Rise in single fathers defies historic trend

After he and his wife separated in 2007, Bruce Jordan, 37, entered a long custody battle for one of their children, Matthew, an active 7-year-old who loves watching "SpongeBob SquarePants" and other cartoons.

The father of seven children in all, Jordan, who lives in East Baltimore, says he felt he had been too absent from the lives of his other kids.

"As far as my son, I wanted to make a difference," Jordan said on a recent afternoon, clutching a water bottle and looking relaxed in a Nike T-shirt and jeans. "I didn't just want to be a father with seven children and not have any of them with me."

In taking over the day-to-day care and supervision of his child, Jordan has joined the increasingly large ranks of single fathers in Maryland. According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the rise in the number of Maryland families led by single fathers in the past decade outpaced the rise in single-mother families for the first time since at least 1970, as far back as the state data is available.

There are now about 47,200 single-father households in the state, an increase of nearly 6,000 over 2000, or 14 percent. The number of families led by single mothers increased by about 5,000 over the past 10 years, or 3.2 percent.

Though just 22 percent of single-parent households in Maryland are led by men, the data suggest more parity than ever before. Experts attribute the change to a more flexible court system where joint-custody arrangements are far more common, and to broader career options for women.

"There's been a slow shift in the way that men view their roles as father, the way that women view men's role as father, and the opportunities for women in the workplace," said Geoffrey L. Greif, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and has written a book on single dads. "It gives women more permission to have men raise children after a divorce."

Growing up with an absent father for much of his childhood, Jordan figured he would one day be a different type of dad. His mother provided a structured home in West Baltimore, where, he said, he was "raised with love" and learned good morals.

By his own account, though, he was a troublemaker in his teenage years, and by the time he was 18, had his first child out of wedlock. When disagreements came up between him and the mothers of his children, it seemed easier to walk away.

"I didn't realize until I got older. I said I would never be like [my father], and pretty much ended up being just like him," said Jordan, a plumber.

He now takes weekly parenting classes given by the Responsible Fatherhood program at the Center for Urban Families, a Baltimore-based organization, where he brings Matthew along on Wednesday nights. Edward Pitchford, who helps run the program, said many of his students grew up without fathers, which he believes may account for the rise in households led by single dads.

"They remember how they feel when their father was telling them, 'I'm coming to pick you up, and we're going to go out and do such and such' and he never shows up," Pitchford said. "A lot of that lack of having a dad makes the newer dads more responsible."

Rachmiel Tobesman, 54 and a former president of Maryland's Fathers United for Equal Rights, became involved in advocacy for more fairness in the family legal system after his own years-long custody battle in 1984.

The gradual abolishment of custodial laws favoring the mother, as well as equal enforcement of child-support agreements when the mother is delinquent, Tobesman said, have helped create a more even playing field for fathers.

"It's the attitudes of the courts, the attitudes of the Department of Social Services and the actual laws that have changed," said Tobesman, who lives in Northwest Baltimore and now works as an educational consultant and professional storyteller.

For some, the expectation that divorced fathers not be involved in their children's day-to-day lives is as much a cultural anachronism as the expectation that women remain at home rather than pursue careers.

Michael Peterson, 42, of Pasadena, shares custody of his two children with his ex-wife. His father, a military man, was largely absent from his life, and his mother, Peterson said, was essentially "automatically" given custody following their divorce.

"Nowadays with my situation, I definitely want to be a part of my kids' life," said Peterson, who owns a defense contracting company. "Now you don't have to give up your life with your kids like you had to in the previous generation."

Greif, too, sees the rise in single fathers as a positive trend, a signal that more couples are deciding who should raise children based on practical considerations, rather than stereotypical gender roles.

But the cultural shift is not complete, he said.

"There are … still people who believe that if a father's raising his children alone there must be a woman somewhere in the background helping out. It could be his mother, his sister or somebody else," Greif said. "They also tend to be given a pat on the back, like, 'You're just a great guy, you're doing an extraordinary job.' There's a little bit of condescension, too."

That may fade, Greif said, as more people know single fathers personally. According to the new data, in 2010 single-father families made up about 7.2 percent of all Maryland families with "own" children — the Census Bureau's term for children related to the householder by birth, marriage or adoption. In 1970, about 1.6 percent of families with children were led by single fathers.

There are other challenges too, perhaps unique to fathers, as when Peterson first went shopping for clothes for his young daughter and wasn't sure what to buy. "I was totally lost," he said. "I got some things that I felt were safe and verified it with some friends afterward, and hopefully she's dressed appropriately."

Peterson said he often finds that his children's school does a better job of keeping his ex-wife up-to-date on news related to their kids.

"When my daughter was sick earlier this year, they called my ex-wife, who in turn called me, but for some reason I'm not first on the list," he said.

In a post for The New York Times' parenting blog, William McCloskey, a single father and former journalist from Pittsburgh, pointed out the difference between popular-culture portrayals of harried-but-heroic single moms and their male counterparts.

"Now say 'single dad' and it's likely you'll conjure some lummox in an apron spooning scorched macaroni-and-cheese into a soup bowl for an ill-dressed tot with a bad haircut while the school bus beeps at the curb," McCloskey wrote. "Why is that? Well, you could ask the producers of 'Mr. Mom' and 'Kramer vs. Kramer.'"

As for Jordan and his son, he said they will likely mark the impending Father's Day holiday, their first since he won custody, quietly.

"I'm just glad to have my son back," he said. "That's Father's Day for me. Spending it by myself, that wouldn't have been a good Father's Day."



By the numbers

Percentage of all single-parent families in Maryland with own children led by men:

1970: 12.6 percent

1980: 15 percent

1990: 18 percent

2000: 20.6 percent

2010: 22.3 percent