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Life as a single dad

Growing numbers of men are rearing their children alone.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2003



Garrett Allen never expected to be a single father. But four years ago, when his wife died, leaving him with an 18-month-old son, he joined the ranks of millions of American men who are parenting solo, by choice or circumstance.

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These fathers - who are rearing 3.3 million children - often feel alone, and as a group they are largely invisible. But as their numbers grow, they are beginning to change the social landscape and are learning many of the same lessons that single mothers learn.

"I had no clue as to how to raise a child," recalls Mr. Allen, a public relations executive in Ardmore, Pa. "My wife was a stay-at-home mom. As a guy, I was more focused on going to work to support us. Having to run everything - working, taking care of a child, doing the cleaning and laundry, and preparing the meals - was hard."

Men now account for 1 of every 6 single parents, up from 1 in 10 in 1970. The growing ranks of custodial fathers also re- flect changing attitudes in courts. Judges who once routinely assumed that the mother was the better parent are more willing to consider fathers.

"In the old days, it used to be that women had to be significantly incapacitated to turn over custody to their husbands," says Geoffrey Greif, associate dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who, like others in this story, was interviewed by telephone.

But in recent years, society has placed less emphasis on the idea that women are defined by motherhood. This changing attitude has given women the flexibility to make more nontraditional choices.

"In the last 15 years," says Dr. Greif, "women who are highly competent sometimes [have agreed] that it is in the best interest of the child to have the child live with the father."

In other cases, a father may win custody if the mother has a drug or alcohol problem.

Whatever the reason for their full-time parental role - widowhood, divorce, or unwed parenthood - single fathers face subtle public attitudes. "They must deal with the stereotype that the true connection is between mothers and their children," says Elise Edelson Katch, a Denver therapist who conducts custody evaluations.

And where, she asks, does a single father find role models? "Can he pick up the telephone and call a friend to ask about bottle feeding or toilet training? This is something women do automatically."

Like single mothers, single fathers confront the challenge of balancing work and family responsibilities. But the professional world, Ms. Katch observes, can sometimes be harder on men who spend more time with their children than it is on women.

For Allen, whose son, Britton, was only a toddler when Allen's wife died, the initial solution was to move in with his mother. She shares in Britton's care and has helped Allen hone domestic skills.

At work, Allen's boss has allowed him to adjust his hours modestly so he can pick up Britton at day care by 6 p.m. The company also gave him a laptop so he can work at home if school is closed or his son is sick.

While some of his friends are supportive, others barely register that he has responsibilities at home - such as keeping up with laundry and cleaning on weekday evenings so he and his son can go to the zoo or toss a baseball on Saturdays.

Now that Britton is 5, Allen is house-hunting, eager to establish a home for the two of them.

"It's going to be a tremendous amount of additional work," he says. With his mother no longer part of the household, "there won't be an extra pair of hands. But I think it'll be a positive experience, where I'm not looking to someone else to help provide what we need."

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