One teen dad, many mothers, 13 kids was a headline guaranteed to shock. It revealed the news that a "rogue 19-year-old is a liable father to 13 kids to different mums". If financial assistance such as domestic purposes benefits and accommodation supplements were required to raise these children, the writer calculated that "benefits to support those 13 babies could be costing the taxpayer more than $200,000 a year."
Dame Lesley Max of the Great Potentials foundation said, "In our work, we've become only too aware of older men who have tom-catted their way through life, leaving damaged children with damaged mothers. But what we're now learning about the same behaviour in teenagers is a new shock."
Presumably, at least some of the "older men" she's referring to include those middle-aged males with a penchant for giving Wife Number One the flick and trading her in for a younger model with whom he starts a second family - conveniently unimpeded by his first family. It's a textbook scenario of a mid-life crisis and one that occurs with sufficient frequency that it doesn't seem to be especially noteworthy.
While the teenager who fathered 13 children to different mothers has been variously criticised for his irresponsibility and his promiscuity as well as the financial burden many people believe he has created for the taxpayer, his story is really just a small (if extreme) part of a much larger social trend. The experts call this style of serial procreation "multiple-partner fertility". It's a trend that growing numbers of researchers and social commentators are wary of.
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The research paper Men Who Father Children with More Than One Woman: A Contemporary Portrait of Multiple-Partner Fertility states that: "Multiple-partner fertility has potentially negative consequences for men, women and children. Couples report lower relationship quality and higher conflict in relationships in which either the mother or the father has had children with previous partners ... [W]hen men have children with more than one woman, it is difficult for men to balance their financial and social responsibilities to more than one family" and "[i]ncarceration is more prevalent among men who exhibit multiple-partner fertility" and they are "more likely to report that they used illegal drugs in the previous year".
Almost 20 years ago an Independent piece explored "fathers with more than one family" and underscored what many of us have ascertained from simple observation: that "[a]n increasing number of men are breaking up with their wives, then having more children with new partners." The case studies revealed common themes of strained relationships, resentment, financial difficulties, divided loyalties and guilt that can arise from the creation of second families.
According to Multiple Partner Fertility Inc, a US-based organisation devoted to breaking this "vicious cycle" of parenting, "1 out of 5 women have children with multiple dads. 1 out of 10 men... has children with multiple partners. Men and women having children with a variety of partners is on the rise." Interestingly, men are more likely to be accused of "tom-catting" yet more women are said to engage in multiple-partner fertility.
In 2007 I wrote about this group of women in Who's the Daddy?, an article inspired by the coining of a new term for women having children with more than one man: they are "multi-dadding", according to British journalist Lucy Cavendish - who herself has experienced multiple-partner fertility. I suggested that the trend could be attributed to "[h]igh divorce rates, declining marriage rates, extended child-bearing years and more liberal attitudes in general".
'Domino-Dad' Families: Many Women Have Kids With More Than One Man reported that "[m]ore than a quarter of all U.S. mothers with more than one child had some of those kids with different men, according to a new study." It also drew on a University of Michigan report which found that "[m]ultiple partner fertility is an important part of contemporary America family life, and a key component to the net of disadvantage that many poor and uneducated women face".
While the trend is well-documented overseas, it seems to fly somewhat under the radar in New Zealand. This dearth of information and these low levels of awareness as to how it's impacting on families here seem at odds with a society which claims to be concerned with the wellbeing of Kiwi children. Perhaps in a strange way we should be thankful for the 19-year-old "rogue" father of 13 who has managed to highlight this issue in a way that legions of less prolific examples of multiple-partner fertility have failed to.
What are your views on multiple-partner fertility? Have you noticed it is becoming more common - and, if so, why do you think that might be? What are the positive outcomes and what are the problems associated with it? Do we need to raise awareness of and generate discussion about this issue?