The timing is perfect. The day of the Father arrives on schedule at the peak of what has surely been the year of the Father.

For months now we've been obsessed with fathering. If it's true, as Margaret Mead once wrote, that mothering is natural and fathering is invented, we have clearly been reinventing fatherhood.

The signs of a consensus are around us. Out of all the seasons of rhetoric about change and tradition is emerging a new ideal of the good man as a good father, of the good father as attentive, caring, nurturing.

In public life this spring, the president based his claim to be father of the country on his talent as father of a family. In the classic fatherhood commercial of the primaries, we watched him helping Amy with her homework because he said, "I don't think there's any way you can separate the responsibilities of a husband or a fathr or a basic human being from that of being a good president. What I do in the White House is to maintain a good family life which I consider to be crucial to being a good president."

During Family Month in Massachusetts this May, Ed King, the "pro-family" conservative governor, who spent six nights at home in six months in office, described his life style with -- finally -- more guilt than pride. The same week on a plane from Washington, Sen. Paul Tsongas settled down next to his three-year-old daughter for a workday round trip. He is, he says, determined to spend time with her, even if today it is flight time.

And, like some cinematic backdrop to all this, the movie father of the year is no longer a distant ball-playing breadwinner, but Dustin Hoffman. The Oscar now goes to the man who changes before our very eyes. We praise the Kramers of the World, the men who learn firsthand about the wrenching intensity of child love. They are our models of what is possible.

But in real life, in our lives, the growing consensus of what a father should be still reaches far ahead of the reality. The demands of men have changed faster than their ability to cope with them. The demands men make on themselves change faster than the institutions that often rule them. So men have opened up a new gap in their lives and guilt grows in it.

In the distant past, mothers and fathers worked togethr with their children. In the more recent past, we turned the sexes into specialists. The good provider was by definition the good father. He was a parent by paycheck.

But the man who was once judged by economics is now also judged by emotions. In midstream and mid-life and mid-parenting, we have upped the ante.

For Father's Day we now give him mixed messages, gift-wrapped in higher expectations.

His president tells him that fathering and leading the country are compatible. Still, while three years ago members of the White House staff were told to spend time with their children, now, only the workaholics are in charge.

Women tell him they wish he were more involved with children, but they also insist on the unilateral right to control births and almost always with the right to custody. Sometimes it seems dangerous to care without having control.

Then in the media he reads about a new creature, Superfather -- able to leap tall emotional buildings in a single bound, able to wipe tears and win promotions, to share small lives and earn big livings. But he doesn't read how to do it.

In real life, the demands of the home and office clash for him, too. The rewards of this new fathering are as wonderful but as uncertain as children.

It is easier to read the meaning in a paycheck than in the eyes and lives of children. After all, the scene he remembers most vividly from "Kramer vs. Kramer" is the moment the man got canned for child-caring: "Shame on you."

Even in the year of the Caring Father this reality chills him. At the White House Conference on Families in Baltimore last week there was an undercurrent: What about fathers?. . . What about fathers? In his own life there is another undercurrent. What do I gain and what do I lose?

No, it is no easier fathering in the midst of conflict. No easier than mothering. The men raised by one kind of father are expected to know how to be another. New ideals take over; and we are all caught in the midst of change.

Fathering is, in fact, a lot like mothering this year.