''We're finally giving some attention to the fact that 50 percent of parents are fathers,'' says one woman who has been planning her city's celebration of Father's Day for more than a year. ''The biggest news is probably the fact that there is a fatherhood conference at all.''
While many dads will spend the day flying kites with their children, fathers in six large metropolitan areas will have some intriguing options to pick from June 16. Sponsoring agencies in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and San Francisco are offering a series of special events as part of a nationwide ''Fatherhood Forum'' initiated by the Bank Street College of Education in New York.
''Twenty years ago, people would have said, 'What in the world are you trying to do?' '' notes Phyllis O'Connell, coordinator for the conference, which will be held at Wheelock College in Boston. ''But in recent years fathers have become so much more involved in parenting -- and in thinking and talking about it -- that I think the conferences are going to attract plenty of men.''
Keynote speakers are expected to set a highly personal tone for the day's discussions. In Boston, for example, US Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, who has decided not to seek reelection to Congress so that he can spend more time with his family while he combats a recently diagnosed illness, will talk about his own fathering ''priorities.'' In Los Angeles, Dr. Dale Ride will speak about his role as father of astronaut Sally K. Ride and Rev. Karen Scott, a Presbyterian minister.
While San Francisco has scheduled a day of festivities for fathers and their children, sponsors in the five other cities are planning between 20 and 40 workshops. Topics will range from sports programs for families to the special challenges of teen and unemployed fathers. Sessions on grandfathers, stepfathers , expectant fathers, minority fathers, and men as homemakers are designed to cover a wide spectrum of interests. There will be lighter fare as well, including magic tricks and photographing the children.
Conference planners have been at it all year, hoping to break the record set at last June's Fatherhood Forum in New York City, where more than 400 dads turned out on a sunny summer day to swap experiences and ask hesitant questions of one another. Most sessions will be held the Saturday before Father's Day, with an extra Friday evening gathering in Los Angeles. In Minneapolis, the forum will be held midweek, rather than run the risk of competing with an annual road race for fathers and children on the weekend. Registration fees average $20.
Although sponsoring colleges and human-services agencies are hoping that both parenting professionals and what they're whimsically calling ''generic'' fathers will be attracted to the forums, San Francisco organizers are throwing all their energies into making sure that fathers and children attend. Working in league with that city's annual county fair organizers, they've planned a day full of large group games, ''Teens in Theater'' skits about adolescents' relationships with their dads, finger painting for the family, kite- and toy-making, and even a tape recording of favorite stories about fathers.
''One of the paradoxes of the conferences is that fathers come and either leave their children in child care or leave them at home,'' says Bob Sayers of the sponsoring Nurtury Family Institute. ''Our fair is really an attempt to reach a wide cross section of fathers -- and children.''
Whether citing the numbers of working mothers in the labor force or the slight upturn in the numbers of men who have custody of their children as contributing factors, the social-service professionals who are doing most of the behind-the-scenes work for the forums are convinced that there is plenty of interest in -- and questions about -- being a father today.
Like other women who have been involved in preparations for the national conferences, Carol Hanson, program administrator of the Family Focus in Evanston , Ill., and co-coordinator of the Chicago meetings, says she was forced to broaden her own perspective of fathering as a result of working with an all-male steering committee. ''It was a new experience to be in meetings where men had their children with them and women didn't,'' she recalls.
Ms. Hanson likens some of the concerns of ''activist fathers'' to those of the women's movement in its earliest days. ''Some fathers are beginning to say, 'Yeah, it's a problem when I take my child out and there's no changing table in the men's room,' '' she notes.
In Houston, where 11,000 divorces were granted and only 9,800 marriages recorded in 1982, a group of civic- and family-minded fathers are paying expenses out of their own pockets to provide for that city's ''celebration of fatherhood.''
''Because three-fourths of women with small children have to go out and make a buck . . . the old roles no longer fit the life style that most of us are living,'' says Dr. E. J. Farge, chairman of the citizen group. ''We're not saying that this is an unfortunate development -- just that it's the way it is. The fact is, there's a lot of opportunity in this new life style for men to develop in a way that many of our fathers and grandfathers didn't have the opportunity to do.'' For more information: BOSTON: Saturday, June 16, 8:30 a.m.-4:15 p.m., Wheelock College, 200 The Riverway. Contact Ms. Chris Stokes, (617) 734-5200. CHICAGO: Saturday, June 16, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., American Congress Hotel, 520 South Michigan Boulevard. Contact Ms. Carol Hanson, (312) 869-4700. HOUSTON: Saturday, June 16, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Hyatt Regency Hotel, 1200 Louisiana Street at Polk. Contact Dr. E. J. Farge, (713) 791-9330. LOS ANGELES: Friday, June 15, 7:30-10 p.m.; Saturday, June 16, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Miramar Hotel, Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica. Contact Rick Porter, (213) 376-8086. MINNEAPOLIS: Wednesday, June 13, 7:30-10 p.m.; Thursday, June 14, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Earle Brown Continuing Education Center, University of Minnesota, St. Paul campus. Contact Ms. Joyce Portner, (612) 373-5831. SAN FRANCISCO: Sunday, June 17, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., San Francisco Fair and Exposition, Fort Mason Center on the Marina. Contact Bob Sayers, (415) 924-9675.