At the park a father scoops his toddler up for a diaper check, bending one arm around his son’s back and bottom. Perched on his dad’s hip and bouncing his back against the supporting arm, the child dangles his legs on either side, chanting, “Dada, Dada, Dada . . . ” The father hooks a fingertip down inside the diaper.

“Yup, wet again.” He sighs.

“No, no, no, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” responds the father, laying his sweatshirt on the grass in the shade.

The toddler lies on his back, plucking his lips with his fingers as the father unsnaps the inside pants seams with a quick tug. He pulls the plastic pants down in a smooth movement born of familiar routine, leaving one ankle in its leg hole. The toddler pats the diaper, “Wet, wet.”

Quickly the father unpins one side and then the other. The open pins he holds momentarily between his teeth. The wet diaper is tossed in a plastic bag and a dry diaper slides under the toddler’s bottom. With one hand the father pulls a back corner of the diaper across his son’s tummy; the other hand tugs a front corner toward the back, until the cloth is snug around one plump leg. Then with one hand he holds the corners together, thumb on top, fingers underneath, to protect the baby skin in case the pin should prick through.

On a nearby bench one mother says to another, “Cloth, no less.”

“Hold still now.” The father takes one pin, still biting the other between his teeth. He gives it a brief wipe beside his nose, perhaps to make it pierce the thick cotton more easily. He seems to have developed his own working style. Holding the pin horizontally, he sticks it in and out the cloth speedily and snaps it shut. The next instant the toddler, who has been feeling his bellybutton, reaches for the other pin, but the other corner is overlapped unevenly and the pin is being fastened. The diaper wraps the baby’s body in a sensible, wrinkled way, hardly neat, but completely functional.

“Up, up,” the little one complains, and he tries to roll over, but the father shifts his knee and holds it lightly above the boy’s body. Meanwhile he sticks his hand through the empty leg hole of the plastic pants and grabs the free ankle, pulling it back through. Just as the child’s whine of frustration escalates into a cry of profound rage the father scoops him up and sets him on his feet. The howl subsides in seconds and the child cheerily utters what must be his version of “there we go.” The consonants are all missing but the intonation is perfect.

The father hitches the plastic pants up and tucks in an edge of diaper here and there. “OK, kiddo, clean and dry.”

“Eye, nose, mouth . . . ” lists the boy, earnestly poking his father’s face as the overalls are resnapped.

“Wait a sec,” the father commands. “Four, five, six. All done.”

“All done,” echoes the boy, and off he canters, headed for the slide.

An older gentleman strolling by has stopped to watch, curious and a little amazed. As the father slips the plastic bag inside a small pack the gentleman remarks, with a slight accent, “In my country I have never seen such a thing.”

The father smiles. “Welcome to America.”

From the direction of the slide comes a wail of distress, “Daddee!” and the father nods good-bye to the gentleman and jogs over toward the slide.

Incidents like these may still be the exception rather than the rule, but small as their numbers are, these hands-on fathers are going about their daily tasks amid surprised smiles, raised eyebrows, and a few dropped jaws. A small but growing number of fathers are choosing to nurture their children themselves, right from the start. A few are househusbands or work part-time, but most are employed full-time and devote the other half of their waking hours to parenting. Many are married and share the work with the children’s mother. A few are doing it on their own. Whether “househusbands” or “working dads,” these “new” fathers find their emotional and physical stamina tested to its limit. The dilemmas for all these various “superdads,” as they stretch themselves thin, juggle roles, and pioneer new territory, remain largely unrecognized. For Mark Podolner, however, providing support and education to fathers is a full-time career.

“A certain percentage of men–I wouldn’t say the majority by any means–have in fact discovered the secret that women have had all these years, which is that child care is this phenomenal thing. I mean, that babies are incredible. . . . This small group, maybe 10 percent of the fathers, I think it is, is in fact discovering the joys of babies, the permanence of it all, the spirituality of connecting up to the process of life itself. This has been men’s problem; we’re disconnected from life. Child rearing gets you in touch with the entire natural process of life. It gets you in touch with yourself, which is the scary part of it, too. And it can be fun, too, fun in a way that men have not necessarily had the chance to experience before. So men are falling in love with babies all across the country, and it’s having some profound repercussions. They are slow moving, but they’re profound.”

Mark Podolner is willing to broach a number of subjects so touchy that sometimes just to name them is to provoke an emotional explosion. For over ten years he has counseled individual fathers and led fathers’ groups–for new and expectant fathers, for divorced fathers, for single-parent fathers, adoptive fathers, you name it. He is a father of two who worked half-time for six years so he could stay home the other half and share with his wife the raising of their children. He credits his wife for supporting him in his efforts with fathers. She sometimes watched over the children so the fathers could talk, and during some years she worked full-time so he could work half-time and volunteer his services to other fathers. With both their children in school, both parents now work full-time.

Podolner holds a master’s degree in early childhood education from the Erikson Institute and has worked as director for a day-care center and as a preschool teacher. He is the founding board member of Fathering Support Services, which grew out of a divorced fathers’ group that Podolner led for many years.

“A father might come in, in crisis, having just had an interaction with the legal system or with his ex-wife where he was unable to see his kid, and he’d be in a state of raw despair. . . . The system assumes that the father is the less nurturant and less able to care for the child. What these men needed was for someone to listen to their story, which nobody had, and to connect them up to other men in similar situations. They needed someone to support their nurturing qualities and to help them resolve and diminish and rechannel the anger and frustration that they felt. They came in to heal.

“And one of the things I loved about the group, and the reason I kept on doing it even when I was no longer being paid, was that this was the only group of men that I ever dealt with, and it’s still the case, who, because they were in crisis, actually were in touch with their feelings and dealing with them. Men who are not in crisis are not in touch with their feelings, don’t care about talking about their feelings, and don’t do so. And then you have to talk to women to get that connection. It gave me a sense of connection to men that I almost never got from fathers in intact families.”

The problem soon became that the administrative work of running Fathering Support Services, seeking funding and volunteers, and publishing the newsletter ate up so much of Podolner’s time that he found himself with little opportunity to actually work with fathers. Beyond a loyal core of extraordinarily self-aware fathers, Podolner also found that many men weren’t ready to reveal themselves within a group.

“The problem with most men, which is the reason that it is so difficult to organize, is that, if a group of women connect up, and they have a tremendous experience with each other, you can count on the fact that not only would they be back there next week, but they would bring a friend. But with men, you could have a session that really cut to the quick, was really key, where people got out their real feelings and connected to each other in a way they hadn’t previously, and next week none of them will be there again. Unless men are in great personal crisis, so that they have little choice but to deal with their feelings, they tend to avoid facing them and especially risking sharing them. Any time things get really intimate, there would be this tremendous resistance. Men are terrified of intimacy, that’s what I’ve come to accept–this is heterosexual men. Because of that it is very hard to do anything on a sustained group basis. In fact, I’m not convinced it’s possible, in large measure, to work with men in groups. What I ended up doing over the years was gravitating towards individual counseling, one to one.

“We conditioned men for centuries that they have to be invulnerable. It’s an important part of male psychology. . . . Now women have been able to move very quickly into what men do because women have always worked, it’s just that they weren’t paid before. But for men the idea of sharing feelings is an admission of weakness. And it is that admission of weakness that is virtually impossible for most men.

“I’m just beginning to get a sense of [how to get fathers together] after about ten years of failure. I’m beginning to see what you would have to do. We don’t yet have the resources to do it, but one thing would be anonymous calling. You’d have to have all kinds of phone lines for fathers so they wouldn’t have to reveal themselves to other people in order to get some kind of help. I often envision a social service program for fathers in a bar. That’s one place men go. It seems if you could have trained people for bartenders, working with the fathers–it is somewhat facetious but, if you take the principle of starting where your client is at–” He shrugs and drops his hands. “A colleague of mine seems to have the most innovative approach, consistent with where men are actually at, at least middle-class men. He has a vision of setting up a fathering computer network where people can plug in and talk to each other through modems. That’s a strong possibility because it protects anonymity in some ways.”

In the fall of ’86 Podolner wrote an open letter to members of Fathering Support Services in the quarterly newsletter, explaining why he was resigning as executive director. He wrote, “The reality is that though we have made tremendous progress in terms of the general atmosphere regarding fathering, our organization has not developed to the point where we either have an outside source of funding, sufficient funding from the membership, and/or sufficient volunteers to accomplish what FSS set out to do: ‘provide comprehensive services to fathers and their children.’ . . . One of the most painful realities is that fathers themselves do not advocate for such service nor do they readily volunteer to help others. Our socialization to gain self-sufficiency and invulnerability greatly interferes with our capacity to even begin to set up the kind of support network that women readily develop.”

Speaking about this curious and depressing phenomenon, Podolner says, “It is an absolute dynamic for men. They think they may want to help others, but they don’t. So each man ends up dealing with it on an isolated, individual basis, and they’re not doing anything to change things. Compare that to women, who organize against discrimination, and volunteer, and support each other in groups. . . . I’ve had some dark thoughts about men’s real, sincere desires to help anybody other than themselves.

“It is scary for divorced fathers to see others going through those same traumas, and very painful to go back and witness. Men are embarrassed by that kind of vulnerability and despair. It is very troubling. But still you would expect that, on balance, over a number of years, you would pick up some people who would volunteer some time to Fathering Support Services. . . . We’ve actually picked up one in ten years. The guy that is now running this group that I started and ran for seven or eight years is the only person in Chicago that I’m aware of that is consistently devoted to working with divorced fathers. He doesn’t get paid for it. It’s just something he believes in doing.” That man is Steven Karshen and he is now the coordinator for Fathering Support Services.

Among other things, Podolner leads the For Fathers Only program at Michael Reese Hospital, which meets for four weeks. The class covers infant stimulation, music, play, and massage, but more important, it deals with the intangibles.

“The intensity of feeling around having a child is great enough to get more men involved than at any other point.” Podolner knows from firsthand experience that in order for a father to be able to comfort a baby he must empathetically experience the infant’s helplessness as his own. “The fear of intimacy is a great one, too. Almost no men will articulate that. They are not aware of it in that sense. But that’s why babies are so difficult. They bring up such raw feelings, and there are some men who feel that this is very hard for them. The helplessness of their child is the external part of that. The other part of that is just the onrush of feelings that many men are not ready to cope with.”

For the first session the fathers come alone, and for the remaining three they bring their 3- to 12-month-old babies. A diverse mix of fathers, ranging in age from 24 to 61, have enrolled in the classes. Most are married but a couple have picked up their babies from their girlfriends’ homes on Saturday mornings to attend the class. Whether biological or adoptive fathers, black or white, hard-charging professionals or Mr. Moms, what these men have in common is the high priority they place on nurturing their children. Though this summer’s July class had only three members, usually the class has about eight in a group, and, according to one father, friendships formed there can be sustained long afterward.

On one particular Saturday, Podolner enters wearing a “Snugli” carrying pouch. A lifelike newborn doll is zipped and snapped inside. “The class is just three guys this term, and one guy can’t make it today,” he tells me. “So you’re getting a chance to see what working with men in groups is really like.” Podolner does not seem to mind starting small, and the two fathers here are equally eager. Merlin King watches carefully as Podolner unzips the pouch and lifts the doll from it.

As class is getting started Norm Harelik is changing his daughter, Beth, who just had her first birthday. She is squirming to get free.

“Yeah, I know,” he says, “you’d rather be crawling.” In a moment he is playing a sort of Simon Says game with her.

“Pat your tummy, Beth.” She does so, and it is hard to tell which of them is more pleased with the accomplishment.

“Pat your head. That’s it.” Beth gestures to her father and Norm obligingly pats his own head. “Now clap your hands.” She does, and beams as everybody in the room follows suit.

Merlin has his arm around his five-month-old daughter, Jasmine, as she sits on his lap.

“How’s your baby doing? What’s new?” asks Podolner.

“Oh, she’s just being her regular old self,” Merlin replies. “Making more sounds. When I set her on her stomach she starts trying to fly. Baby yoga.”

At first Jasmine is relaxed and listening alertly to the talk of the three men around her, but soon she starts to fuss. Merlin tries another position, gently bouncing her on his leg, then laying her back in his arms to rock her. The conversation turns to comforting techniques.

“If Beth’s hurt herself and is really upset, she likes to be held in tight, with both my arms around her, and one hand on the back of her head,” says Norm. His daughter, Beth, climbs on and around him as he sits on the carpet.

Podolner shows how to put on a Snugli, explaining that the carrying pouch is a little like the womb, holding the baby tight, near the sound of the parent’s heartbeat. Merlin is checking it out.

“Last winter I went downtown with Beth in a Snugli,” Norm recounts, grinning. “I zipped my parka over it too. I looked pregnant.”

“Yeah, it allows fathers to feel pregnant. To feel what it’s like,” nods Podolner.

Jasmine gives a sad little whine and makes an openmouthed sound. Merlin offers her a bottle, which contents her.

The talk turns to stranger anxiety, babies’ fear of booming voices, and bedtime routines.

When Jasmine finishes her bottle Merlin stands and holds her to his shoulder, rocking from foot to foot. She burps neatly as he checks her diaper.

“Uh-oh,” he says and goes about changing her. “I really don’t like this part,” he adds, but he chats to her as he wipes her bottom clean. Beth crawls intently across the carpet in a mad dash for the dirty diaper, but Norm crawls faster and appeases her with a bottle.

“If her mommy’s in the room I can’t do much to comfort her. But when I’m about to go to work, she clings to my leg. Then she wants me,” says Norm.

“Yeah, of course babies want both parents’ attention all the time. Isn’t that smart, the way she figures out that you’re leaving and goes after what she wants?” Podolner responds. “But it’s tough playing second fiddle. She’s with her mother more of the time, and she’s still nursing some, right?”

Merlin jiggles a whining Jasmine but it doesn’t seem to do the trick. Podolner lifts Beth onto his lap, where she seems right at home.

“Yes, Jasmine’s cranky, isn’t she, Beth? Are you cranky when you’re tired?” Beth shakes her head. Merlin slows his jiggling motion and Jasmine lowers her pitch a bit. Picking up on that cue, Merlin slows to an easy rocking and Jasmine’s wails subside.

Podolner passes out song sheets. “The hardest thing about singing play songs is that we’re not used to making idiots of ourselves. So we have to practice.”

Fed, full, clean, and dry, Jasmine is rubbing her eyes. Merlin sighs, wishing she could stay awake while he learns the songs that Podolner has brought in. There is no fighting it. He pats his daughter quietly to sleep on a couple of padded chairs. Three male voices sing together.

Hush little baby don’t say a word,

Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird . . .

Soon the three fathers are walking in a circle, singing a boisterous song–Norm carrying Beth, who is in seventh heaven, Podolner carrying the doll, and Merlin holding a stuffed animal as a substitute for Jasmine, who is sleeping fast. The men launch into a rousing chorus as they fly, swim, and hop to the store. They slap thighs, clap hands, and wiggle fingers. Beth gets all the jokes. When Podolner gives his deep-voiced rendition of “The Great Big [as opposed to Teensy-Weensy] Spider,” Beth applauds.

“I thought you might enjoy seeing your dads look like complete fools,” laughs Podolner. The men are all sitting on the floor by now. Beth crawls up into Merlin’s lap.

“Ask her to slip you some skin,” says Norm.

“Hey, Beth, slip me some skin.” Beth wipes her small pale hand across Merlin’s brown one and then holds her palm up expectantly, and the friendship is sealed.

The conversations that take place when a visitor is not present go beyond comforting techniques and learning lullabies. Eric Spencer, who took the class last term, talks about it while his 14-month-old adopted son, Alex, plays in a sandbox at a park. “I kind of expected the fathers to be a bit reticent, kind of bashful. I had these preconceived ideas. Well, halfway into our first session people just really opened up. Mark said to us, ‘Let’s think about how our fathers parented us, and some of the changes we would have liked to have seen.’ Mark told us about his own father, who worked long, hard hours. He never did really get close to his father, and always yearned to be close. And then I realized, gee, that’s why I am this way with children. . . . I would like to have been a lot closer to my father. Any time he did have he would spend with us. He and I would clown around together. But he did not have much time. I loved him, but I wanted to really know him. Sadly enough, it wasn’t until the last three years of my father’s life that we got close. There was a special moment, and it evokes a lot of emotions, just that eye contact, the quietness sitting together. I was able to realize, ‘Yeah, I know. You really wish that you had had more time too.’ It was such a hell of a revelation that I decided I would never let a job, material things, or anything else come between my children and me. Consequently I’m always with children.” Indeed, Spencer has several older foster children, and plans to adopt more children. He is taking time off from a very well paying social work career in order to be with Alex, despite his company’s offer to finance a private nanny if he would stay on the job. He and his wife now live on her income, and have recently shifted schedules so that they share the child care about equally. Podolner’s Fathers Only class apparently attracts a lot of fathers who are exceptions to the rule.

Spencer suddenly leaps up and plucks a scrap of paper away from Alex’s fist before he can cram it in his mouth. “Plah. Plah.” Throughout the conversation Spencer showers Alex with attention one moment, then picks up his thoughts where he left off. “Mark is a very surprising person, with an amazing amount of energy. He’s a real motivator, very positive. He makes you laugh, he’s kind of a jock, and he’s very sensitive and caring. He’s willing to open up and let a little hurt show in order to help conceptualize whatever point he’s trying to make. He’s a bit shy. Either that or he’s a great actor. He touched on every father’s personality that was in the class. And he brought out a lot of points, but it was like we were allowed to do our own workshop.”

For Spencer, the real content of the class was the peer support in adjusting to fatherhood. “There was a point in the beginning where I was going crazy, thinking, “Oh, what am I doing? He’s dry and fed, but he’s crying. What’s wrong? I’m not a good father. I’m not working. I’m not living up to my manly responsibilities.’ There was no one to talk to. The isolation was very difficult. I didn’t realize that I was feeling suffocated. So I began to get out to the park, I took this class, I find these other fathers and it’s great. Just being able to reach out to another male and say, ‘Hey, I find myself kind of stressed out here.’

“This movement is tiny, but it is happening. It’s having an effect.”

While leading a group for divorced fathers nearly a decade ago Podolner hit upon his own way to help men become better fathers than their fathers were to them. “It began to occur to me that what people were really looking for was just to be kind of refathered themselves. If you think about what fathering is, or should be, I think of it as this kind of unconditional love that we associate with mothering. Except that when you’re a man, I mean, mothering is good, but you need this other dose of nurturance from an adult male figure that just basically accepts you and offers you an approach that says, ‘You’re my kid and whatever you did is all right. And maybe you messed up this time, but I still love you.’ Not that I didn’t critically examine things that they said, if that’s what they wanted, but I found that underneath their need was for somebody to accept them.

“So at some point one of these guys that had been in the group for years said something to me about how I was ‘the Father of Fathering,’ and I thought, gee, that’s really the ultimate compliment for me. Because that’s sort of what had happened. I had created an atmosphere where fathers could be fathered, and therefore feel better about being fathers. I just wanted to give them more self-confidence about what they were naturally inclined to do anyway.”

Podolner talks about “being the father you wish you had,” a phrase coined by writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin. “I go around whenever I am speaking and ask, ‘How many people feel that they got a close relationship with their fathers–one that was healthy, and that they got strength from?’ There is always a very small percentage of people who raise their hands. And then I ask, ‘How many had a close, warm, supportive relationship with their mothers?’ It’s always about triple or quadruple the number. And that’s true for both men and women. In fact, this whole society, one might argue, has a massive case of father absence in children’s lives.

“There are a lot of repercussions from that. But it’s worse for men because, of course, their father is their role model. The boys grow up trying to be like somebody who isn’t there. And so they partly identify with the mother. They have to; she’s the only one that’s there. Plus, it’s nearly always women baby-sitters and teachers that care for them for the first 10 or 12 years of their life. In part, what boys do is distance themselves from this role encroachment by rebelling against their mothers and becoming overly aggressive, and by developing a relational pattern where they aren’t really that close to people. You are always creating these boys that are hostile towards the world. They literally want to destroy the world of nature. It’s anachronistic aggression. And these boys grow up wanting to oppress women because women have had this kind of control over them all these years. This is a theory that Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote about in The Mermaid and the Minotaur. Of course the way to change all that, and I agree completely, is to have men share in taking care of children.”

Podolner conceived, designed, and moderated a two-part conference entitled “Theory as It Relates to Fatherhood” through the Erikson Institute last April. Gathered there were some of the spokesmen for the fathering movement. Dr. Larry B. Feldman is a psychiatrist, professor at Loyola University’s school of medicine, teacher of family therapy, author, and father. Dr. Isaac Balbus is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, author, and father. Respondents included Jeffery Leving, JD, and Richard H. Weinberg, MA, who coauthored the current Illinois joint-custody law, as well as author Tim Spacek and social worker Peter Lautz.

Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur and Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering both argue that the female hand that rocks the cradle is remembered as too powerful to be allowed to rule the world. According to these authors, we lean over backward in order to counterbalance women’s private power over children by reserving for men exclusively the public power to define and direct our culture. Balbus sums up Dinnerstein’s theory this way: “Mother-raised men develop a profound stake in the domination of women, and mother-raised women a profound need to acquiesce in this subordination. . . . [Female-dominated child care] encourages women to seek intimacy with, and serve the needs of, the very men whose fear of intimacy leads them to need to avoid and control women.”

Both Dinnerstein and Chodorow make the distinction between bearing and rearing children, and contend that women’s monopoly on child care is neither intrinsic nor inevitable. The deepest resistance to changing parenting so that it is more egalitarian lies in opinions and attitudes that are strong because they reverberate back to our own infancy.

It is generally accepted that a child’s lifelong view of himself or herself is largely shaped at a tender age. A newborn can’t tell where self ends and the world begins. Before she is recognized by the infant as a person, the mother is the “not me” out of which the self must be carved. Female shape, smell, and voice is the whole natural world, the source of life so needed for survival. The baby feels safely connected to a benevolent presence, except for rare moments of fear of falling. Men don’t carry this aura of carnal communion and contamination. Men appear to be artificially “clean,” to represent mind, not body, and culture, not nature. They are not to blame for birth or death, or for our bodies’ humiliating weaknesses and needs.

Both men and women carry the unconscious memory of the absolute and boundless power that their mothers wielded over them, bestowing perfect bliss or withholding her attention (for there are times when even the most devoted mother has no choice). Gradually it dawns on the toddler that the one who either ignores or answers his or her cries is a woman, in a world of men and women. It is this woman who can satisfy or prolong hunger, quench or worsen thirst, and warm a chill and dry dampness or allow them to persist. It is as though she controls the weather. It is she who can ease loneliness and fear of abandonment with her touch or put off answering the cry of despair. Yet it is partly through these inevitable frustrations that the baby senses “I may want one thing but she wants another,” and so begins to achieve a sense of self. As necessary as frustration is to human growth, it is the things we can’t remember that we also never forget. Our unconscious memory of our all-powerful mothers may be why a woman with power is such a scary thing to both women and men.

If fathers cared for infants too, there would no longer be a special category of person whose gender carries a sub- or superhuman flavor. The mostly absent father would no longer be idealized as a refuge from maternal tyranny. Dinnerstein hypothesizes that lacking suitable targets for our unresolved grudges, we would no longer be able to evade the task of recognizing our once awesome parent as a fellow creature who deserves to be treated with ordinary human respect. Both sexes would be part of the early emotional aura. Both would share any blame. And both would be equally entitled to full human status.

During toddlerhood, when the little boy or girl struggles to form a separate identity by exerting his or her own independent will, it is usually the mother who absorbs this rage and fury. It is a woman who says no and who has control over young children, who struggle toward mastery of their own lives. She holds firm despite the temper tantrum at the candy counter. She banishes the child upstairs for biting, where he or she nurses grievances. To the child she will at times seem capricious and, when in a fearsome temper, even malevolent. The child must wait for her to tie a shoe, or open a door, and resents this dependence. The child wants to monopolize her, but from time to time she abandons her or him, to love others and lead a life of her own. She does it on purpose, which seems to justify the toddler’s taking from her, or a later woman like her, whatever can be gotten. The toddler has urges to avenge on her any deprivations, and then, fearing rejection, to make reparation to her.

She is also the mirror and audience; her response is crucial for the baby’s sense of self. But even as the mother stimulates identity, she stands as an obstacle to selfhood. To the growing child her sympathy and comfort seems a lure back into nonbeing. Her standing offer of intimacy seems to wait to engulf and drown autonomy. The child wonders before there are words, “Maybe the primitive joy of feeling at one with my body and the world must be sacrificed before I can become ‘me,’ able to preserve my boundaries, my skin.” The ambivalence is intense and the anxiety of having conflicting and passionate needs, love and anger toward one being is unbearable. Dinnerstein believes that we all, to varying degrees, find it tempting to sidestep the unquieting catharsis and epiphany that would bring an integrated view of our complex paradoxical species. It is threatening to recognize that our early parent was and is only a fallible, ordinary person who, like the rest of humanity, imperfectly did the best she could.

Because girls are raised by a same-gender parent and boys are raised by an opposite-gender parent, men tend to focus on the separateness and boundaries of people’s identities, while women tend to focus on what transpires between people. (Carol Gilligan also reports this finding in her book, In a Different Voice.) Both sexes grow up lopsided, doomed to irreconcilable differences. Fixed ideas of gender roles enter into every relationship, sustaining the collective neurosis. Relationships between women and relationships between men, whether sexual or platonic, are all troubled by this lack of full and balanced humanity. Cliched gender roles may constrict, but they are comfortingly clear. We are all more or less fish-tailed or bull-headed, mermaids or minotaurs, because, Podolner says, of what is “repressed but irrepressible.”

Mothers tend to see their sons as more separate and opposite than their daughters, even during the symbiotic stage of infancy. Mothers tend to push their sons toward separation sooner. Fathers would probably do likewise with their daughters. Each child needs a dose of both the push and the pull, but as things are now most children only get half an upbringing.

At the conference Feldman pointed out that it is too early to draw lasting conclusions, but several studies have brought forth these findings: Babies raised by fathers and mothers have less fear of strangers and explore more than babies raised mainly by mothers. The behavior of these babies implies that they, more than others, believe “the world is a place where people can be trusted.” Three- to six-year-olds raised by both a father and a mother have higher than average intelligence and aptitude, feel more in control and responsible for what happens, and have higher self-esteem and better social skills than children raised only by their mothers.

Mothers tend to mesh their daughters’ identities into a reflection of their own long-past infancy. Consequently girls have a hard time recognizing when what they need is different from what another needs. Intimacy appears so essential to self-fulfillment that some women lose themselves in abusive or neglectful relationships while clinging to unrealistic hope. As Beckett says of a punch in the nose, “At least it’s human contact.”

A girl becomes a woman by affirming her first love, by recognizing her likeness to her first significant other, whom she watched doing daily grown-up activities. The daughter comes to know, in a specific, detailed way, what a woman does. Whether she follows or rebels, the old path is easy to find.

A boy becomes a man by repudiating his first love. This is what Freud referred to as “the normal male contempt for women.” A boy’s closeness to his mother stands in the way of his attaining manhood. Balbus explains, “To become a man he must become ‘not her.'” His father disappears on most days with a briefcase or a tool bag and a lunch box. A boy can’t watch his father’s moods shift throughout a day in the same way children watch their mother and learn about women. Perhaps the boy worships He-Man, or pretends to be Superman. He eventually begins to suppress his nurturing qualities, which, because his mother has them too, he considers feminine, and therefore opposite, and dangerous to his selfhood.

Without an attentive father whose approach to her says, “We love each other and yet we are different from each other, and can feel different feelings,” many women grow up finding it hard to remain cheerful when a loved one is gloomy, to know when to speak up for themselves or put their foot down. Chodorow’s book presents research that backs up Dinnerstein’s hypothesis. Her statistics show that though daughters may try to be the opposite of their mothers, they may, ironically, end up being just like them.

Podolner believes that daughters need something from their fathers that mothers simply cannot give them. “It is through their fathers as role models that girls learn what men are all about. If she has a father who is a caring involved person, a daughter can internalize that expectation, and then, when she grows up she is more likely to choose a man who is good to her. . . . But if the daughter’s expectation is zero because her father never interacts with her then the chances are she will have lower expectations about what one can achieve in a relationship.”

Without an involved father whose approach to them says, “We love each other, and you are just like me when I was young, and I am what you will be like when you are grown,” sons often grow up finding it difficult to risk having their hard-won grown-up identity swallowed up by an intimacy and empathy that they associate only with their female-dominated childhood. Because they grew up “trying to be like somebody who’s not there” boys may lack a secure sense of manhood. They may become men who need to constantly prove themselves. If a boy’s father seldom revealed himself to his son, and didn’t offer comfort when his son revealed hurt feelings to the father, then the boy lacks a viable model for adult male friendship. Often men do not even have one male friend to whom they can reveal their vulnerabilities and get support.

This helps explain why men’s groups are hard to sustain, and why men find it awkward to give and accept emotional support, even with their own children. Podolner is trying to reverse this cycle, which spirals down through the generations. The men who seek out his counseling and his classes in fathering are remarkable in that they are ready and willing to break this chain, despite whatever inner struggles they may feel. Podolner’s years of experience working with men have made him familiar with the patterns that persist.

“Part of what men do is to avoid what’s going on in the family. Sometimes this workaholic quality has to do with difficulty in facing the home front. You might ask, ‘What’s so difficult in facing the home front?’ Well, it’s not just screaming babies, though that’s part of it. It’s the intimacy that it takes to be very close to a child, and close to your wife. A lot of men will do anything rather than deal with that. We have all kinds of avoidance techniques and one of them is to pour ourselves into work. So I always look at it with a suspicious eye when someone says, ‘I have to work 80 hours a week.’ Is that really what’s required in that career or are they afraid of this intimacy?”

Adolescents rebel against one parent as often as another, but this is a diluted echo of an earlier, more primal struggle for selfhood that focused on a woman. When we are grown we still recognize unconsciously in all women the form of Mother, that “goddess of the nursery” who is to blame for the fall from grace, who let us down because she turned out not to have the power to prevent suffering that we once believed she had. Men are exploited too, and children as well, but the ones who have the shape, softness, smell, and voice reminiscent of the mother serve as a prime target for all. Therefore it is women in particular who are cast (and who cast themselves, in order to get a vicarious revenge) in the role of the now dominated and humiliated she-devil, the captured wild-woman, now bound and chained, now bought and sold. The movies are full of it. TV is too. The statistics on crime reflect it. It is as easy to find in books, plays, and paintings as in sensational headlines. Hookers and their pimps and johns reenact it nightly.

At the same time, the grown boy and the grown girl want to cling to the old illusion of the loving goddess, preserving her on the pedestal. Therefore women are also the forgiving angel, the whore with the heart of gold, the sacrificial virgin-saint, the all-bountiful earth mother, and the dutiful daughter-mother-wife. But the roles often come at a cost–the submersion of human individuality.

If fathers fathered as much as mothers mother, right from the start, then both boys and girls would be more likely to come to terms with the human condition, and realize that their parents were just human beings who did their best to raise their children. There would be no special sex to blame, or to idolize, or to use as a scapegoat. Dinnerstein herself states that “it is possible, needless to say, that we will prove unable to marshal the emotional strength for this integration . . . but what we have to lose by trying is nothing.”

It is ironic to think that a mother’s loving devotion might help cause persecution of women and hostility to nature. It is sad that a father’s responsible efforts to support his children financially might mean that his absence from them causes them to numb their emotions or love unhappily, or act out violence against themselves or others. But theories are judged by how much they explain and what we can accomplish by using them, and Dinnerstein’s theory suggests an explanation for many unhappy phenomena within our culture.

In all honesty I must admit that I found Dinnerstein’s and Chodorow’s ideas threatening and scary. I am a mother of two who stayed home at first and nursed each child for about a year. I liked it that my babies loved me, and only me, best of all. Attempting change was inconvenient, to say the least. I didn’t want to admit to any recognition of these patterns, or concede the plausibility of these ideas. But underneath my objections I couldn’t deny it; the thesis made altogether too much sense.

Perhaps because of his own passion for being with his children, Podolner shows a sympathetic understanding of mothers who are nervous about shared parenting. “If we’re to get men involved one of the things that has to happen first is that the mother has to give up some control in that area–which is very hard, because women have had control in only one area and there is a tendency to cling to that until, perhaps, it is assured that they have parity in the other world. Which they don’t. So theoretically I understand women’s resistance to men being involved in child raising. And women mistrust men’s nurturing skills in some ways. But ultimately we have to work out that mistrust. We have to get women out into the larger world and get men involved with kids. . . . Fathers have to see the whole cycle of a kid’s day and be able to figure out for themselves what needs to be done when. They also need some 24-hour periods in order to do that.”

Balbus suggests both a theoretical cause and a solution to this mistrust. He has researched 500 years’ worth of parents’ diaries, from the Middle Ages on, and without exception found that fathers were stricter and mothers more lenient toward their children. Balbus points out that with increased father involvement there is a danger of toughening up child-rearing without really improving it.

Nurturing requires patience, sensitivity, intimacy, and even occasional indulgence. It is not so much men’s inner nature but rather their upbringing that has held men back in their relationships with children. Balbus criticizes his own fathering, saying, “I found myself arguing for an earlier end to breast-feeding and an earlier beginning to toilet training. I’ve been consistently more worried than [my wife] that overindulgence of my daughter’s dependence would inhibit the emergence of her independence.” Men often lack a sense of having been fathered, and so find fathering difficult. Balbus urges fathers to question and examine for themselves and for each other their tendency to be strict and to hurry independence in their children. Until a generation of father-reared sons enters fatherhood, today’s hands-on fathers must look to each other for example.

The transitional period may be rough but there are rewards. Ross Karshen, 13, whose father, Steve, runs Fathering Support Services, says, “I want to be like my dad, you know? Like, whenever I needed someone to talk to, no matter what he was doing or how busy he was, if I said, ‘I really need to talk to you,’ he would just put it aside, you know, put me on his lap, start bouncing his knee–and I want to be like that. . . . I’d demand some time off to be with a new baby. I mean, I wouldn’t lose my job over it, but maybe I’d take my vacation time.”

Balbus believes that “fathers should have a say in the decisions affecting the lives of infants and toddlers that is strictly proportionate to the time and energy they devote to their care.” He suggests that the motto of the fathering movement be “No power without participation.” In other words, if you’re not playing the game, you can’t make the rules.

During the question and answer period following the conference, a man rose and addressed the panel of speakers and respondents.

“My wife just went back to work and I am now home with my three kids, who are five, two and a half, and six months old. I find myself getting very angry, especially by the end of the day. Do you have any ideas that might help?”

There was something in his tone of voice that brought all the abstract talk right down to earth. He had come to the conference for a very practical reason–to ask for help. As anyone who has done it knows, raising children is not all rosy moments. Here was a father coping with spit-up on the rug, temper tantrums at nap time, quarrels, whining, and never-ending questions. It was easy to picture him answering the phone with a toddler clinging to his leg, his infant in one arm, as his five-year-old shrieked and hopped about, while back in the kitchen the melted cheese sandwiches went up in smoke.

There was a sign of recognition from each of the panel of men at the front of the room, a nod or a rueful smile. One answered, “What you are doing is very difficult. Caring for small children while running a home is more stressful than people realize, and probably accounts for the fact that twice as many women experience depression as men. Also, women get reinforced for tears and men get reinforced for anger. Sometimes in the past it has gotten us what we want, but with little kids, it’s not what works. One thing is, don’t try to do it all day. You need to get out and physically release some of the tension by riding a bike, or running, or playing a sport.”

Besides worrying about fathers’ ability to control their anger, there are some who fear that more fathers will sexually abuse their children if given more opportunity alone with them. Recent research estimates that 5 percent of fathers sexually abuse their children, nearly always the daughters. But Feldman believes that the attachment, affection, and familiarity that grows between nurturing fathers and children “serves as a psychological inhibitor.” It’s harder to assault someone you have protected since she was born. Increased father involvement might well decrease the incidence of incest.

In interviews with about a dozen “full-time” fathers Balbus finds that all had long, close relationships with their mothers and have been rethinking their concept of masculinity for years now. They are also living with feminist women who insist upon the father’s participation in child care.

Podolner draws the same picture in this respect, saying, “I would like to think that men would make this realization about how wonderful child care is, that’s why we’re doing this for the first time in history anyplace in the world. But that’s not it. This happened because women have sought to change their lives and it has forced men to make an adjustment. So I think that basically women should keep going in that direction. Women should stay the course, the course is correct. Women have to keep moving forward, and the repercussions of that is that men will have to pick up some of these other responsibilities. It’s not going to be easy for us, but we have to stay the course. Because if we can exploit you, we will,” he jokes. “Well, we’ve been trained for centuries.

“It is women who are most interested in these changing roles. That is one of the interesting paradoxes of my work. I’ve talked much more to women about how to increase fathering. . . . That’s the way it is. Women are socially attuned. They are the ones who are looking for this new fathering thing, most positively in some ways and then also at the other end, most critically. But they are more aware of it than the fathers are. Which says a lot. There’s a whole other conversation about why men don’t deal with these things. But, so that’s one of the realities. We have to work with women about ways to change men. That’s how it operates.”

We seem to be only partway through a worthwhile but problematic social evolution. Mothers are encouraging and pressuring fathers to do more fathering. (There are exceptions, of course, which only help prove this rule.) The challenge that many parents are facing now is a sort of Gordian knot that needs patient, persistent untangling rather than the sword.

The problem is that these ideas and views on the “new” fathering imply an agenda for fathers. But so far the agenda is not, in many cases, of their own making, not born of their own pursuit of self-realization. This new style of fatherhood, in plain terms, means more work. And there’s no paycheck. This work has the potential for great personal satisfaction and blessings as well; nonetheless our culture grants it little status and even less concrete support. So this nudging is due, largely, to an economic reality that has already taken place and is not about to go away: it now takes two incomes to support a family (unless one income is exceptionally high). Since mothers are already called upon, sooner or later, to earn money, fathers are now being called upon to nurture.

This may be fair and just, yet it puts a strain on marriage and puts both partners in an awkward situation. Nobody likes being admonished to do this and do that, and we all tend to dig in our heels and resist when another pressures us to change. So it’s a hard time for husbands. It is also a hard time for wives. Nobody likes to be stuck, by default, with the job of pushing another along toward a necessary and inevitable goal. This is not just something that is happening to an isolated couple or two. Rather, it is a growing cultural phenomenon that is coming out in the open, amid heated debate.

Listening to Mark Podolner convinced me that the further along we get in this evolution, the more we all need the fathers to lead the way, to speak their own experience, and to name their own needs to society as a whole. The first step for fathers is to find each other, to connect up to each other. The rest is up to them. It’s fine to bring up these new ideas and see if fathers recognize some truth in them. And it is inevitable, as it should be, that wives will continue to press for a fair division of labor in parenting. But fathers don’t necessarily need to be directed or taught lessons. They need to be listened to and encouraged and supported as they break ground and come into their own.

Meanwhile Mark Podolner is finding that he is able to do more through Fathering Educational Services (524-8182, 44 Washington Blvd., suite 3W, Oak Park, IL 60302) as a consultant, teacher, and counselor, than he was ever able to accomplish while trying to run an organization by himself. The transition has been difficult, but he seems philosophic about fathers’ changing role, patient about the time he knows it will take, and optimistic that these changes will go forward inevitably.

“It will go forward. There will be some steps back sometimes but it will never go back to the way it was. Can you imagine women accepting the previous status of their lot? That’s impossible.”

Also, as a social worker for Lutheran Social Services, Podolner coordinates the Male Parenting Program, and he runs a class for fathers and their children through the River Forest elementary school system. Steve Karshen now runs Fathering Support Services, which serves divorced fathers (784-5529, PO Box 14862, Chicago, IL 60614).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.