Father Makes Two

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Gary Weiss was laid off from his job at a Toyota dealership when he refused to work on Father's Day. And he tells any new employer to forget it if the hours aren't flexible. The occasional girlfriend comes and goes--and stays gone. "Too time consuming," he shrugs. But what's to regret when you can play hopscotch, stage pillow fights and attend 96 parenting classes in four years? Raising daughter Sarah, 6, is "my greatest job," he says. "I put my life on stop, and I don't regret it."

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When the U.S. Census took its once-a-decade snapshot of the American people last year, Gary and Sarah Weiss, who spends weekdays with her dad in Calabasas, Calif., and weekends with her mom in nearby Los Angeles, joined one of the fastest-growing categories in the statistical kaleidoscope: households headed by unmarried men with children. Nationwide, the Census counted 2.2 million of them, a 62% increase over 1990 and a 171% increase in the past two decades. Some are divorced fathers with sole or joint custody. Some are widowers or single men with adopted children. And as many as a third may be unmarried fathers living with the mothers of their children. But if the population of single dads that make up those Census statistics is diverse, the trend remains clear. "We're at the tipping point," says James Levine, head of the Fatherhood Project at New York City's Families and Work Institute. "Three decades ago, it was hard to find these guys. Now everybody knows a single father."

The image of 2 million dads flipping flapjacks and carpooling preschoolers still comes across as anomalous, which is not surprising since such homes still represent only 6.3% of households with kids 17 and younger. There are more than three times as many homes headed by single mothers.

That ratio is not likely to change soon, but the stigma attached to mothers who relinquish custody is dissipating. Houston tennis pro Ross Persons and his wife divorced when their daughter Michelle was five. Although he shared custody, "I did not see her enough," he recalls. "You don't have those moments of sitting around just enjoying each other." So he was delighted when, seven years later, his ex-wife suggested that Michelle move in with her father. Now 22 and a college student, she still lives in Persons' home but sees her mother often. "Every child is looking for love, acceptance and direction," Persons says. "That can come from a mother, father, aunt, uncle--it's the quality that matters."

A father's legal claim to a child once was unquestioned. In the 18th century, fathers had custody because children were considered property. But the Industrial Revolution ushered in the so-called tender-years doctrine, by which mothers held sway. As late as 1971, the Minnesota State Bar Association's handbook advised lawyers and judges that "except in very rare cases, the father should not have custody of the minor children. He is usually unqualified psychologically and emotionally." When James Cook, a Los Angeles real estate lobbyist, divorced in 1974 and sought shared custody of his son, "the judge thought it was preposterous," he recalls. "He told me, 'I don't have permission to do it.'"

Outraged, Cook and some friends organized the Joint Custody Association and in 1979 pushed through the California legislature the first law encouraging joint custody. All 50 states eventually followed suit, and today 26 states have gone even further, declaring joint custody to be not just legal but the preferred arrangement. Although some judges remain biased in favor of mothers, an estimated 1 in 5 custody arrangements today are shared. Sole custody for the father--mainly in cases in which the mother is unfit or unwilling to share responsibilities--has grown to 15% from 10% a decade ago. "Family courts are flooded with fathers clamoring to be part of their children's lives," says Jayne Major, who runs a Los Angeles support group for parents in custody disputes. "I tell them, 'Unless you are the ax murderer of the century, you have a legal right to your children.'"

The growth in single-father households cuts across economic and racial strata. Ervin Daye, 58, works two jobs, as a shoeshine man in a Dallas hotel and as a limo driver, to support his daughter Kymber Lee, 11. A onetime blues musician who fathered seven children with various women, Daye says he was determined to play a role in his youngest daughter's life. After a bitter court fight, he won sole custody six years ago. "My wife said I didn't know anything about raising kids," he recalls. "But I learned a man could be just as good a single parent as a woman." He takes Kymber Lee to church and piano lessons and volunteers at her school. And he teaches her that in life "there is a time to cry and a time to be strong."

Single fathers mostly scoff at those who assert the inherent superiority of mothers. And some scholars say gender is less important than factors like a supportive network of family and friends. "Twenty years of research has shown that fathers can learn to do most anything that mother does," says Jeffery Evans of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. That's not to say there are no differences. Studies show fathers tend to roughhouse more with kids, pushing them to take risks, while mothers tend be better organizers. So far, though, these differences have been measured in married parents; little research has compared male against female single-parent homes. "The fathers taking custody of their kids are not the grumpy, macho, distancing fathers of stereotype," says Johns Hopkins University demographer Andrew Cherlin.

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