Should paternity certainty be important to good men?
If you’ve fathered a child, are you automatically a dad? Can you be a father to a kid that you did not create? Can you be a dad to your brother’s kid? If you find out your 18-year-old was fathered by a different man, does that mean you are no longer his father? Or does that mean you were never going to be able to do as good a job as the biological dad? Do the words father and dad mean different things?
My four-year-old daughter has been kissed by fire.
Game of Thrones fans will know this means she has red hair and is a bit feisty. My youngest is a blonde. My partner and I are brunettes. “Where does that red hair come from!?” has become an incredibly common question strangers ask us. My partner and I always respond with the same joke. “The mail man,” we say with a wink. And it always gets a laugh. Always.
Surprise and truth are important elements in comedy, and this is the reason our joke works with everyone. People are always surprised by our response because of our willingness to admit my partner might have “cheated” on me. And strangers find it funny because it could be true. In our specific case, I don’t believe this joke is actually true. I don’t believe my partner ever had sex with anyone else when she became pregnant and I believe my children are mine. But I don’t know for sure. The difference between knowledge and belief is just a degree of certainty. And in the case of my own paternity certainty, I believe they come from me, but I don’t “know” for sure. They look like me, I have red in my beard, and my grandmother insists her father was a red head. But all that said, I have never had a paternity test. Because of this, the paternity of the children in my little nuclear family is, to a degree, uncertain.
It is with this I pose a series of hard questions to the community of good men or men seeking goodness on this website. Is paternity certainty important to you? Is paternity certainty important in general? Is paternity certainty a good thing? Is it something we should value? Is paternity certainty an element of positive masculinity? And, should we teach young men and boys to value paternity certainty?
For our “conversation no one else is having,” there seems to be this huge range of hypothetical situations we can imagine and discuss.
But for today, let me pose this one to you: Here in L.A., we have some friends who identify as Polyamorous. I’ll let you Google the word and go down that rabbit hole on your own. But for this article, I want to bring them up because of their unique (but also not that unique) situation. Our friends are a young married couple. Let’s call them George and Judy. Judy has a lover that is somewhat older than them, by about 15 years. We’ll call him Fred. Fred had been talking about wanting to be a father. I don’t know exactly how the arrangement came about but Judy and George decided to help Fred, and last summer, Judy gave birth to Fred’s son. We’ve all heard of sperm or egg donation, and we’ve all heard of adoption, but this is a direct act of love between a married woman and her lover to create a child with the husbands blessing. Like, oh my god, they totally had sex. And remember, this is all with George’s blessing. When Judy was in labor, the nurses at the hospital we’re all abuzz with laughter and gossip. “We’ve had two guys in here a lot, but never hugging and high fiving!”.
Now, there’s a lot of things going on here with the questions I’ve asked previously. But let’s pause on those questions and talk about science and religion for a quick moment.
If you follow it, the new science and research on love, sex and family is changing our understanding of human nature rapidly. But only if you’re paying attention to that fringe part of academia. Scientific understanding changes with new evidence, but slowly. Religions rarely change. The old ways of thinking about love, sex, and family still hold true in our culture. Most of those views stem from religions that use Holy Scriptures as revealed truths of the world: one man, one woman, etc. And even stepping away from religion, science on humans and human behavior was often viewed through these religious moral lenses. (Isaac Newton is famous for his religiosity, look it up).
For about a century the scientific rhetoric on human reproductive behavior has been this: we are a socially monogamous species. Which means we pair bond to form nuclear families and raise children as a team, giving the illusion of monogamy. The logic goes like this: we are socially monogamous but sexually non-monogamous, cheating in secret. Men trade resources and protection and child care for sexual fidelity from females to ensure offspring are theirs. If men didn’t ask for sexual fidelity, they would be wasting their time and resource helping someone else’s genes into the future, all the while still retaining the instinct to spread their seed (but not worrying about the fates of those seeds for some reason? Dead-beat dad anyone?). Women promise fidelity in order to keep a man around to help raise her children but is also retaining the instinct to keep looking for a better genetic match to increase the health and survival of her own offspring.
How does this old scientific view on human sexuality and family work in regards to how we understand and practice fatherhood today? And how do we strive for goodness with this hand we have been dealt from science and religion?
We can talk all day long about monogamy and sex, but what I want to talk about specifically is all the double standards of fatherhood.
Society, religion, and science says paternity certainty is important. But our culture also celebrates men who take care of children that are not theirs. There are countless examples, but adoption is the most obvious and prevalent. Adoption flies in the face of the traditional religious and scientific views of human sexuality and family. The classic man who marries a woman with three kids that are not his own is often seen as a strong man or a good man or a hero even. We celebrate this man. But science for a long time said he was wasting his time and the woman was taking advantage of him. And Jesus said this man has made this woman an adulterer (Matthew 5:31-32). Should we be calling this adopting father “good”? With this view, he is wasting his time on kids that aren’t his and he is perpetuating promiscuity by having a relationship with a slutty woman. Do we believe this as a truth about the men in our lives who adopt kids that are not their own that were born of woman they fall in love with?
So how about George? What if Fred decides fatherhood is too hard and leaves the kid with George and Judy on their own? Has George made a huge mistake here? Should George be worried about his wife having a child with another man? How should he treat this man or this child or the woman he loves?
And on the flip side, should Fred be preoccupied with biologically reproducing? Is fatherhood defined by biology? Could he not be a father in another way?
My partner is a nurse on a Neo-natal floor, and works closely with new families and families with new borns. In the United States legal system we do not track actual paternity. As a society, we simply trust the mother’s word on paternity. When a woman becomes pregnant, she is tracked through the medical system at several stages, to which point the process ends with either a team of medical professionals delivering the baby through the birth canal or surgically removing the baby from the woman’s body. There is no question at all who our mothers are. But do we really know who our dads are? Do we define fatherhood by biology? Is family biological or intentional? And ultimately, does it matter either way? I recently wrote a piece about my dad. I loved my dad. But did I love him because I believed he was my biological father? If he wasn’t, would that, or better yet, should that have affected our relationship?
I have a half-brother who is eighteen years younger than me. Are we really “half” brothers? None of us, with the exception of my mother, know who his father is, and my mother’s lips, for whatever reason, remain tightly sealed. My mom was not raped. And slut shaming is a whole other article and I don’t have time to get into here. My brother was eventually removed from my mother’s home and has been adopted by a wonderful family. He now has a father. Now he knows whom his father is. He still has no idea which man’s testicles half of his genes came from, but he knows who his father is, and I am so grateful for this man to provide something for my brother he never had.
I love my kids, and if my oldest has red hair because my partner met a Scottish man on her trip to Scotland that one time, then so be it: my kids are still my kids, regardless of who their hair comes from. And I love them no less. And I will never stop being their father or their dad, regardless of paternity.
So good men of the Internet, what are your thoughts?