‘That one really hurt. You are not the father. You are not her father. By what right could one say such a thing?’
In the latest excerpt from One?, Dan describes how his paternity of his daughter was groundlessly challenged by a later romantic partner—not the mother, and with no knowledge of actual events—who used this accusation as a way to hurt him. Despite the fact that the accuser had absolutely no direct knowledge of or connection to the mother, Dan couldn’t merely deflect and ignore this attack on his paternity.
“Well, you’re one to talk. You are a shitty father. You left your wife and daughter.” “Well, we were really unhappy, and I thought that Meredithe was better off with our divorce rather than us staying together and arguing and not getting along and all.” “But a good committed father wouldn’t have left” [but why did you seduce a married man?]. So are you saying that parents should never separate when kids are involved, no matter what the circumstances?” “I just don’t think you were committed. You ask me for a commitment, but you abandoned your child.” “So if there was abuse involved the abused parent shouldn’t leave?” No answer. “Besides, you’re probably not even the father.”
That one really hurt. You are not the father. You are not her father. By what right could one say such a thing?
I told Amy (my therapist) about how Spuz frequently accuses me, in very nasty terms, of not being Meredithe’s father. Amy cringed, incredulous that someone could be so cruel. Again forcefully encouraged me to leave her. And she absolutely should have.
Here is a case in which origins are paramount. And intensely personal. Fatherhood was part of, is part of, my identity. Once my child was conceived she immediately merged with the core of my being. Like a new limb, perhaps. My redefined essence. In this case, the beginning was definitive. To be sure, there are stepfathers and adopted fathers, and yes, they are still fathers, but, owing to a difference in origination, they instigate redefinition of an entirely different order. Less foundational. Why should this be the case? From a Darwinian perspective it is obvious. [Aren’t we all Darwinians—prisoners of Darwin?] We cannot escape our genetic evolution, our history [there it is again]. It would seem to be impossible to, as it were, think outside the box. The black (or at least translucent) prism that is evolution. And yet people (pretend to) do it. To imagine, even for a moment, that Meredithe is not my genetic child is to undermine my worldview in a most horrific manner. More importantly, my self-view. As if that weren’t already sufficiently unsteady.
In retrospect, which has greater meaning—the beginning or the end?
We struggle to hold on to the beginning, but we are ultimately left only with the end.
Introduction of uncertainty as to the Meredithe’s paternity not only affects my self-concept, it has changed my history. The certainty of the original act, of conception, has been challenged, painfully so. The fact of her conception (which I believe I witnessed) has been replaced with a set of possibilities that have greater or lesser probabilities of being correct. Where one path existed, many now do. An almost infinite number. In a quantum sense, any male on the planet could have been the father. Obviously, some are more likely candidates than others, and I am the most likely. Further, in the multiverse view, there were many fathers, and which one is identified depends on which universe the observer lives in. But wait, an objection: there could be only one father, the observer can only speak to the universe in which he lives, and you live in this one, and in this one you are the father. Your paternity is verified by the mother (this mother). Yes, but that assumes that the mother has only one history.
The fact of one history has been replaced with the reality of many possible histories, and now I must revise my narrative. Because my history is my story. It is not merely my perspective on my history that has been altered, but my actual history. The past has been rewritten, and I don’t like it. Please stop it.
Notes from the author:
This passage touches on a theme that lies at the core of “manhood.” It seems to me that three of the greatest emotional threats to a man’s gendered identity are the inability to work, the possibility of castration, and the undermining of his paternity or “father” status. Here I focus on just the third.
There is something foundational about fatherhood. The moment at which one embraces fatherhood as an identity produces changes that are radical and irreversible. Once a man has a child, and raises and nurtures her/him, he’ll always be a father, regardless of the fate of the child. Once embraced, he cannot let go of that component of his being. Consequently, when my paternity was groundlessly called into question—even though, or perhaps particularly because, it was by a person with absolutely no knowledge of the actual circumstances—it devastated me. And it certainly didn’t help that I was already in an emotionally compromised position.
True, a person doesn’t need to be a father to be a man or to be masculine. But fatherhood is inherently masculine. Not in the macho sense of being a tough guy, but in an ordinary, less hyperbolic sense. While stepfathers are no less “manly” and can be better fathers, the possible subtraction of genetic fatherhood from one’s identity as a man can effectively undermine that identity, leaving one feeling less manly, less masculine. To have one’s sense of fatherhood undermined may be somewhat parallel to being told that the people you believed to be your genetic parents were not. Either revelation would require rather substantial cognitive and emotional reorganization in order to effectively cope with the resulting redefinition of the self.
Doubt about one’s role in conceiving a child is an existential problem that is necessarily and uniquely male. Evolutionary psychologists speak of the “paternity uncertainty hypothesis,” which suggests that throughout our ancestral history men have never been completely certain that they were in fact the father of the children they raised as their own. A number of psychological implications arise from this hypothesis, including those concerning identity.
I honestly don’t know who I would be if genetic fatherhood were extracted from my self-concept. I just know that I would be somebody else.