BOSTON — Until five years ago, Clint Crawford, a forklift driver in Naches, Wash., held traditional ideas about parental roles in childrearing. Although he loved his baby daughter, Meghan, he assumed that feedings and diaper changes were the province of mothers.
Then his marriage fell apart, and Mr. Crawford suddenly found himself with the sole care of a one-year-old. That event was the beginning of what he calls "a real growing experience," a total change in attitude. And it meant confronting some challenges even single moms don't face.
"It was a big step," he says. "More or less the responsibility was just dropped in my lap. If I hadn't taken Meghan, I don't know what would have happened."
Although women still account for 86 percent of custodial parents, the ranks of men who are single primary caretakers have risen nearly 300 percent since 1970, from 393,000 then to 1.5 million in 1993. About half are divorced, and a third are not married. Seven percent are widowers.
Despite their growing numbers, custodial fathers remain relatively invisible, overshadowed by media portrayals of divorced men who fail to support their children financially and emotionally.
"You listen to some of these talk shows and it's always about 'deadbeat dads,'" Crawford says. "You never hear about mothers who don't accept responsibility and fathers who do."
For Crawford, as for other single fathers, accepting responsibility can include everything from learning to cook and do laundry to helping a 12-year-old daughter shop for her first bra. It can mean seeking out a network of women to offer a maternal touch now and then, or dealing with children's fantasies about what it would be like to live with their mother.
Many of the challenges single fathers face run parallel to those confronting single mothers - finding too little time for children and not enough time for themselves. Yet custodial fathers must also deal with other problems.
One of the biggest is isolation, according to Patrick Batchelder of Boulder, Colo., who publishes a monthly newsletter for custodial fathers called Dear Dad.
"Many men are all alone," says Mr. Batchelder, who has been rearing his 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter for 11 years. "We men are supposed to be competent, period. Whatever we do, we're supposed to be able to do it on our own. We're not supposed to ask for help."
Those who do ask for help may find it doesn't exist, that social service agencies often do not serve men. "There are more resources for single mothers than for single fathers," says Gerald Cox of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, the custodial father of three daughters and a son ranging in age from 8 to 12.
In addition, Mr. Cox says, single fathers often come up against unenlightened public attitudes.
"The biggest problem is respect," he says. "Sometimes the first thing out of people's mouth is, 'Where's their mom? Why aren't they with their mother?' That was asked a whole lot when I first got custody seven years ago. It's a little better now, probably because my kids are older."
Kevin Whitney of Lynn, Mass., the divorced father of two sons, ages 10 and 7, offers another example of misguided attitudes.
"In general, professional women don't assume that men know anything about children or are able to take care of them," he says. "Nurses and women doctors will ask me things like, 'What did his mom say?' They expect a mom to be taking care of the kids."
Those stereotypes can also pervade offices and factories. A few fathers, including Mr. Whitney, who works for a computer company, say their managers are considerate when they must leave early or take time off to care for sick children. Whitney describes his boss as "remarkable" in her flexibility.
But many others find corporate attitudes still rigid. "People often aren't prepared, particularly in work situations, to adapt to the needs of a single parent who happens to be a man," says David Warnick, a staff member at the National Center for Fathering in Shawnee Mission, Kan.
Art Thompson of Yakima, Wash., a welder and mechanic who is the custodial father of two sons, ages 8 and 6, says, "I've had problems keeping a job because of being a single father. A lot of the bosses are married. They say, 'Well, I've never had any problem taking care of my kids.' I say, 'You've had your wife at home doing these things.' I guess it's hard for them to comprehend if they haven't been there."
This isn't all that outsiders fail to comprehend. Another misconception, according to Batchelder, involves single fathers' social life. "People think a man has a lot of money - he can date and remarry. But dating and socializing are way down on the list. You're more concerned with how to get algebra homework done and how to get kids to baseball practice."
Statistically, Mr. Warnick says, a single custodial father is generally likely to remarry more quickly than a single mother. Yet Batchelder finds that obstacles keep many men from the altar.
"Any number of guys that have been at this a while have simply made a conscious decision to stay single," he says. "People want to introduce you to single mothers," but the prospect of adding more dependents is daunting.
On the other hand, "if you try to date a woman who's never had kids, it doesn't work," he says. "We've all agreed on that. She doesn't know what it's all about. She's jealous of your time with your kids."
Dating can also be problematic for the children. "I've tried three different relationships since I've had custody," Thompson says. "It hurts the kids every time my relationship doesn't make it. They fall as much in love with the woman Dad loves as Dad does. If you keep going from relationship to relationship, the boys won't know what true love is."
At the same time, activities as a family are important. Some fathers, like Batchelder, like to socialize with married parents to give their children a rounded view of family life.
"You have to be the initiator and invite them over for dinner first," he says. "Your house has to be the open house for the neighborhood kids. Once they get socially comfortable with that, then your kids aren't around just single-parent families."
Thompson and Crawford, who are friends, also enjoy planning outings with another friend who is rearing children alone.
"Three of us fathers go up in the hills and cut Christmas trees with our kids, or take them to the park," Thompson says. "We try to do things that you would do in a normal family relationship."
Still, establishing normal family relationships has limits for single parents of both sexes. As Warnick explains, "For a time, a number of single mothers had bought the myth that they could be both mother and father. Research and common sense have dispelled this notion. The difficulty for fathers is that they're not quite at that point on the curve. Some of them may still be accepting the idea that they can do it all."
The realization that they can't do everything can actually be freeing, according to Batchelder.
"You cannot replace a mother or a father," Batchelder says. "As hard as I've tried to be as nurturing as possible as a dad, and that includes nurturing things mothers would do, it's not the same as having a mother do it."
For another group of custodial fathers, the challenges of single parenthood are compounded by economic instability. To meet their needs, the Fathers Resource Center in Minneapolis recently established a temporary residence for fathers and children who are homeless or in a transition period. Called the Dupont Residence, the four-family home is the first of its kind in the nation. Three fathers and four children moved in Feb. 1, with a fourth father-headed family expected soon.
In addition to providing housing for up to six months, the program offers services such as assistance with job-hunting and child-care. Two fathers who had lost jobs before they arrived because they lacked child-care have found employment. The third, who was minimally employed, has received a small promotion and a modest salary increase, according to Dan Pfarr, resident manager.
"These dads have good instincts as parents, and they're open to learning," says Mr. Pfarr. "They struggle to be good fathers."
Whatever form that struggle takes for custodial fathers in all economic groups, these men emphasize the rewards they find.
"People think it's so difficult, but if you're willing to sacrifice a bit and take the steps necessary, it's not," says Blake Decker of Euless, Texas, a divorced father who has had full responsibility for his five-year-old son for two years. "It's worth it to be with your son and take care of him."
Crawford, who notes that his parents and grandmother have sometimes sent him both Mother's Day and Father's Day cards in appreciation of his dual role, echoes the sentiments of other custodial fathers when he says, "I wouldn't trade this for the world. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me."