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Unwed Dads Choose to Care for Their Kids

Fathers who accept responsibility for their children help to counter a destructive - and growing - social problem

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BRUCE DAVIS remembers exactly how he felt three years ago when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant: scared. He was only 20, he hadn't completed his education, and he didn't have a job.

``I'd always had a fear of fatherhood,'' Mr. Davis says. ``I thought I'd be a singer or a preacher, but I never thought I'd be a father. I was afraid I'd do the same thing my father did to me, and that's to be nonexistent. [Responsible] fatherhood is not very common in my family on either side.''

Despite his fears, Davis was determined not to repeat the pattern of fatherlessness. He attended the birth of his son, now two years old, and helped care for him. He and the baby's mother, Carla, eventually married, and last year they became parents of a daughter. Davis now works as a security guard and a minister.

Talk to young urban fathers like Davis and two themes appear again and again, unprompted: fear of being a father and sadness at never having known their own fathers. As they share their concerns and hopes for their children, they display a vulnerability distinctly at odds with media images that portray them as indifferent and irresponsible.

Unmarried parenthood knows no economic or racial boundaries. Nearly 30 percent of all births in the United States are to unmarried mothers. In 1991, there were 1.2 million nonmarital births - a record high. In some 3 out of 4 cases the father is never legally identified, says David Blankenhorn, president of the New York-based Institute for American Values.

Wherever they occur, these births constitute a problem of such magnitude that Mr. Blankenhorn, author of a forthcoming book, ``Fatherless America,'' calls fatherlessness ``the most socially consequential family trend of our era.'' The absence of fathers, he says, whether through divorce, separation, or unmarried births, is ``the most important fact in understanding trends in child poverty as well as other social problems we're now experiencing'' - juvenile delinquency, domestic violence against women, declining school performance, and the deteriorating physical and mental well-being of children.

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