“Three Men and a Baby” (1987), starring Steve Guttenberg, Tom Selleck, and Ted Danson.

Once again there is a debate about women, work vs. family life, and “having it all.”  And once again there are rumblings about how men, and particularly fathers, ought to be part of this discussion. It is so 1960s—and yet so relevant.

Here is what I’d like to say to that younger generation: Go watch some movies.  They’ll give you perspective. Movies reflect and sometimes shape the culture that produces them—a truism of film criticism. These days, movies about single-motherhood are “romps” about proud women with moxie, not dramas about vulnerable women dealing with lifelong shame.  But if you’re watching a film about men taking care of babies, you’re watching a comedy. That hasn’t changed since the dawn of American cinema.

The 1915 Edison Studios silent black-and-white short film The Sufferin’ Baby presents a wonderful early example of man-and-baby comedy. A husband is left tending a baby while his wife heads off to march in a suffrage parade.  Tempted by anti-suffrage friends to join them for a day at the fair, he puts the baby in a valise and ends up stowing it on the platform connecting the wheels of a plane. A pilot climbs in, starts the propeller, and takes off.  Eventually the valise falls out and the baby is caught, and the final caption has the husband uttering, “It’s nothing; only another vote for suffrage.”  The same male ineptitude in baby care appears in the 2009 full-length feature The Hangover, in which a group of men wake up to find a baby and a tiger in their hotel room following a night of drinking and mayhem.

Hollywood loves to show men learning to love babies and having their lives changed by them. Babies unite couples meant for each other, and they win the hearts of curmudgeons. But, most of all, babies appear in movies to demonstrate that men are not really up to the task of caring for them. Easy laughs can be bought with scenes of men taking on challenging jobs like feeding and diaper changing. Mastering those difficult feats often requires several men on the job, and even then, they prove to be clumsy and slow to learn.  From Edison Studios’ 1917 The Luck of Roaring Camp to Mutts to You, a 1942 Three Stooges romp from Columbia Pictures, to the 1987 Three Men and a Baby, movies make clear that solo infant care is well beyond the capabilities of men, even those able to master their jobs and other aspects of their lives.  Grandpas have challenges, too—check out Spencer Tracy in Father’s Little Dividend (1951).

Perhaps lack of practice is part of the reason. While studies show men spending increasing amounts of time on child care over the course of the twentieth century, their hours on the job do not approach those of women. The 2011 American Time Use Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, released just this past month, finds that on an average day in households with children under 6, women spent 1.1 hours providing physical care such as bathing or feeding a child.  For men, the time amounted to 26 minutes of physical care for a child. Sure, these are averages; they don’t describe every situation. But they do tell us something about modern life and why it is hard for women to “have it all.”

So, if we’ve got sons or grandsons, or both, it is time for us to get busy providing them with some education.  Lesson one: You can take care of a baby. 

Imagine what would happen if men’s time spent on child care equaled women’s. Writers of comedy screenplays would have to find some new ways to get laughs, but our daughters and granddaughters’ lives might be a little bit easier, and men could develop new skills.

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  • Camren Fyfe August 23, 2012 at 7:31 am

    I loved your article.Much thanks again. Really Great.

  • roz warren August 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Fascinating essay. Thanks!