An epidemic of bastards

I follow my forebears, full of love, into a legitimate trend of illegitimacy.

Published May 18, 2001 7:31PM (EDT)

I have my own bastard -- a smart, handsome, fatherless boy. I love him more than can be said, and I'm not the only one who does: He is so adored by his friends at preschool that they all run to hug him every morning, and they spend the unstructured hours of class following him around on wild adventures with knights and pirates.

According to new census figures, single-parent families are growing five times faster than families headed by married couples. But even as our numbers grow, we elude a fond societal embrace. An analyst at the Family Research Council says, "This data shows we need to regain the importance of marriage as a social institution. People are disregarding the importance of marriage and the importance of having a mother and father who are married."

I've read of the hordes of children without fathers. But I only know a few. Several are children of a neighbor who is raising five kids on her own. And there are the adolescents in the juvenile penal institution where I teach -- most of them are missing either a mother or a father. But some of them are glad because the absent parent was so brutal that things are absolutely better now without that parent.

Then there are the famously illegitimate or the hybrid kind, like Jodie Foster's kids, who technically have an involved father -- but how that all works is kept secret from the public. And I don't know them.

What I do know is that illegitimacy doesn't matter much, unless you're poor. My son and I are poor.

I have stood in lines entire mornings in a roomful of women, our infants hollering and shitting, suckling, drooling and sleeping as we wait for our names to be called from the enormous list that grows, it seems, of its own volition on a high, dingy countertop.

We are in the Department of Economic Security. It's a run-down building in a bankrupt strip mall. The backrooms are filled with gray-flecked cubicles lined with files as thick as a man's forearm, files that document our financial ruin. We are down-and-out women with rummy-eyed children. We are looking for welfare and wait for the dark-haired woman to read our names off the list, "Rodriquez, Carols, Smith ..."

There are forms to fill out in triplicate and lines of people wrapping the room -- up the hallway and back. There is the time to wait, and the time to be told to come back again. When the forms are lost, there is more waiting. There is the handing over of every last bit of paperwork that could possibly document our poverty.

We submit to fingerprinting and oaths. We sit below posters of handcuffs and striped shirts -- reminders of the gifts we'll receive if we lie to get a much-needed $275 maximum for rent, utilities and diapers this month.

And the fathers? What of them? you may ask. Gone variously into the cracks of new lives, border crossings, other failed relationships. Their means of escape take the form of Chevy Impalas, shiny Broncos, used Hondas and job transfers.

Here in America we spawn our disinherited over fast-food cartons, during bad commercial television, between poorly paid jobs and cellphone calls -- pretty much the same ways most children in America are conceived.

But the word "bastard" comes from the Old French "fils de bast," meaning "child of a pack saddle." At first, the metaphor seems laughable. Then, I get it: There is no mention of lineage. The child is not of a mother and father. Not born of the woman who has poured her blood into him, or of the man leaving secretly on horseback, his silver stirrups glinting through moonlit distances. The child is born of the ass-worn leather of a saddle, the tool of escape.

Reading about how one congressman claims that illegitimacy is epidemic in America, I imagine wandering bands of nomads on horseback wooing showgirls and secretaries, infecting them with their progeny. In town after town, whole tribes of fatherless children sprout like mushrooms. They could be the clustered points on a map, the red outcroppings made by many, many pushpins.

But we use the word "bastard" very little now to speak of a fatherless child. Although the word's two hard consonants ripen the malevolence with which to speak it, the word has almost lost its meaning. It's used purely as a way to let off steam. We speak of unclaimed children as "illegitimates," and that's another word entirely.

Once it is split open, this legalese reveals its meaning: a mélange of implied illness and illegality, rounding out to the final letters that all but make up the word "intimate." It may be stretching it a bit to say so, but the word hints at "criminal intimacy" or some illness you mustn't catch, some kind of sexually transmitted disease.

Forced to pick, I'd go with the old-fashioned "born out of wedlock," in which the interiors of the words, especially the simple "lock," instruct us about the ways we tie ourselves together with pledges, binding ourselves with words and recognition, making us kindred in a world of public opinion and private wealth.

In a propertied world, a child is part of the holdings -- either owned or disowned -- though the implications vary widely. Motherhood and women's procreative power are still assumed to be validated only by men.

I know this because disapproval is widespread, at least in my own small chunk of the world. My grandmother feels sorry for me. My other grandmother repeatedly warned me before she died not to have another "accident." One sister-in-law worried aloud to me that the only child she knew who was raised without a father was now in jail. A social worker neighbor feeds me statistics on how much more children thrive with involved fathers. My own mother reads a draft of this essay and pulls me aside to ask, "Are you sure you want to, you know, let people know that Gabriel is, well, you know ...?" She can't even say the word.

My child was born of a certain roaming, of an unwillingness to bind or commit on the part of two souls that went unbound by the simplest of words -- "I do" -- in an act at once so incredibly private and utterly public.

Gabriel's blood father is a man I briefly fell in love with a half-decade ago, a man I would have mostly forgotten by now had our breakup not been interrupted by my unplanned pregnancy. We were already on the outs and the pregnancy became the heaped straw that hastened our undoing.

I suppose some couples' bonds would be solidified by similar circumstances. But my pregnancy only flashed a more glaring light on our important differences. I am proud of the fact that we didn't bury our heads and pretend to make an honest go of it.

To his credit, Pedro wanted the child. I was afraid of motherhood, but knew I did not want be with Pedro. We separated when I was several months pregnant and he moved back across the Mexican border. Our lives together are over, but not really. We began something big together. Something he won't see himself through. Something about which I inextricably am.

The thing I am refusing here is to feel ashamed of my son. Or myself. What I want to know is how he and I fit into the shape of the world around us. For that, the past may be instructive.

In my own family tree, I can trace only two out-of-wedlock births: two uncles made half-uncles by the fact that they were fathered by someone other than my maternal grandfather. My grandparents, Hal and Marjorie, divorced in the early 1940s. He left for Manhattan looking for fortune as a Madison Avenue photographer. She remained in a small town raising four kids on her own in part by renting rooms out to boarders. Rumor has it that her fifth and sixth children were fathered by one, probably two, of these boarders, who also left her to do the raising alone until she died of pneumonia in 1947.

My grandmother's youngest child was only a few months old when my grandmother fell ill. Her last wish was that none of the children go to live with her in-laws. But because my grandmother's own siblings could not afford to take them, the children were orphaned, fostered out and adopted. Some spent their entire childhoods in rural New Hampshire only a few farms away from each other but never knew it, at least not until 42 years later, when a string of flukes unexpectedly brought them together again.

My grandmother was the age I am now when she died. My mother was 8 years old when she and her sister were adopted by an older, childless couple who lived frugally in a house by an enormous salt marsh on the New Hampshire coast. My oldest uncle was too old to be adopted, so at 15 he bided his time with a foster family for a year until he was old enough to join the service.

The state gave my youngest uncle to a foster family that supplemented its income by hosting more than 25 foster children in a dozen years -- not the miracle story in a made-for-TV movie, but the sad tale of children who often went to sleep hungry and spent their days working the farm as unofficial indentured servants.

Everyone from town to town kept track of the Richardson kids and their new names. They knew where they all were and how they fared. But the children themselves wouldn't find each other until they had grown children of their own.

Shame, I am sure, had much to do with this. Especially the shame over the births of the youngest sons, and the earlier shame of the divorce. When my own mother decided to divorce my father years later, her adoptive parents told her to suck up the pain and live with my father even though the marriage was a train wreck. And when she went ahead and divorced him anyway, her parents, out of shame, refused to help her support her three children.

On the other side of my son's family tree is his paternal grandmother, Maria Davilla, who was raised with her siblings in poverty in Zacatecas, Mexico. There is an echo of Marjorie's story in Maria's: She too married young and had six children. She also divorced and was left to raise her children alone. But Maria didn't die so her kids remained under one tin roof in a barrio in Chihuahua. Their father was a gold digger -- for real. He packed off into the mountains for months at a time with pickaxes and mules looking for fortune. Meanwhile, in Chihuahua, Maria put meals together out of the butcher's discards -- bones, fat, entrails.

When I met her years later, Maria was renting a stall the size of a small bathroom in a mercado where she cooked soups, tortillas and carne asadas for the lunch crowd in the business district. Her sons came most days to eat her food before going back to low-paying jobs. Their father was rumored to be in the city, but he never showed up. Angel, an uncle of Gabriel's whom I met briefly -- a tall lanky man with sandy hair and edgy demeanor -- has several children by different women, none of whom he supports. Not one bone scrap.

And of course there is Gabriel's own father. Beyond this I cannot reach back. Still, the pattern of abandonment shows its webbed circumference.

Maybe it is true. Maybe my son and I are part of an epidemic that is ruining this country. Without my knowing it, I have stepped fully into a tendency that began with forebears. I have brought a child into a difficult world untethered, with only a blurred place to hang his name.

Or maybe my son and I are seeds of a great tree, whose flowers were pollinated by winds that have carried us far. We root in the rocky ground of our inheritance. And the soil will be made good by us in our own way.

By Tracy Trefethen

Tracy Trefethen is a writer whose work has appeared in various literary journals, including The Antioch Review, Seneca Review, Passages North and Hayden's Ferry Review. She is currently writing a collection of essays with a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

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