Sunday, July 8, 2007

Daddy Track

As society acknowledges that men can be great parents, the number of single fathers is on the rise. So what is life like for men juggling career, family, and home? A lot like life for single moms.

(Photo by Tim Llewellyn)

By Anne Jarrell | July 8, 2007

When Keith Mochida and his wife split up nearly 10 years ago, she wanted to explore life beyond motherhood. So Mochida got the mortgaged-to-the-hilt house, a hefty car payment, and the two kids. "Panic is how I'd describe it," says the 39-year-old Chelmsford computer engineer. "Suddenly I had $1,200 a month in day care on top of everything else." To manage, Mochida downsized to a three-bedroom rental home and a Hyundai in the driveway. But he was prepared to roll with the changes, he says. "Being a father didn't come with any criteria like I had to have a wife."

Ed Antos, 54, found that he had to switch careers after winning sole custody of his two daughters in late 2002. No longer able to make time for the commute from Merrimac to his job at Harvard University in Cambridge, he became a sales representative working from home. As for his social life, he has spent many Friday nights watching the Disney Channel and making tuna melts or attending Lowell Spinners games instead of the Red Sox. "Seeing them thrive is worth it," says Antos of his girls, a National Honor Society scholarship winner and a competitive swimmer.

And Jay Portnow, a doctor who works in Brockton, cut a deal to ensure he didn't get cut out of his sons' lives when he divorced 12 years ago. His oldest boy, then 10, lived with him full time, his youngest, then 7, half the time, and, according to the terms of his settlement, he paid his former wife above and beyond what a court would order. Now, he is not only paying $33,000 a year in child support but also willingly pays two private-college tuitions with no help from his former wife, who works as a nurse. "There will be repercussions," says Portnow, 61. "I can pay the bills, but I have little in my retirement account. But I have no regrets."

In the last 30 years, as women have made gains toward achieving equality in the workplace, men have done the same on the home front. Across the United States, the number of households headed by single fathers almost doubled between 1990 and 2006, from 1.15 million to 2.1 million - or 20 percent of all single-parent families, US Census Bureau figures show. No longer willing to accept that the mother should automatically look after the children - the "pay up and shut up" narrative in divorce - fathers now are competing more aggressively for custody and are winning cases. In an April 2006 survey, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 22 percent of its 1,600 members are seeing a rise in cases in which a father wins sole custody, a trend that Massachusetts lawyers and judges say they are also seeing, along with a rise in joint or shared custody arrangements.

"Society is really changing," says Rosanna Hertz, a Wellesley College professor of sociology and women's studies. "What we're seeing is more and more men stepping up to the plate." At the same time, those dads are discovering what single mothers have long known: Along with offering rewards, the job requires sacrifices.

There are many reasons why men become custodial parents. A mother may move to remarry or for work. The father may live in the better school district. It may be the housing situation. Or the father may remarry, and his new wife provides much-needed help in child-rearing duties. To be sure, some single dads have no other option; the mother may be unable to fulfill parenting responsibilities. But many men say they choose to raise their children themselves. "I always wanted kids; I come from a family of nine," says Chris Broderick, 46, who lives with his three young children in a two-family house in Roslindale that his mother owns. Chelmsford dad Mochida says he had a tumultuous upbringing (he ended up living with a grandfather in Texas), and he wants to provide stability for his children - including a third child from a second relationship - no matter what.

Changes in societal views on gender and parenting roles that let dads take on child-rearing duties are "very positive" for men, women, and children, says Susan Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, a social-science research arm of Wellesley College. "Absolutely, there are situations where the father is the best caretaker. Is it always terrible that a mother is not caring for her children? No." What children need, Bailey says, are adequate financial and emotional resources - in short, a stable environment, and that is not contingent on gender or biology.

Martin Whyte, a sociologist at Harvard University, says that the shift in gender roles in parenting is in line with society's growing acceptance of same-sex marriages and adoptions by gay parents. "The culture is in the midst of reorganization, but it is still difficult for men to venture into female territory," he says. Donna Booth, a Saugus divorce lawyer, says that the change is difficult for women, too. Even in divorces where a mother has been the family breadwinner and the father has stayed home, a lot of women who come into her office, Booth says, insist on fighting for sole custody. "It takes a brave woman to go for another arrangement."

Changing custody law to acknowledge the importance of a father in a child's life is the bottom line of the fathers' rights movement, which has been growing steadily and agitating increasingly in the last decade or so, not only in the United States but also abroad. To publicize their cause, activists embrace a range of tactics, from flamboyant stunts like scaling Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman, as Jason Hatch of Fathers 4 Justice did two years ago, to peaceful rallies and vigils like the one the group held this spring at the Massachusetts State House. At the grass-roots level, the movement sponsors support and consciousness-raising groups reminiscent of the ones the women's movement organized 30 years ago.

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