A Revolution in American Fathering

father reading to son Copyright © Corbis
by Jeff Gillenkirk

I was raised by my mom, and later on my stepfather, and I always wondered why my dad didn’t come around. As a kid I used to think, it’s because of me. He’s not coming around because I’m inadequate or something — he doesn’t like me, he doesn’t love me. Later, my mom and I talked about it and she said, “well, I didn’t want him coming around.” And I said, “I don’t give a damn what you say, you couldn’t keep me away from my kids. I’m going to see my kids.” I can’t understand someone who doesn’t feel like that. — Ezra ‘Sly’ Hunter.

Today a quiet but thoroughly monumental revolution is taking place in the American family. The number of fathers solely responsible for the care of their children is growing at a rate almost twice that of single mothers. Fully one-fifth of single parents today are single fathers — more than 2 million of them. This is up from 1970, when single mother families comprised approximately 90 percent of the single family population. Among minorities, the rate of increase is as high, or higher: between 1970-1995, the rate of African-American single dads increased 329%; for Hispanic single fathers, 450%. And though the media almost always focus on mothers when portraying working single parents, nearly 30 percent of working single parents are now men.

In addition, presumed joint custody — or shared custody by both parents of children of divorce — is now the law of the land in at least 40 states. Why are these changes occurring now? In many respects, because they had to. The startling failure rate of American marriages, with more than half now ending in divorce, means an equally startling rise in the number of new single parents and fathers with joint custody. That a large number of single parents turn out to be fathers is perhaps due to some law of averages, but research shows that it has much to do with the changing nature of family and nurturing in this country. With more women in the workplace than ever before — 68% of women with children under 18 — divorce courts in most states are not simply awarding custody and care of children to mothers by default, as they have in the past. In some cases, the mother has neither the time, nor the will, to care full time for her offspring. In other cases, she may not have the financial means

Ironically, the gradual progress towards leveling the playing field for women at work has resulted in slowly leveling the playing field at home. More men than ever are acting as stay-at-home dads — as many as 2 million of them, surveys show. Urged for years to take more of a hands-on role within their marriages, many fathers have done just that, and it’s changing the way men act after their marriages end. Through some critical mass — by choice, by court order, and by circumstance — fathers are deciding to be real fathers. They are changing their lives, and in a very real way, changing the face of the American family. I know. I am one of them.

A New Measure of Manhood

Prior to the breakup of my marriage, I was a thoroughly hands-on father for our infant son while my Ex completed her medical residency. While she wrestled with 36 hour shifts, arrogant surgeons, and punishing rotations in pediatrics, internal medicine and psychiatry, I conquered poopy diapers, runny noses, clammy hands and a growing child’s insatiable need for stimulation. My day revolved around my son and the schedule of Gloria, the sweet Oaxacan woman who cared for Lucas between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. so I could get at least a minimum amount of work done. In the afternoons I took him to local parks, shopped, hiked, cooked, cleaned and read with him. I put him down for his nap and got him up, fed him, burped him, giggled and galloped with him. I was the one who took him to the pediatrician’s for his first sets of shots, and held his sobbing body tight to mine after the deep shock of needles.

I felt pretty odd, at first; intensive New Age fathering didn’t fit my personal definition of manhood. I had been taught to measure other men, and myself, by the size of my income, not the number of hours I swung my son at the playground, or sat up with him in the middle of the night. I was usually the only daddy on the streets at 3:00 p.m. on weekdays, wheeling a stroller through my neighborhood. At the park, it was often myself, Lucas, and half a dozen young Latinas watching my neighbors’ kids. Some afternoons, sitting on a windswept bench trying to read the New York Times while Lucas scooted around in the sand, I’d look around the park and wonder what the hell I was doing.

It came to me slowly, but it was simple, really. I was undertaking the most elemental, and indispensable, human-to-human, individual-to-society activity there is: I was raising a child. This was the true natural order of things. On the quiet, fatherless streets of my neighborhood, I was experiencing the ancient rhythms and wisdom that every good mother, everywhere, knows (and men, in other eras, knew as well): of socializing a human being. Being a father felt like the most direct biological/spiritual/existential link with the destiny of my species. This was God’s call to be a mentor, a guide, a Virgil to my son’s Dante — provider to provided, learned to learner, experience to the inexperienced. It seemed an enormous task, but absolutely essential. I took to it hungrily.

Then, when our marriage broke up, my Ex filed for primary custody of our son. To go through the pain and disruption of marital separation and then have my relationship with my child threatened carried all the terror and helplessness of a nightmare. Lucas was my buddy, my dream, my son. When I was depressed, he lifted me; lonely, he filled me; angry, he led me back to what was important — finger paints, tricycle rides, gathering blackberries on the hillside behind our house. Awakening in the morning to him singing “Frere Jacques” from the warm folds of his bed, or in the evenings when he snuggled against me as I read bedtime stories to him, I could no more imagine living without him than living without my legs. I still cry sometimes when he’s not with me, and smile deliriously just watching him concentrate on his coloring, cutting an apple, or steering his bicycle down the sidewalk. “Stop laughing at me!” he’ll shout. “I’m not laughing at you,” I say. “I’m smiling because I love you.”

Perhaps because I came to fatherhood later in life (I was 44 when we adopted Lucas), fighting for my son, no matter how unpleasant a task, seemed like a no-brainer. What relationship is more important than the one with my child — with my tennis buddies, my reading group, my business partners? This battle was not just for my son’s future — it was for mine. I deeply miss Lucas when he’s not here. I’m wracked with guilt when I don’t have time for him. If this is the maternal instinct, I — and millions of other men — have caught it. It feels to me, however, what `paternal‘ is supposed to feel, but a whole new form of paternalism, where men — as women surge into the workplace — demand to be part of the lives of their children.

We’re not just talking episodes of Cosby here. As my own experience and interviews with single fathers show, the hearts of men — and the face of parenting — are changing before our eyes. This is about fathers crying, cooking, being afraid, braiding hair, waiting with children at the doctor’s office, the principal’s office, after school at the soccer field. The bottom line is, more and more men are choosing to be hands-on, hearts-on fathers than ever before. It’s hard work, for sure. The lack of time, sleep, adult stimulation and companionship all speak strongly against it. But the inner rewards of a day-in, day-out relationship with your children have no parallel. Fatherhood is something I would fight for, as previous generations of men fought for God, country or the right to be rich. If I can’t love, nurture, and care for my own child, what does that say about me? And if society, or the legal system, won’t help me, what does that say about them?

Everyone Benefits

More and more men, myself included, are appreciating a world beyond work and public success which they have traditionally used to define their life’s purpose — the world of toothless smiles and gravity-defying first steps, clingy hugs, a new color mixed, a shoelace tied, a pretty dress or pair of pants put on right, an egg cracked cleanly in two. A recent Gallup Poll found that a majority of American men — 59 percent — derive a greater sense of satisfaction from caring for their family than from a job well done at work. For many men this satisfaction is what helps them transcend the loss of a mate, or makes the oftentimes searing custody battles worth fighting.

This phenomenon cuts across socioeconomic and racial boundaries. Interviews with poor, unmarried fathers in Philadelphia produced the unexpected finding that not only are fathers important for their children, but children are enormously important in the lives of their fathers. “We asked them what their lives would be like without their children,” said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “We expected them to say their lives would be so much easier, but they said, `I’d be dead or in jail,’ even if they’re not involved with those children. Children have tremendous importance for fathers.”

The law is beginning to catch up as well. Divorce laws of more and more states are taking into account the importance of children maintaining relationships with dads as well as moms after divorce. The more than 40 states which now presumptively call for joint custody of children is an enormous change. Just twenty years ago the default to motherhood was such a foregone conclusion that few men bothered to challenge the standard “every other weekend and two weeks in summer” visitation schedule customarily imposed on fathers.

It’s change long overdue. Of the sixty families studied for the seminal 1980 book, “Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce,” only three were joint custody. The rest were settled with primary physical custody to the mother. Authors Judith Wallerstein and Joann Kelly made some surprising discoveries about the consequences of these policies by studying them from the point of view of the children, not the divorcees.

“In our study, two-thirds of the youngsters were seeing their fathers at least twice a month. Their visits were thus at a level deemed `reasonable’ [by prevailing custom and the courts], yet during our initial interviews, children expressed the wish for increased contact with their fathers with a startling and moving intensity. The poignancy of their reactions is astounding, especially among the six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds,” Wallerstein/Kelly concluded. “They cry for their daddies — be they good, bad, or indifferent daddies. I have been deeply struck by the distress children of every age suffer at losing their fathers.”

I thought about giving up my own custody battle — for about two minutes. I’m certain my Ex expected I would, and I suspect that a majority of Americans expect most men to do just that. After all, the predominant image in the media today of fathers-without-mates is still the absentee dad, the deadbeat dad, the career-at-all-costs dad. A title search at the San Francisco Public Library on “Fathers,” “Single Fathers” and “Single Dads” yielded a litany of woeful titles such as No Fathers, Fatherless America, God, Where’s My Daddy? Daughters Without Dads, The Fatherless Generation, Do I Have a Daddy?, When Is Daddy Coming Home?, Mothers Alone. When the star of early television’s “Father Knows Best” show, Robert Young, died, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a cartoon of two children sitting side-by-side before a television screen with Young’s image. “What’s Father Knows Best?” one child asks. “What’s a Father?” the other responds.

  • A father is the stay-at-home dad divorced by a high-powered corporate attorney who fights for — and wins — full custody of his two girls in a Florida appeals court.
  • A father is the California contractor who drove 12 hours every two weekends to be with his son, then won sole custody after 14 years.
  • A father is the retail executive who quit his job after his wife abandoned him and his two children, and took the same job he had as a teenager in a produce market in order to have the flexibility to care for his kids.These men were among the dozens I interviewed for my book, “No Such Thing as an Ex-Father: The Joys and Challenges of Fatherhood After Divorce.” Dads who stayed. Dads who work, clean, sing, cry, help with homework, who skip meetings to go on field trips or overnights. Dads who love. These kinds of Dads are all around us, but still largely ignored and unacknowledged. Just as it took generations of distant fathers to create the stereotype of the deadbeat dad, it will take at least one generation of loving ones, if not more, to destroy it. Ultimately, the stereotypes of parenting will be changed only by creating new ones.

    “I was the one who went to the meetings with the teachers, I was the one who took them to the doctors. I was the biggest factors in their lives during our marriage,” recalled Ezra Hunter, a 38-year-old San Francisco tour boat captain and high school basketball coach with custody of three daughters 11, 8 and 7. “I know I was going up against the whole stereotype of the black man who leaves his family. You know — `He can father kids, but not raise them.’ But I’m so competitive, I took it as a kind of challenge. It made me live up to the task [of fatherhood after divorce] even more. I know that in my case I am a better man, a better father, alone. I learn more about myself and about my daughters every day. As long as we can stay open with each other, we’ve learned that we can fight through anything together.”


    Ezra Hunter and millions of other men are creating a new model of fatherhood that is transforming individuals, the shape of the American family, and, ultimately, our society itself. We can only guess what the impact will be on children to have a generation of fathers who were there for the first step, the first solid food, the first soccer goal, the first date. In their devotion, their groundedness and their joy, we already are seeing the effects on the fathers themselves. From across the divide of sexual politics fathers are sending the message loud and clear: “WE MATTER!”

    It’s a shame it’s taking the American media so long to catch up.

    Jeff Gillenkirk is a San Francisco-based writer and author of the forthcoming book, “No Such Thing as an Ex-Father: The Joys and Challenges of Fatherhood After Divorce.” He last wrote for “America” about divisions in the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.

    This piece first appeared in the Nov. 4, 2000 issue of America Magazine, and is copyright © 2000 by Jeff Gillenkirk.