The Art of Being a Great Dad

TIM BAKER

June 21, 1993|By TIM BAKER

His wife left him and ran away with another man. It emotionally devastated him. Then a harder blow hit. The courts granted her sole custody of their two daughters. She took them with her to Connecticut. He remained here. Alone.

His girls were too young to make the trip to Baltimore every two weeks. So for years he exercised his visitation rights by driving up Interstate 95 on Friday afternoons and staying at a motel outside the town where his ex-wife lived. Then every summer his daughters came down here and stayed with him for a month.

Of course they went to school in Connecticut. He felt cut off. But if he took the early morning Metroliner and caught a fast taxi, he could be at their school by 10 a.m. It meant he had to work nights and weekends to make up the time. But over the years, he attended more teacher's conferences, assemblies and soccer games than their mother did.

His two daughters are now young women. They've settled here in Baltimore. Near their father.

Obviously, this man was not a "Dead-beat Dad." But he's not unique. He's not even unusual. He's simply a good man who found he had to father his children under unusual adversity.

There are others like him -- many others. A man I know lost his wife to cancer five years ago. She left him not only with their new-born baby but also with her 7-year-old daughter from her previous marriage. He's raised them both without any help. His career has suffered in the process. But he has focused on what's most important to him. Now he's engaged to be married again. His fiance is a beautiful woman. But he wouldn't be marrying her if he wasn't satisfied she could mother as well as he can father.

You know men like this too, don't you? We all hear stories about them from friends and acquaintances. The guy down the street who takes his kids three nights a week and every other weekend. Single-father families are now growing at a faster rate than any other family type. But how often do you read about men like this? How many articles appear in newspapers and magazines about good fathers? About the surprisingly widespread practice of good fathering?

Last week, a happily married friend of mine suddenly postponed our lunch together. His 4-year-old son had fallen off a swing and split his chin. When the day-school called the man's office, he canceled all his appointments and left immediately. He didn't drop everything because his wife wasn't available. He took care of his son himself because that's the kind of father he wants to be. Insists on being. No matter what.

More and more men are determined to father their children this way. For example, an increasing number of them take advantage of their companies' ''paternity leave'' programs and stay home when their wives give birth.

These men risk the suspicious reactions of a hostile workplace. Some of their supervisors will decide they are not sufficiently serious about their careers. They may be relegated to the ''Daddy Track.'' But these men will stay home for several weeks anyway. They simply refuse to forfeit those first precious irretrievable hours with their newborn babies.

Good fathering isn't easy. The Industrial Revolution yanked men out of the home and away from their children. A modern economy sends them off to work in suburban office parks and downtown skyscrapers. Our culture still demands that they stick to their primary parental role -- earning a living.

Good parenting isn't a function of gender. As women have discovered, it's hard to provide a steady, reliable and nurturing presence when you leave for the office before your kids eat breakfast and come home tired after they've had dinner.

But the cultural standard is hard to shake. Men feel guilty when they stay home from work, in the same way women feel guilty when they leave their children and resume their careers.

But many men do it. They work hard at fathering. When a crisis strikes -- a divorce, a death, a split chin in the middle of a busy day -- these guys just shift into high gear. They're Super Dads.

Men like this are not genetic mutants. In fact, the male in our species is endowed with a bounty of nurturing talents. The culture may suppress and even penalize them. They may be buried under misguided standards of what it means to be a man. But those care-taking qualities are there.

What does it take to bring them out? Why do some men ride the Metroliner for hours to see their children while others won't drive a few blocks?

Some of us were lucky. We learned good fathering from a good father. Others who weren't so fortunate seem to have made themselves into good fathers by an act of will. They stop and look at themselves and choose what kind of man they want to be.

In both cases these men fulfill the most important obligation of good fathering. They pass it on.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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