DURING the past two decades, women have moved increasingly into positions of power in institutions that were once almost exclusively male preserves. Far fewer men have embarked on the reverse migration from the workplace into the home. Most men - and even most women - continue to assume that raising babies is ``women's work.'' Yet a recent United States Census Bureau report indicates that, unbeknownst to nearly all of us, an increasing number of men have been quietly invading the nursery and undertaking the care and feeding of their infants.
An unheralded revolution is under way in fathering today. Fathers are beginning to assume a substantial share of the burdens and blessings of raising their children during the critical early years of life. The 1993 Census Bureau report reveals that ``fathers are taking care of 1 in every 5 preschool children while mothers work,'' an increase of five percent in just three years. Seeking to explain this sudden surge in fatherly care, family researchers cite rising unemployment, a growing percentage of part-time or night-shift work, the high cost of child care, and shifting social mores. Facing the lean employment possibilities of the '90s, men in occupations where job security was once the principal virtue now find themselves out of work, while women once shut out of the marketplace are sometimes able to secure more-dependable employment. In the increasing majority of households where both partners work, the high cost of child care may induce them to share parenting responsibilities.
These compelling economic realities prompt many men who might otherwise balk at changing a diaper to become intimately involved in their children's early care. In the process, they often discover they've been missing a great deal all those years when they imagined they had something more important to do. The experience of shepherding one's child through the fragile and enchanting phase of infancy reveals and nurtures a tenderness in most men that this and many other cultures have long suppressed. Priorities are rearranged, identities transformed, and ambitions surrendered as the more intimate rewards of fathering emerge.
At the same time that more fathers are becoming involved in early child raising, however, more are also abandoning their children to overburdened mates and a threadbare social safety net. The absence of caring fathers (or any father at all) in many families today has been cited as a primary cause for a wide variety of social ills, ranging from poverty and violence against women to teen pregnancy and child abuse. But it also exacts a fearsome toll on fathers themselves. Those who evade the responsibilities of fatherhood engendered by a careless moment of passion endure an alienated and often aimless existence, suffering a shame too great to allow a return to the one home where they truly belong. In their frustration and anger, many resort to violence against themselves, their families, their friends, and strangers.
These two contradictory social trends constitute the crisis and opportunity in fathering today. Men are struggling to redefine their identities in a family and workplace that are both in dramatic upheaval. What defined masculinity and male responsibility for millennia - father as protector, provider, and supreme authority - is proving too narrow to meet the demands placed on men in this transitional time. Yet mainstream America offers few options to those men who wish to become more intimately involved in their infants' care. An economy rigidly geared to full-time employment makes no allowance for active fathering beyond the token weekend outing. Paternity leave is a rare privilege and TV, film, and other media offer few models of nurturing for fathers to emulate.
In addition to these hurdles, fathers must confront their own fears of failure. Most in the present generation had dedicated but emotionally distant fathers who were preoccupied with providing the material needs of the family. Many of today's fathers yearn to become more engaged in their children's lives but can't find the words or means to express their feelings. Some fear being judged unmanly or incompetent in practicing this unfamiliar and demanding occupation. Others experience resistance from their own mates, who may be reluctant to cede authority in the sole remaining realm in which women have traditionally retained a measure of sovereignty.
Despite these considerable hurdles, many men are quietly taking the leap and surviving - indeed, even thriving. A path-breaking 1986 study by Yale child psychiatrist Kyle Pruett confirms copious anecdotal evidence that, given the opportunity, men are quite capable of fulfilling the complex and commonplace duties of child rearing. Nurturing is not a uniquely feminine trait, says Dr. Pruett, but a potential in all human beings that the great majority of societies have simply suppressed in males.
This is good news for everyone - for the mother whose long-solitary burden the man can now help shoulder; for the child who will enjoy a full relationship at last with his or her father; and for the family, which once more becomes the warm heart from which all else takes nourishment. In no sense does this mean that men will supplant women in the domestic domain, but simply that they may finally join them in an equal but flexible embrace of the many joys and frustrations of child rearing.
Neither will men's entry into the nursery to nurture their own infants ``soften'' the species, as some fear, but it will strengthen it immeasurably by broadening the range of tasks and emotions of which men are capable. Nor will it blur the very real distinctions between men and women into formless androgyny. Men are capable of nurturing in ways that differ from but fully complement those of women, strengthening their families with a many-dimensional masculinity.
Such a transformation seems generations away. But in quiet, unnoticed ways, it may already be happening far more widely than we suspect.
Perhaps the most intriguing finding of the Census Bureau and Yale reports is that those fathers who have taken on the care and feeding of their infants are mostly not from the margins of American society but from its mainstream. Their very ordinariness is a highly promising sign. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.