Clearly, marriage does not a mother or father make. Women in this chapter who chance pregnancy by using inconsistent contraception believe, however, that if it does not take a marriage to become a mom, the same logic should apply to the fathers of their children. The cultural climate has changed, and children, not marriage, determine fatherhood. Put differently, biological parenthood derives from sexual intimacy, not marriage, and it is this biological union that determines rights and obligations to children.
Chancing pregnancy is not a tidy solution to women’s wish for motherhood. It may give these children the potential for dads, but it doesn’t mean that these men will make the necessary commitment to their children or former girlfriends. While a third of the women in the study who risked pregnancy were betting that a baby would cement a relationship with this man, the rest were unclear at the time what they really wanted from their lovers.1
Once pregnant, these women made a conscious choice to become mothers. Maternal love and feeling took over; they were ready, they said, to take responsibility and nurture this particular baby, as distinct from previous pregnancies. Ellen, for example, had been pregnant in her mid-twenties but felt at the time that she was not ready for motherhood, and so she decided to abort. These women knew they were chancing pregnancy, but they took the risk anyway. In other words, though some may have been walking with their eyes closed on the route to motherhood, no one was sleepwalking.
With the inevitable complications that result from this way of having a child, why, then, do women chance pregnancy to become mothers? Why do they entangle themselves with these men and their kin? While they may not have considered donor assistance and adoption as viable options, this in itself is a symptom of their entrapment in a certain mind-set.2 For these seventeen women who chanced pregnancy, calling it accidental is a misnomer.3 What these women did in order to become mothers cannot be confused with the passive stereotype society attaches to “accidental” motherhood.
Women who become independent agents in the reproduction narrative are defying the traditional story of giving in to men’s wishes for sex in order to find intimacy. Those who chance pregnancy more easily tell everyone (including office co-workers and strangers) of their route to motherhood—their chosen story line, the old tale of “accidental” pregnancy, is close enough to the traditional heterosexual creation of a baby to hide their decision to forgo birth control for a chance at motherhood. However, by calling these pregnancies “accidental,” society strips unwed pregnant women of their agency in their decision to have a child outside of marriage. The control that is undeniable when a woman orders gametes from a sperm bank is disguised by chancing pregnancy.
Women who chance pregnancy also act with intent by technically orchestrating their own pregnancy. A closer look at the contraceptive use of the study women at the point at which they became pregnant reveals the following: only one woman who routinely used birth control reported that contraceptive failure led to her becoming pregnant (the condom “fell off”). On the other hand, eight women deliberately did not use birth control, taking chances in the hopes of becoming pregnant. They told their partners that they were not using birth control, and because the men did not object, the women believed that the men consented. These eight women wanted a baby fathered by this particular man, and so they took advantage of the romance of the moment to get the child that they wanted. Unlike known donors, these women did not discuss or agree upon the place of this man in the future child’s life (or their own), preferring to stay in the here and now. They believed they were creating “love children.” Finally, eight other women, including Ellen, claimed to have been using birth control, but admitted that it was erratic.4 They took chances by using inconsistent contraception.
The women in the study who chanced pregnancy represent a broader range of age, race, and class compared to the women who used donor-assisted routes or those who adopted. They ranged from their early twenties to their early forties, with the average point of conception falling around thirty. While I met practically all of these women in middle-class settings, this group included the most diverse array of occupations and income, from women who worked multiple jobs at hourly wages to higher-paid professional women such as Ellen.5
Choosing to have a baby that was conceived through intercourse does not always make both sexual partners responsible for parenting the child. There is something about the act of intercourse—the intimacy and momentary passion— that allows women to believe these men will become reliable fathers. Even some women who at conception think they do not want these men involved change their minds later, for reasons I will discuss. However, there is no predictable formula for which women end up with a dad for their child. The expectations these women hold for the fathers of their children are not uniform. Some women are constantly grappling with the question of how to keep “good” dads involved, while others fight to keep the “bad” dads out of their lives. Without a marriage certificate, which, in the past, ideally obligated men (good or bad) to their family of procreation, the relationship and obligation of these men to these children is unclear and open to interpretation. The women described in this chapter demonstrate the tensions that exist as they attempt to transform biological fathers into socially involved dads, with consistent contact and participation in their children’s lives. In contrast to donor-assisted families (and adoptive families), women who chance pregnancy often have a contentious relationship with the fathers of
their children, sometimes taking the form of financial disputes. This chapter explores the variations, the different kinds of fathers and dads these men become.