By Cathy Young / The Detroit News

Let's tear down barriers to paternal involvement

These days, Father's Day seems less an occasion for celebration than for an ideological debate.

   In this discussion, conservatives seem to be casting their lot with an ideal based on a rigid sexual division of labor and quasi-patriarchal authority. The Wall Street Journal Father's Day editorial page feature, with comments from various prominent figures on the meaning of fatherhood, exemplifies the trend.

   Women's Quarterly editor Danielle Crittenden recounts observing a lesbian couple with a toddler on a train - the two mommies constantly fussing over the child and asking if she was OK - and celebrates the old-fashioned "inattentive father" who doesn't smother the kid. (Funny, the day that page appeared, I had a chance to watch three families in a restaurant and both parents seemed equally attentive toward the young children.)

   The Journal's other experts include Amherst Professor Hadley Arkes, who wants to reclaim the view that "it is the function of men to protect women and families," and Bill McCartney, founder of the Promise Keepers, the movement whose laudable traits are marred by its insistence that men must "take back" leadership at home. No one spoke about fathers who scale down work for hands-on care-giving. (In a 1985 column, Norman Podhoretz accused such "New Dads" of abdicating the responsibilities of fatherhood as much as those who abandon their families.)

   And what do we have on the other side? Feminists have long talked about equal sharing of child-rearing responsibilities. But they act as though fathers must be badgered and bullied into caring for their children.

   Sure, some men won't touch a diaper. But there is another issue that only a few maverick feminists, such as writers Nancy Friday and Anne Roiphe, have addressed: women's reluctance to "let men in," which many researchers see as a major obstacle to fathers' participation.

   Some mothers don't trust the father's competence; many feel, consciously or not, that the mother-child bond should remain more special. In Peer Marriage (1994), sociologist Pepper Schwartz notes, "It is one thing to yearn for an involved father and quite another to acknowledge that the father has the same rights and access as the mother."

    Many feminists who pay lip service to equal parenting reinforce notions of maternal supremacy - by glorifying single motherhood (law Professor Nancy Polikoff, former counsel to the Women's Legal Defense Fund, writes that "it is no tragedy, either on a national scale or in an individual family, for children to be raised without fathers") and gloating, like Susan Faludi in Backlash, over women's ability to exclude men from decisions about their offspring.

   On Crossfire in early 1996, National Organization for Women (NOW) President Patricia Ireland denied charges that feminists aren't concerned about fatherlessness and said "men need to take equal responsibility for the family." Later that year, NOW issued an "Action Alert on 'Fathers' Rights' " comparing fathers' advocates to batterers and urging efforts to defeat such sinister proposals as joint custody, penalties for false charges of abuse and mediation instead of litigation.

   Both conservatives and feminists love to bash feckless dads who desert their wives and children. Several of the Journal panelists talk about the need to stigmatize these men, as if we didn't already. But two-thirds of the time, it's the mom who ends the marriage. Many fathers fight tooth and nail to remain a part of the children's lives. Some lose hope and vanish.

   Instead of arguing about the merits of "traditional" vs. "new" fathers - and few men fit neatly into one category - we should be working to tear down barriers to paternal involvement. Ultimately, a father-friendly culture benefits not only men and children but women, too. A father's presence can allow a mother either to choose a traditional home-centered life or to balance work and family far more effectively.

   To achieve such a balance, 60 percent of women said in a 1995 Virginia Slims poll, one of the most important things needed was for men to be more involved. Only 26 percent picked "better day care."

Cathy Young is vice-president of the Women's Freedom Network. You may write her at The News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 48226.