Boston Globe

Monday, July 5, 1999

Single fathers embrace role, fight stereotype

By Doris Sue Wong, Globe Staff, 07/05/99

Stephen Gandolfo was 41, unmarried, and doubtful he'd ever find the right partner. Yet he yearned to be a parent.

So he adopted a child.

He didn't know it, but that made the special needs teacher from Chelsea a member of the fastest-growing parenting group in the nation: single fathers.

US Census figures show the number of single fathers increased 25 percent - to 2.1 million - between 1995 and 1998.

Psychologists, family law specialists, and advocates for fathers see the trend as a natural extension of changing gender roles in the home and workplace.

''Men aren't being constrained by the worker role anymore,'' said Bob Maschi of the Fathers Group, a grass-roots advocacy group in Framingham. ''A lot more fathers are taking on the responsibility of parenting and society is letting them.''

There's been no one path leading men to single fatherhood.

Some gained custody of their children after being divorced (44 percent), separated (17 percent) or widowed (5 percent), according to the Census Bureau.

But many have never been married (35 percent).

''It is a growing population and, to some extent, an invisible and unrecognized one,'' said William Pollack, author of ''Real Boys'' and head of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital. ''Single dads don't get recognized for being nurturers.''

Indeed, some single fathers said they grapple with many of the same issues as single mothers - juggling work and family, tight finances, arranging child care, finding time for themselves.

But single fathers also said they wrestle with stereotypes of either being wonderful saviors at one extreme or bumbling incompetents at the other.

''There's a funny reaction from people that men can't do it,'' said Bruce Acker, 66, of Tamworth, N.H., who over the years has adopted seven racially mixed children, three of them since his wife died a decade ago.

Acker, a retired junior high school teacher, recalled that one of his sons had to have a dashiki made for an African dance program in which his fifth-grade class was participating.

''Three mothers called and offered to make it,'' huffed Acker. ''I said, `I can do that.' We went uptown and bought the material, and I used the stupid needle and thread and sewed it.''

Some single fathers, however, have felt trapped by their own - and other people's - images of them as heroes and superdads.

After Richard Nocera's hyperactive 4-year-old son moved in with him, ''everybody thought it was wonderful and everybody was so enamored of what I was doing.

''But I was dying inside,'' said the 54-year-old hair stylist from Newburyport. ''I didn't dare say `I'm making a mess of it, I'm going out of my mind.'''

Because men are socialized to be self-reliant, they often have a hard time seeking parenting advice, psychologists and single fathers said.

And once they finally resolve to get help, they find precious few programs designed for fathers.

A recent survey by the Children's Trust Fund found only 62 organizations in Massachusetts offering parenting support programs for fathers, compared with an estimated 620 for mothers. And half of the father programs were restricted to certain groups, such as fathers on probation or teenage fathers.

''Dads are really starting to want to be more than just the person who puts food on the table,'' said Jack Miller, associate director at the Children's Trust Fund.

''However, for whatever reasons, men, for the most part, never really receive any kind of parenting education at any point in their lives, which makes it more difficult to be effective and nurturing parents when they do have children,'' Miller said.

Plenty of studies have been conducted on children raised in single-mother homes; children tend to be at greater risk for poverty, low academic performance, teen pregnancy and criminal activity.

But researchers only are beginning to look at the 3.1 million children who now are being raised by single fathers.

Data compiled by the Census Bureau may hold some early clues: Children who live in single-father homes are twice as likely to be poor and to live in rental housing as children in two-parent homes. Single fathers are less likely to get child support than single mothers, but when they do get such payments, they tend to have higher total incomes ($30,030) than single mothers ($21,829).

Single fathers tend to think they pay a higher price in corporate cultures if they make their children a priority.

Lisa Levey, a consultant at Work Family Directions in Brookline, said, ''Men perceive if they were to ask for flexible hours it would derail their careers.''

But Levey said, ''The more men are asking for work-life supports, it will just expedite the pace at which companies will embrace these things.''

One thing single men and women have in common: Both tend to be vulnerable for substance abuse during their first year of single parenting, said Charles Gregg, author of ''Single Fatherhood: The Complete Guide.''

''They feel a lot of guilt, that they should always be attending to their children and shouldn't take a night for themselves,'' Gregg said. ''The first six months you are trying to do everything bigger than life and things start to fall apart. So you start with the scotch.''

Paul Cain of Newbury said the first several months after he gained custody of his four sons, now ages 3, 6, 9, and 12, were rough.

''I was petrified,'' said the 36-year-old respiratory therapist. ''I almost didn't think I could do it. I was depressed because I had all this responsibility and the kids were always fighting and I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing.''

Cain said he tried to parent by being a ''real disciplinarian,'' ordering the boys about and insisting the house be kept neat.

Finally, after 18 months of trying to cope on his own, Cain - at the urging of a state social worker - reluctantly joined a Parents Anonymous weekly support group.

Now, Cain said, '' At times the house looks like it exploded, but the kids aren't physically fighting anymore. They get along better than they ever did.''

Cain also has grown more confident. ''I may not be a perfect parent,'' he said. ''But I think I'm a real good parent.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/05/99.
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