In another life I taught parenting education to teen parents with the hopes that in addition to knowing how to change diapers and prepare formula, they would also be able to walk away with skills to help to break cycles of unhealthy discipline, dysfunctional co-parenting, and inconsistent parental involvement. During this time I was able to meet many young fathers who shattered the stereotype of the “deadbeat dad” and many who were even their children’s primary caregiver. They were young men who left the corner for the classroom in an effort to turn their lives in a positive direction with the newfound purpose that becoming a father had given them. They were men who ran across subway platforms after part-time jobs to make sure they made it on time to pick up their toddlers from pre-school. But I also came across young men who were making the minimal effort, and many of them knew that fatherhood wasn’t something they were prepared for and were no more committed to months and even years after learning that they had caused a pregnancy.
When we’d discuss pregnancy options in class and all of the legal details surrounding consent in regards to abortion and adoption, as much as I threw around phrases like “Her body. Her choice.” And warned, “If you don’t want to be a parent, wear a condom.” The truth is I never made my peace with the fact that in my career in sexual and reproductive health, when parenting is discussed we tend to emphasize a women’s right to choose and how difficult the decision to parent can be, meanwhile men are often left completely out of the conversation. And I always struggled with one question: Why do you need both parents’ consent when placing a child for adoption, but not in the decision to parent entirely?
So often I witnessed the young men in those classrooms disconnected from the pregnant partners they were sitting next to and often completely honest about the fact that they weren’t in agreement in the decision to parent but helpless in the final decision. They were there because they felt obligated to be, but not necessarily because they wanted to be. I witnessed fragile teenage relationships being barely held together by the biological paste of impending parenthood. Sometimes I also witnessed young men’s excitement about impending fatherhood stifled by partners who were undecided and I could never seem to make peace with the fact that although one encounter may have been approached by both partners with equal levels of ambiguity for pregnancy prevention, both of their futures were held in the hands of one person. Should men have to provide consent for parenting and should they have a say in pregnancy termination? My answer isn’t necessarily no, and it isn’t a clear yes either.
I’m in no way trying to paint men out as helpless victims being forced to parent. Statistics clearly show of the 11 million families with children under age 18, and no spouse present, 8.5 million are single mothers (8.5 million), meaning that for many men, walking away entirely is the solution to not wanting to parent and they will do so whether a piece of paper provided them legal protection or not. In a perfect world partners would engage in healthy communication and discuss the factors that affect the decision to parent or end a pregnancy and ultimately try to meet in the middle in some way when agreement isn’t easy to come by. But if a man can terminate his parental rights with one signature when it comes to placing a child for adoption, why can’t he if only one partner desires to parent?
I recently came across an article from last year that asks this very question. “Should ‘Male Abortions’ Be Legal Within The First 18 Weeks?” states a proposal from Sweden’s Liberal Party’s youth wing argued that men should have the same right as women to decide not to be a parent and to be free from any responsibility in raising the child in an action labeled a “male abortion”. The proposal said that men who don’t want to be dads should be allowed to have a legal abortion up to the 18th week of a woman’s pregnancy. Coincidentally, the cut-off date corresponds with the last week in which a woman can terminate a pregnancy in Sweden. By being granted a “male abortion” men wouldn’t have to pay any child support and would be free of having any connection with their child. They also wouldn’t be allowed to meet the child at any point in the future, meaning that once you decide you want out, there’s no getting back in, meaning you can’t reappear if your kid turns out to be the next Barack Obama. Now although the time limit into the pregnancy for this action to be allowed is questionable, the article refers to men who would want to take advantage of such a law as “jerks” implying that any man who decides he is not up to the job and wants to exercise a legal right to shed responsibility is somehow at fault for his feelings. What about women who take advantage of safe haven laws when they make the decision not to parent post-partum? What about those who place their children up for adoption confident in the knowledge they are not fit to parent at any given time? What about the complicated laws that surround surrogacy, some of which allow parents to walk away from the agreement even after a surrogate has endured 9 months of pregnancy and given birth? Are those people “jerks” too or are they making a selfless decision to ensure their child has a best chance at healthy life? In other words, if a man knows that he’s headed straight for deadbeat behavior when that pregnancy test comes back positive, why should he have to endure judgment for knowing he wants no parts and both mother and child are better off without him, or better yet inform his partner’s decision to parent with the knowledge that she will be a single parent.
To be honest, if most people truly knew what parenting involved they wouldn’t be stampeding to sign up for the task, but all jokes aside a legal document stating that a man doesn’t want to be involved in the pregnancy is a much clearer form of communication than a “run to the store for a loaf of bread” with no return. Ironically, the motion was put forward by female members of the liberal party who felt it would allow for equality between the sexes and “let expectant mothers know if their partner was willing to commit to parenthood.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware that we live in a world where patriarchy is the norm and for the most part I support the actions that are taking place with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement that both emphasize that ownership of a Y chromosome should not automatically determine a person has the final say in anything. As a mother who will rock a c-section scar for the rest of my life, I also understand how the process of pregnancy and childbirth is a bit one-sided and the worst my husband had to deal with when it came to giving birth to our daughter is a rocking an ugly head bonnet in the OR and doing his best to keep me from gagging. Still, I firmly believe that in order for true equality and respect to exist, we can’t keep picking and choosing the situations we allow men to have a say in, especially when that situation involves a significant contribution from them. We can’t tell them, “It’ takes two people to make a baby,” and in our actions convey it only takes one person to make the decision to parent. I’m glad we’re starting to have open, honest conversations about how men and women should interact with one another in all areas of life, but every once in a while we have to make sure that those conversations are in fact just that, and allowing for both parties to have not just equal say but the equal right to act as well.
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.
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