One Foot in the 50s and One in the Present, Writer Struggles with Mothers’ Responsibilities to FathersDecember 23rd, 2009 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Our lawyer once told us that never in his 40 years of practice had he ever encountered a mother more unwilling to allow a man to see his child while also demanding his money.
That quotation is from the second of two pieces to appear in Lisa Belkin’s New York Times blog, Motherlode. The first piece was by a woman named Sara Brown. She and her husband have two young children, aged 2 years and 10 months respectively. But her husband has a 10-year-old son as well. That boy is the product of a “fling” he had at age 22 with a woman from whom he became estranged. They broke up and went on with their separate lives, but at least two years later, he received a visit from the local constable bearing “papers.”
Those papers named him as the father of a son who was then two years old and informed him that he owed back child support for two years and would be owing it until the boy reached legal adulthood. And so he began to pay 25% of his monthly salary for a boy he’d not known existed.
He also began to try to establish a relationship with his son. But the boy and his mother were “thousands of miles away.” Nevertheless, he went to court some 40 times, each time attempting to get some small improvement to his relationship with his son – expanding three hours of supervised visitation to eight, an overnight stay. He travelled the distance to where his son lived every month, but in the meantime his cards, letters and gifts were returned unopened and his emails went unanswered.
And then he remarried and started having children of his own, all the while trying to establish and maintain some semblance of a relationship with his son over the unrelenting opposition of the “fling.”
In a nutshell, that’s the story; it’s where it stands now. Read the first piece here (New York Times, 12/9/09) and the second one here (New York Times, 12/11/09). And don’t forget to read the comments.
Sara Brown’s first piece is, for my money, just bizarre. Reading it gave me the strange sense that I had opened an old Redbook or McCalls from the 1950s. Brown gives the strong impression of being terribly embarrassed by her husband’s son. She actually refers to him as “illegitimate,” a term I thought had gone out of usage 30 years ago. She’s all knotted up about how to refer to this boy. How about “my husband’s son?” What’s so complicated about that? Belkin calls her a “writer with a secret.” Why? This is 2009; 40% of births are to single women. Believe me, people are used to the concept. So Brown’s sense of shame by proxy strikes a false and not very sympathetic note.
She’s worse though when she writes about her husband whom she clearly loves and who just as clearly is a good father both to their son and daughter, and to his first child as well. Brown looks at the legal system and sees
the one that said it was her choice, not ours, the one that trapped a young man, barely out of college into paying for a child he never wanted with a woman he had already left long before.
But then she turns on her heel and,
I do not make it easy for him. Every fight, every argument, every slight leads back to this one question: How could you?
And how could he? It is the question that keeps me up sometimes at night.
How could he what? Have sex with a woman when he was 22? Somehow fail to magically intuit the existence of a child, all knowledge of whom the mother kept from him until she needed his money?
After a few years of trying to see him regularly, we gave up finally, defeated as much by his mother’s roadblocks — “he’s too busy”; “I won’t meet you halfway”; “no overnights” — as by our own ambivalence.
It’s strange to read the words of a woman who sees the dots all too clearly, but can’t connect them. She knows that her husband is a good man and a good father; she knows that the “fling” manipulated her pregnancy to obtain child support from, but deny access by, the father; she knows that the boy’s mother has, for ten years, fought tooth and nail to keep his father out of his life. And she knows that at last, circumstances have conspired to grant this mother the victory she always sought. They have given up.
But somehow Brown can’t see this for what it is. Somehow she still needs to find her husband “at fault.” Did she expect him to be a virgin when they married? Somehow she can’t bring herself to say the simplest, most accurate thing - ”hiding a child from its father is wrong; it hurts the child and the father as well.” Or, “women have a moral obligation to tell a man about his child at the earliest time possible.”
So all of Brown’s anachronistic sense of shame, the need for secrecy, the inability to tell even close friends that her husband has a son with another woman, make a certain sense. She, like so many people, have one foot in the past and one in the present. The notion that women really do bear equal responsibility for their sexual and reproductive behavior has a hard time sinking in. Her indignant “how could you?” is directed only at her husband, not at the woman who years ago decided, by herself, for herself, that this is the way it would be.
Thanks to John for the heads-up.