The fathers who leave children behind

AFTER the cards have been opened and all the yellow neckties have been knotted, Father's Day ought to have a second act. Without spoiling the party, the third Sunday in June might also serve to raise questions about what a father should be and do. The answers have changed dramatically.

The supposedly remote and authoritarian old-style father image has given way to the ``warm'' and ``nurturing'' new-style father, as any reader of life-style sections knows by now.

Call it paternity chic, this new sensitive-father approach that encourages men to be active participants rather than passive observers in their children's lives. As they hoist diaper bags, carry infants in Snuglis, and drop off toddlers at day-care centers, they represent a much-celebrated new breed, their virtues extolled in slick magazine articles and misty-eyed, self-congratulatory books like Dan Greenberg's ``Confessions of a Pregnant Father'' and Bob Greene's ``Good Morning, Merry Sunshine.''

On the whole, the change is welcome. Yet if mothers (and other women) are to take Father's Day seriously, we may well ask: How much of this is media hype, more style than substance? Ironically, an increase in nurturing and pleasure among some fathers has coincided with a decline in responsibility and support among others, as evident in the growing ranks of absent and missing fathers across the country.

Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich calls it ``the male flight from commitment,'' a late-20th century phenomenon that cuts across race, class, and economic lines, leaving millions of children and their mothers struggling to stay ahead of the bill collector.

Only 59 percent of custodial mothers are awarded child support in divorce settlements, according to 1982 Census Bureau figures. Monthly payments are often low, and the default rate is high. Last year some $3.5 billion in child support went unpaid, federal officials estimate. An astonishing 60 percent of divorced fathers, in fact, contribute nothing to their children's support.

Here is something no jolly Father's Day card can gloss over.

Nor does a father's economic position make a significant difference. According to Lenore Weitzman, author of ``The Divorce Revolution,'' an ex-husband earning $40,000 is as likely to default on support as one earning $15,000.

A study in Denver found that two-thirds of divorced fathers were assigned court-ordered child-support payments that were lower than their car payments. Most kept up with the car payments, but more than half fell behind in their child-support payments.

One solution, the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984, requires states to withhold money from paychecks of parents whose monthly payments are overdue.

But getting support from fathers who have never been part of their children's lives remains difficult. Many are teen-agers -- uneducated, unemployed, and largely unable to provide financial support for their offspring.

``There is enormous resentment against fathers who operate strictly on the pleasure principle -- who leave this trail of babies behind them and take absolutely no responsibility whatsoever for their care,'' says Wesley Jenkins, executive director of the Family Services Centers of Pinellas County, Fla. ``Society is moving toward saying, `We're going to pin your irresponsibility down.' The only way we're really going to be able to do that conclusively is to have an irrefutable test for paternity. Obviously on top of that you're going to have to have legislation and enforcement to make these people foot at least some of the child's economic cost to society.

``You won't be able to get blood out of some of those turnips,'' Mr. Jenkins continues. ``But they're not all turnips. Many times even in affluent families the young man gets off totally free. It's not always the impoverished that are adding to our problems.

``This whole business of total irresponsibility is something we have to start attacking in a multiplicity of ways,'' he adds. ``None of these things are going to take place over the next couple of years. You're talking about long-term projections.''

This week, as Americans prepare to honor fathers on Sunday with cards (an estimated 85 million) and gifts, the emphasis is on superlatives. ``Dad's wise,'' one Father's Day ad for shirts and ties begins. ``Dad's a gentleman. Dad's always there. Dad's loving. Dad's the greatest.''

For the majority of children, that affectionate image is correct. Many noncustodial fathers continue to maintain close and loving relationships with their children, providing both economic and emotional support. And as a growing number of men's-rights groups attest, other absent fathers who wish to be involved in their children's lives may be denied access by an ex-wife.

But then there are the other children. Child poverty has become one of the nation's most urgent challenges, with 1 child in 5 now living in poverty. Much of the increase stems from the growing numbers of female-headed households, where one-fourth of all children now live, half of them below the poverty line.

While celebrating old- and new-style fathers, Father's Day '86 owes it to these other children to signal what is due them -- all the tangibles and intangibles that, once unpaid, can never be repaid later.

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