Superdad becomes the new standard for men

Today, 'good fathers' must do more than earn a paycheck. They're expected to nurture the kids and do housework, too.

When Robert Smith was let go from his job two years ago, the Chicago dad had to collect welfare for several months to support his family of six. Still, he reflects, that day was "one of the best days of my life." Mr. Smith, who was working full time in an office and running a separate business out of his home at night, was forced to look hard at his priorities.

For years, he had wanted to be more involved in the lives of his four young children, now ages 3, 5, 7, and 8. But until that day, he didn't think it was even an option.

As Smith devoted himself more to his home-based marketing and public relations firm, it began to grow and become profitable. Best of all, working at home allowed him to be the involved father he'd always wanted to be. "When children get older," he says, "they only talk about whether parents were there for them - if dad came to the game, not when he bought me a $5,000 bracelet."

Money is tighter now, but Smith has no regrets. His relationships with his children, and with his wife, who is home as well, have benefited from his new schedule. He can now attend school plays, basketball games, and parent-teacher conferences - or just play catch.

Smith is typical of many fathers today who, while they might not be ready to become stay-at-home dads, are looking to rejigger their work lives so they can witness important moments and develop deeper bonds with their kids.

Evidence of this trend is mostly anecdotal so far, as changes are happening slowly. Without role models, many fathers aren't sure where to start. "My dad worked hard to provide for my family," says Smith. "I learned that from him. But out of hundreds of my games, he only came to four. I had to figure out for myself how to be an involved dad."

Smith doesn't blame his father, as breadwinning was everything for dads back then. But now a man is considered to be a "good father" if he earns a paycheck and also changes diapers, makes school lunches, and coaches Little League.

Social expectations are the biggest change in fatherhood in recent years, says Dr. Linda Nielsen, professor of adolescent psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C., and author of "Embracing Your Father: Building the Relationship You Want With Your Dad."

Many fathers are eager to meet these expectations, she says, but they can't see how to tweak their work schedules when their incomes are so critical to family security. According to her research, American fathers spend an average of 15 hours more per week in the office than their full-time working wives. Only 7 percent of eligible fathers take paternity leave.

"We have changed expectations without giving fathers what they need to rise to them," Dr. Nielsen adds. "They need training and resources."

This is exactly what inspired Dr. Ken Canfield to start the National Center for Fathering, in Kansas City, Mo., an organization that shares practical resources with fathers.

"The social expectation is demanding fatherhood at its best," says Mr. Canfield. "Lots of men are scrambling for tips on how to do this father role with excellence. They are eager learners."

So eager, in fact, that Canfield's website and syndicated radio show, "Today's Father," are increasingly popular, as are other resources that have sprung up recently. And support groups for dads are popping up all over the country.

"I am encouraged," says Canfield, "that there's a growing fraternity of fathers helping one another and sharing advice, much like mothers have had for years."

Dads these days are also more apt to seek out counseling to help them morph into a more involved father. Scott Haltzman, a professor at Brown University's department of psychiatry and human behavior, comes at this from a different angle: He specializes in helping men stay married. "Keeping one's marriage intact," he explains, "is the best thing a man can do for his children."

Dr. Haltzman also emphasizes the need for fathers to engage more with their families. Seven years ago, he decided to reduce his own hours so he could be home for his two kids after school. "I wanted my kids to identify me in the role of equal parent to their mom, as opposed to the guy who comes home just in time for dinner."

Like Smith's family, his has also felt the financial pinch, but Haltzman says it's been worth it.

What most holds dads back, Haltzman says, is the pressure to provide. "Today's man truly wants to be more a part of his family, but his worries about the present and future security of his clan drive him away from the home in search of the money he needs.

"It will take a tremendous shift in our cultural norms," he adds, "to reach the point when our children will get all they deserve from their fathers; but we are getting closer."

Most heartening, says Canfield, a father of five, is when fathers realize that getting involved has reciprocal benefits, meaning it's good for them as well as for the kids.

David Popenoe, family sociologist and author of "Life Without Father," believes the growth of the father's rights movement and its impact on family courts is the most important change that has happened for fathers in the past decade.

But Canfield says the fact alone that fathers are yearning to be more involved, whether they are married or divorced, is significant. And it's worth celebrating that society is giving them the green light.

There's still work to be done, he adds, for instance, with promoting fatherhood training in high schools and finding respected cultural icons who will speak out about the vital role of fathers. But progress is being made.

Long gone are attitudes such as that of Oscar Wilde, who once wrote that "fathers should be neither seen nor heard. That is the only proper basis for family life."

For this change, fathers like Robert Smith and Scott Haltzman are rejoicing.

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