Families Start with 2 People

September 23, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Anyone who tunes in politics even for background music can tell you how the sound has changed. Two years ago, they heard only a shouting match over something called Family Values. This year they can hear a choir.

Politicians right, left and center may not be hitting exactly the same notes, but like sopranos, tenors and baritones, they're pretty much in harmony. The tune is a dirge about increasing numbers of children coming into the world and growing up without two parents. Especially without fathers.

Even Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton have done a duet on this subject. Earlier this month, the former vice president went back to the stage where he first took on Murphy Brown. Rewriting history and his original lyrics, Mr. Quayle said, ''What I was talking about then and what I am reiterating today is the importance of fathers. Too often fathers walk away from their children or worse yet, they don't even know who their children are.''

Days later, the president added a verse or two at a convention of black Baptists, ''Somebody has to say again it's not right. You shouldn't have a baby before you're ready and you shouldn't have a baby when you're not married. . . . We've got to turn it around.''

The refrain running through political speeches and ads is about the man who got away: the absent father, the dad in DNA only.

Much of this is music to the ears of the family-policy folk. We finally have what David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values calls ''an emerging consensus across political lines that the fragmenting of the family is the principal cause of declining child well-being.'' Fathers are no longer peripheral to this discussion. They are central.

But our minds are changing much more than the reality. As Mr. Blankenhorn puts it, ''We're going through a period of hand-wringing about social decline, that we're on the wrong track, but on the ground everything is staying the same.'' Every year more children are born out of wedlock -- nearly 30 percent in 1991 -- while 60 percent of children will spend some part of their childhood in a single-parent home.

The truth is that prosecuting deadbeat dads makes good politics and policy, talking about reconnecting fathers and children makes good sense, but it doesn't get to the heart of the matter: relationships between men and women. We can't talk sensibly about the frayed connections between fathers and children without talking about the frayed connections between fathers and mothers, men and women.

Today there are essentially two fathers' movements in America. There is the fathers'-rights movement, a collection of divorced, often angry men who embrace a model of post-divorce father. There is the Promise Keepers, a burgeoning new grass-roots movement with a welcome message about male responsibility, but with a dubious subtext suggesting that men go back to their family as patriarchs. In some ways, they both skirt the issue.

The unwed teen-age mother on welfare and the unwed !c professional mother are examples of the same thing at either end of the economic scale: the failure of relationships. A teen-ager who gets pregnant may be full of fantasies about relationships. An older woman who chooses to have children alone may be all too fantasy-free. They have something in common with the larger population of divorced parents -- experience with the difficulty and inconstancy of relationships.

Mr. Blankenhorn says, ''A major weakness of the current way of talking about fatherhood is that we are not having a serious conversation about how men and women find a common life.'' How they find it and keep it.

Americans believe that people should only marry for love and only stay married as long as there is love. We also believe that most children are better off with their two parents. When the two beliefs conflict, we fall into confused or polite silence.

In his recent speech, Mr. Quayle trod carefully over that treacherous turf of divorce. His grandmother was divorced, he said, so were half her grandchildren. Mr. Clinton has also distinguished between the never wed and the once wed. The distinctions may not be so great to their children.

Finally, we have a chorus loudly and publicly worrying about children. We are all singing the blues about absent fathers and unwed mothers. But the next question is whether we can turn to the subject of men and women, relationships and marriage in a changing time.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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