Downgrading fatherhood

There are many things I remember fondly from my childhood Christmases: the Advent countdown, the silver milk bottle-top decorations, my formative rendering of Mary in the nativity musical Only a Baby. But from a very young age I was also aware that December was the month that told the world what a family ought to look like. As the only child of a single parent who had never known her father, growing up in a religiously conservative and quietly judgemental part of Scotland, I was the only person in my primary class whose parents were divorced.

Of course the happy hearthside tableau I used to imagine only appears so inviting because it is viewed from a distance. Within every family, however outwardly coventional, there exist the tensions and compromises and secret hurts — as well as the love — that distinguish our closest bonds. And in today’s primary schools, children with married parents are just as likely to be in the minority. This past Christmas reminded me of my early dreams of what a proper family should look like and got me wondering how our continuing recalibration of gender roles and family structure will impact on contemporary children.

At the end of last year the Anglican Archbishop of York (England), John Sentamu, alongside Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, denounced proposed changes to IVF legislation as likely to undermine the contribution men make to families by removing the requirement for doctors to “have a view” to the child’s need for a father. Sentamu attacked the proposals as evidence of a “me, me” consumerist culture that was intent on demoting fathers. Clearly these men are motivated by their resistance to the very idea of lesbian couples reproducing.

But I was struck by Sentamu’s comments about fatherhood, having just returned from a trip to the United States where I had been unsettled by the brouhaha around the publication of a book entitled Knock Yourself Up: No Man? No Problem. Part memoir, part how-to guide, it was written by Louise Sloan, a single lesbian who, at the age of 41, chose to conceive by donor insemination and went on to give birth to a son. Embraced by feminists, berated by Republicans, Sloan describes eloquently the soul-searching that led her to that decision: how she had always imagined having a child within a stable partnership but how, eventually, her desire for a baby outweighed her adherence to this romantic ideal.

Much has been written lately about the commodification of love and the way consumer culture has inflated our expectations of relationships to an unmanageable degree. We are encouraged to consider partners as wish-list fulfillers and, when they fail to do so, as disposable. The modern premium on autonomy and self-determination does not sit easily with the loosening (rather than lowering) of expectations, the toleration of uncertainty and compromise necessary for sustaining intimacy and providing a platform for parenthood.

But it would concern me greatly if our contemporary trouble with relationships led some women, straight or gay, to excise men from the parenting picture entirely. At the heart of this seems to be a clash between adherence to the norm and choice. In the past, traditional notions of what a family ought to comprise have wrongly prevented many from becoming the loving parents they longed to be. This is not an argument against gay and lesbian parenthood. And a single woman who believes she is emotionally and financially secure enough to raise a child alone ought to have options. But nowadays the ideology of choice is proving just as problematic as that of normativeness in the realm of the family and it is necessary, not retrograde, to interrogate that.

Certainly there is the non-negotiable disconnect between men and women’s fertile lifespans, which means men have at least an extra decade to consider parenthood. But most men I know aren’t sold on the idea of late-40s fatherhood. Yet, while women in their 30s are constantly interrogated about their fertility choices, men seldom are.

This may be because popular culture has offered us an increasingly infantilised version of masculinity — from Nick Hornby’s neurotic man-boys to the slacker dudes of Hollywood director Judd Apatow. Partnership and parenthood, responsibility and security, are set up as emasculating rather than instrumental to adult flourishing. And consumer culture works in tandem with this trend, thriving on the insecurities that drive us to buy more products.

It’s not the existence of lesbian parents that is downgrading fatherhood but a culture that offers young men a dumbed-down version of masculinity and a rhetoric around parenting largely based on their absence. Given the histrionics of groups such as Fathers4Justice fatherhood has become defined in the public mind as an experience of loss rather than involvement. Yet British men have never been so involved in bringing up their children, and our understanding of the importance of a male presence in a child’s life is advancing.

It need not be an individual tragedy to grow up without a father, and single female and lesbian parents are well aware that there are many alternatives to providing their children with a loving male influence. But it is a tragedy if we bring up boys in a culture that signals to them that they are ultimately expendable from the profound experience of parenthood. — Â

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