MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Since this program began, our parenting roundtable, where we've consulted with a diverse group of parents, has been a signature of this program. Why? Because we think it's been helpful in a world that's more diverse than ever, more complicated than ever, to hear common sense advice from people with different backgrounds and perspectives. So, since this is our last week of production, we wanted to hear from our trusted contributors one last time in this venue, anyway. In a few minutes, we will hear from our group - we started with our panel of moms. But first, we wanted to hear from parents who say they've been left out of the conversation too long, and that is the dads. With us now are four of our go-to dad guests - Lester Spence, he's an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, a father of five. Felix Contreras is co-host of NPR's alt.latino podcast and a dad of two. Dan Bucatinsky is an Emmy-winning actor, best known as James on the hit show "Scandal." He's also a TV writer and producer and author of the book "Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight: Confessions Of A Gay Dad." He's a father of two. And Phil Lerman is a TV producer and author of "Daditude: How A Real Man Became A Real Dad." He's a father of one and a step-dad of one. I can't - I'm just so happy to welcome all of you back with us once again. Thank you all for coming.
LESTER SPENCE: Thanks for having us.
FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Thanks for having us, yeah.
DAN BUCATINSKY: Oh, thanks for having us.
PHIL LERMAN: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: So let me start off by having a little bit of fun with the dad stereotype and I apologize in advance. Here's a clip from the trailer from the 2003 movie "Daddy Day Care."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "DADDY DAY CARE")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Now, they're prepared to go where no daddy has gone before.
JEFF GARLIN: (As Phil) Can't men do anything that women can do?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, no we can't.
EDDIE MURPHY: (As Charlie Hinton) Welcome to daddy day care. Don't panic because they're like animals. They can smell fear.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: D-Day.
MURPHY: (As Charlie Hinton) We're going to have to up our game today, all right? We need some structure and some planned activities.
GARLIN: (As Phil) We need Ritalin and leashes, that's what we need.
MARTIN: OK, all right, all right, I said I'm sorry in advance, so hopefully I'm covered. But Lester, let me start with you because you have five, you wear the crown here. Did - when you're honest - did you ever feel that way as a dad?
SPENCE: Can you say hell no on NPR?
MARTIN: I guess so. What are they going to do, cancel us?
SPENCE: No, no. I mean, the challenges that I had were challenges of youth, you know. I had my first kid when I was barely 25, but everything - I knew how to cook, I knew how to clean and I knew how to change a diaper, I knew how to braid hair, I knew - and I learned - and I didn't feel nervous about any of these things. When Sean (ph) had to leave, you know, when she had to leave for periods of time, I had it. It wasn't like I was pulling my hair and making, you know, making casserole for the kids, you know, in one of those little microwave...
MARTIN: Well, you don't have any hair, but nevertheless...
MARTIN: But to that end, I think that this - is this kind of yet another image, you know, you're an African-American man, you're an intellectual, you're an academic. So there are lots of issues you have with the way you are presented in the media. But is this kind of one more thing you feel that dads get a bad rep?
SPENCE: Yeah, we do. Yeah we do. And for me, that's not quite as bad as when I had Emani (ph) and when I would carry her in the stroller and all of these women would smile at me like oh my God, he's taking care of his kids. Like I'm supposed to do that, right?
MARTIN: Felix, what about you? Have you felt that you've had to fight your way in to the dad conversation, or even to have conversations about being a dad?
CONTRERAS: Sort of. I mean, I'm complete opposite I think here of what he just said because I had my first when I was 42. So, you know, any of the challenges I had were, you know, I was set in my ways and, you know, my way or the highway kind of thing I had to get over, and still trying to get over that. But I think that when you look at the landscape of all the media coverage and just the conversations, I think that dads do get a short end of the stick and in a lot of ways. You know, when people more - I think more dads than not step up and take care of things and just do it because that's, you know, that's just what's supposed to happen.
MARTIN: You know, Phil, what about when you - I'm curious about what made you want to write your book. Was it in part - what void did you feel...
LERMAN: Well, it's funny...
MARTIN: ...You were filling? Or...
LERMAN: It's funny you ask that because it was exactly on this topic that - when I came out with "Daditude" and I went around talking about it, mothers all came up to me with the same story afterwards - I'm so glad you wrote this because my husband's an idiot. And women love to tell me how their husband's an idiot. He can't change the kid, he can't feed the kid, he can't do anything and that's the image that you're talking about. And dads are not like that. Dads can do whatever moms can do. You know, I always say...
MARTIN: Well, with one exception.
LERMAN: With one exception.
LERMAN: If you can change a tire on a Camaro, you can change a diaper, right? And the lug nuts are a lot easier to loosen on the diaper. It's something that moms like to do and it's something I found in the workplace, that editors or producers, they always say to me oh, this script they gave me was so bad. Good thing I was here to fix it. And it's something that happens in the workplace - you want to show that you're extremely needed in the workplace, so you show - I'm the good one here, the other one's the idiot. Thank God I'm here. And moms do that to dads, that's how they can feel in control of the house. I'm the smart one here and dad is the idiot.
MARTIN: OK, but I could make an argument that, you know, easy for you then - you could just be like oh, I'm an idiot. I can't, you know, sorry babe. It's your deal.
LERMAN: And that's exactly what happens. And that's why moms tends to take control and a lot of dads tend to step back.
MARTIN: But why did you feel a need to fight for it? You wanted to fight for your respect as a parent.
LERMAN: I think, like Felix, because I was an older dad and I knew this was my last chance I was going to get, I didn't want to miss out on everything. So from the time my son was born, I was in there. I changed all the diapers for the first two weeks and I used to kick my wife out of the house for a couple of hours just to be there. I didn't want to miss out. And more importantly, for your kid - and we all know this - a kid needs - needs you to be there. Boys need their dads, girls need their dads. They want their dad to be there. There's no reason if you have two parents in the house, to not have two parents in the house. And for Max's sake more than anything else, I wanted to be there.
MARTIN: Dan, what about, you know, as a gay dad, you didn't have the pressure of mommy knows it all dynamic because your household of two dads - I'm curious about - first of all, why you wanted to write your book, what void you kind of felt was being filled there, besides the fact that it's screaming out loud funny. But talk a little bit about that whole question of what - do you feel like you have to fight for your space as a dad?
BUCATINSKY: Well, I think to some degree. It was never a question that there was - there would not be a mom in the equation. So it was really about two dads sort of figuring out what roles we would play as dads. In many ways, I felt this feeling like we were going to have to encompass everything. Those things that traditionally you might feel society has delegated to the mom would have to be covered by us. Those things that traditionally felt like they were delegated to the dad had to be delegated to us. And it started to make me feel like wow, we really are all parents. I don't know why the words - I mean, I feel like I have as much of a maternal instinct as I have a paternal instinct. And I guess that part of me, that part of me that once my daughter was born, I felt this need to - this desire, this sort of impulse, that if I had had a boob, I would've put it in her and fed her. And I had the same - I felt the same sort of maternal instinct. And I wanted to write about those things that suddenly made me feel like I was a member of a larger, you know, I wasn't - you know, you would think that the gay parent or the gay dads or those who might feel ostracized - in a weird way, I actually felt like I had entered into a much larger brotherhood and sisterhood. And I felt this need to sort of unite us and talk about my experience in a way that would make others be like oh, right, of course. You know, the diaper smells the same, we just may look a little cuter while we're changing them.
BUCATINSKY: But - so I felt this, you know, I ultimately wound up wanting to write about - and also my panic, my sheer panic, which has not left me. I felt like I wanted to share that and see, you know, to what degree we all feel that, you know, it's all about how well you cover it as you teach them.
MARTIN: I want to hear a little bit more about how, where you can get that. I mean, obviously this has been a vehicle for that. This program has been a vehicle for that, for, you know, giving people an opportunity to talk about those things who might not have anybody in their own lives that they feel comfortable approaching or letting them know about your book or Dan's book. But - so I want to hear - before we go, about how you think, you know, dads can accomplish that for themselves. To that end though - and if you're just joining us, our panel of dads is here, giving us some dad advice for, you know, one last time in this venue. I'm joined by Dan Bucatinsky, Phil Lerman, Felix Contreras and Lester Spence. Lester, I just want to play a moment from our archives I think was one of the more powerful ones that we've had in this space. It was just this past December, and I asked you what your best parenting moment of 2013 was and this is what you said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
SPENCE: For the past several years, we haven't paid a mortgage and we've been in threat of foreclosure like once or twice. I mean, significant economic anxiety. And this year, just the last quarter of the year, we were able to come to a solution with Bank of America. It's not a perfect one, but it was one. So if I think about parenting, my first responsibility is to keep a roof over my kid's head and they didn't know what was going on, as I'm sure most listeners and you probably didn't know what was going on. But that's been my - that's the moment - that's been the best moment for me, for that thing to be settled.
MARTIN: So thank you again for sharing that with us. You are absolutely right, I had no idea. And I appreciate that because at any time you kind of open the door, you make other people feel less alone. But what I'd like to know is what now? I mean, where does that come from now? Where are you going to get that now? I mean, do you have a group of fathers that you talk to about these kinds of issues? And if - where do you get that?
SPENCE: That's a really good question. You know, my relationship with my father has grown over the years. But my father grew up like a lot of, you know, that generation that kind of people born around - between 1940, 1950. They grew up, you know, their way or the highway. And I saw my dad work every day, every - literally every day. On the weekends he'd get overtime and he would just grind. And some days he would just come home, drink a six-pack, go to bed and do it over again. And I didn't understand what was going on there. I had a lot of - I was a lot closer to my mom. But as I grew up, I actually saw what my dad was dealing with and why - to deal with it the way he dealt with it - and we would talk. And particularly, you know, after undergrad, you know, we would talk a lot. And it's really been him - and then to a certain extent my fraternity brothers - I'm a member of Omega Psi Phi. It's been - some of my fraternity brothers, the ones that I came into the fraternity with, that I felt comfortable enough to actually say this is what I was going through. And then what they did was they gave me - just talking about it out loud helped me to navigate my fear. And then they just emphasized - they just reminded me of who I was, right, because I think a lot of us when we're dealing with something like this, we tend to forget that we do have the capacity to go through this. And as fearful as it is, as fearful as that dynamic - I literally - and I was going up for tenure, I did not know whether they would come for the house and me get kicked out of my job at the same time. But I was just like every day, every day, every day and that's what helped me get through it. And then all I have to do is just draw back on that memory.
MARTIN: Phil, what about you? I've noted that there are all kinds of mommy blogs out there. There are some that include dads like DC Urban Moms and Dads, for example in this area. And of course, we've had those folks on this program. But everybody doesn't live in an area like that, where there is a DC Urban Moms and Dads. What do you do? What are you going to do? Do you have a circle of dads that you can go to?
LERMAN: You know, I'll tell you something. My son was - Max was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a little more than a year ago. And we didn't know at first - he was calling up every day with stomach aches from school. And we did all the things people do - you took him for CAT scans and gastroenterologists and Zantac and all this stuff. And he missed about 20 days of school and we finally came to realize that this was - this was a psychological problem. And at first we tried to tough it out with him. You know, he was on a Little League team with - this is what it is to be in D.C. - his baseball coach was one of Mitt Romney's economic advisers.
LERMAN: Welcome to D.C. And they were a very tough, you know, kind of tough it out, don't coddle your kid kind of joint. And I made him stay with it and tried to get him to tough it out and it was the worst, stupidest thing I ever did and it was really tough on him. But through therapy and through a lot of help, we've managed to get him through it. And he made it through school this year, he missed one day of school. And the reason I bring it up is I learned from him. What helped him the most was he had to do a presentation in school and he decided to do a presentation about his anxiety disorder. And he talked to the other kids about it. And you wouldn't believe how many kids came up to him and said me too. It was like - there were tears, it was incredible. And so I started talking to some of those parents and engendering that conversation, once you start - once you find some way to break through your friends, especially for guys. If you can break through hey, how are you doing? How are the Mets doing? What's going on? How's work? If you can break through to that conversation with your friends, that conversation, once you start it, it never ends. And it's such a valuable conversation. And I learned it from listening to Max teach me that it's important to open up to my friends.
MARTIN: Dan, what about you?
BUCATINSKY: Well, you know, it's interesting because I think a very male trait is this one that doesn't necessarily want to show our cards, or show our feelings or show our weakness. And parenting in general is one where you sort of feel this duty, this pressure to seem like you know what you're doing. And especially when you're gay dads, and in general you are met often times - in public places in particular - with looks like oh wow, there's no mom there. How are they going to do it? So you feel this need to - even if you don't know what the hell you're doing in a particular moment - to seem like you do. Well, that to me, you know, is a dangerous feeling because ultimately it is sharing with other parents and listening to other parents and admitting to other parents when you don't know. You know, getting into the school community, especially where I live, was a huge help to me because suddenly you're on the schoolyard every morning with other parents. And you don't necessarily have to feel like oh, this is the place where I need to show that I've got it all worked out. This can be the place where you say, you know, we just figure it out. And we did, our daughter had dyslexia and it was nothing to be ashamed of and something that was both going to create strengths in her and weaknesses like any kid and what do we do now and where do we go? Oh, there's a school. And by talking about it, by just opening up and not being afraid to show, like, we didn't know what to do, this amazing community of both men and women, fathers and mothers opened up to us.
MARTIN: Felix, final thought from you?
CONTRERAS: I think that ultimately, when we use the established circles we already have, and in my case my kids fence. I play music part-time. So I talk to, you know, you talk to - spend hours on the fencing strip at these tournaments, you end up striking up conversations with other families. That's where I was like hey, my 14-year-old, my 13-year-old's doing this and this. Yeah well, this is - mine does the same thing and this is what I do. You know, those kind of things. I think that where the dads open up is where, you know, if you're sports inclined - whatever it is - if you're in a chess club - when you're involved in your activity, and then you get past whatever it is you're doing, you develop these friendships. That's when things, I think, open up - that's how it's been for me. When I'm playing music with some of the guys I play with, again the fencing thing, that's where you exchange information, exchange ideas.
MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much for opening up with us all these years. We really appreciate it. We've appreciated all your insights, I've learned from each and every one of you and am just so appreciative. Felix Contreras is co-host of NPR's alt.latino podcast, dad of two here in Washington, D.C., along with Lester Spence, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, father of five. Phil Lerman is a TV producer, author of "Daditude," father of one and step-dad of one. Dan Bucatinsky's a TV writer, producer and Emmy-winning actor and author of "Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight" and a dad of two - with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
CONTRERAS: Thank you, as always.
SPENCE: Thank you.
LERMAN: Thank you.
BUCATINSKY: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.