Culture

Ward Cleaver and the Modern Dad

Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont of Leave it to Beaver (ABC/Wikimedia)
A guide from men who know

‘Ward Cleaver Was a Stud” is the first chapter and a prevailing guidepost in Heavy Lifting: Grow Up, Get a Job, Start a Family, and Other Manly Advice. Co-authored by National Review Online’s very own Jim Geraghty with his friend Cam Edwards, it is a witty and honest ode to fatherhood, and a nudge to any man waiting or wailing. We talk about it here.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why did you take time to write a book on fatherhood?

Jim Geraghty: When Cam lived up here in northern Virginia, we would get together once a week either before or after his program and chew the fat, and we probably discussed about a million and one projects and ideas and potential books over the years. We gravitated towards the culture, and away from politics, in part because of our day jobs and in part a reflection of Andrew Breitbart’s insistence that politics is downstream from culture.

Cam became a stepfather — really full-fledged fatherhood, no prefix required — before I did. I became a dad in 2007, and both of us see at this core component to who we are.

I was surprised by the way people reacted when my wife and I announced the good news back then. There’s this weird instinctive pessimism; everyone feels the need to warn you with dire talk about lost sleep and domestic chaos and the end of carefree, double-income, no-kid life. Now, keeping in mind that I had the easier part of the deal, not having to actually push a small person out of my body, I find fatherhood way better than I ever expected, this remarkable, irreplaceable joy. Now whenever I hear someone’s expecting, I make sure to tell them to ignore all the scary talk; life as a parent is way better than you expect. Not necessarily easier, but better.

Lopez: What has the feedback been like?

Geraghty: Very positive — a lot of hardworking married dads out there and those married to them are thrilled to see a book saluting, touting, and celebrating men like this — but I’m almost more intrigued by the negative reaction.

John Mark Reynolds wrote a very generous review but had a bit of a gripe that “though it is moralistic, it carefully skirts any basis for moral pronouncements.” In other words, while Cam and I make some brief references to faith and the Man Upstairs, it’s not an overtly religious book. It’s a fair question: If you write a book wanting to reach the entire spiritual spectrum, do you end up leaving something vital and important out? Can you make a non-religious argument in favor of “old-fashioned” notions of hard work, devotion to family, the joy of marriage, and parenthood? Or are some Christians in denial about how much of the public will tune out any “God talk”?

Our society’s got a lot of problems, but a big, glaring one is the sense that we celebrate those we should denounce and we denounce those we should celebrate.

Heavy Lifting is a book that defends some really traditional values in a really irreverent, snarky, full-of-modern-pop-cultural-references way, and I get the feeling that unexpected combination of substance and style might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I recall an early radio interview about the book with a pastor, where I used one of the book’s lines, “you don’t want to end up being that 42-year-old guy hitting on a 22-year-old woman at the bar on Saturday night.” He responded, with a tone of surprise, “And we don’t spend our Saturday nights in bars, do we, Jim!” Uh, of course not, sir! Never!

Then there were the bitter, angry guys who fumed that because of their experiences, modern women are awful, marriage is a trap, and everything in the book is a lie. There’s one guy on Amazon who demanded we “write a book on how a young man can have a successful life without getting married and risking eventual divorce, financial ruin, and separation from his children by a vengeful ex-wife.” It’s pretty clear the guy’s not just arguing about a book anymore. 

Lopez: What are you doing declaring Ward Cleaver a stud when the conventional view of conservatives is that we want to turn back clocks?

Geraghty: Well, Bill Cosby made it impossible to say, “Cliff Huxtable is a stud.”

“Ward Cleaver Was a Stud” was the working title for a while, and I loved it for the sheer seeming incongruence, an allegedly stodgy, uptight figure being touted as genuine apex masculinity. Even if you think he’s a stiff, it’s pretty clear that when society rebelled against that image of masculinity — and it’s still rebelling, six or seven decades later — it threw the baby out with the bathwater. Ward Cleaver was responsible, a man you could count on, loving, who doesn’t complain, who’s confident but not chest-pounding. He didn’t whine and he wasn’t this hapless, bumbling dad who’s become a sitcom staple since then.

I now realize if we had titled it, “Alexander Hamilton was a stud,” we would have sold a million copies by now.

Lopez: Can you really stand by this statement: “If all the Ward Cleavers of the world disappeared tomorrow, civilization would collapse”? You do realize Ward Cleaver was fictional, right?

Geraghty: Sure. But Ward Cleaver is the code name we’re using for every man who works hard, loves his wife, tries to teach his kids right and wrong, is there for his neighbors and friends, and tries to do the right thing in a messy, complicated world.

Our society’s got a lot of problems, but a big, glaring one is the sense that we celebrate those we should denounce and we denounce those we should celebrate.

Lopez: Why is fatherhood not to be avoided?

Geraghty: It’s not for everyone. But it’s fascinating to see men who tout themselves as the biggest, baddest, toughest guys you’ll ever meet suddenly flinching at the thought of baby spit-up running down their back. One of our editors described a man he knew who was into extreme sports, enjoyed skydiving, etcetera — but the idea of fatherhood terrified him.

Fatherhood is this strange combination of daily lessons about how powerful you can be — my younger son is convinced I can fix anything, I’ve handled the kids solo while my wife’s been on work travel for a week, we’ve dealt with late-night emergency-room visits and midnight vomiting and every other sudden crisis that small children bring — and simultaneously how powerless you can be. When the doctor tells you something on the sonogram looks wrong, and things may not turn out okay, suddenly you have something you want more than anything else in the world, and there’s nothing you can do about it. (Everything did turn out okay, which probably helped contribute to my habit of reflexively dismissing all bad news from doctors.)

Lopez: How are children “the great clarifier”?

Having a child that needs you instantly makes everything else in life move to the back of the line, and that’s somewhat liberating.

Geraghty: Because a lot of what we deal with each day isn’t that important, and only seems important in the moment. Having a child that needs you instantly makes everything else in life move to the back of the line, and that’s somewhat liberating. The work-life balance is always going to be one of the great challenges for working parents, and I’m lucky that National Review Online’s always been pretty understanding when I say, “Yeah, I’ve got to go pick up the kids” or “my son’s sick and I’ve got to take him to the pediatrician.” But it also cleared up which role had to take priority at that moment. Nobody else can take care of my child, at least in those circumstances and at that moment. As a dad, suddenly you have this role where you are completely irreplaceable.

Children also force you to think about the long term, which is better for you, even though you may not want to admit it. It’s very easy to say, “Eh, I’ll plan for the future tomorrow” — retirement, life insurance, taking care of your health. When you have a child, suddenly you do have to think about life five years from now, ten years from now, 20 years from now.

Lopez: Why are you so “pro-marriage”?

Geraghty: Besides the fact that Cam and I both married up . . . 

Because I think marriage gets a bad rap. A lot of comedians do the usual, “take my wife, please” jokes, and almost any married man can tell some “oh, you think your wife drives you crazy? Let me tell you about mine!” stories. But I think most of this falls into the “we tease because we love” category. I think for most men, if — God forbid — they found themselves in a terrorist attack tomorrow, their first thought would be: “Are my wife and children safe?” We can gripe about our wives and children, tease them, yearn for peace and quiet, but we would never, ever not want them around. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the updated How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice.

 

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