Fathers - a New Vision

`FATHERS are like blocks of marble, giant cubes, highly polished ... placed squarely in your path,'' the novelist and short story writer Donald Barthelme once wrote. ``They cannot be climbed over, neither can they be slithered past.''

This kind of father - a frowning statue, a mostly absent deity invoked by an ever-present mother (``Wait until your father comes home...'') - is becoming a monument of the past.

The three-part Monitor series, ``Fathers in the '90s,'' which concludes today, reports a new model of father rising from old stereotypes.

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Fathers of the 1990s are sons with vivid memories, good and bad, of what it meant to be a son. They are determined above all that their sons and daughters will feel their living presence and their love.

After all the zigs and zags, all the revisions-upon-revisions of other so-called ``revolutions,'' cynics might dismiss as hype any talk of a New Father. But there is a sobriety and substance to the phenomenon that make it more evolution than revolution.

Indeed, one of the most encouraging signs is that the fathers quoted in the series are interested in taking small, practical steps rather than marching with banners and manifestoes as a cause.

Fathers who are serious realize that it won't be easy to reinvent themselves. They understand that this is a time of transition and confusion. The family itself is in the process of reinvention: At the same time that fathers are redefining their role, mothers are redefining their role too. Furthermore, fathers can't get very far in rethinking what it means to be a father without rethinking what it means to be a man.

A little trendy modification in style is one thing, but many men, and for that matter many women, may be terrified at the prospect of so profound a sea change.

Yet amid all the rhetoric and gestures and general fumbling, one fact seems clear. A growing number of men are discovering that to be a father is as much a continuing pleasure as a continuing duty. They are resolved to become full participants as never before in the inseparable joys and responsibilities of family life.

This transition from yesterday's stern patriarch to today's caring ``co-parent'' represents a hopeful sign for children, helping to ensure that more of them will enjoy the presence of a real father, rather than merely dreaming of one.

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