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The Good Father? : Getting men more involved in their children's lives has been an issue since the Industrial Revolution took them to jobs outside the home. But what exactly does that involvement entail? Some say the ideal father is a traditional authority figure. Others emphasize flexibility and 50-50 partnerships with mothers.

REINVENTING DAD: Fatherhood at a Crossroads * First in a series

March 01, 1995|LYNN SMITH | 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."

*

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?

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