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Dad's in charge: Ranks of fathers with custody of their children increase

The fastest growing type of family unit in the United States today is single men with custody of children 18 and younger

Monday, March 16, 1998

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In TV-land of the 1950s and '60s, single fathers were either widowers raising their own children or uncles raising somebody else's.

Guy Gordon relaxes at breakfast with daughters Jessica, 7, foreground, and Tiffany, 9, in their Ingram home. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr. Post-Gazette)

But if "Bachelor Father," "My Three Sons" or "Family Affair" were made today, John Forsythe's character would be divorced, Fred MacMurray's would be separated and Brian Keith's would be an unwed father, or perhaps a gay man who adopted Buffy and Jody.

Those real-life situations are fueling a dramatic increase in single men with custody of children under age 19 -- the fastest growing type of family in the United States today.

Their numbers have increased five-fold over the past quarter-century, from 393,000 in 1970 to 1.9 million in 1996, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's still only 5 percent of all family groups with children, but compared to 1 percent in 1970, it's a significant rise.

Single mothers continue to head five times as many families, or 9.9 million. But single-father households are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year while the growth of single-mother families has leveled off.

Of these fathers, 48 percent were divorced, 28 percent were never married, 18 percent were married but not living with their wives, and 5 percent were widowed. Two-thirds of them have another adult in the household -- a partner, parent or other relative.

Various factors are driving the increase in single-father families: more women in the workplace; more men taking an active role in their children's lives; more family courts slowly recognizing fathers as capable parents; and more fathers' rights groups applying pressure through the legal and political processes.

A slow shifting

Underlying it all is a gradual shift in attitudes about men's and women's roles, according to James Levine, director of The Fatherhood Project at The Family and Work Institute in New York City.

"Women are more involved in careers, often from the time their children are very young, and are starting to feel less guilty about not having custody after a divorce," Levine said.

"At the same time, many men no longer want to define themselves solely by their careers, and are getting more insistent about staying connected and engaged after a divorce."

Divorcing men hear horror stories about fathers who don't get to see their children any more, often because of child support disputes. So some have become more aggressive in seeking custody out of fear that, without it, they'll be reduced to visitors in their children's lives.

Fatherhood-by-default is also a factor, especially in the low-income, nonmarried population, where an increasing number of women are drug-dependent. In those cases, child welfare agencies often look to the father for custody.

More single men are adopting children, too. The phenomenon had its beginnings in the early 1970s when the number of adoptable children exceeded the number of married couples willing to take them.

There are so few of these men -- some gay, some heterosexual -- that the census bureau does not track them, but those who fit the profile no longer have to feel so alone. Levine has noticed gay fathers' groups sprouting up around the country, although some members have been divorced and are raising biological children.

The courts are changing too, albeit slowly.

"As more men come forward and say they want to be the custodial parent, more courts -- not many, but more -- are deciding that way," Levine said. "It's an evolution, not a revolution."

Single fathers also are getting more organized at the national and local levels, whether for purposes of mutual support or political lobbying. The local groups, though, tend to have high turnovers.

"Guys get fired up the midst of a divorce and need a group to support them," Levine said, "but they don't always have a lot of staying power, especially if they remarry."

Breaking stereotypes

John Sims of Point Breeze is remarried. Even so, he founded the Fathers Resource Center at the Parental Stress Center last October. Several years before that, he started the Single and Custodial Fathers Network, an on-line support group.

"I did it because there just wasn't anything out there for custodial fathers like me," said Sims, who is studying single fathers for his doctorate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Too many custodial fathers grapple in isolation with the emotional, logistical and physical demands of single parenthood, Sims said.

They have many of the same problems as single mothers -- scrambling for help when child care falls through, calling in sick at work when it's really the child who's ill, collapsing in exhaustion at the end of the day, worrying whether they're making the right decisions -- but they don't necessarily have a network of friends and family offering sympathy, advice and moral support.

Often, though, the public's image of single fathers doesn't include these day-to-day matters. Instead, it focuses on an unfair stereotype of the bitter man who wrested his children away from their mother in an acrimonious divorce.

"People think that if a father has custody it's because there was a big battle," Sims said. "That happens, but most people can't afford it. My story isn't that unusual. We are not all angry dads. Most of us just want to be involved with our children."

In 1994, Sims became custodial parent of his daughter, Becky, then 5 years old. Without going to court, he and his ex-wife agreed that he would have custody. Becky's mother, Priscilla Sims of McKees Rocks, has full visitation, sees her daughter often and, John Sims added, "she's never missed a support payment."

If only the rest of the world was as co-operative.

"When I enrolled Becky in parochial school, they must have asked me seven times where the mother was," Sims said. "My answer was, she's at work. They didn't accept that. They insisted on sending letters addressed to her mother. If I wanted to find out what was going on at school, I had to open my ex-wife's mail."

Mothers who give up custody are often good and loving parents, Sims emphasized, not the callous or crack-addicted women that the public tends to imagine.

"Numerous people have questioned why my ex-wife did what she did," he said, but the answer isn't that mysterious.

"I was in a better position. She was in the business world. I was in school, which gave me more time to spend with our daughter when she was young. I was living in a house owned by my parents. It just made more sense on a lot of levels."

Priscilla Sims, who had custody of two other children from a previous marriage, added another factor.

"By staying with her father, Becky would be in familiar surroundings, go to the same school and have the same friends," she said.

None of that would have mattered, though, if she hadn't believed her ex-husband would be a good custodial parent.

"I believed her father could provide a stable and nurturing environment," she said. "Becky's best interests were the most important thing."

'We're doing pretty well'

Every weekday morning, Guy Gordon gets his two daughters dressed, fed and off to school. Then he heads from their Ingram house to his job as a PAT bus driver working the 1-to-9 p.m. shift.

During his meal break, he calls the sitter's house to make sure the girls are doing homework and behaving themselves. On the way home, he picks them up at 9:30, gets them to bed, checks their backpacks and their homework.

"Passengers on my bus say things like,'Who does their hair?' I say I do it. I'm not too good at it, but if that's the only thing I'm not good at then I figure we're doing pretty well."

At least once a day, Gordon talks to another custodial father, Jack Winterbottom of Bloomfield. A city paramedic, Winterbottom has custody of his 16-year-old daughter; a 13-year-old daughter from another marriage also lives with him.

The two men talk about everything: recipes, schools, what the children did that day.

"Life is much easier when you have another father in the same position," Winterbottom said.

The number of men in the same position in Allegheny County is hard to pin down. Census figures for 1990 show just over 4,000 fathers living with their children but with no wife present. But there's no way of knowing how many had legal custody, and the number has probably grown along with the national trend of the past few years.

Winterbottom said he tried going to a meeting at the Fathers Resource Center, but didn't have much in common with the other men. Most didn't have custody of their children so their issues were different.

Single dads, he said, have more in common with single moms than with other divorced men whose children aren't living with them.

"You don't have time for a lot of things, especially yourself. You have to make a decision and there's no one there to talk it over with. You don't have as many friends as you used to. You can't just run out to the store for 15 minutes.

"I'm not complaining -- we get along just fine -- but it does give you a whole new perspective on what women have been going through for the longest time."

Gordon makes sure his girls are involved in plenty of activities: bowling, dance classes, softball, Brownies.

"I rely a lot on my mother for advice," he said. "I don't know what I'd do without her, especially with girl things, like when little boys are picking on them."

As for dealing with the birds and bees, Gordon said, "God help me when that comes up."

The last thing he wants is to look like a complainer.

"It's tough out there for all single parents," he said, "whether mothers or fathers. We're all doing what we have to do the best way we can."

What about the children?

As the number of single fathers with custody grows, researchers are trying to measure their effects on children. Currently 2.5 million children, or 4 percent of the child population, are parented primarily by their dads.

There's no question that men and women in general have different parenting styles, said Wade F. Horn, a clinical child psychologist and president of the National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg, Md.

Mothers tend to be more verbal, fathers more physical. Mothers encourage more caution and affiliation with the family, fathers encourage more risk-taking and independence from the family. Mothers are seen as stronger, comforting figures by the child; fathers are seen as exerting more behavioral control.

"Men and women bring different things to the parenting equation, and neither is more important than the other," Horn said.

There's also no question that while the majority of children in single-parent homes do OK, they are still at greater risk for school failure, behavioral and emotional problems, delinquency, pregnancy and suicide.

But researchers are only just beginning to get an idea of whether children fare better or worse with single fathers than with single mothers.

"There's not a tremendous body of research because it's a relatively new phenomenon," Horn said.

The early studies used small samples that shouldn't be broadly extrapolated, but more recent ones are more convincing, said Ross Parke, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Parke, the author of "Fatherhood," has kept current with studies since 1996. Taken together, Parke said, they suggest that when it comes to young children, living with their fathers has a beneficial effect on boys but a neutral or detrimental effect on girls.

"That's probably because they don't have as much experience and because of the way they were raised themselves," Parke said.

With adolescents, though, the most convincing study, published in 1996 by noted researchers Alison Clarke-Stewart and Craig Hayward, showed that both girls and boys -- and especially boys -- do better with their fathers, even when you control for income disparity.

Still, Parke cautioned against making too much of even the best studies.

"You have to remember that most of these fathers are self-selected," he said.

"For a father to get custody in this legal climate, he has to be a fairly extraordinary father or else the mother has to be in some way incapacitated. So these fathers have better parenting skills than the norm.

"Until we have a more even playing field in custody, we won't really know how this plays out in the whole range of single-father families."

The same can be said about income levels. Not surprisingly, the median income in father-headed families is almost $10,000 a year higher than for mother-headed families -- $23,155 a year, compared with $13,700 a year.

As long as the disparity leaves so many more mothers than fathers in poverty, it will be hard to definitively measure the difference in outcomes for children.

"If the debate becomes who's a better parent, the mother or the father, then the children are going to lose," Horn said.

"Children do best with the love and devotion of both parents, no matter who has custody."

How single fathers fare

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