As more fathers get more involved in raising their children, they belie the perception of earlier generations that men aren't capable of nurturing. In some cases, they become their children's primary caregiver and meet the challenge of being a single parent.
For years, TV writers Michael Weinberger and his wife Jakie were busy doing what they liked most: raising their three sons and writing together. "We were just normal people, taking our kids to ball games: soccer games, basketball games," he says. "We were also writers for TV, a lot of family shows like Happy Days, Saved by the Bell and Growing Pains."
That all ended when Jakie was diagnosed with a terminal disease and passed away at the age of 46. Weinberger became a single parent, and discovered it wasn't an easy job. "I had no 'mother genes," he says. "I was the kind of a man who would walk in a room and see towels on the floor, but I'd never see them do anything about them. I'd step over dirty clothes. All of a sudden, all that kind of mothering, the female side had to come out of me. At the beginning, I'd just wait on line at a drive-through hamburger place 3 or 4 times a day. Then, I learned how to cook."
However, chores like keeping the house clean and tidy or cooking, he says, were not his top priority. Taking care of his kids' emotional needs was. "My job was just to nurture the kids and make it as easy for them so they felt secure and loved, because it's a real abandonment when your mom dies," he says. "I learned how to handle my kids, each kid specifically. Like one kid, I have to listen to him, listen really intently. Another son just needed to be touched lightly. He'd be reassured just by a light touch. And my other son, Joe, really acts out. He'd yell, scream and fight. And the trick with him was never move in too soon. Let him get it all out, then grab him, and hold him."
Honing their communicating skills will help single fathers nurture their kids, according psychologist Anthony Wolf. "Women, traditionally, are a little better at listening," he says. "What fathers maybe are not as good at as they should be is just to have time when they are they are with their kids and the kids are talking about whatever they want to talk about. And the father is not working to try to make some point to it, but just hearing the kids describe what's going on in their lives. That goes a long way toward kids feeling that they are nurtured. It really is something that's very important to kids."
Single dads can learn those parenting skills 'on the job,' says Armin Brott, author of Father for Life: A Journey of Joy, Challenge and Change. "You don't have to take a whole bunch of parenting classes," he says. "You don't have to ask everyone you know how to do everything. You just jump in and your kids will pretty much tell you what they need. Not that they will come right out and say it, but you'll know if you pay attention to what they are doing. Moms, if they are better in parenting in some ways, the reason why that happened was because they made a lot of mistakes and they figured out a lot of things that just didn't work. That's what Dads are going to have to do, too."
Though today's fathers are more involved in their kids' lives than fathers were 50, 40 even 30 years ago, Brott says the biggest challenge facing single fathers is still the lack of social support. "People look at dads who are taking care of their kids as being odd," he says. "Fathers who take their kids to the park in the middle of the day, for example, often get funny looks from women who are there, as though there is something wrong with these men. There is more support, more encouragement, more help out there for single moms than for single dads. This is not to say that it's not difficult to be a single mom, but I think it's a little bit easier to be a single mom because of the support issue."
To get single fathers the support they need, Brott suggests a change in the way fathers are often portrayed in the media. "In commercials, TV programs and movies, most of the fathers that you see are really kind of complete idiots," he says. "They are not anybody that the wife would take seriously, and the kids don't take them seriously. They are sort of there for comedy. What's happening is the little boys are growing up watching that and saying, 'I don't want to be a dad when I grow up because people are going to laugh at me.' Little girls are watching and they are saying, 'there is no sense of having an involved dad around because I can do it myself anyway.'"
Changing that negative image, he says, will encourage men to be caring fathers and make society more accepting and supportive. And, experts say, with more 'family-friendly' arrangements at work, such as flexible scheduling, family leave and telecommuting, fathers, especially single dads, will find the support and time they need to take better care of their kids.