The many hues of fatherhood: physical, emotional and legal

At some levels, becoming a father is one of the easiest things that a man can do: a happy ending that leads to a new beginning.

Bottom line, no baby can be born without a male having contributed his gametes to the process.

But surely that is far short of what might be considered reasonable to justify calling a man a father.

His DNA may be necessary, but that is much less than half the story.

In times past - and sadly still - men have been rightly criticised for simply not being there for their children.

Sure, modern lives and men in the workplace for long hours can keep him away from his kids. But sometimes this is just an excuse - as is the need to be away socialising with his mates.

In this instance, he needs to step it up to earn the moniker of Dad.

On the other hand, nature can play a bit of a prank on the man as paternity is far less evident than maternity.

Now of course, there may not be many cases where a woman cuckolds the man - be it knowingly or unknowingly - but it can happen.

Paternal discrepancy is when the man who most think of as the father is not. It happens at a rate of about 4% in case you're wondering. That is, one in 25 kids are fathered by someone other than the person they believe to be their father.

So we probably should allow that in some dark recess of the father's head, there may be a little question about whether he really is the father.

But that doesn't let him off the hook. The second half of fathering is being there for the child(ren).

So, does DNA testing solve the problem? Not really. It simply reveals the many different hues of fathering.

Just as a man may provide his sperm but not his commitment, so another man may provide his commitment and not his DNA.

To reflect the independence of the physical and emotional dimensions, here are various versions of Dad that I personally know.
  • A woman who referred to her mostly absent father as her "bio-dad" to distinguish him from the man who her mother married and who was the man she identified as Dad.
  • A man who raises two boys. The teenager is not his biological son, and does not know his bio-dad at all. The second, an infant, is his biological son. The man - now separated from the one mother of the two boys - remains Dad to both. 
  • A man who fathered and raised a child with the mother until she left him to join another man. She decided that the new man would be Dad. The bio-dad is denied a father title and is known to his daughter by his first name.
  • A man and a woman who produced two children, who now are separated and each repartnered. The children spend their time in two different households with a mum and dad in one and another mum and dad in another.
So, there are at least two entirely detached dimensions to fathering. One is physical, the other is emotional.

It is perhaps understandable then, that the legal version of what constitutes a father is not always very clear cut.

An article in the New York Times highlights the court's difficulties as it negotiates the economic and emotional consequences when a man finds he is not the biological father.

There are consequences of revealing the biological father as debated in the issue of enforced DNA testing. It could reveal a mother's mistake or indiscretion, it could deprive a child of a father-like figure (even if not the biological father) and it could shatter the putative father's world.

However, given the importance of the father's emotional involvement, the legal system must also allow for the importance of young children to spend time with the father post-separation.

The fathering role is critical - both the physical and the emotional versions.

So what's a father to do? Probably just the same as he has done for millennia: the best he can given the circumstances.

Carrots and sticks for training parents

Carrots and sticks can be used to train animals, children, and even parents!

Skinner and a bunch of rats in cages helped psychology and the world understand that there are two approaches to shaping people's behaviour.

Reinforcement encourages people to repeat a particular behaviour. So reinforcement is the carrot.

Punishment discourages repetition of a particular behaviour. This is the stick.

The approach (which psychologists call instrumental or operant conditioning) is used to train circus animals and kindergarteners.

However, when separating parents haggle over the children, the Family Law Court will step in and offer their own version of training using carrots and sticks.

Two recent court cases give great examples:

Step up Dad.

In one recent decision, a family court judge awarded Mum 52.5% of the family's net assets valued at $2.2m.

It seems that Dad thought it was important to socialise down at the pub in order to maintain his profile within the community!

Mum on the other hand was at home looking after the two kids, one with Aspergers.

Move over Mum.

In another family court decision, the judge took the "drastic step" of making Dad the primary caregiver of his eight year old daughter.

Separating when the child was 13 months, the court found that Mum had limited the daughter's access to Dad, and harmed the formation of a relationship with him.

The court deemed it to be in the best interests of the child that primary custody should be transferred to Dad, with Mum given regular access to the child.

Of course, the training offered by Family Law Courts is outrageously expensive. So maybe we can encourage people to learn by these examples which psychologists consider to be a form of social learning theory.

Both cases remind us that children need a village to raise them, and the heart of that village is two parents.

The cases also remind us that there are rewards for Dads that step up, for Mums that let go (as we explore in the last chapter of our book).

And rewards for the kids too.

So maybe we could avoid all the hideously expensive training sessions offered by the Family Court if parents were to simply remember one of the basic lessons from kindergarten: "share nicely."