As I read through the New York Times this past Sunday I was impressed with the pervasiveness of the Father’s Day theme. Virtually every section of the paper I picked up seemed to have at least one Father’s Day themed article—sports, business, style, and op-ed. The Style section alone had two Father’s Day articles, plus a column reviewing a couple of books around single-motherhood thrown in for good measure.
The pieces that struck me most were a pair of essays in the News of the Week by John S. and Jason Burnett, who are father and son. They were separated for 27 years—from the time Jason was 10 to the time he was 37. Though the essays are a bit sketchy on historical detail, it’s clear that John Burnet left his family. He says, “I bolted down to the Brooklyn docks and signed on a merchant ship.”
It’s also clear that his departure and absence cost his son, at least, a great deal. And is true although the un-named single mother managed awfully well (as far as I can tell from the son’s essay) under the obviously far less than ideal circumstances.
Both essays focus on the meeting of father and son after all this time. But I’m struck by a slightly different point.
Jason Burnett suffered because his father abandoned his family. Part of the problem was the sense of abandonment the father’s departure must have created. In addition, his departure left a hole in the child’s life that was not filled.
Given our construction of the role of parent—legally and socially—that hole really could not be filled. The senior Burnett was a parent to his child before he departed. He remained a parent even after he had vanished from the scene. This is because parenthood is permanent. By occupying, even if only nominally, the role of parent, John pre-empted others from filling that role. Anyone who stepped in would have been described at best as a step-parent.
Considering this makes me wonder whether permanent parenthood is necessarily a good thing. Perhaps parenthood should lapse after a period of time if you make no effort to fulfill your obligations. That way if someone else is waiting in the wings, ready to step up and be a parent, the stage is cleared for him or her. The child will still face the problem of having been abandoned, but need not also suffer from the sense that the family has a hole in it.
This is not to say that Jason Burnett would not have wanted to meet John Burnett in my hypothetical world. Surely any person would be interested in meeting the one who had played the role John played in Jason’s life. Surely there would be a million questions you would want to ask and have answered. But all those questions could be asked, some relationship could be established, even if John was no longer Jason’s parent. And during the 27 year absence, Jason might have been better off had some other person—perhaps some other man, but I’m not wedded to the need for a father—stepped in to fill that gap in his original family.
As so frequently seems to be the case, family law here must wrestle with problems created by the passage of time. A child’s life cannot be static while the parent moves along to some other part of his life. To be a parent to a child is an active role. If you aren’t there to play it, maybe someone else could be.