But What If I Don’t Want to Be a Dad?

A year after President Obama launched his "fatherhood initiative" to address the problems facing 23 million children in America living without their dads, one researcher thinks she can do the president one better with a controversial new plan.

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But what of men who, resources or not, have no desire to be fathers?

Professor Frances Goldscheider teaches sociology at Brown, where she came up with the idea that, she says, has made her question some of her deepest, most long-standing beliefs: “While I thought I was a feminist all my life, when I started studying the family and fatherhood in general, I realized that I was really an egalitarian. I want a level playing field in the family for men and women.”

If it were law, a financial abortion would allow a man — one who has specifically said to his partner before intercourse that he doesn’t want to be a father — to void all monetary responsibility for any pregnancy. Without question, the woman could carry the child to term, but she and the law could then never come looking for the dad for child support. It sounds harsh — so much so that Goldscheider admits it will probably never be more than a dream theory — but proponents believe that such a policy could very well make a huge dent in the nation’s scourge of absentee fathers, especially in the African-American community.

“I think it would primarily benefit men who do not want to be fathers,” Goldscheider says, “and that’s mostly those who are not ready, whether financially or whatever. And given the structure of inequality in this country, it should disproportionately benefit young black men.”

Not all academics agree with such a drastic measure. But there is some consensus that there’s got to be a better way, particularly for lower-income fathers.

“It’s all punitive — be a good father or else,” says Maria Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph’s University who, along with her colleague from Harvard Kathryn Edin, wrote Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. “It’s a completely insane policy that says, ‘By the way, when you fail to contribute [to your child] economically, we’ll lock you up. And when you’re locked up, you still have to pay the money you owe, and you don’t get to see your kids.’ ” (Kefalas says that prison officials have told her they prefer that children do not visit their fathers in prison, so as not to “reward” the inmates.)

Exacerbating America’s propensity to punish fathers it deems unfit is the fact that, in low-income communities, the definition of fatherhood is far different from what it is in the middle class, according to Kefalas. “If you push them about what being a father means, men and women describe it as someone who will always be part of the mother’s life and the child’s life,” she says. “It’s almost a proxy for marriage. The men say, ‘I might get locked up and my life might take me to other places, but I’ll always have a connection to you and this child.’ “

That, Kefalas says, is when the fatherhood initiative gets messy. “Because what [the government] is saying is, ‘We want you to behave like middle-class fathers, despite the fact that you have no middle-class resources.”

Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering, echoes Kefalas sentiments, saying, “A lot of time, people speak about deadbeat dads, but we are realizing there are dead-broke dads.” Casey, whose nonprofit organization provides training programs and resources for underprepared fathers, wouldn’t comment on financial abortions, but he did say that men who don’t want to be dads should “keep their stuff in their pants.” For those who don’t, he stresses the importance of recognizing that good fathering can mean simply being present, even if they can’t provide financially for their children. “Just be there,” he says. “There are no perfect dads.”

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