The trend came into the world naked, innocent, screaming. It demanded attention and round-the-clock care. In just two years, it grew and became more self-aware. Some people thought the trend was cute, others were simply annoyed. Yes, the daddy blog has accomplished much in its young life—scoured the world for Bauhaus children’s furniture, discovered vintage R.E.M. Sesame Street appearances —but with the publication of Neal Pollack’s Alternadad, the cuddly stage is officially over. The trend has grown into a book, and a target. The “alternadad” threatens to become the new “soccer mom,” a vague sociological category that people have strong, unwarranted opinions about. The kid-free are already annoyed, the boomers sniff “been there, done that,” and the “new urban parent” site Babble stokes the debate. But Pollack shouldn’t simply be lumped in with a spurious hipster parenting movement. His book reveals that the core aim of fatherhood has barely budged: provide food, clothing, shelter.
Most people know Pollack as an arch McSweeney’s ironist, the self-proclaimed “greatest writer in the world” who satirized men’s magazine writing and journalistic machismo with a Hunter S. Thompson alter ego. Saddled with this rep, Alternadad makes a bad first impression—with its title and the rubber duckie sporting a nose ring on the cover. The idea of a father writing a parenting memoir is also faintly shameful, since men bypass pregnancy, labor, and breast-feeding—the Bermuda Triangle into which many women’s lives temporarily disappear. Pollack acknowledges this: “[W]hether you’re a dad or not a dad, your life stays basically the same. It’s just a matter of increased responsibility.” His book is in earnest; it’s Pollack unplugged. And despite his overdetermined musical taste, Pollack is not really an alternadad. He’s a newly uptight, first-time dad.
The actual alternadads appear in the book’s opening section. Pollack describes the life he led in Rogers Park, a Chicago neighborhood that in the early ‘90s was neither hip nor scary, and so was filled with bona fide slackers. Pollack wrote a story for the alternative weekly in which he followed Jill, a journalism student, and her older boyfriend, Ned, a shiftless depressive, through birth classes and an actual birth. Ned had already fathered a child in his hometown, and he wanted to “be a real dad” to this new child. Their son is born, and six months later Ned is not around much and acting as spacey as ever. Jill takes the child to be with her dad in Montana. Although Pollack never explicitly states this, his own dadly path charts a middle way between the emotional and economic failure of Ned and the comfortable, conventional success of his own father.
Pollack embarks into parent-land from a different starting point than those two. Like many men of his generation and class, he marries a woman with similar ambitions. Regina is an artist and teacher. They both partook of the extended American adolescence, and their “artsy-fartsy” life together is fun, filled with concerts and road trips. Their marriage has an ungendered, unscripted equality. They do what they want. Slowly, Regina leads Neal down the road to reproduction. Unlike a lot of dad writing, Pollack describes a critical stage: the hazy confusion of the “should we get pregnant?” time and the gray period once the seed is sown. Women’s lives change at conception (and even before), but men have a nine-month grace period when they awake to the old-fashioned bread-winning commitment they still feel. Pollack describes this economic awakening through conversations with Regina. Note how he captures the drastic mindset of the newly pregnant—and note too that they’re not talking about whether to buy a Bugaboo:
“Maybe we shouldn’t live in the city.””I was thinking the same thing,” she said. “But I don’t not want to live in the city. We should at least live in some city, somewhere.”“I feel guilty.””Why? You don’t owe anything to Philadelphia.””Yeah, but I made a commitment …””Do you want to honor your abstract commitment that no one cares about but you?” she said. “Or do you want your child stepping on a needle in the park?””So where should we raise our child?””I don’t know.”Perhaps, we realized, we should have thought this detail through a bit more carefully. Life’s learning curve, once you get pregnant, is steep and immediate.
So, here is our “alternadad,” wrapped up in a most traditional parental concern, the “good neighborhood” question. Pollack spends a lot time searching for the “good school” and the “good health care.” And, while I’m making the book sound like an op-ed, it’s actually very funny. Pollack wades through the indignities of contemporary dad-dom, which include: the aerobic cheerfulness of Little Gym, “helpful” people in the supermarket, odious “Is he walking?” comparisons, the gateway drug Noggin, rude playground moms, and the inescapable paranoia of Internet message boards. But these sorts of developmental and kid-culture issues (which can dominate any media or writing about parenting) are a sideline to Alternadad’s central anxieties of where to live manageably and how to support a child.
Pollack and Regina leave Philly and resettle in Austin, Texas. Pollack has been amenable to the whole kid thing but wants to pursue his writing career, and, after all, how’s everyone going to eat? This is where feminism, previously confined to the safety of college campuses, comes roaring into their lives. Eli is born (in harrowing fashion). He gets older and requires more care. Pollack and Regina, both self-employed, divide the day into “Mommy Time” and “Daddy Time” for watching Eli. You can guess who wins. Pollack writes: “Initially Daddy Time was from three to five p.m. on weekdays, with longer shifts on the weekend. Some days, that was fine. But on other days, three p.m. would nearly arrive and I’d realize that I’d been sitting in my underwear at the computer all day but that I hadn’t actually written anything.” Daddy Time (a sweet deal already!) gets extended. Pollack doesn’t pull his weight, yet unlike his predecessors, he’s made to feel both guilty and annoyed. Guilty for not parenting. Annoyed because he earns most of the money, and Dad’s schedule should trump Mom’s.
What’s fallen away from marriage for artist-intellectual-professional types are the traditional genders and gender roles. But, as new moms have been observing for years, the arrival of a child has a nasty way of reinstating the old dynamic. Pollack, who feels the need to make money and provide a safe place to live, is among the first to relate the re-emergence of breadwinner angst among men. (Although he fights this pressure by smoking pot and forming a rock band.) Regina is divided by wanting space for her artistic ambitions and her feelings of being a “bad mother.” Parenthood, which looks from the outside like a step into maturity, is actually a descent into a new set of insecurities. Including renewed tension with your parents, who are often willing to overlook a funky wedding ceremony but want to see you step in with tradition and/or religion when a grandchild appears. An infamous chapter in Alternadad details the three-way gunfight among Neal, Regina, and Neal’s Jewish parents over whether Eli should be circumcised.
What Alternadad drives home is that having children has become more of a lifestyle choice, with “Dad” and “Mom” seeming like an identity along the lines of “med student” or “poet.” As a result, there is a lot more anxiety about parenting—unlike the mythic good old days, where you had kids, tossed them into the back of the Pinto, enrolled them in public school, and didn’t worry about things too much. The trappings of the alternadad—the T-shirts, the stubble—actually express a nostalgic wish for the old style, a time when parents had lives that weren’t totally consumed (and infantilized) by care for their kids. As Alternadad shows,the attentive scorched-earth parenthood of today may be tiring, but it’s not life-altering: Pollack is a dad, and he is still self-absorbed, distracted, and judgmental.
The anger surrounding alternadad and hipster parenting derives from the idea that these new parents don’t want to “grow up” and act like parents. Instead, they give their kids fauxhawks and inculcate them with a precious taste in music and “film.” I agree that this can be irritating, but find me the set of parents who haven’t, consciously or not, indoctrinated their kids into a little family cult. And who’s more annoying: the 3-year-old who knows Mandarin or the one who loves Devo? The difference between an alternadad, a banker dad, and a soccer dad is ultimately aesthetic and pointless. Sure, Pollack is psyched when Eli develops a love of the Ramones and Spider-Man, but most of his book recounts his struggle to find what America used to offer easily: a solid house, a living wage, a decent public school.