The Good Father? : Getting...

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He said he tried to be a good father. But a bitter divorce, precipitated by his extramarital affairs, pitted him against an angry ex-wife and vengeful children. Now remarried, the 43-year-old businessman hasn't seen his children in years. "If they never see me again, fine. I don't care anymore. . . . I've replaced them with two children and a good wife. . . . I want to get on with my life. I got things to do. I'm not getting any younger."

Another father, Richard Kashinsky, 41, of Torrance, has restructured his life to share all child-care and household chores equally. He cooks half the meals, vacuums, stays home when his kids are sick. He talks to teachers more than his wife does. He knows the names of his children's friends. Even though most of Kashinsky's friends play a more traditional role, "I wanted to spend more time with my kids when they were young before they disappear," he said.

In an era emotionally charged by both father flight and father worship, an unprecedented confluence of forces is working to find out what it is that turns many men into committed, responsible fathers and apply it to the millions of others who are not.

Those pushing for change--fatherhood advocates, working mothers, religious leaders, liberal and conservative politicians, therapists and child-development experts--are driven by the facts of modern life:

* 38% of children now live without a biological father, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

* Since 1960, the number of children living with never-married single parents--mostly mothers--has increased 25 times to 6.3 million.

* Even more (6.6 million) live with divorced single parents, mostly mothers whose ex-husbands, research has shown, tend to fade away from their kids.

* An additional 7.6 million are in stepfamilies.

There is little disagreement that children are better off being raised by two equally committed, caring parents.

But these advocates, driven by a variety of motives, are often at passionate odds. "Underneath the convergence of forces, there's no consensus of what responsible fatherhood means," said researcher Jim Levine, founder of the New York-based Fatherhood Project. "Which version of father are we talking about? The authoritarian father or the 50-50 father?"

Levine strives to connect all types of dads--married, divorced, unwed--to their children from birth on. He clashes, for instance, with the ideas of David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values in New York, who argues in his book "Fatherless America" (Basic Books, 1995) that only by bringing back strong husband-fathers will the country turn around the widespread social problems that he correlates with absent fathers: violence, teen pregnancy, poverty, school failure.

Others work to create husband-wife couples who can trade off breadwinning and domestic chores interchangeably, or to ensure that an estranged wife does not restrict a father's access to his children.

What's clear is that the path to successful fatherhood nowadays is filled with potholes. Said Richard Weissbourd, who teaches on childhood vulnerability and resiliency at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government: "Some fathers are physically present in the home, and emotionally absent. Some are long gone. Other fathers are around, but play a marginal role."

They distance themselves from their children for many reasons, he said. In addition to obstacles at work and a lack of know-how inherited from their own distant dads, Weissbourd said there is also some evidence that "fathers don't want to be involved with kids when they can't provide for them. (Consequently,) some fathers are working such outrageous hours, they're not emotionally available to their kids."

Additionally, many seeking reform now broach an explanation for why men distance themselves from their children: that the quality of a father's relationship with his children is linked directly to his relationship with their mother.

"The research seems to show that mothers can be real gatekeepers . . . that the level of contact a father has with the kids has more to do with the mother's characteristics than with the father's," said Weissbourd, who is conducting his research with an eye toward new public policy.

The businessman who hasn't seen his biological children in years, for example, has become an ideal father to his stepchildren. He takes them on vacations, attends Boy Scout meetings. He's stopped drinking. They go to church. "My new wife and I are perfectly compatible," he said. He calls his first wife "a witch."

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But feminists decry the notion that the responsibility for poor fathering rests on women's shoulders.

New York-based Olga Silverstein, a feminist therapist, said, "The world is full of men who were thrown out of the house by 'mean women.' Do they think they were thrown out of the house so the women could be poor, penniless and work three jobs to raise four children? Does that make sense?

"Women will tell you they'd love to have a good man in the house. Where are they?"

To create strategies to find them, Vice President Al Gore held a conference on fathers last summer.

One result was a greater research effort, coordinated by Weissbourd, to help resolve some of the controversies surrounding fathers. Some unanswered questions: How important are father substitutes? Will fathers see their children more if they pay more child support? What is the importance of invested fathers at different developmental stages? What do fathers contribute that is unique?

Another outcome is Father to Father, a national support program coordinated by Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the Children, Youth and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota. The program would be tailored to each community to link veteran fathers with newer fathers to help them learn how to relate to their children. Pilot programs are scheduled to begin this spring in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Cambridge.

Gore also spearheaded FatherNet, an electronic resource and bulletin board set up last summer. FatherNet shares information ranging from papers on male responsibility to public policies to advice on child care and development. Gore often logs on, asking for ideas on Father to Father, Erickson said. "He's big on this and he's rigorous about checking his e-mail," Erickson said.

In California, a Focus on Fathers summit will be hosted this spring by Gov. Pete Wilson to educate people about the importance of fathers and to encourage fathers to take an active part in children's lives.

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Involving fathers at home has been a recurring theme in U.S. history ever since the Industrial Revolution took them away to factory and office jobs and recast mothers in the role of the domestic and child-rearing expert. Since then, fathers have been unsure how to relate to their children one on one and uncomfortable about playing student to their teacher-wives.

In the 1920s, pioneers in child development began warning that father absence would cause weak or hyper-masculine boys and leave girls with no ideal against which to measure prospective husbands, said University of Oklahoma history professor Robert L. Griswold, author of "Fatherhood in America" (Basic Books, 1993).

Urged to participate more emotionally and psychologically, many fathers of the '20s and '30s flocked to scout troops and athletic competitions, and often wrote to a nationally syndicated parenting column called Our Children, written by Angelo Patri, a New York City junior high school principal.

Griswold said they were often middle-class businessmen or professionals who worried whether children should read comics, what to do about sons who were "sissies," or how to improve their children's schoolwork. One proud father of a 2 1/2-year-old wrote to Patri: "I taught him his letters at the rate of three or four a week in the form of a game and it was great fun for him. I am afraid to proceed any further without expert advice."

Father involvement has been difficult to measure. Some working-class fathers, Levine said, have long shared child care and housework duties but deny it.

"You will find blue-collar workers in Los Angeles who will describe themselves as macho types, and deny that they are the so-called new father. But see what they do. These guys are going home after laying pipe all day, they drive on the freeway so they can make dinner, so the wife can go to work as a cashier at the 7-Eleven. While she's working, he's cleaning up, giving the kids their baths and putting them to bed."

But most researchers agree with Andrew Cherlin, sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, that "it's now acceptable and even praiseworthy for men to be involved in child care." Ninety percent of fathers are now present in the labor and delivery rooms. Scenes that were uncommon 15 years ago no longer raise many eyebrows: Fathers grocery shopping with children, jogging with prams, bringing their kids to work.

"Born-again dad" Kashinsky, a respiratory therapist, and his second wife, Michelle, an embryologist, trade off all child and household duties depending on who's home to do it. "The kids expect the same stuff from us," he said.

At one point, their oldest child called them both "Momdad." "I was flattered," Kashinsky said.

It would be nice to have somebody else take care of everything at home, he said. "But it just doesn't feel right."

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Some fathers have not been able to accomplish the transformation without self-conscious displays of breast-beating. In 1991, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich wondered "why every man who changed a diaper has felt impelled, in recent years, to write a book about it."

Griswold observed that in meetings at work, a man might now announce, "I've got to go pick up my kids! (As if saying) Ta da! Look at me!"

He observed that society, too, as reflected in divorce and custody cases, is quick to praise fathers for doing slightly more than nothing, and equally quick to criticize mothers for doing slightly less than everything.

Still, most men have resisted assuming full mental responsibility for child rearing and domestic chores, researchers said. "So you get these men going on and on about how great fatherhood is, but today's Lamaze dad can be tomorrow's deadbeat dad," Griswold said.

Once a father has left his children, some experts say it's almost too late to try enticing him back into their lives. The underlying problems, personally and financially, are too deeply rooted.

Some say the sweeping problems call for sweeping reforms.

The National Fatherhood Initiative, a group led by former bureaucrats in the Reagan-Bush administrations, proposes to change fathers' behavior by altering the "moral climate" through massive public-awareness campaigns in the same way smoking behavior has been affected in recent decades.

Others say the only way to change fatherhood is to change boyhood, starting at infancy. "Not a day in my life I don't see somebody yanking a baby boy's thumb out of his mouth, saying 'Stop that crying. Be a big boy.' They're telling boys to be tough and stand on their own two feet when they're 10 months old," said Erickson, the Father to Father program coordinator.

"We know from research that if a child is allowed that comfort in early months and years of life, they'll be stronger, more autonomous, more independent and more able to connect with others in an empathetic way when they are older."

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In the meantime, many men are finding practical reasons on their own to participate in parenting.

Some have been forced by the economy, or allowed by telecommuting, to be at-home dads. Some have gone through a midlife re-evaluation of priorities and want to develop the emotional side of themselves that atrophied while they focused on success and competition.

Others in the newest generation of parents are part of a tectonic shifting of the Zeitgeist.

"It's almost like the midlife crisis happens to men in their 20s now instead of their 30s or 40s," said Scott Coltrane, gender and family sociologist at UC Riverside. "Fathering is the one way men can develop their emotional sensitivities in a safe environment."

Richard Thau, 30, executive director of the Third Millenium, a New York-based political group of young adults, is unmarried but, like his friends, is anxious about the prospects of marriage and children.

About half of the Third Millenium members grew up in divorced homes. But regardless of what they've experienced, they tend to be cynical, analytical and afraid, Thau said. "This blind lurching toward fatherhood seems senseless to me and to other men I know," he said.

"Every child needs and deserves two parents. Two present parents," he said.

If they can find ways to accomplish that goal, he said, "It would mean creating a new generation of parents who feel connected to their children. Wouldn't it be nice to think something positive would come out of all this cynicism? . . .

"We won't know for another generation."

* Next week: David Blankenhorn and dealing with deadbeats.

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