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Fathers getting more domestic

Today, for Father's Day, Johari Abdul-Malik Seale plans to pick up bagels for his wife, Mary, and their two children on his way home to Northwest Washington from his all-night job at Washington Hospital Center.

As he does every morning, he will do a load of laundry. He and his wife will go running, taking turns pushing one child in their single jogging stroller and carrying the other in a backpack. Later, they'll have cake and ice cream. Then he'll end the day reading to his son and rocking his daughter in a cradle.

Seale, a Howard University geneticist, prides himself on his involvement at home. He even leads a fathers' discussion group at a community center every two weeks. But trying to become an equal partner with his wife, sharing not just chores but decision-making, has not always been easy.

"Basically, anything I ask him to do, he's willing to do it," said Mrs. Seale, who works out of the home as a breast-feeding counselor, travel agent and saleswoman. But she added, "A lot of times the onus is on the mother to articulate it."

Seale has learned one thing about language.

"Don't use the word baby-sitting for your own kids," he warned. "You use that word, you get in trouble."

That men are more involved at home is evident in a national study being prepared by the Families and Work Institute, a non-profit policy research center.

But Ellen Galinsky, co-president of the institute, said many men are doing so with aggravation, and women aren't always delighted with the results of their efforts.

A telling indication of the strains of the new roles was a report that some men had told friends at work they were going to a bar when in fact they were going home to take care of their children.

The institute's study has found that in households where only the husband works, the wife does 94 percent of the cooking and 93 percent of the child care. Where both work, her share dips to 80 percent of the cooking and 70 percent of the child care.

And mothers are in the labor force in record proportion; in 1991, 58 percent of mothers with children under age 6 worked outside the home.

Interviews with three dozen parents and experts in family and child development show an array of conflicting emotions as some fathers begin to assume roles as partners, rather than helpers, in the home.

James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project, a separate part of the institute, calls the changing nature of parental decision-making "the family issue of the '90s."

"Men are caught between the role of provider and nurturer and sometimes feel they can't do anything right," he said. "And a lot feel it would be wimpish to talk about it."

To be sure, concerns about issues like fathers who abandon their families _ or are never present at all _ are more pressing.

Divorced fathers who remain involved with their children are sometimes more practiced at decision-making and solo child care than are fathers in two-parent households. Even those without custody often care for children by themselves during visitation. But for all fathers, the changing demands and expectations can be bewildering.

An outpouring of new books and studies is evidence of a search to define the father's role.

Dr. Peter Steinglass, executive director of the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan, said an inability to share decision-making is evident when men will gladly leave work early to pick up a child if asked, for example, but will rarely initiate discussions about the day's child-care needs.

"Women find men are interested in helping, but they still seem to sort of wait for instructions," he said.

Yoel Sberlo of San Francisco says he and his wife, Dee Dee, have learned to share decision-making on matters involving the plumbing business they own and operate as well as on matters regarding their home and their four children. "The difference is not physical work," he said. "The difference is thinking ahead. It took me years to get that."

Richard Louv, a syndicated columnist and author of Father Love and Childhood's Future, urges parents to discuss roles before having children and to keep talking about shifting needs and responsibilities.