November 4, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
For decades we’ve had “single mothers by choice.” Now fathers are making the same one. This article on the subject of men opting for fatherhood without a partner is long, thoughtful and informative (The Guardian, 11/1/13). It’s also, to my mind, less judgmental than it ought to be.
The article is very reminiscent of those about single women opting to have children without a father involved. Those were almost uniformly paeans to the wonders of motherhood and the strength and wisdom of women who made that choice. What they essentially never mentioned were the difficulties involved in raising a child alone and the fact that single-parent children strongly tend toward a variety of negative outcomes those with two biological parents tend to avoid. Those are things like learning difficulties, problems with crime, drugs and alcohol and problems forming and maintaining relationships in adult life. Those crop up in the scientific literature time and again and, most tellingly, they do so across all boundaries of race, class, religion, educational level, etc.
Now, the literature on the children of single fathers is pretty sparse, partly because there aren’t many. Unlike women of course, men can’t conceive children and they certainly can’t do so without the mother’s knowing about it. So the path to single parenthood tends to be much narrower for men, confined mostly to the odd court that hands sole custody to a father.
But the many reasons single parenthood isn’t a good idea for children when women do it all apply to men as well. One big reason is money. Two parents can earn more than one and the lack of money alone creates a host of problems for single parents and their kids. In the United States, the median earnings for single mothers come to $23,000 a year. That’s barely above poverty level and indeed, some 46% of single mothers in this country live in poverty. Single fathers earn significantly more – about $36,000 per year - but still not a lot.
That lack of income means lack of good back-up care when the parent is at work. It means a lack of extra-curricular activities, lack of educational assistance like tutors, lack of quality medical, dental and mental health care and private schooling won’t be an option. The horizons of children of single parents tend to be much less broad than those of kids with two parents in part because their opportunities are far fewer.
But, as sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur make clear in their fine book Growing Up With a Single Parent, children of single parents also lack the extended family that dual-parent families provide. All those grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, etc. simply don’t exist for the child. The authors refer to that, and all the personal contacts that extended families bring, as the “social capital” that the child misses out on.
And single parents have less time and energy to devote to their children. Working full time to support a child leaves little in the way of stamina or creativity to devote to the 100% childcare the single parent is faced with every day when paid work ends.
In short, the children of single fathers will be exempt from none of the slings and arrows that those of single mothers try, often unsuccessfully, to withstand. So the smart money says their outcomes won’t be any better.
But there is one significant difference between male and female single parents.
A single man who wants to start a family on his own has two options, either adoption or surrogacy.
Women are not nearly so restricted. The simple expedient of going off The Pill and then disappearing from her partner’s life once conception occurs is easy enough. Sperm banks are readily available and any woman with any spunk can rely on a divorce court to effectively cut the father out of her and their child’s life.
But for men, it’s either adoption or finding a surrogate mother. And realistically, the latter option – getting a woman to gestate the child, no strings attached – is prohibitively expensive for most men.
Brian Tessier runs a helpline for prospective single fathers, 4114Dads. He warns that surrogacy has very high and often hidden costs. "The agencies quote $60,000-100,000, but it is often closer to $300,000." [Another single father] Kit [Ram] kept a spreadsheet of his costs: "I recorded air fares, food, where we stayed and there was not much change out of 150 grand." I assume we are talking dollars. "No. Pounds."
So for Kit, obtaining a child via a surrogate mother ran to something like $225,000.
That, to me, is good news. Single parenthood is a difficult row to hoe for anyone, man or woman. But if a man like Brian Tessier wants to adopt a child out of foster care of from an orphanage in China, Russia, Guatemala, etc., I’m all for it. Yes, single parents tend to raise kids with problems dual-parent families don’t. But children who go through life in and out of one foster family after another fare much worse. They’re far more likely to be abused there - either physically, sexually or emotionally – and neglect is common. Of course, there are many foster parents who do a fine job of raising their children, but the statistics militate strongly against them. Plus, foster kids age out of the system at 18 when they’re mostly on their own.
Children who find themselves in, for example, an orphanage in China are often deprived of the most basic love, affection and simple touching that every child vitally needs. That can scar them emotionally for life.
Any single father who’s as motivated as the ones described in The Guardian article can do better than that. So if an unmarried, unattached man wants a child and he goes about it through adoption, I have no problem with it and applaud him for doing so.
Creating a new child through surrogacy is another story. At any given time, there are over 400,000 children in this country in foster care who are ready to be adopted. That means their parents are either dead or have had their parental rights terminated due to unfitness. But there are only about 125,000 adoptions completed each year in the United States, and only about 75,000 of those are “stranger” adoptions. The other 50,000 are step-parent adoptions, i.e. Mom remarries and her new husband adopts her kids, a process that does nothing to help kids in foster care. Then there are the millions of children worldwide without parents to love, care for and protect them.
The point is that the world is not in need of new children; we have plenty already. What we don’t have are qualified parents who want to adopt them. So I have no sympathy for men who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and jump through an array of legal hoops just to produce a child with a woman who will then have no legal claim on it. It’s a waste of money, but more importantly it’s a waste of one of our rarest and most precious resources – qualified adoptive parents.
That’s why I’m glad that surrogacy is beyond the means of the vast majority of would-be fathers.
What is the reality of Single Fathers by Choice? Is it really a trend worth thinking about? I doubt it, but it’s hard to know. The Guardian piece quotes various people who deal with single-father adoptions who say it’s growing more and more common. But their perspective on the matter is largely anecdotal, i.e. what they see in their own practice.
However, one factor portends an ever-greater movement in the direction of single fathers adopting kids.
"What I find with single men, is one of two things," [U.S. lawyer and surrogacy expert Melissa] Brisman says. "Either they have been very successful in their careers and built businesses and they've not had time to meet anyone. Or they've had a very bad divorce and are afraid to get married and have their businesses threatened, or their custody threatened, and they would just prefer to go it alone. They know with surrogacy they won't have these issues." Brisman is convinced that the tendency of family courts to award custody to the mother is a key driver in the rise of heterosexual single fathers.
What’s true of surrogacy is true of adoption except that adoption is much easier and cheaper. But whatever avenue a man selects to get his child, one enormous enticement is that there will be no one to take little Andy or Jenny from him. By now, men know the overwhelming preference of family courts for maternal custody over both the paternal and the joint kind. They also know that almost half of marriages end in divorce, which gives them very high odds of losing the children they so dearly love to a woman they no longer do.
Then there’s child support that a single man who adopts need never think about. All he needs to do is hold a job and support the child as he sees fit. He’ll never be ordered by a court to pay 50% - 80% of his earnings to an ex-wife, leaving him scrambling just to keep a roof over his head. And of course he’ll never lie awake nights wondering if this is yet another weekend she’ll decide to take his child out of town when it’s his visitation time.
Given the cold, hard facts of family courts, it’s all too easy to see why a man who wants a child would opt to forego marriage and adopt a baby out of foster care or from a foreign country. Family court is a minefield for fathers. Why set foot there if you don’t have to?
Thanks to Malcolm for the heads-up.
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