29 December 2004

The daddy debate

Fathers are not just sperm donors, or 'other mums'.
by Jennie Bristow
2004 has put fatherhood in the spotlight in the UK. It ended with the
undignified paternity skirmishes of former home secretary David Blunkett,
and more (comparatively dignified) antics of the Fathers 4 Justice campaign,
scaling city monuments dressed as cartoon superheroes.
The year began with the government moving towards an end to the principle of
sperm donor anonymity, giving children conceived by sperm donation the
apparently all-important right to know their genetic parentage for sure (1).
Meanwhile, policymakers continue to worry about fathers' need to be more
'involved' with their children, giving rise to proposals for shared
maternity leave following the birth of a child and enabling fathers to adopt
more flexible working patterns so that they can spend more time with their
kids (2).
What motivates this interest in the various aspects of fatherhood is a deep
confusion about what fathers are in the new millennium - set against, of
course, what official morality thinks they should be. It is now trite to say
that fathers ain't what they used to be, that the aloof, masculine
role-model, breadwinner dad of traditional children's stories is as
old-fashioned as evaporated milk and Bovril. What is far less certain is
what the role should be of the new, modern dad, who doesn't earn all the
money but doesn't get pregnant either. As society attempts to define and
bolster the various different aspects of what fatherhood is supposed to be,
it is slowly undermining the actual role played by the real-life fathers.
Take the obsession with the genetic father. The notion that children born as
a result of donated sperm will be somehow deprived or emotionally stunted by
not knowing their genetic father is one that emanates, not from children of
sperm donors or from the donors themselves, but from the government and the
committee that regulates fertility treatment, the Human Fertilisation and
Embryology Authority (HFEA).
In a world obsessed with identity and 'roots', it is considered horrific
that some children might grow up ignorant about where they came from. But as
most - real, happy, well-adjusted - people will tell you, their own
knowledge of who they are is forged in their upbringing. People generally do
not lie awake at night worrying about how the particular genetic combination
of eggs and sperm involved in their conception might have affected the
course of their lives; they think about their families, the people who loved
and cared for them from the moment they were born.
Fathers are not a mere biological ingredient of oneself, but individuals
with their own lives and personalities - and what matters is the
relationship between father and child. This is as true for children who have
never had a relationship with their biological father as it is for those who
have. For those children who are bothered by the lack of a father, it is the
fact that they do not know their dads that upsets them, not the fact that
they don't know the colour of his eyes and his precise genetic inheritance.
What about the father's self-identity? The notion that it is of paramount
importance for children to know their biological fathers is an entirely
individualised perspective on childhood, elevating the idea of self-identity
over the far more important issue of relationships. Likewise, the notion
that fathers must move hell and high water to prove their genetic
relationship to estranged offspring is an individualised perspective on
fatherhood, which implies that a positive paternity test can somehow have a
decisive influence upon a man's sense of self - regardless of the role that
he might have played, or is to play, in the child's life, and regardless of
the damage that is often done by pulling one's private affairs through the
science labs and the courts.
For all Blunkett's bleatings about the 'Little One' as he resigned, one got
the clear impression that this was a story All About Blunkett and his own
sense of identity, rather than the relationship he might have with the
So is the modern father really nothing more than his sperm? No - when he
plays an intimate role in his child's everyday life, the part ascribed to
today's dad is one of intense involvement. Gone are the bad old days when
father administered the discipline, took his son to the occasional football
match and otherwise left child-rearing to the missus. Fathers today are
supposed to share the nappies, the sleepless nights, the playing and bathing
and bedtime reading and, now, the maternity leave. With the exception of
feeding (and only because dads can't be made to grow breasts), today's
Involved Dad is supposed to be just like a mum.
The idea that modern fatherhood means sharing the role traditionally
ascribed to motherhood comes from a couple of very modern prejudices.
Prejudice against all the characteristics traditionally associated with
fathers and, less specifically, men - emotional detachment and the
single-minded pursuit of a career or other public ambition. Prejudice, too,
about motherhood - involving a romanticised view that when it comes to
child-rearing, the everyday tasks, time and commitments of mothering are
what everybody really wants, and that fathers are being deprived by only
having access to what used to be described as the 'good bits': sleeptime and
To this end, policymakers are striving to encourage mothers to share their
mothering role with the men, through such initiatives as maternity leave for
fathers and flexible working. As for who does the fathering - well, why do
we need that anyway?
The obsession with biological paternity and the expansion of the mummy role
reflects a society that, ultimately, can see no need for fathers. The
contemporary unease with traditional aspects of masculinity, coupled with an
inward-looking obsession with identity, means that the role of the father is
reduced to a matter of the genes in his sperm and his presence as a second
adult in the home.
This sentiment was summed up by HFEA chair Suzi Leather in January 2004,
when she pushed for changes to the regulation of fertility treatment that
would allow single women and lesbians to have treatment without needing to
provide a 'father figure'. 'I think having two parents is better than one,
largely on energy grounds', she said (3). Some accolade this is, for all the
fathers raising their families throughout the country, who would perceive
their role as rather more than just an additional energy source.
Fortunately, the fretting about what fathers are for that preoccupies
official committees and the media is rather less of a concern to real-life
fathers and their families, who know what they should be doing. Because
fortunately, most people know that paternity is not something that should be
put under the microscope, and fathers are not just job-sharing mummies, but
full-on family members who develop distinct relationships with the children
whom they raise.
Maybe we should have rather less of the tortured discussion about what role
fathers should be playing, and recognise that whatever daddies do, they are
best left to work it out for themselves.
Read on:
spiked-issue: Parents and kids
(1) See Seeds of suspicion, by Jennie Bristow
(2) See Choosing childcare, by Jennie Bristow
(3) See Who needs parents?, by Jennie Bristow