Celebrate Father's Day While You Still Can


Make text smaller Make text larger




There isof course hardly any more dramatic sex difference in human nature than betweenthe minute or two it might take a man who's a fast learner to become a fatherand the nine-months-plus-often-20-years that can be the woman's outcome. Thisis such a startling distinction that virtually every social system has had tofigure out a way to try to reduce the discrepancy by making sure that men stayaround and absorb a fair share of the burden of raising children. All kindsof schemes have been employed, ranging from the shotgun lurking in the cupboardto family vendettas against the relatives of caddish louts to simple acknowledgmentof affectionate fairness to assurances by gods that hit-and-run fertilizerswill burn like diner bacon in eternal hell.
So Father'sDay is a rather triumphant fete, because it implies that, at worst, some coercivesystem has functioned effectively, and at best that there is an uncontroversial,warm relationship between father and offspring. Mostly the latter is what wesee, perhaps in half of all cases. However, as has become unduly clear in thepast 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 writtenbefore, a good deal of the cause of this has been contraceptive technology?especiallythe pill, which for nearly three decades (until STDs became a realistic broad-rangedanger) meant that women were generally assumed to be contracepted, since themeans 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 consequenceswere hers, too. Certainly, marriage was no longer the inevitable solution. (Inmany communities historically, possibly until the l950s, it appears that thebride was pregnant in 30-50 percent of marriages. Any jerk can figure this outfrom parish and civic records showing a baby born to a couple less than ninemonths after their wedding.

Today thepregnant woman has relatively limited choices. Before, she could bear the childand place it for adoption, which was in fact a rather common practice goingback forever; some French religious institutions provided a turntable at thefront door in which babies could be left at night and retrieved by nuns in themorning, for placement with families, or to be raised as devoted co-religionistsin orphanages. But this has become increasingly difficult, if only because adoptionprocedures have become bureaucratically strict and riddled with complex rules about skin color, religion, cultural background and the like.


So manywomen keep their babies, as unmarried mothers. In fact, this is what about athird of them do in the industrial countries. While many eventually marry menother than the fathers of their babies, many are also given a huge hand by theirown mothers and fathers, who may have few other ways of ensuring grandchildren.


Or theycan 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 thismeans.


Now thereis still more change upon us, sparking rapidly from DNA testing that can almostfaultlessly reveal if a man is the father of a child. When I was discussingthis matter with graduate students in a low-key colloquium recently, one womensaid, "It's getting very hard to have sex in New Jersey." This wastoo 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 benefitsfor maternity and child support to declare the identity of the father. Thenhe will be legally responsible for child support for at least 18 years, andpossibly through excruciating years of scratching out checks to colleges, too.The young man sitting in the chair next to her would therefore have an imposingreason to think twice?or a thousand times?about whether or not to request alubricious audience with her after seminar hours.


And whatif she misleadingly tells him she is contracepted, or thinks she is, and whatif she becomes pregnant, and so informs him? Perhaps he acknowledges geneticpaternity but then insists she seek an abortion of a potential baby that ishalf his. If she does not secure the operation, is he still responsible fortwo decades of financial support? In his new book Standup Guy: MasculinityThat Works, Michael Segall describes hearing from a variety of men and womenthat to an unprecedented degree men now will refuse to have sex with willingpartners. While Segall correctly sees this as a possible form of male retaliationagainst, or humiliation of, women in an especially vulnerable area?their sexualattractiveness?it may also reflect simple fear that The Morning After the bailiffwill come a-calling for a genetic sample, please.


And theissue legally is in turmoil. Overwhelmingly, courts have upheld the responsibilityof genetic fathers to support children, whether or not they are married to theirmothers or had any wish to become fathers in the first place. According to CornelWest and Sylvia Hewlett, some 38 percent of fathers obligated to provide childsupport nevertheless have no legal custody or visitation rights to the children.Steve Miller, who has corresponded with this newspaper, has described to mea large New York employer with 11,000 male employees who have their wages garnishedfor child support. Obviously, whatever payments these men make must inhibittheir opportunities to form families they actively want. And just as obviouslythe innocent children in all this turbulence should endure no hardship or sufferingat all.


The factis it's a mess?just the kind of turmoil sex can produce.


Traditionallyin Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, courts made "the presumption of paternity."A child was the husband's, no matter what, unless the male was demonstrablyincapable of reproduction or on a 10-month posting overseas. Recent court rulingshave sustained this practice even in the face of direct DNA evidence that thefathers of the children involved are not the husbands. In December the PennsylvaniaSupreme Court ruled that "family interests" prevailed over blood tests;this was in response to a plaintiff who claimed that DNA tests showed he wasnot the father of the child in question. Various groups of aggrieved men havebegun lobbying legislatures in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere toaccept that, if paternity tests can be used to compel genetic fathers to supplysupport, they can equally exculpate men who are not genetic fathers from unfairfinancial and emotional burdens.


Is "thepresumption of paternity" plausible in a world of singles weekends at ClubMed, in vitro and other artificial fertilization, and a broad assumption thatcourtship, 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 byseveral legal commissions, which will try to assess what is fair and necessaryfor children and fair to men and women.


Meanwhile,the bewilderment persists. In a l996 case in California, a 34-year-old womanwas convicted of unlawful sexual relations with a 15-year-old boy. She gavebirth 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 makingDNA paternity an indisputable cause for support payments, notwithstanding anyunderstanding or agreements the partners may have had or thought they had.


These arenow 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 whoarrives thereafter. But it is certain there is an enormous undercurrent of personalconfusion, public bravado and official rigidity that impinges sharply on thetender 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 tolerablywell.


Make text smaller Make text larger

Comments