Gail Rosenblum
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Skip the trendy tie, personalized coffee mug or wooden picture frame. What do American fathers really want?

More time with their kids.

This is true whether Dad is married and co-parenting under one busy roof, or divorced, although the latter group reports particular angst over the dearth of kid time after a split.

The latest findings come from Pew Research Center, which found that 63 percent of dads say they spend too little time with their children. The biggest roadblock: work.

The struggle for work-life balance begins with baby’s first breath. While the number of fathers taking paternity leave has soared from 5,800 per month in 1994 to 22,000 per month in 2015, a closer look reveals that today’s dads take a week, if they’re lucky. Many report being pressured by bosses and co-workers to return to the office.

As most parents know, that push-pull continues for years. It’s far more acceptable to announce you’re leaving for a dental appointment than for a kid’s soccer game.

But married dads have it easy compared with single dads. One-fifth of fathers say the reason for limited time with their children is that they don’t live with them, due to divorce or never having been married to the mother. About one in four dads of children ages 17 and younger live apart from at least one of their children; 17 percent live apart from all of their children, Pew reports.

The statistics are particularly stark among black fathers. Forty-seven percent of these dads live apart from at least one of their children, compared with 17 percent of white dads. Thirty-six percent of black fathers live apart from all of their children.

“You can feel some of the sadness from not spending enough time with their children that comes through these statistics,” said Tim McCusker, a founding member of Shared Parenting Action, a Minnesota group working to get a presumption of shared parenting established after divorce.

Shared parenting embraces the idea that (with important exceptions) children do better with both parents in their lives as much as possible after a divorce. Parents have equal decisionmaking (usually called “joint custody”) and equal parenting time.

“Fatherhood is the most important job a dad will ever have,” McCusker said. “Regular jobs and careers come and go, but it is your children who are, and will always be, a father’s lasting legacy. The goal of any public policymaker should always be to do what’s necessary to remove the roadblocks to prevent good fathers from being good fathers, or good mothers from being good mothers.”

The benefits of father-child bonds are numerous. A study of working fathers by the U.S. Department of Labor, for example, found that dads who took paternity leaves of two weeks or longer “were much more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth.” In later years, children with involved dads exhibit fewer behavioral problems and improved mental health outcomes, as well as higher cognitive scores.

Family-friendly workplaces, which offer paid time off and flexibility, are key to nurturing these bonds. But so are family-friendly laws that support dads as equal partners. Kentucky acknowledged this in a big way recently. It’s the first state in the country to pass a definitive equal shared parenting bill. The law goes into effect July 1.

Currently, fathers nationwide receive about 35 percent of child custody time in the best cases, in which “both parents want custody and no extenuating circumstances exist, such as criminal convictions or long-distance separation,” said Ben Coltrin, president of Custody Change, a software company that creates parenting schedules post-divorce.

In contentious divorces, fathers (and some mothers, too) might get far less time. At least 25 states are considering laws to encourage shared parenting, or make it the default. Missouri is believed to be next sometime this year.

Most states, like Kentucky, include explicit exceptions, such as in cases of domestic violence, untreated substance abuse and mental illness, or when parents live so far apart they wouldn’t qualify for shared parenting. (Typically, a child can’t be removed from one parent and state of residence without prior approval from the court.)

Ryan Schroeder, a sociology professor at the University of Louisville, testified on behalf of the Kentucky shared parenting law. “The research is entirely clear on the benefit of continued involvement of both parents,” he said in a recent TV interview. Those benefits for children include improved mental health, physical health and school success.

Many Minnesotans have been pushing for shared parenting for years. The Children’s Equal and Shared Parenting Act passed the Minnesota House in 2012, but a watered-down version in the Senate was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton. Grass-roots groups including McCusker’s, the Center for Parental Responsibility and the Minnesota Fathers Rights Facebook Group are turning up the heat on 2018 gubernatorial candidates to support renewed legislative efforts. The group had a booth at the DFL and the Republican conventions a few weeks back.

“The existing family court system creates a ‘one parent wins/one parent loses’ outcome that negatively affects children,” said McCusker, a divorced father with three grown children. “The reason I do what I do today is so that other people don’t have to experience this unnecessary pain and conflict.”

Instead, they’ll experience what Pew has found: dads eager to step up and take a more active role in parenting and housework. Dads are “just as likely as moms to say that parenting is extremely important to their identity,” noted Pew researcher Gretchen Livingston. “The fact that they’re the same might be surprising to some people.”

It shouldn’t be.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum