At a fathers' support group in Minneapolis, a divorced, middle-aged man wonders in low tones what to say when his five-year-old son asks, "Why can't I be with you more, Dad?"
In a rural town in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, a circle of Hispanic migrant workers listen as a parenting class instructor encourages them to overcome "machismo" and tell their children, "I love you."
At a Vermont hospital, a nurse coaxes the unwed father of a newborn to sign a form along with the baby's mother establishing their parentage and willingness to work out a way to care for the child.
These are the workaday faces of the 1990s fatherhood movement, a disparate and emerging social campaign aimed at reversing the trend of millions of American children growing up without involved fathers - or without fathers at all.
Since 1960, the percentage of US children under age 18 who live with their mother only has tripled from 8 percent to 24 percent, according to government figures. The US has surpassed the rest of the developed world in its percentage of single-parent families.
Activists in the fatherhood movement - ranging from fathers' rights proponents to conservative Christians to Vice President Al Gore - point to widespread "fatherlessness" as a leading cause of some of the most vexing problems in American society: juvenile crime, low grades in school, poverty, and welfare dependency.
"The spread of fatherlessness in our generation is a profound social crisis and a legitimate cause for alarm," according to a draft "Call for Action" issued by two-dozen leaders of the fatherhood movement at conference here last week.
"A society in which large and growing numbers of adult males cease to nurture their offspring is a failing society," concluded the conference, cosponsored by the Minneapolis-based Center of the American Experiment, the National Fatherhood Initiative, and the Institute for American Values.
Cash incentives and access
Recent legislative proposals on divorce, child support, and welfare have signaled a renewed interest in fatherhood. The new welfare bill signed by President Clinton in August places a priority on family preservation. It also offers monetary incentives to establish the parentage of children born out of wedlock and improve fathers' access to visit their children.
Fatherhood initiatives designed to strengthen father-child bonds are springing up around the country although evidence of their success remains largely anecdotal.
Still, policymakers, academics, and religious activists at the conference agreed that ending what they called "the curse of fatherlessness" remains a far-off goal. "Even as we rediscover fatherhood as a cultural ideal, flesh-and-blood fathers are becoming each year a scarcer commodity," says Maggie Gallagher, a scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York.
Several experts describe the disengagement of fathers as a stark, biological imperative linked to the collapse of marriage in America.
"Thanks to the sexual revolution, men don't need to marry for sex," says David Popenoe, a sociologist at Rutgers University, N.J. "But it's marriage that holds a father to his kids. He is bound to the children through his woman."
Meanwhile, men have grown less vital as family breadwinners as their wives enter the labor market, gain economic independence, and in turn more freely seek divorce if the relationship sours.
Since 1960, the rise in the divorce rate (to 55 percent) and the explosion of out-of-wedlock births (from 5 percent to 30 percent of the total) has coincided with fathers "dropping out of the lives of their kids," Mr. Popenoe says.
To keep fathers engaged, it is essential to discourage divorce and promote stable marriages, say many conference participants.
Other experts, however, criticize this "marriage-first" strategy as overly narrow and inflexible.
"There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for promoting responsible fatherhood," says Ron Mincy of the Ford Foundation. Distinct tactics are needed, especially, to involve low-income fathers who cannot afford marriage and have not legally established themselves as parents, he says.
Reforming social-welfare policy is more important to encouraging the family bonds of poor fathers, whose relationships with their children are often hampered by regulations, Mr. Mincy says. Many states require that to receive welfare single mothers must report fathers as absent parents. Federally funded public-housing rules also bar noncustodial fathers from living with their families.
In San Antonio, the Avance family center serves yearly more than 1,300 primarily Hispanic men with low incomes. In addition to parenting classes, Avance places the men in high school equivalency courses, job training, and jobs to address as their sense of failure as providers.
"Their frustration has led to a lot of lashing out at their children and physical violence," says Carmen Cortez of Avance. "Now they are learning how important it is to talk to young children."
Ties outside of marriage
Father's rights groups, formed mainly by divorced fathers, also disagree that marriage is the prerequisite for meaningful fatherhood. Close ties can be built outside of marriage, they say, but they face legal barriers. "The divorced fathers' movement is lobbying strongly for increased access and custody, with a goal of shared custody as the norm," says Stuart Miller, an analyst for the American Father's Coalition in Vienna, Va.
In Minneapolis, the Fathers' Resource Center serves about 1,200 mainly divorced or unwed fathers a year. Many fathers come to the center deeply resentful because their visitation rights are not being enforced. A Minnesota law enacted in August now allows courts to impose fines of up to $500 on spouses who obstruct pre-arranged visitation. Fathers often explode with rage when denied access, sabotaging their interests in a judicial system already weighted against them in child custody issues, says Chuck Humphrey, who leads anger management groups.