``A lot of men - fathers in a completed family - they're so intent on earning money that they don't spend time with their kids,'' says Gordon Clay, director of the National Organization for Changing Men, a 600-member group that helps men learn new types of behavior. ``Then, when the divorce comes up, not only do they lose their most intimate partner, they lose the chance to get to know their children.''
This pattern, men's activists say, has produced a sizable number of divorced fathers who are angry, bitter, and emotionally at sea. But, they add, it is also finally awakening men to the fact that sexism and rigid sex roles can hurt them - that men as well as women have something to be liberated from.
``Child custody for men is the equivalent of equal employment opportunity for women,'' says Fredric Hayward of Sacramento, Calif., full-time director of Men's Rights Inc. ``Losing your children raises your consciousness faster than anything else,'' he says.
The idea of changing roles for men dates back to the 1970s, when the women's movement proved that precincts reserved for one sex might well be opened to both.
Around the country men began to assist with the birth of their babies, take a greater interest in parenting, and hear a new message about the value of sensitivity.
Thus far, the focus of the fathers' movement has been primarily on legal change - but any large and lasting shift in fathers' relationships with their children will have to be personal as well, many say. ``Just to have the legal right to care for children isn't enough,'' says Robert Gray, of Framingham, Mass., head of Men's Rights Inc.'s Parental Leave Project. Mr. Gray is a father who has twice taken unpaid leave from work to care for his young children. ``We're trying to change attitudes.''
Role models for men who are gentle and nurturing, as well as masculine, are still scarce - and ``at the moment, men are unsure of how to walk the fine line between being macho and wimp, masculine and sensitive,'' says California educator Warren Farrell. (See next page.)
Mr. Hayward, head of Men's Rights Inc.'s Media Watch Project, says that media images of men are routinely violent or insensitive, and men are often not shown at all where children are pictured.
``I took care of my babies when they had colds,'' fumes John Rossler of Syracuse, N.Y., a former president of National Congress of Men. He has joint custody of his three children. ``What does Mom do when Junior comes in with ice cream and dirty shoes and soils the carpet? Well, I can tell you because I did it, too,'' Mr. Rossler explains. ``Where is the recognition for that?''
``Fathers aren't getting the support from society, the pats on the back that we need,'' says Gray. ``Fathers have got to feel comfortable.''
Instead of support, a trend toward ``men-bashing'' seems to be in vogue among talk show hosts and popular writers, notes Gordon Clay. Shere Hite's controversial book ``Women and Love'' (Knopf), for example, made the cover of Time magazine by blaming men for every modern problem in men's and women's relationships. ``This just isolates men further,'' says Mr. Clay.
Parents' relationships with their own children can have unexpected influences in their lives, some note. ``Once they get into a nurturing interaction with their children, fathers often feel very changed,'' notes Yale psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, author of ``The Nurturing Father.'' ``That could have a long-term impact on how men see nurturing relationships in the world.''