What is a father? Adam Dell v. Padma Lakshmi

"The parent is he who mounts"--Apollo in The Orestia, Aeschylus

Adam Dell's recent lawsuit against Padma Lakshmi--he is suing her for sole custody of the child she gave birth to 11 months ago, a child he fathered in the technical sense of the term--forces this question.

Lakshmi apparently made it clear to Dell well before baby Krishna Lakshmi was born that she wanted nothing more to do with him. She was publicly mum about paternity throughout her pregnancy, during which she was seeing 70-year-old Ted Forstmann, an executive at IMG Entertainment. However, in his filing, Dell insists that he is entitled to sole custody of the child, and that a paternity test proves she is his.

Or does it?

Does being the biological father automatically confer a right to see her more than the nine days per month Lakshmi previously agreed to (and which he alleges she did not allow him to have on many occasions)? And given that Lakshmi broke it off with him early in the pregnancy and asked for and received no support, does she have a "right" to continue to keep Dell at arm's length?

When is a man a father, and when is he a sperm donor? What are "paternal rights" (versus Father's Rights)? 

Dell's lawsuit occurs against a particular cultural backdrop. In recent years we have seen an uptick in fathers' involvement with their children. The Institute for Work and Family has estimated that fathers now spend up to ten hours per week more with their kids than their own fathers did. Post-divorce particularly, we have seen more and more fathers being awarded joint custody and living up to their obligations to be fully responsible in the raising of their children. While deadbeat dads certainly exist, the fathers I interviewed as I researched my book on stepfamily life painted a more accurate portrayal of fathers today. They were committed, engaged and important figures in the lives of their children.

And too often, they were shut out of those children's lives. Frequently this happened (and happens) because their ex-partners or ex-wives were uncooperative, even vindictive, about allowing court or separation-agreement mandated visitation (or "parenting time" as it is now more often termed). It can only be for the good of these children and society as a whole that fathers are more engaged and committed than ever before, and those who study families and divorce know there could be no worse outcome for a child than to be kept apart from a loving, responsible, and committed father out of pettiness or spite.

But what about instances like this one, when the woman decides that she does not want the man who fathers her child to be its father? "That baby has a right to know her dad!" many will automatically insist. But Lakshmi allegedly wants the baby to consider Lee Forstmann, who has provided financial and emotional support since before the baby's birth, her father.

Dell's insistence on custody begs the questions, Is this baby Adam Dell's property? Does inseminating Lakshmi give him inalienable "rights" to be a father?

These are legal questions but they are also moral and philosophical ones. And to some, the implication that once a man impregnates a woman, it gives him presumptive rights to a relationship with the child when the mother explicitly wishes for him not to is disturbing. If it's not, it should be. Lakshmi gestated and gave birth to and raised the child on her own and with the help of Forstmann. Arguably, Dell's contribution to her pregnancy was his sperm. Now he wants sole custody, and is pulling out the usual accusations--essentially that Lakshmi is an unfit mother who puts her career before her relationship with her child--to that end (to be fair, Dell is likely suing for sole custody in order to get better visitation, and to force Lakshmi to cooperate on that score).

Lakshmi's move, with its implication that Dell has no essential right to involvement, owes much to cultural context, namely the seismic shifts in our society's notions of marriage and family over the last several decades. Childbearing has been uncoupled from heterosexual marriage, which is no longer the only context in which a woman can imagine having and supporting a baby. And the definitions of "family" have morphed so radically that they might be unrecognizable to someone who raised his or hers fifty years ago.

Deeper trends are also at play. Throughout our history and evolutionary prehistory, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists tell us, a women's power was tied to two factors. First, women in matrilineal and matrilocal societies--places where property passed down the maternal line, and where women stayed close to kin throughout the course of their entire life cycle, rather than moving far away to live with their husband's families--have always had more autonomy, power in their parnterships and political clout. Similarly, women who bring in the most resources--such as women in traditional foraging societies, who supply about 80% of the calories for their families, while their male partners supply significantly less, and do so very sporadically--wield considerable political power and have significantly more personal and sexual autonomy than woman in agrarian societies.

Lakshmi, as a successful celebrity and businesswoman of Top Chef fame, brings home the bacon and fries it up in a pan. As such, she has a power base comparable to the ones that make women more autonomous and empowered world-wide, and is able to assert her agenda in relatively novel ways.

So begins the matter of Dell v. Lakshmi. How should it end? What do you think?

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