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Superdad becomes the new standard for men

Today, 'good fathers' must do more than earn a paycheck. They're expected to nurture the kids and do housework, too.

By Jennifer WolcottStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2004

When Robert Smith was let go from his job two years ago, the Chicago dad had to collect welfare for several months to support his family of six. Still, he reflects, that day was "one of the best days of my life." Mr. Smith, who was working full time in an office and running a separate business out of his home at night, was forced to look hard at his priorities.

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For years, he had wanted to be more involved in the lives of his four young children, now ages 3, 5, 7, and 8. But until that day, he didn't think it was even an option.

As Smith devoted himself more to his home-based marketing and public relations firm, it began to grow and become profitable. Best of all, working at home allowed him to be the involved father he'd always wanted to be. "When children get older," he says, "they only talk about whether parents were there for them - if dad came to the game, not when he bought me a $5,000 bracelet."

Money is tighter now, but Smith has no regrets. His relationships with his children, and with his wife, who is home as well, have benefited from his new schedule. He can now attend school plays, basketball games, and parent-teacher conferences - or just play catch.

Smith is typical of many fathers today who, while they might not be ready to become stay-at-home dads, are looking to rejigger their work lives so they can witness important moments and develop deeper bonds with their kids.

Evidence of this trend is mostly anecdotal so far, as changes are happening slowly. Without role models, many fathers aren't sure where to start. "My dad worked hard to provide for my family," says Smith. "I learned that from him. But out of hundreds of my games, he only came to four. I had to figure out for myself how to be an involved dad."

Smith doesn't blame his father, as breadwinning was everything for dads back then. But now a man is considered to be a "good father" if he earns a paycheck and also changes diapers, makes school lunches, and coaches Little League.

Social expectations are the biggest change in fatherhood in recent years, says Dr. Linda Nielsen, professor of adolescent psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C., and author of "Embracing Your Father: Building the Relationship You Want With Your Dad."

Many fathers are eager to meet these expectations, she says, but they can't see how to tweak their work schedules when their incomes are so critical to family security. According to her research, American fathers spend an average of 15 hours more per week in the office than their full-time working wives. Only 7 percent of eligible fathers take paternity leave.

"We have changed expectations without giving fathers what they need to rise to them," Dr. Nielsen adds. "They need training and resources."

This is exactly what inspired Dr. Ken Canfield to start the National Center for Fathering, in Kansas City, Mo., an organization that shares practical resources with fathers.