Recently I’ve been snowed in. While I work from home I have the dubious pleasure of seeing the parade of afternoon shows. There are the “judge” shows that feature a different judge who tries small claims cases ranging from unpaid rent to sales of faulty merchandise. Giving the devil his due, I have to admit that some of the judges are reasonable and manage to interject some moral lessons into their decisions.
Then there are shows like Maury or Jerry Springer. Those take a questionable format and drive it deeper into the ground. While the judge shows do a slight disservice to our legal system, Maury and Jerry Springer are intentional trash. That said, I certainly have taken the opportunity to watch both shows; they are very entertaining.
The defacto king of afternoon television fare is the paternity shows: “Maury” and “Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court. “You are the father” has become a phrase as popular as “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Why is paternity popular? Let’s be honest: it’s not that truth is revealed and closure provided. The reason is that paternity is sordid and juicy and it helps keep the ratings up.
During my snow week I got to see Lauren Lake’s Paternity court. Judge Lake, after a particularly tear-filled announcement of paternity, seeing a “united family” hugging each other stated: “The truth brings families together. That’s what we do on paternity court”.
It all sounds quite pious. What is interesting is the fact that, before during and after the proceedings, there is often at least one male who states that he wouldn’t care if he really is the biological father: these are his kids. Which leads to the conclusion that someone’s fitness for “paternity” has more to do with a desire to be father much more than it has to do with genetics.
What is the meaning of biological paternity. Certainly it is a point of law, determining child support payments. But bringing paternity to the level of truth and all that it implies is, in my mind, primitive. It is rumoured that a Queen giving birth was attended by ladies of her court to verify her maternity. Ancient Jewish law took this s step further by stating that a baby’s “Jewishness” is determined by the mother, since paternity, pre-dna, was almost impossible to prove.
All this has to do with legalities, inheritance and order of succession in a royal family. It has nothing to do with the most important aspect of family which is the persistent connection of family members. A father is the man who is “present”, offering an example to follow and support for his children. This consistent involvement in a child’s life helps him define a set of values, a trajectory in life, and provides a set of tools to raise children once he is grown. Although the model of the biological father being the actual father is still part of our cultural ideal, the truth is increasingly different. If this is the case, perhaps it is time to change our focus for “bio-dad” to Dad.
Emhpasis on biology forces us to work in the realm of the material, a knee jerk connection to a past that was driven by interests in property and inheritance. At this point, it’s a lot like the appendix, meaningless except in cases of people who are evading child-support. In many cases, on paternity shows, the father or non-father’s paternity does nothing to change his behavior. Their interest in being in their children’s lives is the same whether the connection is biological or not.
The real problem with an emphasis of biological paternity is that it de-values the very real connection between members of families of choice. This isn’t a pitch for the new age blended families that result from divorce. It’s a pitch for sincere connections between adults and children. It’s the lack of those connections that makes life more difficult and often, more empty.