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Revenge of the Deadbeat Dads

man trapped by pregnancy
Divorced fathers will get to share more of their children's lives only when courts start thinking of them as more than walking wallets.

Choice for Men is a radical new proposal for ending an unacknowledged problem: Unwanted fatherhood

By Richard Sine

DEADBEAT DADS LOOK JUST LIKE YOU AND ME. Then again, so do many murderers, robbers and rapists. So when you meet a deadbeat dad in a conference room in one of those big, ugly office parks in Mountain View and he tells you a sad story, are you allowed to sympathize with him? Or are all deadbeat dads deadbeat guys?

Tony Grey looks like a nice guy. He's got remnants of a Midwestern drawl from his home state of Indiana, where, at the age of 22, his girlfriend broke the news that she was pregnant. Tony had no plans to be a father. But his churchgoing family had taught him that there's only one way to handle these little surprises. Within two weeks, Tony and Sylvia (both names are pseudonyms) were married. To support his new family, Tony dropped out of college to work at a sporting goods store.

Tony suspects that Sylvia wanted a child very badly--so badly that she might have scrimped a little on the birth control pills. Tony is a handsome, strapping guy who got good grades in college, and Sylvia had commented on his "great genes." Friends later told him of how she would buy high chairs and cribs at garage sales years before she had even conceived.

Tony and Sylvia endured slightly more than two years of a truly miserable marriage. They made love about a dozen times during the term of matrimony. Sylvia seemed much more interested in her new daughter than in him, Tony says. The couple eventually separated, and Tony moved away. They agreed on a monthly child-support payment, which Tony has steadily increased. He sees his daughter maybe four times a year now.

Tony's second child arrived in even more trying circumstances. He started dating Belinda during his separation from Sylvia. Within only a few weeks, Belinda informed Tony that she, too, was pregnant. She told him she had changed birth control prescriptions and must have conceived during the transition.

A woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy has three options: She can get an abortion, she can put the baby up for adoption, or she can raise the child anyway. The man's decision, however, is entirely dictated by the woman's. Either he becomes a father or he doesn't. (A fourth option is on the horizon for women only: If she has sex without contraception, she can take a morning-after pill, or several birth control pills which have the same effect when combined. A fifth future option is RU-486, the early abortion pill.)

In this case, Tony had no intention of getting involved in another loveless marriage. Nor, he said, did he want to pay child support for a child he couldn't afford and didn't want. He encouraged Belinda to put the child up for adoption, and he would have tolerated an abortion despite his pro-life leanings. Belinda, however, insisted on raising the child herself. And she insisted that she could get along without Tony's help.

So Tony took off. While Belinda was still pregnant, Tony moved to Texas to get a job in computers, his new career interest. And he made a very conscious, strangely moral decision to avoid all contact with Belinda's new child. "After what I had put my daughter through, I didn't want to be another part-time dad," he says. "For the sake of the child, you have to decide: Are you in, or are you out?"

And Tony was out.

About three years after she gave birth, Belinda apparently realized that she needed help, despite her earlier promise. She sued for child support. Tony, of course, lost his case. In fact, he says he was never even notified of the suit until he got a letter demanding a check.

He hasn't paid a dime. "I may owe the government tens of thousands of dollars." Tony says. "I don't know exactly how much. I was a criminal as soon as I didn't show in Indiana court."

Soon thereafter, Belinda married for the second time. The new husband offered to adopt her child, but never completed the papers. "She and her husband make good money," Tony says, referring to a conversation he'd had with her soon after the suit was filed. "Money's not the issue. They just haven't pursued the judgment. My theory is that their lawyer has told them to let it go. When they need a vacation or a new car, they'll go get it. Meanwhile, my credit is shot. I couldn't get a loan for a pack of gum."

Sure, Tony is annoyed. But he has lots of other emotions, too. Good friends and lovers alike do not know of this child, but Tony can't help thinking of her nearly every day. Belinda sent him a picture of the little girl he has never met when she was about a year old. He put the picture in a storage locker in Redwood City, and has tried to forget her name.


Local dad says a system highly sympathetic to
single moms invariably feeds upon men.

Also, Choice for Men is online.


Real Men

THIS KIND OF STORY is not surprising to Lawrence Ehlenberger. The articulate and corpulent Los Gatos psychiatrist was a friend and one of the first devotees of Robert Bly, the men's movement guru famous for inspiring thousands of paganistic drumming-and-howling retreats. But Ehlenberger soon hungered for some real action. "Bly was a poet, not an activist," Ehlenberger says, "and I think one of the reasons the Bly stuff cooled was because he wasn't taking the movement into the issues that affect real men's lives."

In the early 1990s Ehlenberger ran a men's therapy group and hosted "Steel Clay," a show about men's issues on KKUP, a small public radio station in Cupertino. But soon after Ehlenberger started talking about an obscure and potent issue called Men's Choice (also known as Choice for Men), the station yanked his slot. "We lasted about a year before the feminists chased us off," he says bitterly.

Ehlenberger's transition from an almost laughable "mythopoetic guy," as he puts it, to a more dangerous kind of guy mirrors the course of the men's movement as it steers into the hazardous waters of men's and father's "rights." Men have begun to grapple for a better position in divorce and custody cases, employment law and harassment suits--and are facing vociferous reactions. In the sexual arena, especially, most women regard the power over what happens after sex almost as dearly as the right to say yes or no in the first place.

The idea behind Choice for Men is to give men an equal say in reproductive rights. In a world with choice for men, a man who has impregnated a woman would be given a short window of time during which he was permitted to relinquish parenthood with nothing more than a signature on a simple form. In Ehlenberger's formulation of the concept, the man would be served with papers when the woman learned she was pregnant.

If he chose to relinquish parenthood he would have no rights to visit the child, but also no obligations to pay child support. If he did not sign the papers when served with them, and a paternity test proved he was the father, then he would have all the rights and obligations of fatherhood. The decision would be irrevocable, much like adoptions today. (On the same form, some would suggest, the man could make a positive statement, declaring his willing parenthood. This would obviate a paternity test. The signer may not even need to be the biological father, or even a man--just a person willing to commit to the mother and the child. The form might be called a "Declaration of Parenthood.")

"This isn't about forcing abortion, or about forcing a woman to finish a pregnancy," Ehlenberger says. "At least the reasonable supporters of men's choice don't say that. We're talking about giving a man the opportunity after a pregnancy to sign off or on.

"This would make fatherhood a deliberate choice, and it would justify the somewhat Draconian methods of collecting child support that have come along. To deprive a man of his driver's license or his professional license for a child he never wanted seems to me to be a gross inequity when women have other options."

Kingsley Morse, reproductive director of the Long Island­based National Center for Men, believes that the choice form should apply to women as well as men. If the woman does not want the child but the man does want it, she should be allowed to relinquish parenthood and give the man full rights.

Advocates hope that Men's Choice would prevent at least some children who were unwanted by their fathers from facing a life with little emotional or financial support from them. They hope it would force men and women to talk more seriously about whether they can make a long-term commitment to a child before they attempt to raise it.

But they also hope that a parenthood form, which might lay out a father's emotional and financial duties in detail, would inculcate men with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a father early in the parenting process.

man squeezed by pregnancy
Pop Culture

EHLENBERGER CONTENDS that many of the patients in his psychiatric practice may be suffering damage inflicted by reluctant fathers. Many of these men were absent emotionally even if they stayed at home. They escaped fatherhood through work, sports or television.

"It's become clear that a child needs two loving parents to be there for them," Ehlenberger says. "Currently, we expect men to become fathers without choice and then we make all kind of demands on them. We want them to be active and loving, to take them to the ballgame every week. Our approach to men is, 'Here's your responsibilities, now take care of them.' No wonder they're not always so enthusiastic."

Current child-support laws expect a man to assume those responsibilities even when he's unaware that he ever became a father. Ed met Kathy while spending a summer off from college in Palo Alto. They had known each other for just a week when she invited him to move in with her for "a summer of fun." They went out dancing, camped out in Monterey, dived for abalone. After three months, Ed went back to college, met another woman and helped raise that woman's son. Kathy moved to the Midwest, where she apparently raised Ed's daughter.

Several years later, Ed got a letter from authorities in a Midwestern state. It asked him whether he objected to the adoption of his daughter by Kathy's new husband. And then it asked him for eight years in back child support.

Ed was shocked by the letter. He didn't even know he had a child. Kathy--who was ten years older than Ed--had told him she was taking birth control pills. The pills hadn't worked, or Kathy hadn't been truthful. Either way, Ed says Kathy was intent on raising the child herself. She never contacted him, never demanded money. For some of that period, however, she ended up on welfare. Now the state was demanding that he repay some of those welfare costs.

Ed had his own family to support. He sent a letter to the state claiming that he wasn't the father, even though he admits he probably was. The state hasn't pursued the matter, though if they proved paternity, Ed would be obliged to pay. In many states (but not California) mothers or the government can demand retroactive child support from fathers no matter how late paternity is established. "They were asking me to be responsible for something that had been kept from me," Ed says. "It didn't seem fair. I don't bear [Kathy] any ill will. I think she wanted to have a child by herself.

"When I posted my story on the Internet, I got some responses saying it was all my fault. But she made a choice without me."

Paying for Sex

IT'S NOT UNCOMMON for a pregnant woman and her lover to disagree on whether or not to have the child. The law has rarely spoken on the matter. But when it has, it has ruled decisively that men have no real access to reproductive rights.

In 1981, a man claimed in a New York State family court that he did not have to pay child support for a child that was admittedly his. The man claimed the mother had deceived him into pregnancy--and he could prove it.

A friend of the mother testified that she told him she had stopped taking birth control pills without telling the man, known in the suit as "Frank S." (Press reports at the time revealed the plaintiff as Frank Serpico, the cop famous for exposing corruption in the New York City Police Department. Serpico, who received a bullet in the leg for his whistle-blowing, has not had an easy life.)

The judge in the family court ruled in Serpico's favor. The mother's "planned and intentional deceit barred her from financial benefit at father's expense," she wrote, and a support order benefiting the mother would raise doubts under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

The judge said she would issue a support order only if the mother's income alone wouldn't guarantee the child a standard of living equivalent to his father's. But Serpico lost on appeal. Higher courts ruled that charges of fraud were irrelevant when the only consideration in child support was the "best interest of the child."

One of Serpico's lawyers at the time was Karen DeCrow, a former director of the National Organization for Women. At the time, DeCrow told the court that "autonomous women making independent decisions about their lives should not expect men to finance their choice." DeCrow still feels this way. A leading if iconoclastic feminist, she is a whole-hearted supporter of Choice for Men. "Because of Roe vs. Wade, women have the right to choose to be parents. Men, too, should have that right."

A growing strand of feminism is reasserting the pre-feminist belief that women have an innate ability to form attachments to children that men are incapable of achieving. But DeCrow sticks with an older school, insisting on equality between men and women at all possible junctures. She has won a well-known case forcing airports to make diaper-changing rooms available to men.

"I think we still believe in this culture, despite all these years of feminism, that men are supposed to support women and children," DeCrow says. "We also believe that men should pay for sex. So if a man has sex with a woman and she becomes pregnant, he must support her. That's where the cultural standard is right now."

And that standard, DeCrow insists, is not exactly empowering to women.

During the Serpico case, DeCrow got her share of flak from people who thought no feminist should harbor her view. "People would say: 'Why do you think she should get off scot-free? He had sex with her.' "

Indeed, the reply that men already have a reproductive choice--the choice not to have sex, or to use contraception--is a common one from people who first hear the idea of men's choice. But looking at the history of the reproductive freedom movement for women, the movement for birth control and abortion rested on the simple premise that parenthood should not be a punishment for sex, or even contraceptive failure. The classic rallying cry of the pro-choice movement--"Every child a wanted child"--implies a painful, if self-evident, corollary: Not every child is wanted.

Fifteen years after the Frank S. case closed, DeCrow says she gets calls almost every month from men who have been caught in situations like Serpico's, or their parents, or their new wives. With all due respect, DeCrow tells them to give up. She doesn't believe the courts or the legislature will rule in a man's favor in a contraceptive fraud case anytime soon.

Yet Kingsley Morse is undaunted. He leads a campaign on the Internet to find a man in Serpico's position who is willing to make a federal case out of the matter. He says he has lawyers who are willing to litigate for what he calls "a male Roe vs. Wade."

Few are willing to go to court, even as anonymous plaintiffs. But Morse feels he can win. He figures that if Roe vs. Wade gave women reproductive freedom, then the 14th Amendment, which provides equal protection under the law, should give the same thing to men.

"Long before Roe v. Wade, men could run away from an accidental pregnancy and women would be forced to bear and support a child," Morse says. "Then, in 1973, abortion was legalized. Women had the right to avoid the stigma of an unwanted child. Child-support laws were still weak enough that men, too, could still avoid having an unwanted child by fleeing. Then child-support laws became much stronger. It's a felony now to move across state lines to avoid child support. Now men have no choice, and women do."

The men's choice concept currently floats out on the fringes of American culture. Morse has pushed the idea on the Oprah Winfrey show, not exactly a forum for serious policy debates. Most reproductive researchers and feminist groups have never heard of Men's Choice, and even some men's-rights advocates don't support it.

Yet this taboo idea has gotten plenty of quiet attention; more than 42,000 people have visited Morse's Choice for Men site on the Internet. The idea might someday get a chance, if Americans ever learn to discuss reproductive issues rationally.

Dissing Dadhood

MUCH OF THE puzzlement and rage that accompanies discussions of Men's Choice comes from the idea that it gives men the choice not to support a child he obviously fathered. But Men's Choice is as much about giving a man the choice to have a child as the choice not to have one.

American society now harbors an almost universal assumption that all men must be coerced into being even decent fathers, that the boff-and-run is the rule rather than the exception in relationships. Beneath all the public hand-wringing by media and politicians over deadbeat dads lies what many perceive to be the real reasons men don't pay child support. Too sensitive for the political arena, they're expressed as nervous jokes, curses, comments on men's immutable natures: Men don't know the first thing about nurturing a child; they think with their penises, not their hearts or heads. When's the last time you overheard a young woman, bouncing a baby on her knee, refer to the father as "that jerk"?

New groups like the National Fatherhood Initiative argue that the Deadbeat Dad stereotype, like the Stupid Sitcom Dad stereotype, both reflect and add to the perception that fatherhood is not something most men enter willingly--or should enter willingly. In fact, a couple of studies show that men are equally likely to want a child as their pregnant partners, and equally likely not to.

But girls are still taught to value parenthood at a much earlier age than boys. For men who do find themselves unprepared for fatherhood, it's easier than ever to be a deadbeat. It's easier than ever for both men and women to divorce, to move, to enjoy sex but avoid the responsibilities of parenthood. To most moderate-minded people none of these changes are a problem in themselves. But the cumulative effect on a society where divorce teeters near the 50 percent mark is that many men do not have as strong a bond with the mothers of their children as they used to. When the relationship ends and these women demand money for child support, men don't know where that money is going. It's harder to feel a deep obligation when the initial commitment has been so low, even when that obligation is to a child.

An increasing proportion of fathers aren't married to or living with their children's mothers. Statistics show that these men are less likely to pay child support, no matter how hard the state tries to get them to pay. There's only so much we can do to track down these men (or noncustodial women) and force them to pay before the pursuit gets too expensive or too damaging to civil liberties.

The central idea of Men's Choice is that commitment, not biology, would give a father the right to a child. Like the mother who chose to have the child, the father has made his own grave choice, yes or no, and must stick by it.

People who are worried about a fatherless America are slowly realizing that the best way to get men to support their children is to help them become better fathers. Maybe an important, if painful, step in acknowledging that men actually can want children--can want them, love them and support them--is to acknowledge that sometimes they don't want them.

Pregnant Pause

MY LAST GIRLFRIEND and I had a modern relationship--modern reproductive tools, modern attitudes. We had no future plans beyond friendship. We agreed to date other people and slept together when we felt like it. We were both young, progressive, career-minded. She took the Pill. We knew the rules--or so I thought.

One evening as we lay in bed in my apartment, the conversation meandered onto a news story we had both read about the effectiveness of birth control. Statistics show the Pill to be pretty effective; but, like all contraceptives, it occasionally fails, or people fail it. So I informed her solemnly that should she get pregnant, I would help to finance The Operation.

There was a pause--a pregnant one, if you must know--before she said that she might choose not to get an abortion. Even though her politics are pro-choice, she might not be able to carry through with an abortion herself. She might feel a "maternal obligation" to the tiny mass in her body. She couldn't predict how she would feel; it hadn't happened to her before.

I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of vertigo. It was the first time the concept of "father" had even drifted near my concept of "me." The financial obligation, a quarter of my meager salary or more for 18 years, was only a small part of what I feared. I was standing on a precipice, gazing down into a deep well of pain.

In those reflective moments, I realized I could have never been a true father to that child. I would have been a jerk, a villain, a "sperm donor," possibly a deadbeat. There's no doubt abortion would have been an agonizing experience for my girlfriend, one that might have traumatized her for some time afterwards. Perhaps she really could have raised a child herself. But if she had attempted to do so, she might have put at least one other person--perhaps two people--through some pretty serious trauma of their own.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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