Suddenly, Fathers Are Important

March 23, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Irna Jay is out of town for a couple of days this week, leaving Sarah, who is 11, and me to take care of each other. Irna left a long list of instructions and calls every few minutes, it sometimes seems, to make sure we're all right. That's one of a mother's jobs.

Sarah and I will get along fine, even if we don't exactly follow the prescribed schedule or eat the prescribed menu. We probably won't have cold pizza for breakfast or stay up until midnight on a school night, but if we wanted to do those things, now's our chance. That's one of a father's jobs.

Family relationships, and especially a father's place in them, are suddenly very topical. The New York Times sent a correspondent to the wilds of New Jersey, and she came back with a long report, published on the front page last Sunday, about a prototypical Fractured Family.

There were Annie and Ivan and their kids (Ivan already had a child from another marriage), and the breakup, and the time when Annie and the kids lived with Barry (who already had two children from another marriage), and the breakup, and the time when Annie and the kids lived with Lee (who already had three children from one marriage and was stepfather to two others from another), and the breakup.

Annie and her two kids are reportedly doing fine, discovering new strengths in all this too-familiar chaos.

It sounded just like daytime television, or like the lives of people most of us have gotten to know -- and occasionally despise -- over the past three terribly liberated and sophisticated decades.

Annie's kids by and large hated the men she brought home to live with them after their father left, but Annie, described as 43 and ''a trim, vibrant woman with expressive eyes,'' explained that it would never do to let the children control her life.

''You have kids you have to be responsible for,'' she told the Times, ''but you also can't let them dictate whether you should be in a relationship or you shouldn't.'' As it turned out, she -- and they -- would have been better off if she'd let them dictate exactly that.

The article didn't say whether Ivan, the husband from whom Annie split when her kids were 8 and 3, is paying child support.

But if he isn't, the entire political establishment, Republican and Democrat, is after him. The Deadbeat Dad is the national symbolic villain of the moment, succeeding The Stalker, The Racist and the Multinational Corporation.

Well, of course people who father children ought to help support them, and it's not a bad thing for government to pursue those who are ordered to make payments and then run away. But this is a policy whose political allure far exceeds its utility.

Conservatives like it because it seems to reinforce Family Values, and liberals like it, too, because it sounds warm and fuzzy while also giving government another big legal shillelagh to belabor social transgressors with.

But even if the bipartisan responsibility police were to track down every single deadbeat dad and squeeze each one for every nickel owed, it's not likely to do much for the state of family stability in America.

It certainly won't be of significant help to the families of low-income never-marrieds in the cities. In 1989, according to David Blankenhorn's just-published ''Fatherless America,'' only 24 percent of never-married mothers were awarded child support, and the mean annual payment was only $1,888.

And it won't help the once-or-twice-or-thrice-married suburban Annies either. These are middle- class moms with degrees, jobs, personal analysts and an endless capacity for self-absorption, and while their family problems may be truly horrendous, they're not fundamentally economic.

In some circles, it's still a litmus test of social enlightenment to maintain that fathers aren't important to families, but these circles are slowly shrinking. Murphy Brown is losing that battle for public opinion, and Dan Quayle is winning.

But meanwhile the problem of fatherlessness grows worse. In 1990, according to Mr. Blankenhorn's hot new book, about 10 million American families -- 27.5 percent of homes with mothers and children -- had no father present. In 1979 the fatherless rate was 21.6 percent.

Another stunning figure, showing the near-irrelevancy of child-support payments from absent fathers, is the difference in family income when there's a father in the house.

In 1990 the median income for married couples with at least one child under 18 was $41,260; for female-headed households with at least one child, it was $13,092. Whatever Murphy Brown's maternal accomplishments, the single-parent household is fundamentally crippled.

I could go on about the importance of fathers, and probably will. But first I have to assemble dinner, take Sarah to a student-council meeting, and then get home in time to tell Irna, when she calls, what we've been up to, and whether we had the hamburger or the chicken.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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