This was the time of year that was toughest for fatherless children. While the rest of us were making cards and gifts for Father's Day, they were given the "special" jobs to do for the teacher. But they knew, and so did we.
In those days, the lucky ones thought of these friends rather as if they were accident victims. They had lost their dads by death or desertion.
But this Father's Day there is a group of children who are fatherless by choice: the choice of their mothers.
In 1970 there were just a quarter- million families headed by mothers who never married. Now there are over a million such families. Only a small proportion of these mothers deliberately set out to have a child alone. But this minority is peculiarly visible today. In fact, they have replaced surrogate mothers and single fathers as the media subject of the season.
This group of unwed mothers has devised new names for their status, names like "elective parent," or "single mother by choice." Middle-class and educated, some of them hold meetings and write press releases. Others publish books and articles about the wonders of choosing motherhood without fatherhood.
There was, of course, technically speaking, a biological father somewhere in the process. But he was a transient lover, a select stranger or, more and more often, a sperm donor. He will never fight for custody or visitation rights.
There is nothing shady about their decision-making. They have, in fact, all the upbeat trimmings of a trend. In ever-chic New York magazine, we heard a director of a fertility clinic who handles requests for artificial insemination even boasting about their clients' superior taste: "Our single recipients are bright, talented superwomen who refuse to settle for just any man in order to get married and have a baby."
The "single mothers by choice," for their part, tell similar stories. They got tired of waiting for Mister Right. The biological clock was ticking. They wanted, just plain wanted, a baby. So they went out to get what they wanted. I know only one or two women who made this decision. I know many more who think about modern unwed motherhood, as they contemplate the alternative of a childless life.
It is, I suspect, a reflection on our shady world that their friends muster so few arguments against this "choice." Their judgments trip over the divorce statistics. They falter over reality. How many two-parent families, after all, will be "singled out" over the years? How different is it to be a single mother by choice or by default?
Yet I find myself uneasy as I read about these women and their babies. Not because they are evil people or bad mothers. Not because of the mothers at all. But because it appears that the women's need to have a child came first, before their understanding of a child's need to have a father.
It is true that life is full of accidents, unplanned pregnancies, divorce and desertion. But there is surely a difference between between a divorced father and no father.
The longing for a child is not monstrous, or selfish. There are children already born in this harsh world whose lives would be immeasurably enriched by the addition of a parent. Adopting a child with a special problem is again, different, different from bringing one into the world with a special problem.
I understand the motives of women, disillusioned or discouraged at the prospects for shared parenthood, who decide to give up hoping and go "it" alone. But these new unwed mothers have done more than abandon the traditional family.
They have embraced the notion that fathers are the dispensable, disposable parents, handy but not vital. Perhaps that is true for some mothers. Perhaps it has been true for some fathers. But it's not true for the children.
Children don't give up hoping so easily. They cannot rationalize their needs so articulately. The babies and toddlers photographed with mothers in these articles about their "elective parent" have yet to be interviewed. But they are likely to grow up with a built- in longing in their lives--likely to grow up missing something, missing the unnamed, unknown someone their friends call father.
What does it mean to deliberately bring a generation of fatherless children into the world? Before we accept this so easily as just another option, we should ask the accident victims. Ask them about their Father's Day.
1983, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company