Sunday, June 10, 2012

Father’s Day and Dan Quayle

Sometimes I wonder if Dan Quayle got it right.  Younger readers may be wondering who the heck Mr. Quayle is.  Many older readers will be horrified at the prospect that I might agree with Mr. Quayle on any topic.  He was after all one of the most ridiculed and disrespected vice presidents of all time.  If Dick Cheney was equated with villains like Darth Vader, Mr. Quayle was considered analogous to Barney Fife. 

There probably aren’t a lot of areas where Mr. Quayle and I agree.  But I remember the brouhaha when Mr. Quayle in 1992 condemned the sitcom Murphy Brown for portraying a single woman having a child on her own.  Forget the fact that the pregnancy was a “jump the shark” sort of storyline.  It created a big media firestorm over Mr. Quayle’s outdated thinking.  He raised concerns about glamorizing single mom status and the marginalizing of the role of fathers. 

Mr. Quayle was attacked brutally in the media because he seemed to be condemning single moms.  That point did resonate with me.  To many, such attacks seemed hypocritical at the time because Mr. Quayle was such a virulent opponent of abortion rights.  If one is opposed to abortion, then it seems like one would have championed the Murphy Brown character’s decision to not have an abortion after discovering an unplanned pregnancy with a man who was not in her life permanently.  It seemed a low blow to condemn even a fictional character who chose life in such a situation. 

In the subsequent decade, I don’t recall anyone condemning Bristol Palin for not marrying Levi Johnston.  At least in the circles where I travel, the younger Ms. Palin was respected for taking responsibility to raise her son despite the circumstances.

I have tremendous respect for all single parents.  Parenting is very hard and I frankly don’t know how single parents do it.  Most single parents are mothers.  So, I want to be clear that I’m second to none in my admiration, support and absolute awe of single moms.

Nonetheless, Mr. Quayle’s 1992 comment about the Murphy Brown character “mocking the importance of fathers” has always stuck with me.  I am also second to none in my respect for fathers.  I’ve known plenty of families where fathers have a minimal role in their children’s lives.  Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about why this should be.  Typically, in my observation, such marginalization seems to be self-imposed to a great extent.  Two things seem to drive the choices: job demands and lack of role modeling. 

Many dads are the sole or primary breadwinner of their families.  They are particularly vulnerable to overly burdensome workplace demands.  But even if both partners work outside the home, we all feel compelled to make plenty of sacrifices to keep our employers happy.  We live in a nation without many employment protections, the job market has been horrible for years, people who lose their jobs might not get another for years, and unlike most other industrialized nations, there is not much of a safety net if a family’s breadwinner loses his/her job.  As a result, there is a fair amount of desperation and fear surrounding the possible loss of employment.  Many people sacrifice time with their family to keep bread on the table.

In my observation, another factor involving the self-marginalization of fathers is lack of role modeling.  I know a lot of dads who want to be good dads and who love their kids, but they were not particularly close to their own dads.  Their dads were often not at home because they were trying to put food on the family’s table.  When those earlier dads were around, they were often tired and frankly just wanted to relax.  When they did have time at home, they didn’t necessarily take time to be involved in their kids’ lives.  All grown up, their now adult sons often never really witnessed men as active parents.  Their moms were the main parenting role model as they grew up, but most men don’t want to emulate their mothers in parenting.  In my observation, many modern fathers frankly don’t know what an active, involved dad looks like. 

Not only do many modern adults not have personal experience with active fathering, we also don’t see a lot of examples in movies or TV either.  I’ve noticed there are reoccurring storylines of dads who bumble through relationships with their kids—they are rarely there and when they are, they screw everything up.  Robin Williams in particular has made a career out of playing such characters.  I don’t think such characters are a fluke.  They are representative of what many families experience in the modern United States.

As we get closer to Father’s Day, I want to spend some time focusing on the role of modern fathers and reflecting a bit on visions of devoted fathering.  We just don’t seem to get a lot of that in our culture.

In the meantime, I commend to you an article I found recently reflecting back on Mr. Quayle’s take on Murphy Brown:

Job 29:16
I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger.

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