Of Super Dads, And Absent Ones

AT 8:30 every weekday morning, Stephen Harris begins a routine unfamiliar to most men. After his five-year-old son, Ben, leaves for kindergarten and his wife, Alison, heads for her job as editor of a computer magazine in Yarmouth, Mr. Harris settles down to play with 2-1/2-year-old Robin. Two mornings a week he also cares for a neighbor's son.

When Ben returns from school at noon, Harris prepares lunch for the children. Then, after Robin's nap, the afternoon brings what he describes as ``more of the same'' - playing games, reading stories, and getting together with neighborhood children.

Harris represents a new kind of parent - the full-time father. As the primary care giver, he knows firsthand the rewards a growing number of men are finding in establishing close relationships with their children. So committed is he to these changing roles that he edits and publishes a small bimonthly journal called Full-Time Dads.

``We decided when we first got married that when we had kids, if we could afford it, one of us would stay home,'' explains Harris, a former photo assistant and restaurant cook. ``Alison is more career-oriented than I am.''

Two stereotypes dominate media images of modern fatherhood. At one extreme is the new nurturing father - the man who, though usually not as involved as Harris, still plays a far greater role in his children's lives than his own father played in his. He changes diapers. He backpacks babies. He picks up toddlers at the day-care center. Signs of these family-oriented men are everywhere, from the presence of changing tables in airport men's rooms to the proliferation of parenting classes for men.

For all the fanfare given these nurturing fathers, the role is not altogether new. James Levine, director of the fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York, says, ``It's actually a return to something that was more prevalent in the 18th century,'' before the Industrial Revolution. `Deadbeat dads' stereotype

At the opposite extreme is a darker stereotype - the ``deadbeat dad'' who often has little involvement, financial or emotional, with his children. Through news coverage of police roundups of delinquent fathers and ``10 Most Wanted Dads'' lists, these absent fathers have been widely portrayed, not always justly, as uncaring.

The problem of paternal nonsupport cannot be underestimated, of course. As a consequence of divorce, separation, and single parenthood, 15 million American children are growing up in largely fatherless homes. Ten million of those result from divorce and separation. Another five million are out-of-wedlock children, who account for 28 percent of all births.

Modern fathers have been made to seem even more superfluous by reproductive techniques that enable women to become pregnant without men, and by media images of single career women choosing to rear children on their own.

Even so, the number of men actively involved in rearing children continues to grow. Census Bureau data released in September show that fathers now care for 1 in every 5 preschool children while mothers work, up from 1 in 7 three years ago. This reflects what Mr. Levine calls ``the beginning of a new stage of awareness about fathers as critical forces and contributors to family life.''

For too long, Levine observes, attitudes about fathers have operated on a ``deficit model,'' which holds that men aren't involved with their families and that it isn't possible to get them involved. Now, he says, ``There's a major opportunity to get them involved.''

Neil Tift, co-founder and director of the Fathers' Resource Center in Minneapolis, a two-year-old nonprofit organization, sums up the shift by saying, ``Fathers are moving from being disciplinarians and breadwinners to wanting to be co-parents.'' That co-parenting begins early. Ninety percent of fathers now attend the births of their children, Mr. Tift notes, compared with only 10 percent in 1975.

Seated in the living room of his Colonial home, Harris, a friendly, easygoing man, reflects on these changing paternal roles as Ben plays with Hot Wheels and Robin scribbles on drawing paper.

``This is a period of transition, both for men individually and the family in general,'' he says. But, he emphasizes, men's greater involvement does not mean an androgynous approach to parenthood. ``Mothers and fathers bring very different things to the family. A man can't be a mother.''

Even when fathers want to increase their participation, many find themselves with few mentors. Charlie Kundinger, president of his own home-remodeling company in Minneapolis and the father of three children in elementary school, echoes the comments of other fathers around the country when he says, ``I made up my mind before we had children that I was going to have a heavy involvement. But when I thought about being a father, I didn't know what to do, because I had no model. My mother ran everything.... That's not to blame my father. It's just the way it was, because he was working.''

Making the transition from ``the way it was'' to the way it is today, fathers also find little guidance and support from social institutions.

``Many men are very confused about what they're supposed to be doing,'' Harris observes. ``Men are taught to be aggressive. That's exactly the wrong stuff for parenting. Most male role models are sports figures. It's very rare for kids to have this kind of male role model - gentle, nurturing, peaceful.'' `I don't have time'

Tift's organization, the Fathers' Resource Center, offers classes for fathers as part of its services. John Andrews of Apple Valley, Minn., who leads one suburban group, hears a recurring theme from the men in his classes, about half of whom are married and half divorced. ``They say, `I have to make a living. I have to earn the bucks. I don't have any time for my kids.' They ask, `How do I spend more time with my children? And how do I play with my children?' ''

For some men, spending time with children involves considerable sacrifice, even career changes. Don Spongberg of Everett, Mass., served as a merchant marine for six years, spending five months at a time at sea. ``That's the only thing I ever wanted to do, and it's still the only thing I want to do for a living,'' he says.

But everything changed when his wife was pregnant with their son, Don Jr., now two years old. ``That's all I could think of at sea,'' Mr. Spongberg recalls. Back on shipboard after his son's birth, he says he ``always wanted to be at home. I realized I was missing being part of his life.''

Spongberg left the merchant marines last November and came home. ``The money out there is fantastic,'' he says. ``With just a high school education, I knew there was no way I could match the money here.'' He now drives airport limousines at a much lower salary. ``We're just breaking even, just paying the bills,'' Spongberg says. ``We don't have anything. But it's worth it. I get to see him every day. That's what I wanted.''

In the eyes of experts and parents, that kind of parental caring is of lifelong value. Gene Thorpe of Boston, the father of an eight-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, works evenings for Federal Express, giving him time with his children while his wife is at her job. Mr. Thorpe says, ``My being a father has been pretty much shaped by the way my father was. He was a two-job man, but he was home for dinner. He was here when I needed to ask him something or show him something. That is what I want to do for my children.''

For all the success stories of attentive fathers, no one pretends that the revolution is complete. Robert Griswold, author of ``Fatherhood in America,'' says, ``Men talk a better game than they deliver. They talk about being 50-50 dads, but when it gets down to it, they're not. It's in their interest to resist. If you can get somebody to do the less appealing aspects of childrearing, you do. Men don't work as hard within the family, partly because they're privileged economically. They make more money than their wives, and their work culture may be less accommodating than women's.''

At the same time, Dr. Griswold and other authorities on fatherhood see heartening signs of progress. ``For the first time we're seeing a significant interest on the part of corporations about the needs of working fathers,'' says Levine of The Fatherhood Project.

Griswold concurs but stops short of total optimism. ``The evidence I found from the business community was a certain reluctance to be bold and adopt initiatives that would help,'' he says.

Chris Stafford of New Brighton, Minn., a father of two, agrees that employers must become key players. ``It all hinges on corporate attitudes toward fathers,'' he says. ``If men could feel comfortable meeting family needs and corporate needs simultaneously, they would have a lot more freedom to be the kind of fathers they want to be.... It's OK to duck out of the office at 5 p.m. if you have a racquetball game, but not if you have day-care pickup.''

Mark Schlemmer of St. Cloud, Minn., a single father of a nine-year-old son, Levi, sees other needed changes. ``It's my personal mission to get more men involved in schools,'' he says. ``It's terrible to be in a PTA meeting of 30 women and one man. It just sends the wrong message to children. I love to see men involved with children, because society as a whole has abandoned children.''

``Kids need role models of men around them,'' Mr. Schlemmer continues. ``Every time there's a positive interaction with a man and children, it gives children a chance to envision themselves. Boys can say, `I can do this someday.' That can have a global effect.''

Career or family - which comes first? In increasing numbers, fathers now confront the dilemma formerly reserved for working mothers. Schlemmer sums up: ``American business doesn't make it easy. Fortune 500 companies have parental leave policies on paper, but the subtext is, `Don't ask for it. It will play havoc with your advancement.' People have to ask for it anyway. If your career suffers, so be it. Kids don't remember money. Kids don't remember toys. They don't remember big Christmas gifts. They remember time. Any of those other things are irrelevant compared with the time children spend with their fathers.''

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