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Make room for daddy: these days, Hollywood is focusing on dads and men working in child care. Is the church doing the same? (culture in context).

DADS ARE SUDDENLY BACK IN SEASON, AND ON TV and down at the local cineplex, guys are rediscovering the joys and challenges of child care. Indeed, we haven't seen so many TV fathers taking care of their children since Fred MacMurray and Lorne Greene ruled over the roost in My Three Sons and Bonanza, or Andy Griffith and Bill Bixby proved that dad knew best in The Andy Griffith Show and The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Dennis Franz, of all people, may have started this rush to join the diaper brigade when widowed NYPD Blue's Andy Sipowicz took over parenting his cuter-than-a-button son Theo a couple years back. Now the bull-in-a-china shop Sipowicz has to arrange baby-sitting before he can work overtime on a case, and the show, once famous for parting shots of its romantic leads in the buff, now regularly closes with Franz reading Theo a bedtime tale.

This past September the ranks of single dads swelled a bit more with the introduction of Richard Dreyfuss' new TV drama, The Education of Max Bickford. An irascible profat a small women's college, Max is trying to raise two children, negotiate the comic melodrama of faculty squabbles, and awaken the intellect of his students while mired in a middle-aged funk. (Imagine Mr. Holland's Opus goes to college as a crusty widower and you get the general idea.) He gets fairly low marks as a dad from his teenage daughter, but (like Sipowicz) is a big hit with his preadolescent son.

Kevin Kline is in more of an end-of-life funk when he takes up the challenges of parenting in last fall's movie Life as a House. Divorced and directionless, George Monroe (Kline) is a miserable human being who, when he gets fired and diagnosed with cancer on the same day, decides it's time to do some serious renovation of his life. So he tells ex-wife Kristin Scott Thomas he wants their nightmare of a son to help him build a house over the summer, and while constructing his new home the dying George tries to make up for a decade of absentee parenting. Not surprisingly, this strategy works better for Kline than it might for a real father, and by August the embittered suicidal druggie teenager is crying "I love you" to his bedridden pop.

Still, the most striking new story about men caring for children has to be The Guardian, a television drama about a corporate lawyer who becomes a child advocate when sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service for a drug bust. What makes The Guardian so intriguing is that its central character, Nick Fallin (Simon Baker), is a man whose job is taking care of children. Unlike Sipowicz, Bickford, and Monroe, who watch over their own children, Fallin introduces us to a male hero who (more or less) cares for children for a living. In him child care becomes an honorable profession even for a man.

THERE HAVE BEEN OTHER PROFESSIONAL CARETAKERS ON TV, but they have nearly always been women. In Family Law Kathleen Quinn and Dixie Carter lead a mostly female cast of attorneys protecting children in family court, and in Judging Amy Amy Brenneman administers justice and mercy in these courts, while her social worker mom Tyne Daly cares for abandoned and abused tots and adolescents. And, like most working women (but not the male partners in Family Law), these characters have their own children and grandchildren to worry about when they're at work and watch over when they're not, reinforcing the idea that at home or in the office, child care is women's work. So it's worth noticing when a drama comes along suggesting that child care can be a man's job as well.

Curiously enough, just as single dads are enjoying a renaissance on TV and videos, the number of real-life fathers raising kids on their own has also skyrocketed, though their growing ranks are still dwarfed by the legions of single moms. As Jeff Gillenkirk reported in a piece in America magazine last year, "The number of fathers solely responsible for the care of their children is growing at almost twice the rate of single mothers." Single dads now make up a little more than 20 percent of single-parent households and 2.1 percent of all U.S. households, and today nearly 30 percent of working single parents are men. There are currently about 2.2 million single fathers serving as the primary caretakers for children under 18.

MEANWHILE, DADS IN TWO-PARENT households also are picking up a bigger (though not equal) share of household and child care duties. With more than 60 percent of mothers now working outside the home, many of their husbands are spending more time with the children, often resulting in an increase of parental time and attention. On average, fathers are spending five more hours a week with their children than just two decades ago. About a third of dual career couples commit themselves to sharing housekeeping and child care tasks equitably. Still, in most households where both parents work outside the home, wives typically do more child care tasks than their spouses.

Unfortunately, in spite of the progress TV and real dads have made in the past few decades, the awful truth is that we do not value the work of caring for our children (or elderly) in the same way we prize other types of labor.

Lots of our movies and Mother's Day homilies romanticize and pay lip service to the vocation of caring for and raising our children, and we all agree that this is the most critical task of any civilization. But when it comes time to assign income and status to those who perform this critical, time-consuming, and messy job, we are a great deal less generous. All too often we end up trying to give this job away to folks who are unskilled, uneducated, foreign-born, and overwhelmingly female.

In 1988 the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote that "both parents ought to be encouraged to view their involvement in raising children and contributing to personality formation as a participation in the most critical vocation in the church. The husband has an obligation to share in the domestic chores and in the care of children." For, as the bishops acknowledge, "children benefit from the guidance and involvement of both parents."

TELLING MEN THAT THEY SHOULD share in domestic chores and in the care of children" is a new tactic in Catholic thought. For a long time the church has tried to ensure someone was available to take care of our children by arguing that mothers should not be coerced into the labor force. Fathers, the church has said, should be paid enough to support their families.

But this approach ignores the aspiration of women to become architects, teachers, doctors, judges, carpenters, cops, and clergy, and overlooks the fact that these moms will need parenting partners at home. It also reinforces the bias that child care and housekeeping are women's work and implies that these labors should be voluntary, unpaid (or at least underpaid) activities.

So when women entered the labor force in droves, church teaching didn't challenge the assumption that they should continue to do all the housework and child care as pro bono work, didn't suggest that men should cut back on their careers to work on their vocation, and didn't argue that the workplace should give mothers and fathers time to do the socially critical work of raising our children.

Calling child care and parenting the "most critical vocation in the church" seems revolutionary in a church where we long accorded that honor to celibate males and where bishops don't do child care or housekeeping.

Still, if the bishops really want child care and parenting to be seen as the "most critical vocation," we need to teach our daughters and sons to see it as work that men and professionals do. Maybe next Holy Thursday the bishops (and some CEOs) could do some diapers.

PATRICK McCORMICK, as an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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