Elian Case Shows Struggles of Single Fathers

The dismissive treatment of fathers' rights by Florida's Cuban community and much of the media in the Elian Gonzalez case revealed once again the low standing that fathers, and single fathers in particular, have in America today. Few reporters attempted to emphasize Juan Miguel Gonzalez's anguish over the safety of his son, his sense of loneliness and sadness over the separation, and his feeling of helplessness as enormous forces threatened to irreparably destroy the father-child bond. Ironically, this insensitivity comes at time when the importance of single fatherhood has never been more evident in this country.

Today, a quiet but thoroughly monumental revolution is taking place in the American family. The number of fathers solely responsible for the care of their children is growing at a rate almost twice that of single mothers. Fully one-fifth of single parents today are single fathers -- more than 2 million of them. This is up from 1970, when single mother families comprised approximately 90 percent of the single family population. Among minorities, the rate of increase is as high, or higher: between 1970-1995, the rate of African-American single dads increased 329 percent; for Hispanic single fathers, 450 percent. And though the media almost always focus on mothers when portraying working single parents, nearly 30 percent of working single parents are now men.

Why is this change occurring now? In many respects, because it had to. The startling failure rate of American marriages, with more than half now ending in divorce, means an equally startling rise in the number of new single parents. That a large number of these would turn out to be fathers is perhaps due to some law of averages, but research shows that it has much to do with the changing nature of family and nurturing in this country. With more women in the workplace than ever before -- 68 percent of women with children under 18 -- divorce courts in most states are not simply awarding custody and care of children to mothers by default, as they have in the past. In some cases, the mother has neither the time, nor the will, to care full time for her offspring. Ironically, the gradual progress towards leveling the playing field for women at work has resulted in slowly leveling the playing field at home. Urged for years to take more of a hands-on role within their marraiges, many fathers have done just that. More men than ever are acting as stay-at-home dads -- as many as 2 million of them, surveys show. And it's changing the way they act after their marriages end.

In addition, stricter child support laws and a growing volume of articles, films, and books about "deadbeat" dads have shamed some men into being better fathers. For others, a growing body of research showing the importance of dads in their children's lives has served as timely inspiration. But in the end, the main reason this revolution is happening is because, for the first time in generations, fathers are making it happen.

"I was raised by my mom, and later on my stepfather, and I always wondered why my dad didn't come around," says Ezra 'Sly' Hunter, a 38-year-old San Francisco tour boat captain and high school basketball coach with custody of three daughters 11, 8 and 7. "As a kid I used to think, it's because of me. He's not coming around because I'm inadequate or something -- he doesn't like me, he doesn't love me. Later, my mom and I talked about it and she said, 'well, I didn't want him coming around.' And I said, 'I don't give a shit what you say, you couldn't keep me away from my kids. I'm going to see my kids.' I can't understand someone who doesn't feel like that."

Like Ezra Hunter, interviewed for the book Loving On Our Own: The Joys and Challenges of Fatherhood After Divorce," more and more men are appreciating a world beyond work and public success which they have traditionally used to define their life's purpose -- the world of toothless smiles and gravity-defying first steps, clingy hugs, a new color mixed, a shoelace tied, a pretty dress or pair of pants put on right, an egg cracked cleanly in two. A recent Gallup Poll found that a majority of American men -- 59 percent -- derive a greater sense of satisfaction from caring for their family than from a job well done at work. For many men this satisfaction is what helps them transcend the loss of a mate, or makes oftentimes searing custody battles worth fighting.

This phenomenon cuts across socioeconomic and racial boundaries. Interviews with poor, unmarried fathers in Philadelphia produced the unexpected finding that not only are fathers important for their children, but children are enormously important in the lives of their fathers. "We asked them what their lives would be like without their children," said Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "We expected them to say their lives would be so much easier, but they said, 'I'd be dead or in jail,' even if they're not involved with those children. Children have tremendous importance for fathers."

The law is beginning to catch up. Divorce laws of more and more states are taking into account the importance of children maintaining relationships with dads as well as moms after dissolution. More than 40 states now presumptively call for joint custody of children. This is an enormous change. Just twenty years ago the default to motherhood was such a foregone conclusion that few men bothered to challenge the standard "every other weekend and two weeks in summer" visitation schedule customarily imposed on fathers.

It's change long overdue. Of the sixty families studied for the seminal 1980 book, "Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope With Divorce," only three were joint custody. The rest were settled with primary physical custody to the mother. Authors Judith Wallerstein and Joann Kelly made some surprising discoveries about the consequences of these policies by studying them from the point of view of the children, not the divorcees.

"In our study, two-thirds of the youngsters were seeing their fathers at least twice a month. Their visits were thus at a level deemed 'reasonable' [by prevailing custom and the courts], yet during our initial interviews, children expressed the wish for increased contact with their fathers with a startling and moving intensity. The poignancy of their reactions is astounding, especially among the six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds," Wallerstein/Kelly concluded. "They cry for their daddies -- be they good, bad, or indifferent daddies."

Elian Gonzalez's father could have given up. Most of Miami and probably a majority of Americans expected him to do that. After all, the predominant image in the media today of fathers-without-mates is still the absentee dad, the deadbeat dad, the career-at-all-costs dad. A title search at the San Francisco Public Library on "Fathers," "Single Fathers" and "Single Dads" yielded a litany of woeful titles such as No Fathers, Fatherless America, God, Where's My Daddy? Daughters Without Dads, The Fatherless Generation, Do I Have a Daddy? and When Is Daddy Coming Home? When the star of early television's "Father Knows Best" show, Robert Young, died, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a cartoon of two children sitting side-by-side before a television screen with Young's image. "What's Father Knows Best?" one child asks. "What's a Father?" the other responds.

* A Father is the stay-at-home dad divorced by a high-powered corporate attorney who fights for -- and wins -- full custody of his two girls in a Florida appeals court.

* A Father is the California contractor who drove 12 hours every two weekends to be with his son, then won sole custody after 14 years.

* A Father is the high-powered executive who quit his job after his wife abandoned him and his two children, and took the same job he had in a produce market as a teenager in order to have the flexibility to care for his kids.

These men were among the dozens I interviewed for the book, "Loving On Our Own." Dads who stay. Dads who work, clean, cook, sing, cry, who skip meetings to go on field trips or overnights. Dads who love. Ultimately, the stereotypes of parenting will be changed only by creating new ones, as so many fathers today are doing.

"I was the one who went to the meetings with the teachers, I was the one who took them to the doctors. I was the biggest factors in their lives during our marriage," recalled Ezra Hunter. "I know I was going up against the whole stereotype of the black man who leaves his family. You know -- 'He can father kids, but not raise them.' That's what people believe and to a certain degree it's true! But I'm so competitive, I took it as a kind of challenge. It made me live up to the task [of fatherhood after divorce] even more. I know that in my case I am a better man, a better father, alone. I learn more about myself and about my daughters every day."

These new fathers are creating a new model of fatherhood that is transforming individuals, the shape of the American family, and, ultimately, our society itself. We can only guess what the impact will be on children to have a generation of fathers who were there for the first step, the first solid food, the first soccer goal, the first date. From across the divide of sexual politics -- or in Elian Gonzalez's case, across the gulf of Cold War politics, fathers are sending the message loud and clear: "WE MATTER!" It's a shame that it's taking the American media so long to catch up.

Jeff Gillenkirk is a San Francisco-based writer and author of the forthcoming book, "Loving On Our Own: The Joys and Challenges of Fatherhood After Divorce."

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