Vincent O’Keefe, a full-time stay-at-home dad, offers his take on the new romantic comedy What To Expect When You’re Expecting.
On the promotional website for the film What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Heidi Murkoff, author of the classic advice guide, declares: “As a passionate dad-vocate, I’ve been determined since the start of this process to make a movie that would be dad-friendly, dad-inclusive, dad-celebrating (and definitely not, as so many movies and TV shows and commercials unfortunately are, dad-bashing).”
Sounds promising, I thought. But when I learned Chris Rock would play the leader of a dads (or “dudes”) group, I groaned. I immediately recalled Grown Ups, the 2010 comedy written by Adam Sandler and Fred Wolf about a group of male friends in their 40s who reunite to honor the death of their childhood coach. The movie features a ridiculous portrayal of a stay-at-home dad by Rock. Would this be simply a repeat performance?
Before answering that question, some background. What to Expect When You’re Expecting is a star-studded romantic comedy that follows the pregnancy stories of five couples: celebrity fitness trainer Jules (Cameron Diaz) and dancer Evan (Matthew Morrison); rival food truck operators Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford); lactation specialist Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) and dentist Gary (Ben Falcone); NASCAR legend—and Gary’s father—Ramsey (Dennis Quaid) and trophy wife Skyler (Brooklyn Decker); and photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro). When Alex feels uncertain about becoming a father, he is referred to the “Dudes Group,” which consists of five fathers led by Vic (Chris Rock) who stroll their babies, toddlers, and contraptions through the park every Saturday.
Confusing already? I agree, and sometimes it felt like I was watching a couple of scenes from five different movies, rather than one movie about five different couples. The movie also tries to cover too many topics from the encyclopedic book. The frantic pace includes surface treatments of unplanned pregnancy, infertility, international adoption, circumcision, breastfeeding, epidurals, hyphenated names, and intergenerational strife, among other subjects. When Gary defines “couvade,” or the gaining of sympathy weight by some men during their wives’ pregnancies, I thought I might as well be reading the pregnancy guide itself. (I would use a “stretch mark” analogy for the movie here, but my wife might slap me.)
Despite these problems, What to Expect When You’re Expecting does provide some funny moments—e.g. when Jules vomits into a dancing trophy on live television, or when Wendy’s ovulation app alerts Gary via cell phone that it’s time for sudden sex. Overall, however, expect more chuckles than belly laughs.
From a father’s perspective, two images from the movie resonate. The first is when Evan secretly reads Jules’ copy of, as it happens, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. While this may be shameless product placement, it is also an important image of an engaged, contemporary father. When I became a full-time stay-at-home father over a decade ago, I was completely unprepared. Reading books like What to Expect: The First Year helped me navigate the horrors of colic, as well as all those unidentified fluids, odors, noises, and blemishes that would have otherwise given me angina.
The second iconic image of the film is simply the Dudes Group itself. Yes, a boisterous soundtrack accompanies their first appearance, and much humor is wrung from tired topics like minivans and lax childcare. But the easy tone of the dads’ interactions shows their commitment to and even enjoyment of fathering. Each time they appeared, I found the sight so normalizing. It reminded me of a Dads group I spearheaded years ago, which at the time was abnormal but is certainly more common now.
The image of the Dudes Group always in motion behind their strollers also captures the shoulder-to-shoulder communication of many men. It is so effective that Vic’s syrupy proclamation that “we love being dads” becomes overkill. Humor tempers such protesting too much, however, when another loving dad says he worries about actually “eating” his baby.
One issue the movie wisely avoids is any stay-at-home vs. working parent tension, which can wait for the sequel, I suppose. It is unclear whether the members of the Dudes Group are working or stay-at-home fathers (or a mix of both), but that underscores the larger point that when it comes to childcare, a growing number of men are choosing to be engaged fathers rather than reluctant surrogates for mothers. On the other hand, the backstory of the members of the Dudes Group might make for meaty spin-off material.
Returning to the backstory of Chris Rock’s movie career, two years ago in Grown Ups his character was a wimpy stay-at-home dad dominated by his wife, his mother-in-law, and even his children. His first scene features him in an apron presenting a pumpkin risotto to his working wife, who presents pizza to the kids instead. The scene ends with him in tears. I know it’s a male “buddies” over-the-top comedy, but come on. (And I’m not just mad because I don’t know how to make a pumpkin risotto.)
Ironically, I first saw Grown Ups while on vacation with my own childhood buddies and their families. Earlier that day, we had taught our daughters how to fish and gone tubing on a rented pontoon boat. Unfortunately, I broke two ribs trying to dock the thing in high winds, so I was already aggravated when Chris Rock’s character appeared on our screen. Even though I’m a veteran stay-at-home dad who has heard it all, the portrayal got under my sunburned skin, especially since I just wanted to have a beer and relax. Fortunately, my friends got any jokes out of their system long ago.
Fast forward to 2012, and Rock’s fatherly portrayal has, well, grown up. That may be simply due to female writers Shauna Cross and Heather Hach, but whatever the reason, the result is welcome progress far beyond baby steps.
Vincent O’Keefe is a writer and stay-at-home father with a Ph.D. in American literature. He is finishing a memoir about a decade of at-home parenting. Visit him at www.vincentokeefe.com.