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Family Secrets: When Dad isn't the Biological Father

By Madeline Holler |

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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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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8 thoughts on “Family Secrets: When Dad isn't the Biological Father

  1. bob says:


  2. Diana says:

    i dont share the same sentiments with him , the women is wrong to not disclose the possiblity that the man she married is not the father of her son she set him up to have an obligation to support her child. it may have made him feel obligated to marry her…and she may have been in the relationship before they were married and not told him there was more then one man. i also believe even though you as the bioligical sperm donar did not parent the child it should be disclosed to the child you are there parent for many reasons heritage, medical so many reasons..

  3. Andrea says:

    I’m sorry, that woman is a lying slut, and the poor man who married her deserves to know the truth. I wonder how he would feel knowing he has given his heart to a child not his own, unknowingly? Disgusting.

  4. cheri says:

    Tell us how you really feel, andrea. :)

  5. Gib says:

    Andrea has the right idea.

  6. anon says:

    You should read all of Hugo.

    The guy is a sociopath. I am serious about this. He preys on young women and brags about it, and the projects his own bizarre unethical behavior as the normal behavior of men. And for that last, feminists flock around him and defend him for his “honesty.”

    In this case, 14 years ago, he participated in a lie against two innocents, the child who deserves to know who where his medical ancestry lies, and the “Ted”, who was lied into believing a child was his when it was not, and thus put on the hook emotionally and financially for a child not his.

    In the past, just google it, Hugo as professor admits sleeping with young students, taking drugs, and lots and lots of stuff.

    The guy is a sociopath.

  7. Hugo Schwyzer says:

    Thanks, Madeline, for writing a fair and even-handed piece. Much appreciated.

  8. Linda, t.o.o. says:

    @Schyzer, LOL. Where’s your care abut “fairness” for the poor sucker who has paid to raise your kid while being lied to, not to mention what you and the mother have done to the child. Are you going to fess up when he’s an adult for his entire medical history isn’t false? No one ethical would be a party to this lie.

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