THE perfect parent, like the perfect job or the perfect marriage, may exist more as an ideal than a reality. But this is the time of year when mothers and fathers, for one Sunday apiece, can bask in the warm glow of superlatives, delivered via an estimated 150 million Mother's Day cards and 101 million Father's Day cards. This Sunday, Mothers will be fted with flowers and lingerie and jewelry. Next month, fathers will reap a predictable harvest of shirts and ties and after-shave, as loving and not-a lways-perfect children turn filial devotion into a billion-dollar industry.
Cynics might argue that honoring thy father and thy mother was never meant to be quite so commercial. Maybe not. But this year in particular, parents need all the support and praise they can get. For the cards and gifts disguise a tarnished image of parenthood that makes daily headlines as lawmakers and social workers ponder what to do with two groups of far-from-perfect parents.
The first group, known as Deadbeat Dads, are non-custodial fathers on the lam, running to avoid paying court-ordered child support. These scofflaws have ignored payments totaling billions of dollars, forcing some of their children into poverty.
In desperation, officials are devising get-tough tactics. Non-paying fathers in New Jersey have been routed from bed in pre-dawn raids, then handcuffed and escorted to jail. Other states are distributing "10 Most Wanted" lists, turning these domestic fugitives into the equivalent of escaped convicts on the post office wall. In what might be the ultimate humiliation, one man who owes $22,144 found his photo splashed across the cover of Newsweek last week under the headline, "WANTED for Failure to Pay Chil d Support."
The second group of parents making news, Welfare Moms, are coming under criticism for accepting public assistance instead of supporting their children. No one uses the '80s pejorative "welfare queens" anymore, but stereotypes suggesting laziness remain firmly in place.
From New Jersey to Wisconsin to California, legislators are experimenting with money-saving welfare reform programs designed to change recipients' behavior and encourage independence. What is termed the "new paternalism" uses welfare benefits to encourage mothers to marry, stay in school, get a job, send their children to school, and avoid having more children. New York is even preparing a pilot program that mandates fingerprinting of recipients, as if poverty were a crime.
The stern new message to welfare mothers, summed up by President Bush, is: "Get your act together."
That is a worthy goal, and these efforts might help. Yet there is something a little too hostile, a little too gleeful about these new games of "Gotcha!" as they apply to runaway fathers and welfare mothers.
Punitive attitudes also extend beyond these two groups. Even the most responsible parents - those who are stable, employed, self-sufficient - find themselves struggling with negative images in some quarters these days. They are the ones who rankle employers and politicians with requests for child care, parental leave, and flexible schedules - the corporate benefits that help men and women fulfill their dual responsibilities at work and at home. Yet opponents of these measures counter that "good" parents would be home with their children.
The perception of mothers and fathers as entitlement-grabbers who want something for nothing, or worse, as self-concerned responsibility-shirkers without a conscience, grossly distorts a complicated situation without doing much to improve it. The family may not be in its finest hour. But most parents are struggling bravely with a measure of love and honor to do their job, and under more difficult circumstances than their own parents experienced. The Peace Corps slogan - "The toughest job you'll ever love " - could also apply to parenthood.
All parents are fallible, few are criminals. This simple fact needs to be reaffirmed if the besieged family of the '90s is to be encouraged to do better. In a year when parents are being typically portrayed on Wanted posters as deserters or batterers or molesters, the idealization of Mother's Day and Father's Day cards serves as a welcome exaggeration in the other direction.