A new generation of fathers

`MY father usually helps me with my homework. He doesn't know everything about homework, but he knows most things. ``You see, he helps me with things I can't do. For one thing, he's bigger than me. But it's also because fathers are there to help you.''

That comment came from a husky 12-year-old dressed in faded jeans and red-striped rugby shirt, who probably wished he were outside playing instead of sitting in a classroom that Saturday afternoon in June, surrounded by adults asking him questions about his dad. The occasion was a ``Fatherhood Forum'' sponsored by Boston's Wheelock College as part of a national celebration of Father's Day, 1984. Several academic studies of ``fathering'' had recently been published by such respected institutions as New York's Bank Street College of Education and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.

One in particular, ``Father's Participation in Family Work: Effects on Children's Sex Roles,'' seemed to signal that fatherhood had become a hot and trendy topic.

Some 200 of us -- parents, academics, journalists -- had spent the morning listening to the statisticians. Now it was time for the real story about the widely touted new generation of fathers. A group of boys, ages nine to 12, had been assembled to talk about their own relationships with their dads.

What's the most enjoyable time you spend with your father?

Going out to dinner, just with him. We talk about things we don't usually talk about. You know, school, sports, vacation.

What does it mean to you to love your father?

It means you follow him. You think everything he does is right, that he's the greatest. But he has to be careful of what he does 'cause you'll take after him.

What about affection? Is it important to you? Does your dad hug you a lot?

Sure. You should get used to hugging so you won't feel stupid about doing it. Hugs can be a hand on your shoulder when you're walking together, you know.

Have you ever seen your father cry?

Nope. He thinks it would be letting his kids down if we saw him cry. But I wouldn't think that.

What kind of father would you like to be?

I'd want to spend a lot of time with my kids and let them know that I would be there for them. I'd make them feel free to come to me and discuss problems before they built up, because it would be awful not to have someone to talk to.

As the youngsters responded matter of factly, the adults in the classroom were visibly touched by their comments.

A few final questions.

Had they ever seen their fathers cook? All nodded yes. Had they ever seen their fathers clean house? Four tentative hands went up. Had they ever seen their fathers change diapers? There was a loud ``No!'' followed by nervous laughter. Several boys held their noses.

To diaper or not to diaper -- is that still the measure of a father's hands-on participation in his children's upbringing? The question reminds me of the program administrator for Family Focus in Evanston, Ill., whom I talked with at the height of the fatherhood boom. She likened the concerns of the ``newly activist fathers'' she knew 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.' ''

It makes good copy, for sure, but my own informal studies over the past few years tend to suggest that Dad's involvement can't be quantified in numbers of picket lines walked, dinners cooked per week, deliveries and pick-ups at the babysitter's, or even birthday parties attended voluntarily.

Granted, my field of observation has been somewhat limited -- to one household and one father, my husband, Bruce -- and so may not reflect current national demographics. But increasingly it seems to me that the smallest moments and pleasures shared still count the most.

Perhaps I'm thinking of the first time our three-year-old son visited his father's office and discovered some of his own finger paintings taped in a prominent position over Dad's desk. Or the afternoon my husband filled a coffee can with water and hunted up a scraggly brush so that Jonathan could help with the house painting. Or the hour they spent together recently planting jack-o-lantern seeds.

I could be wrong. There are some pretty slick books on the shelves today, written by important fathers with sure-fire parenting philosophies -- Bill Cosby's ``Fatherhood'' and Bob Greene's ``Good Morning, Merry Sunshine,'' to mention two.

Still, I can't help remembering another book, published in the spring of 1982, by a dad who made what some might call the ultimate decision. In ``Daddy's Home,'' journalist Mike Clary wrote about leaving his job as a Miami Herald reporter to stay home and raise his infant daughter, Annie, while his wife went back to work.

Is Mike still at home, still enjoying it, I wondered. So I called him.

``Still here,'' came the reply. ``Sure, it's a hassle at times -- and we've got two kids now. Annie's eight, and Joey's four -- he goes to the nursery school my wife, Lillian, started.

``I write like crazy every morning, from nine to 12, while the kids are in school, and then turn my computer off when they get home. Even though they're older now and don't require the same supervision and constant attention they used to, there's always something they need me for -- to open an apple juice jar, or to settle an argument.

``In my book, I wrote about the frustration of balancing my desire to work with the needs and pleasures of having a child. I'd have to say that I still enjoy what I'm doing very much. Sometimes, I think, too much.''

Happy Father's Day, Mike. And Bruce.

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