BOSTON. — Boston -- One blazing hot afternoon, I was the sole captive audience for a Washington cab driver as he extolled the vices of his city and the virtues of his second wife. ''One thing about my wife,'' he intoned, ''she's a good provider.''
This was said with such matter-of-fact appreciation that I couldn't help smiling. I had never heard such a traditionally male expression applied to a female without at least a nod, a wink, a hint of some ''Mr. Mom'' role reversal about it.
But the more I ran that sentence around in my mind, and the more I repeated the driver's line, the more it occurred to me that I rarely hear that kind of kudo to men anymore. ''He's a good provider?'' Even the sound of such a phrase would be vaguely suspect today, as if there were some understood flaw for which this ''providing'' compensated. At least . . . he's a good provider. Whatever else . . . he's a good provider.
Today among the ads and cards that carry the images of Father's Day, there is no tie, no tool, no electronic toy that carries praise for The Provider into the public arena. What was once the essence of fatherhood, the moral virtue for which a man was rewarded with the title of head of household, seems somehow out of place in our more egalitarian world.
Father's Day -- a salute to the solid souls who brought home the bacon, put food on the table, a roof over your head -- now carries a different message. The socially approved images of fatherhood are emotional, not financial, about love, not money.
Calvin Klein's model father hugging his young son for ''Eternity.'' Another man Ivory Soaping his baby. Hollywood heroes confessing to Enquiring minds that their newest romance is their offspring. Child-raising books that speak pointedly to men.
The definition of a bad father may be the same as it's been: a man who abandons his children. But the definition of a good father is more layered. It's not that the demands of providing have truly lessened their hold, but they have gone underground. And a new structure has been added.
Ask James Levine, the director of the Fatherhood Project, what fathers want and he will report back from the research front: ''First and foremost, they still want to be the providers, the economic and physical protector of their families. That's how men feel at a gut level and it's what women expect. We all buy into it.
''Second of all, they want a different relationship with their children than they had with their own fathers. Part of being a good father is being different from their own fathers.''
What we've done is up the ante on fathers the way we have upped it on mothers. Added one role on top of the other, a new expectation on top of the old. Even in the two-paycheck family, caretaking is a given for mothers. The headlines are heaped on fathers who change diapers. Even in the changing American family, earning is a given for fathers. The headlines go to the mothers who debate their ''choices.''
Our grandparents counted themselves successful if they kept their children clean, housed, fed -- provided for. But today parents are less likely to judge themselves by what they do for pTC their children -- cooking their dinner, buying their clothes. We count our success as parents by what we do with our children. So fathering is less about a role and more about a relationship.
Did our ancestors expect intimacy with their children as they grew up? I don't think so. But we do. Indeed, almost every measurement we openly apply to family life is about feelings.
We judge ourselves today largely by our children's psychological well-being -- a much trickier calculation. We grade our families by the closeness of the ties formed and sustained. It's a high-maintenance job that can only be accomplished at home.
So working fathers -- no longer a redundant phrase -- have learned about conflict. They have learned about the conflict between being a provider and a parent. The conflict between supporting a home and being in it.
And except for the neckties, Father's Day is getting to look a lot like Mother's Day.
9- Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.