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Borderlands: A Growing Phenomenon: Single Fathers 15 (1997)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

A Growing Phenomenon: Single Fathers

Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.

By Margie Gamez

Where in the world does a father change a diaper at the mall or in a restaurant? Changing stations are finally available in most ladies rooms, but how can he dare go there? This is only one dilemma that a single father must face every day. But it is one that more and more men are having to solve.

Whether by choice or out of necessity, more single men are taking active roles in parenting. According to the United States Census Bureau, 1,060,000 households were run by single fathers in 1980. By 1994, the number had doubled to 2,286,900. Last year, in 1996, 12.4 million fathers were reported to be heads of households in the United States.

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What appears to be a modern phenomenon had its beginnings as early as the mid 1800s when many men had custody of their children for reasons not as applicable today. A man in the 1800s could very well outlive his wife. Many women died during childbirth and the fathers along with other family members raised the children.

Divorce during this time was not common, but it did exist. When divorce occurred, fathers usually received custody of the children because men enjoyed a social status that women did not. Many men worked their own farms and did not need to leave their households to go to work. Courts saw fathers as better prepared to support children after divorces, and men received custody.

Image caption: Melquiadez Telles raised five children as a single father.  From left, Santiago Tellez, Maria De La Luz Zamarron, Melquiadez Tellez, Celia Gamez, Isabel Tellez, and Camilo Tellez. Photo courtesy of Margie Gomez

It wasn't until after the Industrial Revolution that women were given the opportunity to have a more active role in their children's lives. Men were taken from their farms to go to war and began to work in cities, preventing them from spending the time they once had raising their children. Because of their working status, men no longer received primary custody in divorce cases.

In the 1970s, large numbers of fathers began seeking active parenting roles in the family. According to Steven Garasky, Iowa State University Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, "The number of single fathers started rising rapidly after 1975 when laws passed that beefed up enforcement of child support payments." Men began requesting custody of their children when filing for divorce. Today, fathers who are actively involved in raising a child are more likely to file for custody of their children.

In years past, custody of minor children often automatically went to the mother, but with more than half of American mothers in the work force today, judges often decide on the child's best interest. Maricopa County (Arizona) Judge Kenneth Fields says, "New domestic relations judges are undergoing training that is supposed to teach them to be as blind to gender as possible in deciding custody."

Geoffrey Grief, author of the book The Daddy Track and the Single Father, says men receive custody for different reasons, ranging from "fathers being more emotionally competent to mother wanting a career." Grief interviewed one father who reminds the public that children have different needs: "We [fathers] reject out of hand the whole presumption that the mother makes all the decisions for children or is the only parent fit to raise them. Women want equal rights in the workplace. Well, we want it in the family court."

Men also receive sole custody of their children when their spouses die. Single fathers must face two traumas: widowhood and the knowledge they are the sole parent of their children. Men who have not always been actively involved in raising the children are faced with the struggle of not only raising them alone but also of convincing themselves that they are capable of the job. Although some men do have the love and support from family on both sides, they find the job is still both demanding and time consuming.

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Before a man is through grieving, he is faced with the immediate task of caring for his children. El Pasoan Alex Dario, single father of two, says, "I hate the fact that my wife died, but I don't think I would have ever gotten as close to my kids as I am now."

Some men simply feel a need to nurture children, a longing that single women have fulfilled for decades. The 1980s and 1990s have seen a rise in men who want to be single fathers by choice. Adoption is a very difficult and expensive process for single people and particularly for single fathers. Questions arise such as:  How stable will the prospective home be? If the father must work, who will provide child care? Is a single man willing and able to raise a mixed-race child or a handicapped child? These are questions single women seeking to adopt have faced for years.

Like some couples, some single men search for surrogate mothers to have their child rather than adopt. ElIzabeth Mehren, reporter for the Los Angeles Times, quotes Kevin Randall, who searched for a woman to carry his child: "Finding the right person who is willing is not an overnight job."

Surrogacy can be much more expensive than adoption. Mehren says the average cost for people seeking to become parents by surrogates is about $40,000, including legal fees. There is also the chance of a nasty confrontation and court case after the child is born, should the mother decide to back out for any reason.

""Image caption: Michael Hopper is a single father of two, shown here with his fiancee.  From left, Nathan, Michael, Kelley Conley, and Micah. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Hopper

Although many single mothers work full time, employers often hesitate to hire a single father. Most men are questioned about the responsibilities of holding a family together alone. Employers hesitate, knowing that work is not the single father's main priority. The same employer may hire a single mother but fails to realize that single fathers encounter problems just as single mothers do.

Barri Bronston, in an article on single fathers, says, "Just as the women's movement generated a surge in the number of women entering the work force, many men are taking as active interest in their kids as their jobs." While women have been accepted on the job as single parents, men are having to fight for the opportunity to prove themselves.

As one single father says, "Lots of fathers are viewed as paychecks rather than loving, supportive, caring parents." In his article "Single Dad, Double Duty," Ben Winton says although single fathers are the largest growing segment of the American population, society fails to give them the credit they deserve. People continue to view single fathers as incompetent to raise a family alone.

David Gallardo, El Paso single father of three, says, "Although family and schools are very supportive, most people still stereotype me as just another single parent. I stay very close in touch with my kids' schools and they are all in advanced classes." Adds the proud Gallardo: "I am a much better parent than a lot of parents are."

Stereotypes that cause some men to ridicule other men for taking on "women's work" when they could continue to lead carefree bachelor lives do not help single fathers. And Newsweek reporter Jean Seligmann says, "Women sometimes see single fathers rearing children as a threat."

Although the number of single fathers has increased dramatically in the last two decades, questions and doubts remain. A society that is taught that the mother is the nurturing parent and the father is the breadwinner and disciplinarian is slow to accept and adjust to a phenomenon such as single fathers. But with one of every two marriages failing, someone must provide children with a stable home. Sometimes that best someone is the father.

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