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Family Secrets: When Dad isn't the Biological Father

paternity test, biological father

Sometimes, a father just doesn't know.

There’s a sentiment that makes the rounds every Father’s Day, one that is meant to separate good men from the rest. It goes something like, “Any man can be a father, but it takes a special one to be a dad.”

Fathers make babies, but dads support, raise and love their children from birth and beyond.

Writing for the Good Men Project and excerpted on Jezebel, Hugo Schwyzer explains there’s a third option, a kind of father/dad. Schwyzer says there’s a strong possibility that he’s one such parent, and he’s pretty sure he’s not the only one.

Fourteen years ago, Schwyzer’s “friend with benefits” told him she was pregnant. The thing is, she had been seeing another man while she was seeing Schwyzer. The woman broke things off with Schwyzer and married the other guy, who doesn’t know there’s any question of the now teen boy’s paternity.

Schwyzer promised he’d never demand a paternity test — and he won’t now, even though he’s always wondered whether the boy might biologically be his. He’s now the doting father of a little girl, a stable and married husband and father. While he wonders about the boy who will soon be a teen, he writes that the boy’s mother is the one with the real emotional burden.

The specifics of human reproduction mean that men may have children of whose existence they are unaware, and they may unwittingly raise as their own children conceived with another man’s sperm. But women have it harder, and not only in terms of pregnancy, labor, and delivery. It is Jill, not I, who carries the burden of an unresolved question through her relationship with her husband and her first-born son. Perhaps that weight has become so light that she’s forgotten it altogether. I hope so.

He concludes with the idea that fathers give up sperm, dads give up their hearts. And that may be true for him. But I think Schwyzer — or even the pithy sentiment — can’t really capture all the complexities of the human heart and modern science and accidental pregnancies. Schwyzer’s is an old story, really. How many novels cover this same territory? The modern complicating factor is that we have ways of concluding, beyond doubt, who shares what DNA with whom.

Though Schwyzer has found peace with his decision to not ask for certainty, I can’t help but wonder what it means for this boy and his dad-possibly-not-father — whether they do or will know or suspect there’s a bigger family story here. Just because Schwyzer’s reached a comfortable conclusion — that he, himself, understands the father/dad distinction — doesn’t mean the a new story isn’t starting for a couple of other men somewhere off in the distance. It doesn’t mean other mere fathers have come to similar conclusions of their own.

How do you think family secrets like this should be handled?

Read more about the Good Men Project.

Photo: heymarchetti via flickr

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