ANY people remember Dustin Hoffman's role in the 1979 movie, ``Kramer vs. Kramer.'' The film started out as a tragedy, with the mother of a young child leaving her family to start life on her own. The father's bewildered, inept, and frustrated coping with his son looked like a disaster at first. And his career was jeopardized by his new domestic commitments. But by the end of the film, despite a court decision awarding custody to the mother, it was mutually agreed that the child would continue to live with his father. A relationship of such closeness and joy had developed between them that this single male parent was clearly the winner in the story.
Did that film serve to inspire more fathers to raise their children alone? Statistics are hard to come by. More fathers are indeed seeking custody of their children in divorce proceedings. But whether more are actually being awarded custody by judges is a matter of debate.
As of March of last year, according to the Census Bureau, 799,000 single fathers in the United States were raising their children on their own. This figure was up from 267,000 in 1964 -- a jump of more than 150 percent in 20 years.
There are several reasons for the increase in the number of fathers who seek custody of their children, says Ron Levant, a clinical associate professor of counseling psychology at Boston University.
``Men are changing,'' says Dr. Levant. ``In the past, women -- even working women -- spent far more time on housework than men. But one recent study in the Boston area shows that both men and women spend about four hours a day on housework and child care. Men have started wanting custody [of their children in a divorce case] as a response to these changes, and to a breakdown in sexual stereotyping. The `macho male' orientation has been questioned.''
Ginnie Nuta of Parents without Partners believes that more men are in fact being awarded custody of their children than in the past.
``Judges don't automatically favor mothers,'' Ms. Nuta says. ``According to some feminist groups, from 50 to 60 percent of fathers win custody of their children when there's a fight over the issue. And it is true that fathers are awarded custody more in urban areas than in rural. From 10 to 12 percent of our members are custodial dads.''
But some experts, like Peter Cyr, secretary of a men's rights organization called the National Congress for Men, insist that the number of fathers awarded sole custody in divorce proceedings is not increasing. He believes that the awarding of custody is often influenced by old stereotypes favoring the traditional role of the mother, rather than by the relative ability of each parent to bring up a child successfully.
``I don't know how much more frequently fathers are getting sole custody,'' he says. ``When there's a fight, unless there's something obviously wrong with the woman, she'll probably get sole custody. It's that bad.
``I even know of cases where the husbands were the housefathers while the couple were married,'' says Mr. Cyr. ``They were staying home raising the kids, and the wives were career mothers who went to the office every day. But when they got divorced, the children were awarded to the mother. And the first thing she did was go out and get a nanny.''
One authority on the subject of custodial fathers is Geoffrey L. Greif, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Dr. Greif conducted a survey in 1983, the results of which will be published next month in a book entitled ``Single Fathers'' (Lexington Books/D.C. Heath & Co.). Dr. Greif agrees with other experts that the numbers of fathers raising children alone will continue to increase.
``We're moving slowly towards a society where there's going to be more interchange of roles,'' he says. ``Women are taking more part in the work force. They are more able to define themselves in roles other than `mother,' and are not holding on to their kids for reasons of their own identity as much as they once did. There will be more fathers raising children in the intact family as well as in divorced families.''
Dr. Greif has not found that the difficulties custodial fathers encounter are substantially different from those single mothers have to confront.
``It is the role of the single parent that is the great equalizer -- not the sex of the parent. Men are able to do the housework and the cooking very well.
``The main problems are trying to continue on the job as before, and being comfortable about being single. Single fathers may feel it more acutely because there's a smaller group for them to identify with.''
According to Dr. Greif, it is the attitudes of others toward single fathers that may sometimes cause problems.
``Single fathers are often not taken seriously by institutions to the extent that they should be,'' he says. ``If a custodial father wishes to discuss his child with authorities in a school, it may happen that the school will automatically say, `We have to talk to the mother about this.'
``Or a man may still be expected to work overtime even when he becomes a single parent. Employers don't make changes in schedules to accommodate single parents -- either fathers or mothers.''
But sometimes, says Dr. Greif, public opinion can work to the benefit of single fathers, whereas mothers raising a child alone are more likely to be taken for granted. ``[Single fathers] are praised and offered help. Mothers with custody are not given much support.''
From the cases he has studied, does Dr. Greif he feel that single fathers do as good a job raising children as single mothers?
``Yes, I do. Men have to go out of their way more [to obtain custody of a child] and tend to give the situation much more thought. Mothers assume they will naturally have custody, but fathers bring more careful thought to the role.''
``The vast majority of the men I've talked to feel they did the right thing [in securing custody of their child.] They take pride in what they're doing and they feel very satisfied with their relationship with their children.''