New-Style Dad vs. Old-Style Father

On Sunday, American fathers will be honored with an estimated 90 million cards and 10 million neckties - traditional tokens of Father's Day love. For a growing number of men, D as in Dad is also D for delivery rooms, diapers, dishes, and day care - not-so-traditional symbols of changing paternal roles.

Social historians of the future may, in fact, designate the 1980s as The Great Divide separating two types of American male. Old-Style Fathers, they will explain, were loving but supposedly remote men whose primary duty was to be a breadwinner. New-Style Dads, by contrast, pride themselves on sharing parental and domestic duties with their working wives.

Philip Taubman, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, sums up the difference in a new collection of essays, ``About Men'' (Poseidon Press, $17.95). ``When I was born in a Manhattan hospital in 1948,'' he writes, ``my father was listening to the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. He and I didn't meet until a day later.'' A generation later, when Mr. Taubman's own sons were born, he was present to coach his wife through childbirth and cut the umbilical cord.

New-Style Dads like Taubman the younger have been hailed as one of the best inventions of the late 20th century. They appear in lifestyle sections wearing a halo of golden adjectives: ``warm,'' ``sensitive,'' ``nurturing.'' They show up in magazines such as Parenting. And they star as ``househusbands'' in movies (``Mr. Mom'') and comic strips (``Adam'').

They also keep journals recording the joys and fears of pregnancy, which later become books bearing such oh-so-cute titles as ``Daddy: The Diary of an Expectant Father'' and ``Don't Mind Him; He's Pregnant.''

The literary formula is simple: In Chapter One, admit your ambivalence. (``I thought of kids the way I thought of Brussels sprouts: If you like 'em, fine, but keep 'em away from me,'' writes Mark Hallen in ``Don't Mind Him.'') Then, by Chapter Nine, the indifferent shoulder-shrugger transforms himself into the World's Most Enthusiastic Daddy. (``Have I mentioned how adorable our baby was?'' Mr. Hallen asks.)

Yet despite the progress this improved hands-on parenthood represents, the media hoopla about it has had an unfortunate side effect: As the stock of New-Style Dads has risen, the currency value of Old-Style Fathers has dropped alarmingly.

Just as yesterday's homemaker mothers have been discredited by today's career-minded daughters, breadwinner fathers have been criticized by ``nurturing'' sons for playing too passive a role at home.

These new-style revisionists dismiss old-style males as hopelessly outdated. They see them as Neanderthals in the nursery, who didn't know a diaper from a dust cloth. They indict them as domestic primitives, whose idea of being a good father involved looking up from the evening paper long enough to pat a child on the head and mumble, ``Go ask your mother.''

But D is also for duty, and millions of breadwinner fathers carried out their parental duties far better than current stereotypes would acknowledge.

Every new style represents not the ideal but a tradeoff. If Old-Style Fathers were remote, they did not abandon. There is something to be said for ``bringing home the bacon,'' as they used to put it. And who is to say they did not love their children as much, even if they were less facile at expressing it?

These parents of earlier generations - now grandparents of the preschoolers romping in day-care centers - were, in fact, largely fulfilling the carefully prescribed roles assigned to them at the time. The women became mothers before affirmative action, day-care centers, and microwave ovens. The men were fathers before co-ed delivery rooms, state-of-the-art strollers, and masculine-looking diaper bags.

In the matter of being concerned parents, the world can use all the styles it can get. So two cheers for Old-Style Fathers as well as New-Style Dads. And on Sunday, make that three cheers. What else is Father's Day for?

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