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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. »

For our dads' generation, the rules were clear-cut: A man would work to provide for his family and wait until he retired to enjoy their company. But it didn't always play out that way, says Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. "Often they came home and found they were strangers to their wife and their children," she says. "Several of the guys I talked to actually wept during the interview."

In my generation the sorrow comes not from what we never had, but what we had and lost. Take my friend Jeff Oster, 56. When he and his wife traveled to Colorado to visit their daughter Ari a few years ago, he assumed, as usual, that the three of them would hang out. But Ari's new boyfriend — that guy, as Oster viewed him — was always around, never giving Dad a chance to see his daughter alone. It hurt, deeply. "I know it's a natural step, but I didn't see it coming," he recalls. "There is no reference manual for that."

Maybe it's some comfort that many younger men are following our lead. The New York Times recently reported on a significant increase in the number of fathers attending school parent meetings in the past decade. And a report by the Pew Research Center also found that fathers of children under 18 who live with their kids "have become more intensely involved in their lives, spending more time with them and taking part in a greater variety of activities." In an unfortunate paradox, however, that same Pew study found that the number of children under 18 living apart from their fathers grew from 11 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2010 — and that nonresident dads spend less time with their kids. More than one quarter of nonresident fathers of minors told Pew they had not seen their kids in the past year. Instead of the steady, if somewhat removed, fatherly presence most of us remember from our childhoods — or our own search for a more active role for ourselves — it seems as if the next generation of dads will fall into one of two camps: either all in or hardly in at all. (The paradox, according to the Pew report, is explained in part by increases in out-of-wedlock births. Forty-six percent of all fathers report that at least one of their children was born out of wedlock.)

So where does that leave the middle generation? Do we fade gracefully into a traditional, secondary role with our kids or continue to be parental trailblazers? We may have to figure it out as we go, just as we did with hands-on fatherhood.

Next: Forget about being Mr. Fix-it. »

For starters, we may need to rethink our role as Mr. Fix-it — the idea that dads are supposed to save the day for young-adult children, whether it concerns career, finances or a faulty furnace. Instead, fathers should act as a "supply and support station," writes Ken Canfield, Ph.D., the founder of the National Center for Fathering. Offer the occasional home-cooked meal or even a car down payment.

And be available to provide advice — but only when kids ask for it. Cautions Jane Isay in Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, "When we tell [adult children] what they should do, they feel small and powerless all over again."

Along with being there when kids want advice, it's worthwhile to shift from teacher to learner, to recognize our kids' growing expertise and seek their advice ourselves.

There's no crime in telling them what we're feeling. "Our children tend to see us as fully grown, static adults: no changing, no learning," says Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D., author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children. "That's a mistake. After all, we've never been parents of adult children before. We're still making mistakes, feeling vulnerable, struggling. Explain that to your child."

I took her advice and talked to my children, separately, about my complicated emotions. And I asked them each the same question: What do you expect of me now as a father?

My son didn't hesitate: Be there when I need you. Or, as he's too polite to say himself: Butt out until I ask for help. My daughter gave a different response. In short, she said: I need your wisdom. The word jolted me. I felt both honored and a bit intimidated.

Their answers felt like a small breakthrough for me, providing more clarity in our relationships. As our family continues to grow and change, I will ask this question again.

For his part, Jeff Oster had his own small breakthrough. He and his wife still regularly visit their daughter in Colorado, but he has different expectations. The boyfriend who once caused him such heartache has become his son-in-law and the father of his first grandchild. Oster embraces the new man his daughter relies on. "That guy," he says, "is a good guy."

Ray Paprocki is a writer and editor living in Granville, Ohio.

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