Why being a father is the least important part of fatherhood
I saw a preview for a movie—I can’t remember the name, and I refuse to google it—about a man who, through a sperm bank mix-up, discovers that he has fathered 500 children he hadn’t known about and never met. The man, kind of a loser, complete with a rocky relationship and a dead end job, ends up tracking down “his” kids and helping them out (because apparently they need help of some kind from a middle aged man whose only positive quality appears to be his ability to produce viable sperm).
This may in fact turn out to be a terrific movie. And it’s possible the preview misrepresents the point of the film entirely. But on a fundamental level the premise of this film offends me and shows a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a father.
What does it mean to be a father, you ask? I’ll tell you. With a list. But I’m not giving away the good stuff up front; instead I’ll start with the most trivial part of fatherhood.
The important parts of being a father, from LEAST to MOST:
1) Biological Fatherhood.
It’s not a bad thing to share your genetic heritage with somebody, but if any guy thinks that being a biological father makes him special, I have news for you: pretty much any woman can go into any bar in the world and get all the semen she wants, donated for free. And probably get a few drinks thrown her way at the same time. And if that’s not her style, for whatever reason, there are lots of clinics where she can buy some for a nominal fee. Carrying a child to term is work, and a wonderful miracle.
Fathering a child—in the biological sense—is not. In fact, it’s usually something most guys would be doing anyway, usually alone while streaming a video.
2) Financially supporting a child.
If you’re a biological father, but not living with your children, damn right you should be supporting your child financially. But it’s not a heroic thing; instead, it is the very least you can do. What’s the counterargument? That you should bring a child into the world, then what, abandon it? Let the chips fall where they may, if the kid’s mom can afford books and food and clothes, great, but if not, oh well?
Let me clarify: writing that monthly check is a good thing. Necessary but NOT SUFFICIENT. And on some level I’m sure every kid who gets a check from an absentee father appreciates it—but that’s not really what fatherhood means. It is, at best, just a start.
3) Loving a Child.
Love your kids? Great. Congratulations.Know how much good it is to a kid struggling with their homework to know that someone out there loves them, but isn’t actually in the house? Not much. A kid skins his knee; will an absentee father’s love stop the bleeding? Doubtful.
I don’t meant that being loved means nothing; I have heard people who don’t have any father in their life say that they hurt for believing that no male in the world loved them, and perhaps they would have benefited from just knowing such a person was out there.
Imagine 2 kids, identical in every way. One has a father who is rarely around but who genuinely feels love for that child, and expresses it clearly on those occasions when the two are together. The second child has a father who does not express much in the way of emotion; never says, “I love you,” or hugs much, but is there to give advice, put band-aids on skinned knees, help with homework, and interrogate prospective boyfriends. Which kid is better off? (Don’t say it, I already know the answer.)
4) Spending Time With a Child.
I don’t know that this needs much explanation. When kids are alone… look, just read Lord of the Flies. It isn’t good. Kids need adults to do all sorts of things for them, from caretaking to playing. Being one of those adults is great, and certainly isn’t a role limited to biological parents or even to adults who share a home with a kid. If you regularly spend time taking care of a kid, you’re taking care of a kid, no matter what your relationship is.
5) Parenting a Child.
Defining what it means to parent a child is, to say the least, complicated. What I mean by ‘parenting’ is some combination of support, nurturing, discipline, and making decisions for the child. Parenting a child requires at least some time regularly spent with the child (you can’t really discipline a kid long distance).
Am I going to say that ‘parenting’ absolutely requires being with the child every day? That’s not the reality of a lot of people we consider very good parents. Many jobs require parents to spend lots of time away from their kids. Whether they’re a good parent or not will depend a lot on what they do during the time they do have together.
6) Doing Your Best.
This wasn’t on my first list at all, and now I have it as the most important thing. Because it’s easy to be critical. It’s easy to look at a man who fathers a child only to disappear from their lives and say that person is not a good father (and few would disagree). Or to say the same about a man who supports his children financially but otherwise ignores them. And to many parents the decision to behave that way seems unimaginable, even inhuman.
But the fact is that every person has a finite capacity. Are there fathers who are capable of being more and doing more for their children than they do? Of course (I’m not going to name names, but you know some examples). But think about what you can say to someone who suffers from a mental illness that prevents them from relating to their child? To someone incarcerated, or too impoverished to support their child? To someone for whom it’s a struggle just to make it to nightfall without slitting his wrists?
To someone who is emotionally broken in such a way that he truly can’t handle the day to day raising I don’t know how to measure what another person’s best is. I don’t know how to look at another man and tell you, “yes, he’s doing his best,” or, “no, that guy’s got a way to go.” The closest I can come is to hold myself to that standard—am I doing my best for my kids? Am I supporting them, loving them, spending time with them, and parenting them as best as I can? I’m not going to tell you the result of my self assessment, but I suggest that you, if you’re a father, use a similar rubric.
That’s my list. When I look at it, a few things jump out at me. One is that very little on this list requires any sort of biological connection to a child. Another is that very little on this list really requires the ‘father’ to even be male, which may reflect either a shortcoming in my list, or the fact that having a parental unit who is specifically male isn’t really that important (an argument for another day). And another struck me as important enough to get its own subheading:
The essence of fatherhood
Something is obviously strange about our use of the word ‘father.’ I suspect many people would agree with my list of what’s important about being a father, and even with the order in which I listed those things. Yet if we imagine a situation where a man fathers a child but disappears, not even sticking around for the birth, and then a second man lives with the mother as the child is born, then lives in the house and parents that child every day of its life, but never legally adopts the child, we use the word ‘father’ for the first man but not for the second.
At best we use wishy-washy terms like “father figure” or “male role model.” If you raise a child, but don’t actually adopt them, you’re not the father. Even if you are in every way that’s meaningful.’m not actually suggesting we change our use of the word ‘father’ (thought I wouldn’t be opposed to it). We just have to acknowledge that it’s one of those weird cases, in that the definition of fatherhood does not convey its essence.
Let me repeat that: The definition of fatherhood does not convey its essence. Worded differently, the thing that makes you a father is the least important part of fatherhood. And that’s confusing to prospective fathers, and to our evaluation of fathering. Any schmuck can, and will, father a child (pun somewhat intended). And that’s all it takes to be called a father. But actually being a father in any meaningful sense of the term is much harder, and requires totally different things.
In the movie I described above, the premise seems to be that the protagonist, by virtue of having a genetic connection to those children, was in a position to provide value to their lives, something that they were missing without him. But in fact, as a sperm donor he was the least important, most dispensable person to them.
How many males were actually involved in doing the day to day work of raising those kids; mother’s boyfriends or husbands, uncles, grandparents, neighbors, friends? Adults who were actually present and engaged as those kids grew up? What possible reason do we have to think that the guy whose sperm was involved in their creation had anything to contribute above and beyond those other males; men who we would not call those children’s fathers?
And please, I beg you, don’t tell me there’s anything special about the love a biological father has for a child. That is the one thing of which I am certain: as an adoptive parent (as well as a biological parent) I promise you that there is not one iota of difference in the love you feel for a child just because you share genes.
And don’t ever suggest to me that a child has any idea whether its parents are biological or not. No child remembers being born, or to whom. They only remember the people who are there for them as I admit that I kind of wish we had another word that meant “male caretaker/ parenting type who loves us and guides us through life but may or may not be a biological father.” Something like ‘committed uncle.’ Then when we talk about kids we could talk about whether or not they have one (or more) committed uncle(s) in their life, not about whether a father is present. Because, really, who cares if the committed uncle is the actual father?
Some kids might have more than one committed uncle figure; maybe their father, and to a lesser extent an actual uncle, or a mother’s boyfriend, or a neighbor, or a football coach, or even a teacher. And we might be able to see and acknowledge that some kids whose fathers are around, but not involved, might be worse off than other kids who have never met their actual fathers, but have other people filling that role in their life just fine.
Then, instead of a biological father feeling proud of himself for fathering a kid—which is really not much of a task in itself—he would try to live up to the standard of a ‘committed uncle,’ which requires a lifetime of work, patience, love, and understanding. Our kids, I think, would benefit.
This post originally appeared at Philosophy du Joe