It wasn't too long ago that David Blankenhorn was received with raised eyebrows and puzzled expressions whenever he spoke about fatherhood - and the travails of fatherless families.
Now, in just half a decade, he and the few others who first sounded the alarm have sparked a burgeoning fatherhood movement. Today, 2,000 grass-roots groups have sprung up across the country - everything from mentoring programs for fathers-to-be to "doughnuts and dads" hours at schools, where fathers who drop off their children stay to talk about fatherhood issues with school staff.
But if they've succeeded in putting fatherhood on America's social agenda (President Clinton, for example, has called fatherless families the country's top social problem), one big problem persists. All the consciousness-raising of the 1990s hasn't produced much change in the composition of US families. Estimates are that 4 of 10 children are growing up without a father in the home - the same number as 10 years ago.
"Despite all this talk and all this change of opinion, there has been very little, if any, redemption of fatherlessness in the United States during the 1990s," says Mr. Blankenhorn, who is the author of "Fatherless America." "The sobering news is that now the real work begins."
Those involved with the fatherhood movement say they're looking for measurable signs of change - proof that the growing concern with helping fathers is leading to more stable homes for children, homes where both parents are present and active in their children's lives.
Much of their push is not only to help men be better fathers, but to shore up what they see as the eroding status of marriage in US society. They cite research showing that children growing up without a father are far more likely to be poor and to suffer from a variety of educational, health, and social problems.
"From the point of view of children, this is the best and worst of times," says William Doherty, director of the marriage and family-therapy program at the University of Minnesota. "If you are a child and your parents are together, married, and reasonably happy, you have the best shot probably in human history to have an active, involved, loving father.
"But if you're a child and your parents aren't married, aren't together, you have a really good chance of not having much of a father in your life at all," he says. "This is the greatest generation of fathers and the worst generation of fathers."
Some critics, however, argue that it's precisely this conservative emphasis on traditional family values that has prevented the fatherhood movement from achieving more concrete results. By promoting an old-fashioned nuclear family - with one father and one mother - the movement resists the changing shape of many American families today, and thereby alienates a large segment of the population from its efforts.
Grass-roots activists who work with unwed fathers, for example, say that marriage is often not a feasible option for those men. By pushing the cause of marriage, the movement ignores those cases where partners are clearly better off living apart - such as when the relationship is abusive - as well as the growing social acceptance of women choosing to become single mothers, through sperm donors or other paths.
In addition, divorced men often bristle at the suggestion of marriage as an ideal, because it suggests they have failed.
Still, grass-roots groups are playing a role in raising awareness of the importance of fathers.
"Programs are popping up all over the place," says Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, which brought together some 550 activists from across the country for its third national summit earlier this month. "It reflects the increasing public awareness that fathers matter and that fatherlessness is not a good idea. It's translating into work."
Last weekend in California's Merced County, for example, activists launched the Merced Fatherhood Initiative, a countywide plan that brings together private, nonprofit, and social-service agencies. The coalition plans first to commission a study about the involvement of men in the lives of children in the county. Then, the group will decide on a strategy for change that each agency will pursue, such as trying to help couples stay together. The results will be measured against the original study.
"We really need to see changes now," says Paul Lundberg, facilitator for the initiative. "We're asking, 'What can we do to identify what we can in fact impact? What measurable change can we expect to observe?' We want to make sure that what we do is documented, so that everybody knows the progress that's made. Otherwise, this will just become another fad and people will lose interest."
Fatherhood activists say that the work of grass-roots activists needs to be supported by change of another kind - a broad change in the cultural climate, away from easy acceptance of single parenting and toward an emphasis on marriage as the most beneficial relationship for children.
"The biggest attitude that has to change, no question about it, is that not only do fathers count, but marriage matters," says Mr. Horn of the National Fatherhood Initiative. "There's a continuing deep reluctance to acknowledge that marriage has anything to do with fatherhood. We can't flinch from setting married fatherhood as the ideal. That battle has not yet been won."
The fatherhood movement, he and others say, needs to reach out to men and women - to help couples learn how to form happier, more lasting relationships.
"We've become more of a me-me society versus thinking, this is what's best for our children. The ideal way of doing things is being married and in good, committed relationships," says Reggie Brass, founder of a Los Angeles organization called My Child Says Daddy, which helps divorced and unwed fathers be more involved with their children.
"We have to really come together and work for the benefit of our children."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society