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The fathers who leave children behind

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AFTER the cards have been opened and all the yellow neckties have been knotted, Father's Day ought to have a second act. Without spoiling the party, the third Sunday in June might also serve to raise questions about what a father should be and do. The answers have changed dramatically.

The supposedly remote and authoritarian old-style father image has given way to the ``warm'' and ``nurturing'' new-style father, as any reader of life-style sections knows by now.

Call it paternity chic, this new sensitive-father approach that encourages men to be active participants rather than passive observers in their children's lives. As they hoist diaper bags, carry infants in Snuglis, and drop off toddlers at day-care centers, they represent a much-celebrated new breed, their virtues extolled in slick magazine articles and misty-eyed, self-congratulatory books like Dan Greenberg's ``Confessions of a Pregnant Father'' and Bob Greene's ``Good Morning, Merry Sunshine.''

On the whole, the change is welcome. Yet if mothers (and other women) are to take Father's Day seriously, we may well ask: How much of this is media hype, more style than substance? Ironically, an increase in nurturing and pleasure among some fathers has coincided with a decline in responsibility and support among others, as evident in the growing ranks of absent and missing fathers across the country.

Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich calls it ``the male flight from commitment,'' a late-20th century phenomenon that cuts across race, class, and economic lines, leaving millions of children and their mothers struggling to stay ahead of the bill collector.

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