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The New Fatherhood : Divorced or Widowed, More Men Are Taking on the Role of Single Parent--and It's Not All Like 'My Three Sons'

February 20, 1996|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Looking back, it was like the roof had fallen in and the floor had collapsed all at once. With no warning, Gordon Nash's wife announced she was leaving him and their young son:

"It was time to get on with her future--the part that mattered," he remembered her saying. She volunteered to take Calvin, as someone might volunteer to take a pet, but she was not sure how much time she could spend with him. She believed he would be fine staying with her parents in Dallas. Thank you, I said, calmly, reasonably. He would remain with me.

In that wrenching moment, a marriage died--and a single father was born.

Over the next few years, Nash would learn just how hard it is to take care of a young boy every day. He would try to juggle career and home responsibilities; to be the only parent on hand for any and all emergencies; to seek out new love for himself, with only mixed results.

In time, he would forge a powerful bond with his 4-year-old son. But meanwhile there would be sleepless nights and mornings of aching self-doubt. Was he up to this task?

"This is not the life I planned," he told a friend. "It's just what happened."

The story of Gordon Nash is fictional, told by Michael Grant Jaffe in his new novel, "Dance Real Slow" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). But it mirrors the real-life struggles of America's nearly 3 million single fathers and, along with a handful of other titles this spring, it offers a bracingly honest look at a phenomenon that is all too often ignored.

Beside Jaffe's novel, two nonfiction memoirs--"Another Way Home," by John Thorndike (Crown), and "The Last Magic Summer: A Season With My Son," by Peter Gent (Morrow)--chronicle the true stories of men who unexpectedly became single fathers. Meanwhile, "Single Fatherhood," by Chuck Gregg (Sulzberger and Graham), and "Family Man," by Scott Coltrane (Oxford University Press), take a sociological look at the changing face of fatherhood.

"I'd hesitate to call any of these new titles a trend," says Thorndike, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based writer. "But if anything, it shows there's a market for these books. There's a need."

Indeed, homes where single fathers care for children under 18 are the fastest-growing family group in America, and they currently include more than 9 million people, according to 1990 census data. The numbers are expected to swell by 2000, making the custodial dad less of a statistical freak and more of an everyday ingredient in the diversity of U.S. domestic life.

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Although most single parents are women--12.4 million were identified in the latest census--solitary fatherhood has come of age, fueled by more balanced child custody decisions in family courts, liberalized adoption rules and a breakdown of taboos against men becoming custodial parents, according to Coltrane, a UC Riverside sociology professor.

"There are changes here, with more men deciding not to remarry if they get custody of children," he says. "Some become single fathers after a spouse dies, but others do it because a wife decides she doesn't want to be a parent. Either way, the trend is noteworthy."

Yet it's often lost in the shuffle, given the badly fragmented picture of American men in the mass media. Contrary images abound: There's Deadbeat Dad, who wouldn't make a child support payment if his life depended on it; there's Promise-Keeper Dad, filling sports stadiums with born-again parental fervor; there's Democratic Dad, more willing than ever to share daily household and child-care responsibilities with his wife.

"You'd think people might focus on this [single fatherhood] a little more," says Gent, a former member of the Dallas Cowboys who wrote "North Dallas Forty" and is now a writer living in Bangor, Mich. "These fathers are real. There are more of us all the time."

Hollywood and Madison Avenue, however, have been slow to recognize the trend. At a time when single mothers are rotisseried on talk shows and tossed about like political footballs, fathers who become custodial parents are rarely discussed. Bookstores are crammed with "how-to" guides for single parents, yet they are invariably written from a woman's point of view.

Meanwhile, TV and movie portrayals of single dads seem light- years from reality. With the exception of "Kramer vs. Kramer" in 1979, the media have presented such men as lovable, bumbling oafs with few household responsibilities. The fathers on "My Three Sons," "Bachelor Father" and "The Andy Griffith Show" were amiable guys, but you never saw them dealing with angry 2-year-olds or working feverishly to plan a child's fifth birthday party.

More recently, films like "Three Men and a Baby" have made light of single fathers, lampooning their efforts to care for squalling infants. As for television advertising, the image of a solitary dad with his kids is virtually nonexistent, according to Coltrane.

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