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When Conception Equals Confusion: The Battle Between Mothers and Would-Be Fathers

Posted on 4 December 2012


It happens in silence. A man—young, tall, hooded—sits in a waiting room. All the chairs are taken except the one diagonally across from him. A woman comes in carrying a child. She sits in the only seat available and busies herself removing the child’s coat and hat. The man’s eyes cut to the corner checking out mother and daughter. The woman pretends not to notice his stare. Someone vacates the seat next to mother and child. The man moves to the seat quickly and sits, eyes still on the child. He leans forward. The child tips toward him. She raises her little hands and reaches out. He opens his arms to embrace her. They fall into each other. He lifts the little girl onto his lap. The woman looks away.

I am watching this scene unfold while dressing my own daughter for the cold wet outdoors. I am touched by the man’s tender interest and love. I see his bond with the little girl and I wonder, what are they doing here? Here, being the DNA testing office. Here, being the place where we baby-mamas bring our offspring to prove that we’re not lying or mistaken about who the father is. It is a task best done with a light heart. Better not to delve into the nastiness that wafts from the demand for a DNA test. The test itself is not overly demeaning or embarrassing, yet when I walk out of the testing office, I am changed.  I wonder how the process affects the middle-aged woman and her two round-headed boys who were being tested when I arrived. Unlike my daughter, these two boys are far from infancy.  How does a mother explain to 8- and 10-year-old boys why they had to have a large q-tip rubbed inside their mouths by a white man listening to country music and calling their mother “mama”.

Everyone in the waiting room is black and latino, but I am not fooled. These battles are not the sole domain of people of color. I read about supermodel Elizabeth Hurley’s billion-dollar baby-daddy drama in a glossy fashion magazine. This ugliness I’m tied up in is not bound by class or color. Paternity fights are a woman-man thing.

“Fatherhood,” James Joyce writes, “in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man.” The physiological reality of gestation unfolding inside the female body creates an irrefutable certainty about a woman’s relationship to her child. Women learn about a child’s presence through internal notices—a missed period, tender breasts, morning sickness. Men, however, find out about their offspring’s impending arrival from an external source, from the lips of a woman. The vast difference in the physical proximity of women and men to a growing fetus is one of life’s confounding complexities. Babies grow outside of men’s bodies. This simple biological fact breeds questions and doubts in the minds of men that pregnant women never experience. Maternal love, Joyce concludes, “may be the only true thing in life, [while] paternity may be a legal fiction.”

Due to biology’s immutable rules and formulas, the stage is set for the disputes that lead women and men into family courtrooms and DNA testing labs. Procreation is—in its nature—an unbalanced event. While conception demands material from two bodies—female and male—to create a child, only one body—female—is required to gestate and birth a child. Through the unchangeable laws of the universe, the “we” that creates a child disappears when the embryo attaches itself to the uterus. From the moment of conception, women are physically, physiologically and chemically altered to a drastic degree while men are not. The female body is literally the field upon which the dance of life plays out.

Is reproduction fair?

Some say it’s not worth the breath it takes to ponder this question for no amount of mulling or meditation can change reality. It simply is. The best we can do is live our lives cognizant of the facts of life. For women, being cognizant means approaching sexual intercourse from the stark truth that the cards are stacked against us. My friend Jana believes:

Given the terrain of today, when it comes to consensual sex, contraception is a power women cannot give away. And when they do give it away, they cannot then turn around and say to men, ‘we had an equal choice.’ [The assertion that women and men have equal choice] may be true in theory, [but] it operates as fiction in real life. In this instance sharing the bucket, feels like an attempt to pass the bucket.

In other words, women be warned: should you conceive a child, you bear the burden of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. You cannot afford to have sex under the pretense that you and the man will share the consequences of unprotected sex equally. Whether married, partnered, or single, mother and father are different animals.

This is a tough pill to swallow. It is still stuck in my throat. When single women rage at baby-daddy’s absence, society’s response is “You should not have had unprotected sex.” It is almost as if, in deciding to have a child alone, women are expected to remain silent about reproductive and child-rearing injustices. It is classic catch-22. Certainly without unprotected sex, I would not have baby-daddy drama. But it is also true that without unprotected sex, I wouldn’t have my daughter. The erasure of my daughter is no more a solution to the problem of parental inequality than the disappearance of black people is an answer to hostile race relations. Sure, not having a child would disappear my baby-daddy drama, but it would not alter the societal issue of reluctant fathers. It is tempting to blame unreliable and absentee fathers on irresponsibility, casual sex and unplanned offspring. However mothers raising children alone after failed marriages and dissolved unions are among the voices vocalizing this bitter chorus of complaint. Even women sanctioned by marriage or cohabitation get the raw end of the deal when a man refuses fatherhood.

Parenthood is a demanding, sometimes debilitating, duty. Perhaps more women would flee from parenting if they could. But as it stands, men—the beneficiaries of patriarchy—are entitled to absolve themselves of parenting, while women, as my friend Radha declares, “are left in the default position of … child-rearing, with all the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and financial duties that come with it, with baby-daddy or without.”

Many disinterested men ward off fatherhood by asserting that a pregnancy ascribed to them is not the result of their sexual activity, but rather someone else’s indiscretion. Even without proof of a woman’s infidelity, these reluctant fathers imagine themselves as one of many men on a firing squad. In this imaginary firing squad, only one man has the bullet, everyone else is shooting blanks. When they are ordered to shoot, each man aims and fires, banking on his belief that his gun is loaded with blanks. It is a comfort, a psychological cover that allows would-be fathers to sleep at night after they have denied their children. Patriarchy grants men this refuge. In some male minds, the hypothetical possibility that any man’s sperm could have reached the woman’s egg is justification for negation. It doesn’t seem to matter how many hours, days, or months a reluctant father may have spent engaging in unprotected, baby-making sex. If he does not desire fatherhood, denial is a reflex and a right. In a society where men get to choose whether or not they want to be fathers, a man can always convince himself that he was “shooting blanks.”

Simply by questioning the child’s paternity, a potential father redirects the focus of the conversation from his accountability to the woman’s creditability. For men, uncertainty is a biological reality of pregnancy. The universe—it seems—is not concerned about fathers knowing which children are their biological offspring. Stories of men being fooled into fathering the wrong child abound. Until the invention of DNA tests, no man could be certain his child was his own. Which leads me back to the scene I witnessed at the DNA testing offices. The love between the father and daughter was obvious. Perhaps he was not there to deny paternity and responsibility. Perhaps he was there to quell all doubts that this child was not biologically his. For a moment, I caught a glimmer of the man’s vulnerability in the situation. In a bizarre way, it seems that he needed external permission to love his daughter. Perhaps his pride, as well as his wallet, balked at the prospect of fathering a child that wasn’t his.

Published in Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues: Young African Americans on Love, Relationships, Sex, and the Search for Mr. Right © 2003