Will Murphy Encourage Life To Imitate Art?

ALICE STEINBACH

May 14, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Generally speaking, I grew up among adults who told me as little as possible about sex and where babies come from.

In fact, most of what I knew about the subject came from an out-of-date health manual my mother kept semi-hidden in a dining room cabinet. Behind the wine glasses.

But one thing I did know as a child -- from just observing the world around me -- was this: All babies had a mother. And a father.

This didn't mean I had the sexual mechanics of what happened between mothers and fathers pinned down. Far from it. In fact, the diagrams and stick figures I studied in the family health manual suggested some rather weird scenarios -- at least to a child -- concerning sex and babies.

It simply meant that every family I observed and every book I read and every movie I saw confirmed to me that babies had two parents. A mom and a dad. For me it was as true and taken-for-granted as grass being green or summer being hot. I could imagine it no other way.

Fathers were no less important in the cycle of life than mothers. Or so it seemed to me.

But that was then. And this is now.

We live now in a time that might be called, among other things, The Age of the Incredible Shrinking Dads. It is an age when more and more women -- and not only those so-called "welfare mothers" but successful career women as well -- become pregnant and decide to have the child without marrying.

And although bearing an out-of-wedlock child used to be an occasion for shame and secrecy -- I remember, for instance, being told by the mother of a teen-age friend whom I knew to be pregnant that the girl "was spending a year with her aunt in Kansas" -- such is no longer the case.

Or to put it another way: When it comes to society's attitude

about unmarried mothers, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Which brings us to Murphy Brown, a glamorous, independent, successful TV newswoman who's about to become an unwed mother. It was an accidental pregnancy -- maybe Murphy wasn't thinking about birth control, or maybe she was and it didn't work. At first viewers were left wondering who the father was; it turned out to be her ex-husband. Whom she does not intend to remarry.

But Murphy, who's in her 40s, does intend to have the baby. Without her ex-husband who's gone off somewhere in the name of investigative reporting. Or something. Of course, she's got not only the inclination but also the financial resources to raise Baby Brown on her own.

It seems a lot of people really admire Murphy Brown -- who, in case you need reminding, is a TV sitcom character played by Candice Bergen -- and approve of her decision to go ahead and become an unmarried mom.

It all seems so real: the surprise of the pregnancy, the physical changes and hormonal disharmony in Murphy, the baby shower and soon the birth of a baby, which she -- and we -- know will be a boy.

I've even overheard conversations about Murphy Brown's decision to have the baby without marrying.

For instance: She's got the money to bring up a child and it's her body, so why shouldn't she do what she wants?

Or: There aren't enough men to go around and unmarried women have as much right to motherhood as married women.

Or: It would be different if she were an immature kid with no means of support, but she's educated and smart and can give a child a stable life.

I wonder: Do we have here a case of art imitating life?

There was that case a few years back, for instance, in which Liz Walker, a real-life, unmarried TV anchorwoman, became pregnant. And had her baby out of wedlock. But her decision was met with criticism, and she was declared a "destructive" role model. So the Murphy Brown scenario can't be art imitating life.

On the other hand I wonder: Will the Murphy Brown example encourage life to imitate art?

Will it confer the seal of approval on unwed motherhood and make it seem more glamorous somehow? More important, will it make the idea of raising a child alone, without a father, seem easier than it really is? Establish a school of thought that says: If Murphy Brown can do it, I can do it.

And what happens if Murphy Brown is a smashing success at unwed mothering? Will that convey the message that fathers in our society are no longer necessary?

But, look, it's only television. So stay tuned to see if life does imitate art. Which reminds me: Someone once noted that the least cheering statement ever made on the subject of art is that life imitates it.

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