Jeff Gillenkirk

Although you would never know it from coverage of the Elián González custody battle, a quiet but thoroughly monumental revolution is taking place in the American family. The number of fathers solely responsible for the care of their children is growing at a rate almost twice that of single mothers. Fully one-fifth of single parents today are single fathersmore than 2 million of them. This is up from 1970, when single-mother families comprised approximately 90 percent of the single-family population. Among minorities, the rate of increase is as high or even higher. Between 1970 and 1995, the rate of African-American single dads increased 329 percent; for Hispanic single fathers, 450 percent. And though the media almost always focus on mothers when portraying working single parents, nearly 30 percent of working single parents are now men.

In addition, presumed joint custodyor shared custody by both parents of children of divorceis now the law of the land in at least 40 states. Why are these changes occurring now? In many respects, because they had to. The startling failure rate of American marriages, with more than half now ending in divorce, means an equally startling rise in the number of new single parents and fathers with joint custody. That a large number of single parents turn out to be fathers has much to do with the changing nature of family and nurturing in this country. With more women in the workplace than ever before68 percent of women with children under 18divorce courts in most states are no longer awarding custody and care of children to mothers by default, as they did in the past. In some cases, the mother has neither the time nor the will to care full time for her offspring. In other cases, she may not have the financial means.

Ironically, the gradual progress toward leveling the playing field for women at work has resulted in slowly leveling the playing field at home. More men than ever are acting as stay-at-home dadsas many as two million of them, surveys show. Urged for years to take more of a hands-on role within their marriages, many fathers have done just that, and it is changing the way men act after their marriages end. Whether by choice, by court order or by circumstance, fathers are deciding to be real fathers. They are changing their lives, and they are significantly changing the face of the American family. I know. I am one of them.

A New Measure of Manhood

Prior to the breakup of my marriage, I was a thoroughly hands-on father for our infant son while my wife was completing her medical residency. While she wrestled with 36-hour shifts, arrogant surgeons and punishing rotations in pediatrics, internal medicine and psychiatry, I conquered poopy diapers, runny noses, clammy hands and a growing child’s insatiable need for stimulation. My day revolved around my son and the schedule of Gloria, the sweet Oaxacan woman who cared for Lucas between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. so I could get at least a minimum amount of work done. In the afternoons I took him to local parks, shopped, hiked, cooked, cleaned and read with him. I put him down for his nap and got him up, fed him, burped him, giggled and galloped with him. I was the one who took him to the pediatrician for his first sets of shots and held his sobbing body tight to mine after the deep shock of needles.

I felt pretty odd at first; intensive New Age fathering didn’t fit my personal definition of manhood. I had been taught to measure other men, and myself, by the size of my income, not the number of hours I swung my son at the playground or sat up with him in the middle of the night. I was usually the only daddy on the streets at 3:00 p.m. on weekdays, wheeling a stroller through my neighborhood. At the park, it was often just me, Lucas and half a dozen young Latinas watching my neighbors’ kids. Some afternoons, sitting on a windswept bench trying to read The New York Times while Lucas scooted around in the sand, I’d look around the park and wonder what in heaven’s name I was doing.

It came to me slowly. I was undertaking the most elemental and indispensable human-to-human, individual-to-society activity there israising a child. This was the true, natural order of things. On the quiet, fatherless streets of my neighborhood, I was experiencing the ancient rhythms and wisdom that every good mother knows (and men, in other eras, knew as well) of socializing a human being. Being a father felt like the most direct biological/spiritual/existential link with the destiny of my species. This was God’s call to be a mentor, a guide, a Virgil to my son’s Danteprovider to provided, learned to learner, experience to the inexperienced. It seemed an enormous task, but absolutely essential. I took to it hungrily.

Then, when our marriage broke up, my ex-wife filed for primary custody of our son. To go through the pain and disruption of marital separation and then have my relationship with my child threatened carried all the terror and helplessness of a nightmare. Lucas was my buddy, my dream, my son. When I was depressed, he lifted me; lonely, he filled me; angry, he led me back to what was importantfinger paints, tricycle rides, gathering blackberries on the hillside behind our house. Awakening in the morning to hear him singing Frère Jacques from the warm folds of his bed, or in the evenings when he snuggled against me as I read bedtime stories to him, I could no more imagine living without him than living without my legs. I still cry sometimes when he’s not with me, and smile deliriously just watching him concentrate on his coloring, cutting an apple or steering his bicycle down the sidewalk. Stop laughing at me! he’ll shout. I’m not laughing at you, I say. I’m smiling because I love you.

Perhaps because I came to fatherhood later in life (I was 44 when we adopted Lucas), fighting for my son, no matter how unpleasant a task, seemed like a no-brainer. What relationship is more important than the one with my childwith my tennis buddies, my reading group, my business partners? This battle was not just for my son’s futureit was for mine. I deeply miss Lucas when he’s not here. I’m wracked with guilt when I don’t have time for him. If this is the maternal instinct, Iand millions of other menhave caught it. It feels to me, however, what paternal is supposed to feel, but a whole new form of paternalism, where menas women surge into the workplacedemand to be part of the lives of their children.

We are not just talking episodes of Cosby here. As my own experience and interviews with single fathers show, the hearts of menand the face of parentingare changing before our eyes. This is about fathers crying, cooking, being afraid, braiding hair, waiting with children at the doctor’s office, the principal’s office, after school at the soccer field. It is hard work, for sure. The lack of time, sleep, adult stimulation and companionship all speak strongly against it. But the inner rewards of a day-in, day-out relationship with your children have no parallel. Fatherhood is something I would fight for, as previous generations of men fought for God, country or the right to be rich. If I can’t love, nurture and care for my own child, what does that say about me? And if society, or the legal system, won’t help me, what does that say about them?

 

Everyone Benefits

More and more men, myself included, are appreciating a world beyond the work and public success they have traditionally used to define their life’s purposethe world of toothless smiles and gravity-defying first steps, clingy hugs, a new color mixed, a shoelace tied, a pretty dress or pair of pants put on right, an egg cracked cleanly in two. A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of American men59 percentderive a greater sense of satisfaction from caring for their families than from a job well done at work. For many men this satisfaction is what helps them transcend the loss of a mate or makes the oftentimes searing custody battles worth fighting.

This phenomenon cuts across socioeconomic and racial boundaries. Interviews with poor, unmarried fathers in Philadelphia found not only that fathers are important for their children, but that children are enormously important in the lives of their fathers. We asked them what their lives would be like without their children, said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. We expected them to say their lives would be so much easier, but they said, I’d be dead or in jail,’ even if they’re not involved with those children. Children have tremendous importance for fathers.

The law is beginning to catch up. Divorce laws are taking into account the importance of children maintaining relationships with dads as well as moms after divorce. The more than 40 states that now presumptively call for joint custody of children is an enormous change. Just 20 years ago the default to motherhood was such a foregone conclusion that few men bothered to challenge the standard every other weekend and two weeks in summer visitation schedule customarily imposed on fathers.

It is change long overdue. Of the 60 families studied for the seminal book Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce (1980), only three had joint custody. The rest were settled with primary physical custody to the mother. Authors Judith Wallerstein and Joann Kelly made some surprising discoveries about the consequences of these policies by studying them from the point of view of the children, not the divorcees.

In our study, two-thirds of the youngsters were seeing their fathers at least twice a month. Their visits were thus at a level deemed reasonable’ [by prevailing custom and the courts], yet during our initial interviews, children expressed the wish for increased contact with their fathers with a startling and moving intensity. The poignancy of their reactions is astounding, especially among the six-, seven- and eight-year-olds, Wallerstein/Kelly concluded. They cry for their daddiesbe they good, bad or indifferent daddies. I have been deeply struck by the distress children of every age suffer at losing their fathers.

I thought about giving up my own custody battlefor about two minutes. I’m certain my ex expected I would quit, and I suspect that a majority of Americans expect most men to do just that. After all, the predominant image in the media today of fathers-without-mates is still the absentee dad, the deadbeat dad, the career-at-all-costs dad. A title search at the San Francisco Public Library for fathers, single fathers and single dads yielded a litany of woeful titles such as No Fathers; Fatherless America; God, Where’s My Daddy? Daughters Without Dads; The Fatherless Generation; Do I Have a Daddy? When Is Daddy Coming Home? Mothers Alone. When Robert Young died, the star of the early television show Father Knows Best, The San Francisco Chronicle ran a cartoon of two children sitting side by side before a television screen showing Young’s image. What’s Father Knows Best’? one child asks. What’s a father? the other responds.

A father is the stay-at-home dad, divorced by a high-powered corporate attorney, who fights forand winsfull custody of his two girls in a Florida appeals court.

A father is the California contractor who drove 12 hours every two weekends to be with his son, then won sole custody after 14 years.

A father is the retail executive who quit his job after his wife abandoned him and his two children, and took the same job he had as a teenager in a produce market in order to have the flexibility to care for his kids.

These men were among dozens I have interviewed: dads who stayed; dads who work, clean, sing, cry, help with homework; who skip meetings to go on field trips or overnights; dads who love. As the Elián González case shows, dads like these are all around us, but they are still largely ignored and unacknowledged. Just as it took generations of distant fathers to create the stereotype of the deadbeat dad, it will take at least one generation of loving ones, if not more, to destroy it. Ultimately, the stereotypes of parenting will be changed only by creating new ones.

I was the one who went to the meetings with the teachers, I was the one who took them to the doctors. I was the biggest factor in their lives during our marriage, recalled Ezra Hunter, a 38-year-old San Francisco tour boat captain and high school basketball coach with custody of three daughters, ages 11, 8 and 7. I know I was going up against the whole stereotype of the black man who leaves his family. You knowHe can father kids, but not raise them.’ But I’m so competitive I took it as a kind of challenge. It made me live up to the task [of fatherhood after divorce] even more. I know that in my case I am a better man, a better father, alone. I learn more about myself and about my daughters every day. As long as we can stay open with each other, we’ve learned that we can fight through anything together.

Ezra Hunter and millions of other men are creating a new model of fatherhood that is transforming individuals, the shape of the American family and, ultimately, our society itself. We can only guess what the impact will be on children to have a generation of fathers who were there for the first step, the first solid food, the first soccer goal, the first date. In their devotion, their steadfastness and their joy, we already are seeing the effects on the fathers themselves. From across the divide of sexual politicsor in Elián González’s case, across the gulf of cold war politicsfathers are sending the message loud and clear: We matter!

It is a shame the American media are taking so long to catch up.

Jeff Gillenkirk is a San Francisco-based writer and author of the forthcoming book, Loving On Our Own: The Joys and Challenges of Fatherhood After Divorce.

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