It is love, not sperm, that makes a great dad.
In a medium-sized city in the Midwest, there’s a boy who will turn 13 next month. He lives with his parents, who were wed three months before he was born. He is tall, with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes. His name is Alastair*, and he may – or may not – be my son. More on that in a moment.
No woman ever wonders if she’s a mother or not. (Egg donors are one possible exception.) But as the Casey Anthony trial vividly reminded us, it’s possible for a woman to be unsure about the identity of her baby’s father. And even more possible for a man to be entirely unaware that he’s a father – or to be unaware that the child he thinks is his is biologically another man’s.
No. Not that I know of, anyway.
That clichéd exchange has become a standard part of first-date conversation. When I was single, I got that question and gave that answer many times. I eventually stopped saying it, not because I had received hard evidence about my reproductive status, but because a woman I was dating called me out on it. “God”, she said, “you guys always say that. It’s such an obvious and cheesy way to show off that you’ve slept around. You think you’re being sly, but it’s just juvenile.”
That cured me of the habit, but to judge from what I hear from my friends, there are plenty of men of all ages still offering that same reply. And while for some it may indeed be a not-so-subtle way of hinting at a promiscuous past, for others it may reflect a sincere acknowledgment of the very real possibility that they’ve fathered a child. In my case, I have very real grounds for uncertainty.
Fourteen autumns ago, I was casually dating a woman I’ll call Jill*. We had unprotected intercourse a handful of times in late October and early November. And just before Thanksgiving, Jill discovered she was pregnant.
She didn’t tell me until after New Year’s Day. While Jill and I had been in a “friends with benefits” arrangement, she’d also been growing more serious about another man, Ted.* She’d first slept with him for the first time two nights before she had last slept with me. It was that week that Jill got pregnant, and as she would later tell me, there was no way to know for sure which one of us was the father.
But there was no question which one of us was a better bet as a romantic partner. Jill had broken things off with me as soon as she and Ted had decided on an exclusive relationship (just before she found out she was pregnant.) Ted was several years older than I was, professionally and emotionally stable, and clearly falling in love with Jill. I was drinking, partying, with some time to go before I’d hit my rock bottom. Jill wanted to be a mom. Ted wanted to be a dad. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. In her mind, these facts settled it: the baby was Ted’s. Or it needed to be Ted’s.
They got engaged at Christmas, and were married in May 1998. Their son was born in August, and a few months later, the new little family moved out of state. I haven’t seen her, or Ted, or Alastair in over a decade. Except for a half-dozen short emails in the past few years, Jill and I have had no contact.
Jill never told Ted that she’d been sleeping with someone else the week their son was conceived. Ted and I were both about the same height with the same fair skin and the same pale blue eyes; she knew that without a DNA test, there’d be no sure way to know which one of us was the biological father. But there was a sure way to know which one of us was “dad material”, and which one of us wasn’t. Jill was clear that she preferred everlasting uncertainty to the possibility of discovering that her Ted was not her son’s father. As the one who carried Alastair in her womb, it was her choice to make.
I made a promise to Jill before Alastair was born that I’d never ask for a paternity test, nor reveal to Ted the possibility that I might be the biological father of his son. I wasn’t in love with Jill and wasn’t ready to be a parent: Ted was both of those things. From what little I hear, he’s been a great husband and a doting father all these years. He and Jill have had two more sons together. With all that in mind, it would be an act of destructive narcissism on my part to ever break my promise and barge back into Jill’s life.
I won’t lie and say I don’t wonder sometimes about this boy who will become a teen next month. But I’ve wondered far less since becoming a father to my own daughter in 2009. My role in Heloise’s conception was brief (but, um, not that brief); my roles as a devoted husband to her mother and a doting papa to her are my most treasured and important tasks. If I were to discover that I was not my daughter’s biological dad, I’d be hurt by my wife’s deception – but Heloise would be no less my daughter. (I have no reason to suspect otherwise, of course.) Fathering has everything to do with being present after conception and after birth, and very little with providing the sperm to fertilize an egg. Regardless of what a paternity test would reveal, I am still my daughter’s dad – and in every meaningful sense, Ted is Alastair’s.
I only met this boy who might be my son once, when he was just eight weeks old. Ted and Jill were getting ready to move to the Midwest, and she and I met for coffee so that we could say goodbye. For a host of reasons I’m not sure I fully understand, she wanted me to meet Alastair, and I was eager to see him. I rocked him in my arms and smelled his baby smell. I studied his blue eyes and fine hair. Jill and I sipped our lattés and chatted; Alastair fell asleep in his baby carrier. After an hour, his mama kissed me on the cheek and I pressed my lips against his forehead. I said goodbye to my friend and her son and walked away with tears in my eyes. I’ve never seen so much as a photograph of Alastair since.
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.
I may or may not be Alastair’s biological father. I may or may not have other children “out there.” These uncertainties that I know many men share are part of the cost of a habit of unprotected heterosexual intercourse. But the solution to the problem isn’t suspicion or frantic demands for paternity tests, Jerry Springer style. The solution isn’t even the rigorous use of contraception (though that’s a very good idea.)
The solution is to remember that it is love, not sperm, that makes a great dad.