A Father's Days and Nights Parent: Joel Cohen joined the growing number of single fathers in America when his wife died in September. Now he faces the worry, work and rewards of raising his daughter, Jaime, alone.

June 16, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Dad's home now and within reach.

Jaime Cohen claws at a piece of cheese pizza in front of the black and white TV set in the kitchen. Her father isn't hungry. He grabbed a few cookies somewhere. It's been one helluva day. Joel Cohen was stuck at Washington National Airport, trying to make a sale. But all he could think about was getting home on time to pick up his daughter from after-school care.

Before his wife died in September, Joel could work as late as he wanted and relax afterward. He'd come home and maybe beach himself on the sofa to watch ESPN. Now he's home by 6 p.m. and gamely heads outside to play with his daughter after dinner.

In the Cohens' backyard in Owings Mills, Joel drags out a soccer goal. Jaime shoots half-smiles at her father, who plays the role of a careless goalie. They switch to baseball. Dad lobs a pitch at the pink, plastic bat in Jaime's hand. She lines a shot, then she races to first base, which is the swing set. Dad bobbles the ball and Jaime takes second, third, then home. The good father misses the tag. He misses his wife, but treasures their child.

"Jaime brings happiness to my life during the most unhappy period of my life," Joel says. "Every day she gives me a purpose to keep things going."

Arm in arm, the sporting Cohens head inside.

Joel wasn't expecting to spend Father's Day as a single parent. Yes, his wife, Joy Cohen, had a history of heart problems and had been hospitalized many times. But when she received a heart transplant Sept. 1, her family thought the surgery would give her new life. They were hopeful. Instead she died the next day, and 42-year-old Joel Cohen became, overnight, the single father of a 7-year-old girl.

He is one of nearly 2.3 million single fathers, the fastest-growing family group in America, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The number of single fathers more than doubled between 1980 and 1990 -- the result of more balanced child-custody decisions and liberalized adoption rules. Joel became part of a smaller group: the 114,000 fathers who became single parents because their wives died.

Peter Baylies of Massachusetts hears from thousands of single and stay-at-home fathers. For two years, his novel At-Home Dad newsletter has surveyed, coached and listened to fathers raising kids. The chief complaint is isolation, Baylies says. They feel isolated from other parents, and men, perhaps by nature, don't reach out for support as mothers do.

Many of the fathers say they are viewed as somehow less qualified to raise children. People eye their children in supermarkets and announce: Looks like Mommy didn't dress you today.

"They may parent differently, but they get the job done is what they tell me," Baylies says. They don't want to be called Mr. Mom. They're not substitutes for mothers.

"I'm not going to replace Mom," Joel says. "I can't be a mother. I got to be a dad."

Dealing with it

On a soggy evening in early June, Joel is bugged by a cough and cold. He needs a shave. The house could use a little tidying. The yard needs major mowing. Some day, he'll get around to refilling their above-ground pool, which could be sheltering the Loch Ness monster for all he knows.

Jaime stays in her dad's bedroom, her subtraction homework splattered over the bedspread, where their setter-Lab, Mugsy, is also draped. Mugsy spends private moments eating the kitchen tile. It's another fact of life Joel can't worry about right now. Earlier this week, the school nurse called Joel at work to inform him that his daughter had the chicken pox. It's all over her, the nurse said; she needs to be home for a week. So he takes the week off from work.

"We have to take care of each other," he says.

Joel, an only child, was born in the Bronx 42 years ago and moved to Maryland 14 years ago. He makes his living selling janitorial supplies and putting many miles on his dusty Mazda. He came and went because he had back-up at home. Now there isn't any. "I'm it," Joel says.

He was a confident father before his wife's death. He didn't need to ask for advice, didn't need to read any one of the thousand self-help books for fathers. But since his wife's death, he hasn't been so sure of himself. But he knows how much Jaime needs him.

"He's her stability," says Joy's mother, Jackie Sokolow. "Jaime really feels lost without him."

At 2 p.m. one recent workday, he picked up his car phone and heard his daughter's small voice on the other end. At home with a visiting grandmother, Jaime was wondering when Dad was coming home. Soon, Honey, he told her. Heck, he didn't know the 7-year-old could dial.

He also has the job of dealing with a young child's subterranean grief. After Joy died, someone gave him a book called "When Somebody You Love Dies." The book was simple, smart and helpful. Jaime has even asked him to read it to her.

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