Photo Credit: Russel Lee / Library of Congress

During a year spent at home, one new father reported that he had finally learned “how to properly wash my hands—and a baby’s hands.” A parenting resource, meanwhile, let dad know he could get down on the floor and engage his baby in age-appropriate play. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, I noticed a glut of articles and interviews centered on humorous, heartwarming stories about fathers staying home with their infants and discovering the joys of parenting. I couldn’t help but think, “I’ve seen this movie before,” because, well, I had.

From the silent film era to the present day, men’s and especially fathers’ roles have remained largely unchanged when it comes to babies: they are nearly always shown as comically inept at caring for them but able to quickly fall in love with helpless infants. Now, as pandemic and post-pandemic movies are written, our workplace dynamics are changing and possible legislation to support families is debated. Perhaps the moment is here for some new stories to be told about men and babies. While we wait to see what Congress does with the American Families Plan in the proposed 3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, let’s watch some movies and consider how American culture has always seen baby care as a woman’s job.

Moviegoers know that the portrayal of mothers on the big screen shifted enormously over the past century. The treatment of single motherhood pivoted from showing it as sinful to presenting it as, if not commonplace, at least no longer shameful. The stigma of out-of-wedlock birth in the 1926 silent film The Scarlet Letter, with Lillian Gish, is in marked contrast to late twentieth-century Hollywood films in which single mothers ranged from horrible to saintly but are not sentenced to wear a literal or figurative badge of shame. Movies have always reflected cultural practices and cultural changes, and women’s acting roles have evolved along with shifts in the culture and economy, and with changes in family size. The growing labor force participation rate of women can be seen on screen, although the movies usually show working mothers parenting children, not infants. 

Family formation also entered new thematic territory. The film industry, in recent decades, turned out movies about adoption, including interracial adoption, surrogacy, and baby-selling (although television made the most of this latter narrative with police procedurals about breaking up criminal baby broker enterprises).

What about fathers? While economy, culture, and family demographics changed for men too, their household duties did not evolve at the same rate as women’s. Certainly, the numbers of fathers engaged in full-time parenting and the number of dual father households have increased in recent decades. Unfortunately, most of the available data focuses on caring for preschool children, lumping infants and 5-year-old youngsters into the category. That measures of paternal infant care are largely absent tells us something about how we think of fatherhood.

Single fatherhood began to appear in films more often and, as academic Martha May noted in Journal of Popular Film and Television 25 (Spring 1997), their roles evolved from “Cads to Dads,” as characters stepped into the parenting role after premarital sexual activity led to pregnancy. But the job of parenting infants did not appear in many films. Hollywood did pay attention to widowed men parenting children. We got role model dads, as in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and wise-cracking and wise-for-their-age youngsters helping their fathers begin new lives, as in Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Yet across the decades, babies and fathers rarely appeared together on screen. When they did, it was nearly always to offer a comedic presentation of bungling dads and gurgling (or crying) babies.

An early example of maladroit fatherhood is the 1915 Edison Studies silent short The Sufferin’ Baby. In this picture, a dad is left to care for his offspring while his wife goes off to march in a fairgrounds suffrage parade. Tempted by anti-suffrage friends to join them for a day at the fair, he puts the baby in a valise and at the fairgrounds stows it on the platform connecting the wheels of a small plane. Panic ensues when the pilot climbs in and takes off with the baby onboard. Eventually the valise falls from the sky, the baby is caught, and the final caption has the husband uttering, “It’s nothing, only another vote for suffrage.”

Decades later, Hollywood films continued down this well-trod path, portraying infant care as a tremendous challenge, but one meant to warm the hearts of viewers by showing men falling in love with babies. An excellent example of this plot is the 1934 Fox feature Doggone Babies, in which a man and his boss both learn to love babies—in this case, the infant of a washerwoman who planned to give it up for adoption. The boss, formerly only interested in dogs, decides to adopt the baby and the husband, also once opposed to parenthood, declares, “when that old stork flies in the window now, boy is he welcome.”

Fast forward half a century and you’ll find the same combination of humor centered on barely competent fatherhood plus heartwarming moments of men’s growing affection for tiny babies. Three Men and A Baby, a 1987 remake of a French film, offered up a scene in which two men inexpertly took on the challenge of changing a diaper—and yes, they fell in love with the little one. That story is coming back one more time: Disney is set to release a new version in 2022.

The most recent entry into the men-coping-with-diapers narrative is the 2021 Netflix film Fatherhood, a bittersweet story of a widowed Black father thrust into parenting after his wife dies shortly after childbirth. The diaper-changing scene serves to inject a little humor, but also highlights the father’s initial inability to handle the task. Colic proves to be a challenge: at one point, the dad and two friends must try to sing his crying baby to sleep. Kudos to the writer for adopting this story from a memoir for the screen. But, honestly, aren’t we a little tired of movies making fun of men who cannot cope with an infant unless their sidekicks are helping out? Can you imagine an audience yukking it up over a Hollywood movie in which two women have to struggle together to clean an infant bottom and put on a diaper?

Not yet written, optioned, cast, and filmed for release are movies about men taking care of babies and their older siblings while also handling the housework, meal preparation, shopping, and cleanup, as their partners work long hours in the lab finding treatments and cures for a deadly pandemic (surely a timely plot!) Also waiting for development: films about men and women organizing a political movement to demand and win support for universal daycare—probably presented in a dream sequence also featuring equal pay and equal job advancement opportunities. And what about more films about men and babies that don’t feature the typical white male stars leading comfortable middle-class lives? True, movies seem to be getting more diverse in terms of actors and subjects, but why can’t they evolve when it comes to the subject of men and babies? Is it because the movies reflect how far we have to go with paid parental leave, daycare access and affordability, and income support for families?

It is little wonder that Hollywood, like America, has been stuck in something of a time warp for the past 100+ years when it comes to men and babies. The situation on and off screen is fixable. Step one arrived (temporarily) with the child care tax credit in the American Rescue Plan of 2021. Step two may come with passage of the proposed American Families Plan, which includes a continuation of the child care tax credit along with investments in the child care work force and in paid family leave. If fathers get paid time off and a cultural shift supports them as primary care givers to infants, imagine what movies could be made. While the American Families Plan focuses on preschool-age children, perhaps quality care for those under 3 years old, including infant care, could be an aspirational step three. Should these measures come to pass, we might get something new from screenwriters: respectful treatment of men ably caring for infants. Even better, we might get to watch this in real life.

Janet Golden is History Professor Emerita at Rutgers University, Camden.