Sign on the Dotted Line: Contractual Protection for Family Renegades
Even for women who deviate from the norms of reproduction, the shadow of patriarchy and fathers’ rights permeates the whole decision-making process, regardless of the route to motherhood that is chosen, and so this new form of motherhood often requires contractual protection.9 Single motherhood has abandoned the marriage contract as its legal parameters for parenthood. In its place are individually crafted contracts that break all the assumptions society makes about the connections between marriage and parenthood. In the case of adoption, these contracts also supplant birth certificates, revising the initial route of parenthood.
Some legal protection for new motherhood is established before children are even conceived. Anonymous donors are inherently contractual: men hand over their parental rights with their sperm. The donors leave behind a paper profile and a promise to never lay claim to the children that result. In the case of known donors, contracts painstakingly drawn up in attorneys’ offices are meant to trump norms of genetic parenthood—there is no mistaking these donors for unwed fathers.
Women who use the donor method are not interested in socially parenting a child with the donor; they want the child to be their territory and their responsibility.10 Because women know they want to parent on their own, men who gave any inkling that they would want involvement with this not-yet-conceived child are ruled out. Nadine, who approached male friends as possible known donors but ended up using an anonymous donor, explains it most directly:
But I thought if I was going to do this on my own, I wanted to do it on my own.
I couldn’t do it on my own with someone who I was ambivalent about or who
I was going to worry was going to come take my children. None of that worked.
Women looking for known donors do not completely reject a place for men in family life, but they maintain an image of limited involvement. Lori-Ann, whose story opens this chapter, picked a close friend who did not want to be a dad. Even given the trust this close friendship implied, she understood that forces more powerful than this trust could impinge on her ability to be a single mother. A contract provided Lori-Ann with the security that her personal relationship with the man could not.
The contract is meant to deny the impulse of the legal system to tie men to children. Therefore, in donor contracts, women and donors agree that the man will be a sperm donor but not a dad. His involvement is carefully mandated, always exchanging freedom from financial obligation for the relinquishment of parental rights. Children have their mothers’ last names and, with very few exceptions, no father is listed on the birth certificate. Some contracts also specify that the men will be known to the child, but the specifics will be controlled by the mother. Donor contracts do not completely sever the claim of genetic fathers— in reality, these documents are merely gestures of good faith, not legally binding contracts. For instance, in one case, even though it was outlined in the donor contract, one woman had to get legal documentation of the known donor’s abdication of parental rights in order to have her child adopted by her husband. This example is not only a testament to the tenacity of legal precedent regarding fatherhood but also an illustration of the legal system’s treatment of donors as unwed fathers.
Women without contracts separating their children from their fathers believe they have other forms of insurance protecting their sole parental rights. The use of sperm banks is one such type of insurance. Althea, forty years old with a three-year-old, conceived her child with a friend who lives abroad as a donor:
He knew that because I’m so damn independent that an arrangement with him would be a very good idea because he would not be in my life, literally. He was leaving the following—well, at that point, he was leaving whenever, as soon as the visa became available he was on the plane back. And he’s from a faraway country, so the chance of him coming back and becoming meddlesome in my life was really pretty remote. Yes, I thought if I was going to do it by myself, I really wanted to do it by myself. So with him, it would really be by myself.
Women without a contractual agreement seek other barriers to protect the centrality of the mother-child relationship. For women who chance pregnancy, contractual protection is not established at the outset, and some women, as discussed in chapter 5, use the courts to block fathers’ claims after the fact, relying on restraining orders, for example.
Adoption involves by far the most contractual arrangement of all the routes to motherhood, and for this reason it seems to promise the most undisputable claim to single motherhood. However, adoption has become more and more disputed domestically, with claims to children by birth kin making these contracts permeable. Many women choose to adopt abroad to be safe, using the ocean as a buffer, as Althea did with her known donor.11 Others settle for open adoption domestically, hoping to avoid future struggles.
The contracts are meant to create security for women not playing by the patriarchal rules of family. Even more important, the mothers wish to establish the supremacy of the mother-child bond, since that will become the core of the family. While men might not be completely pushed aside, if there is recognition through policy or law that mothers and children are the core of today’s family, men’s claims to women and children would present less of a threat. While women do not want men to be tied to their families in quite the same way as in the past, it is usually not their intention to exclude them completely. As much as a particular kind of male-dominated family has declined, the legacy of fathers’ claims to both women and children continues to resurface, often in new court rulings. Women wish men to play minor, steady roles, but when confronted by this enormously significant political and legal legacy, the women balk, writing them out through contracts.