Dads got their annual time in the spotlight over this past week as we geared up for and then celebrated Father’s Day. Here at HUP we’ve been glad to see a book we published last year get a nice bit of attention in the Father’s Day media blitz. It’s called Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior, and it was co-written by Peter B. Gray and Kermyt G. Anderson. Just in the past week the BabyCenter blog cited the book; it featured in a Vancouver Sun op-ed; and there was a particularly thorough post about the book on MSNBC.com’s Cosmic Log, where Alan Boyle looked at how anthropologists suggest that current social trends might be reshaping fatherhood in the mold of the “good old days of hunter-gatherer fathering,” an era when researchers like Gray and Anderson assert that fathers were more active in their children’s development than in much of modern history.
All of this attention on modern fathers, and this welcome coverage of Gray and Anderson’s rich evolutionary perspective, makes a recent article on a persistent societal barrier between motherhood and fatherhood even more interesting. The piece appeared on Jezebel last week and is titled “Could A Mom Have Written Go The F--k To Sleep? And Would It Have Been A Bestseller?” (Well, actually, Jezebel doesn’t bother with the coy hyphens, and, in what follows, neither will we. Be warned.)
For those who’ve somehow missed it, Go the Fuck to Sleep is a parenting and publishing sensation.
It’s a picture book, written by the novelist Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Roberto Cortés, that gives us a father at his wit’s end come bedtime. The book began as a lark, picked up steam online, went to number one on Amazon, had a first printing of 300,000 copies, has been performed by Samuel L. Jackson and Werner Herzog, and has already been optioned for film. That kid who wouldn’t go to sleep is suddenly making an awful lot of money for daddy.
What Amy Sohn asks in her Jezebel piece is whether a mother could have gotten away with a book like this—and been met with a reception that would pay for her kid’s college just based on preorders. From her piece:
As much as I want to believe that “Funny is funny” and it would have been a runaway success regardless, I can't help but think that things might have gone down differently.
A mom who even thinks the word “fuck” around her kid? A mom who can’t get her child to sleep or is unwilling to co-sleep to do it? A mom who isn’t more lovable than caustic, always and forever? I can't help but think the Internet masses on parenting sites like this would have a field day with it, raking me over the coals for the same sentiment that is so funny when expressed by a dad.
— If you hate being a mom so much, why did you have a child in the first place?
— Clearly your daughter can’t rest because you work.
— You have an anger management problem and you're giving your kid ADHD.
— You need Zoloft.
— I pray that you bring no more children into the world because it will spare another individual the years of therapy he will need to get over the trauma of having been raised by such a selfish and insensitive person.
And, of course: That book is so lame, I could have written it.
While modern edgy mothers have been writing about their experiences at least as long as Heather Armstrong announced her pregnancy on Dooce in 2003, it has taken an edgy dad to create a runaway bestseller. That’s not a coincidence or a fluke. While a mom who even thinks, “Go the fuck to sleep” is seen as morally lacking, unfit, unhinged, deranged, and hostile, a dad who thinks it is someone we want to have a beer with (or in my neighborhood, have on our bocce team).
Sohn goes on to detail specific instances of blowback meeting women who write about the frustrations of parenthood, and contrasts it further with the reception for Mansbach, before concluding that, even in this age of co-parenting and enlightened dads, we still expect—and accept—much less from fathers than from mothers:
Moms that mine their experiences for fodder are exploitative; dads who do it are original. As [Catherine] Connors points out, “In the early 21st century, discourse around family has been the domain of mothers. So when fathers engage in it, it's seen as a sign of attentiveness. They are automatically admirable because they're paying attention to the family.” On Today when Matt Lauer asked Mansbach what response he had gotten from the book, he answered, “A lot of thanks from parents around the globe: ‘I feel less alone,’ ‘This is really cathartic,’ ‘This is exactly what I go through every night.’” Because the bar for paternal involvement is so much lower, a dad who is trying to put a child to sleep is a likable protagonist from page one. Mansbach is the literary equivalent of that lone father in the playground with his child, surrounded by mothers and nannies: We love him just for being there.
So, Father’s Day, 2011. On the one hand we have Gray and Anderson’s Fatherhood, an extremely well-researched book combining evolutionary science, comparative biology, cross-cultural analysis, and neural physiology to help us understand how being a parent fits with men’s broader social and work lives. And on the other we have Go the Fuck to Sleep, a book whose astounding success, Sohn and others argue, is due to a double standard in how we look at moms and dads. Somewhere between these two books and their reception we probably have an accurate report on the state of modern fatherhood.