There is of course hardly any more dramatic sex difference in human nature than between the minute or two it might take a man who’s a fast learner to become a father and the nine-months-plus-often-20-years that can be the woman’s outcome. This is such a startling distinction that virtually every social system has had to figure out a way to try to reduce the discrepancy by making sure that men stay around and absorb a fair share of the burden of raising children. All kinds of schemes have been employed, ranging from the shotgun lurking in the cupboard to family vendettas against the relatives of caddish louts to simple acknowledgment of affectionate fairness to assurances by gods that hit-and-run fertilizers will burn like diner bacon in eternal hell.
So Father’s Day is a rather triumphant fete, because it implies that, at worst, some coercive system has functioned effectively, and at best that there is an uncontroversial, warm relationship between father and offspring. Mostly the latter is what we see, perhaps in half of all cases. However, as has become unduly clear in the past 40 years or so, the whole matter of fatherhood has become far more fragile, far more uncertain and far more legally tempestuous than ever. As I’ve written before, a good deal of the cause of this has been contraceptive technology—especially the pill, which for nearly three decades (until STDs became a realistic broad-range danger) meant that women were generally assumed to be contracepted, since the means to accomplish this remarkably important state were easily and widely available. If a woman in the catch-as-can singles world, or even in an ambivalent marriage, became pregnant, that was her responsibility, her fault. And the consequences were hers, too. Certainly, marriage was no longer the inevitable solution. (In many communities historically, possibly until the l950s, it appears that the bride was pregnant in 30-50 percent of marriages. Any jerk can figure this out from parish and civic records showing a baby born to a couple less than nine months after their wedding.
Today the pregnant woman has relatively limited choices. Before, she could bear the child and place it for adoption, which was in fact a rather common practice going back forever; some French religious institutions provided a turntable at the front door in which babies could be left at night and retrieved by nuns in the morning, for placement with families, or to be raised as devoted co-religionists in orphanages. But this has become increasingly difficult, if only because adoption procedures have become bureaucratically strict and riddled with complex rules
about skin color, religion, cultural background and the like.
So many women keep their babies, as unmarried mothers. In fact, this is what about a third of them do in the industrial countries. While many eventually marry men other than the fathers of their babies, many are also given a huge hand by their own mothers and fathers, who may have few other ways of ensuring grandchildren.
Or they can secure an abortion, which has become ever more widely available and legal, if still controversial. Remember the chronology: the pill in l963, Roe v. Wade in l973—an astonishingly rapid change in a very deep matter indeed. Contemporary communities have barely begun to come to grips with what all this means.
Now there is still more change upon us, sparking rapidly from DNA testing that can almost faultlessly reveal if a man is the father of a child. When I was discussing this matter with graduate students in a low-key colloquium recently, one women said, “It’s getting very hard to have sex in New Jersey.” This was too perfect an indie film title to let slide. I asked what on Earth she meant. She was referring to new welfare rules, which require a woman requesting benefits for maternity and child support to declare the identity of the father. Then he will be legally responsible for child support for at least 18 years, and possibly through excruciating years of scratching out checks to colleges, too. The young man sitting in the chair next to her would therefore have an imposing reason to think twice—or a thousand times—about whether or not to request a lubricious audience with her after seminar hours.
And what if she misleadingly tells him she is contracepted, or thinks she is, and what if she becomes pregnant, and so informs him? Perhaps he acknowledges genetic paternity but then insists she seek an abortion of a potential baby that is half his. If she does not secure the operation, is he still responsible for two decades of financial support? In his new book Standup Guy: Masculinity That Works, Michael Segall describes hearing from a variety of men and women that to an unprecedented degree men now will refuse to have sex with willing partners. While Segall correctly sees this as a possible form of male retaliation against, or humiliation of, women in an especially vulnerable area—their sexual attractiveness—it may also reflect simple fear that The Morning After the bailiff will come a-calling for a genetic sample, please.
And the issue legally is in turmoil. Overwhelmingly, courts have upheld the responsibility of genetic fathers to support children, whether or not they are married to their mothers or had any wish to become fathers in the first place. According to Cornel West and Sylvia Hewlett, some 38 percent of fathers obligated to provide child support nevertheless have no legal custody or visitation rights to the children. Steve Miller, who has corresponded with this newspaper, has described to me a large New York employer with 11,000 male employees who have their wages garnished for child support. Obviously, whatever payments these men make must inhibit their opportunities to form families they actively want. And just as obviously the innocent children in all this turbulence should endure no hardship or suffering at all.
The fact is it’s a mess—just the kind of turmoil sex can produce.
Traditionally in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, courts made “the presumption of paternity.” A child was the husband’s, no matter what, unless the male was demonstrably incapable of reproduction or on a 10-month posting overseas. Recent court rulings have sustained this practice even in the face of direct DNA evidence that the fathers of the children involved are not the husbands. In December the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that “family interests” prevailed over blood tests; this was in response to a plaintiff who claimed that DNA tests showed he was not the father of the child in question. Various groups of aggrieved men have begun lobbying legislatures in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere to accept that, if paternity tests can be used to compel genetic fathers to supply support, they can equally exculpate men who are not genetic fathers from unfair financial and emotional burdens.
Is “the presumption of paternity” plausible in a world of singles weekends at Club Med, in vitro and other artificial fertilization, and a broad assumption that courtship, or even dating, without sex requires urgent psychiatric intervention? The glaring legal anomalies rather suddenly introduced by inexpensive (about $500) and rather widely available DNA testing will have to be confronted by several legal commissions, which will try to assess what is fair and necessary for children and fair to men and women.
Meanwhile, the bewilderment persists. In a l996 case in California, a 34-year-old woman was convicted of unlawful sexual relations with a 15-year-old boy. She gave birth to their child, and the state pursued the boy’s family for child support. In l998, a bill was introduced into the Israeli Knesset to change the law making DNA paternity an indisputable cause for support payments, notwithstanding any understanding or agreements the partners may have had or thought they had.
These are now public matters. It is impossible to know about people’s still-private lives, or the number of lives decisively affected by the joy of sex and the child who arrives thereafter. But it is certain there is an enormous undercurrent of personal confusion, public bravado and official rigidity that impinges sharply on the tender movements of the heart and the ardor of the body.
Meanwhile, celebrate Father’s Day when you can. At least some system has worked out tolerably well.