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The Daddy Track

As society acknowledges that men can be great parents, the number of single fathers is on the rise. So what is life like for men juggling career, family, and home? A lot like life for single moms.

(Photo by Tim Llewellyn)

When Keith Mochida and his wife split up nearly 10 years ago, she wanted to explore life beyond motherhood. So Mochida got the mortgaged-to-the-hilt house, a hefty car payment, and the two kids. "Panic is how I’d describe it," says the 39-year-old Chelmsford computer engineer. "Suddenly I had $1,200 a month in day care on top of everything else." To manage, Mochida downsized to a three-bedroom rental home and a Hyundai in the driveway. But he was prepared to roll with the changes, he says. "Being a father didn’t come with any criteria like I had to have a wife."

Ed Antos, 54, found that he had to switch careers after winning sole custody of his two daughters in late 2002. No longer able to make time for the commute from Merrimac to his job at Harvard University in Cambridge, he became a sales representative working from home. As for his social life, he has spent many Friday nights watching the Disney Channel and making tuna melts or attending Lowell Spinners games instead of the Red Sox. "Seeing them thrive is worth it," says Antos of his girls, a National Honor Society scholarship winner and a competitive swimmer.

And Jay Portnow, a doctor who works in Brockton, cut a deal to ensure he didn’t get cut out of his sons’ lives when he divorced 12 years ago. His oldest boy, then 10, lived with him full time, his youngest, then 7, half the time, and, according to the terms of his settlement, he paid his former wife above and beyond what a court would order. Now, he is not only paying $33,000 a year in child support but also willingly pays two private-college tuitions with no help from his former wife, who works as a nurse. "There will be repercussions," says Portnow, 61. "I can pay the bills, but I have little in my retirement account. But I have no regrets."

In the last 30 years, as women have made gains toward achieving equality in the workplace, men have done the same on the home front. Across the United States, the number of households headed by single fathers almost doubled between 1990 and 2006, from 1.15 million to 2.1 million – or 20 percent of all single-parent families, US Census Bureau figures show. No longer willing to accept that the mother should automatically look after the children – the "pay up and shut up" narrative in divorce – fathers now are competing more aggressively for custody and are winning cases. In an April 2006 survey, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 22 percent of its 1,600 members are seeing a rise in cases in which a father wins sole custody, a trend that Massachusetts lawyers and judges say they are also seeing, along with a rise in joint or shared custody arrangements.

"Society is really changing," says Rosanna Hertz, a Wellesley College professor of sociology and women’s studies. "What we’re seeing is more and more men stepping up to the plate." At the same time, those dads are discovering what single mothers have long known: Along with offering rewards, the job requires sacrifices.

There are many reasons why men become custodial parents. A mother may move to remarry or for work. The father may live in the better school district. It may be the housing situation. Or the father may remarry, and his new wife provides much-needed help in child-rearing duties. To be sure, some single dads have no other option; the mother may be unable to fulfill parenting responsibilities. But many men say they choose to raise their children themselves. "I always wanted kids; I come from a family of nine," says Chris Broderick, 46, who lives with his three young children in a two-family house in Roslindale that his mother owns. Chelmsford dad Mochida says he had a tumultuous upbringing (he ended up living with a grandfather in Texas), and he wants to provide stability for his children – including a third child from a second relationship – no matter what.

Changes in societal views on gender and parenting roles that let dads take on child-rearing duties are "very positive" for men, women, and children, says Susan Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, a social-science research arm of Wellesley College. "Absolutely, there are situations where the father is the best caretaker. Is it always terrible that a mother is not caring for her children? No." What children need, Bailey says, are adequate financial and emotional resources – in short, a stable environment, and that is not contingent on gender or biology.

Martin Whyte, a sociologist at Harvard University, says that the shift in gender roles in parenting is in line with society’s growing acceptance of same-sex marriages and adoptions by gay parents. "The culture is in the midst of reorganization, but it is still difficult for men to venture into female territory," he says. Donna Booth, a Saugus divorce lawyer, says that the change is difficult for women, too. Even in divorces where a mother has been the family breadwinner and the father has stayed home, a lot of women who come into her office, Booth says, insist on fighting for sole custody. "It takes a brave woman to go for another arrangement."

Changing custody law to acknowledge the importance of a father in a child’s life is the bottom line of the fathers’ rights movement, which has been growing steadily and agitating increasingly in the last decade or so, not only in the United States but also abroad. To publicize their cause, activists embrace a range of tactics, from flamboyant stunts like scaling Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman, as Jason Hatch of Fathers 4 Justice did two years ago, to peaceful rallies and vigils like the one the group held this spring at the Massachusetts State House. At the grass-roots level, the movement sponsors support and consciousness-raising groups reminiscent of the ones the women’s movement organized 30 years ago.

For divorced single fathers, the fear that their ex-wife will seek to regain custody is a powerful one. In spite of the gains, lawyers and judges are still more likely to side with the mother, father’s rights advocates say. "The courts are biased toward mothers," says Dan Hogan, executive director of Fathers & Families, a national advocacy group that’s based in Boston. "What’s hard for people to see is the impact of the loss of a father in a child’s life."

For their part, women’s advocates say men generally have more power and money to bring to bear in a court battle, and, as a result, women are increasingly the losers. "A lot of time, who gets custody comes down to who has the most money to pay the lawyers," says Haji Shearer, director of the Fatherhood Initiative for the Massachusetts Children’s Trust Fund.

The emergence of so-called parental alienation syndrome in the last five years, usually with fathers charging that mothers are turning their children against them and deleting them from the kids’ lives, has sometimes turned the custody front into a particularly acrimonious arena. Authorities, however, say that if there is one surety to emerge from research, it is that battling parents are harmful to children.

Tom Grossman, 53, a Brookline lawyer who locked horns with his ex over custody of their son, says he learned that the hard way. He spent several years and made countless court appearances to win the first custody fight, but the decision was overturned a few months later. "If parents realized the emotional turmoil and anguish they were causing their children, they’d find a way to settle their differences and stay out of court," he now says.

It is often said that single fathers get more credit than single mothers – they tend to be treated like heroes, while single mothers are taken for granted or blamed for getting themselves into the position – and they do tend to be better off financially. According to Census Bureau data, single fathers are older, have reached a higher education level, are more likely to be working, and usually earn more money than their female counterparts. Almost all have been married before, while for single mothers, the likelihood is significantly less.

Nazli Kibria, a Boston University sociology professor, says that the increase in single dads is a predominately white, middle-class phenomenon. In lower-income groups, she says, fathers lack the money to raise children alone or to maneuver in the legal system. "Being a single dad highlights the privileges that allow you to do it," she says.

Still, as any single mother knows, it isn’t easy. Many fathers say they have had to scale back their careers or jobs or curtail their lifestyles after becoming single parents.

When he divorced, Portnow enjoyed something of a national reputation for his work in rehabilitative medicine and was routinely invited on the paid lecture circuit. After one son came to live with him full time and he gained half-time custody of the other, he started turning down out-of-town engagements because being home "was the more important job to do." Portnow says he is obligated to continue child support to his former wife for another four years. In addition, he is paying almost $100,000 a year for his sons to attend New York University and Yeshiva University in Manhattan.

"I consider it ransom," he says. "Twelve years ago, it was much harder for men who wanted to be a part of their children’s lives." Indeed, Portnow says, to make it happen back then, he bought a house not far from the marital home, where his former wife still lives. His sons see and always have seen their mother. Of his relationship with his ex-spouse, however, he says, "I send the checks, and if I’m late, she calls. That’s it."

Dave Saltz, 36, a technology manager at Staples headquarters in Framingham, says he works at home after his 7-year-old daughter has gone to bed to make up for not being able to get to work before 9 and having to be out at 5. "But still I’m missing face time" at the office, he says. Karen V. Hansen, a sociology professor at Brandeis University, suggests that one consequence of this increase in the number of single fathers could be a division emerging between careerist dads and those who bow out of the fast track to balance home and work, much like the division that exists between mothers with jobs outside the home and those who care for their kids full time, with both sides claiming moral superiority.

Saltz’s schedule, like that of most single dads, is scripted and jam-packed. He’s up at 6 a.m., fixing breakfast and getting ready. After dropping his daughter at school in Auburn, he commutes 30 minutes to work. At 5:30 p.m., when his daughter’s after-school program ends, he picks her up. Two nights a week, he ferries her to softball practice. Home by 7, he cooks (or orders pizza), helps with homework, sees to showers, and then he and his daughter watch a little TV or play a game together before bed. The next workday, Saltz does it all over again. If his daughter decides to spend a night at her grandmother’s place and he gets a night off, he rarely has time to relax. "To tell you the truth, I’ll often end up doing the food shopping or vacuuming then." He returns phone calls on his cell while in his car driving to and from work.

Some of the obstacles placed in the way of single fathers are more emotional than practical. In a society that emphasizes the individual solving his or her own problems and offers little in the way of social assistance and services, men say they can feel overwhelmed and lonely and yet less able to turn to others for help for fear of being labeled unmanly or unable to cope. "No one wants a call at 8:30 saying, ‘Can I drop my sick kid off so I can get to work?’ " Saltz says.

If they have daughters, men complain that they are sometimes seen as potential predators. Mochida says that every time he takes his 11-year-old to the doctor, he is scrutinized. He remembers one particularly prying visit. "They asked my daughter if I spanked her, if I let her take showers by herself. It was upsetting." Other dads also report coming under closer watch from doctors, teachers, neighbors, their daughter’s friends’ parents, even complete strangers. "I get a chill thinking about the looks I get when I’m browsing the girls’ clothing racks," says Saltz, who got sole custody of his daughter after his former wife became sick and was hospitalized. With his children’s mother living in Canada, Mochida, too, is left mostly to do everything – shopping, cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring, chaperoning – "and that doesn’t include the surprises." His former wife, who has remarried and has a new son, pays him $300 a month in child support. She comes down every three months or so and takes their son and daughter to a hotel for a few days to visit, and the children go to Canada for a good part of the summer.

Circumscribed social lives are also a part of single dads’ stories. Though men remarry at statistically higher rates than women, historically, these have been men without custody of their children. As the pool of single fathers grows, men may find themselves taken out of the marketplace of relationships or at a distinct disadvantage, as single mothers report experiencing. Mochida recalls the time his date walked out of a restaurant when he dropped the bombshell that he was a father who had custody of his kids. "The waitress was blown away," he says.

Others say they have trouble finding opportunities to socialize as a family. Portnow says he orchestrated get-togethers on special occasions with out-of-state kin; for dates, he would invite women over and cook dinner for them with the boys in the house. Once, after such a dinner, he and his date retired to the couch in the living room, and he slipped his arm around her shoulders. The boys had gone outside to play, and they kept spying on the pair, peeping in the windows. "I thought it was amusing," he says, "but she flipped out and lectured me on how I wasn’t disciplining them."

Many single dads, it seems, do not have amicable relationships with their children’s mothers. Many have gotten custody (or lost it or regained it) only after prolonged court proceedings that wound up estranging the parents rather then fostering cooperation. Chris Broderick, for instance, won custody of his three children, all under the age of 10, when he and his wife divorced two years ago. Now, they are in court again. "I feel like it’s a ‘Can you baby-sit the kids for two years’ " deal, complains Broderick. "And now that it’s convenient, she wants them back."

In Massachusetts, the battle lines for now are drawn around proposed legislation backed by fathers’ rights groups that would expand the legal gold standard for determining custody – the best interests of the child – to include a presumption that both parents raise children on an equal basis. Women’s groups are arguing that the legislation would make it easier for batterers to gain access to children and that it puts parental rights before children’s well-being.

Jay Portnow says he has never had a problem with the concept that his sons needed their mother, he just wanted to make sure they got their father, too. "I remember cooking dinner for them. Later, they’d be asleep, and I’d be folding laundry. The house was warm and cozy. It was the best time of my life."