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Who Needs Dad?

When moms have more power and kids leave the nest, a father must rethink his role

As a guy, it's hard not to feel defensive these days. More and more, American men are getting the message that they're dispensable. Two years ago, for the first time, women held more than half of American jobs, and the recession proved especially harsh for fields dominated by men, such as manufacturing and high finance. One new book calls women "The Richer Sex"; another proclaims "The End of Men."

See also: Obama, the president and dad.

Two mugs representing father and child

Many fathers are rethinking their role in parenting. — Photo by Mark Lund/CGI illustration by Chris O'Riley

Things are shaky on the home front, too. Single motherhood has become increasingly common; more than half of U.S. births to women younger than 30 occur outside marriage. A well-publicized report in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2010 even suggested that a child with two moms gets better parenting, on average, than a child with a mom and a dad. It can leave a father wondering: What is my role? Am I obsolete?

I know I'm feeling puzzled, even though my kids are grown. More than 20 years ago, when my son and daughter were small, I was committed to spending time with them. I stayed home with my oldest for two years, and when I went to work full-time, I declined golf invitations and boys' nights out. In some small way I felt as if I were waving the flag for the new kind of dad, and others my age say they felt the same. "I'm amazed at how our parents kind of ignored what was going on," says Jon Hurst, 52, who lives near Boston and is the father of three adult children. "We are more watchful, day by day, hour by hour."

But now that both of my kids are living several states away from my wife and me, I find myself in a nether ­ world. More often than not, when they call home, they talk to their mother. That's natural, I suppose, since my wife's flexible schedule as a freelance writer allowed her to be more involved with their daily lives as they grew up. I don't want to make them repeat what they've told her, so I settle for secondhand news.

I love the rare times when I get the Call for Help, whether it's Justin, 31, asking how to fix a broken garbage disposal or Ana, 25, needing a mechanic. But I also love it when my kids have the confidence to solve their own dilemmas — a bittersweet point of pride.

Like many boomer dads, I saw myself as a parenting pioneer — more active, engaged, and affectionate than men of my father's generation. And now I'm discovering that forging closer ties with children can have a surprising downside. When kids grow up, heavily involved fathers can feel abandoned. Says Los Angeles life coach Natalie Caine, founder of Empty Nest Support Services, these men don't just "want a view in the window but a seat in the living room."

I know moms also grapple with the task of letting go, though, unlike most men, they can discuss the transition with role models who have gone before: their own mothers or other trusted women. Many modern dads are improvising, says John Duffy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist near Chicago and author of The Available Parent. When he and his brother talked to their father about wanting to actively parent their children, "He said, 'C'mon, this is women's work,' " Duffy recalls.

Next: Dad's no longer the breadwinner. »

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