Monday, September 18, 2017

The Tangled Web of Human Biology Why fatherhood is not about DNA

by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster

Fatherhood is not about DNA.

Fatherhood is about a relationship -- including the wiping of noses, hugs, long nights of rocking, changing diapers and all forms of support including financial. It is about being a good example to your child through the acts that make up your life.

Fatherhood is a lot like motherhood when practiced well. 

Adoptive parents know they are mothers and fathers without sharing any DNA with their children.

How did we come to confuse the issues? Blame government indifference to just outcomes for individuals.

Expect no more justice on parental issues than you find in the tax code. To those who wield power, reducing the call upon public money for the support of single parent children has a higher priority than justice or truth. Women using welfare services are forced to name the biological "father". You can hear practically the judge thinking, "Well, if he isn't the father of this one, he is the father of some other kid on welfare."

That is the first problem. The second is much deeper. At the foundation of the morass is the fact we have mistakenly equated two human relationships that are substantially different: motherhood and fatherhood.

There is a saying that goes, "While you know who the mother is, the father is always in doubt." This is not said to insult women -- it is a logical extrapolation of the facts of biology.

Women get pregnant. Their bodies respond to the baby within by making huge changes. Hormones, impacted by the baby's presence, go into overdrive -- causing emotional and physical changes in the mother-to-be. Her breasts ready themselves for lactation as her body prepares for the stresses of birth. We see pregnancy. In Norse legend, laboring women were counted as warriors. 

Mothering is also a cultural role, but it has always primarily been a biological role that is complex and consuming. A new mother may be inept at the realities of caring for her baby, but nature has prepared her for that role as well as it can with all of its evolutionary wisdom. On this primary biological reality is based the survival of our species.

Fatherhood is cultural, a late adaptation not shared with other primates. Men do not experience hormonal changes. They do not give birth; they become fathers by simply being fathers as they see that role practiced around them, especially through their own life examples. Fatherhood is therefore practiced differently in various cultures while motherhood is a human universal. The Madonna and Child speak to all humankind.

Nature provides no kick-start for the process and exacts no essential physical or psychological payment from men. Their costs are all cultural. Sperm, the means of DNA transmission, are source so worthless that men have to pay to give it away in most cases. Given the number of abortions today, some might call it toxic waste. Recipients may even expect it to be delivered with various frills, for instance dinner and a movie.

Which is no comfort at all to men paying support for children they have never seen and with whom they have no biological relationship. They are not fathers in either sense.

And if the question of DNA testing were only to relieve them of an unjust burden justice would be simple.

We now have access to a technology that has enabled us to document the genetic aspect of all relationships. But the uses we are making of that technology tells more about the inconsistencies and injustices of our past than it does about what we need to do to create a better future for ourselves and our children.

Some few women are probably lying. Most women in this situation are just mistaken. Our best bet may be wrong in any specific case.

But that is not the issue.

In some cases men undertake a fatherhood role in the life of a child assuming they share DNA. In some number of cases they might have assumed that role anyway. Babies are enchantingly attractive and being a father is an honored role in our culture. Babies come with mothers who can also be wives and lovers. For whatever reason, men become fathers. Fatherhood should be a relationship, freely entered into and responsibly carried out, as all relationships should be founded on choice and not coercion, truth and not lies.

But a history of hugs, wiped tears and years of cherishing cannot be cancelled by any test. Fatherhood is not made by biology but through love and human honor. 

DNA testing has made available to us a powerful tool for justice. Men who have not become fathers should not be forced to support children with whom they do no share DNA. But fathers, men who have seen their love reflected in the eyes of a child, do not abandon their child because that would be an unpardonable breech of trust.

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