Courtesy Stephen Marche

When you ask men when they became men, they typically say when they became a father or lost a father. My father, in this picture, became a man when I was born. I became a man when I lost him.

Death generates an amazing amount of paperwork. When my father died — unexpectedly, aged sixty-four, nowhere near ready — I was dropping off my son at school. After the initial downpour of oblivious grief, bureaucracy had immediate demands. The family needed to approve an autopsy, since he had died on the street, without witnesses, right there in the open. His body had to be moved. Where? Under whose authority? Somebody needed to sign for his recovered belongings. And, of course, there was the obituary, which cost about $800 per paper — that's how they get ya — enough to give me pause even when directly confronted by the clearest evidence I would ever receive that you can't take the money with you. It's almost as if the world decides to support mourners by the arrival of a tidal wave of busywork. Then in the afternoon I had to pick up my son from kindergarten and tell him that his grandfather no longer was.

I dreaded it. How was I supposed to explain what made no sense to me? My father and my son had been close. The night before, they had been out for ice cream. As I arrived at the school, I ran into my wife's cousin, a good guy whose own father had recently died. He had the misfortune to ask a guy whose father had just died, "How you doing?" I told him. Instantly he stuck out his hand and shook mine.

It was weird. We laughed at its weirdness at the time. He later told me he was embarrassed by the gesture. But I came to realize it made perfect sense. He was congratulating me. That day, on that walk, I had become a man.

As the patriarchy is slowly dying, as masculinity continues to undergo a constant process of redefinition, fatherhood has never mattered more. Having children has always been a major life marker, of course, but the demise of other markers of masculine identity has given fatherhood outsize importance. The old religious rituals gave way long ago. The post-dynamic-capitalism of the moment has taken away the replacement methods of proving yourself. Making a living is principally a sign of good luck. Owning property is a sign of your parents' status more than it is your own. Combat itself is now gender-neutral. Only fatherhood is indisputably masculine, which is why when you ask men when they became men, they usually answer when they became a father or lost a father.

Men want kids more than ever before. Since 1965, according to new research from the Pew Research Center, the amount of time fathers spend with their children has nearly tripled. In 2011, the largest study of singles ever undertaken showed that currently, young unmarried men want children slightly more than young unmarried women do. Another study showed that men not only want children more than women do but that they also become more depressed and jealous when they don't have them.

At the same moment fatherhood is gaining this overwhelming significance in the lives of men, it remains widely mocked in pop culture. Fathers on TV come in two principal varieties: Mr. Mom and fat pig. The most popular shows of the past thirty years have all been about family and have all had a failed dad at the center. The ur-fat-pig is Homer Simpson, a man who worships a waffle stuck to the ceiling, but the purer expression is probably Family Guy's Peter Griffin, the farting, mentally handicapped narcissist whose subsidiaries amount to $1 billion in revenue. The Mr. Mom type was defined by the defeated, awkward, confounded Raymond on the ironically titled Everybody Loves Raymond.The loser dad was central to $h*! My Dad Says and remains a staple figure today on shows like Guys with Kids. And a new brand of bumbling dad on television is embodied by Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. I think of him as the Labrador-retriever type — big, dumb, and cheerful. At least Modern Family has registered the change.