. A third dad, who stays home raising his young children, asked a former stay-at-home mom moderating a social media session for advice about transitioning back to full-time office work. After a presentation about how biased family courts are against fathers, I watched one man tear up while talking to the speaker, because her remarks had clearly hit a nerve.
These men were reflective. They clearly relished the role of father, and they took it seriously, albeit with a sizable helping of good-natured humor.
For the summit’s founders, that’s precisely the point. In an interview, Summit co-founder John Pacini commented, “We’ve recognized that the bar for fatherhood has been set unreasonably low for so long, while at the same time the bar has been set unreasonably high for women and moms. The Dad 2.0 mission has sought to elevate the conversation and the expectations for men, in a way that benefits the whole family.”
That they’ve done. The dads at this conference do more than just show up. They’ve clearly also given significant thought to what it means to be a dad, how to support their spouses, and how to best raise the next generation. They’re redefining fatherhood for the modern era, or in Pacini’s words, demonstrating “masculinity at its best.”
It’s a model that would likely look familiar to Baltimore’s Joe Jones or Memphis’ MeiAngelo Taylor. Both men started fatherhood training programs to help men in their communities who wanted to be involved with their kids but weren’t entirely sure how. As MeiAngelo told me in an interview in 2014, men can provide for their children in many ways, “not only financially, but also spiritually and emotionally.”
The dads at Dad 2.0 would undoubtedly agree. In 2016, this is fatherhood.