Getting past 'father'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 February, 2007, 12:00am

There is a growing sense among experts that the countries of the world with declining birth rates will somehow overcome their problem - but in ways that until recently would have been hard to imagine.

Flat or zero growth rates appear to be a characteristic of affluent societies. In Asia, stand-out examples include South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

Coping mechanisms among nations vary; the worried but determined government of Singapore, exercising its nanny-state option, has even funded get-together and mating programmes (with, not surprisingly, somewhat less than scintillating success).

Now, however, a powerful and visionary new study has examined a startling new approach for women to raise children: raising them largely in the absence of men.

People in increasing numbers prefer to stay single. Educated and financially independent women are specially unwedded to the social norm of requiring a father to be a prerequisite to motherhood. The idea of single motherhood is generally associated with either traditional adoptions or artificial insemination. Women set up family nests either alone or with other women (and not necessarily as lesbians).

This brave new world of men-less families is spelled out with encompassing thoughtfulness in the new book Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice. The author, Rosanna Hertz, is a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, the women's school that numbers Hillary Rodham Clinton among its distinguished graduates.

The trend towards largely men-less mothering is so advanced in the US that chapters of the nationwide organisation Single Mothers by Choice (SMC) have spread to American cities as if they were Alcoholics Anonymous clones. SMC runs workshops for would-be single mothers, many of whom are running out of time in the biological fecundity department. It offers as mentors single women who have been successful mothers, as instructors and role models for would-be successors.

One of their key dilemmas appears to be choosing between a sperm donor they know and an anonymous one. The decision can entail huge emotional implications, of course. Women who choose an anonymous donor sometimes cultivate the option of having a 'social dad' for their child - a friendly but romantically uninvolved male who evolves into a functional, but un-biological, 'uncle'.

Some women who are uneasy about using sperm from an anonymous man will deliberately seek out the co-operation of gay men, despite the possible genetic implications.

In the US, this trend has not quite yet smashed onto the radar screens of the American political mainstream, much less onto those of the pro-traditional-family, fundamentalist sector. I can hardly wait. Get prepared for the condemnation of the preachers - and the flight to political safety by Senator Clinton and other centrist-wannabes.

Social conservatives will surely be uncomfortable with convincing studies showing juvenile delinquency is more strongly correlated with poverty than with single motherhood. It is, in fact, mainly the single mother at the lowest economic rung that appears to be producing the social deviant, not the single mother who has achieved economic success.

But why are women marrying less or waiting so long to take the plunge? Common sense would suggest that either the better-educated women are increasingly fussy about their life-long mating choices, or that their potential male partners are running fast in the other direction. They may be fleeing because they are too selfish to make a commitment, or too turned off by females who are at least as well educated, and perhaps even as well funded, as they are.

The answer is probably some combination of the two. But, even so, the days of the male as macho head of household, heroic breadwinner and possible parent-in-chief appears to be numbered.

If this is not a profound sort of sociological redefinition, then what is?

Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre