RICHMOND -- The first rays of sunlight are touching the iron fence outside Larry Cook's home, but his day started hours ago.
He laid out his daughter's clothes before leaving for work, shuttling teens to a construction apprenticeship program, and is now circling back.
His 4-year-old greets him at the door. A niece has brushed Marianna's teeth and dressed her, but there is still the matter of a book for show-and-tell. Cook chooses a nursery rhyme anthology.
"Leave it up to her and she'll bring Curious George every time," he explains, hustling the preschooler into a fluffy jacket. She giggles, falling against his knees, and then they're out the door. Cook is due back at work by 8 a.m.
The hectic routine is one faced by an increasing number of fathers. As a single dad, Cook, 42, belongs to the fastest-growing segment of East Bay parents.
Men now head more than a quarter of all one-parent households in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Richmond, the number of single dads climbed 28 percent over the past decade, while the number of single mothers declined for the first time since at least 1970 -- as far back as data is available.
The Bureau counts single fathers in a category that allows other adults such as girlfriends or grandparents to be present, but census research shows that most of the men in the category are raising a child alone.
While women still far outnumber men as heads of single-parent households, experts say families and courts increasingly acknowledge that sometimes the best place for children is with their fathers.
"Many years ago, family courts would be reticent to award custody to the father even in the face of the mother having some issues" said Hans Johnson, of the Public Policy Institute of California. "Today, fathers are expected to take on more child-rearing responsibilities than they were 30 years ago."
A 2006 survey found that 22 percent of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers members are seeing a rise in cases in which a father wins sole custody, while none are seeing an increase in mothers getting custody.
Fathers groups cite the changing demographics as a sign that men want to take on the job of primary parenting, and can do it as well as the partners who gave birth to their children.
But the way Cook sees it, he's just doing what he's supposed to.
"People see us walking down the street and say, 'I give you all the props in the world,' but I always say, 'For what?' When you have kids that's your responsibility."
Cook never knew his own father -- he died a young man -- and he figured he would one day be a different type of dad. That didn't happen at first. He had his first child out of wedlock by the age of 18 and five more children over the next decade. When disagreements came up between him and the mothers of his children, it was easier to walk away.
When Marianna came along, Cook was determined to do things right. And with her mother in and out of drug rehabilitation, he had no choice but to do it alone.
Community organizers here say they have been fighting a "culture of fatherlessness" for decades, but are now also being called upon to make space for custodial dads at support groups and service centers.
"Programs are having to learn how to make the dads feel welcome," said Tracy Ward, who helps run the Supporting Father Involvement Project in Richmond and Concord. "It's been a culture shift for a lot of agencies."
Getting help can be difficult
Razvan Barna, of Antioch, has learned to fit into lavender-walled, female-staffed family services offices. His advice: bring your own reading materials and be prepared for questions.
"You go to get benefits, they look at you funny," he said. "The first thing they ask you: 'Where's mom?' You gotta be prepared for that."
These days, Barna, 36, holds down a full-time job, takes bookkeeping classes and volunteers at church and at his children's school. He was recently named parent of the year by the National Head Start Program.
But things were very different when his wife walked away from the family three years ago. Barna felt he had nowhere to turn. He decided to "check out" and spend all day with his two preschool-age sons.
Josh Rose, director of Family Works Community Counseling in Richmond, says Barna's reaction is not uncommon. Men faced with the task of raising a family can feel overwhelmed and lonely, yet unable to turn to others for help for fear of being labeled unmanly, he said.
Barna says he found himself without a peer group. Men in his world just didn't raise children by themselves.
Eventually, he had no choice but to move into a shelter. There, he learned about resources for parents and began working toward a more stable life. His first step was fixing a suspended license he had been driving with for more than a decade.
"I've got these two little angels with me now," he said. "I realized, if I lose my car because of something dumb, what makes me think I can get us a house?"
Like all single parents, solo dads tend to be less well-off than their partnered counterparts. Experts speculate that they may also be reluctant to go after child support because they fear that if the mother steps in, she'll regain custody.
Dads now account for 30 percent of single parents statewide, but still make up only 15 percent of child support recipients, according to data kept by the state attorney general's office.
Challenges are more than financial
Even when money is not tight, the scripted, jam-packed schedule of a single father can be daunting.
Eric Reynolds, of Oakland, found that he had to switch careers after winning sole custody of his three children in 2005. No longer able to tour the world as a DJ, he turned his tech skills to computer programming.
"It was difficult pulling away from the music world," Reynolds, 42, said. "But you have to look at what's more important -- your career or your children."
Reynolds, who has seen his teen daughters through everything from boy troubles to bullying problems to Lady Gaga fixations, founded the group Single Parents Rock! to guide other men through the sometimes fraught transition to single fatherhood.
Cook has also become an unlikely role model -- in his case, for the young men he works with every day at the Richmond vocational training program.
Community organizers say young fathers are often reluctant to cultivate emotional relationships with their children because of notions about what means to be strong and manly.
When Cook brings Marianna to work, the teens respond. One student recently told Cook that after watching them together, he felt that he too could be an involved father, and was inspired to baby-sit his daughter for the first time.
"I was like, 'Man, you should have been feeling like that the moment your baby was born," Cook said, laughing.
Turning serious, he added, "I wanted to tell him so he doesn't have regrets."
For the most part, Cook says he has trouble seeing himself as a role model when really it was his daughter who humbled him and set him on the right path.
"It's all about her," he said. "She keeps me focused. And for the last four and a half years I haven't had one bad day."
Contact Hannah Dreier at 510-262-2787. Follow her at Twitter.com/hannahdreier