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Modern society presses fathers to grow into a new and more nurturing role


I COULD NOT HAVE found a better father for my children if I had handed out applications.

But if my husband had known more about the job -- specifically how many school projects he would someday have to do -- he might have turned it down, choosing instead his efficiency apartment in the city, his sailboat and his running shoes.

Thanks to me, my children were the first in their neighborhood to receive their MMR booster shots, but I cannot cut, paste or draw. So my husband spends his weekends wielding a glue gun like a six-shooter. They are still talking about the clay penguins he and Jessie made for her zoo diorama.

The role of fathers -- or lack thereof -- is one of the flash points in the national debate about welfare reform. After we are finished trashing women for having babies out of wedlock, we take aim at the fathers of those children. Their absence, we are told, is the root cause of their children's poverty, both economic and moral.

But there is a second social trend in fathering: an escalating demand for more involvement by them. It has gone beyond the "second-shift" debate that insisted fathers share in the folding of the wash. We are now greeting these guys at the door and insisting that they nurture their children -- and that they do it the right way. Our way.

"The cultural script for men is confusing," says Wade Horn, child psychologist and director of the National Fatherhood Initiative.

"It used to be that they just went to work and brought home the bacon. Now, women are doing that, too. So the culture is saying, 'You have to be a more involved parent. And you have to do it just like Mom.' "

Dr. Horn, the father of two daughters, 10 and 13, has been a research academic, worked at an inner-city hospital and as commissioner for children, youth and families under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Through it all, he has seen the devastating impact on children of absent fathers -- absent physically, absent psychologically.

Through the National Fatherhood Initiative, funded by foundations across the political spectrum, he preaches about the need to reunite fathers with their children to prevent the economic and social ills that follow from single-parent homes.

But he has also looked at the changing demands on fathers who are not absent. Those trends, he says, are disturbing, too.

"Studies that look at father and mother behavior show that men and women parent differently," Dr. Horn says.

"Fathers tend to be more physical, mothers more verbal. Fathers are more encouraging of independence and achievement, and mothers more encouraging of affiliation. Fathers tend to be stronger disciplinarians, and mothers stronger nurturers.

"Knowing these differences, we still say to men: Stop doing it differently and be more like Mom. Or, we say, do both.

"Both of these choices are bad for me. If I do it like Mom, I am going against my instincts. If I do both, I am pulling double duty."

Much of this message of "Dear, you're doing it wrong," comes from a woman's need to control the child-rearing in the family. Though we want help, we want it done the way we have been doing it for generations.

But we have also come to believe that children need consistent messages from their parents. Mom and Dad have to speak with one voice or the child will end up in Juvenile Hall.

"That's nonsense," Dr. Horn says.

"Child-development literature has documented that for parents to rear children well, they need to demonstrate high degrees of love and acceptance, and they need to exhibit a moderately high degree of control over behavior.

"It doesn't say that both parents have to do these things equally or the same way. It says the parental system has to do it. Children are not looking for consistency between parents, they are looking for it in their interaction with the parental system."

The current welfare debate hinges on the notion that 30 years of the Great Society has rendered the father in our culture superfluous. We are finding out just how wrong we were now that we are dealing with that man's children.

But there is a danger for middle-class families in these times, too.

We have raised the level of expectations for fathers. The bar is very high. Our culture still expects them to be the primary winner of bread, but also to be a child-care provider and a nurturer. Coach the kids, read them stories, help with homework, comfort them, convey values, form character.

We mothers have to be willing to let them do it their way.

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