For Father’s Day? Modern Families in the New York Times

Today is Father’s Day.  (In some houses that would be “Fathers’ Day.)   Perhaps it is a sort of ironic nod to the holiday that the New York Times has this story of an unconventional two-household modern family consisting of mom, sperm donor, sperm donor’s domestic partner and child.   (The story is identified as being the first of an occasional series.   It is also accompanied by several graphic presentations (which don’t really work on my computer) interpreting census data on family forms.) 

Carol Einhorn is, no matter how you figure it, the mother.   Griffin (who I assume has his mother’s last name) is almost three years old.   George Russell is a good friend of Einhorn’s who agreed to be a sperm donor but not a father.   David Nimmons is Russell’s domestic partner.    Russell stays in Einhorn’s apartment four nights a week and lives with Nimmons the remainder of the time.   Everyone tries to have dinner together on Sundays.    

Now about Russell’s status here:  I realize that those who consider DNA to be defining would say he is the father, but he does not consider himself to be a father, nor do Einhorn and Griffin.   (Griffin calls him “Uncle George.”)   And he doesn’t play the social role of father, either.   To me, this is one of those times where I’m not sure what interests it serves to insist that he be called the father of Griffin.   

It’s clear that managing this unconventional family form isn’t easy.   There are lots of stresses and strains.   It’s hard to say whether there are necessarily more of them than there would be in a more conventional family, of course.  

On the one hand, this group of people is pretty much finding their own way.  There’s no well-trodden path to follow.   That means there are bound to be more questions and perhaps more false starts down little trails that just peter out.  But plenty of conventional families suffer from stresses and strains and the well-trodden paths don’t suit everyone equally well anyway.  

One thing striking to me is that there isn’t much of anything about legal (as opposed to social) relationships in the story.   Of course, I’m curious about where legal parentage lies.    In some ways my fondest hope would be that law doesn’t get in the way–that it supports rather than obstructs the growth of this child in this family.  But it’s hard for me to see how law will do that, given current configurations.   

Remember that for the most part being a legal parent is an all in/all out proposition.  What I mean is that either you are a legal parent–with all attendant rights and obligations–or you are not a legal parent, and you have no rights and no obligations.   Since Russell doesn’t function as a parent in this family and isn’t thought of that way by anyone, I rather hope he isn’t a legal parent.   But if he isn’t a legal parent then he very likely has no rights and no obligations, and that doesn’t seem quite right either.   It’s just law doesn’t accommodate that sort of part-way status.    Perhaps that is a shortcoming of law as we know it,  perhaps it is just the way things have to be.  I do wonder.  

It’s an interesting choice to run the story of Father’s Day.    Does this child have a father? Doesn’t seem so.    Does this child need one?   I’d say not.   He’s got a loving network of adults to care for him.   What is the NYT trying to say to me–apart from that the world is a vastly more complicated place than we sometimes realize?



17 responses to “For Father’s Day? Modern Families in the New York Times

  1. It’s really irrelevant whose interests it serves by calling him a father; it’s a statement of fact.

    The burden of proof I’d say lies on those who wish to deny fact- whose interests are they serving?

    Funny how each of us read the story- you saw a happy family with the law being the only shortcoming. I saw a story about lots of confused adults- the father, his partner, the aunts, all admittedly confused about what exactly there role is, with the kid not even 2 yet. just imagine how confusing it will be for him.
    Pretty clear to me where the shortcoming lies.

    • “He is a father” seems like a statement of fact to you because you begin with a particular definition of what “father” means. If you start with a different definition or if you start, as I do, with a recognition that “father” means different things to different people (and even sometimes to the same people in different contexts) then saying “he is a father” isn’t a simple statement fact. It’s a conclusion–the end to some analysis and some consideration.

      There is an underlying fact–he’s genetically related to the boy. No one seeks to deny this fact. The question is what meaning do we give that undisputed fact. You give it meaning by saying it makes him a father, but the people involved in this story do not give it that meaning.

      I didn’t mean to characterize the group as a happy family but for law. I don’t think what they are doing is easy and, as I said, there’s obviously lots of stress and strain around parts of it. It takes lots of work to raise a child and to manage adult relationships–but that’s true in all settings. In the end, I feel far more optimistic about this child’s future than I do in instances where it doesn’t seem to me the adults are capable of working together.

  2. The problem Julie is that when uptown Manhattanites over 40 decide that they’re going to completely suck dry the meaning of the word ‘father’, that has consequences for everybody. What is “progressive” and interesting on the upper west side trickles down to families like mine where the fuzziness of a father becomes a major life blow- one that I’m willing to dedicate my life to avenge.

    SEXUAL reproduction is in the definition of our very humanity. TO BE HUMAN you must have a mother and father.
    When adults create children, society should make them responsible for those children they create. No fathers off the hook. Not when some woman wants to get pregnant and is willing (at least in the beginning) to pay him and deny her child access to its father. Not when some guy just wants a quickie from some woman he met in a bar. Not ever.
    That’s not how you build a just and stable society.
    That’s not how you create sane, happy, well-adjusted, well-cared-for children and ultimately PEOPLE.

    • This is assuming that the word “father” starts with some agreed upon meaning, and I don’t think it does. But I actually agree with your general concern about robbing the term of meaning. For me, giving the title “father” to a man who has done nothing but engage in sexual intercourse with a woman robs it of meaning. That’s because to me, a father is a person who actually engages in some relationship with the child. And if the person who does the work of parenting happens not to be the person who had sex with the mother, I’d sooner give the former the title than the latter. I don’t want to lose site of what we agree upon and i would like to be careful and specific about what we disagree about. I think it’s right that the man who provided sperm here doesn’t claim the title father because I don’t think he’s playing the role. Thus, I don’t think he diminishes the meaning of the word.

      I do care about the well-being of children, but perhaps I’m more pessimistic than you are. (This surprises me a little as I’m generally quite optimistic.) If a man and a woman have no ongoing relationship and if he’s not interested in having kids, then I think it is unlikely we can force the two people to create a good environment for child-rearing. I’m not saying he should be completely anonymous, but I’m not sure we should give him the power that goes with legal parentage. The mere fact that it is his DNA isn’t (in my view) going to make him into a good parent.

  3. The father in this story is acting the role of father more than many divorced fathers. Yet that doesn’t seem to be enough for you Julie. Why not?

    • Sorry–I overlooked this question before. I’d have to think harder about it, but I suppose a man generally is a father before he is a divorced father. What I mean is that his claim to the title is based on pre-divorce parenting. Then there’s that question of maintaining status, which is different. Conduct could be enough to maintain status without being enough to establish it in the first place, I think.

      • could it be that not only is geneteics not enough for you, it is actually a strike against?
        I find it ironic that you have juxtaposed two father’s day stories aboout two different men in fathering roles, neither who call themselves officially “father”, but one who is a genetic father and one who isn’t- and yet you use your posts to emphasize the fatherhood of the non genetic one, and the non fatherhood of the genetic one.
        If so, that’s politics talking.

        • I don’t mean to count genetics as a stripe against but it is possible that I’m over-correcting. What i mean is that in an effort to ensure that DNA doesn’t get counted for too much I end up counting it as a negative. I think it should be a zero, basically.

          I don’t think it is entirely my doing that the two Father’s Day stories lay out that way. They were both prominently featured in the media I tend to follow. Further, I didn’t see any “traditional father” stories in those sources on that day. That does seem to me remarkable, but I offer it is a commentary on what the media is telling us (for better or for worse, and certainly in an effort to sell papers) rather than as my own editorial view.

          I’d say something of the same thing with regard to characterizing the men as fathers vs. non-fathers. You may think I have unfairly summarized the articles, but I think the sperm donor in the NYT article didn’t think of himself as a father. Neither did the other adult players around him. I’m not at all sure he’d meet any definition of father except the DNA based one. By contrast, I thought to portrayal of the foster parent was as a father/parent. It is undeniable that the contrast you mention is there, but I’d say that I didn’t create it–I just pointed it out because it seemed interesting. It may well be politics at work, but it isn’t simply my politics.

  4. ” I think it’s right that the man who provided sperm here doesn’t claim the title father because I don’t think he’s playing the role. Thus, I don’t think he diminishes the meaning of the word.”

    This statement is out of chronological order. FIRST the parties diminished the meaning of the word father, and only THEN were they able to dissolve Mr, Whatshisname from actually acting like one. If you object to diminishing of the word father, your criticism should be on the decision of the outset.

    In addition, I’ve noticed that you treat the word “father” as some kind of honorary title, that must be earned by specific activities, kind of like PHD or something. But that is not what it is. It is a name for a particular kin relationship, akin to the word sister, for example.
    A sister is a description of a kin relationship. Now we hope and expect that sisters will share late night telephone calls with eachother, cry on each other’s shoulders over their joys and sorrows, go shopping together and babysit each other’s kids. If my sister does not do those things, would I say she can not claim the title sister?????
    A father is also a kin relationshipThe nature of that kin relationship is one that involves an obligation to care for the child’s welfare. Obligations are not earned. Thus “claiming the title” is not really an appropriate way of looking at things.

  5. Anyway the story reports one of the things the adults are confused about, is how to tell the kid. I hope they are reading this because the solutions is rather simple.
    By next year, Griffin is going to start learning that he’s male. He’s going to notice that other kids have daddies. He’ll encounter it in real life as well as in story books. (I wouldn’t put it past some folks to try to “protect” him from such harmful influences but that can work only so long.) He’ll say “whose my daddy?” and they’ll answer “Uncle Charlie!” problem solved.
    Better yet, they can read him the story book and ask him “Do you know who your daddy is? Uncle Charlie!” problem solved. And no one need change their behavior.

  6. marilynn huff

    If I re-word Julie’s post in a nutshell George and Carol have a 3 year old son named Griffin that lives full time at Carol’s house. George spends 3 days a week at the home he shares with his domestic partner David, and spends the remaining 4 days a week staying at Carol’s house so that he can spend time with them as a family.

    George agreed to relinquish his parental authority (formally? informally?) so that officially he has no financial obligation to their child and as such they both decided that Griffin should refer to him as his Uncle rather than as his father.

    It can be deadly for a child to be physically and or financially abandoned one parent or both. Society discourages parents from physically and or financially abandoning their children by making physical and financial abandonment a crime.

    In terms of human reproduction George is Griffin’s father yet Griffin call’s him Uncle George rather than Dad. I’m assuming that part of the reason for not calling him Dad is so that it can never be said that Griffin thinks of George as a father and therefore be on the hook for child support.

    Should the law really let parents get away with eliminating one of a child’s two sources of support just because the parent’s prefer the father not to have any financial responsibilities?

    • I’m only guessing but I doubt that these people were thinking about child support when they arrived at the “uncle” designation. I think that’s a social statement about George not being a father. It’s not at all clear to me that it would have any impact on a legal determination of parentage. It might be important in some legal schemes but the law here is probably controlled by NY law on whether a sperm donor is a father.

      The thing that strikes me is that George hasn’t in any way abandoned Griffin. He’s there–quite a bit. He’s reliable. He just hasn’t assumed that particular role of “parent.” I have no idea if that will someday strike Griffin as a form of abandonment (I don’t think any of us can now) but surely for now it is clear to Griffin that George cares for him and has a relationship with him.

      I think the question about support is a fair one to raise but I don’t think we ought to drive policy by concerns about child support. I realize we do that, but I think it is less than optimal.

  7. He’s there 4 days a week you can bet he’s telling him no you can’t have another cookie before dinner and taking him to the park and stuff, he’s there for the daily stuff Julie which would put him on the hook kind of even by your performance standards – if he allowed himself to be referred to as father, there really would be no legal wiggle room right?

    • The things you describe aren’t sufficient (in my book) to meet the de facto parent test. They are all important and tangible things. They may even be necessary–that is, if a person doesn’t do them, they cannot make the grade. But it’s not enough to do the physical labor. There’s a psychological/emotional component–I suppose I might call it the recognition that one is ultimately responsible. With that comes the right (which is alos an obligation) to make the really big decisions–where will the child go to school, say. That’s missing here. And it appears that all the adult participants are reasonably content with the assignment of responsiblities and obligations.

  8. in new york, he’s legally the father. This arrangement they have ist strictly a private one. That will probably change in like 3-5 years if not less, at it should follow on the heels of gay marriage.

    • or do you think she lied on the birth certificate and said she does not know the father’s name? She has not filed for state assistance or obviously not gone after child support. Not referring to him as her son’s father protects him financially. I find that sort of tacky.

      Heck its way beyond tacky, but I’m getting good at holding back.

    • Legally a father because he is genetically related? (I really can check this and will do so.)

      And what it is you think will change–the law or the individual relationship here?

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