Paternity Leave


MY MOTHER WAS unable to obtain an illegal abortion, though she tried, in 1967 when she learned she was pregnant with me.  Instead, she attempted paternity fraud—passing me off to her boyfriend as his child though I was actually fathered by another man.  Her boyfriend, who became my putative father, married her and then clued in when I was born, totally healthy, three months “prematurely.”  He went along with it, though. They divorced when I was six years old, but he paid child support until I was eighteen, $270 a month.  I’m a product of child support, and it was a necessary part of the financial picture for me and my Mom, who did not have a college education and often worked two jobs during my childhood.  My mother would race home from work, check the mail, and, when the check was there, we would go to the drive-in window, open until 7 pm, at the local branch of the Union Trust bank to deposit the check. Then she would get $20 cash back (this was the days before ATMs) and we would splurge on a pizza at the neighborhood Italian place next door.  On the way home we’d swing by the post office and she’d mail the envelopes with checks she’d been holding in her purse for days to C & P Telephone and to PEPCO for the electric and to Washington Gas. The next day came the grocery store. The connection was very clear: the bills didn’t get paid without the child support. The food didn’t get put on the table without the check from “dad.”

Despite all of this and in complete keeping with my deep-seated feminism, I believe that making fatherhood optional—as motherhood is—and revamping the child support system to stop requiring financial support from noncustodial parents (usually men) who want to opt out early is good for women, men, and the kids in question. In addition, we should further our support of women who choose to opt out of motherhood via abortion or adoption as well.  It’s time to make parenthood a true choice, on every level.

Over the past fifteen years, some feminists have argued that ending the current child support system is an important social issue. In the October 19, 2000 issue of Salon, Cathy Young argued that women’s freedom to choose parenthood is a reproductive right men do not have but should. Her article, “A Man’s Right to Choose,” identifies abortion rights and adoption as options that allow women greater sexual freedom than men when a sexual encounter results in conception.  While there are alternatives to parental responsibility for women, for men, “in the eyes of the law, it seems that virtually no circumstances, however bizarre or outrageous, can mitigate the biological father’s liability for child support.” Kerrie Thornhill’s article “A Feminist Argument Against Child Support” in the July 18, 2011 issue of Partisans picks up this point, arguing that where birth control and safe abortion are legally available, choosing a sexual encounter should be a different choice than choosing to be a parent. She offers a three-step replacement for the current child support system. First, Thornhill writes that “when informed of a partner’s pregnancy, a man should get a single, time-sensitive opportunity to choose fatherhood.” Second, by accepting, a man would assume all the responsibilities of fatherhood, but by declining he would legally be no different than a sperm donor. Finally, she suggests that for low-income families, state-funded child support should exist. In her article “Is Forced Fatherhood Fair?” for the June 12, 2013 edition of the New York Times, Laurie Shrage echoes Kerrie Thornhill’s sentiment when she opines, “In consenting to sex, neither a man nor a woman gives consent to become a parent.” She argues that if one believes that women shouldn’t be penalized for sexual activity by limiting options such as birth control, abortion, adoption, and safe haven laws (laws that provide a safe space for parents to give up babies), then men’s options shouldn’t be limited either. These writers all point out that motherhood should be a voluntary condition. Shrage and Thornhill agree that the construct that fatherhood after birth is mandatory needs to change.

Feminist response in opposition to the idea of giving men an opt-out of child support has been swift and passionate, including from many writers and publications I deeply respect. Pieces like Mary Elizabeth Williams’ “There Is No ‘Forced Fatherhood’ Crisis,” June 13, 2013, in Salon; Jill Filipovic’s June 17, 2013 blog post at Feministe titled “Is It Unfair to Force Men to Support Their Children?” ; and Meher Ahmad’s “’Forced Fatherhood’?  Yeah, Okay, Whatever” in Jezebel from June 13, 2013  all followed quickly on the heels of Laurie Shrage’s New York Times appearance. I have a deep admiration for all three of these writers and publications, yet take strong issues with each piece. Mary Elizabeth Williams tells a personal and compelling anecdote about how her father abandoned her family before she was born. She points out that this occurred before Roe v. Wade. Her story is a poignant example of why abortion and adoption need to be legal and available options, but it is a straw man as an argument against Laurie Shrage’s position. Shrage, along with Thornhill and Young, explicitly states that legal and available abortion is a necessary component of a woman’s reproductive autonomy and only suggests changing child support laws as a means to bring to men a similar reproductive autonomy to what women enjoy.  Filipovic wonders at what point a man should no longer be able to sever his parental rights. She doesn’t have to wonder, however, since Shrage both indicates that she is talking about obtaining informed consent at the time of assigning paternity but also states that child support makes sense in the case of divorce because a man already accepted the responsibility of fatherhood.  Ahmad goes so far as to acknowledge that the system is unfair to men, but argues that women face so much more unfairness that we shouldn’t care. Her claim that forced motherhood is more difficult than forced fatherhood is certainly true, given the burdens of pregnancy and childbirth. However, that inequity is not a reason to enact policy that forces fatherhood.

No one needs to make me understand how important child support is. I understand firsthand from my own childhood that child support is often a critical part of a child’s economic well-being or lack of same. The thing that keeps kids out of poverty keeps the food on the table. And beyond my own experience, the statistics on the importance of child support are unimpeachable—the money matters. However, I agree with the bulk of the points made in the pieces cited above that suggest we need to allow men an option out of fatherhood.  (To be clear, like these authors, I am not talking about cases in which people have decided to have a child together and then one person wants to opt out. I’m talking about a short window during pregnancy—so that women have enough time to make their own decision about which reproductive choice they are going to make in light of the man’s decision, in case that is a factor for them.) As Thornhill argues, men should have a window of time to decide whether or not they are going to sign up for fatherhood, and after that they will either be treated like a sperm donor or be held financially liable.  It’s close to parity with the choice women have—and fairness is a basic feminist value. Further, this system allows for women’s total reproductive autonomy and by doing so, we inherently advance women’s sexual and economic autonomy as well as strengthen feminism itself.   Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we improve the economic safety and well-being of any resultant children by ensuring adequate state support when necessary.

This system would forward the arguments for women’s reproductive autonomy by making women entirely responsible for the outcome of their choices. Of course, for this to work, we must encourage and enable women to make thoughtful choices about motherhood and reinforce abortion and adoption as available, valid choices. Currently, we tend to treat abortion with a literal whisper and adoption as an outlier. We shouldn’t automatically make the jump that a woman who is unable or unwilling to have an abortion for whatever reason will then have a baby who needs to be supported by her and a father—of course adoption remains a valid choice, even if we tend to dismiss it or ignore it in our rhetoric. We should reinforce our support for and demand for abortion rights—safe, affordable, accessible abortion on demand for all.

However, in the meantime, we should not use problems of access to and affordability of abortion as a reason that men must pay child support (i.e., that women can’t access abortion so they have to have and raise children and men therefore shouldn’t get off the “hook “either). Those women can utilize adoption.  It has always confused me that those who are in favor of holding men financially responsible for a child that results from a pregnancy do not attempt to hold men legally responsible for sharing the cost of abortion with a woman who decides to terminate her pregnancy.  I think men have a right to opt out of both, but if one argues that men are responsible for the outcome of a pregnancy they created, and abortion is the outcome, why don’t we pursue men for abortion costs?  Especially when, according to the National Network of Abortion Funds, more than 200,000 women a year in the U.S seek assistance with paying for their abortions.  The Network also points out that 4,000 women a year in the U.S. are denied abortions because they pass the legal gestational limit while trying to raise the funds. Why do we put men on the “hook” for children but not on the “hook” for abortions?

Additionally, lack of access to abortion doesn’t mean we should be unfair to men.  We need to stand by women’s reproductive freedom, no matter what choice a woman makes. And a woman who wants a child needs to be prepared to support that child even if the biological father is not willing.  I don’t believe that we will ever have true reproductive autonomy until men are offered the option, as women are, to opt out. We will never have full reproductive autonomy if we continue to put an asterisk next to “my body, my choice” and add the footnote “but if I decide to have a baby, pal, you have to pay.”

In the above mentioned Salon piece by Williams, she says, “I would love to live in a world in which no one is ever dragged kicking and screaming into parenthood. But that’s never going to happen.” Why not?  Women can opt out now—men should be able to as well.  Then we would live in a world where no one is dragged into parenthood.  Let us come to focus on that goal and not, as political philosopher Elizabeth Brake says on this issue, “fixate punitively” on getting men to pay.

And, as part of expanding our support of adoption as an option, we should expand our support of women utilizing safe haven laws.  Sometimes people say “outside of infant safe haven laws,” like Feministe did in the piece cited above, but let’s stop that. Let’s consider them a reasonable method of relinquishing parental rights, not merely a measure for the desperate.  As it stands, in most states, if a woman gives a child up for adoption via other methods, she and the father are still responsible for financial support until the child is adopted. (Safe haven laws vary state by state, but can typically be invoked for three to ninety days, with the average being about forty-five days. North Dakota allows up to one year.)

Perhaps consideration of the fact that it is a choice a woman makes to have a child rather than opting for abortion or adoption, not something beyond her control, will help us move our support of adoption past the wink-wink-nudge-nudge stage.  If a woman finds herself in need of economic assistance to raise her child, let us return that obligation fully to the state where it belongs, and was, until the conservative state decided to shift the burden to women’s sexual partners to reduce the welfare burden on government. Children’s economic welfare should not be tied to maternity or paternity.  The state needs to stop shirking its responsibility for its most vulnerable citizens—including kids.  Further, the one group of “fathers” the state is willing to exempt from child support are sperm donors, sending the message that it’s okay to have a kid and not support it if there was no sex, but if you get some pussy, you are going to pay. Let’s not support that model.

My point is not to wave the flag for “men’s rights.” Most of the agenda of the  “men’s rights” faction, which strikes me as largely a backlash against feminism, is intellectually weak and pains me.  Rather, my point is that from a feminist standpoint, revamping child support is good for all of us.  It removes social stigma from mothers who want to abandon their parental rights. We must be rational and fair and stop saying that differing biology means this can never be fair. It is better for children, it is better for women and men, and it is better for feminism. The burden of pregnancy will never be fair, no, as only women can get pregnant and they must solely face the physical burdens of pregnancy and abortion or birth.  But while pregnancy can never be a truly equitable burden, child support can—and should—be fair.


About Anna March

Anna March(@annamarch)'s novel "The Diary of Suzanne Frank" is forthcoming. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Salon, Tin House, The Rumpus and a wide variety of other publications, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart. She is currently at work on a memoir. Read more at Follow her on twitter @annamarch.
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3 Responses to Paternity Leave

  1. margosita says:

    I think you are making a few assumptions, here. First of all, that abortion is safe and available to all women (which it is not). Second of all, that every woman is able to afford a safe and timely abortion (which they aren’t). Third, that every pregnancy in this situation is a result of sex outside a relationship and community, where the father of the child would be able to simply step out of the picture (which is often unlikely). The biggest assumption, though, seems to be that pregnancy = maternity/paternity, which is not true.

    What happens in situations where the woman wants to get an abortion, the man opts-out and then the woman is unable to get the abortion? The women still has to go through pregnancy (which will have a major impact on her health, well-being and safety) and that is considered fair? What if after going through all of that the woman changes her mind and wants to keep the child? Is she allowed? Is the father also given a chance to reconsider?

    What if the woman doesn’t know or doesn’t reveal who the father is until after the child is born? Does the opt-out period start when the man is notified, regardless of the impact to a living child? (And does notification have to come via a notarized letter, to confirm when the clock starts?)

    What if the parents live in the same community and he opts-out, but knows about the child and later pursues a relationship with the kid when they turn 18? Are they then required to pay back years of child support?

    Finally, you don’t really address how the fact that a man can’t opt-in without the consent of a woman would be addressed. The situation is never going to be equal for men and women, because they never have the same options, as you note. Why is it important that we give men an equal right to opt-out, if they don’t also have an equal way to opt-in? Unless forced pregnancy is ok? (Once again, let’s not confuse the difference between or use “pregnancy” and “paternity/maternity” interchangeably!)

    Also, as you make clear, this is a discussion of unplanned and unintended pregnancy. Pregnancies conceived through sperm donors are intended, so the comparison doesn’t seem fair. (Not to mention that they are neither notified or told who has conceived with their sperm.) Why shouldn’t men assume the risk of paternity when they engage in sex? We assume all kinds of risk when engaging in public and private behavior: health risks when smoking or danger risks when driving. Women will also have to take on that risk, with ADDED risk of pregnancy, which is routinely a life-threatening condition. I think with acknowledgement that women have to take on a greater risk for maternity than men do for paternity justifies men opting-in once and women opting-in twice (again, assuming abortion is an option, which is a big assumption!).

    You say: “We will never have full reproductive autonomy if we continue to put an asterisk next to “my body, my choice” and add the footnote “but if I decide to have a baby, pal, you have to pay.””

    But the reality is, even if we do away with that asterisk, there STILL won’t be reproductive autonomy because women are always going to shoulder the higher risk and biological requirement. I think it’s totally rational and fair to acknowledge this inequality the way we strive to recognize other biological inequalities that we use the law to address (ability to give consent determined by age, for example, or making public places accessible for those with disabilities).

  2. Autumn says:

    I commend you for tackling a tricky and potentially volatile subject. I agree with you. If I, as a woman, have sex and become pregnant, I have a choice to keep the child or not. I have no legal obligation to tell the man who impregnated me. But he has a legal obligation to support the child if I go through with the pregnancy.

    I think if I have the right as a woman to decide between an abortion and a birth, then my partner should have the right to decide between paternity or not. If he signs away paternity, then he has no rights as well as no responsibilities in relation to the child.

  3. Beth says:

    The only thing I can really get on board for here is the state picking up where low-income men must necessarily leave off. The phrase “a similar reproductive autonomy to what women enjoy” actually made me laugh out loud. Sure, when abortion is free, widely available, destigmatized, and achieved by swallowing a pill, and when the state agrees to pick up the check that the man isn’t writing, then *maybe* we can talk about men’s equal right to choose paternity with a simple yes/no. Even if it came to that, no child support check is ever going to equal the financial and psychic burden of pregnancy, giving birth, and–crucially–raising a child to adulthood, anyway. The majority of men with working female partners have yet to step up to that latter project at 50%, even when they actually are providing 50% of the finances. So child support seems to me to be a bare minimum commitment. Use condoms, dudes, and in addition don’t sleep with women who are not protected on their own end. That will solve a lot of problems.

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