FOR MOST OF US, the ecstacy of intimacy we seek in family life remains elusive. Like life, the family is good, bad, neither, now both, depending on what is happening at the moment. When contented in the family we feel entitled; when miserable we feel victimized. As a child in the family we learn how to value or doubt the self; how to love, risk, play, fail and succeed. These lessons last a lifetime. As adults we teach what we have learned. The power of the family can steamroll reality and truth: Sons of worshipping mothers are trapped in their divinity; rejecting fathers produce doubting daughters.

Respecting the power of family, we search for help in the printed word. Millions of copies of women's magazines (40 million for the top six alone) go out each month. Combined with a growing number of advice books, they inundate women on such subjects as childbirth, intimacy, the balancing of career and family, the roles of the wife and the mother. But despite this proliferation of advice and insight the family seems to grow weaker. Since 1970 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. Adolescents run away. Suicide increases. The number of families whose members enjoy one another and relax together seems to diminish while the striving for family closeness increases.

In the cavern of our search for family fulfillment there lies a sleeping giant. He is father unknown. Although he has been there all the time, there are only now flickers of interest in him: the 1982 UNICEF calendar focuses on the father and child; men's rights groups have formed; shared parenting is growing. Here are three books that shed a small light on this powerful unknown presence.

Earth Father, Sky Father addresses men supportively and instructively. Arthur Colman and Libby Colman, a husband-and-wife team (he is a psychiatrist; she is a psychologist), write: "Much that a man does in his role as father is determined by patterns that lie deep within him, established in his own childhood and lodged in his unconscious, not easy to recognize and even more difficult to alter."

This slender volume elucidates the styles of fathering available to men. The tone of the book is warmly informative, a rarity in the strident world of life style writing. Stressing the Jungian approach of archetypal unconscious concepts, the Colmans present historical and anthropological evidence for the differing styles of fathering. The two major styles they term "sky father" and "earth father."

The sky father is the father that provides, judges and protects; he is nearly synonymous with the idea of masculinity that has been with us until only recently. The earth father is the father who nurtures, fulfills needs and provides security; although represented in myths, he has largely been suppressed by a patriarchal society.

The Colmans also use the term "creator father," which emphasizes the connection between man's role as the originator of physical life and more abstract forms of creativity. Their other categories are the royal father, who combines the earth and sky functions by himself, and the dyadic father, who combines the earth and sky functions in conjunction with a woman who also combines both fatherly functions.

The authors give none of the trendy exhortations, advice, or threats of failure that so dominate books on parenting. Earth Father, Sky Father painlessly teaches us about the unknown forces that so frequently modify the strongest resolves of parents, and enticingly invites us to scrutinize our own powerful father and fathering style.

The Colmans are gifted teachers. They combine data obtained from in-depth interviews and their own experience as parents and psychotherapists with an historical approach. The result is a clear and absorbing exposition of the often elusive concepts of fathering.

The authors offer welcome support for all the types of fathers described, complete with helpful case histories. Although the authors are dyadic parents-- both work and nurture the family part time--they stress the necessity for accepting and understanding one's style of fathering.

Unfortunately, Fathers and Daughters: A Father's Powerful Influence on a Woman's Life does not meet the great need to explore the far-reaching effects of fathers on daughters. With a professional tone, psychiatrist William S. Appleton treats this powerful relationship as a cool clinician, lacking in passion, excitement and depth.

He divides the daughter-father relationship into three 10-year stages: oasis, conflict, and separation, which for the daughters correspond respectively to the fathers in their thirties, forties, and fifties. He explains the characteristics of each stage for both daughter and father, emphasizing that failure to pass through any one of the stages affects the daughter's future relationships and career. For example, the daughter arrested in the oasis stage, where she perceives her father as omnipotent and all-caring, will vainly search for a man to match him.

Although arbitrary and simplistic, this framework provides a tool with which to think about the father's power over his daughter. The curiosity thus aroused is the book's main strength.

The case histories are interesting but too few and scant, especially in describing the working through of the conflict stage, an area in which Appleton is expert.

The book's main flaw is its paternalistic style and tone. It is as if Appleton envisions himself standing in front of a class of 19-year-old women, puffing on his pipe. If he talked to fathers as he does to daughters he'd be left with his pipe smoke. But he does not address the fathers. He writes to and for the daughters, and he labors under the terrific handicap of never having been one. It shows.

Daddy's Home is an account of a father's two years as full-time primary parent to his infant daughter. Mike Clary describes himself in that time as consoler, diaper changer, nurturer; as the only male in the park, as fearful of losing his masculinity and uneasy at the mixed reactions he receives as a househusband. In general, he describes the assets and liabilities of full-time parenting.

Clary's excellent writing makes us feel what he feels. We struggle with him as he hangs on to his self worth despite his loss of income. He makes us feel the panic, fear, and vulnerability of parenting, the boredom of tedious routine, the thrill of contact with his newborn and the ongoing fun with his infant. His ability to capture the grab of intimacy with his daughter and the thrill of continued nurturing will spark a yearning in men and women alike to seek some of these irreplaceable joys and satisfactions for themselves. For this we are all in his debt.

The drawback of the book is its pervasive Little Jack Horner mentality. Clary tells us he paid the price for full-time fathering, received the rewards and wrote an interesting book in the process. The subtle but powerful message is that every man would be richer if he housespoused for a year or two. True or not, the large number of men striving to give time and energy to enhance their family life and work full time will resent the author's righteousness. Good fathers, even excellent fathers, come in all sizes and styles, and the vast majority of them cannot become househusbands. This interesting, readable account would be even more appealing had the author indentified with and emphasized men's desires to be effective fathers rather than stressing his own experience.

These books point out that the struggle for serenity in the family is as perduring as it is inevitable. We should expect our limited success as well as our inevitable failure. For the stakes are as high as possible: the realization that one is loved. In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo stated those stakes well: "The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved, loved for ourselves, or in spite of ourselves."y