Jerry Torregrossa of Arlington remembers the day five years ago when he walked into a room full of women at a home in the Club Hills section of Arlington, hoping to learn how to enroll his daughter, Jennifer, in a Brownie troop. He walked out as assistant troop leader.
"Everybody was balking at offering their services, so I said I'd volunteer to be an assistant if someone would be the leader," Torregrossa, 36, said. "I just wanted to get involved with things for my daughter. I had to take that extra step to relate to my daughter."
Shepherding a Brownie troop is just one of many things that Torregrossa, a U.S. Capitol police officer, has done to immerse himself in the lives of his 13-year-old daughter and his 12-year-old son, Steven, since he won custody of them seven years ago. As he has adjusted to the nontraditional role of single father, Torregrossa has endured his share of the prejudices and problems single mothers have always confronted in employment, housing, school and social life.
Torregrossa is one of 14,477 men in the metropolitan area who head single-parent families with children under the age of 18, according to 1980 U.S. Census Bureau data. Nationally there are about 809,000 men in that category.
In this area, nearly 15 percent of the 97,550 single-parent households are headed by men. Nationwide, men head 14 percent of the 5.8 million single-parent families.
For some men, the transition to single father is no more difficult than learning how to work an iron, whip up a fast dinner, or find a female friend to explain sex to an adolescent daughter. For others, there are more complex problems, such as taking on a second job to cover the lost income of the former wife, while still trying to find time to spend with their children.
"They have the same problems as women--how to handle the housework, the kids, the job. But they don't have them to the same extent," said Geoffrey Greif, who teaches social work at Widener University in Chester, Pa.
"That's because most have a much greater income and a high percentage of them obviously have jobs," Greif said. He published highlights of his national survey of 1,100 single fathers in The Single Parent, the magazine of Parents Without Partners, a nationwide support group for single parents. The group has eight chapters in this area.
Higher income, said PWP official Virginia Nuta, is something single fathers often underscore in custody battles to illustrate their ability to pay more for child-care services and to show they are unlikely to be dependent on social service programs. Social service and housing directors contacted in the Washington area were hard pressed to find any significant number of single fathers on welfare or housing subsidies.
While men such as Torregrossa draw attention today, Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin said that, "In past centuries, when the mortality rate was higher, it was not unusual for men to be widowers and raise their children alone . . . . A single father raising children alone today is viewed as unusual by most people. They run into, at the least, raised eyebrows, and, at the most, serious problems . . . . A landlord, for instance, may be reluctant to rent to single father and people may think there's something wrong with him . . . . "
"Attitudes are changing, slowly but surely, toward men taking care of children during and after divorce," Cherlin said. "Most single fathers have an especially strong commitment to their children."
Judith Areen, a professor of family law at Georgetown Law Center, says there has been a dramatic change in the number of fathers getting custody of their children in the past five to 10 years: "In situations where the parents can't agree and the father really does want custody, the law has really moved to the position of being neutral on the sex and adopting a formal standard of doing what's best for the children.
"There is no longer the assumption of giving custody to the mother just because she is a woman," Areen said. "But we're still not yet used to the father with young children. People may see a woman struggling with a baby carriage or trying to change diapers and try to help. With a man, people are more hesitant to do that. So we're not yet seeing a community support them as we would a mother."
Torregrossa said he has sensed uneasiness when people learn that his family does not fit the stereotype: "I always felt like I had to explain things to everybody, like their teachers in school and their soccer coaches, the basketball coaches, the baseball coaches . . . . "
Said John Schaefer, a Fairfax County resident who also fought to win custody of his three children, "A lot of people look at you as though you're some kind of strange person. There's a social stigma about it because most people assume the kids are going to go with their mamma . . . . my last girlfriend at first told me she hated my guts for taking the kids away from their mother."
Strange looks are the least of the problems single fathers face, Greif said. "It's really in the area of jobs that they tend to have some problems. They may have problems in trying to progress in a job. They may have been on a certain career path and find themselves sidetracked by kids. They have to reduce their traveling or the activities they were doing to advance in their jobs."
Torregrossa said he is not receiving support payments from his ex-wife; Schaefer said he is getting $10 a month from his ex-wife for each of his three children. Such payments, said Georgetown's Areen, are unusual today, but likely to become more common as women get higher paying jobs.
Torregrossa, who earns $23,500 annually, sold his house to pay legal bills and other debts, and the family moved in with his parents for two years. Eventually, he met a Capitol Hill policeman with custody of his four children and the two men merged their families under one roof and split costs.
"We had a flexitime arrangement at work," Torregrossa said. "One would go to work at 6 a.m. and the other would get the kids off to school. Then the early one would leave work to be home when the kids got home. If he wanted to go out at night, I'd stay home, and so forth."
That arrangement worked for five years. Then Torregrossa's housemate remarried. Torregrossa moved Jennifer and Steven into a North Arlington home his parents bought for them. He is paying his parents back in monthly installments.
"The only thing I could qualify for was a three-bedroom trailer on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Kent Narrows . . . . This way I can drop the kids off at a friends at 6:15 a.m. and they can stay in their schools and I can be at work at 7 a.m," Torregrossa said.
Schaefer said, "I got fired because I got custody." He said he lost a $40,000-a-year salesman's job because he missed too much work while fighting for custody in court.
Schaefer, 36, said he lost another job because he stayed home for two weeks when the children got chicken pox. He now does public relations for an international magazine. "Even if I had plenty of money, they think you're supposed to get a baby sitter at the drop of a hat and there aren't that many reliable people out there," he said.
"There is a tendency sometimes, unless you work for an understanding employer or for the government, to want to lie about your status ," he added. "You want to tell them that the car broke down rather than saying you had to take your child to the doctor."
Today, he takes his childen--Kent, 3, Danielle, 5, and Eric, 7--to a day-care center or school at 7:30 a.m. and picks them up at 6:30 p.m.
"I'm receiving subsidized day care," said a somewhat astonished Schaefer. "This is tough on a guy's ego when you're used to making lots of money, eating in expensive restaurants, and now I've got bill collectors after me . . . . The bills may go unpaid, but I feed the kids and try to do at least one special thing with them every weekend."
Torregrossa also plans special outings with his children, though it is difficult. "Things a normal family does on weekends, you can't do," he said. "I can't plan the way a normal family plans. When their mother wants to take them for a weekend, she does."
Single fathers, like single mothers, also face uncertainty in planning their own social lives, which tend to be limited to an occasional week night or to the weekends when the children are with their mothers.
"It's hard for them to see themselves as somebody out there again on the prey or finding somebody to have a serious relationship with if the old rules under which they were single aren't true anymore," says sociologist Greif. "It's hard to bring dates home or feel free to stay out all night if you have baby sitters at home. They have to consider what kind of an example they're setting for the children, particularly those in their teens. So all those restrictions make social life for a single father more difficult."
"I don't feel sitting in a bar with a woman is important enough to leave my kids home alone," Torregrossa said. "I suppose basically you try to do what your parents did when you were kids."