Law professor Shari Motro proposes “Preglimony” — the codified responsibility of a male involved in the conception of a fetus to contribute financially to the mother’s well-being while she is pregnant.
The problem is that under current law, most states frame men’s pregnancy-related obligations as an element of child support or as part of a parentage order, which generally kicks in only after the birth of a child and is limited to medical expenses. Until and unless the pregnancy produces a child, any costs associated with it are regarded as the woman’s responsibility.
|Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936|
But we need more than to institute such societal expectation as a matter of law with regard to pregnancy. And we need to look much deeper than fiscal support when we consider the responsibilities of procreating men.
We need to rewrite the laws that stipulate that default custody of offspring born “out of wedlock” (isn’t wedlock such a strange word?!), goes to the woman. WHY? When a single mother is unable to care for her children with some level of stability they are taken from her; when she goes completely off the deep end and throws her baby in the dumpster, she is arrested. Does all this happen in one day? No, the problem perhaps started before the child was born, and the safety and well-being of the child is at risk prior to the day that he or she is abandoned or abused.
So where was the child’s father during this period of escalating disorder in the child’s life? Even if he pays his child support (which so many get away with not paying), why does the father have no custodial responsibility to help raise the child, to check in on the child, to offer the mother some relief in the duties of child-rearing, to intervene before tragedy happens? Why is the father not also arrested when a child is abused, after he completely ignored his child’s welfare during a developing situation?
The answer to “why” is codified in our laws. It is beyond reason that, for the simple fact of the absence of a marriage certificate, 100% of the responsibility for rearing a child lands on the female and 0% lands on the male apart from “child support” … unless he proactively seeks some level of custody. Unless he decides that he would like to share the responsibilities that go so much farther than economic burden, he is free to walk away.
A quick web search on “child custody laws unmarried” turns up a page on LegalMatch that summarizes the way our laws stick it to women with regard to the duties of child rearing, while disguising that solo burden as a “right” (emphasis added here):
The unmarried mother is presumed to have the primary or natural right to custody of children born when she is not married. Therefore, she has the legal right to custody, care, and control over the child and her rights are superior to those of the father or any other person.
“Her rights are superior” my ass! Where is her right to take a break, to have the father rear the child so she can go to college or take a job on the other coast or just have a frickin’ week off? “Rights” are something we may or may not choose to exercise. Yes, in some cases, a child might be better off with limited or no contact with their father, and in such a case the mother ought by default to enjoy full control over the child’s welfare. But where does the law speak to an unmarried mother who perhaps is not interested in rearing the child, or simply needs the father to share in everything from taking time off from work when a child is sick or to taking kids to the dentist, to teaching the kid how to ride a bike, or running all the errands involved in ensuring a child is fed, clothed and equipped with necessities?
The next sentence on that page proves my point that the law looks at this question in a very strange way:
These rights can be defeated if it can be shown that the mother is unfit or has abandoned the child.
Okay, then, so we wait until the mother is acting “unfit” or has abandoned her child, before we contemplate looking at whether the father ought to be pitching in with some relief from the daily grind, for the children’s sake at least?
This perspective also shines a light on fathers’ rights. I personally have known men who wanted equal access to their own children, or full custody when they truly were the more “suitable” primary caretaker, yet had to do battle with judges and social workers while working at a handicap under law and social policy. The results of their fight to partner in, or take over, raising their children were mixed and any successes were very hard-won. My brand of feminism looks for equal rights for all. Including men.
Until we revamp laws that actually codify that a woman’s biology is her destiny, women will remain second-class citizens in this country, will continue to contribute billions of dollars’ worth of services to the GDP without any consideration or compensation, will continue to bear the stress of putting in exhaustingly long days, day after day, for decades, shouldering alone the work that by all reason ought to be shared by two people. And fathers who want to be equitably involved with raising their children – and also men who have gained custody and then need the same social support services (subsidized daycare, etc.) that a woman would need in the same situation – will continue to find themselves at a handicap in the courts and social services systems.