THE NUMBER of single fathers in the United States more than doubled in the past decade, and they now represent a significant portion of the single parents in the nation.
Today, one in every six single-parent households in the United States is headed by a man, according to unpublished U.S. Census figures acquired by the San Francisco Chronicle.
"There's been a revolution in joint custody and awarding custody to fathers," said Andrew Cherlin, an expert on families at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Men are getting and sharing custody more than they have in the past, particularly in California, which has been a leader in divorce law changes."
This revolution was the result of men's increasing interest in child rearing, mothers' desires to have careers outside the home and dramatic societal shifts in sex-role expectations. It also reflected a mass movement by state legislatures in the 1980s away from the traditional view that women should get the children after a divorce.
The doubling in the number of single fathers in the 1980s contrasts with the pattern during the first seven decades of this century, when divorced men were rarely given custody of their children. Now, in more than 1.6 million homes, children live with their divorced fathers all or most of the time. California has almost 260,000 single fathers.
Only seven states -- all in the South -- still give clear preference to the mother.
Divorce experts say it is not yet clear how well single fathers are doing and whether the trend to making children live alternately with both parents has been a good move for the children. However, they agree that the increasing interest of fathers in their children's day-to-day upbringing is good overall.
Although almost three-quarters of all U.S. children live with their married parents, the percentage decreased significantly between 1980 and 1990, while the proportion of single fathers doubled from 2.1 percent of all parents to 4.9 percent.
The percentage of single mothers increased only slightly during the past decade, from 19.4 percent to 21.0 percent.
State legislatures swept out old custody laws in the 1980s and "judges are becoming more educated to the fact that fathers can be good parents too," said John David Rothschild, chairman of the California Bar Association family law committee.
The phenomenon of single-parent fathers has been such a small one that few experts are willing to draw sweeping conclusions about whether the trend is a good one.
The relatively small number of children who live with their fathers seem to be better off financially, at least. In 1989, the huge number of children in the custody of single mothers were five times as likely to be living in poverty as the much smaller number of children residing at their father's home.
Although researchers and judges are realizing that "fathers can be good parents, too," as Mr. Rothschild puts it, they are not uniformly convinced that joint custody has worked as well as expected.
"Many mental health professionals believe that joint custody doesn't work well if the parents are still [fighting] years after the divorce," said Jeff Atkinson, a DePaul University law professor who is chairman of the American Bar Association's child custody committee.
"If one parent doesn't agree with it, the kid gets caught in the middle," said the Johns Hopkins demographer, Mr. Cherlin, a single father who has custody of his children four days a week.