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STANFORD -- The question "Where do babies come from?" has rattled many a parent but perhaps few as deeply as Stanford University anthropologist Carol Delaney.
"My daughter was young when she first asked it, and so I didn't want to get into too much detail," Delaney said, recalling the experience of a quarter-century ago. "I started to repeat what I had been told as a child: 'Daddy plants the seed' - and then I stopped in the middle, horrified, and said to her:
"Erase that from your mind, that's not what happens.' "
Delaney suddenly had realized her answer denied the equal genetic contributions of women and men to children. Perhaps she wouldn't have thought of that at all, she says now, if it was not for the fact that she was in no mood at the time to give fathers more credit than they were due.
The time was the late 1960s. Delaney, who was divorced when her daughter was 1 year old, found that even with her college degree, she only could get a job that paid $2.50 an hour, and a baby-sitter cost $2 an hour. "No matter how much I worked, I could not live on my earnings."
Friends and family urged her to remarry as quickly as possible. After several years of trying to enforce the child support agreement her former husband had signed, she turned to welfare. Landlords didn't want to rent to a woman alone with a child, and friends became aloof.
That experience led Delaney to be what she is today: an authority on the symbolism of procreation and the family in the three Western monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While always interested in religion, she said, she never would have probed it so deeply had it not been for her experiences as a divorced young mother.
"I had to understand why our culture defined fatherhood and motherhood the way it did," she said. She began looking in law books but eventually turned to theology.
In the foundational texts of the three monotheistic religions that trace their roots to Abraham, she said, procreation is imagined as the father planting the "seed" of a child in the "soil" of the mother's womb. "The mother is understood to nurture the seed, but the seed itself was created by and belongs to the father. In that conception of procreation, the father and child are related in a very different way from mother and child."
The welfare of the child, she said, is "dependent upon whether the father chooses to claim it or not, which is still true today in terms of the billions of dollars in child support that is never collected for children. It is the primary cause of women and children going on welfare."
The story of Abraham in the Old Testament and the Koran helps explain why the child's welfare is at the discretion of the father, Delaney believes. Throughout most of Western history, she said, children have been called "illegitimate" if they did not have a father who claimed ownership of them. Courts into the 1920s and '30s also routinely awarded physical custody to fathers in divorce cases.
"It has to do with the notion that children belong to the father in a way they don't belong to the mother," said Delaney, who is writing a book on the subject.
"Some people say, of course, that the Bible is only stories," Delaney said. "But stories are written by people; therefore, they express certain kinds of assumptions that go without saying. In the story of Abraham, where he is willing to sacrifice his son to demonstrate his love for God, there is an assumption that he had the right to take the child's life. Sarah, the mother, was not consulted; it was as if the child were his property, his father's 'seed.' "
Trying to understand the impact of this conception of procreation, Delaney lived two years in an isolated Turkish village. She wanted to see how Islamic men and women exposed to the same procreation symbolism - but not to knowledge of the ovum and the sperm - understood the meaning of mother, father and child. Her study of Turkey, The Seed and the Soil, was published in 1991.
"The story of Abraham was known to everybody in the village," she said. "So, too, was procreation in terms of the seed, and that was the basis for their understanding of their gender roles, their relationships to each other and to Allah."
The Turkish word for family, aile, Delaney said, "means women and children, making explicit that a man has a family, and women and children are part of one."
Christians and Jews in more industrialized countries have been exposed to genetic science, Delaney said, "but these older terms about planting the seed is the way in which I first learned about procreation as a child."
"This seminal conception is widely known and still taught to children in much of the United States and Europe," she said, "and the images are perpetuated in poetry, song, journalism, religious and academic writing, even by some feminist writers."
The story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his seed, Delaney said, also "legitimizes somebody sacrificing their child for a higher principle; in this case, God. It would seem to be an expression of a commitment to an abstract ideal, rather than to human relationships, and in the process, there is devaluation of human life. I kept thinking, why couldn't love of God be shown through caring relationships rather than in willingness to sacrifice them?"
If it were, she said, perhaps child support would be a higher priority for society.
"In this country, the support of children is put on the individual. There is no social consensus that they are the next generation, the ones who will care for us in our old age, pay the taxes and fight the wars," Delaney said. "Particularly if the fathers aren't going to support the children, it seems unreasonable to me to think the mother can both work and take care of them. Some people need to be helped.
"The cost in human lives, violence, drugs, lack of education hurts the whole society, and is far greater than the amount needed to assist parents in need."
Delaney's dilemma as a young mother first prompted her to organize Justice for Divorced and Single Mothers, a Cambridge, Mass. group that informed women of their legal rights and conducted an early study of how much child support was being awarded by the courts. Next, she sat in on a family law course.
There, she discovered, "the law never questioned its particular conception of what a family is, because it is rooted in biblical concepts of family. In a sense, there is no such thing as a family without a father in the eyes of the law."
That prompted her to apply for admission to Harvard Divinity School, where, at the time, a feminist critique of theology was just beginning. It was the dean of the divinity school, she said, who told her she was eligible for welfare.
"Coming from a middle-class family, I had never considered it, but then I realized that any woman can become a welfare mother," she said.
People have sometimes expressed resentment that she got welfare assistance during part of her schooling, Delaney said, but "I paid more back in taxes the first two years I worked [after graduate school] than I ever received in welfare."
Delaney eventually earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Chicago and joined the Stanford anthropology faculty in 1987.
"The experience of trying to raise a child alone below the poverty line is very much related to my work," she said. "It allowed me to question things most of us take for granted about gender, family and procreation."
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Social scientists are among those who Delaney feels have underestimated how theories of procreation shape people's understanding of what is natural or universal about the family.
"They have debated whether or not some cultures have a conception of paternity," she said, "but they have generally assumed that motherhood was something all cultures understood in the same way. I am trying to argue that motherhood is not self-evident either."
This does not deny, she said, that babies come from the body of a woman, but the meaning of that physical fact can be quite different. "In some cultures, for example, the child is believed to be a reincarnation of an ancestor, and his or her 'mother' only delivers the child back into the world." Their terms of address for women we might call "mother," she said, have a different meaning because they are related to a different theory of procreation.
The wider meaning of our terms "mother" and "father," Delaney said, may be most obvious when someone uses the verb form: "to father" or "to mother" something.
"You have the creative, originating, identity-bearing meaning of fathering," she said, "and the nurturing - some would say smothering - aspect of mothering."
"These are not necessarily the meanings that other people have when they use terms of address for someone we would call a father and a mother," she said, "but they are understandable in terms of the 'seed' and the 'soil.' "
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