The other night I read this heartbreaking profile of Maggie Gallagher, the conservative commentator behind so much of the movement against same sex marriage.  Gallagher became pregnant in her senior year at Yale, and ultimately, the father of her child abandoned her and their son. That wound was, unsurprisingly, the pivotal event of her life:

The next year, Gallagher says, she and the father reconciled and moved in together. He was still in school, and they shared a house by the Connecticut shore with some other undergraduates. “It was one of those things that you have to be pretty young and stupid to think is going to work, because it was a very collegiate environment and, you know, basically my parents were supporting me. And so, you know, we, we broke up. I moved into a separate apartment, and he came by occasionally.” He graduated, and soon they were living near one another — she was commuting from Jersey City to Manhattan, to work at National Review, the conservative magazine, and he was in Harlem. He occasionally baby-sat for Patrick, until one day, after staying with his son while she attended a conference, he decided he wanted out. “He called me up the next day, or the next, and said that he couldn’t do it anymore, and that he didn’t really want to have anything to do with either of us,” Gallagher says. “And that was it.”

Ouch.

The article further recalls that, in her piece from the 1980s, “An Unwed Mother for Quayle,” she offered ironic “advice” for those seeking to follow Murphy Brown’s lead:

Have relatively affluent parents who got and stayed married themselves,” she writes. “Be able to choose a profession with flexible hours … Find a boss who doesn’t mind if you bring a sick 4-year-old and his dinosaurs to the office, which will happen regularly … Expect to give up all the advantages of single life — freedom, romance, travel … Prepare for the nights when your child cries himself to sleep in your arms, wondering why his father doesn’t love him.”

My first reaction to all this was gut-deep sympathy for Gallagher – yes, this person whose life work has been to keep so many of my friends in second-class status. The abandonment of children runs along a spectrum, but all along the range, necessarily involves an abandonment of the other parent.  Shirking parental responsibility is not just a crime against the child, although it certainly is that. It’s also a shockingly unfair appropriation of the life of the other parent.  The parent who sticks around to raise a child finds their own life possibilities curtailed in almost every respect – financially, romantically, emotionally, even recreationally. When someone checks out of parenting, they’re committing life theft.  It’s emotional blackmail of the basest sort; an absent parent usually knows the other parent couldn’t bear to leave matters unattended themselves, so they can skip off without worrying too much. In short, it’s quite possible to abandon a spouse or partner without abandoning them as a co-parent.  But when someone walks away from parenting, they’re stealing the life of another for their own purposes. Period. Add to that how awful it is for the remaining parent to watch their child suffer from that abandonment, and it’s easy to understand the rage and pain that results.

Of course, it’s obvious to me that that the answer to that is more feminism, not less, but I doubt Gallagher is coming at this question from the same place I am (that is an entirely different post – and I mean that). It’s fascinating to me that Gallagher ignores that in the heterosexual nuclear family she dreams of, the same kinds of abandonment still, after all our alleged gender progress, occur all the time, just on a smaller scale — when you see one partner who does an overwhelming share of parenting for one reason or another (usually, but by no means always, the female partner). Often, these situations aren’t specifically negotiated, they just sort of form organically out of social conditioning or they happen when an arrangement bleeds through negotiated boundaries. In this case, the negative impact is mostly on the person doing the lion’s share of parenting rather than the kids, because the other parent remains at least nominally present and part of the family.

And yes, I think this happens more often to women than to men. The reasons for that are legion and disputed, but the end result is often the same: People’s lives get stunted.

I suspect that in same sex couples that lack the socially-influenced power tension between men and women, these arrangements are more likely to be consensual, instead of unconsciously predetermined by the sex of the partners (or at least unconsciously determined by temperament instead of sex). Aside from extending the basic human right of marriage to everyone, this is another huge reason I welcome same-sex marriage. As more and more of those marriages enter the common social fabric, I’m hoping that influence seeps over to straight partnerships, for the good of both sexes.

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4 thoughts on “Stealing lives: How one woman’s experience with absentee parenting led her to protest the social change most likely to stop it

  1. I am stealing this and posting this on my FB page. Your description of what happens when one parent opts-out of parenting is the dead-fucking-on, I have never heard it put so well. It must be shared.

  2. Wow! Ya know, I’ve read a bit of stories about impact on the child of a parent walking away, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a perspective on what happens to the other parent – that there’s a theft of collaboration and safety-net and the trade-off of taking sick days to stay home with a feverish child, etc.. You’ve really given me a bit to think about with this one.

    1. Glad to hear it! I think you’re right that we don’t talk about that aspect of it much, as a society. The cynical part of me wonders whether that’s because of our differing expectations of men and women, and the different values assigned to their time and lives in general. I think women are often expected to selflessly offer up their lives for others. Men not so much.

      It’s also interesting that single mothers are frequently reviled, but single fathers are revered.

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