Who's the Father?

David Blankenhorn, Fatherhood Today, 5/1/1999

Here is our generation's great tragedy. We are not only losing fathers, we are also losing our idea of fatherhood, our ability to say with confidence what a father is. As a consequence, not only are fathers increasingly absent, but our societal vision of fatherhood is increasingly failing. Our expectations falter; our former definitions disintegrate; we become almost comically minimalist. Instead of insisting on actual in-the-home, love-the-mother fathers, we increasingly settle for paternity identification, and if we're lucky, child support payments and visits. Instead of demanding a certain type of man, we search for DNA evidence. Could the idea of fatherhood possibly get any smaller?

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Subjects: Family, Fatherhood

More by: David Blankenhorn

On a highway near Dallas, a billboard asks: "Who's the father?" A similar advertisement near Philadelphia, featuring a baby in a diaper, says: "Wanted: My Daddy." In both cases, the idea is for mothers to call a toll-free number so that a genetics laboratory can help them identify the fathers of their children. There are several private companies currently displaying such billboards across the country.

Picture how this must actually work. Here is Mom, driving along the highway in her '92 Nissan Sentra somewhere in Middle America, minding her own business, listening to little Sam or Suzy beg her to stop at the next Burger King, when she suddenly sees one of these billboards. The notion hits her like a thunderbolt. Yes, she says to herself (and maybe also to little Sam or Suzy sitting next to her). Write down that number! We ought to pin that guy down! He owes us, doesn't he? We could at least establish this thing officially, maybe get his current address...who knows?

This, gentle reader, is the amazing country we live in. I can't imagine a fiction writer, even a writer of dark comedies, coming up with a more strange or disconcerting scene. Yet, there it is, happening every day in real life, just outside your car window. For the record: About 27 million U.S. children will go to sleep tonight in homes in which their fathers do not live. That's roughly 40 percent of all children under age 18. Faced with a problem of this magnitude, who you gonna call? Well, if things are really bad, you can call 1-800-IDENTITY or 1-800-DNA-TYPE.

What does this trend tell us? For starters, it tells us that growing numbers of fathers are simply vanishing. Missing bio-dads, and the mothers who are willing to pay $500 to have them found, now constitute the customer base, as it were, of a growth industry in our economy – an emerging national market that is now large enough, and at least potentially lucrative enough, to attract the entrepreneurial energy of creative business people. Looking at our increasingly fatherless society, the economy's service sector, God bless 'em, sees a new way to make money. They can run a test and tell you "who's the father."

But can they really? I don't think so. They can locate inseminators. They can scientifically establish who did, or did not, perform a bare biological act. But in fact they can tell us next to nothing about "who's the father." Fatherhood is a way of living, not a result from a lab test. Real fathers are men who love and nurture their children. They are also men who love and protect the mothers of their children. Yes, fatherhood typically (though not always) stems from a biological fact. But that biological fact, by itself, can never adequately tell us "who's the father."

Here is our generation's great tragedy. We are not only losing fathers, we are also losing our idea of fatherhood, our ability to say with confidence what a father is. As a consequence, not only are fathers increasingly absent, but our societal vision of fatherhood is increasingly failing. Our expectations falter; our former definitions disintegrate; we become almost comically minimalist. Instead of insisting on actual in-the-home, love-the-mother fathers, we increasingly settle for paternity identification, and if we're lucky, child support payments and visits. Instead of demanding a certain type of man, we search for DNA evidence. Could the idea of fatherhood possibly get any smaller?

If any of this worries you, don't blame the people at Genetica. They're just business people who have found an economically valid market niche. The deeper question for us as a society is whether we ultimately will define fatherhood as something as tiny as a drop of semen or something as large as a moral calling.

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