Life as a single dad

Growing numbers of men are rearing their children alone.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

Maintaining normalcy

Another widower rearing children alone is Rob White of Bethel Park, Pa. A year ago next week, his wife of 17 years, Jeannie, died after a brief illness. Now he and their 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter are forging a new life together.

From the beginning, Mr. White's concern has been to maintain as normal a schedule as possible for the children, so they can continue with football, cheerleading, and dance lessons. He is changing jobs to be closer to home and to shorten the 12-hour workdays he often logs as a sales representative for Acura.

"You do what you have to do," White says simply. Describing other victories, he adds, "I made all the parent-teacher conferences and the [school] open house."

One subject on White's mind these days is discipline. Since his wife's death, he has been lenient with the children. Now he is trying to give them more responsibility and structure by tightening rules somewhat.

Last week, the Whites welcomed a black-and-white husky into the family. The children are naming him Skynyrd after the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd.

As White reflects on the challenges and changes of the past year, he says quietly, "I try to be close to the children. I want to be there for them for everything. I have a lot more respect for what my wife did. It's hard."

In some cases of divorce, custody may start out in a traditional way, with children living with their mother. Then, over time, those arrangements may evolve as family dynamics and needs change. As children get older, some decide they want to spend more time with their father. Or the mother may be making a career change and think the children will be better off with their dad, says Greif, author of "The Daddy Track: The Single Father."

In other situations, court- approved custody changes might occur when a father or a mother forms a new relationship and children feel more comfortable living with the other parent. "The father may be involved with someone who is nice, or the mother may be involved with someone the children don't like," Greif says. A custody decision can even be school-based: The father might live in a better school district.

When Neil Judell of Newtonville, Mass., and his wife divorced last August, the court awarded him custody of their children. Their older son lives on his own, while their 17-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter live with him.

Before the divorce, he owned a small engineering company. Realizing that as a custodial father he would no longer be able to make business trips abroad one week a month, Mr. Judell gave up his company and took a position with an engineering firm at a much lower salary. He also pays alimony. Because of the cost of maintaining two households, he and the children now occupy a rented duplex about one-third the size of the house they formerly owned.

During his daughter's soccer season, Judell takes a fair amount of good-natured teasing from some friends about being a "soccer mom" and driving a minivan. At the same time, others are quick to acknowledge the role he is playing.

Ask Judell what he needs and he replies, "There's very little I could want for." Then, reflecting for a moment, he adds, "It would be nice to have a helping hand with the kids once in a while; [someone] to take them for a weekend. And it would be nice if I had someone to back up my messages to my teenage son."

For Calvin Gladden, the father of a 13-year-old son, Kyle, and a 15-year-old daughter, Aleesha, other needs loomed large when he became a single parent 11 years ago after his marriage ended in divorce. His children were just 2 and 4 when he was granted custody.

Mr. Gladden, of Randallstown, Md., remembers the strain of racing out of work at 5 p.m. at his previous job and "driving like a madman" to pick them up at their separate day-care centers by 6 to avoid fines for being late. He later changed jobs to be closer to home. He now works as director of business at Goucher College in Baltimore.

Because Gladden grew up in a single-parent family, he was determined not to repeat the pattern of his absent father. "I didn't want to be a parent like my father. I wanted to be a parent like my mother, to be supportive of my kids."

As a result, he says, "I do everything in my power to try to provide them with the best home possible. Sometimes these days, children don't really appreciate that. But you hope that as they mature, despite all the challenges, they will say that the discipline I've imparted was in their best interest."

He is pleased that his children are well adjusted and doing fairly well in school.

Still, Gladden emphasizes that solo child-rearing is not easy. "You have this vision of a two-parent household. When it doesn't happen, it's crushing. But you have a choice, either to lie down or get back up."

While some solo fathers, such as Judell, worry about teenagers who test limits, others wonder how to talk to preadolescent daughters about approaching puberty. But as they strive to make the best of a sometimes difficult situation, many are finding rewards.

"Getting divorced wasn't good for me, and it's not good for children ever," says Jay Portnow, a physician in Norwell, Mass., and the custodial father of two sons. "But having the boys with me has been a blessing."

Needed: helping hands

What eases the load for these men?

Like single mothers, they long for outside help. Gladden echoes the comments of other custodial fathers when he says, "It took a lot of support from my family, my friends, and my neighbors to help me. I certainly didn't do it all on my own."

Having an understanding employer also could make a difference. Michael Weller of Bettsville, Ohio, recently decided not to re-enlist in the Marine Corps, where he was a corporal, because his military schedule was too difficult for him with a 2-year-old son to care for alone after his divorce.

"If people understood better, that would be a really big help," he says. "You walk into the Marine Corps, or any organization, and try to explain to them, 'I have to be out of here at this time,' or 'I can't work on the weekend.' They look at you like you asked for a million dollars. It doesn't happen."

Schools, too, sometimes lack sensitivity. Only after repeated calls to the principal did Dr. Portnow convince his children's junior high school teachers to send notes to both parents, not just to his ex-wife.

Even something as basic as learning culinary skills can improve family life.

At the time of his divorce, Portnow did not know how to cook. After taking several classes, he went from serving hot dogs and hamburgers every night to making home-cooked dinners. Now cooking is one of his favorite pastimes.

The biggest hurdle may be the most invisible - cultural bias. However logical a father's reason for wanting custody, Greif says, "There's still the perception that there is something wrong with a mother if she is not raising her children, and something extraordinary about a father who does."

But as more fathers gain custody and rear children successfully, he adds, "the less the role will have to be worn as a mantle."

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