Even before the birth of his first son, Ritchie White was a doting dad.
Once he learned his wife was pregnant, he was there with her every step of the way. He accompanied her to OB-GYN appointments, participated in Lamaze classes and talked to his son in the womb.
Now, White, 40, is the father of three boys, ages 8 to 3 months, and helps with everything from preparing meals to tucking the boys in bed. His wife, Molly, said she didn't grow up with her biological father and appreciates everything her husband does.
"He knows that our children are blessings from God and he treats them as such," she said. "It's extra sweet for me to see him invest in their lives daily, because I didn't have that."
It used to be that fathers were considered less nurturing than mothers and better suited for limited roles like breadwinner and Little League coach. But fathers like White are shattering the mold and building a new fatherhood model that makes children their top priority. They represent a growing breed of dads more involved in child-rearing than previous generations.
Carolyn Bentley, a child birth education specialist in the Columbus area, said she has seen fatherhood evolve over the years. Many of today's dads begin bonding with their children almost from conception, she said. They attend fatherhood boot camps, take paternity leave and remain hands-on throughout childhood.
"Research has shown that in previous generations like 'the Greatest Generation' (of the World War II era), many of those fathers were not involved in the same way dads are today," Bentley said. "They took the traditional role where dad is in the waiting room ready to pass out cigars while the baby is being born, versus the millennial fathers who are in the delivery room, assisting, supporting and encouraging moms throughout the process to bring the baby into the world."
Tiffany Bass-Jackson is program coordinator for Families and Schools Together, a program at the Family Center that helps empower families in schools with high-risk populations. She also has seen more fathers involved in recent years.
"In previous generations usually the mom handled everything with the school as far as registration, PTA -- you name it, the mom was always in charge," she said. "But what I've noticed the past five years is more fathers are being involved in their children's education and extracurricular activities outside of sports. A lot of fathers say, 'I want to be better. I want to be more involved. I want to know my child, more than just providing.'"
New gender roles
Much of the shift is due to women becoming more prominent in the workforce, Bentley said. The Pew Research Center recently reported that moms are now the sole or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of homes with children under 18. Thirty-seven percent of the mothers are married women who earn higher incomes than their husbands, while 63 percent are single mothers, the study found.
Bentley said the fatherhood trend began with the baby boomers, which she calls the "Supermom era." Some mothers thought they could work full time and still give 100 percent to their children, she said, but they soon discovered their limits. Husbands of that generation were more helpful than their fathers. But many were still relegated to traditional roles like taking care of the yard, washing the car and taking out the trash.
Bentley said roles really began to shift with Generation X, and even more so with the millennials, whose children have been born since 2000. In many of those homes, parents negotiate roles based on what's best for the family.
For the Whites, it resulted in a hybrid between the old and new. Molly is a stay-at-home mom who home-schools the children. Ritchie has a freelance photography business and works from home a lot of the time. So, he arranges his schedule around his sons' needs.
"I think in our case we're an interesting mix of a throw-back of the old traditional ways and embracing some newer ideas," Molly said. "I stay home with our children and that's something we're excited about and glad we made that decision. But, at the same time, he's not a wait-until-your-dad-gets-home kind of dad. He's involved throughout the day."
In Columbus, there are also some military families with mothers deployed overseas, making fathers primary caregivers to their children.
Sgt. 1st Class Judy Betancourt has lived away from her family since March 2006. During that time, she has been deployed to Kuwait; Fort Eustis, Va.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Afghanistan. She returned to Fort Benning in March, but is scheduled to be re-deployed to Afghanistan before the end of the year.
When she is absent, her husband, Master Sgt. Raul Betancourt, is both father and mother to their 9-year-old son, Cristian. Raul, 45, also has a 20-year-old son from a previous marriage. That son is in the military, and Raul is very involved in his life.
"I couldn't ask for a better husband," Judy said. "As a father, he has instilled in our child the values we have been taught as soldiers -- loyalty, integrity, duty, honor, selfless service and respect."
Raul was deployed to Iraq three times between 2003 and 2007 and sustained injuries from an IED in 2005. While caring for his son, he's also had to endure multiple leg surgeries. He said it hasn't been easy, but it is well worth his time.
"The reward that you get when your kid holds you at night when you come home, or the way he grabs and hugs you because he honestly misses you, that's a feeling I would never give up," he said. "That's my Little Mr. Man, right there. He does everything with me, and people call him my clone."
Breaking the cycle
Ilya Lawrence, 41, is a fatherhood specialist with the Children and Family Connection of Russell County. He mentors non-custodial fathers through a program called Fathers Achieving & Supporting Their Tots to Teens.
Support group meetings are held Mondays at Russell County Jail and Wednesdays at the Children and Family Connection center. Some of the men are separated from their children because of drugs, jail and other past indiscretions. Others just have adversarial relationships with the mothers, which makes bonding with their children difficult.
But most want to be better fathers, program coordinators said.
"A lot of them just pay child support and don't even see their kids," Lawrence said. "They don't know their rights as far as visitations and custody are concerned."
Through the six-week program, experts are brought in to help the men with legal issues, parenting skills, job readiness, educational pursuits and overall life-management. But it also helps to have a role-model like Lawrence, who encourages them to embrace fatherhood.
As the father of two children, ages 11 and 16, Lawrence said he draws from personal experiences as both a father and son.
He said he was raised by a stepfather who was very supportive, but he always missed having his biological father around. So, he made sure he was involved in his children's lives from the very beginning -- and hasn't stopped since.
"I just wanted to make sure that I was going to be the best father I could possibly be," he said.
Lawrence's wife, Tanisha, describes her husband as a dad who "does it all." When she works late, he's the one picking up the kids, cooking dinner and tidying the house. He's also there for all of the children's extracurricular activities.
"It's not non-traditional for us because it's just what he does," she said. "Our kids are very active and he's always there."