Monday, March 15, 1999

Make Room for Daddy

After years of coaching men how to be good fathers, Armin Brott argues that Dad still gets no respect

Time Magazine

When Armin Brott's first child, Tirzah, was very young, someone asked her what her father did. She answered without hesitation: "He washes the dishes." Brott, 40, an athletic ex-Marine and the Berkeley, Calif., author of a series of hugely popular books on fatherhood, didn't set out to be the superdad's superdad. When Tirzah was born eight years ago, he was working as a contract negotiator for a shipping company and thought business was his calling. But he found himself taking more time off and, over his employer's objections, bringing his little girl to work on occasion. Then in 1992 he wrote a short essay for Newsweek that set the course of his new career. Lamenting the absence of positive father figures in children's literature, the piece drew enormous response from readers.

Brott went on to write three helpful how-to books for Abbeville Press, beginning with The Expectant Father and followed by The New Father and A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years. Topics ranged from providing expectant mothers with emotional support and helping babies cope with colic to establishing college funds and selecting life insurance. But his recently released fourth book is a sea change, moving away from the practical and toward the political. Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be, co-authored with Ross D. Parke (Houghton Mifflin), is tinged with resentment and launches a multipronged attack on what Brott feels is a lingering bias against the male parent who would rather fix his children's breakfast than get a head start on the morning commute. "Margaret Mead once said fathers are a biological necessity but a social accident," Brott and Parke write. "Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, our culture has been trying very hard to make this statement a reality."

At a time when female pop stars are having kids by seemingly disposable men and deadbeat dads are replacing welfare queens as the favorite social villains, Brott wonders, perhaps legitimately, if fathers are a new endangered species. Of men who fail to pay child support, he and Parke write, "But while the image of uncaring, selfish, abandoning men dominate[s] the media, one question remains unexplored: Have these men really run away from their families or are they being chased away?" The two describe the plight of Lloyd R., a divorced father of two who fell behind in support payments when he broke his leg and was forced onto workers' comp. When Lloyd got back on his feet, his wages were garnisheed and his tax refund was seized. Villain or victim?

As it happens, as of two years ago, Brott himself is a divorced father of two (his fifth book, The Single Father, comes out in April). That may explain his sympathy with men who are prevented by zealous tax collectors, bitter ex-wives and mother-favoring judges from doing all they would like to for their offspring. Fortunately, Brott and his ex-wife Andrea have reached a mutually satisfying arrangement. They live about a mile apart and divide custody strictly down the middle. Brott is proud that his daughters arrive at his home, which is amply stocked with their personal belongings, with nothing but "the clothes on their back, their backpack and their lunchbox."

Not all divorced dads are so happy with their lot. In Throwaway Dads' most strident chapter, Brott and Parke (a professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside) take aim at a new syndrome known as SAID, or sexual allegations in divorce. Citing studies showing that 75% to 80% of these divorce-related allegations are false, Brott and his co-author trace the cozy relationship between counselors who coax abuse charges from frightened kids and the social-service programs that pay them for eliciting horror stories. "By viewing men with suspicion and fear, we are driving them farther away from their families," write Brott and Parke.

So what sort of dad is Brott when he's not washing dishes? Sitting in a fast-food steakhouse with Tirzah, now a third-grader, and Talya, a kindergartner, all theory dissolves. Laughing with the girls as they create minor chaos, Brott is clearly more permissive than some moms might be. "This is not a stylish kind of thing," he says. "I don't think it's going to 'help me pick up chicks.' I do it because I love doing it." Still, there's unresolved anger eating at Brott. For men like him--the sensitive superdads so longed-for by women--will trying to be the best that they can be ever be enough?