Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fatherhood, lineage, identity

Katrina Clark's mother was a feminist who, at age 32, wasn't sure she would ever marry and have children. So she had herself artificially inseminated instead.

The feminist mother was considered "a pioneer, a trailblazer for a new offshoot of the women's movement" for making this decision. Her act of deliberately creating a fatherless family, though, had serious repercussions.

First, it left the daughter with a "lonely, tired mother" who struggled to make ends meet living on food stamps.

Worse, it left the daughter confused and angry. The problems weren't so great when Katrina was small, though sometimes she would:

daydream about a tall, lean man picking me up and swinging me around in the front yard, a manly man melting at the touch from his little girl. I wouldn't have minded if he weren't around all the time, as long as I could have the sweet moments of reuniting with his strong arms and hearty laugh. My daydreams always ended abruptly; I knew I would never have a dad.

Note just how gendered her daughterly instinct is. She didn't just long for a parent who happened to be male, but for a manly father who would respond emotionally to her as a girl.

This girlhood dream could not be fulfilled by a female parent; it required not only a man to fill the role, but a strongly natured man who, for his part, felt a reciprocal fatherly instinct to be charmed by his daughter.

Things got worse for Katrina. Her mother moved into a kind of group household, made up of a number of unrelated adults and their children. This didn't give Katrina a sense of living in a complete family:

I would stay in my room, listening to Avril Lavigne and to Eminem's lyrics of broken homes and broken people. I felt broken too.

There was also the problem which arose when Katrina reached the natural stage of developing her sense of identity. Having no father, and no knowledge of a father, she was left with "the puzzle of who I am".

She writes of her need to know where she came from and what her history was, and of the confusion of not knowing her biological roots.

She wanted "a sense of roots" so badly that she decided to track down her biological father, even if this required 10 years of intensive work. As it happens, she succeeded in her search after just weeks.

Having finally established a relationship with her biological father she felt at last a "relief about my own situation". She writes of him that,

I'm certain he has no idea how big a role he has played in my life despite his absence -- or because of his absence ... I feel more whole now than I ever have.

We live in times when fathers are seen to be optional within a family. Children, it is claimed, only need a loving home, which might be just as easily provided by women alone.

Katrina's story, though, suggests that this view is false. Katrina is telling us that fathers are missed within families: that they are missed by lonely mothers who struggle financially; that they are missed by children who long for a paternal and not just a parental relationship; and that they are missed by children who don't have knowledge of a paternal lineage, and whose identity is therefore left confused and incomplete.

So men are never truly going to be made redundant by new reproductive technologies. The social ideal ought to remain, as per tradition, to maximise the number of children who grow up with the benefit of living with a father.

Our attention ought to be directed more to encouraging a good practice of fatherhood within Western culture, rather than denying men a necessary place within the family.

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