Jimi Famurewa explores the bleary-eyed world of Alpha Dads
What’s your first thought when a baby, a really tiny baby, is lowered into your arms? Fear of not supporting its wobbly head? Panic about being the one who makes it cry? Visions of the demonic ceiling-crawler in Trainspotting? You are very much not alone.
Blind terror has always been part of the deal when it comes to men and babies. A baseline jumpiness that’s only exacerbated if it happens to be your own bundle of inscrutable disgustingness on the way. That small, talc-scented package comes loaded with big ideas relating to adulthood, responsibility and the daunting notion of being in charge of someone. But things are changing. A growing group of men are, instead of cowering, rolling up their sleeves and facing their fears. Say hello to the Alpha Dads.
Age of the alpha
Even if you don’t know it, you’ve seen them. Plastic scooter in the crook of their arm, striding purposefully through the park. Hovering over their desk, halfway into a jacket and blurting something about checking emails before racing home for bath time. Pushing a buggy in the twilight to coax their unwilling charge to sleep.
Fatherhood never used to look like this. Whether it was the anecdotal dad of old, slumped on the sofa after work, demanding his dinner from a flustered wife. Or pop culture depictions of feckless Homer Simpson-alikes, forever shirking their duties or securing a baggy nappy with a staple gun.
Speckled in sick and rice cake crumbs, this new breed of patriarch is diligent, engaged, hands-on. When his day job finishes, he relieves his weary partner and clocks in for a whole new set of messier duties.
And he doesn’t let up at the weekend. He grabs a pair of ear defenders and drags his baby to fêtes and festivals. Or, if my current vantage point in a darkened north London community centre is to be believed, he jiggles a bemused toddler and swigs a can of Stella as Daft Punk blares out.
This, you see, is a baby rave – the daytime parties for parents and under-5s that have become a boom business up and down the country. Let’s charitably say that the ‘rave’ element is dubious. That said, there are play mats strewn with faintly cosmic toys – including what looks like a giant sheet of tin foil – and glo-sticks. There’s a fist-pumping DJ in the corner, a ramshackle bar serving booze, and swirling flashing lights. Plus, of course, there are about 15 hyperactive kids who, it has to be said, are doing a pretty good impression of gibbering Nineties drug casualties.
“We’re party people and we didn’t want to stop partying [just because we had a baby],” explains Tomas, dreadlocked co-organiser of Baby Rave London and stay-at-home dad to a two-year-old. “What are you going to do with a child? Take them to the park? It’s boring. I should know because I do it every day.”
Parenthood – particularly fatherhood – has been big news of late. British births are the highest they’ve been since 1972 (check your Facebook feed for evidence), and, if the soothsaying mystics in the tabloid press are to be believed, there’ll be a royal baby screaming into the world any day now.
Then there are fretful recent reports about the crisis of masculinity, Centre For Social Justice director Christian Guy’s father-less “man deserts” and, most ludicrously of all, a survey that cited animated porcine lummox Daddy Pig as a demeaning portrayal of paternal parenting. But how does this hand-wringing over fatherly negligence square with real new dads?
“I used to get home, open a can of beer and just chill out,” says Paul (not his real name), a 39-year-old music teacher and father to a four-month-old. “Now, I get in after a 12-hour day at about 7pm, do some washing, change nappies and cook dinner. There’s a lot of pressure. But you get a smile, and it’s all worth it. Every little bit of pressure is worth the reward.”
That last bit is key. Being an Alpha Dad is about more than just moaning and martyrdom – a game of sleeplessness Top Trumps that would rightly have every overworked mum in the country reaching for their tiny violin. It’s not even about dads merely helping out or “doing their fair share”. It’s about actively trying to spend time with your child, attacking the eternal riddle of work-life balance, altering what it is to be a dad. And cheerfully mopping up puke, of course.
“It’s an unwritten rule now for a dad to be hands-on with nappies, bottle feeding and generally entertaining the baby after work and at weekends,” says Tom, a 32-year-old solicitor and dad of three-month-old Rosie. “My mum told me recently that my dad – who’s passed away now, sadly, so can’t defend himself – never changed a single nappy. And he had four kids, which goes to show how different things were.”
Paul also recalls his dad “going to the pub a couple of nights a week, while it was all [on his mum]”, so there’s a clear generational shift.
So are today’s Alpha Dads just overcompensating for years of amassed gender guilt?
“You always wonder if some blokes are doing it because they want to, or if they feel they ought to,” says psychology consultant Dr Sandra L Wheatley (potentpsychology.com). “Doing anything in life and just paying it lip service isn’t good. But what you find is that, because dads now have the societal permissions to be hands-on, they grit their teeth, give it a whirl and, by happy coincidence, realise it’s great.”
Take it like a man
You also have to wonder if part of the Alpha Dad phenomenon is male ego; a macho desire to not let any part of your life slip, despite the enormous, gurgling change at the centre of it. To work inhospitable hours (Paul admits he stays later on weeknights so he doesn’t have to mark homework at weekends, and Tom routinely logs in to his desktop remotely after hours) and prevent career stagnation.
All the while making sure you don’t lose touch with friends or miss out by wheeling prams to utterly impractical places (Tom talks me through a testing recent family trip to Wimbledon where Serena wasn’t the only one screaming). It’s a hell of a lot of pressure, so there’s no sense in stoically shouldering it.
However, it’s wrong to assume that it’s simply the norm for new fathers these days (“A guy I know gets home from work, expects the ironing to be done and goes straight out fishing,” chuckles Paul incredulously), but it’s certainly an increasing trend. Even former crack dealer and hip-hop star Jay-Z can regularly be seen schlepping his daughter here and there. Is Alpha Dad syndrome simply a uniquely male, and uniquely modern, reaction to the old problem of ‘trying to have it all’?
“There are as many differences within the genders as between them,” reasons Dr Wheatley. “I know relationships where the husband runs around ragged and the wife goes to work, comes home and slumps on the sofa. If you, in your relationship, feel you have a healthy balance, then that’s what matters.”
As ever, balance and fairness is key. Tom puts it well: “Alpha Dad, like Alpha Mum, [sounds like] someone who does everything seamlessly with minimum fuss, but I don’t think I’m doing anything special. It’s something I want to do, and it makes my family function correctly.
We both need time off and, weirdly, the more work I do helping out with Rosie, the less of an overall pain it is, which means I have more time to relax.”
Back at the baby rave, Tomas is manning the bar while his partner Mary, cradling their son Zach, is dishing out cake to celebrate the 1st birthday of their monthly event. Tomas is telling me how the sunny weather has hurt their numbers today. How normally it can get “pretty hectic” in here. Well, as hectic as something with a 5pm finishing time and a designated breastfeeding area can be.
He’s also talking about how he balances his job running an online retail site with his daytime care of Zach. Here we have a housedad, clearing up the bar at an antidote to the occasional drudgery of looking after a baby.
You couldn’t have a greater sign of the old norms of gender and tradition (thankfully) crumbling. This is parenthood 2.0, with fathers – and mothers, of course – carving out a new idea of what raising a child can be. Sacrificing barely anything in their lives and gleefully running themselves into the ground in the process. No man ever complained on his deathbed about missing all those late nights at the office because he had rushed home for bath time.
So the rise of Alpha Dads, whether through ego or guilt, should be applauded and embraced. That more and more men, soggy muslin square proudly slung over their shoulders, see hyper-involved parenting as a priority is enormously positive. You only need to look at the steady stream of surveys (a 2011 report found fatherless children were 76 per cent more likely to turn to crime) showing the direct correlation between absentee fathers and kids with all sorts of problems.
Personally speaking, the impulse to put my young son to bed every night, take him for regular walks and tackle the grimmest of nappies comes from wanting to give his mum a well-deserved break as she hits pause on her career. The dopamine hit of getting to know our little babbling drunk just makes it the ultimate win-win.
People are starting to scurry home now. We put our boy in his pram and head out into the sticky afternoon. The streets are packed and the clock is ticking until bath time, but it’s OK. We took a picture of him with some complimentary pink sunglasses propped on his face and a glo-stick in his hand. It was totally worth it.
(Images: – Image 2 at the top, courtesy of Disco Loco, www.discoloco.org All others: Rex)