What A New Dad’s Magazine Says About 21st Century Fatherhood

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Michael Erard offers his critique of a new magazine for dads.

I first came across a mention of Kindling Quarterly, a brand new magazine that bills itself as “an exploration of fatherhood,” via a Facebook post whose accompanying thread turned decidedly anti-hipster and anti-Brooklyn. But a magazine—on paper! (not a blog)—about the adult male part of the equation. I arranged to see an advance PDF.

This first issue of Kindling mainly consists of edited Q&As with various dads, who are pictured with their kids; there’s a ruminative essay by each of the co-founders, August Heffner and David Michael Perez; there’s a fashion shoot (man with his daughter); there’s a recipe for pumpkin gnocchi. Those who like their publications attractive and ad-free will have no complaints. Yes, there are pictures of men with bushy beards, wearing plaid shirts, whose last live music show before their kid was born might have been Bon Iver or Gayngs. Yes, one dad talks about getting meat “butchered to your own specifications.” Yes, one daughter is named “Beatrice” and another son “Cormac.” Yes, there’s a recipe for pumpkin fucking gnocchi. You get the sense that someday there will be whetstones imprinted with the magazine logo.

Don’t get hung up on these things. Otherwise, you might miss the direction that this magazine seems to be headed and what significance this direction, culturally speaking, might have.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Kindling just lands in my inbox at an interesting time for me. My son is 3. When your kid is 3, a lot of things in life and self snap back to their original shape, or something close, anyway, and you tend to forget how you got to this point, how you survived, what decisions you made, and the allure of parenting as a topic fades. Then you find yourself giving advice to baby rookie couples, and you surprise yourself with how much you know. I still don’t have a need to bond, socially and emotionally, over the fact that I face parenting challenges or am solving challenges. Perhaps I’ve just given up talking about my experiences and have opted for yoga, beer, and writing instead, because men don’t bond over parenting. The vacuum is a result of a cultural Catch-22 here: because men don’t give each other support for their parenting, it’s not a topic about which men look to other men for support.

Along comes Kindling, which blurs some lines in some promising ways. Most significantly, every single one of the Q&As covers all aspects of the dad’s life, so that parenting is another activity that these fellows do, along with blogging, composing, or making furniture. The interviews actually spend more time talking about furniture, or food, or media, than actual caregiving, but the beauty is that they’re all on the same level. Neither parenting nor work life are sidebars to each other.

The interviewers are able to do this, in part, because they ask this lovely question a couple of times, “What is your daily routine with [your kid]?” The day is a very revealing unit of description. Talk about the day, and you talk about work, eating, sleep, play, prayer. You don’t talk about roles. You talk about the things that get you to the next day. You talk about the people you share your house with, for whom the household is built to serve. It’s easy to forget that any person or family’s day is an evolved thing, a highly designed mechanism—sometimes designed by some other power, sometimes something we’re able to design for ourselves.

The day—the simplest cycle of a night and a day, a sleep and a wake—is a basic unit of household and family time. It’s also a record of negotiations between a family and the economy, between parents, between everyone’s stamina, interest level, and developmental capacities. When you talk about the particulars of the day, you automatically resist platitudes and cliches. These were my favorite parts of the interviews in Kindling, and of the whole magazine. (And because the interviewers are dads, there you have it, something that never happens: dads talking with other dads about parenting. Not that this fills the vacuum, necessarily, but it does provide some ideas about how more connections could happen.) 

I started to make a couple of notes about the demographics of the dads who appear, but it’s not clear that they’re all white or straight. What seems more salient is that they’re all creative class. One guy is a designer and furniture maker; another one does websites; another does music and lives in Japan; one’s a Brooklyn designer; one’s a food blogger (and so much more). What do we surmise about this? It means they have push-pull relationships with big cities (New York, Nagoya). It means they love their high-speed Internet. It means that they’re untied from offices in specific physical locations. They probably work a lot at home. No matter what they’re doing or what language they speak, these are 21st century dads, because the fact of not commuting has huge implications for the way they can participate in the day-to-day life of children. More so than their own dads, they’re able to construct their day like they want. That simple fact—no matter what someone’s musical tastes or facial hair preferences—represents a significant departure from the past. It also means they’re not around other dads in a workplace acting like dads. One gets lonely and introspective. 

Though it’s culturally not polite to speak the truth about the attractiveness of a newborn, I’ll just point out some of the opportunities for this newborn magazine to grow. Yes, the photos in this issue are open to the criticism that for these dads, fathering seems to be largely about baby display or baby parading (which is actually fairly common among human cultures). And there’s too little sex and gender, as a topic. Fathers of girls are not the same, in some ways, as fathers of boys; how is this true? And to go back to the day as a basic unit of description: Don’t just ask dads about what the days are like—ask them if their current day was always that way. Ask them what sort of day they’d like to have. (There’s already a bit of this in the wise rumination by Scott Wilson: “Maybe one day I’ll actually have time to read a little Foucault in the morning and time to drink a third beer later that night,” he writes.) Ask if their partners would like to have a different sort of day. And ask them how their day got to be the way it is now. If the role of the father is more dynamic now than in the past, it’s largely in part to the affordances that make the daily schedule more dynamic, as well.

The focus on daily life seems to be more happenstance than a deliberate founding principle, and I hope the founders continue to focus on it in future issues, because it has another benefit: We get to learn how work, especially creative work by men, intersects with the raising of children. This is the biggest contribution of Kindling, I think: It’s utterly novel for men to be talking about this and like this. Shawn James Seymour talks about the constraints of his day: “Nico is in preschool now, so he comes home at 3:30 everyday. I try to do most of my recording before 3:30. It’s hard to record after that with lots of footsteps or the sound of Ultra Man (a Japanese television series). It is a great deadline, so when I record, I try not to mess up. He comes home, eats a snack and we go to the park.” And it’s not just men who have the creative lives. Seymour and his wife have a television show in which they make musical instruments out of household items and play them; now Nico, who is 4, appears on the show with them. When Jason Roskey, a furniture maker and designer, talks about the thing that’s “the extension” of his partner and him, he’s not talking about his daughter, he’s talking about the furniture company, in which he makes pieces and she does art direction, photography, and the business website.

Of course life as it’s lived is not so clean and easy—maybe future interviews will talk about what’s hard, what’s lost, the projects and clients that work-at-home dads had to sacrifice. On the other hand, it’s a magazine, and what good is it if it doesn’t have some ideal life to dangle in front of you, baited with a big “what if”?

Michael Erard is a linguist and author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners and Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. He’s written about language for the New York Times, Science, Wired, the New Scientist, and many other publications, and is a contributing writer to Design Observer. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @michaelerard.

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