Father In Baltimore and around the country, fathers are joining together and trying to be better parents.

October 18, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

They sit in a circle and talk of the joys and pains that fatherhood has brought them.

They are men of the street, products of patchwork families. Most were abandoned by fathers. Some know addiction, others the city jail, poverty, anger, rejection and on.

All have children. Few are married.

But on this night in West Baltimore, this unlikely band of fathers-errant is talking poetry. Poetry! They are reading aloud a poem about how fathers guide their sons best through "solid- rock example."

It's time to get real, they say. Time to do right by their kids.

After the poem is finished and a few have spoken, Cyril Lynch, a 38-year-old Baltimore truck driver, a father of three, clears his throat and quietly says what they all are thinking, as tears well in his eyes.

"I don't want my boys seeing me in the street doing things I don't want them to do," he says, his 2-year-old son, Cyril Jr., clutched tightly in his arms. "It puts a lot of feelings in my heart to read these things."

The words now pour out. They talk of learning trades, finding jobs, supporting their kids. They long to be the dads their dads never were.

"These young guys, they want to be better fathers and better men," says Joe Jones, head of the Baltimore program that has brought these inner-city men together. "They just need to find out how."

In many communities across the nation, men are voicing similar ambitions. A growing number of programs, like Jones' support group, are trying to encourage responsible fatherhood.

Proponents believe they are part of a burgeoning social movement aimed at persuading fathers of all classes, races, income levels, and religions to become a larger part of their children's lives.

"We want to make two points - first, that fathers are important," says Wade F. Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. "And secondly, that the most important thing a father can do is invest himself in his children."

Horn, a psychologist and former Bush-administration official, is the closest thing to a spokesman the fledgling cause of responsible fatherhood has today. The NFI is a private nonprofit based in the Washington suburb of Gaithersburg.

What Horn and others espouse seems almost too obvious and fundamental to be recognized as any new trend - like discovering motherhood and apple pie. But it is a reaction to some cold, hard facts of fatherhood's failings in the 1990s. To wit:

* Nearly one-quarter of U.S. children now live in a home without a father (biological, adoptive or stepfather).

* About 1.2 million of the nation's children will be born out of wedlock this year, about one-third of all births.

* More than 1 million children experience divorce annually.

* While teen-agers spend an average of 21 hours watching TV each week, they spend an average of 35 minutes per week talking to their fathers, according to a 1994 study.

The movement's supporters feel a kinship to groups as diverse as Promise Keepers, the fundamentalist Christian movement, and Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March three years ago. Both extolled a pro-father philosophy.

Twice, the 5-year-old NFI has held national summits on fatherhood. Its TV ads urging fathers to spend more time with their children have enjoyed the equivalent of $100 million in free air time, according to the Advertising Council Inc.

In Congress, a House subcommittee is pondering the Fathers Count Act, which would give states $2 billion over five years for pro-fatherhood programs.

Suddenly, it's become fashionable to talk about fatherhood.

"For too many years we've been engaged in collective amnesia about the importance of fathers in the lives of children," said Ronald B. Mincy of the Ford Foundation, which has underwritten a national "Fragile Families" program to support and study fatherhood in poor communities. Leaders in the movement blame the prevalence of divorce and out-of-wedlock births for minimizing the father's role in child-rearing. The results: more children living in poverty and children who are more likely to drop out, get involved in drugs or crime and treat their own children poorly.

Do they blame women for this? Not really. The men say they are prepared to take most of the rap but point to extenuating circumstances like government welfare programs that have discouraged marriage.

They also see the women's rights movement as having changed the nature of family life. In just three decades, the father's role has been fundamentally altered from the traditional patriarch to something less well-defined.

"But we are not about bashing feminism," says Horn. "This is about asserting the responsibility of fathers. Women are generally a receptive audience for us."

Horn traces the beginning of the fatherhood movement to Dan Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech in 1992. The then-vice-president criticized producers of the show for having a main character, an intelligent, highly paid professional woman, bear a child alone and consider it a mere "lifestyle choice."

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