In late February TMZ reported that actor Jason Patric was “shut down” in his bid to gain paternity and custody rights over his son. A few other gossip sites picked up the story but I haven’t read much commentary, which I find surprising. An article on BabyCenter questioned if Patric was simply a sperm donor or entitled to paternal rights.
For anyone not familiar with the story here’s a recap: Patric (he starred “The Lost Boys”) recently lost his bid for paternity and custody rights of is three-year-old son Gus. Danielle Schreiber, the child’s mother, use to date Patric but they broke up in 2009. At the time of their breakup Patric donated his sperm, with the understanding that he wouldn’t be obligated to pay child support or help raise the child. Schreiber’s was artificially inseminated by a doctor and Patric was out of the picture until 2011, when he and Schreiber started dating again. During this time, Patric bonded with Gus but he and Schreiber eventually broke up again in May, 2012. By this time Patric’s view on what role he should play in Gus’s life changed and he decided he wanted 50/50 custody.
According to TMZ, the reason Patric lost his bid is because if an unmarried man artificially inseminates an unmarried woman with the help of a doctor, legally he has no paternity or custody rights. It’s not clear whether or not Schreiber will grant Patric visitation rights.
Some believe the ruling is insensitive because Patric and Gus have likely formed a father-son attachment.
Patric isn’t the first person to conceive a child thinking they wouldn’t have a parental role, but later had a change of heart. We’ve all heard stories of surrogate mothers who change their minds and decide they want to keep the baby they’ve carried.
For example, surrogate mother Elvira Jordan, was granted joint custody of her biological daughter back in 1991. At the time, the a court-appointed attorney representing the child’s interests said having a full relationship with each parent was clearly important for the wellbeing of the child.
Another case that makes the Patric paternity story seem all the more unfair, is the story of a sperm donor in Kansas who was recently ordered to pay child support, even though he signed a contract that waived his legal rights. The reason? He didn’t have the rights of a traditional sperm donor since a physician wasn’t used to handle the artificial insemination.
In both instances, the law sided against the father and undoubtedly it’s in part due to the fact that implicitly, a father’s role in a child’s life is seen as less important a mother’s. Movies, commercials, TV show and real life stories like the Patric case, reinforce the notion that it’s the mother job to take on the bulk of parenting responsibilities—especially if the child is under the age of five or if an older child is troubled.
This past summer, The Atlantic published a piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It reignited debate over whether women could juggle a demanding career and motherhood. Slaughter’s view, which seemed to be based on her personal experience, was bleak.
Although Slaughter did mention the relatively new phenomenon of dads who grapple with how they can “integrate active parenthood with their professional lives,” for most of the piece she treats parenting as a woman’s issue.
This is disappointing.
The assumption that women are responsible for child rearing leaves women with two limiting options. A woman can either choose to be a loving mother but put her career aspirations on hold, or pursue her career but sacrifice her child’s well-being in the process.
In addition to putting an unfair burden on women, the belief that mother’s should center their identity around their children while father’s play a supporting role, can be gut-wrenching for children if their parents separate and their relationship with their fathers becomes less intimate.
To be sure, many responsible fathers continue to play an active role in their child’s life after a breakup, but there are countless instances of men who don’t. A father abandoning a child after things sour with the mother is such a common narrative that that it’s almost a cliché.
But maybe this wouldn’t be the case if fatherhood wasn’t devalued. If parenting expectations were the same for both men and women, maybe working mothers who have to put in long hours wouldn’t feel so conflicted.
One way to start shifting society’s view of gender and parenting is to move away from the image of the supermom and the inept dad. These images tend to be popular in commercials.
For example this 5-hour Energy commercial promotes the idea that to be a good mom, a woman should happily base her life around completing chores:
Super Mom’s Last 5 hours – 5-hour ENERGY Commercial:
The opposite of the supermom is the bumbling father. A man who’s unable to complete basic parental tasks. For example in this ad, the mom has to step in because the dad is too focused on a football game to change his baby’s diaper:
The good news is that people are speaking out against these stereotypes Last year Huggies pulled an ad after people complained that it was insulting to fathers.
But of course we’re still light years away from a world in which career-driven moms aren’t judged and capable attentive fathers aren’t treated like an anomaly.