What Makes a Dad?
Some women in this study, many of whom appear to be very similar to women who used known donors, were always very clear about what they wanted from these men: nothing. They used distance (sometimes an ocean) as a buffer. These men had all but disappeared. Those who did want a dad for their child or simply did not know what they wanted when they became pregnant lived in a world of “good dads” and “bad dads.”11 Women described in this chapter were struggling with what fatherhood means in the absence of marriage. However, just because the man’s name is not on a marriage certificate does not mean that it does not appear on records relating to the child. Unlike women who used known donors, the closest counterparts to the women who chanced pregnancy, these women did not set up legal barriers between father and child from birth. Birth certificates with the father’s name were a rare exception among known donors and simply did not exist among women using anonymous donors or adoption. However, ten of
the seventeen women who chanced pregnancy listed the father on the birth certificate. Moreover, a third gave the child the father’s last name or included it using a hyphen.12 Naming was a lasting symbol of women’s willingness to consider including the men in their children’s lives as dads, and it also served as an acknowledgment of a past relationship between father and mother, an emotional tie that might move into the present between father and child.13 While naming the biological father either on the birth certificate or in the child’s legal name set these women apart from others in this study, it did not determine who would be a “good dad.”
Social involvement was a recurring theme in every woman’s account of what makes a “good dad,” even among those women who expected nothing from the men who fathered their children. Economic support was also valued; however, most women, even those with serious economic constraints, were willing to settle for consistent social involvement of the father, as opposed to court-sanctioned support. Women constructed their children’s fathers as “good dads” if those men willingly engaged themselves in the children’s lives on a consistent basis. Of the seven involved dads described in this chapter, all but one, who lived out of state, saw their child at least twice a week, and usually for an entire weekend. Women talked of love between the child and his or her dad, indicating an emotional relationship. Other women assessed whether the father was “giving enough of himself ” to the child. That is, the man’s circumstances colored her assessment, as in the case of the imprisoned father of Brandy’s child. Women expressed over and over that “good dads” love their children and demonstrate that love through not only visiting them but also sharing time with them independent of the mothers. Women were reluctant to label fathers as “bad dads,” but many men in this group did not fulfill women’s expectations of consistent contact. Eight women noted that their children’s dads were ambivalent and minimally involved. At best, these men saw their children a few times a year, with an occasional surprise phone call. While two women who viewed their child’s father as threatening to their families had obtained restraining orders, the greatest fault of most “bad dads” was being “inconsiderate” of their children’s feelings, canceling their time together, or not being around enough. For most “bad dads,” changing their label required upping their level of involvement. Social interaction was the key ingredient to being a “good dad,” trumping financial support in the opinion of these women every time.
In this study, women facilitated the interactions of “good dads” with their children or tried to encourage ambivalent dads who lived locally to be more consistently available to their children. Visits were seen as keeping alive an emotional bond that might lead to more frequent dad-initiated involvement. As Maeve aptly summarized, “I will always work very hard and strive towards Hunter having a very close relationship with his dad.” Maeve and other women in this chapter can be described as kin keepers, prioritizing the maintenance of the father-child relationship—their commitment to keep fathers connected is what distinguishes them from gatekeepers, who either shut men out or control their access. The most extreme gatekeepers are women who used biown donors; they occupy one end of the spectrum, while the kin keepers in this study occupy the other. Women who chance pregnancy range from kin keepers to gatekeepers.
Alary’s story is typical of the women who became kin keepers, though she was more successful than most. From the time she knew she was pregnant, Mary hoped that the father would participate in the child’s life, even though Mary was prepared to be a solo parent. She recalled thinking about the child as “hers,” lining up the financial resources and the child care to raise her daughter as a single mom. Mary knew Blake did not want to be a “daily” dad, as he had already done it with his two grown children from a previous marriage. Nonetheless, Mary was not ready to give up on Blake as a potential dad. Although all decisions regarding the child were Mary’s, she believed in the importance of a father: *4
A man gives another point of view. He gave her another set of skills that I couldn’t give her. And he gave her security. I have memories of my father and he was important to my intellectual and my emotional development. So I assume that children need close people to help them and a father is a likely candidate. And she has this other life down there.
Once the child was born, Alary took her every weekend to visit Blake. She carefully facilitated the beginnings of the father-daughter relationship. Most women in this chapter, like Alary, thought that the two-parent model for a child was important, though it was not essential for the other parent to reside in the same household. Initially, Blake might have been a reluctant dad, but Alary rekindled their romantic involvement six months after Lizzy was born, paving the way for the development of the father-child relationship. Alary described their weekly routine:
We saw him every weekend. She got to know him. That was her life. Her life was here with me during the week and it was different than the life that kids she knew had, but it was her life and it was always like that. From the time she was little, she was going there on weekends.
Mary and Blake amicably ended their relationship a few months later, the age gap between them becoming a bigger strain. However, by this time the father-child relationship had been cemented. As a result, Alary’s child had a consistent “daddy.”
Lizzy continued the relationship because it didn’t really change all that much. . . well, it did change ’cause I wasn’t there, but she continued to go there and it was just a slight adjustment. And it actually was a little freeing for her because she had her relationship now unencumbered by me. Everything else stayed very comfortable and compatible and she continued her relationship with him and her half sisters and nieces.
Even though Mary claimed that she made all the decisions regarding her child, it is clear that at least on weekends Lizzy’s dad was the parent in charge, often giving Lizzy more freedom than her mother did. Starting at the age of five, Mary’s child spent weekends alone with her dad. Despite the consistent relationship between Lizzy and her father, Mary stuck with her initial plan of treading lightly, continuing to make no demands of Blake.
Maeve, mentioned earlier in this chapter, is a classic gatekeeper.5 She became pregnant in her senior year of college but, unlike many of her friends, could not go through with an abortion. The father of the child, whom she described as a “New Age loser,” had largely disappeared by the time of the birth. With the father making only irregular visits, Maeve and her son moved out of the area, feeling no obligation to stay on account of the father. Maeve kept in touch with his sister, and her return with her four-year-old son to New England some time later sparked a resurgence in the involvement of the father, who lived a few hours away, though iVlaeve continued to be skeptical of the father’s behavior (and ability to keep a permanent job). Three years later, Maeve explained her view of the father – son relationship and why she continued to tolerate Hunter’s dad:
I understand that children have a basic biological need to understand where they came from. And I’m glad I did, because now Hunter has the most wonderful relationships with his uncle and aunt and grandmother on that side of the family, and so do 1.1 love them like family. And when the kids at school say to Hunter, “Do you have a dad?” he says, “Yes.” He has a dad that he has a relationship with.
Maeve’s quote highlights several different issues common for other women described in this section. Despite minimal involvement with his father, Hunter could point to a dad who sporadically attended soccer games. This acknowledgment served as the foundation for positive ties to paternal kin. Further, Hunter felt just like other kids, because on the surface he too had a dad.
However, Hunter’s dad was unreliable. When Hunter began acting out at school, the school counselor deemed that his father’s inconsistency was the root of the problem. Using the school’s diagnosis as evidence, Maeve very directly told Hunter’s father that he needed to be a better dad. The dad, to his credit, altered his behavior and started spending every Saturday with his child. Maeve described her son’s dad as dedicated, but she still had doubts about his parenting ability:
I would never let Hunter go alone with his father for a weekend. I think that Hunter has this sense of his father being a regular presence in his life without having the detrimental effect that his father is totally inept as a parent. He really is. But he is loving. He’s never mean, never abusive. He just ignores him, and it’s weird.
As Hunter’s dad became a more consistent part of his life, he also became more demanding, which scared Maeve:
There have been times Hunter’s father threatened to sue me for unsupervised visitations. And I was petrified because the courts are just ridiculous. Their standards are this high as far as what they think is acceptable [Maeve pointed to the floor].
Maeve agreed to let Hunter’s dad visit more often in order to avoid legal involvement, but she still would not let Hunter’s father see him without her supervision. Ironically, if he sought unsupervised visitation in the courts, he would most likely end up being ordered to pay child support, which he had never paid. Maeve’s predicament is what many women fear about having a child without legal protection from the father’s claims. While Maeve never regretted her decision to raise Hunter, Hunter’s father certainly complicated and disrupted her life. Interestingly, when Maeve decided at twenty-nine that she wanted a second child, she chose to adopt in order to keep another father totally out of their lives. Maeve was attempting to transform Hunter’s dad into one that she believed would suit her— and Hunter—better. She was stuck with Hunter’s dad, and she had already made the choice to include him in their lives; thus her only recourse was to patrol the borders of the father-child relationship.
Darlene’s situation is representative of that faced by women who chance pregnancy thinking they have no expectations for the father. However, the future is often unpredictable, as women sometimes wish for dads for their kids long after the fathers have gone. Darlene refused the father’s offer of marriage when she became pregnant with his child at twenty-four; she told me, “My only reaction— I can still see it to this day—was I couldn’t imagine making four sandwiches every day for the rest of my life.” Because of this rejection, Kendra’s father wanted nothing to do with her. Instead, he paid regular child support—the honorable thing to do, as was his offer of marriage when the pregnancy occurred. Darlene may have refused marriage, but she did not refuse the child support checks he sent, as it was the only acknowledgment Kendra’s father gave of her existence. For the first eleven years of Kendra’s life, Darlene’s father, who lived down the street, was actively involved with Kendra. Kendra loved animals, and her grandfather allowed her to use the allowance she saved from doing chores around his house to pay part of the cost of a horse (he covered the remainder of the cost). He taught her to care for animals, and she loved being with him. When he died suddenly of a heart attack, the void his death left made Kendra long for her own father. Darlene wrote to him asking him to consider taking Kendra out to ice cream. He never responded to this request, which was sent by certified mail. However, when the next month’s child support arrived, Darlene was surprised by her daughter’s reaction: I
Daddy. Well, she looked at it: $70 a month! Well, that was like $7 million. She looked up at me and she said, “Mommy, do you know how many guinea pigs you could buy with this?” And I looked at her and I drew myself up and I said,
“And we’re going right now to spend it.”
Darlene figured that if her daughter’s father was unwilling to be emotionally supportive, she might as well make sure that he was financially obligated. That way, she felt, her child would at least know that her father existed. As she put it, “She’ll see that she has a father. He pays for stuff. And it’s better than nothing.” Darlene does not discourage her daughter from creating a portrait of her absent father. Instead, she splurged that month and took her daughter to buy another guinea pig. No woman can make a man give his emotional support; she can, however, make demands financially (though not all men will pay).
For the most part, women are interested in more involvement from their children’s fathers. Mothers cannot control a dad’s inconsistency, and they feel helpless. Maeve may have been able to get Hunter’s dad to change some of his behavior, but most women fear that if they voice too many complaints, their children’s fathers will shelve their children permanently. Most of these women settle for minimal financial support from their children’s fathers and varying degrees of father involvement. These women believe dads to be important and that fathers have the right to see their children, which ties in with their adherence to the larger narrative of what makes dads and family. However, overall, the women’s accounts show that these men do not necessarily feel obligated. In Ellen’s words, “you can’t get blood from a stone”—mothers seeking emotional involvement or, less often, financial support for their child often find that men come up short. While women will use monetary support to establish a father, money is rarely a substitute for emotional ties and routine social involvement. What makes a dad is contentious for these women, who are struggling to make sense of their lives juxtaposed to the master narrative of the married nuclear family.