"In the front, it'll say, 'Don't Disrespect my 'Hood.' And on the back, it says, 'Fatherhood.' "
Larry D. Davis, 52, single father of five, leaned over an undersized table at the McCleary Early Childhood Center in Upper Lawrenceville. Sitting in a classroom with nine other fathers and three mothers for a meeting of the Male/Fatherhood Involvement Program of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, Mr. Davis pointed to sketches of a T-shirt he designed.
"We'll send it to the printers and they can clean it up," suggested Melvin Hubbard El, one of the founders of the program.
But Mr. Davis wanted to leave it natural. "You keep me like I am," he said.
Later in the meeting, when one of the women proposed a butterfly-making activity at an upcoming event, Mr. Davis volunteered his services. "I can make anything. I'm a daddy."
Whether from within the home or outside it, by choice or by circumstance, men like Mr. Davis, of East Hills, are reinventing what it means to be a dad. With more women in the workforce and parenting expectations changing, fathers are increasingly showing up to doctor's appointments and parent-teacher conferences. The amount of time fathers spend with their children has almost tripled since 1965, statistics show.
In both traditional and nontraditional households, dads are stepping into active, nurturing roles.
"At my medical practice I see a lot of very involved single fathers, separated fathers, gay fathers," said David Hill, a divorced single father of three in Wilmington, N.C., who recently published "Dad to Dad," the American Academy of Pediatrics' first parenting book targeted at fathers. "As fathers' roles are changing, we are finding that in many cases divorce or separation is making fathers want to be with their children even more."
The courts are beginning to respond. Under a Pennsylvania law that took effect in January 2011, judges cannot presume that custody should be awarded to a parent based on gender. Courts no longer hesitate to set up shared parenting arrangements.
"Now men enter the court with no presumption against them, with even scales of justice, and with the idea that parenting is not a function of sex," said Harry Gruener, professor of family law at the University of Pittsburgh.
Pediatrician Robert Cicco of West Penn Hospital recently dug up a 1950s newsreel video trumpeting the construction of a new "ultra-modern" dream hospital. "Not even the expectant father is forgotten," the narrator says. The camera then scans to a neatly furnished waiting room where two fathers sit around and smoke. "This is how we appreciated dads back in the '50s. We gave them a waiting room to smoke in," Dr. Cicco explained.
Now fathers want to hold their kids, learn how to change diapers and be there when the diarrhea hits.
Kelly Krohn, a 55-year-old twice-divorced father who now spends every other week at home with his two kids, said he felt guilty when he gave up custody of children from his first marriage and didn't enjoy a short stint as a weekend dad during a more recent separation. Though it cost him four years and $250,000 in court, he credits a legal system that was attentive to his kids' needs for helping him win 50-50 custody of Mia and Shane, both 13 and adopted. On alternating Sundays, he drives eight hours from his job in Indianapolis to Sewickley, where he works from home and wakes his kids in the morning.
"My dad worked 80 hours per week and he was there for me, but I'm physically present more than my father was. My father never made me breakfast," Mr. Krohn said.
Ray Yeo and Mark Friedman, gay fathers of two adopted children in Aspinwall, brought their older child, Ben, home from Vietnam the day after Pennsylvania legalized second-parent adoption, allowing the unmarried men both to become legal parents. Mr. Yeo, 50, has successfully turned "Muffins with Mothers Day" to "Muffins with Mothers and One Dad Day" at daughter Lilly's kindergarten, but still encounters stereotypes about a father's limited range.
"People have said to us, 'It's great that you have Mark's mom to provide the sort of close intimacy kids need,' " he said. "Wait a second. I do Lilly's hair, I help her pick out outfits, do tea parties. We're super close."
The rise of working women and loss of white, male jobs in the Great Recession have also pushed men into nurturing roles. According to the U.S. census, the number of stay-at-home dads grew from 93,000 in 2000 to 176,000 in 2011. Dr. Hill, though, estimates that the real figure is at least 1.5 million. That includes men who are with their children during the day and work at other times, as well as men who won't acknowledge that they're full-time dads. Instead, they say they're just "between jobs." The association between earning power and self-esteem is hard to shake.
"Some people assume you're somehow emasculated if you're a stay-at-home dad," Dr. Hill said.
Robert Papke, 53, of Mt. Lebanon traded Italian suits and evenings managing a restaurant for sweatpants to stay at home with his two sons. Soon after, a new neighbor introduced himself and asked Mr. Papke what he did. "I said 'I'm a stay at home dad' and he said, 'No, what do you do?' "
"At first the moms were like, 'Who's this guy, why is he here?' Then it's like, 'Where's Robert?' "
Mr. Papke brought his homemade pesto to PTA meetings and took over Foster Elementary School's butterfly garden, where he worked with students during lunchtime to break up soil and mix in mushroom manure. He visited museums with his kids, walked them home from school, taught them to appreciate spicy foods, and, more recently, had the sex talk.
His oldest son, Alex, now 18, made a collage of the notes his dad left in his school lunches over the years and gave it to him for Christmas.
"It's like having a wife in the 'Leave It to Beaver' days," said Mr. Papke's wife, Linda. "I was able to go back to work when the kids were 6 or 8 weeks old, and I didn't have that guilt because I was leaving them with him."
The changes restructuring white communities -- jobless men and women who need an income -- have not always produced fortuitous outcomes in the African-American community. Nearly 2 in 3 African-American children grow up without a dad.
Larry E. Davis, a professor and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh, said chronic unemployment leaves fathers grasping to provide for their children. Frequently, they leave. "What are you going to say to your kid? I can't buy you clothes, I can't send you to school, but I want you to be a good person?"
Initiatives like the Male/Fatherhood Involvement Program act on the premise that changing the culture of black fatherhood will help men overcome economic hardship. The group gives dads binders to track how often they read with their kids, organizes a March Dadness basketball tournament and holds camping retreats for fathers.
"The whole idea is to take them out of their element and bring them up to do a real self-examination on where they are as husbands, fathers, boyfriends," said the program's Mr. Hubbard El, of Homewood. "You're beginning to see these activities start to get the men more in tune that education's not just the mother's job."
"The kids lit up," recalled Cetara Holyfield, 35, of Take a Father to School Day, which brought 5,000 men, including her husband, into Pittsburgh Public Schools on May 18. "They wanted to show their fathers everything."
Mr. Davis, the East Hills father, decided as a boy that when he grew up he would be there for his children.
"I couldn't wait until graduation to have my dad there" Mr. Davis said. "I stood on that stage looking at that door and he never came through. Then I found out he was my brother and sister's dad, but not my dad."
He went on to found the Coalition for Fathering Families in 1996, a group that teaches fathers about vaccination schedules and custody laws and pushes the legal system to recognize that dads are good for more than writing child-support checks. Bleak economic prospects don't kill the prospects of good parenting, he said.
"It doesn't take money to be a good mom or dad," Mr. Davis said. "It takes time."
Jonathan Pletcher of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, who specializes in adolescent medicine, remembers coming home from school as a child with a fable about fatherhood. A dad returns from the field and says to his wife, "Oh, you have it so easy. You just stay inside all day." And so they change roles. The house quickly becomes a disaster.
"It'd be nice to make that fable obsolete so we don't get stuck in those roles. It's not good for kids to have to fit themselves into these very rigid roles."
When dads shake off the old rules of fatherhood, picking up proficiency in braiding as well as home repairs, children enter adolescence knowing they can be whatever kind of person they want to be.
"You're open to define the world and life any way you want," Mr. Yeo said. "You're not stuck in this paradigm that's handed to you by society."
The day after the recent meeting of the Male/Fatherhood Involvement Program, Mr. Davis explained his proposal for a fatherhood T-shirt.
He wanted to get people riled up about their neighborhoods, he said, and then hit them with the realization that the man wearing the T-shirt was part of a farther-reaching community.
"Now he's talking fatherhood. He's talking the whole world."
Benjamin Mueller: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-4903. First Published June 17, 2012 4:00 AM