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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Say the phrase "single parent," and the image that most likely springs to mind is that of a woman. It's very common for a woman to raise children with the father nowhere in the picture.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's a little less common to find a father who raises kids without a mother. But growing numbers of men - gay and straight - are doing just that. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: B.J. Holt always wanted to be a dad. And as he approached 40, no life partner in sight, he felt a version of the ticking biological clock.

B.J. HOLT: The having-the-children thing started to overwhelm the desire to have the relationship first. They sort of switched on me.

LUDDEN: So a few years ago, Holt used an egg donor and a surrogate, to create a family on his own.

PAYSON HOLT: I got one.

CHRISTINA HOLT: I caught one, too.

B.J. HOLT: Yay!

LUDDEN: Christina, 4, and little brother Payson, 2, catch plastic fish in a room adorned with stuffed animals. The walls of their New York City apartment are filled with kid's artwork.

CHRISTINA HOLT: Mine is the blue one.

B.J. HOLT: This is blue?

LUDDEN: When Holt decided to have kids, he didn't know any other single dad by choice. But family and friends were ecstatic and supportive. As for strangers, well, he's gotten used to their assumptions - like the weekend before, driving through a toll booth.

B.J. HOLT: There I was, in the car with my two kids in the backseat, and I was fumbling for the money. And she said, oh, take your time, take your time. Daddy's, you know, without the mom today, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Holt is gay. Steve Majors, of the same-sex advocacy group Family Equality Council, says that used to feel like an either-or proposition.

STEVE MAJORS: Either you were in a heterosexual relationship and having children, or you were gay. You couldn't have both.

LUDDEN: But with the rise of same-sex marriage, gay men have pioneered the use of reproductive technology to have children. Majors says he now hears from single gay men who want to learn more about starting a family.

At the same time, gender roles for straight men are evolving. With more stay-at-home dads, and more divorced dads with the kids, advocates say men realize they don't necessarily need a wife to be a parent. Brian Tessier recently started 411-4-DAD, a hotline for prospective single fathers.

BRIAN TESSIER: I think we probably, right now, are up to about 30 calls a month.

LUDDEN: Tessier adopted two boys through foster care. He's gay, but says half the calls he gets are from straight men. Many believe they can't legally adopt on their own. Tessier assures them that's not true, though they may well face stigma and suspicion.

TESSIER: I think that it's a bias on the part of the agencies, and the system itself; that questions men's ability, and their intentions of why they would want to be a single father.

LUDDEN: Tessier also sees lingering sexism.

TESSIER: If a mom is in a meeting and all of a sudden, she gets called because her kid is sick, nobody raises an eyebrow. But if a guy gets called because his kid is sick and he has to leave, it's kind of like, well - you know - where's your wife?

LUDDEN: The Williams Institute, a think-tank on same-sex issues, finds there were more than a million never-married men - both gay and straight - raising children in 2010. That is three times as many as two decades ago. The census doesn't ask how many of these are single dads by choice. But adoption and surrogacy agencies say they do see more of them, and not just in this country.

AVI BRECHER: We've just - took a shower and now, talking with you and then, they will go to sleep.

LUDDEN: That's Avi Brecher, an Israeli who's traveled the globe to create his family. When we spoke by Skype, he was holding 3-month-old Ariel, born this spring to a surrogate in Minnesota. By his side - 6-year-old Daniel, adopted from Guatemala.

BRECHER: I can remember when I was about 24 years old, I said that I want to have a family with three children, and a dog. And - I mean, I have a dream like that.

LUDDEN: Brecher was married briefly, and would still love to find a wife. As a pediatrician, though, he's confident he can raise his kids well. Still, he makes sure they spend time with women.

BRECHER: The grandmother, the nurse. If it's female friends of mine, I let them hold Ariel so she can feel the touch of a female - which, I believe, is different from a male.

LUDDEN: Back in New York...

(KISSING SOUND, LAUGHTER)

PAYSON HOLT: Silly dad.

B.J. HOLT: Silly dad? Silly Payson...

LUDDEN: B.J. Holt keeps on display a photo of a smiling, pregnant woman - the surrogate who carried both his children. He calls her their special friend, and she's already visited twice. He knows his kids will have questions about their family.

B.J. HOLT: Even though I'm going to have a struggle of, like, getting them to understand why we don't have a mommy in our picture, they will always know that I'm there to care for them, and that I will always be there to love them.

LUDDEN: And that, he says, is all that matters.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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