The disappearing father

Women don’t turn to IVF lightly. Men are fleeing fatherhood.

HAS anybody listened to what Lisa Meldrum is – and is not – saying about her decision to pursue sole motherhood using donor sperm? She notes: ``All young girls dream of a husband, a house and a family, but it’s just not the way it is for everybody and it wasn’t that way for me. And this is what it has come to.’’

Meldrum is not alone. Research suggests that while most women who expect to mother but wind up childless come to accept and enjoy life without children, a small number are unable to relinquish their dream of motherhood. In my study of circumstantially childless women, this small group wants ``the whole package’’: marriage and motherhood. But, having failed to find a partner, or one willing to have children, these women despair of giving up their dream of motherhood too.

Such women have thought long and hard about whether they can be ``good’’ mothers raising a child alone. They’ve considered male role models and time and financial management issues. They’ve anguished over the sort of relationship they feel is important for their child to have with their biological father, and how to provide it.

Several women I know ultimately decided against sole motherhood because they wanted their child to have a relationship with the biological father, and couldn’t find a man willing to donate sperm, or to do so with a willingness to have a continuing relationship with the child. Women who push ahead with their plans to mother do so because they believe they have found good solutions to what they accept are vital issues facing mothers and children born from donor sperm.

While the controversy has been depicted as a battle of rights, ``moral panic’’ would be a far more accurate description. At the core of our anxiety is the growing social and economic autonomy of women, and the declining role of men in the formation of families.

Earlier this week a conservative commentator lambasted Meldrum and other single women for the ``me, me’’ nature of their desire to mother. The charge is that women’s new control of sometimes considerable resources has turned them from their rightful 1950s role as promoters of the interests and desires of others: men and children.

At the heart of this panic is the subconscious realisation that it has always been women’s economic dependency – not their naturally selfless natures – that led them to accept social roles that relegated them to being means to other people’s ends.

Even more anxiety-producing is the (mistaken) belief that what Meldrum was asserting in her court action – and what the court was affirming in its decision – was that men are unnecessary in the important business of forming families. The worry is that women’s economic independence and advances in reproductive technologies have led increasing numbers of women to conclude that men (as people, not sperm donors) are incidental to the having and raising of kids.

But while the evidence clearly shows that most women want men to be real players in the family, it also suggests a gap between what women expect from male partners, and what men are willing and able to provide. Because middle-class women no longer have to marry for money, they are increasingly rejecting men unable or unwilling to provide them with emotional companionship and to share the domestic load. There is growing evidence that increasing numbers of men would prefer a new car to a new baby, and up to one-third may be reluctant or unwilling to undertake the commitments of a stable relationship, little less those of fatherhood.

What all this suggests is that as women have become choosier about their life partners, fewer men are even putting their hands up for the job.

This tension – between what women want and what men can and want to provide – is at the heart of the current debate. We must resist the Canberra-led charge to arrest our anxiety by taking pot shots at sole mothers, and search instead for the more lasting calm that comes from finding solutions to the right questions.