Solo Dads Try Feathering a Nest without a Mate

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THE REFRAIN was familiar: a divorce at twenty-something, a fruitless search for a new partner, an imaginary life script that assumed the presence of children - and a real-life scenario marked by solitude and the steady ticking of a relentless biological clock.

But Don Viola was not about to let reality get in the way of his dreams. He decided to adopt a child.

"It's just something I always thought I would be," said Viola, whose son, Jordan, turned 3 in January. "A father."

In creating a family on his own, the 37-year-old software engineer from Rocklin, Calif., outside Sacramento, joined a small but growing fraternity of single fathers by choice. No hard data exists, no longitudinal studies have been undertaken - but anecdotal evidence suggests that a tiny cadre of men are heeding their own needs to nurture, regardless of their marital status or, in some cases, sexual orientation. Largely through private adoption or by contracting with surrogates, they are embarking on solo parenthood. In doing so, they are challenging broad cultural expectations about men - and about parenting.

"These are the cosmonauts of gender space," said Harvard Medical School psychologist Ron Levant, co-author of "Masculinity Reconstructed" (Dutton, 1995) and the head of the American Psychological Association's new section on men. "They are crafting an entirely new role" - a blend, Levant said, of traditional and novel concerns.

Increasingly, single men are showing up at support groups for prospective parents, said social worker Andrea Troy, director of New York Singles Adopting Children. Arlene Tanenbaum, who coordinates adoption information services for Work/Family Directions in Boston, said "just in the last year and a half, the number of calls has increased tremendously. There are definitely more men looking at the possibility of becoming fathers on their own."

As the head of a chain of clinics called the Infertility Centers of America, Michigan lawyer Noel Keane has acted as the broker for dozens of unmarried men who have contracted with surrogates to bear their children. Depending on the details of the arrangements, and the state where the procedures are conducted, the costs range from about $12,000 to $40,000, Keane said.

"These are pretty upright guys," he said, men who "may not want the problems" of married life or, in the classic parlance of dating, men who "haven't found the right girl."

Besides, Keane noted, "There is such a thing as a confirmed bachelor. Why should he sacrifice becoming a father? I've always looked at it as a constitutional right for someone to procreate a child."

University of Southern California social work professor Frances S. Caple, author of "Women as Single Parents" (Auburn House, 1988), observed that married or not, many men also feel the tug of "what Erik Erikson called `generativity' - that is, how important it is not to feel that your existence is bound to this time and space. …