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Dad: Invisible next to Mom?

Father's Day has come and gone, and with it the annual flurry of dad-friendly gifts, heartwarming newscasts and the highest-ranking father in the land - President Barack Obama - taking time to urge his fellow fathers to step up when it comes to their kids.

Fathers, Obama wrote in a letter to Parade magazine, need to "realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one."

It's advice few would dispute. But fathers who routinely do share daily child-rearing duties equally with their spouses or handle the job alone say we also need to adjust the way society responds.

In a generation where both parents are often working and the lines of childcare have blurred as never before, one tentacle of traditional American culture remains surprisingly dominant: When you're talking about the kids, talk to the mom.

The bias is subtle, but persistent. Blogger and screenwriter Greg Allen, a Washington, D.C., father of two, has had his questions politely ignored during visits to the pediatrician's office, while his wife's queries were answered promptly.

"I used to get really worked up about it," Allen said. "I think a lot of people still have sort of the default-setting in their heads that moms are the parent. That 'parents' equals 'moms' and moms are the caregivers. Dads are still put into the 'observers' category in people's minds."

When Allen explores the subject on his blog, daddytypes.com, readers quickly respond.

Some fathers say they're treated as full-fledged parents when running kid-related errands or dealing with their children in public by themselves. But if their wives are present, they become invisible to everyone from salespeople in baby stores to daycare center staffers.

John Ofenloch, a Dallas-area father of one, has gotten stares from playgroup moms and preschool teachers when he's attended events during the workday for his daughter Morgan. "You can tell they're wondering, 'Did he lose his job? Why is he here?' ... And yet when a mother shows up, there's no question," he said. "No one blinks."

Despite the growing presence of daddy bloggers and stay-at-home-dads, society has been slow in catching up with the modern realities of fatherhood, said Erin Boyd-Soisson, an associate professor of family science at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.

"Up until just 10 or 15 years ago," she says, "when researchers did research into children, they used the term 'non-maternal care' for everyone but the mother. Fathers were lumped in with baby sitters."

That's since changed within academia. But not so much in the wider world.

"There is so much conditioning, in terms of thinking that women instinctively know more and have more experience with children," said Claudia Strauss, a family communications expert and lecturer at Albright College in Reading, Pa. "You can't just turn off the switch of what's been there, in terms of role models and what's been inculcated culturally and societally" for so many generations.

For some dads, the occasional stare or slight is just background noise. "I spend so much time by myself out with the kids, having people deal with me as the parent that I don't notice it, really, when it does happen," said Eric Gorman, a father of two who lives in Pittsburgh.

But Strauss said some men become less involved with their children's lives after enough negative reinforcement. "Fathers can be made to feel less secure, especially young men when they first become fathers," she said, "because it reinforces that idea that they don't know what they're doing."

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