Deadbeat dads may dominate the headlines, but another type of father is quietly emerging: The fastest-growing type of family today is headed by a single father.
By DANA MILBANK Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal October 3, 1997, page B1
The number of single dads with custody of their children has exploded to 1.86 million in 1996 from 393,000 in 1970, according to Census Bureau surveys. There are still far more families headed by single mothers-9.86 million - but single-father families are growing at an annual rate of 10%, while the growth of single-mother families has leveled off and two-parent families have remained about the same. Altogether, 51% of families with children under 18 are headed by single fathers today, up from 1% a generation ago.
The shift toward custodial fathers is part of a broader societal change that has put more women oil the career track and given men more options at home. Changes in family law and welfare policy also are contributing to the increase. "It's a sea change in attitudes about parenting," says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University professor of public policy who led a National Institutes of Health committee on fathers.
Larry Rogow is a beneficiary of such changes. When he was married, he stayed at home to handle the child care because his wife, a computer-industry executive earned much more than he did as a concierge. When they divorced last year, there was no doubt that their four-year-old son would live mostly with dad. "It's important for her to have a career," says Mr. Rogow, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., and collects child support. "I define myself as a nurturer, as a woman would be. I won't feel I'm deprived in my life if I can't go out and have a career." His ex-wife, Susan Saalfeld, says "society is more accepting of men being the caregivers and women being the wage earners, and I personally agree with that."
Some dads regarded as single by the Census Bureau aren't really alone. Twenty-three percent of the single fathers from the bureau's survey live with unmarried partners - in some cases, with the children's mothers. (Census officials say families with two unmarried parents make up only a small fraction of the 23% and don't alter the overall trend.)
Demographers say there is little doubt that the upward surge in single-father families reflects a powerful change. Popular culture and marketers are taking note. A record five sitcoms in the new television season, including Tony, Danza's latest, are based on custodial fathers.
The Web site for Procter & Gamble Co.'s Tampax tampons has a section titled "When Dad Has To Be Mom: A father's guide to puberty." The Tambrands Web site explains that "with today's changing society, many fathers take on the role traditionally assumed by a mother." The guide touts some Tampax products, and offers advice like, "Most girls go through puberty between the ages of 9-17," and "If you and your daughter can keep the habit of sitting down and having a good talk, it will be easier to broach sensitive topics like menstruation and body changes."
Custodial fathers have formed virtual support groups on the Internet such as the Single and Custodial Fathers Network. And movements like the Promise Keepers, a Christian group that is marching Sunday in Washington, are rallying men around issues like taking a bigger role in family life.
Child-support crackdowns and state and federal efforts to require women on welfare to help find fathers are playing a role as well. James Coppla, for example, initially denied he was the father when a former girlfriend told him she was pregnant. But state authorities in Massachusetts went after Mr. Coppla in Texas, forcing him to take a paternity test and pay child support. Mr. Coppla returned to Massachusetts and decided to undertake a lengthy, but ultimately successful, battle for custody of his son. Now he's fighting to receive child support. Although he started out in denial, "I wouldn't trade [fatherhood] for the world now," he says.
As Mr. Coppla discovered, the law has become more friendly to paternal custody. Robert Mnookin, a Harvard Law School professor, says there has been a "substantial change" in state laws and judicial opinions away from a presumption in favor of the mother. "The overwhelming majority of states now simply have a best-interest-of-the-child standard," Prof. Mnookin says., Still, he says, fathers rarely win custody without, mothers' consent.
Is it in a child's best interest to go with dad? Researchers still are exploring the effects of father-only families on children. Because single-father households tend to be more affluent than single-mother households, some psychologists say the trend could help children - by keeping them away from such poverty-correlated conditions as violence, drug use and teenage pregnancy. In 1995, according to the Census Bureau's most recent statistics, 58% of mother-only families lived below 125% of the poverty line, which is about $1 9,500 for a family of four, while just 33% of father-only families did.
But any affluence advantage single fathers have may be offset by other factors, including women's superior experience in child-rearing. And some single fathers say that they and their children are even more isolated than single moms.
The experience of Tom Shellenberger, a California physician assistant, illustrates the tension between the financial benefit and the personal cost. He is convinced his three children are better off financially than if his ex-wife had them.
But taking the kids himself has also meant social ostracism. "My so-called friends," he says, disapproved of the unconventional arrangement. Friends stopped calling, and invitations dried up. He moved 50 miles away and started over. "I lost my entire community," he says.
The custodial fathers, particularly those with daughters, sometimes find their role unexpectedly difficult. Kent Hing-Cheung Abbott, a San Francisco librarian who divorced four years ago, loves being a dad, but is still adapting to the lifestyle.
He still doesn't have a dining table, so he and his second-grade daughter, Annie, sit on the floor and watch TV as they eat. When he plays dolls with Annie, "a lot of times the Barbies end up fighting, doing karate and stuff," Mr. Abbott says. He also confesses that Annie's hair is often messy and her clothes mismatched. "When we go to church I wonder what people will think, he says.
While single fathers have a financial advantage now, the number of poorer, never-married fathers who take custody of their children is rising. These fathers tend to step in because their girlfriends have disappeared or couldn't keep the children because of drugs or disability. Robert Weddington, a welfare dad in Yonkers, N.Y., cares for his son because the boy's mother, with whom Mr. Weddington had been living, has been hospitalized.
Mr. Weddington gave up his job as a baker to stay with the boy, and he wouldn't bear of having other relatives care for his son. After all, he grew up without his father, and aims to do better himself. "He's my responsibility, it's as simple as that," says Mr. Weddington.
One clear effect on parents - men and women alike - is a certain awkwardness in their new roles. When single father Mr. Abbott socializes with couples, he says, "I talk to the wives more than the husbands." From the other side, Ms. Saalfeld, Mr. Rogow's ex-wife, says the pull toward traditional motherhood "is something I have to deal with every day."