The Cat’s Cradle: Paternal Kin
Mothers who chance pregnancy often expect that they and their children will become part of their children’s father’s extended kin networks, setting them apart from the other women in this study. Similarly, the father’s kin frequently claim these children (and, in doing so, their mothers) as part of the traditional kinship system, which remains problematic for the families of known donors. Naming a father, with his confirmation, entitles children to his kin. Contact with the father’s extended kin brings the social standing of an additional set of roots to these children. In this way, kinship then is based upon blood ties, and the biological and social become aligned.
The father’s extended kin frequently become involved independent of the biological father’s social involvement in the child’s life. They can do this because the mothers claim a particular man as the child’s father. Jasmine remarked upon her child’s paternal grandmother’s active participation:
Her dad’s mother is the grandmother that makes cookies and she was the one who didn’t want to have any part of this in the beginning. And she’s constantly under me, all the time, and she is the type of person who calls every day: “I want to see her, can I come and get her? I want to spend time with her.” And she spends more time with her grandmother than her father. Her dad, who was in college when she was born, will have her every other weekend but he will go off and play softball and leave her in the house with the grandmother.
Fathers often facilitate the bonding between the child and his kin, either intentionally or for convenience. These fathers receive help from their own mothers and other female kin – who care for their children, and some of these women remain close to the fathers’ families despite their withered relationship with the fathers of their children.
Brandy, twenty-six years old, inserted her child into her former boyfriend’s family in another way. Alex, the boyfriend with whom Brandy broke up when she was three months pregnant, was invited to see his child immediately after she gave birth even though they hadn’t spoken during the rest of her pregnancy.9 From then on he came by daily to see his daughter, Ali, his namesake. Brandy, in order to keep her job, sent her three-year-old daughter to spend half the week at her mother’s. Alex was welcome there and used to visit Ali at both Brandy’s home and Brandy’s mother’s house. Though Alex’s contributions were limited to his time and various gifts to the child, Brandy was impressed by his commitment to their daughter. Unfortunately, when Ali was eighteen months old, Alex ended up in prison. Brandy and Ali, however, retained their status as an accepted part of his family. Ali’s place within her father’s family is indisputable; she has a biological father, and from that stems her “rightful” access to his paternal kin networks.
His family? Yes, we both see them. We see them every weekend, the whole family. She is part of that family. They come take her, they buy her things, they’ve always come to her birthday parties. We go to all their family events, even though he’s not around; that doesn’t stop me from going to see them.
Brandy honored Alex’s brother by making him her daughter’s godfather, which pleased Alex and further cemented Ali’s standing as a member of his family. She had no idea that her decision to include Alex’s family would bring such lasting and influential consequences to her daughter’s life. Even though Alex’s brother was a part of Ali’s biological family, he was much more than simply a biological link to her father. Ali’s godfather manifested as a surrogate father by taking his responsibility as a godfather seriously, but he also occupied a biological place within kin terminology as uncle.
I feel like Alex’s brother is the closest thing to a father that she has right now. Luckily, it’s his brother, it’s not like some stranger that he doesn’t know. So I felt like that’s who the gift [the Father’s Day card that Ali made at the day care center] should be given to. He’s the guy who is taking care of her—he’s the godfather, he’s the uncle.
Brandy was making an important kin claim by deciding to give Ali’s Father’s Day card to someone other than her biological father. In this case, the godfather occupied a socially known and understood relationship, but it was possible that another man could enter their lives and also serve as a step-daddy to Ali. Brandy knew Alex was relieved that his brother was filling in for him, as that left him room to resume his role as a dad after completing his prison sentence.
Mothers become gatekeepers, patrolling the boundaries of their children’s extended kin networks, which include their child’s father’s new girlfriend or wife.
These are nuanced relationships. While mothers may befriend these women initially, in order to continue to smooth the path for father-child relationships, such friendships sometimes turn sour. Brandy, whose ex-boyfriend married another woman (with a child from a previous relationship), explained the complexity of these situations:
I used to let his wife take her. Later, I felt his wife was just using my daughter to get closer to him because they were having problems. So I just cut his wife off altogether. So I have no contact with his wife and her daughter. I just deal with his family, not with his wife or anything, not anymore.
By contrast, Ellen, whose vignette opens this chapter, found that while the father of her child was inconsistent, his girlfriend could be counted upon more readily. Ellen viewed his girlfriend more as a reliable babysitter:
Kelly’s his girlfriend who he’s living with. She is really a very nice girl. On Friday evening I’m running late, so I said I’d drop Skyler off after supper. So Kelly calls me up at seven and says “Gavin’s sleeping.” “Oh, what happened to his stopping by to put in an estimate on a job?” “It got cancelled.” “Why doesn’t he come get her?” “Oh, well, I’ll come get her if that would help.” “Great, cool.”
Both Brandy and Ellen were agitated at having to negotiate relationships with other women in their child’s father’s life in order to maintain father-child relationships. Ironically, Ellen, who initially was upset when Gavin found a new girlfriend, discovered a way to incorporate her in their lives to her advantage. However, Brandy, who amicably parted with Alex, found his new wife’s behavior to be inappropriate and thus had to patrol the boundary between Alex’s new family and her own. These new girlfriends became members of the extended kin networks with which the mothers interacted in order to keep their children involved in their fathers’ lives and to retain their own positions within his family. In such cases, the child is a reminder of kin obligation, of ties that remain intact when the father (or the mother) moves on to new romantic relationships.
Naomi, thirty-three years old with a one-year-old, did not realize until after she became pregnant that she was being two-timed. Moreover, both women ended up pregnant—in her words, the “doggiest thing” a man could do to a woman. After the birth of her child, Naomi sought out the woman whose child was her son’s half brother, a relationship she did not see as insignificant.
Last Saturday we went to New Jersey and saw her and her son. [The boys] don’t look a thing alike, and we are raising them very differently. But we feel strongly that they should have some kind of connection, because they are half brothers.
She would like for me to get pulled into their lives a lot more, but I have to set certain limits because I’m not part of her life and I’m hoping that eventually I will meet someone else and have a life and a fainilv-
Both mothers separately rejected this biological father as a suitable dad, aware that he could not be counted on financially or emotionally or as a role model. Naomi still chose to keep as kin her son’s half brother, but everything else was less than ideal. The women, who live in different states, stayed in touch for the sake of their children, expecting to visit at least once a year. In this case, the kinship system has been modified, though it is still based on the power of genetics. A type of “co-mother” relationship resulted from this deceitful situation. Unlike anonymous donors, these women did not have to construct a fictionalized father; yet, despite already knowing that these half brothers would be raised independently and under very different circumstances, these women vowed to maintain ties for their children’s sake. In Naomi’s case, maintaining kin ties through a half sibling provided a less painful way for the child to know his father by re-creating him through the genetic similarities of two children.
In all but two cases, the women in this chapter were embraced by the father’s kin, even though a few of the paternal grandmothers had initially suggested abortion or adoption when they learned that their son’s girlfriend was pregnant.10 However, most became supportive relatives who often spent more time and gave more lavish gifts to these children than the fathers did. Ironically, many of the fathers who left or ignored their offspring had kin systems that absorbed the child and often the child’s mother. The importance of the extended family continued for these women in spite of the “irresponsible” fathers of their children. Therefore, in another way, a paternal extended family continued despite the absence of marriage because of the women’s decision to label and acknowledge these men as fathers (not dads).
In such cases, science provides added proof: DNA tests leave little room for lies or doubt regarding paternity. The concept of genetic family, now bolstered by science, holds more weight than ever before among paternal kin networks.