Day of the Dad

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"Dick and Jane," he recalls. "It was like that. Picket fence and everything."

To pay the bills, diPaulo worked as a driver and dispatcher for Zone Cab and as a stocker at King Soopers. When he came home at night, he was too tired to play with his sons. "You have these nice things because of me," he'd tell his boys and brush them aside.

"I thought being a dad meant hard work," diPaulo explains.

After a two-year separation, his wife left for good in 1995, taking their sons and moving to Las Vegas. But one night only four months later, she called diPaulo and told him that his sons would be arriving on the midnight flight.

"All of a sudden," he recalls, "I was a dad."

As a father of three, Robert Brady knew firsthand that dads could have it rough. He'd changed his share of diapers, helped with his share of homework and modified his share of work schedules. But until he started one of Colorado's first fatherhood programs, he didn't realize just how difficult being a dad had become.

In 1993, Brady was fresh from a job in Baltimore, where he'd tried to find work for unemployed youths, when he was hired by Human Services Inc., a Denver-based nonprofit, to establish a counterpart to its motherhood programs.

The first thing Brady did was try to round up dads of all ages to discuss the challenges they faced. It wasn't easy to find participants: Most men are uncomfortable talking about anything, let alone fatherhood. So Brady scoured recreation centers, clubs and Boy Scout gatherings until he had a quorum. He held his first meetings at a refurbished warehouse near Lincoln Park. What he heard there surprised him.

When most people consider the plight of fatherless families, they blame "deadbeat dads" -- men who have the time and money to care for their children but choose not to. Brady, however, discovered that many absentee dads weren't deadbeats at all, but rather "dead broke," he says. They wanted to be better parents but didn't have any support. Divorced dads struggled to see their kids. Low-income dads fought for better jobs. Unmarried dads battled a bureaucracy that was downright hostile. Young dads faced a welfare culture that rewarded one-parent households.

"If dads weren't around, the subsidies increased," Brady says. "That sent a message that moms were better off without dads. All they had to do was wait on the check."

Some agencies focused almost exclusively on collecting child support. While such efforts were crucial, Brady says, they added to the strain placed on dads who were trying to do the right thing, but didn't have the jobs to pay their own bills. Support services also were out of balance. Mothers -- single or married -- had help with parenting, housing, job training, even financial assistance. And rightly so, Brady says. "But there was nothing for fathers," he remembers.

"We give Mom the support she needs to continue on with her life, but with Dad we say, 'Do the right thing and take care of this baby.' But with what?" Brady asks. "Dads have all the same problems that moms do in terms of housing, training, education and resources, but we don't give them the same tools to succeed."

Fathers were also struggling with changing expectations on the home front. The roles that their own fathers and grandfathers had played no longer applied. For starters, fathers often weren't the sole breadwinners for their families: One Colorado study found that one-third of all men between 25 and 34 did not earn enough money to keep a family of four out of poverty. More mothers were working, and that, in turn, put a strain on everything from child care to simple household tasks like washing dishes. When fathers found themselves alone with their children, many weren't equipped to handle it.

"We automatically train girls to be caregivers," Brady says. "From day one, we give them dolls and teddy bears to nurture and look after. And what do we give boys? Tonka trucks, Ninja turtles and GI Joes. We teach boys to be competitive, aggressive and violent. We teach them that it's not okay to show their feelings. These cultures run on automatic. So when men, particularly young men, become dads, a lot of them just don't know what to do."

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Harrison Fletcher