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Nation's fastest growing family group struggles to meet challenges
BY Dennis Poust
AUSTIN, Texas—When his alarm goes off at 6:15 every morning, John Lynch swings into action. There is no snooze alarm for the Bellevue, Wash., convenience store and gas station manager, a divorced father with custody of his 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
The drill goes like this: get the children out of bed; shower while the kids fix their own breakfast; prepare them for school; make their lunches; drop them at school; and head to work. The nighttime ritual of cooking and cleaning starts at about 4:30 p.m. By 9:30, the kids are in bed and John Lynch relaxes for a while, preparing to do it all again the next day.
When most Americans think of single-parent families, they conjure an image of a mother going through these struggles. But Lynch is no longer the exception to the rule. Homes led by single custodial fathers are the fastest growing family group in the United States. By the U.S. Census Bureau's count, the numbers have jumped from 303,000 in 1970 to 1.86 million in 1996. Single-father families make up 15% of single-parent families and 5% of all families.
In the Lynch family, the trio relies on teamwork and communication, which has eased the difficult transition to life without mother.
“My daughter talks to me on subjects ranging from which boys she likes to what my views on abortion are,” Lynch said. “We have been working several years on what values we admire and how they fit into daily life. We discuss things like makeup, PMS, dating, clothes, all that stuff…. I feel very blessed. My son is at that ‘discover his own values’ stage, but [we] really do communicate well.”
The trend toward fathers seeking and receiving custody in divorce cases, “might well mean that fathers of this generation are taking their responsibility for their children much more seriously,” according to Bishop John Myers of Peoria, Ill., who issued a pastoral letter on fatherhood last year.
While men who take their responsibilities to their children seriously should be applauded, it would be more encouraging news if the families remained intact, the bishop said.
“Studies show that children thrive in two-parent families,” he said. “Even when the home is not perfect, the interaction, discipline, and learning is beneficial.”
The increase in single-father families seems to have caught the attention of the mass media. Last fall, five new television programs focused on singlefather families. But Lynch said the concept still makes people uncomfortable.
“Everyone I meet seems very surprised when they discover that I have the children,” he said. “Notice all the TV shows that show the single fathers? They all assume that the guys are widowers…. My ex tells me she gets a ton of nasty comments when people learn she has children who do not live with her. The staff at one job gave it to her so bad, she says that is one of the big reasons she quit.”
Tim Dyer, a Holbrook, N.Y., computer operator who has custody of his 11-year-old son, Matt, agreed that society still has prejudices against fathers raising children, which he attributes to a “male-bashing” mentality.
“Even TV commercials always make fun of men,” said Dyer, whose son has cerebral palsy. “Men are made to look like idiots.”
Mark Fischer, a Reston, Va., computer scientist raising two young children alone, adds, “Ask any single father and he will tell you that we're sort of a curiosity. I get a lot of, ‘You must be a saint to do this, to take care of your children.’”
Though their numbers are increasing, Catholic single fathers will have a hard time finding Church-sponsored support groups ministering specifically to them. That is true of single parents in general. Most often, ministry to single parents, who head 31% of the nation's 35 million families, “sort of gets folded into ministry with separated and divorced Catholics,” according to Rick McCord, executive director of the U.S. Catholic Conference's Office of Marriage and Family Life.
Martha Tressler, single parent coordinator for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Family Ministries Office, is one of the few staff people on a diocesan level responsible for specific outreach to single parents. In that role, she has noticed increasing numbers of single fathers.
“Men's consciousness is being raised and they're becoming aware of the need to have influence in their children's lives,” Tressler said. “Perhaps they realize that while mothers are a very important part of family life, fathers are, too.”
In parenting skills courses she teaches in parishes throughout the archdiocese, Tressler said she has seen “a lot of single dads come in to learn how to be better parents to their kids.”
Fathers often need extra help as they find themselves with custody of the children because, unlike mothers, they have not been nurtured to be active parents, Tressler said.
“Boys are not taught to play house or with baby dolls. Children learn by playing,” she said. “Play is their workshop. They learn by example and by imitation. Without a doubt, it's one of the reasons men's parenting initiative was squashed. It wasn't cool to be a dad. Now, men are learning it is cool.”
Lynch, a Knight of Columbus, said he's satisfied with the available ministries at his parish, St. Louis in Bellevue.
“My parish has ‘Divorce and Beyond, Singles and Resingles,’ they have support for those struggling financially no matter what the reason. They have all sorts of things going on for families which do not discriminate against single-parent families,” he said. “I think they're doing great.”
Dyer, whose wife left him just seven months after they had their 10-year marriage blessed by the Church, said he would like to see the local Church do more.
“In my own parish, I'd like to see some kind of support group, maybe a Parents Without Partners group,” he said. “It's kind of hard to find things to do with kids and things to do with adults when the kids are in bed.”
Raising a physically disabled and developmentally delayed child, Dyer, a former nurse, has turned to a supportive family as well as relying on his own good instincts.
“I'm the first of six kids,” he said. “My mother always had problems with her pregnancies, so with the little ones I was always changing diapers…. I guess it was training.”
His priorities, he said, now all rest with Matt—making sure he's secure and happy and that his physical needs are met. Emotionally, Dyer is dealing with the boy's anger at his mother.
“He blames her for the breakup,” Dyer said. “She feels I'm feeding him this but, to be honest, I'm a strong proponent of the fact that a child needs a mother and father. I'd like her to have as much visitation as possible. If she wants to see him five days a week, fine. Hopefully he won't be too damaged by this.”
Fischer, who is returning to the Church since his marital break-up last year, also is trying to limit any emotional damage for his children, five-year-old Andy and three-year-old Becky, because of their mother's absence.
“It's up and down for them,” said Fischer, who has made a concerted effort to expand the children's boundaries and get in closer contact with family members “just to give them a feeling that there's a whole lot of people who care about them.”
Still, his success is limited.
“Not a day goes by when I don't hear, “I want my mommy,” or “I wish mommy was here.”
Dennis Poust writes from Austin, Texas.