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New generation of deeply involved dads is shifting idea of the American family

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, June 18, 2010; B01

His friends were stunned. "You're out of your mind," they told him.

Strangers have cornered him. "What you're doing simply isn't right," they warned.

But all his life, Christopher Braman knew he wanted to be a dad.

And as a 45-year-old single guy, adoption was the only righteous path to fatherhood he could see.

"The biological clock was ticking. I wanted kids," said Braman, a hulking 6-foot-3 bald white guy from Wisconsin who always gets double takes when he arrives at the park with his African American sons in their Northeast Washington neighborhood.

"When people see these two boys with me, calling me Papa, it really throws them off," he said. "Some people say: 'Boy, their mother really must've been dark' or 'When are you going to take them back?' "

But he said being a father wasn't about biology or raising children who look like him. He didn't go abroad for an adoption. He didn't search for a surrogate or a donor. He simply wanted a child who needed a dad.

Because for Braman, Dad was a fantastic man who had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting and into his life. "My dad was an engineer. We canned vegetables. We went camping. We had a summer home," he said, "I grew up in a place where cows -- literally -- were over the fence from my primary school. You could ride your bike in the street, wind in the hair."

Alex, 7, and Isaiah, 3, were both victims of abuse and neglect. Braman started out as Alex's foster dad when the boy was 20 months old. Having grown up with two siblings -- both of whom were adopted -- Braman knew Alex needed a brother. So when they got Isaiah, they knew they wanted to keep him, and they got help from the Children's Law Center, which oversees many adoptions, but few like Braman's.

It's not all cows and bike rides and summer cabins.

Because his children come from difficult backgrounds, Braman is also dealing with rage issues and behavioral swings that seem to come out of nowhere. One child, at 20 months old, assumed a perfect boxer's stance when faced with a bounding dog. "I mean, a real boxer stance, spread legs, one hand cocked, ready to punch the dog in the face." Or he gets calls from the teacher, who says the child is throwing chairs in the classroom.

"I have the task of finding that sense of innocence and wonder and joy. How do I create that for them in this rough, incredible world? How can I still be the same kind of dad I had, re-create the amount of love for my kids?"

There's also the challenge of everyday parenting: getting them out of bed, fed, dressed, dropped off at day care and school before heading to his service desk job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Then it's the race in reverse to do pickup, dinner, bedtime.

Braman is an extreme example of the New Dad, but he is among a generation of pioneers who are changing the landscape of the American family.

Whereas our dad archetype has been a nervous man pacing in the delivery room, fumbling the newborn, clueless about the PTA and stepping forth only when it's time to harass a prom date or coach Little League, today's generation of fathers is more involved than any other.

Like Braman, they don't have fatherhood thrust upon them, they dive into their kids' lives.

It's beyond fishing, the summer cabin and sports. The New Dad is increasingly ducking out of work early, no matter how many dude points he may lose for it, to go to parent-teacher conferences, doctor's appointments, play dates and pickup duty.

Time-use surveys tell us that the gap in the amount of time men and women spend caring for children is closing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey for 2008 said that in cases in which a mom and a dad work full time, the mom spends 1.2 hours a day caring for a child and a dad spends 49 minutes.

But statistics don't tell the story of a societal sea change in the ways dads are involved, the massive shift that this generation of fathers has undergone.

In the past 10 days, my husband attended a kindergarten play, endured a three-day camping trip, went to two T-ball practices, two school picnics, a class birthday party, did the school pickup for both kids twice and washed their hair every bath night (his punishment for the latest egregious parking ticket). Last night, he collapsed in his recliner/king's throne, flipped up the foot rest and proclaimed: "This week, I did more with the kids than my father did throughout my entire childhood."

He is absolutely right.

Happy Father's Day, New Dads. We'll do the grilling tonight.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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