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The Art of Manliness: What dad bloggers can teach other men

I admit it. When I was in my unfettered 20s, before I had experienced anything that means anything, I decided it was time to “live like a man,” or at least pretend to. And in the late 80s – a dark, pre-Internet hellscape where 1) cell phones were as big as dictionaries and 2) people still knew what a dictionary was – I turned to men’s magazines, which helpfully published lists of the skills that were crucial to achieving true masculinity. Some of these were genuinely useful (be loyal, learn how to reverse hypothermia, own a suit that fits well), but most were just crap. “Open a bottle unconventionally”? Seriously? These weren’t man skills. They were guy conceits. And after you read through a few of these lists, it becomes obvious that you can’t learn much about manhood from actual guys.

Now we have the web, and we have annoying web browsers that anticipate what you’re thinking before your fingers can finish typing it. When you enter “things every man should” into a search window, the first verb option you get is “own.” The next is “know” (which tells you enough about how our society tends to value what’s in a man’s garage over what’s in his mind). When you click on the links, you’ll find that they’re still cranking out these Arbiters of Manhood lists, in multiples of 25. And you’re still told you can’t be a man unless you can clean a Civil War musket, drive the Batmobile on the Autobahn, or remove a woman’s bra with your mind. It’s just more claptrap to play into insecurities that the current technological and literate society has softened our alpha-malehood – that men aren’t manly enough.

Regrettably, I bought into this nonsense for a while. I played golf, smoked cigars, listened to the cool music, and read the cool books. I felt slightly manlier when I got my own office, when I discovered I liked Scotch, and when I got married. But nothing flicked the switch and made me feel like a full-on, grown-up, adult Man with a capital M like the day my first kid was born.

I’m just talking from my own experience here. I certainly don’t think you have to be a father to be a man, but you sure as hell have to be a man to be a good father. And by that logic, if you want to read some of the best writing on the web about real manhood – or more accurately, real adulthood – you can find it among dad blogs.

Granted, we haven’t reached the same level of intimacy as the moms have. Moms have given us powerful writing about coping with disease, divorce, the death of a child. They’ve also captured the humor of childrearing because the best comedy is always based on the truth. Men still struggle with confessionals, maybe because we’re not supposed to confess that we, too, freak out when our kid spikes a 105º fever in the middle of the night. But our stories are starting to peek through this cracked veneer of stoic invincibility. We feel loss when a divorce separates us from our kids. We stress over our professional lives and our desire to provide. And we want to offset all that by reveling in the singular moments, like that time your three-year-old let loose a cross-legged fart that echoed in the church rafters and followed it up with a shameless “EXCUSE ME!”

Another primary difference between mom and dad bloggers is the reason we start writing in the first place. If you ask most moms why they started a blog, most of them will probably say they were coping with the turbulent transition into motherhood and were reaching out for the shared experience they couldn’t get at home. Dads, on the other hand, might say they wanted merely to chronicle their kids’ lives for the benefit of distant friends and family. That’s a great motivation, but if you just want to post pictures and write pithy captions, you have Facebook for that. Starting a blog, and maintaining it over a long period of time, means you have something to say (and in some cases, no one to say it to). Parent blogs are often derided as pointless navel-gazing, but they’re also an implied admission that you’re whistling past the graveyard. You’re in charge of this new person who depends on you completely, you’re navigating all the contrary advice, and you need help. Maybe that’s why men don’t read as many of these blogs as women do. We don’t like to admit that we don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t value input as much. But when you read some of the best dad blogs that are included in this Top 50 list, you can see that we’re starting to catch on.

Some of the Laddie Lists are evolving, too, by including the skills of engaged fatherhood: Change a diaper, prepare a bottle, learn how to recognize and treat common kid afflictions (like croup and fifth disease). But they’re also still telling us to cut down trees and bluff somebody out of a couple grand at Texas Hold ‘Em. There’s room for these things in the maturation of man because they build confidence in accomplishment. (And besides: They’re fun as hell. I cut a tree down once and spent the rest of the day feeling like I could wrestle elephants. Plural.)

But if a 20-year-old kid wants to learn about manhood, he should read about confronting fears, pursuing dreams, and recovering from loss. About committing to the adventure of marriage (or not committing to it). About daring to love a child unconditionally and cope with the paradox that your main goal is to help him not need you anymore. A 20-year-old kid should read about it from men who are living the experience.

So if you’re looking for real stories of adulthood, crack a beer and read a good dad blog. How conventionally you open the bottle is up to you.

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