Despite the fashionable notion that today's "new" fathers are nurturing, involved parents, they actually are moving away from the center of family life, says a Brigham Young University family sciences assistant professor.

Alan J. Hawkins presented findings from his research during the International Conference on Gender and the Family last week at BYU.Hawkins said a popular theory is that as more mothers enter the job market, fatherhood is changing to include more intimate involvement with children.

"Unfortunately, this scenario is more myth than reality," Hawkins said.

He listed the following reasons, suggested by studies of the family over the past five years:

- Fathers' participation in child care and housework has not increased substantially in 20 years.

- Work in the home is primarily done by mothers when the parents return from jobs, with only token participation by "helping" husbands.

- Often the father isn't home at all. Recent national estimates indicate that divorce will affect more than two-thirds of children born in the 1980s and nearly 90 percent of children will remain with mothers.

- Statistics on non-custodial fathers show that fewer than 60 percent of mothers are awarded child support, 35 percent of children never see their fathers, and 24 percent see them less than once a month.

- Unwed motherhood is increasing. In 1985, nearly one-fourth of all U.S. births were to unmarried women - and, in most cases, these fathers are as far from the family system as possible.

"Many studies seem to say contemporary fathers in general might be characterized as redundant parents," Hawkins said.

"It may be beneficial to have them around and involved. But fathers' lack of involvement in or even absences from the home do not create a serious developmental risk for children because mothers can adapt, especially if they receive some economic support."

However, Hawkins disagreed with some scholars who suggest there is little that can reverse the trend.

Part of the change must come from wives' attitudes, he said. Their opinions about sharing work and parenting are critical.

He said the more strongly wives believe that their husbands must carry a fair share of domestic labor, the more likely husbands are to respond.

"And if as dual earners, wives see employment linked to self-identity and see their financial contributions as necessary, they are more likely to request and receive more participation at home from their husbands."

In addition, parenthood challenges family roles. Marital conflict and dissatisfaction are common during this difficult transition period.

In some cases, fathers may hesitate to devote themselves fully to fatherhood because it would make leaving "messier" if they decided to end the marriage.

"Yet," argued Hawkins, "deeper father-child relationships would make leaving more difficult, and a strong father-child bond may help a temporary weakening of husband-wife bonds." Over time, he said, couples are likely to work out their problems.

Hawkins suggested educational programs that go beyond training fathers about child development and diaper changing, and emphasize more complex issues of men's and women's gender identities and how they nurture.

He also questioned policies that ignore teenage fathers. Data suggest many teenage fathers are more willing to be involved in the lives of their children than most people suspect.