Are Fathers Parents or Progenitors?

Once upon a time, there were two men.

The first, Gary, had a child in a shaky marriage. The couple separated, but then reconciled. When Patti discovered she was pregnant, both knew the child could be that of the lover she took during their time apart. Patti agreed to put Gary’s name on the birth certificate, and Gary pledged to love and raise the child – Gary Jr – as his own. But when the marriage ended, Patti asked the court to deny Gary further access to the boy on the grounds that he was not the child’s biological father. Gary fought back, seeking to maintain contact and both rights and obligations to the child. Ultimately, however, the court held that as “third parties” neither he – nor his parents – had any entitlement to a relationship with the small child.

The second man, Liam, was married for four years. After separating from his wife he sporadically paid child support for his three children. Several years later Liam took a paternity test that showed his eldest child was the only one biologically related to him, enabling much of his debt for unpaid child support for all three children – none of whom speak to him any longer – to be cancelled. Still not content, Liam launches a suit against his ex-wife for damages caused by her “deceit”, including financial losses related “to the time he had spent with, and money he had spent on, the children under the mistaken belief that he was their father.”

My response to these stories includes feelings of pity and of admiration for Gary, and of moral revulsion for Liam (not to mention Patti). Yet while Gary languishes in obscurity, Liam has become the poster-child for parts of the Father’s Rights Movement: the man who story is intended to alchemise our pity and moral outrage into table-thumping demands for systemic change to the family law system.

However, if the media’s coverage of the two cases is anything to go by, I may be alone in moral assessment of both men’s actions. While Gary’s case has been virtually ignored by the, every step of Liam’s journey through the courts has been catalogued by a panoply of mostly male journalists whose indignant hearts appear to beat as one with his. Regularly referred to as a “cuckold”, and the children he has parented from birth as those “fathered” by “his wife’s lover”, such hacks appear unable to resist photographing Liam in tragic poses: head bowed and hand slapped across face, or looking wistfully into the distance at what might have been.

What might have been? An alternative – and morally balanced universe – would have told a different story about Gary and Liam. Gary’s story might have provided growing evidence of men’s recognition of the critical role they do and should play in the lives of children; not as sperm donors or walking wallets, but committed hands-on parents. The rallying of Father’s Rights Groups behind Gary would have reinforced the message from such groups that fathers matter in the lives of children, and that the role of law and policy is to assist married men to actively parent their children and to maintain their relationship with them in the unhappy event of relationship breakdown.

In contrast, the media and Father’s Rights Activists in this alternative universe would largely ignore Liam’s case. Such groups, strengthened by the inclusion in their ranks of adoptive fathers and men parenting children born from donor insemination, would be appalled by the cost of Liam’s legal manoeuvrings to the children who call him “dad”. Joining with the Child Support Agency to urge that parents in such situations to “think about the impacts on their children”, both groups would judge Liam harshly for elevating his desire for retributive justice against his ex-wife above the viability of his paternal relationship with his children. To avoid such cases in the future, they would call for Australian law to consistently define fatherhood in social, rather than biological, terms.

The closest thing to love is hate, and marriage can be a dirty game. Infidelity in relationships where faithfulness is expected or agreed to is wrong, no matter who does the deed (though statistics remind us that men – not women – are most often the culprits)) But how much tarring and feathering should innocent dependants be asked to wear to assuage the pride or deepen the hip pocket of either party?

In my alternative moral universe every person dignified with the title “adult” would know when enough is enough.

Publication history

Is fatherhood about love or money?  The Sunday Age