Who’s the Daddy?
Whatever Padma Lakshmi may say, the truth is that fathers do – and should – matter
If you have been following the life and times of Top Chef judge Padma Lakshmi (best known in India for being Salman Rushdie’s ex-wife) then you will know that she is now the proud mother of a year-old daughter, Krishna. Mother and daughter have been featured in magazines and newspapers, with a glowing Padma beaming beatifically at her baby, her own little miracle (Lakshmi had been told that she could never conceive because of endometriosis and was reconciled to not having kids, until Krishna came along unannounced).
For a long time, the paternity of baby Krishna remained undisclosed. Then it was revealed that there were two men in the running for the role of Baby Daddy: Ted Forstmann, with whom Padma was currently in a relationship and Adam Dell, with whom she had had an affair. By the time the baby was born, however, Dell had been dumped (Padma called him an ‘unambitious man’ with an ‘uninteresting career’ and ‘unmemorable friends’ and told him that she hoped to God that he didn’t turn out to be the father) and Forstmann, the 70-year-old billionaire boss of IMG, was the man in Lakshmi’s life.
A paternity test, however, revealed that it was Dell who had fathered Krishna. And unlike some men – Steve Bing, the biological father of Elizabeth Hurley’s son, Damian, comes to mind – who are only too happy to abdicate any parental responsibility in such circumstances, Dell wanted to be involved in the life of his daughter. Padma, however, had moved on and moved in with Forstman, who she had happily cast as Krishna’s father, even teaching her to address him as ‘Papa’. The real Daddy, on the other hand, only got to spend a measly seven hours a week with his daughter.
Dell, after unsuccessfully negotiating for a more meaningful role in his daughter’s life, sued for sole custody. Needless to say, he wasn’t stupid enough to believe that he would get it. The idea, his lawyers said, was to pressure Padma legally into sharing custody in a more equitable manner. And yes, he wanted to be named as the legal father on the birth certificate so that his child could bear his surname as well: she should be known as Krishna Lakshmi Dell.
Padma Lakshmi’s response was to fume and fret about how her ex was playing out their dispute in the public and in the courts and how this could damage her daughter. She insisted that it was irrelevant who had actually fathered her daughter. “I don’t care if Hitler himself had impregnated me. All that matters is that I got pregnant and that Krishna is here,” she is quoted as having told a friend. As far as she was concerned, Forstmann was the baby’s father and had been playing that role ever since Krishna was `delivered into his arms’.
I mention this case only because it illustrates perfectly how marginalised fathers have become in our society. While I have the greatest sympathy for single mothers – adoptive or otherwise – who want to bring up their own children, there is no getting around the fact that fathers play a crucial role in a child’s life. And that we turn them into an irrelevance at our own peril – and to the considerable detriment of our children.
And yet, that’s exactly what is happening these days, at least in the urban milieu. Men are becoming increasingly disenfranchised in the fertility wars. A woman has the right to decide whether she wants to have a baby or not. And given that she is going to carry the baby to term and be the primary caregiver, that’s how it should be. But surely, the man should have some say in the matter. After all, it is going to be his child as much as it is hers.
But while we are all agreed that women can and should exercise control over their bodies, men are beginning to lose the battle for control of their bodily fluids. Women decide if they want to get pregnant, they decide if they want to keep the baby, they choose if they want an abortion, and it is left up to them to decide on the father’s involvement (or, as in Padma’s case, to decide who gets to play the father).
How is this remotely fair? Mothers may be the most important figures in a child’s life – especially in the early years – but surely that doesn’t mean that fathers should be made irrelevant if not redundant?
I have no problem with the view that fathering a child involves much more than the act of insemination. That it is a life-long commitment that involves sleepless nights, constant worry, incredible patience, selfless care and unending love. But if a man is to play that role, he must be allowed to be a father to his child – no matter how the mother feels about him.
The one lesson we should all learn from the Padma Lakshmi imbroglio (apart from the obvious ones involving contraception and not sleeping with two men at the same time) is that we devalue fathers at our own peril. But amidst all this muck, there is at least one thing to be grateful for. When Krishna grows up there is one thing she will be sure of – that her father loved her enough to fight for her, no matter what it took. And I do believe that she will be the happier for it.