BRUCE DAVIS remembers exactly how he felt three years ago when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant: scared. He was only 20, he hadn't completed his education, and he didn't have a job.
``I'd always had a fear of fatherhood,'' Mr. Davis says. ``I thought I'd be a singer or a preacher, but I never thought I'd be a father. I was afraid I'd do the same thing my father did to me, and that's to be nonexistent. [Responsible] fatherhood is not very common in my family on either side.''
Despite his fears, Davis was determined not to repeat the pattern of fatherlessness. He attended the birth of his son, now two years old, and helped care for him. He and the baby's mother, Carla, eventually married, and last year they became parents of a daughter. Davis now works as a security guard and a minister.
Talk to young urban fathers like Davis and two themes appear again and again, unprompted: fear of being a father and sadness at never having known their own fathers. As they share their concerns and hopes for their children, they display a vulnerability distinctly at odds with media images that portray them as indifferent and irresponsible.
Unmarried parenthood knows no economic or racial boundaries. Nearly 30 percent of all births in the United States are to unmarried mothers. In 1991, there were 1.2 million nonmarital births - a record high. In some 3 out of 4 cases the father is never legally identified, says David Blankenhorn, president of the New York-based Institute for American Values.
Wherever they occur, these births constitute a problem of such magnitude that Mr. Blankenhorn, author of a forthcoming book, ``Fatherless America,'' calls fatherlessness ``the most socially consequential family trend of our era.'' The absence of fathers, he says, whether through divorce, separation, or unmarried births, is ``the most important fact in understanding trends in child poverty as well as other social problems we're now experiencing'' - juvenile delinquency, domestic violence against women, declining school performance, and the deteriorating physical and mental well-being of children.
``We calculate that tonight, 36 percent of the children in America will go to sleep in a home where their father does not live,'' Blankenhorn says. ``Before they reach 18, more than half will spend at least a significant portion of their childhood living apart from their father.''
Today, he continues, ``Fathers are not seen as very important. They're either seen as bad or not necessary. But looking at the facts of child well-being, we have to say that children do need their fathers. We have to invigorate fatherhood as a social role for men.''
To ``invigorate fatherhood'' among young men in Boston's Roxbury district, where, as in other urban areas, the rate of teenage pregnancy is high, Michael O'Neal directs an agency called Fathers, Inc. During the past five years Mr. O'Neal has worked with hundreds of young fathers, helping them ``take responsibility for their actions.'' In classes covering everything from feeding a baby to preparing a resume, he emphasizes the rewards of family life.
O'Neal's office at Roxbury Community College contains the tools of his unusual trade. A Cabbage Patch doll named Home Boy gives prospective fathers practice with diapers. A stack of tiny bibs sits on a file cabinet, and a growth chart hangs on a wall.
The question people ask most frequently, O'Neal says, is, ``Why do these young men have children?'' He tells them, ``Men sometimes have children, one, because they want to have somebody to love them, and two, because they want to have someone who will remember them. Violence claims so many young men.''
That fear of the tragic consequences of violence shadows the lives of many in O'Neal's group. David Corbie, the father of 9-month-old David Jr., says, ``I thought by the time I was 24 or 25 I'd be dead, so I wanted to see Junior now. Looking at recent statistics, I feel that everyone is in danger of not seeing the next day or the next week. Youths are being wiped out, and they want children to remember them by.''
Mr. Corbie offers another reason for early childbearing: ``People are looking for family. If they can't get family through parents, uncles, aunts, they think, `Why not make your own family?' ''
Although Corbie admits that it was ``a shock'' to learn that his girlfriend, Antonia Ray, was pregnant, he has been involved in caring for their son from the beginning. Before he started his current job as a file clerk for a health-care company, Corbie looked after the infant while Ms. Ray worked as a secretary. The baby now goes to a day-care center.
Another father in O'Neal's program, Raoul Colon, has had full responsibility for his 18-month-old son, Tony, since he was three weeks old. ``I never expected it, but I don't have a problem with it now,'' Mr. Colon says. He credits O'Neal with giving him the courage to be a single father.
``Without Michael, I would just have tried to walk away from the whole situation,'' Colon says. ``When Tony was born, I was all stressed out. I said, `What do I do?' He sat me down and we went through things step by step. He was telling me I could do it. I believed that I could, the way he was saying it.''
As Tony toddles around the room under his father's watchful eye, Colon talks about the challenges he faces. ``The hardest thing for me is when Tony is crying for no reason,'' he says. ``If his mom was there, I know she'd pick up on it right away and know what to do.''
Yet he emphasizes the rewards as well: ``I'm learning a lot from him. It's exciting to see him do things you wouldn't expect him to do. On weekends, we have a good old time. We've been to the Museum of Science, and we went to the zoo.'' Colon and his girlfriend plan to marry.
Colon, Corbie, and Davis find that within their own neighborhoods, respect runs high for fathers who are involved in their children's lives. ``You're really considered a god among men when you walk around the community with your child,'' Davis says. ``Old men pat me on the back. Women slip me their phone number and say, `Will you take care of my children, too?' ''
YET Davis and others express frustration over persistent media images of black fathers. ``We're always depicted as lazy and not caring about children, just making them,'' says Corbie. Adds Davis: ``We're trying to be the exception to the rule. It's like when Rosa Parks didn't give up her seat on the bus. It's like a whole new revolution. We're going against the norm. People see it, but they don't acknowledge it.''
If this ``new revolution'' is to succeed, other changes must take place. Among the obstacles to successful fatherhood, these parents say, are government and social programs that treat fathers as invisible or incompetent.
``A lot of the programs they have for mothers delete the fathers,'' says Antonia Ray. ``People try to make the father obsolete....
But somebody helped the mother make these babies, so programs should be targeted to fathers, too. I have girlfriends who receive public assistance. There is a man in their life, but they have to hide him. That makes the father feel that there's no reason to be there because she's the one getting support from these programs.''
O'Neal puts it another way: ``You have programs designed in some ways to keep families dysfunctional. We give more benefits for fathers not being there than for being there. The system has created what I call `the original ghost dad.' He's there, but when case workers and officials come around, he has to disappear.''
Wayne Slayton, whose wife is pregnant, says, ``Any program you go to, if you're with the mother, they'll ask her, `Is this the father?' They push you out of the picture. We had our first appointment with the midwife today. She didn't ask, `Do you want to come in?' She said, `You're coming in? You really want to be there?' ''
Colon finds similar discrimination in job-training programs, which often provide day care to mothers but not fathers. Yet, Colon was recently hired to train as a buyer for an office-products company. Speaking of the self-respect and independence that come with a paycheck, he says, ``This is my biggest joy, being able to pay for stuff for Tony. Now I'm off welfare. I'm glad.''
Any hoped-for social revolution will also be incomplete without better information about sexual responsibility to prevent too-early childbearing.
``No one ever told me, `Put on a condom so she doesn't get pregnant,' '' says Isaac Dave, the father of two daughters, ages 2 and 4. Although Mr. Dave says that ``sadly, it did not work out'' to marry the mother of his children, he contributes to their support and sees them every weekend. ``I will do anything in my power to help my daughters,'' he says. ``I will be there for them.''
Finally, Blankenhorn suggests, there must be a change in attitudes on the part of society as a whole. ``Where,'' he asks, ``are the television shows and novels and poems and talk shows and sermons and congressional hearings and special commissions and songs about the fact that fatherhood needs to be strengthened in our society if we're going to reverse the current trend, which is in a downward spiral? If we're going to send it up, we need to strengthen fatherhood. And we need to strengthen marriage.''
Ironically, it is fathers learning the hard way who argue the strongest case for a traditional family. Davis, who never knew his father, says, ``I'll tell you this much - if it was not for my son and the good Lord, I'd be dead now. I think of all the wrong things I was doing even the week my son was born. But everything changes with children. I had to walk away from people who wanted to get me in trouble. If I get killed, who's going to take care of my kids?''
He adds: ``Any woman who says that she doesn't need a man to raise a child, there's something wrong. We've got to start teaching partnership, because this single stuff is not making it. We've got to have two parents.''