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One and only dads

Numbers, challenges grow for single fathers

By Andrea Harry
There are an estimated 2.3 million single fathers in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Census Bureau

(CNN) -- In 1909, while listening to a Mother's Day sermon, Sonora Dodd thought of her father, William Smart, who had been left to raise his six children after his wife died.

Soon thereafter, Dodd marked the first "Father's Day," an idea first embraced around her hometown of Spokane, Washington, and eventually becoming a federal holiday in 1966.

This year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the holiday honors more than 66.3 million U.S. dads -- among them, an estimated 2.3 million single fathers, much like William Smart.

Smart's situation represented the main, if not only reason that a man from his generation would be raising his children alone. Now, more U.S. men than ever before have primary custody of their children -- and for more reasons than ever.

"Historically, single fathers were widowers left with the huge responsibility of caring for children," explains Dr. Ken Canfield, founder and president of the National Center for Fathering. "In the '70s and '80s, in a select few settings, fathers were for the first time beginning to be awarded custody of their children. They were just a small group."

Today, that group is far from small. Canfield, who is also a research scholar specializing in fatherhood and the history of the family, reports that single parent households headed by fathers with children younger than 18, is the fastest growing household form in America.

Among single parents living with their children, close to one in six is a father, compared with one in 10 in 1970, according to Census Bureau stats. Of that number, only 5 percent are widowed. A majority of them are divorced (42 percent) or have never been married (38 percent).

Stereotypes: Fighting the images of Mr. Mom

From the 1963 film "Courtship of Eddie's Father" to 1987's "Three Men and a Baby," Hollywood has long portrayed single fathers on the big screen and on TV. Many of the humorous depictions, however, fuel stereotypes about single dads, according to experts.

One misperception is that fathers get primary custody of their children only when the mother is unfit to raise them.

1987's "Three Men and a Baby"

"There's this assumption that the father would not have gotten custody under ordinary circumstances, [and] that only if the mother has gone crazy or is in rehab or is in jail," said Armin Brott, author of "The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting Without a Partner."

While this may be true in some situations, it's not always the case -- at least not today.

Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, believes there's clearly been a change in the way U.S. courts perceive fathers. He ties this trend to the increasing role that many men play in their children's lives.

"It's a circular effect, men do more child care, the judges are more likely to give them custody," said Cherlin. "A few decades ago, few of these men would have custody of their kids. Even if the mother was incapable, the child might have been put in a foster care home rather than given to a father."

Some unique challenges

Greg Jones, a software designer for Fannie Mae, gained custody of his two daughters seven years ago after a divorce. The transition to being a single dad hasn't always been easy, he admits, citing decidedly non-masculine subjects like menstruation and bra shopping.

"I mean those things are big challenges that I still don't know how to do that well," Jones said. "I said, 'Well, she's a female, of course she knows how to put on a bra.' But, you know, she's put on the same amount of bras as I had at that point."

start quote"They need to get in there and make the mistakes, and learn the skills that parents need to have."end quote
-- Author Armin Brott

Single fathers shouldn't be afraid of making mistakes, said Brott.

"Kids are resilient little creatures and if you make a few mistakes, they'll survive," he added. "So many fathers that I have spoken to are afraid of making mistakes. We feel very much under the watchful eye of society ... They need to get in there and make the mistakes, and learn the skills that parents need to have."

Not only do single fathers such as Jones face day-to-day challenges raising their children, they also sometimes face stigmas in society about parenthood. Some individuals, perhaps their own bosses, may not grasp how their situations may be different -- and require more flexibility -- than if they belonged to a traditional, two-parent family.

Employers and the community at large should be more accepting of single fathers, insists Canfield. He advocates "family flex time" in the workplace, allowing a parent to take time out of their day to visit their child's school or attend a child's activity.

"I think [flex time is] a great benefit, more important than a job raise. It would just do so much to keep children from potentially difficult situations" said Canfield.

"Single fathers are valiant and important to their child's well-being. As important as single parent moms," he added. " We need to look for ways to support and encourage these fathers in their unique circumstances."

Help for dads

In President Bush's 2003 Father's Day proclamation, he noted that fathers -- be they single or married -- bear a host of important responsibilities.

"Fathers have indispensable roles to play in the lives of their children: provider, protector, nurturer, teacher and friend. Every caring father unconditionally loves his sons and daughters and strives for the best for his children in the future."

Single fathers, like other single parents, may sometimes need extra help -- something they can get, ideally, from relatives and friends.


Dr. Ken Canfield's tips for new single fathers:

1) Create a support network to help them tackle the full responsibilities of fatherhood

2) Don't disrespect the children's mother -- for whatever reason

3) Help the children build relationships with significant people in their lives, including relatives of their mothers

4) Find parenting role models and ask them for advice, inspiration and hands-on help skills from

"As a society, we have an assumption that women are better than men at care giving," said Brott. "The reality is that there is no research to back that up at all. The fact is that men and women are equally caring and loving; it's just that women have a lot more practice."

The National Center for Fathering, among other organizations, gives single and married fathers advice on everything from changing diapers to paying for college. Founded by Canfield in 1990, NCF reaches more than 1 million dads annually through seminars, small group training, a weekly e-mail and its Web site,

"Many men -- and [they are] growing in numbers -- grew up without fathers or not the best of relationships. They were asking for practical skills, help and how to nurture and care for children in the best possible way," said Canfield.

And if the current trend holds true, the number of children raised in such an environment will only rise in the coming years.

CNN's Ethel Bass contributed to this report.

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