When I was a kid a half century ago, America was home to a tremendous population of single fathers. They lived on television.
I’m reminded of that bygone era’s singular fascination with fictional single dads by today’s growing concerns about the swelling ranks and economic hardships of real-world single parents, among whom dads raising kids alone make up a fast-growing if still small part.
A front-page story in last Sunday’s Star Tribune described how the Great Recession and its torpid aftermath has hit the incomes of single-parent families far harder than those of married-couple families. One-adult households no doubt have fewer ways to make up for a job loss or a wage cut.
The story noted that single dads are now raising some 2 million children across America — not quite 10 percent of all kids in single-parent households.
A Pew Research study last summer reported that one-third of all U.S. households with children were headed by single parents as of 2011, up from just 8 percent in 1960. Today, single-father homes alone account for 8 percent, Pew reported.
In 1960, the report said, that figure was just 1 percent.
This is what makes it odd, if you’re old enough, to think back to yesteryear and the self-portrait America displayed in those days on television.
Sure, there were plenty of “Leave it to Beaver” two-parent fictional families. But one could have gotten the impression that single fatherhood was just about as common a family structure.
Let’s see — just among the most prominent programs, there was “The Andy Griffith Show,” “My Three Sons” with Fred MacMurray, “The Rifleman” with Chuck Connors and “Family Affair” with Brian Keith.
There was “Bonanza,” “Flipper,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and “Bachelor Father” with John Forsythe.
There was Gale Storm’s “My Little Margie,” Sally Fields’ “Gidget,” Inger Stevens’ “The Farmer’s Daughter,” Peter Graves’ “Fury” and Bill Bixby’s “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”
This list could continue, but let’s add only that one of the 1960s’ most beloved movies, Gregory Peck’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is also in large part a reflection on single fatherhood.
Of course, single dads haven’t disappeared from family dramas and comedies in the intervening decades. But a case could be made that single fathers never loomed larger in the American imagination than during an era when, in real life, they were seriously hard to find.
One also wonders why single motherhood — always vastly more common in the real world — seems less often to have inspired script writers. (It has, though, sometimes inspired controversy, notably a couple decades ago when then-Vice President Dan Quayle set off the contemporary “family values” debate by the criticizing the portrayal of single motherhood on Candice Bergen’s “Murphy Brown.”)
Of course, part of the explanation for all this is simply that the more unusual a situation is, the better the story it makes. Single dads were rare in the 1960s, and therefore interesting. And especially back then, something seemed intrinsically dramatic — alternatively comical or poignant — about a man trying to provide the guidance, nurturing and domestic order that are the traditional province of mothers.
Think back to the motley crew of surrogate mothers who backstopped the single dads on those classic shows — Sebastian Cabot’s supercilious butler on “Family Affair”; gruff, apron-clad Uncle Charley on “My Three Sons”; Chinese housekeeper Hop Sing on “Bonanza”; excitable Granny on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
At a deeper level, of course, the abundance of single fatherhood among TV families on boomer-era television — and the whimsy and sentimentality with which it was portrayed — probably reflected the simple fact that single parenthood as a whole had not yet in those days become a troubling and touchy trend in American life. Those shows were unrealistic in more than one way. Single dads on TV then were almost invariably widowers — and economically secure. Divorce, abandonment and poverty were seldom in the single-parent story line.
Single-parent dramas and comedies of more recent vintage have sometimes been truer to life. But luckily not always. One of the most successful single-dad shows in recent years has been “Two and a Half Men,” the adventures of a pair of dysfunctional libertines raising a teenager.
It’s enough to make one nostalgic for Andy and Aunt Bea, and for an age when TV life tended to be exaggeratedly innocent, not exaggeratedly coarse.
The truth is that millions of today’s single parents — moms and dads both — labor heroically to provide for and nurture their kids. Many succeed, but the challenges others face play an enormous role in persistent child poverty, educational problems and declining social mobility.
The issues are maddeningly difficult to discuss, requiring a exactingly delicate blend of compassion and admiration, candor and concern. But progress against poverty almost certainly depends on our society’s identifying ways to pursue two somewhat contradictory goals — improving the condition of single-parent families while slowing their growth.
Where once we had carefree fiction about single-parent families, today we need more freedom to confront the real-life crisis the circumstances of so many of them represent.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.