By Jeremy Adam Smith

“I’m thinking about writing a series for my Mothering blog,” I told my wife, Olli.

“Cool,” she said. “Do you have a title?”

"'Fifty Ways Dads Can Change the World,'” I said. “Or maybe twenty five. Fifty is a lot. Anyway, it’ll be about the personal and political ways dads can make a difference in their communities.”

“Like what?”

“I was thinking the first item should advise dads to attend every doctor’s appointment.”

“Really?” said my wife, as her eyebrows rose and an amused little smile creased her face. “Do you remember that Liko has a doctor’s appointment tomorrow at one?”

I stared at her. “Um, no. Really?”

“Yes, really.”

She had told me weeks before; I had completely forgotten.

“Shit,” I said. “I scheduled a meeting tomorrow.”

It’s a sorry fact: Over the years my wife has become the one most responsible for managing our son’s relationship to the medical industry, from buying cough drops to making appointments, and I do a so-so job of keeping up with her.

She’s not alone. “I see way more moms in doctor’s offices than I do dads,” says one San Francisco pediatrician, who asked that I not use her name. “And way more moms ask questions and do the follow-up work.”

It’s tempting, as always, to blame this disparity on the innate perfidy of men and the long-suffering, overcompensating virtue of women, but I wager that the roots of this division of domestic labor lie elsewhere.

Men in general don’t go to the doctor nearly as often as women—I didn’t go to the doctor for almost nine years, until a violent mugging drove me into Kaiser for treatment of a concussion. In other words, as is the case with many guys, it takes a near-death experience to get me to set foot in a doctor’s office. My wife, meanwhile, voluntarily, proactively goes several times a year for various check-ups and tests.

Perhaps the reproductive division of labor also plays a role: for nine months, a child is a part of a biological mother’s body, and so it makes a certain amount of sense that moms would more carefully track the vagaries of their children’s bodies.

Whatever the reason, guys as a group avoid doctors’ offices even more than they avoid unpleasant domestic tasks like cleaning the toilet. Even so, the pediatrician says, over twelve years of practice she’s seen a steady uptick in the number of dads who come through her office: “Moms outnumber dads by about two to one in my office, but that number used to be four to one.”

This has to do with rising expectations. In my grandfather’s day, dads-to-be smoked cigars at the bar across the street, a shot of whiskey in hand, while their wives gave birth. My father, a baby boomer, was present at my birth, largely as a bystander.

Today, the dads of Generation X and Y are expected to play a part in the corporeal life of the child, from prenatal appointments to the day of birth to regular check-ups, and families and researchers alike have discovered that it can make a huge difference for their families, both mother and child.

One 2001 study by Columbia University researcher Julian Tietler, for example, discovered that father involvement in prenatal care has a positive effect on the mom’s health during pregnancy—and several other studies have suggested that father involvement might even improve birth outcomes, though results are not conclusive.

Beyond birth, a truly huge number of studies have definitively found that a father’s presence in the doctor’s office predicts better health and educational outcomes for the child—and helps form bonds that keep families intact over the long run.

The bonding starts long before birth. I remember our first sonogram, sitting there is a white, otherwordly room watching the technician ultrasonically surf the inside of my wife’s womb.

“It’s healthy,” said the technician, a young guy with close-cropped hair and a vulture-like nose. “And it’s a boy.”

The floor seemed to tilt under my feet, as the categorical hypothesis that was my “child” acquired, for the first time, some degree of individuality. “How do you know?”

“You see the penis?” he said.

I looked and looked, searching for a penis as I never had before. So did my wife. The technician insisted that our boy was hung like John Holmes, but all we saw was an androgynous sea monkey floating at the bottom of a pixilated, black-and-white pond.

“I’ll just take your word for it,” I finally said, feeling as if I had let my son down.

He printed out the sonographic image of our son. I framed it and brought it to work that very day, and hung the picture up to the right of my computer. It’s something I do to this day, two jobs later, though now the image is fading with age. Every time I look at that picture, I feel a kind of vertigo—but the vertigo I feel today if very different from the one I experienced that day back in 2004.

When I first saw that little sea monkey, I felt as if I was staring from the top of a lonely cliff, down into a murky future, and I felt myself about to jump; today, after having experienced the astonishing accretion of loving acts and frustrations and challenges that come with the package of parenthood, the perspective has reversed itself: now I am swimming at the bottom of an ocean with my family looking up at a blurry, half-remembered past life, one that was far more isolated than the life I now enjoy.

On the day I told my wife about this series and discovered that I had forgotten about Liko’s doctor’s appointment, I cancelled the meeting I had the next day (much to the annoyance of my colleagues, it must be said) and went to the appointment instead. Did this small action help make the world a better place? The research says it does; dads in the doctor’s office contribute to the health of both moms and kids.

But did my son even notice? He probably didn’t notice anything different; the fact is, though I don’t always do a good job of keeping track of appointments, I’ve attended almost every one. He takes my presence in the doctor’s office for granted, as he should. It doesn’t matter to me if he doesn’t consciously appreciate it: it’s just one more step in a journey that we’re taking together, one filled with as many moments of boredom and annoyance as those of joy and tenderness.

Where are we going? Who knows? The important thing is that we’re taking the journey together.