Being a single father means opening up the traditional male role to new -- and sometimes unheard of -- possibilities, says psychologist Frederick Phillips.

"Men ordinarily define themselves by their job, and women do so by their families," says Phillips, associate director of the Institute for Life Enforcement, a psychology testing and counseling firm in the District.

"It's difficult for men to work through the traditional view. When men become single fathers they experience anxiety and say to themselves, 'I cannot be what the mother is.'

"But they can. They can learn how to do the traditional tasks like cooking. Anybody can learn to cook by reading a book."

Phillips, 33, knows what he's talking about: He had sole custody of his son for 18 months, from the time the child was 1 1/2 to 3 years of age.

The Psychologist, a native of Philadelphia and holder of a doctorate from Fielding Institute, spoke at a recent conference on "The Changing Roles of Fathering in Our Society," sponsered by the Men's Center, a counseling service of Planned Parenthood.

One of the biggest hurdles for new single fathers is learning how to reorder priorities. The children -- instead of earning money -- become primary, says Phillips, even if that means skipping a business meeting in order to go to a school play.

"I had to postpone things like working a second job at a mental health center," says Phillips. "I couldn't expand my practice. I had to redefine my social life. I couldn't always go out.

Sometimes I had to invite women friends to my place.

"But I began to find support, and not just from relatives, but from other men who had custody of their children."

Phillips says there's an informal network of contacts in places like the Men's Center and Fathers for Equal Rights, a Maryland group.

He also exchanged baby-sitting favors with female friends who had children. During the day his son, Jamali, went to nursery school.

In the beginning, Jamali had some anxiety, according to Phillips. "I knew to take things slowly," he recalls.

"As men begin to feel more responsibility for their parental role, they become more nurturing."

Jamali went back to his mother about a year ago. "I wanted him to have the experience of growing up with his sister [born after the parents split up]," explains Phillips. "The best interests of the children have to be regarded."

Phillips sees his children, still in the Washington area, one or two days a week.

Looking back on his experience as a single parent, Phillip says, "It's a challange, but it's so frigtening. You don't know whether the child will be accepting. All you can do is change your life so that you can become both father and mother to the child."

The conference discussion stressed the paucity of studies on single fathers.

Bogart Leashore, of Howard Universtiy's Institute for Urban Affairs and Research, said in most cases single fathers are not turning to the social agencies. Instead, they're going to family and friends. Child care, he says. is a major problem.