Fathers Looking For Jake

ELLEN GOODMAN

June 19, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Lately, I've had Jake on my mind. It's because of Father's Day, I'm sure. The warm and wiggly cards and messages and ads are all over the place. Any gal's mind could wander to thoughts of a man like Jake.

It's because of Dan Quayle too. The man is running for president -- oops, vice president -- against a ''cultural elite'' that says ''fathers are dispensable.'' He reminds me that Jake dispensed of himself.

But mostly it's because of rerun season. Just last week, television went back to the beginning of Murphy Brown's now-mythic pregnancy to the wonderful moment when Jake discovered he was going to be a dad. Did he faint in a dead heap, 1950s style, when Murphy broke the news flash from her pregnancy testing kits? Did he blush with pleasure and run out to buy her pickles?

No, Murphy's ex-husband, who had lobbied to become Murphy's second husband, told her that he had to go and save the world. Good luck and goodbye.

So, I have had Jake on my mind.

I hope that he found some new and rare species of insects while trying to preserve the rain forest. I hope that they bit him badly. That sort of thing.

But I have also been thinking that when the controversy erupted over Murphy Brown, it missed the mark. Jake was the juicier target.

Last week, Mr. Quayle said, ''The elite's culture is a guilt-free culture. It avoids responsibility and flees consequences.'' If he was thinking of Murphy, he was one lap outside the mainstream. You're looking for a villain? I give you the unwed and unwilling-to-wed father. Looking for a consequence-fleer? I give you Jake.

In the last decade we've mapped all sorts of gaps that have grown in America between the haves and have nots. Of these, the widest is between children who have and have not fathers in their lives.

Out of this gap has come our two favorite Father's Day images: the New Father and the Deadbeat Dad. On the one hand, we have a picture of a father who is as involved emotionally with his kids as he is economically. On the other hand, we have a father who is only seen when his state posts his picture on the Ten Most Wanted list for child-support payments.

The father on the lam, the seed-and-leave man on either end of the socio-economic ladder is only part of a very complicated story that we are just beginning to hear and tell. As Frank Furstenberg, one of the few to listen to and chronicle the vanishing father, is quick to say: ''There is no single reason why men disengage from their children.''

At one extreme, says the University of Pennsylvania researcher, are men who have little more than fleeting contact with the biological mother. At the other extreme are men who lived with their children over many years until the relationship broke apart.

All unmarried fathers are not, as the state would sometimes have us believe, deadbeats. All divorced fathers are not, as the men dragged into court would have us believe, broke. All fathers are not, as some men's groups would have us believe, kept from their kids by ex-wives who use the child support checks for themselves. Though some, agrees Dr. Furstenberg, are all of these things.

What we know so far is many men see marriage and children as a package deal and when the package unravels, they may return it all.

Indeed, the wish that we could put together the Humpty-Dumpty of many marriages, hope our way back to a society with one nuclear family model can, in Furstenberg's words, ''prevent us from focusing on the ties between fathers and children.'' The truth is that we have paid little attention to why some men remain in their children's lives and others fade away.

But if we cannot put together the traditional cultural package with rhetoric or will, we have a lot to learn about strategies that foster connections between men and their children.

Someday even baby boy Brown is going to want to meet a guy named Jake.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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