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FATHERS DESERVE MORE RESPECT

First, let me apologize to Dan Quayle.

It's been nine years since the then-vice president made his infamous speech castigating TV's "Murphy Brown" for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another "lifestyle choice.' "

I was part of the media mob that beat up on the veep for that. Of course, hammering Dim Dan the "potatoe" man was virtually a national pastime back then. But as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice day.

And on this day, Quayle was right. Yes, there was a hole or two in his logic, but he was fundamentally correct when he accused pop culture of shrinking fatherhood right before our eyes. He understood before most of us the message that was being delivered - that, like luxury options in a car or an ice maker on a refrigerator, fathers are nice to have, but you can get along fine without them.

Ellenor Frutt and Camryn Manheim are the latest in a long line of pop culture icons to implicitly make that claim.

The former is a character portrayed by the latter on ABC's lawyer drama, "The Practice." Both are pregnant, both unmarried, and both seem to have chosen single motherhood quite deliberately. Manheim, the actress, has declined, as is her right, to reveal who fathered her child. Frutt, the character, asked a friend to provide her with semen. In last Sunday's episode, that friend went to court seeking paternal rights. It made Frutt furious that the father would want to be, well, a father. "He is not the father," she snapped. "He is a sperm donor."

Single motherhood by choice, said Manheim last month, is "the way of the future," and folks better get used to it.

Sorry, Camryn, but I can't.

I've nothing but admiration for the millions of women - and men - forced by circumstance to raise their children alone. I have similar respect for singles who adopt. That's called making the best of a bad situation. My beef is with those who consciously choose to create that situation, who knowingly resolve to bring fatherless children into this world.

It seems to me a singular act of selfishness and an indication that we don't value fathers very highly.

If I told you a mother was unimportant to a child's well-being, you'd look at me like I had two heads. Yet somehow, we have bought into a lie that says father is dispensable, that anything he brings to the table can be replicated by a determined single mother or, indeed, any loving person who happens to be around.

What else explains the lack of stigma that attended revelations that basketball god Larry Bird and comedian Bill Cosby fathered children they never knew? And would many people have found it so easy to argue for separating Elian Gonzalez from a loving parent who wanted him back if the parent in question had been his mom?

Never mind the mounting proof that fatherless children are more likely to live in poverty, do poorly in school, go to jail, engage in early sex, abuse drugs: Everybody knows fathers don't really matter.

Maybe it's a lie of necessity, given the frequency with which men abrogate their paternal obligations, but it's a lie, nonetheless. And it's past time we called it that.

Allow me to state the obvious: men and women are different. They tend to communicate differently, prioritize differently, perceive and respond to the world differently. Not better, not worse, but differently. In those differences lay the life lessons by which a boy or girl is rounded, shaped, taught how to be.

For more than a generation, we've struggled against a crisis of the American family - seen the ties that bind mom to dad to daughter to son ripped by technology, divorce, distance, change. Camryn Manheim, Ellenor Frutt and their philosophical soulmates seem to suggest that the struggle is over - and the crisis won.

"The way of the future," she says. I pity the future.

Miami Herald

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