Who You Callin’ a Bastard?: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sins of the Father
A few days before Christmas 1979, I was doing what I always did during those glorious days when I was on vacation from school and home alone: snooping around in my mother’s bedroom. Back then, I was a latchkey kid anyway, so I guess it was no big deal that I was home without supervision. And I didn’t mind. Having the house all to myself meant that I could read all day undisturbed, look up interesting names in the white pages of the phone book (don’t ask), and snoop around in my mother’s room. I went through her drawers, tried her perfumes (all of them), dressed up in her clothes and high heels, and searched for my Christmas presents. They were usually under her bed, so I always saved that spot for last. This particular Christmas, I pulled out a long, white, rectangular JC Penney gift box and frowned. Clothes. In my ungrateful mind, clothes were the consolation prize of Christmas gifts. So I reluctantly opened the box.
Inside, I found not clothes but piles of paper. Tannish, legal-sized paper, which made sense because these were legal documents. The pages were typewritten and had a lot of words that even an precocious, 8-year-old voracious reader like me didn’t understand. So I went and got my trusty dictionary. It turned out to be of little help because the definitions of some of the words were equally puzzling. But because I recognized my name, my mother’s name, and my father’s name, I knew I had to get to the bottom of this. Why, for example, after each instance of my name, did they type “the bastard child”? I knew “bastard” was a bad word, like “bitch” and “motherfucker,” but what did it have to do with me, or any child?
I found “bastard” and read the definition…What the hell did “illegitimate” mean? I turned to the I’s.
I already knew that my parents never married, and I knew from TV that this was Not Normal. But other than the white kids at the school to which I was bused, I didn’t have any peers with married parents. So I didn’t think too much about my family situation besides wishing that I could see my dad more often, and that when I did he would be more dad-like (which is another post for another day). So the fact that my situation had a name–that there was a name for kids like me–was astonishing. Even more surprising was that the courts would need to be involved in this. In my mind, court was for criminals. Again, TV formed my understanding of life.
I kept reading. What I came to understand from that pile of papers was that my mother wanted my father to pay child support. My father objected by denying paternity. (As an adult, I would hear from a family friend that a judge saw a picture of me, looked at my dad, and laughed him out of court. This was of course in the days before Maury Povich adjudicated such matters). So I learned from those papers that my father had not wanted me. And I learned to be ashamed.
So when the news about Arnold Schwarzenegger fathering a child with an employee broke and the headlines began popping up on my Twitter timeline, I was reminded of my discovery that December day in 1979. “Love child” appeared in a lot of the headlines, and I was also reminded of a song by that title, by The Supremes:
Never meant to be
Born in poverty
Never meant to be
Take a look at me
On lead, Diana Ross sings this song as an adult “love child,” warning a would-be lover:
This love we’re contemplatin’
Is worth the pain of waitin’
We’ll only end up hatin’
The child we may be creatin’
Never meant to be
(Scorned by) Society
Always second best
(Different from) Different from the rest
There are moments when I don’t like my kids very much, but I can’t fathom hating one’s child. But you know what I really do hate? The words we use to describe children like the one that Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he’d fathered. Children who didn’t ask to be born, and who most certainly didn’t choose the circumstances of their births. A Twitter friend, @JBeezy007, commented: “Most people think of the word “bastard” as a profanity, but back in the day, it meant a “‘Love Child’…It still does.” And vice versa, of course. Funny how Arnold Schwarzenegger has a “love child,” but when poor single parents have children, they are labeled “out of wedlock.” I know that the definitions aren’t identical, but “love child” is certainly the more sentimental of the two. But there’s nothing sentimental about it when everyone knows it’s just a Hollywood way of calling a child a “bastard.” And from a kid’s perspective, you just want to be a child, without any qualifiers.
Schwarzenegger’s revelation also reminded me of another Motown song, one I’ve long identified with–The Tempations’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”:
And Mama, bad talk going around town
saying that Papa had three outside children and another wife.
And that ain’t right.
Here “outside” means outside of one’s marriage, or more liberally, outside of one’s acknowledged household. Technically speaking then, my 4 half-sisters and I wouldn’t really be considered “outside children” because our father never married any of our mothers. (We were all adults when he married our stepmother.) It doesn’t matter though, because the sentiment still applies: we were born outside of what is deemed acceptable. Those who are invested in such classifications would perhaps bypass “outside children” and label us “illegitimate” and “out of wedlock,” two more words that stigmatize children for matters beyond their control. I was surprised to learn recently that in some states, a father has no automatic parental rights if he and the child’s mother never married. Interestingly, however, even without rights, he’s still obligated to pay child support, if paternity is established. For him to have legally recognized parental rights, he must pursue a legal process called…you guessed it: legitimation. Jump through these hoops to make your child “valid…in accordance with established rules, principles, or standards.”
This morning, my Twitter timeline was still abuzz about Schwarzenegger’s confession. Several folks were concerned not with the grown-ups involved (and who knew what and when they knew it), but rather with the child at the center of this story:
@SkinnyBlackGirl: Look, I know everyone hates infidelity, but can we stop disrespecting children who had nothing to do with how they were conceived? They are children. Just refer to them as such. I’ll tell you right now: I’m the product of an affair. Call me illegitimate and see if I don’t legitimately punch you in your jaw.
@Wisemath: Two of my siblings whom I love dearly were results of an affair. I love them like you can’t know.
@KimMoldofsky: One of the many things that irks me is that [Schwarzenegger] calls this an “event.” An affair might be an event, [but] a child is not!
@Firemom: I’ve been twitching with all the “out of wedlock,” “love child.” A child is somewhere, hearing this.
What does all this labeling mean…to the children to whom the labels are assigned?
Back to Christmas 1979. I put the papers back in that JC Penney box, pushed the box back under my mom’s bed, and kept that secret for nearly 20 years. During the remainder of my childhood, I was often sad, angry, and frustrated. Frustrated because, if I worked really hard, I made Honor Roll. But no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t exit the Hall of Shame into which I’d been born.
Why do we persist with these designations for children? If there’s a legitimate (no pun intended) reason to discuss a child’s parents’ marital status, isn’t “They aren’t married” sufficient? It is, except when we want to pass judgment, and in doing so, we dump the full-weight of the so-called sins of the fathers (and mothers) on their children’s heads.
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