Health & Beauty | November 2009
|Who Knew I Was Not the Father? - 2|
Ruth Padawer - New York Times
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November 22, 2009
When Mike learned that Rob — the man who had impregnated Mike’s wife — would now be the one to make his little girl breakfast and tuck her in at night, Mike wondered just what the word “father” really meant. Was he the father and Rob the stepfather or the other way around? Most galling to Mike was that he was expected to subsidize this man’s cozy domestic arrangement. Mike’s wages would be garnished because he was the legal father — even though, in this case, the biological father had more of the benefits of fatherhood and none of its obligations. (Neither L.’s mother, Stephanie, nor Rob agreed to be interviewed for this article. To protect the girl’s privacy, the magazine is withholding the families’ surnames and L.’s full first name.)
Even in paternity cases simpler than that of Mike and L., nonbiological fathers often feel like serial dupes: their wives or girlfriends cheated on them, the children they thought were theirs aren’t and yet they are required to support children they did not create. Because nothing can be done about the cheating or the biological revelation, the men focus their indignation on the money. The urge to withhold every dime, lest it end up easing the mother’s life, is hard to resist. Often the fight isn’t really about child support; it’s simply a way to channel rage about the woman’s duplicity. Some observers suggest that insisting these men pay child support will damage rather than fortify the relationship between father and child that society seeks to preserve. As Alaska’s Supreme Court concluded in a decade-old paternity case, making a nonbiological father pay “might itself destroy an otherwise healthy paternal bond by driving a destructive wedge of bitterness and resentment between the father and his child.”
Mike did not tell L. that he was asking a court to release him as her legal father. But when she was 9, he did sit her down in his lap and tell her that, according to her mother, Rob was her biological father. He said there was a chance, though small, that the courts or her mom would forbid him to see her. But if they did, Mike told L., he would fight back.
“For nine years, I thought my dad was my dad,” L. told me when I met her in June, as she tried to articulate the confusion she felt two years ago and has felt ever since. Her favorite movie is “The Parent Trap,” a story of two girls who meet at summer camp and discover they are identical twins, then successfully plot to bring their parents back together. L.’s life hasn’t worked out as neatly. She remembers the way her stomach hurt and her head felt dizzy when her dad said he wasn’t her real dad, and she remembers crying.
“At first, it made me scared, because if my dad wasn’t related to me, then I was living with someone who wasn’t a part of my family, like a stranger,” she said. “I want him always to be my real dad. Because if he’s not my dad, then who is he?”
There is a strong cultural imperative that a man should never abandon his offspring: that a man who impregnates a woman should be responsible for their child, and that a man who acted as a child’s father should continue to nurture her. But what is the cultural standard when those roles are filled by two different men? Judges, legislators and policy makers have floundered trying to reconcile the issues — a tangle of sex, money, science, betrayal, abandonment and the competing interests of the child, the biological parents, the nonbiological father and the state itself. No matter how they decide, the collateral damage is high because fairness for one party inadvertently violates fairness for another.
The challenge is to settle on principles that help answer the riddle of who is the father in each distinct and gut-wrenching situation. In most states, paternity decisions are governed by centuries-old English common law, the presumptions of which hold sway, whether or not they’re codified: a child born in a marriage is presumed the product of that union unless the husband was impotent, sterile or beyond “the four seas” when his wife conceived. The aim was to avoid “bastardy” and to preserve family stability — or at least the appearance of it.
Judges around the country have interpreted the common law in so many different ways that what happens in contested-paternity cases depends almost as much on the state as on the details of the case. Some state-court judges have let nonbiological fathers off the hook financially, but they are in the minority. In most states, judges put the interest of the child above that of the genetic stranger who unwittingly became her father — and that means requiring him to pay child support. Some judges have even rebuked nonbiological fathers for trying to weasel out of their financial obligations. “The laws should discourage adults from treating children they have parented as expendable when their adult relationships fall apart,” Florida’s top court held in a 2007 paternity decision, quoting a law professor. “It is the adults who can and should absorb the pain of betrayal rather than inflict additional betrayal on the involved children.”
Ruth Padawer is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her last article for the magazine was about a dating site for “sugar daddies.”