He called around 3 p.m., when he knew his son would be home from school, and his ex-wife still at work. It's easier to get through when she's not there.

Richard's boy answered, almost a young man now, 15. It had been two weeks since he'd seen his son, the court order specifying visitation every other weekend, and not even the whole weekend; just noon to six Saturday and Sunday.And how was school, Richard asked, and what do you want to do this Saturday? A movie? A hike? Anything you and your sister want.

"Sounds great, dad, but I'm on this new swim team, and, I don't know, the first practice is Saturday."

Fine, said Richard, he understood. His boy was getting older, having his own life. Besides, the order mentioned this kind of thing: "Visits will not preclude any of the activities in which the minor children are involved."

Is your sister there? Yes, said his boy, but then his ex-wife came on, and sorry, she said, little Jenny, now 11, will be out with friends this weekend. Both days.

Well, can I talk to her?

No, she's sleeping, I have to run.

And another weekend had been taken from him, as had been happening for seven years now. Of course, he could have asked his lawyer to protest, but he'd found it does little good. There is a full-time court master to make sure men pay child support - and there should be, Richard says - but no one to ensure women live up to visitation. It's not a priority.

He remembers that first year. His own job began in the afternoon, his wife's schooling at 7 a.m., so he was the mommy, bathing his boy when he woke, then feeding him breakfast, soon figuring out he should bathe him after breakfast so he didn't have to do it twice.

Many nights, when he was home, he'd lie by his son in a dark room, singing Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral until sometimes both fell asleep together. His daughter arrived four years later, big blue eyes, and he'd read her "Winnie The Pooh" so often it drove him crazy, but he kept doing it because that's what she wanted.

Looking back, he sees that he married too young; he was 21, his wife 19. In time the arguments led to separations, and though he wasn't ready for a visitation order restricting him to 1 to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, every other weekend, he vowed it would not get in the way.

But it's hard to connect with children during five scheduled hours a few times a month, while constantly glancing at your watch. At first, his daughter cried when he would drop her off promptly at 6 p.m., explaining that daddy cannot stay with you any more but will always be your daddy. In time, though, the crying stopped, and an awkwardness took its place. What do you want to do today, he'd ask. Nothing, she'd say. Is it time to go home yet?

Over the years, twice-a-month has averaged out to once-a-month - not a good weekend, she keeps saying. And he knows he should protest, but his lawyer has told him how hard it is, how an ex-wife can always explain it away - the children had plans, and the order says that's OK - and besides, in court, nothing ever seems to happen to women who block visitation.

So he has a plea.

"I know there are fathers who don't pay," he says, "or are abusive. But if there's a decent father who wants to be involved in his children's lives, don't use the kids as a way to get back at him because you're bitter about the divorce." Of course, the plea is for himself, but he says it's for someone else, too.

"If you use something to hit somebody," he says, "quite often you're going to break that thing."

Not long ago, he tried to talk of the past with his little girl. But she had no memories of "Winnie the Pooh," or his singing "Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral" to her. She did not remember him as that kind of daddy; he's just the absentee daddy who comes on weekend afternoons.

Every second or third or fourth weekend, depending on when his ex-wife will let him.

And his children are growing up without him.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service