In the reshuffling of the cultural deck since the 1960s, the forgotten card appears to be the father. "The Vanishing Father," on PBS' "Frontline" tonight, only begins to explore the vast issue of what fatherhood in America really means, but it is at least interested in searching for that forgotten card.
Statistics and reality are both confirming that the decades-long explosion in the divorce rate, while reflecting a trend in individual freedom, is having a huge and nasty impact on children of divorced parents.
"The Vanishing Father" is partly about a feminist liberal professor, Princeton's Sara McLanahan, learning this fact. For McLanahan, her detailed study forced her to toss out the liberal dogma that income level primarily dictates rates of divorce and single-parent families.
That was because her research revealed that across incomes, races and genders, everything from poor school performance to crime was higher (sometimes double or triple the rate) among kids in single-parent families. If even rich kids with one parent were at risk, then something about the family structure itself was the key problem.
McLanahan is shown debating this key finding with other social scientists, who are worried that her study's message will be distorted into a call for a "return to the '50s."
If so, that's the media's fault.
What "The Vanishing Father" fails to do is make strong links between McLanahan's view from the ivory tower and the view from the street, where we see an endless stream of deadbeat dads arrested for non-payment of child support. Many of these men don't seem to understand the meaning of such concepts as "bill," "date due" and "timely payment," and it may be better that their kids aren't under the same roof with them.
But some scofflaws are trying to make sense of their lives. A man named Gordon says he ran out on his pregnant wife because he couldn't handle the responsibilities. Even with his bad habit of not sending money to his ex-family (he's forming a new one with his fiance and her boy), Gordon's three kids scream with glee when he arrives for his weekend visit.
As social scholar Barbara Defoe Whitehead observes here, kids want fathers, but in an era of two breadwinners in the home, our society is very confused about what fathers are supposed to be.
* "The Vanishing Father" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and at 8:30 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.