GOING SOLO : A Small but Growing Core of Men Are Becoming Single Fathers--and They're Doing It by Choice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The refrain was familiar: a divorce at twentysomething, a fruitless search for a new partner, an imaginary life script that assumed the presence of children--and a real-life scenario marked by solitude and the steady ticking of a relentless biological clock.

But Don Viola was not about to let reality get in the way of his dreams. He decided to adopt a child.

"It's just something I always thought I would be," said Viola, whose son, Jordan, turned 3 in January. "A father."

In creating a family on his own, the 37-year-old software engineer from Rocklin, outside Sacramento, joined a small but growing fraternity of single fathers by choice. No hard data exists, no longitudinal studies have been undertaken--but anecdotal evidence suggests that a tiny cadre of men are heeding their own needs to nurture, regardless of their marital status or, in some cases, sexual orientation. Largely through private adoption or by contracting with surrogates, they are embarking on solo parenthood. In doing so, they are challenging broad cultural expectations about men--and about parenting.

"These are the cosmonauts of gender space," said Harvard Medical School psychologist Ron Levant, co-author of "Masculinity Reconstructed" (Dutton, 1995) and the head of the American Psychological Assn.'s new section on men. "They are crafting an entirely new role"--a blend, Levant said, of traditional and novel concerns.

Increasingly, single men are showing up at support groups for prospective parents, said social worker Andrea Troy, director of New York Singles Adopting Children. Arlene Tanenbaum, who coordinates adoption information services for Work/Family Directions in Boston, said that "just in the last year and a half, the number of calls has increased tremendously. There are definitely more men looking at the possibility of becoming fathers on their own."

As the head of a chain of clinics called the Infertility Centers of America, Michigan lawyer Noel Keane has acted as the broker for dozens of unmarried men who have contracted with surrogates to bear their children. Depending on the details of the arrangements, and the state where the procedures are conducted, the costs range from about $12,000 to $40,000, Keane said.

"These are pretty upright guys," he said, men who "may not want the problems" of married life or, in the classic parlance of dating, men who "haven't found the right girl."

Besides, Keane noted, "There is such a thing as a confirmed bachelor. Why should he sacrifice becoming a father? I've always looked at it as a constitutional right for someone to procreate a child."

Without the legal argument, that was very much how Bill Tuttle of Fairbanks, Alaska, was thinking six years ago when he worked through one of Keane's centers to become a father via surrogacy.

"I was about 35," said Tuttle, a carpenter at the University of Alaska. "I had finished my third house. I thought, here I've got this great big house and no one to fill it up. I'd gone through a couple of relationships, but I was never very good at it. I'd always wanted a kid. I come from a big family. I've got 18 nieces and nephews."

At first Tuttle explored adoption. "But they looked at me, a single male, as something that crawled out from under the rug," he said. When a female friend mentioned surrogacy, "I thought, gee, this is America, you can buy anything. That's a crass way of looking at things, I know. But if you really want a child, there's no problem."

Tuttle and his 5-year-old daughter, Catherine Elizabeth, known as Catie, maintain a friendly relationship with Catie's birth mother, who lives in the Midwest. But on a day-to-day basis, her father said, "it doesn't cross Catie's mind that it's weird to have one parent."

Most days Tuttle finds nothing unusual about the situation, either, although "you do get left out of a lot of female conversations about diapering and child care. If you try to participate, you get strange looks."

Some male friends tease him, saying he cheated by bypassing the hassle of marriage. Several people were so disapproving of his decision to become a single parent that they cut him out of their lives. But when he brought his infant daughter back to Alaska, a group of women friends showed up at the airport with signs and balloons and threw him a baby shower, right then and there.

Tuttle seldom has time to give much thought to the cosmic ramifications of single fatherhood. But when he does ponder the choice he made, Tuttle concludes, "Men are being allowed to be people."

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In loftier terms, sociology professor Ida Harper Simpson of Duke University, who studies family configurations, said the move toward voluntary single fatherhood reflects a cultural "disaggregation" of what is traditionally thought of as female caregiving behavior.

"I don't think we should be surprised that fathers are moving into the area of wanting to be parents, because parenting has come to be identified as a nurturing experience," Simpson said. "We previously identified nurturance almost entirely with women, but there is nothing inherent in a woman that leads her to give better care than a man."

USC social work professor Frances S. Caple, author of "Women as Single Parents" (Auburn House, 1988), observed that married or not, many men also feel the tug of "what Erik Erikson called generativity--that is, how important it is not to feel that your existence is bound to this time and space." Having a child becomes a kind of imperative.

"Whatever it is that makes (women) want to become parents, well, men feel it too," Caple said.

For businessman Hy Ash of Miami, the lure of fatherhood had a bitter urgency. Children gravitated to him and called him Uncle Hy. He volunteered as a Big Brother. He married, and soon had a son. But Aaron Ash, now 22, was born profoundly disabled. Aaron's problems overwhelmed the marriage, and Ash's wife left. Raising the boy on his own, Ash dated, and while his business prospered, occasionally considered remarriage.

"But if there was anything I wanted, more than anything in the world, it was another child," said Ash, 52. One day, "I realized that the idea of having a child and romance don't always fall hand in hand."

Ash, too, turned to a surrogate, "a fabulous person, an angel." He was present nine years ago for the birth of his daughter, Brittany, who recently danced at a family celebration while Ash's 82-year-old father played the violin.

"It just doesn't get any better than that," Ash said. "The only regret I have is that the years are passing way, way too fast."

Ash said he has been open with Brittany about her unusual origin, explaining that "I went all over the country looking for a girl just like you, until I finally found a wonderful lady who agreed to have you for me." Normally that answer satisfies her, but recently, Brittany called Ash at work and asked, "Dad, can we have a female side to this family--like a mom?" That's the only downside, Ash said: "All kids want to be like other kids."

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In suburban Westchester County, N.Y., 36-year-old Douglas Dill ran into a similar complication. His older son, Warren, began to cry one night. "Why can't I have a mom?" the 6-year-old moaned. "Everybody in the school has a mom."

With "the knife wedged firmly in my heart," Dill probed and learned that it was the school's daily pickup ritual, where all the mothers gathered up their kids, that was bothering Warren. Warren happily accepted the substitute procedure that Dill and the principal worked out. Dill and younger son Graham now wait for Warren on the playground.

As a gay man raising Warren and 3-year-old Graham on his own, Dill said he has encountered nothing but encouragement since adopting the boys as infants. His sexual orientation "never really came up" in his adoption application, Dill said, "and I chose not to divulge it. You know how on an employment application, you don't tell an employer something he might not like? It's the same thing."

With children, life for Dill, the owner of a health food store, has changed markedly. No more Saturday nights at the theater; instead, he finds joy in "the Norman Rockwell moments, when I'm bandaging a boo-boo after a first ride on the bike." But Dill believes the real impact of his role as a single father will probably come when Warren and Graham have their own families.

"I think my kids are going to be very different fathers when they become fathers," he said. "I personally, and we as single fathers are making a difference with all the people we touch."

Still, while not without its own set of stigmas, single motherhood remains more culturally normative than its male counterpart. Yet the very parental competence displayed by men like Dill reveals a "simple, but profoundly overlooked idea," said Michael Horowitz, dean of the Illinois School of Professional Psychology: "Women have paid a great price for the way they have marginalized men in parenting. We've tended to think of men as inept at child care and raising children. Obviously this isn't always true."

While "data strongly supports the idea that a two-parent family works out better than a one-parent situation," Horowitz said: "I'm sure that a committed man could do as good a job as a committed woman."

Andy Mirer, a gay father who lives in Brooklyn with his 1-year-old son, Erez, shrugs off questions about the complexities of single parenting.

"I've never been a dad any other way," Mirer said. "I can tell you this is sensational."

It's also a lot of work, Mirer said, made easier by a strong support network and a work schedule in the New York school system that gives him long stretches of time with his son. When Erez starts school himself, Mirer is confident it will be no problem when a dad is there to meet him, not a mom.

Mirer, too, said his sexual orientation did not interfere with the adoption process.

(Gov. Pete Wilson recently tried to discourage such adoptions by reinstituting a 1987 policy that discourages adoptions by unmarried couples and favors "couples who have formalized their relationship through a legal marriage." But since judges, who must approve adoptions, have been granting gays parental rights for a decade in California, Wilson's decision is unlikely to stop single people from adopting children.)

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Audrey Foster, founder and director of Family Connections Adoptions in Modesto, said most single men are subjected to far greater scrutiny than single women who seek to adopt. "I don't think it's fair," she said. "Men seem to have more and more nurturing qualities, and our society is helping to develop those qualities. Why should we be surprised when men want to use them?"

But Foster's nonprofit organization specializes in foreign adoptions of hard-to-place children, those with a variety of physical anomalies and/or social and psychological disturbances. Because not all countries tolerate diverse lifestyles, Foster said preliminary interviews of single men inevitably include questions about what she calls "lifestyle choices."

Foster counts a number of single men among her adoption success stories, including Viola. He had several false starts; he first approached the adoption coordinator of Placer County, who told him that as a single male, his chances were zero.

"She said, 'The only thing you've got going for you is that you're not gay,' " Viola recalled. "Then she told me to go out and find the right person," and just get married.

In Viola's case, the right person was a child. With his passion for Asian culture, Vietnam's then-progressive adoption program became a likely avenue. He sought and received approval to adopt from California and Vietnam. Viola had Jordan's room decorated for a year before he received word that a child was actually waiting for him. Jordan arrived at just under 2 years old, desperately ill and tiny, with no hair, no teeth and an assortment of revolting and unpronounceable parasites. Viola thought he was the most beautiful child in history.

"I looked at him and said hello in Vietnamese," he recalled. "He came right to me. We bonded, instantly."

Viola had squirreled away four months of vacation time from his job at Hewlett-Packard. He spent all his time cooking and cleaning, and trying to make Jordan healthy. Soon the child was walking, smiling and sending Viola into unfettered ecstasy with the word Daddy .

In an attempt to bolster Jordan's cultural heritage, Viola rushed his son down to Rocklin's new Vietnamese restaurant the minute it opened. The rest is straight from a storybook, for despite his resolve that "from now on, it's just me and Jordan," Viola proceeded to fall in love with the small establishment's only waitress. His wife, Toan, became pregnant on their honeymoon. Jordan's baby brother or sister is due in April.

While he came to his role circuitously, fatherhood has not exactly conformed to Don Viola's dreams and expectations.

"Oh no," he said. "It's more. So much more."

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