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Being There : These are the 'new dads'--the ones in parenting groups, the ones taking an active role in their kids' lives. For some, it's a chance to make up for the distant fathering they knew.

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


Daniel Ben-Zvi, an attorney with a baby between his feet, glanced around the circle of dads gathered for the regular Sunday morning Daddy and Me group at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air. "I have a question," he said. "Is it important to have a bedtime?"

Usually, Ben-Zvi doesn't get home until 8:30 p.m., and then he wants to play with his daughter until midnight. "I know what my wife and her friends say, but I want to know," the newcomer asked the veterans, "how serious is it?"

A father of two advised him: "When the kid gets to preschool, it can be a problem. Then they need more sleep." Psychologist and group leader Jeff Marsh added that Ben-Zvi had better start implementing the earlier bedtime now or else it will be hard to establish a routine later. It wasn't what Ben-Zvi wanted to hear, but he accepted the men's advice with a nod.

Away from their wives, mothers and mothers-in-law, men are teaching one another how to father--their way--in fathering programs across the country.

In recent years, pioneering groups such as Marsh's 13-year-old Daddy and Me have been joined by a variety of other programs, including a Boot Camp for New Dads in Irvine; the Fathers' Resource Center in Minneapolis, with workshops on parenting, teen fathering, male responsibility and anger, and the Bellevue, Wash.-based National Fathers' Network for fathers with special-needs children. Some classes are held in the workplace, in churches or in prisons. Some fathers are meeting via computer networks.

Fathering programs differ significantly from fathers' rights groups. "Our mission is to provide men with inner resources to be the kind of father that children need," said Cris Harper, parenting educator at the Fathers' Resource Center, which receives about 250 calls a day from men who want to be more involved in their children's lives but don't know how.

According to researchers, the social shift toward a more nurturing father has been slow but steady. Most families still operate with a psychic division of labor; even though fathers may help out more than they used to, mothers feel they are ultimately responsible.

Studies show that few fathers take advantage of federal laws guaranteeing them parental leave. At the same time, one in five fathers of preschoolers now stays home to care for children while the wife works, an increase of 30% in three years.

Researchers said the new wave of "new dads" is driven by economics, practicalities and wives who insist. They include men who want to compensate for the distant fathering they experienced, and those who want to convince a custody judge that they can handle the job.

They all sign up for programs assuming that good dads, if not born, can be made.

Part of what they learn is no different from what any parenting class teaches about colic and teething, stages of child development, discipline and communication. But some leaders say the fathers don't want to be "co-ed moms"; they have unique issues and require a distinctly masculine approach.

"I've never used the term nurturing , nor will I," said Greg Bishop, who has taught father-infant bonding to 500 dads in five years at his Boot Camp for New Dads at the Irvine Medical Center. "I don't think it sells."

A father of four, Bishop said he presents parenting to men as a challenge. "Throughout history men have responded to challenges. It used to be men built bridges, fought wars, took that hill. We've discovered the hill is in our own back yard."

For instance, Bishop shows men how to use their upper body strength to hold a baby in front of them. He demonstrates how to tape a used diaper so it can be thrown like a football into the trash.

Involved fathers can still assume their traditional role of protector, Bishop said, by making sure new mothers get proper attention from doctors and by strictly enforcing visiting hours with in-laws. He tells them that they must assert themselves if women in the family assume that they are more competent and push the men away from baby care. He believes that many divorces can be traced to that crucial moment when the dads begin to drift away.


In Marsh's Daddy and Me class, fathers share information after playing with their toddlers and eating snacks hunched over in tiny chairs. Typically, they complain about stress over work conflicts and lack of time. But if a group has been meeting long enough, deeper personal issues begin to surface.

Some talk about their own fathers with wistful regret. Marsh said they wish their fathers had played with them more, taught them more, said "I love you" at least once.

Marsh said that when a father first notices his child smiling directly at him, a bond develops that "usually blows a man right out of the water. It's bigger than what they see in the birth room. What they see is unconditional love. For most men, it's like shooting pure heroin."

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