There isof course hardly any more dramatic sex difference in human nature than betweenthe minute or two it might take a man who's a fast learner to become a fatherand the nine-months-plus-often-20-years that can be the woman's outcome. Thisis such a startling distinction that virtually every social system has had tofigure out a way to try to reduce the discrepancy by making sure that men stayaround and absorb a fair share of the burden of raising children. All kindsof schemes have been employed, ranging from the shotgun lurking in the cupboardto family vendettas against the relatives of caddish louts to simple acknowledgmentof affectionate fairness to assurances by gods that hit-and-run fertilizerswill burn like diner bacon in eternal hell.
So Father'sDay is a rather triumphant fete, because it implies that, at worst, some coercivesystem has functioned effectively, and at best that there is an uncontroversial,warm relationship between father and offspring. Mostly the latter is what wesee, perhaps in half of all cases. However, as has become unduly clear in thepast 40 years or so, the whole matter of fatherhood has become far more fragile,far more uncertain and far more legally tempestuous than ever. As I've writtenbefore, a good deal of the cause of this has been contraceptive technology-especiallythe pill, which for nearly three decades (until STDs became a realistic broad-rangedanger) meant that women were generally assumed to be contracepted, since themeans to accomplish this remarkably important state were easily and widely available.If a woman in the catch-as-can singles world, or even in an ambivalent marriage,became pregnant, that was her responsibility, her fault. And the consequenceswere hers, too. Certainly, marriage was no longer the inevitable solution. (Inmany communities historically, possibly until the l950s, it appears that thebride was pregnant in 30-50 percent of marriages. Any jerk can figure this outfrom parish and civic records showing a baby born to a couple less than ninemonths after their wedding.