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Men Can't Be Good Dads If Moms Block the Way


Efforts to shift the focus of social problems from single mothers to absent fathers have reached a crescendo. Policymakers have developed new initiatives and strategies including a memorandum from President Clinton directing all federal agencies to include fathers in their programs. Public service announcements from the Fatherhood Initiative show a roaring lion protecting his cubs. The Million Man March and the Promise Keepers have attracted thousands of cheering men, eager to reattach themselves to family life.

There's only one small matter the enthusiastic fathers have ignored: mothers.

Leaders--women leaders--have been arguing recently that despite the new programs and the public breast-beating, the new fatherhood just isn't going to happen without women. As family historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead puts it, "Men can't be fathers unless the mothers of their children allow it."

In real life, mothers have been in charge of families since the 19th century when men went off to work in cities and factories and women stayed home, sometimes with a servant or two, to nurture and discipline the children. Many people, mostly women, still believe that women do a better job of raising children and don't really need men. In a 1994 National Opinion Research survey, women split 50-50 on the question: "Can one parent bring up a child as well as two parents together?" Men disagreed by more than a 2-1 margin.

Sheila Tucker, director of a Head Start program in Baltimore that is trying to involve more fathers, said many mothers, still hurt by a relationship that ended badly, see the eager fathers as using the movement to polish their public image. "They say, 'You don't want to be seen as the father who abandoned his children and family. This is just a public relations campaign.' "

Sometimes, men pumped up from marches, come home and sign up for every committee at school, triggering a competition between the parents.

When she divorced 10 years ago, Jacqueline Gonner admitted she was mostly interested in child support for her three children. "I was the one taking care of them. It was easier to not have him involved than to have him involved."

She changed her mind, she said, through Baltimore's St. Bernadine's Head Start and Early Learning Center where she is now family service coordinator.

Through a family life program that uses mediators and sometimes brings in grandparents and friends, she learned how important fathers are to daughters as well as to sons. She also learned how to show her ex-husband how to become involved. She said she took responsibility for informing him of the good and the bad, at school and at home. She was determined to include him in decisions regarding the children.

Whitehead argues that the growing separation of the sexes, instead of encouraging parents to work together, only makes matters worse. "It's a fine line and it worries me to see this separatism played out in the cultural movements that have positive goals," she said. For the fatherhood movement to work, she contends, it needs to recognize that working mothers need help around the house, that men and women have vastly different definitions of intimacy, and that men and women need to understand that a parenting relationship involves obligations and sacrifices on all sides.

And like it or not, before fathers can come back home, mothers will have to open the door.

"Ten years ago, I didn't think things could be different," Gonner said. Now, "It's almost unbelievable." Her ex-husband has seen the children regularly even when he couldn't pay the entire child support he owed. They share decisions. "He's come a long way and I think he's an excellent parent," she said.

"Some of that had to do with who I am. My main focus was that my children have a relationship with their father and never have to choose between two parents."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please include a telephone number.

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