More men are bucking gender stereotypes, mothers' doubts--and their own misgivings--as they become more involved in their children's lives. : Make Room for Dad

TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Venice architect Tim Robertson says the best thing about being a father is just spending time with his daughters, ages 6 and 12: "It's a special thing--being able to see your children grow up."

Whether because of divorce, dual-career marriages or just the desire to be more involved, more men like Robertson are expressing their commitment to parenting and looking for ways to play a greater role in their children's lives.

But Robertson, who is divorced and has custody of his daughters, says that society is sometimes hostile to his ambitions as a father. He points out that his own father took a passive role in parenting, and Robertson finds himself without a role model. But, he says, "I'm not afraid to ask questions."

According to family life experts, the ideal '90s father figure has the communication and nurturing skills of June Cleaver and her child-care and household abilities as well--whether he's married or divorced, works outside or inside the home. Men's roles as fathers, it seems, are changing faster than Mom can snatch her briefcase and head to the office.

This "involved father" image is popping up everywhere. Nurturing fathers are the hottest characters in TV sitcoms. Advertisers are focusing on the warmth of the father-child relationship to hawk products from baby food to life insurance. And books on fatherhood appear more popular than ever, many urging men to shun their outdated images.

In his best-selling book, "Iron John," poet Robert Bly charges that American men invest most of their time, energy and skills outside the home, depriving their children of their presence and creating a "father hunger" in children that can persist throughout life. Although many applaud the new fatherhood ideal, it has created problems and confusion for many men, says Ronald F. Levant, a psychologist with Cambridge Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "We are living in an era in which we feel strongly that men can be involved, nurturing parents," says Levant, author of "Between Father and Child."

"But the men who are trying to enact this role find themselves falling short of the idealized mode."

And forging a new father image "means fighting stereotypes," says Michael J. Diamond, a Los Angeles psychologist and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA. "It means fighting cultural obstacles that keep men in the background. And it means fighting through their own anxieties about parenting."

But involved fathers are here to stay, he says, because they have emerged out of necessity rather than trendiness.

"I think there is an important (trend) that is taking place and that it has to take place," says Diamond, who has studied the role of fathers during a child's life.

One reason is that the traditional father's roles of breadwinner and family boss are outdated, experts say.

Indeed, most men aren't the sole provider. Married couples with children under 18 in which the husband was the onlyu breadwinner represented 8% of the U.S. population, according to 1991 Bureau of Labor Statistics; half of mothers of children under 6 are employed, a figure that has risen 400% since 1950.

And, Levant says, the women's movement has seen to it that men are no longer the family's only disciplinarians and problem-solvers. Those roles are often shared by both parents.

Men who have lingered in these outdated roles have probably already felt the sting of criticism, Levant says. What society demands, he says, are fathers who are as effective, responsible and nurturing as good mothers.

But that's a tall order for the average father who, according to the Family Research Council, spends just under eight minutes a day in conversation with his children.

"I see a lot of men in couples therapy where the men are feeling inordinate pressures (to become more involved in child rearing)," Diamond says. "There are socioeconomic pressures, where the wife who used to be more active cannot be more active."

Experts note that changing women's roles are not the only force behind the new father. Greater male involvement is also important in attaining the goal of raising children to be free of sex role stereotypes.

"Sex roles aren't going to change until mothers and fathers parent equally," says Charles Hoffman, a psychologist at Cal State San Bernardino who has studied the effects of joint custody.

Finally, the movement is pushed by the desire of more men to enjoy parenting, says Diamond:

"I think it has to do with the absence of male figures in the current generation of men and the wish to mentor one's children."

When Ed and Julia Kopta's child was on the way, the couple decided that he would stay home and care for the baby while she continued her career as a high-level corporate executive.

"It was more of an economic decision," says Ed, a sculptor. "She was making more money than me."

But there was another factor: Kopta wanted to be a hands-on parent.

"I had always wanted to raise a child," he says. "The diaper and formula days--I didn't mind that. I truly enjoyed being with my daughter. It was a fulfilling experience."

Although the mothers in Kopta's Laguna Beach neighborhood viewed him with some suspicion, Kopta says his lack of role models and training didn't deter him from being an effective parent. His daughter, Mary-Mary, learned to swim at 2 and to ride a bike by 4.

Although Kopta and his daughter, now 5, have enjoyed more athletic activities than might be typical for many young girls, he says he has "learned to play Barbies." The family now lives in Prescott, Ariz., and Julia Kopta maintains her business headquarters in Orange County.

"I feel sorry for parents--men or women--who have not been able to enjoy the experiences I've had," says Kopta.

Psychologist Diamond favors the term "involved father" rather than "nurturer" to depict fatherhood's changing focus. Men bring unique contributions to parenting, he says, without becoming "junior mothers."

"There are phases where nurturing is important, but there are other aspects to it," he says, including teaching and intellectual stimulation.

But according to Levant, fathers are poorly prepared for too many parenting aspects. Society is forcing a rapidly changing role on fathers without giving them the information, education, role models or support to do the job, he says.

For example, many fathers would love to leave work in the middle of the day to pick up a sick child at school, but their employers frown on such action. Or they would be happy to help their daughters choose back-to-school clothes, but their wives undermine their efforts with criticism.

"I think there is a great awareness of men to become involved more with their children," says Levant, who directs a program called the Boston University Fatherhood Project to promote more effective fathering. "I see a lot of acceptance. This is not thrust upon them. It's an opportunity. But there is little to help a father with his own fears about being a father."

In his nine years with United Fathers of America, a support organization for divorced and separated fathers, Marvin Chapman says he has seen many men express an interest in becoming more involved in the details of their children's lives.

But, says Chapman, a licensed marriage, family and child counselor in Orange County: "There is very little to no help with it (nurturing). And we still have the stigma that you don't show nurturing qualities. If you have a nurturing, caring father and go out to a ballgame with friends, you don't get a real pat on the back when you talk about caring for your kids."

Psychologist-author Levant agrees that many societal institutions are "not yet ready to embrace men's involvement in their children's lives."

Parenting programs and services, for example, are often not designed to accommodate fathers. And employers and legislators are not enthusiastic about men using work time for family concerns.

Says Thomas J. DeLong, a Brigham Young University researcher who has studied male executives' use of time: "Every organization pays lip service to the family and one's private life. But there still isn't much support out there for managers who want to turn more time (to family matters)."

Levant says the film "Kramer vs. Kramer" portrayed the struggles a divorced man has in fulfilling his role as father. To be sure, these struggles become most apparent in child custody disputes, and many front-runners in the "involved-father" movement are divorced men who have fought for custody of their children.

Robertson, the Venice father who won sole custody of his daughters, argues that men do not lack the confidence to be effective parents or to take the lead as parents. But, experts note, mothers--whether they are wives or former wives--may not be as confident of a man's parenting abilities and may subtly undermine fathers.

"The mother is the gatekeeper to fatherhood," Diamond says. "She may promote or obstruct good fathering."

But the key problem for fathers, Levant suggests, is that they are not prepared for the role. Much of the course he teaches on fathering aims at getting men to express their emotions--a key underpinning of parenting, he says.

The current generation of men were socialized to be like their fathers, he says. They did not learn the psychological skills basic to being able to nurture and care for children, like being perceptive to the feelings of others and the ability to share their own feelings. Girls were taught to be sensitive; boys were taught to be aggressive, stoic and competitive.

Says Levant: "As a result . . . men are often genuinely unaware of their emotions."

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