Father and Child
The plight of the single mother is well-documented. She deftly juggles career and home. She gets the kids to and from child care and excels in her job despite bringing home a much smaller paycheck than her male counterpart. And though she deserves our unwavering respect, she rarely receives it.At the same time, there's another group of folks performing superhuman tasks on a daily basis, and that group's population is soaring.The United States Census Bureau announced in December that the number of single fathers who have primary custody of their children has climbed 25 percent during the past three years -- from 1.7 million in 1995 to 2.1 million in 1998. Since the '80s, their number has more than doubled.The dramatic increase is due in large part to the changing way fathers are treated by the courts, according to Michael and Carleen Brennan, co-writers of a handbook titled Custody for Fathers.As older male judges -- raised in an era when mothers and fathers served traditional roles -- retire, younger male and female judges who have less rigid ideas about family structure are moving in. Many of them are giving fathers a chance at custody."Judges are more inclined to read the declarations, read the stories" submitted by parents engaged in custody battles, said Carleen Brennan. They make their decisions on the merits of the situation, giving less weight to gender.More now than ever, courts are considering factors such as which parent comes home from work earlier and which one can begin making dinner, helping with homework and generally nurturing the children sooner, she said.Her husband Michael Brennan, who is a family law attorney, said the trend is gaining momentum because "the groundbreaking fathers" who were first granted custody five or so years ago "didn't kill the kids." They proved to the courts that they can handle the job. "Judges only recently are comfortable doing it," he said. Now "you've got family judges who are more into the 90s family."***Like many men his age, Tom Knight, 35, was raised to be a man in the traditional sense, and he's never been the person responsible for making sure a balanced meal was on that table and clean clothes were in the closet. "I've had to learn how to do a couple of things I've never had to do for myself," he admitted, "such as laundry. I have so many pairs of beige and pink socks..."Nine years ago, when he married his girlfriend of seven years, Knight never thought he'd be single again. But two years ago, his wife left him for another man. Although he was crushed, the best possible silver lining appeared. "She made the decision to leave without Steven, which was the blessing I was hoping for," said Knight, sitting at the kitchen table of his modest home in a one-street neighborhood.The first chore was explaining the breakup to Steve, who's now a 7-year-old blond who's missing a front tooth and is a bit small for his age. "Numerous times I sat here at night thinking, 'How am I going to explain this to him so he doesn't think it's his fault,' " Knight said."And no matter what we did, we found out a couple months later that he really did think mom left because he got a pink slip when he was in kindergarten because he and another little boy had a fight in the playground."Steve goes to stay with his mother two-thirds of the time he's "off-track" from school, which comes around every April, August and December. The time he spends with her ends up being about a couple months out of every year. "I left it wide open for her to participate as much as possible. I tried to say, 'Our relationship's over, but not yours with Steven, so please move back as close as you can and be part of his life.' " But it's unlikely that she'll be moving any closer. She and her husband have settled in and are expecting a baby girl.Steve's parents also try to spend birthdays and major holidays together for his benefit. Given the nature of the split, it's difficult when Knight has to be in the presence of his ex-wife's husband."It's real uncomfortable for me -- I have to tell the truth," he said. "I would rather grab the guy and take him outside and beat him to [within] an inch of his life, but that's not going to happen. I don't want to rock the boat. I'm afraid that if I let my emotions out, that will cause a ripple effect [and impact Steve], and I'm afraid of that."Raising his son on a modest income -- Knight works as a day coordinator for the nonprofit Joe McGee Center, a program that helps developmentally disabled adults make the transition out of institutional living -- is difficult by itself, but Knight also lives under the specter of possibly losing custody of his son.He worries sometimes that Steve's mother might soon decide that she wants her son to be a regular member of her new family. True, she left without him. But, Knight pointed out, they make more money, and a judge might find that a more financially secure household is better for Steve.The last thing Knight's looking for is a custody battle. "I don't want to go to court and thrash each other after 14 years of being together," he said. "Why disrespect each other now?"But he'll fight, if that's what it takes to keep Steven with him. "This is his home," he said. "This is his community. He loves his school. He loves his friends, so why take him from this? He wouldn't understand why."In the meantime, Knight and his son are working to build their two-man family unit. The going might get easier now that Knight has realized it's okay to accept help. Sometimes being a solo parent and male also means being a bit stubborn. "It's real hard for me -- being a man -- to ask for assistance," he acknowledged. "I don't even want to ask my in-laws."Whether it's help with simple yet healthy recipes or offers to watch Steven for the evening so his father can go out on a date, until recently Knight was unreceptive. But that's beginning to change. He's learning that just because he accepts a little advice or a small gesture of kindness doesn't mean he's a failure. "I'm starting to open up, and I'm starting to ask for help," he said. "I'm starting to let down my barriers of being proud."Knight said he feels as though his son has more of a "niche" in the community than he does, and he'd like to get out more. "Hopefully, in the future I can meet somebody here. The problem is I'm a father. I go to work, I come home and do dishes and laundry, cook dinner, put my son to bed. There's no time."He'd like to get Steven into some activities that will also jump-start his own social life by allowing him to meet more people. He's already planned to enroll Steven in martial arts classes. And he wouldn't mind having Steven follow in his footsteps by playing music -- Knight's a guitarist, bass player and keyboardist whose bands have warmed up crowds for the likes of AC-DC and Greg Allman. Children's theater is another possibility.Knight said he's learning to simply "be Tom. I've always been somebody's boyfriend or husband or father, but not Tom. But right now I'm being able to be Tom, and Tom's alright. So now I'm staring to look at avenues of going out and seeing somebody, just to go out and have a dinner and talk -- and leaving Steven with his grandma and grandpa."***It was bad enough that Brandon Coborn, a redhead who's almost 6, had to hit "stop" on the VCR just as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was nearing its climax, but now the nosy newspaper reporter his father was entertaining in the living room had to bring up Brandon's mother."How do you feel, Buddy?" his father, Aubrey Coborn, 42, helped broach the subject."Sad," Brandon responded in a high, barely audible voice."Sad? You miss Mommy, huh?" asked his father, in a comforting, rhetorical tone."He doesn't get to talk much to her. They limit their phone use, down there in prison."Brandon's mom will be released in November. She's been incarcerated for a year and a half now, ever since she was convicted of manslaughter for striking and killing a pedestrian. Coborn and Brandon's mother had never been married and had ended their relationship at the time of the accident."It's real easy for a single parent if the other one falls off the planet," Coborn said. "It would actually make it easier, but you can't do that. You want to try to have them involved, for the child's sake."Coborn's not particularly looking forward to her return, but he knows Brandon will be better off with his mom in his life. "If she wants to be part of his life, great. That's what it's all about," he said.He turned to his son, who at that point had buried his face in a handheld Donkey Kong game. "That's what we're waiting for, huh? Waiting for Mom.""I don't want a relationship with her, but he ties me to her," he said. "We have to do what's best for him, and what's best for him is for her to be in his life."Coborn wishes his relationship hadn't fallen apart, but he seems to be at ease about his single fatherhood at this stage. Of course, that doesn't mean there's nothing to it."I've got to the point to where I really appreciate single moms," Coborn said. "You gotta do a lot of scheduling. And if one thing falls apart, you've got to be ready not to get mad. You've got to recover. It's a fumble -- you've got to pick it up and solve the scheduling problem. You have to be ready for anything because there could be a wrench thrown from anywhere into the works."Coborn, who used to be in the construction business, has gone back to school and is about to graduate with a degree in engineering. Fortunately, his class schedule has worked out with Brandon's schedule. He drops Brandon off at school at 8 a.m. and rushes to class. Then he picks his son up at 11:40 and dashes him over to day care and heads back to the university. Coborn does his homework in the afternoon and collects Brandon from day care at 5:30 and brings him home.He could bring Brandon home earlier in the afternoon, but he wants to have his homework out of the way so they can spend their evenings and weekends together.Although he wants to spend as much time with Brandon as he possibly can, "to me, time isn't really the question; it's the quality that you put into the time. I mean, you can watch TV for eight hours or you can go out and bike for 45 minutes." For Coborn, the 45-minute bike ride is the better time spent."Saturday's his day," he said. "We have a date -- that's it, Saturday. We get up and watch cartoons -- whatever he calls, we'll do."Asked whether fathers can provide enough affection and nurturing, Coborn said, "All I do with him is make sure that he knows I love him. I don't have to say so. I could sit here and say I love you and watch TV all day, every day," but then those are just empty words. Instead, he tries to take Brandon out and do together the things that he likes to do, like play soccer or go to the races. "As long as you take the time and spend the time wisely..."Coborn, like most single parents, never set out to raise his son alone, and one of the pitfalls is "doubting yourself -- almost all the time. At the end of the day sometimes, when he's asleep, I'm wondering, 'Did I do the best I could today? What do I need to do, to do better?' You're just constantly wondering."***Ray Schierenbeck doesn't feel sorry for himself; he wouldn't trade his fatherhood for anything. But he can't help but think sometimes about the career as a firefighter that might have been."I think people should know that single fathers [provide] a solid family unit, just like a single mother," said Schierenbeck, as his sons Cyle, 6, and Cody, who's nearly 7, climb around next to him on the couch."We try just as hard, and there are a lot of males out there that are making a lot of sacrifices too," he said. "I was a on a fast-track career for being a [firefighter]. By now, people that I was working at the same time with in the fire department [as a volunteer] are fire captains and battalion chiefs."Schierenbeck continued on his quest to become a firefighter even after his wife left the family five years ago. He moved himself and his boys to their grandmother's house while he attended the fire academy, but he realized that working a firefighter's schedule would not allow him to meet his sons' needs.Now he works for the California Conservation Corps. "I'm working in a job that makes a lot less money, but I didn't think it was fair to them" to live the life of a firefighter, which sometimes means 24 hours on and 24 hours off.Cody and Cyle, two talkative, pleasant-natured little boys, have met their mom just a few times. She left when her sons were too young to know about it. The last occasion was when Cody, who's eight months older than his brother -- Cyle was three months premature, explaining the obvious biological confusion -- asked to see her. But it didn't go well. She threw a glass of water at the young boy, and Child Protective Services became involved.Cody said he was saddened by the incident and that he'd like to have a mom, like the other kids he knows. As for Cyle, he said the three-man household suits his needs just fine.Schierenbeck said he feels bad that his sons don't have a mom in the house. "It's kind of hard on them sometimes because they see other kids with mothers. And sometimes people he talks to say he should go out and get himself a wife. He said he misses not having someone other than the boys in the house whom he can talk to about the day's events. "I wouldn't mind having a wife, but I don't need that to fulfill our lives." Anyway, "I don't like bars, and it's kind of hard sometimes to get away and meet people."The only real problem with being a single dad, just as it is for single moms, is getting worn down by the hectic schedule. Schierenbeck gets up at 5 a.m. and wakes the boys. They eat breakfast and feed the animals -- there are chickens and dogs and a pony -- and they're out the door at 6:45 a.m. He drops the boys off at child care and gets to work by 8. His day-care provider takes the boys to school. Getting off work at 5 p.m., he picks the kids up just before 6. Then it's dinner, baths and bed. "It's usually eight o'clock by the time I get a chance to sit down," he said."It's hard to get a break," he admitted. "If you don't feel good, or if you're sick, you still got to get up. You still got to do breakfast. You still got to do dinner."Remember Top Gun? he asked. The pressure got to Tom Cruise's character and he fled, but he triumphed when those around him urged him to get back in his fighter jet, Schierenbeck recalled. "You can go out for a second, but you got to get back in the game because there's no one else to take care of 'em. Just because you're stressed and stuff like that -- they need to be fed; they have their needs, too."Schierenbeck wishes he was able to drop them off at school and pick them up himself. "I wish I could have more time to spend with them, especially during the week," he said. "I feel guilty being gone as much as I am."He paused and reflected. "I just think people should know that fathers make sacrifices too in careers and stuff like that. I could be making a lot more money than I am, but I'm happy. They've got a roof over their head and clean clothes, and we're doing alright."