No way to mark a day for fathers

WILEY A. HALL 3rd

June 23, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Her father died 13 years ago, so for a long time she did not celebrate Father's Day.

"At first, I just ignored the holiday because I felt it didn't pertain to me," she said.

"But then it occurred to me that even though my father is not around anymore, there are other fathers who might appreciate the acknowledgment that they are doing a good job, especially from someone from outside of their immediate family."

For the past several years, then, she has made it a point to drop a Father's Day card to men she considers good fathers.

"These are men," she explained, "who seem to make a special effort to do more than the basic kinds of things. Fathers who are not afraid to be demonstrative, affectionate and supportive to their children."

Maybe this also is a way of remembering, and honoring, her own father. And maybe it is a way of acknowledging that a good father is something the entire community can rejoice in.

Whatever the motivation, I like her way of remembering Father's Day a whole lot better than I like Harford County's.

On Friday, Harford County deputies and police in three other Maryland jurisdictions launched a sweep, looking for some 300 parents who are delinquent in their child-support payments.

By late yesterday, deputies said, they had caught 20 men and tossed them into jail. About 20 others surrendered voluntarily and were making arrangements to pay their debts.

"This is a Father's Day they'll never forget," crowed one deputy.

Now please understand that I am in no way defending delinquent fathers. Police should do whatever it is they are supposed to do to see that fathers meet their obligations to their children.

But am I the only one in this whole wide world to have found the whole operation tasteless and obnoxious?

Try this experiment:

Imagine, if you can, that the Harford County Department of Social Services and the Sheriff's Department began several months ago to compile a list of "bad" mothers. These may be women who abuse or neglect their children. Maybe a woman is an alcoholic or on drugs. Or the courts have determined that she is too young, immature or irresponsible to care for her children properly.

Whatever the cause, the circumstances are such that the courts have determined either that the mother should be arrested or that the children should be removed from the woman's home and placed in custody of the state.

Now try to imagine the sheriff waiting until Mother's Day to institute a statewide crackdown -- with television coverage of mothers being led off in chains, or social workers carrying off screaming children.

Imagine a deputy chortling into the camera, "Ha, ha, they'll remember this Mother's Day!"

We would find such a spectacle appalling, distasteful, an example of government bureaucrats reveling in the misery of others.

Harford County officials weren't the only ones to choose to mark the Father's Day weekend with mass arrests and public spectacle.

Similar crackdowns occurred across the country over the weekend, including a round-up of alleged deadbeats in Sacramento, Calif.; Cook County, Illinois; Salt Lake City, Utah; Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; and Newark, N.J.

Collectively, these fathers allegedly owed their children millions of dollars, which ought to raise eyebrows right there. Obviously, prosecutors nationwide hoped to atone for a year or more of inertia with one big, gala event.

Both fathers and mothers complain that the courts are hostile toward their interests and indifferent to their needs.

Both are right.

As a recently divorced father, I can attest that divorce is painful and difficult and that there are still quite a few bugs in the system. Nobody has yet perfected the perfect divorce.

Certainly, the large number of delinquent fathers indicates that something is going wrong somewhere -- something more complex than the easy, light-hearted assumption that all fathers are deadbeats who do not care about their children.

What percentage are deadbeats and how many are financially unable to make their payments? Which don't care about their children and which are feuding (inappropriately) with the mother? Which ones deserve public humiliation and disgrace and which ones need guidance and support? Which ones are laughing at the system and which are being crushed by it?

None of this, remember, should be construed as a defense of delinquent fathers.

But the questions, problems and pain attendant upon divorce suggest that the arrest of a father is not a cause for celebration, especially not on Father's Day.

I asked the woman who chose to celebrate Father's Day in a gentler way than the nation's prosecutors about her own father.

"I cannot say he was a good father," she said after a long pause. "He was an alcoholic. He shouted at my mother. He was never very demonstrative towards his children.

"But I think I understand him now," she continued. "He came from the old school, where a father's only duty was to put a roof over his family's head and food on the table. He believed he was doing his best for us despite the fact that he carried a lot of problems.

"I realize now," she said, "that he did the best he could."

Fathers can be guilty of all of the bad things we so often hear about: They can be loud, lazy, abusive, ill, alcoholic, drug-addicted, stern, unsupportive and absent.

We live in a twisted society and twisted fathers can be the result.

But most do the best they can with what they have.

Maybe Father's Day is most appropriately celebrated by honoring those who somehow succeed despite the odds. We can arrest the alleged deadbeats during the other 51 weekends of the year.

And I think we can arrest them with the solemnity and sorrow that the occasion requires.

A father who is failing his children is not a cause for gloating.

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