September 13th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
When Slate deals with the subject of paternity fraud, it usually gets it wrong, and this article is no different (Slate, 9/11/12). It comes in the context of the online magazine’s advice column entitled “Dear Prudence,” and, while much of Slate is absurdly anti-male, in this piece, “Prudie” at least tries to take a balanced approach to a difficult question. That said, she still gets it wrong. Here’s the letter from the man.
I had a fling with an acquaintance many years ago. She became pregnant, didn’t tell me, and I only recently found out I have an 8-year-old daughter. Her mother is married and my daughter thinks he is her biological father. I can’t begin to describe how angry and devastated I am for missing out on my own child’s entire life to date. I want to get to know her and establish a father-daughter relationship over time, but my family seems to think this would be cruel and traumatic. They all say that the little girl is happy with the only father she knows, and it would be selfish of me to disturb that knowledge. I’ve been doing some research and I can definitely pursue my paternal rights for visitation. The mother knows this as well, and has begged me not to. I want to do what’s best for my daughter but I also want that to be having me in her life. Is it wrong to now step in and claim my role as a father?
And here’s “Prudie’s” response.
I appreciate this letter because I have so often heard from the people on the other side of the equation. That is, from women who have had affairs and have children fathered by men other than the person they’re married to, men who have been held out as the biological father. Yours is the strongest possible argument for why keeping the secret is so potentially dangerous. How much better it would be for a child to know from her earliest years about her origins so that a stranger bearing DNA doesn’t unexpectedly show up and blow up her world. I think you should have another private conversation with the mother, and maybe even father (although it’s not clear here whether he knows he’s not the father) which you try to make as absolutely nonthreatening as possible. Ask her, or them, to try to understand this from your perspective—you have a child who you want to know. You can say that while you do have legal recourse to be part of her life, of course it would be best for everyone if your daughter was told the truth freely and you have not made any decision about pursuing legal action. Then let her and her husband think about it. If they refuse, then frankly, although I am generally in favor of the truth, I’m going to have to agree with your family and say that at least for now, you should back off. You know your arrival, particularly announced on legal letterhead is going to be traumatic for a child who is happy and probably doesn’t want to get to know you. Sometimes there are situations with no perfect resolution that inevitably cause pain, and this is one.
And here’s what mine would have been had I been in Prudie’s place.
It’s important for you to realize that your daughter’s mother did you a grave and indefensible wrong eight years ago. She willingly pursued this “fling” with you and became pregnant. Then she exercised her power over you by withholding knowledge of the pregnancy – knowledge she knew you would have wanted. Then, for eight years, she withheld knowledge of your daughter from you. Due to her exercise of power over you, you never saw your daughter take her first steps or heard her first words. You weren’t allowed to read her to sleep at night or send her off for her first day at school. All that and so much more was taken from you by the girl’s mother for her own selfish reasons, whatever they were. Into the bargain, her mother deprived her own daughter of a relationship with you and even the knowledge of who her father really is. This is something that, for medical reasons, the girl will eventually have to know, so the passage of time only puts off the inevitable.
All that is to say that your anger is entirely justified. You and your daughter have been deeply wronged by her mother.
Of course just because her mother committed such a wrong doesn’t necessarily dictate your course of action. You need to consider what is truly in your child’s best interest while not ignoring your own needs. Should you do what is clearly in your legal power to do, i.e. file a paternity action in the appropriate court, get a DNA test, establish via court order regular contact with the girl and contribute to her support? Or should you sit on your anger, pretend you don’t have a child and allow her to continue in ignorance of her true parentage?
To my mind, arguments for ignorance are rarely very strong. As a general rule, I think people deserve and can handle the truth. Can an eight year old girl handle knowing that the man she’s always thought of as her father is in fact not exactly that even though he’s cared for her all her life? Can she absorb the concept that there is another man whose DNA is half her biological makeup? Or would all that be too traumatizing for her?
To a great degree, the answer lies in how the subject is approached by her mother and nurturing father. Here’s what I would suggest: You become their family friend. You come over for drinks in the evening and are introduced to your daughter as a friend. They invite you to dinner, to see her perform in her class play, to join them with her at the zoo. Over a few months, they integrate you more and more into their/her lives. By that time, you will have become familiar to her in a relaxed and friendly setting. At that time, her parents can explain your exact relationship to her and that you and she will be spending more time together.
Of course, the above scenario depends on the mother’s agreement. She doesn’t have to do it if she doesn’t want to, but the alternative isn’t better. The alternative is for you to hire a lawyer and pursue your rights in court, a process that would surely be more precipitate and uncomfortable for the child than what I described. Ultimately, the mother doesn’t have a choice about this. You can develop a relationship with your daughter one way or another, the easy way or the hard way. Which your former paramour chooses will say a lot about her.
But I haven’t yet addressed the potential upset the girl may face at the prospect of having a second father. Here’s the answer to that: children deal with that and far worse every day. Indeed, they deal with something very much like what you’re proposing every day, and not a parent, not a mental health professional, not a guardian ad litem ever says they shouldn’t. It’s called divorce and remarriage. Let’s say this girl’s mother decided she wanted to divorce her husband (the only father the child has ever known) and marry someone else, a man completely new to the girl. Would a court tell her ‘no’? Would anyone? Oh, there might be some who counselled staying married “for the sake of the child,” but they’d be drowned out by forty years of law and socialization that tell every adult that, while it’s undeniably hard on children, divorce is their right and eventually, the child will adjust.
That’s what divorce and remarriage do; they separate one parent (usually the father) from the child and put a new man in his place. Are the children hurt? Of course they are, but we don’t tell the parents to stay put.
Your case is far less difficult for the child because she’s not losing the man she’s known as dad, she’s gaining another man with whom she’ll develop a relationship with its own unique characteristics. The man she knows as Daddy will still be there for her, doing the things he’s always done. So will her mother. The only difference to her is that there will be a new man in her life who comes to see her every so often and at whose house she occasionally stays.
It’s always baffled me how adults of every stripe ignore those basic facts when it comes to paternity fraud. Over a million divorces are filed in the U.S. every year. Most of those couples have children, the vast majority of whom suffer terribly the loss of their fathers, but how often do you hear anyone tell the adults to restrict their freedom. Only when a biological father like yourself wants to assert his legitimate parental rights do people all of a sudden get an overwhelming desire to protect the child from upsets far less serious than those attending divorce. The simple fact is that if children can adapt to divorce, and they do all the time, your daughter can adapt to finding out who her father is and getting to know him.
Go for it.
Thanks to Paul for the heads-up.