Each weekday Frank Zahrobsky drives his youngest son, Roman, from their Signal Mountain home to his day care downtown. On each trip the 5-year-old boy picks the route.
"Big building way," means heading down M.L. King Boulevard to see the tall downtown buildings.
"Museum way," means hitting the Fourth Street exit to go by the Creative Discovery Museum.
"Daddy's work way," is a trip down by the BlueCross BlueShield building where Zahrobsky is a project manager.
And, when there's enough time, Dad surprises the boy with a trip to the top of the parking deck above the old Bijou Theatre to take in a few minutes of the Chattanooga morning.
The extra five minutes pack in something fun and a way for father and son to connect.
Zahrobsky and his wife, Laurel, load the calendar with events for their three children -- sports in every season, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church, piano lessons and chess club.
For the busy parents, every minute means a lot.
While the number of households without fathers is nearly triple what it was in 1960, dads who are involved in their kids' lives are spending more than double the time with their children than their own fathers did with them.
A 2011 Pew Research Center study showed that 11 percent of households in 1960 had no father present. By 2010 the number had risen to 27 percent.
But dads in the house in the previous era spent an average of 2.6 hours a week with their kids while dads in the house today spend 6.5 hours a week, Pew found.
The same study shows that kids without fathers in the house have more trouble in school and with delinquency. But some dads strive to stay connected despite distance and other challenges.
John Harrington became a father too young. He was 18 when his first son was born. He and his then-wife had three boys but had grown apart and divorced by the time the youngest was 2.
Harrington, now 42, had connected with the two older boys, now both in their 20s. But not being in the home with his youngest son, Ryan, caused a gulf between them.
Then Harrington had to move for work, arriving here in 2000.
Harrington's boys all live in Odessa, Texas. The strain of distance and a troubled relationship with their mother were big obstacles. Missed child support payments brought Harrington to court and a judge sent him to First Things First more than a year ago.
The family-centered nonprofit organization first taught him some basics -- how to build a budget and set aside money he had to pay. Then it taught him how to talk to his son.
That started to reconnect him to Ryan, who is now 16.
"I just didn't know how to talk to my kid," Harrington said. "I felt like he didn't really want to talk to me and I got defensive about that."
But counselors taught him that despite the tone of the voice on the other end of the phone line, the boy wanted his dad in his life.
Former First Things First counselor Dr. Rozario Slack, 57, said the main goal is to have fathers living in the home with the child. If that's not possible because of the relationship with the mother, then the man has to reconcile for the sake of being in the child's life.
While there are many problems with fathers who are not involved, Slack said there has been a lowered expectation in recent generations. The assumption becomes that dads don't want to be involved.
That's especially harmful when the young man had problems with his own father and challenged himself to be better. But when relationship problems arise, the father is often the first one people blame, and the standard is raised too high, he said.
"Consequently, many of the guys walk away, not because they don't love their children," Slack said. There's a sense of failure to live up to the standard they set for themselves and then a view that maybe they're not needed, which is wrong, he said.
The renewed involvement and commitment of some dads that the recent research shows is part of a cultural reaction, Slack said.
"I think what has happened is that this generation has had the benefit of distance," Slack said.
The atmosphere has changed. Church-based groups in the 1990s re-established standards for manhood, which led to responsible fatherhood movements, and now there are healthy-marriage movements, he said.
"It's almost like a systemic correction, like a market correction from Wall Street," Slack said. "We've pushed the guys out, now we've got to get the guys back involved."
On Tuesday the Zahrobsky quartet was at the ball fields near the Signal Mountain Town Center. Mom had to work late, so Zahrobsky watched as Roman and 7-year-old Linley tossed a ball and then took to the batting cage.
Meanwhile, the eldest, Frankie, 10, shuffled off with a shrug and an "I'm-too-cool-for Dad" look to his team practice nearby.
"Hey, throw from behind the screen; that way if he hits it, it won't hit you," Frank tells Linley as she pitches to Roman.
Waxing analytical, Zahrobsky considered the hours in the week and all of the commitments he has. He said he realized that he doesn't get much time with his children unless he schedules it.
And there's no time to waste.
"Right now they want to hang out with me," Zahrobsky said. "I'm starting to realize with [Frankie] that's not going to be for too long."
Contact staff writer Todd South at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...
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