LATELY, there's been a lot of press about "deadbeat dads," fathers who refuse to pay child support. Newsweek recently ran a cover story on them, and the TV show "Prime Time Live" did an entire segment. If you read the article or saw the show, you might remember this: Fifty percent of fathers don't pay what they're supposed to and 25 percent pay nothing at all. That leaves 25 percent who are totally compliant.
But when was the last time you saw an "upbeat dad" on the cover of Time or Newsweek or a TV news show about fathers who never fail to pay their support? Chances are you haven't and you won't. Support-paying fathers are good news and, therefore, no news at all. Much more compelling, the media figures, are fathers thousands of dollars in arrears, who quit jobs and move around like Gypsies, leaving behind indigent ex-wives with children struggling to make ends meet. There's little drama in non-custodial fathers who keep stable jobs and addresses, who strive to maintain close relationships with their children and who don't fall a penny behind in child support.
But fathers (mothers retain custody in over 90 percent of cases) who send that money every week -- all of it -- know better. They know about the conflict of emotions that many of them confront come check time -- the guilt of wanting to spend all or part of it on themselves, the anger of making it payable to an ex-spouse they often despise, the fear that the ex-spouse will spend it on themselves rather than on the kids.
They also know about financial problems, yet they still manage, more often than not, to keep the child support their number one economic priority, the payment around which all the others -- mortgage or rent, car, clothes, cleaning, vacations, entertainment -- revolve. I know one father who could barely afford groceries one week after sending his check to his ex-spouse. I know another who once skipped a mortgage payment.
Responsible fathers are hardly noble or idealistic. They hire lawyers and argue their cases in court, hoping for a settlement that doesn't compromise their lifestyle and that is considerably less than what their ex-spouse is asking. However, once the support award is handed down, once the appeals, if any, are exhausted, they accept it and pay accordingly, foregoing that expensive vacation or wardrobe if need be.
Thus they don't worry about their pictures appearing on the walls of post offices or on the cover of national news magazines, being pursued by the sheriff or the likes of Mike Wallace or Diane Sawyer. And they have at least two things the deadbeats don't: kids that are provided for materially and something called responsibility.
But who wants to read an article or watch a news show about responsible fathers? After all, a world where things work the way they're supposed to sans strife and conflict is a dull world, a world the moguls of "Prime Time" want nothing to so with.
Only there is strife and conflict, triumph and despair, pathos and other dramatic elements in paying child support that could make for compelling reading. "Prime Time Live" showed one deadbeat dad who owned a new Mercedes, a nice home and a lucrative business, yet had paid no child support in years. Conceivably, they or a national news magazine could feature a responsible dad living in a modest apartment and driving a high mileage Toyota in order to meet his obligations. Both could document what many caring fathers share: a respect for, and compliance with, judicial authority in the face of financial difficulties and emotional turmoil.
Many such fathers exist and their stories, if made public, might inspire or shame some of the deadbeats into becoming responsible. If nothing else, they would sell magazines and air time, and give credit to a minority that has for too long been ignored.
Mark Miller writes from Baltimore and pays his child support as directed.