Paternity on Trial
The court is a tool available to women who chance pregnancy, but how they use that tool varies. Most women prioritize the emotional relationship between father and child over financial support—if they can afford it—and use (or more often avoid) the courts to that end.6 Women generally try to avoid court-ordered child support, preferring voluntary contributions if any. Even though they may have chanced pregnancy, they assess their ability to support a child on their own. The majority are financially stable and able to make ends meet for their children. In general, women avoid taking the fathers to court for purposes of child support. They do this to preserve and not inflame the possible father-child relationship.
Mary, who makes her living as an educator, tiptoed around issues of financial support and possibility of future involvement by the father of her child when she was pregnant. She knew she had the emotional and financial ability to raise a child on her own, though she did prefer that the father of her child be involved. She intentionally became pregnant at thirty-six with this particular man, though she felt the best way to establish a lifelong tie with the father for the child was not to make any demands and to just let a relationship unfold:
It’s a little easier on everybody if there are two people raising one child and they are doing it together immediately. And it would have been nice. Which is why I didn’t block him out, close doors, or sue or cause trouble. I wanted to see what would happen and only wanted good vibrations coming.
In Ellen’s case, she settled for the Pampers Gavin brought when he came to pick up his daughter for a day each week. She knew if she forced him to pay support she would run the risk of estranging the child from her father.
Men’s financial contributions are not unwanted, but single mothers perceive the court to be a contentious arena, and the wealthier women fear that their children’s fathers’ affections could be undermined by the act of seeking child support.
Men’s affections for their children thus become emotionally priceless, a luxury that distinguishes the worth of the father from his historical provider function within the family.7 In these cases, men’s financial responsibility for their children is seen as an act of kindness, not an expectation of fatherhood.
Children whose mothers employed the courts to force the children’s fathers to contribute are more likely to already have strained relationships with their fathers.8 Ironically, court-ordered child support generally amounts to very little money, and few men comply with these orders anyway. Women are often surprised at the paltry amounts. The sums never cover the costs of day care, afterschool programs, or summer camps, let alone food and clothing. Thus mothers of these children are left to bear the brunt of full financial responsibility for their children. Excerpts from two different interviews illustrate the tension that emerges from court-ordered awards that men say they cannot pay, even if the amounts appear negligible. Jasmine, age twenty-seven with a three-year-old, felt the court’s decision was unfair:
So we went in front of the judge and I almost did everything but cry. But I knew that I couldn’t yell because I knew that I’d get arrested in there. I said, “Your honor, I worked eighty hours a week last week alone. I owe $2,000 in child care. I’m two months late. I don’t have any heat in my house because it’s too expensive to keep on all the time.” He told the judge he worked twenty-five hours a week and he made only $8 an hour. The judge ordered him to pay $220 a month. Ross said to me after court, “I can only give you $20 a week.” And I said, “This is for your child.”
Crystal, age twenty-eight with a four-year-old, couldn’t count on support:
Her father gives me child support every now and then. I don’t count on it. When it comes we just put it in a savings account, but most of the time it doesn’t work out that wav.
The fathers are not expected by the courts to find better-paying jobs to support their children. Support payments are based upon how much a man earns, not his potential. For example, the father of Jasmine’s child was in college and the court order only instructed him to pay a portion of his part-time salary, a drop in the bucket of the child’s expenses. Of course Jasmine would receive more money once the father had a full-time job after completing college. But in the meantime Jasmine shouldered the financial burden, working an extra job while she struggled to finish her degree. Men without good-paying jobs are men without money and are not good providers, whether in or outside of marriage. The courts cannot turn them into being the kind of providers the women would like for their children.
Courts can assign only a financial contribution to fathers, not an emotional one. However, courts can establish paternity. Colleen, who admitted that she chanced pregnancy with the wrong man, discovered that he was not willing to be the dad she wanted for her child. When he refused even to meet the child, let alone have a relationship with her, Colleen took him to court, hoping – to give her daughter some symbolic proof that she had a father. The court forced this wealthy man to pay child support. Even though the situation was far from ideal, Colleen made sure to spend the monthly check with her daughter as if what they bought were gifts from her father.
The intimacy that produces a child is rarely enough to morally obligate these men to their children. Women think the cultural value of traditional fathers as “providers” will compel men to help support their children, but they are wrong to assume that the support will be substantial. While not all women count on these men to be a dad, those who do so are often disappointed. What they find is that being a dad is not an enforceable obligation. Fathers cannot be made into dads who visit. Financial obligation is the only aspect of traditional fatherhood within the courts’ jurisdiction; the courts can grant visitation but cannot enforce it or emotionally bond men to children. While paternity testing can identify beyond the shadow of doubt a father, it cannot produce a dad.