Pops on Top
Father may not know best, but DadLabs has made it its mission to make sure he knows a little bit better
"Father! – to God himself we cannot give a holier name." – William Wordsworth
"Love and fear. Everything the father of a family says must inspire one or the other." – Joseph Joubert
Oh, how times have changed.
When Clay Nichols, Brad Powell, and Troy Lanier met as instructors and soon-to-be new dads at Austin's St. Stephen's Episcopal School, they knew they were not destined to be fathers of yesteryear – that distant figure who was expected to be a good provider and strict disciplinarian and stay as far away from the child-care business as possible. And yet, their own fathers' experiences with fatherhood were still remarkably different from what they knew they would experience as a "co-parent" with their wives and partners – which pretty much includes everything when it comes to child-rearing, short of the actual act of childbirth. So they did what any reasonably educated man would do to find the answer to the life-changing question: "I'm going to be a father. Now what?" They asked their buddies. When they realized their friends were as clueless as they were, they went to the library, prowled bookstores, and searched online. The first thing they discovered was that there was a ton of information directed toward mothers-to-be. For fathers? Not so much. And what was out there was either mind-numbingly dry or "repurposed from pink to blue." There was a void. A big, honking void. They decided to remedy the situation, and so in 2003, DadLabs (www.dadlabs.com) was born.
Today, the dads of DadLabs include Nichols, Powell, Lanier, and the most recent DadLab partner, comedian and writer Owen Egerton (known for, among other things, his role in co-creating the now-defunct Mr. Sinus theatre at the Alamo Drafthouse). What started out for the men of DadLabs as a fun side project –making a what-to-expect DVD, Due Dads: The Man's Survival Guide to Pregnancy (2005), and its follow-up, Due Dads: The Man's Guide to Labor and Delivery (2007) – has turned into a small franchise. They incorporated in 2004 but truly dove in headfirst in 2007, when they left their teaching jobs to take on the DadLabs mission full time, which is to talk candidly about what it's like to be a parent from the contemporary dad's perspective. In short, the dads of DadLabs are proud to declare that "washing bottles won't make your balls fall off," as is written in the prologue of their newly released book, DadLabs Guide to Fatherhood: Pregnancy and Year One (Quirk Books).
Their original vision of a no-frills website where they could host their short videos quickly evolved into a robust site that features four segments, with new posts weekly. On Monday, it's "The Lab," which covers doctor visits, medical advice, and specific advice for dads-to-be. Tuesday, it's "Quality Time" – things to do with the wife and kids or when there is that precious private time. Wednesday is "Hot Dad Action," loosely described as a "sitcom" but more resembling a short skit or slice-of-life stroll through the daddyhood. And "Gear Daddy" is the Thursday feature, covering gadgets, baby-proofing devices, and related hardware. These regular features have been syndicated to other websites since 2007, greatly expanding their reach and growing their audience.
The only thing off limits at DabLabs seems to be a bad sense of humor. Everything from breast pumps to male circumcision and "chore"-play (how washing dishes or changing diapers becomes an aphrodisiac to a harried wife and mother) have been covered with enthusiastic feedback from their 800,000-plus new and returning visitors. The only negative responses have come from a small fraction of (presumed) men ill at ease with the notion of men taking an active role in parenting (sample comments include "I've fallen into a den of fags" and "This is the most vaginized thing I've ever seen").
"Nowadays, most dads come to us understanding 'the new fatherhood,'" Lanier says of their audience, which they estimate to be about 70% male. While challenges to their masculinity have startled them, the solution is always to look for the laughs in them – and every other situation they encounter. Whether it's deciding which public restroom to take their toddler daughter into or simulating being pregnant and living to tell the tale – as Egerton did when he wore a 35-pound "empathy belly" made of metal, sand, and water, complete with lead balls that roam about to simulate an incubating baby kicking –there are no out-of-bound subjects. Egerton's experience wearing the empathy belly is described in the DadLabs Guide, but it's even more hilarious online (available in several "Hot Dad Action" segments) with the visual of his protruding belly stretching out elastic-waist sweats and his "engorged" breasts covered with a "Feminists Dig Me" T-shirt. It's the ability of all the DadLabs dads to dive fearlessly into uncharted (or, at least unspoken of) territory that makes DadLabs entertaining and informative even for nonparents. When it comes down to it, "people are interested in our experience," Powell says.
The DadLabs story is also a case study of how the new media landscape has shifted and morphed since the time the project came into existence in 2004. In the beginning, the dads really just wanted to share their experiences – something along the lines of "we screwed up, so you don't have to." They eventually put their collective skills and interests as writers, filmmakers, and performers together to make their DVDs, and the DadLabs website was really just a place to promote the DVDs. But as technology and viewer expectation evolved, it made more sense to create content specifically for Web viewing – not to replace the DVDs but to supplement them. In other words, they are not sticking with one form of media to share their message, they are using each medium – the website, books, DVDs, and whatever else may be available to them – to leverage and support the others. In years past, it might have been enough to start with, say, a book and move in a linear fashion, from point A to Z, up the food chain. Today, DadLabs has discovered that creating a media franchise is more about building and managing the spokes of a large wheel, at the center of which is their ongoing goal: to tell the contemporary dad's side of the child-rearing story, preferably over beer. If a couple of poop jokes can be thrown in there to lighten the load (pun intended), all the better.
"I felt like I was stepping off the end of a cliff. It was exciting and terrifying at once," Nichols said in a recent interview at the DadLabs Burleson Road studio in Southeast Austin. He was speaking about the decision he and the other DadLabs dads made to quit their day jobs two years ago, invest in their studio space, and see where "building their empire" in the current media climate would lead them. A sponsorship from Baby Björn gave them a significant financial bump along with some outside encouragement that they were on to something. But that contract is ending soon. Bandwidth isn't free. They have real fans who have come to rely on DadLabs to give a true and candid voice to their collective experience. The rocky economy has everyone on edge. And while the DadLabs team has been approached from several directions about a potential DadLabs TV series (none of which they can talk about in detail at press time), they are in that glorious but nerve-racking place where anything is possible.
This head-spinning media climate may be challenging, but it has its rewards, says Lanier, especially "when a parent comes back and says, 'I'm a better parent because of what you did.'" Uncertain future aside, this much is certain: The dads of DadLabs are leading a new generation of fathers who are more involved with their children –more than ever before – and they wouldn't trade that for all the beer in the world.
Clay Nichols, Brad Powell, Troy Lanier, and Owen Egerton offer their fatherly advice in conjunction with the release of their new book, DadLabs Guide to Fatherhood, June 21, 3pm at BookPeople. Libations (beer!) will be provided by Whip In. For more information, call BookPeople at 472-5050. They will also sign copies of the book at the Westlake Barnes & Noble on June 14. For more info, call 328-3155.
Another in an occasional series about local media makers who are making sense of the new media landscape, even as they help define it, Austin-style.