It is getting a bit scary for daddies. Since women nowadays enjoy a truly multiple-choice universe — they need not be even faintly acquainted with the father of their baby if they so choose — the daddy-identity is now available for unpacking. It is an old question, though: who is a father? If his identity turns on impregnating the mother, then the notion of fatherhood looks truly fragile, its existence dependent on women who decide not to be just impregnated with sperm from anonymous donors. Now, if the father is just the provider, hunting, gathering and paying out for mathematics and karate lessons, that identity too is in serious danger with the fiscally competent mother coming into her own. And not always just one mother. Lesbian partners are turning out to be excellent parents, or so studies indicate, bringing up confident, well-adjusted children. So are gay fathers, apparently, but their route to biological parenthood is a bit more expensive than that of the women’s, since it involves surrogacy. The situation of two fathers, though, is notionally and practically almost the polar opposite of the paterfamilias, the archetypal daddy from whom all conventionally recognizable fathers draw their sap. But biology need not be the only route to parenthood. All same-sex couples can adopt children, and herein lies the third option. If loving, caring and nurturing is what makes a father, then someone who has never done so cannot be a father, even if biology points in his direction.
Technology seems to have favoured the woman in this case. It is on the mother’s side if she does not want to know the father of her child, it is also one her side if she, or her child, wants to know who the father is. Runaway fathers, casual fathers, blissfully ignorant fathers can all be identified by DNA testing and, if necessary, brought to book by suffering or vengeful sexual partners and questing offspring. It seems that daddy can be hauled up or discarded at the will of his family, real or notional as the case may be. This was probably never a secret; men built up the enormous edifice of patriarchy out of sheer blue funk. Call it survival foresight. For in spite of shuddering in its foundations, that structure is still working, and that very well indeed.
It protects daddy too. Biology and economics are not the whole of daddy’s story; there is psychology as well. Mothers who are single by choice often struggle to answer their children’s insistent queries about their father’s identity. As long as such mothers are in the minority, children will want to have fathers like everyone else they see. Also, it is not only children cheated of property who want to confront their fathers. Emotions of hurt, abandonment, pride and the desire to belong are as important as inheritance, and may result in a desire to identify and confront the father. Fatherhood can neither escape nor be junked easily.