About a decade ago, while David and his wife were in the process of getting a divorce, she unexpectedly died of heart-related problems. Overnight, David was faced with perhaps the biggest challenge of his life: Raising his 12-year-old daughter, Leslee, on his own.
In this era of "alternadads," fatherhood isn't always what it used to be. Not only are there more single dads like David than ever before, there are so many divorced dads, older dads, gay dads, and stepdads that Norman Rockwell would have to adjust his depictions of American life if he were working at his easel today.
In fact, "alternative" parenting may actually be today's mainstream. Only a minority -- 38%, to be exact -- of children born in the last three years of the 20th century will reach the age of 18 having lived most of their lives with both of their biological parents.
"About 15 years ago, we began to see courts awarding more men custody of their children in divorce actions," says Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Your Own Therapist. "That turned the tide, and it's now more acceptable for single men and gay men, for example, to raise children without wives."
In a Family Way
David soon found that untraditional fathering can work just as well as the familiar "Leave it to Beaver"-style family life, although it is brimming with challenges. "It's tougher being a single dad than a single mom," he says. "Society looks at single motherhood as a natural state. But when it looks at a single father, it says, 'The child belongs with the mother.'"
Like many single dads, David took his role as a do-it-all dad seriously. He quit his job in the insurance industry and became a work-at-home father -- currently as a developer of Internet sites, including one of his own called Fatherworld.com. "Initially, I had tried to maintain a regular work schedule in an office," he says, "but I was constantly running home to cook meals or go to school functions. So I made a conscious decision to work at home."
Although he concedes that single parenthood is more difficult than a two-parent household, he credits his successful childrearing to keeping the lines of communication open with his daughter. "But she also always understood that the parent has the final decision after issues are talked out," he says.
Chips Off the Old Block
Although our culture tends to think of mothers as better nurturers than dads, a University of Arizona study concluded that the depth of the love that men feel for their children is no less than women have for their offspring. And when problems occur with children, fathers may be the missing link.
Kyle Pruett, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School and the Yale Child Study Center, says that fathers are "the single greatest untapped resource" in the lives of America's children. The earlier that fathers become involved in their youngsters' lives, the better, he says, noting that infants are "prewired" for attachment to both parents.
According to data from the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, there are 62% more single fathers than there were a decade ago, and they head more than 2 million households. However, they are still far outnumbered by single mothers (about 7.5 million), although the parental concerns among men and women are almost identical. A study of single fathers in the Air Force found that their worries centered around issues such as child discipline, maintaining a balance between work and family, finding good day care, and lack of adult support.
Though dads can do just fine raising daughters on their own, "they should try to ensure that there are women in the child's life who can be healthy role models," says Farrell. "These women can be friends or relatives who the daughters can talk and relate to."
Make Room for Daddy
Just as single fathers are climbing in numbers, so are older dads in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s. Although some of these aging fathers may find it more challenging to keep up with the activity levels of their kids, they might also be better prepared for fatherhood in some ways.
"Compared with younger fathers, older fathers tend to be a little more stable in the workplace and in their emotional lives, and their children are able to take more of the center stage in the lives of these men," says Pruett, author of Fatherneed. Researchers at Haverford College in Pennsylvania found that older dads are more likely to play and read with their offspring, and are more demonstrative in hugging and praising their children.
The population of gay fathers is on the rise as well, with about 10% of homosexual men having children of their own. Studies show that they tend to be as well-adjusted developmentally and psychologically as children of heterosexual fathers and are likely to be accepting of their father's sexual orientation.
All in the Family
Whether you're a father who is young or old, or whether your fathering style leans more toward Ozzy Osbourne than Ozzie Nelson, the basics of parenting really are quite similar. For example:
- Be forgiving of your mistakes in parenting, advises Farrell. "Don't expect to be a perfect parent, because there are no perfect parents," she says. "Just be the best parent you can." Your children will gain the gift of understanding that it's OK to be imperfect and to learn from mistakes.
- "'Quality time' is a myth," argues Pruett. "We all hope that when we've been away for four days and get home on Friday night ready to take our 9-year-old out for pizza and a movie, it's going to be quality time." But surveys of school-age children, he adds, show that what youngsters really want is for their fathers to be less stressed and less overworked. "They want more peaceful parents," he adds, as well as regular family time just to "hang out" with their fathers, protected from their dad's work and stress.
- Think carefully about what you want to give your youngsters besides money, says Pruett. A lot of men feel that their fathering is reflected most directly through their capacity to provide, but children are looking for more from you, he adds. Ask yourself and act upon questions such as, "Do you want to give your child your sense of values? Your politics? Your passion for fishing? Your ability to love?"