I've been meaning to blog for awhile now about an article I read in last week's Sunday New York Times Magazine about dads who find out through DNA tests that they aren't the real father. The main thing holding me back: I couldn't figure out what I thought about it.
While I usually have a pretty clear idea where I stand on most parenting issues (see vaccines, co-sleeping, or religion, just to name a few) I had difficulty figuring out where I stood on this one -- or, for that matter, what I would do if put in the same situation.
The article navigates the complex legal issues that arise when someone who always thought they were a child's father finds out that, in fact, they are not.
The article notes that, much to many "duped dads" surprise, a DNA test confirming they aren't a child's biological father usually has no impact on their legal obligations to the child, such as paying child support if they split with the child's mother.
Indeed, the article is centred around the story of one man -- identified only as Mike L. -- who found out through DNA tests that the daughter he'd raised for years was not really his.
After getting divorced, his ex-wife then married the man who was the child's actual biological father -- yet Mike is still legally obligated to pay child support:
“I pay child support to a biologically intact family,” Mike told me, his voice cracking with incredulity. “A father and mother, married, who live with their own child. And I pay support for that child. How ridiculous is that?”
As the article explains, the legal principle that requires fathers in these situations to keep on paying child support is that the best interests of the child come first , that children shouldn't be punished financially for the deceptions of their mother. In general, this seems like a fair principle -- it would seem wrong for children to be plunged into poverty because their mother had an affair years ago.
It also seems to make logical sense when you look at it in the context of child custody. If a man loved and raised a child as his own for years and then found out the child wasn't biologically his, most of us would think it unjust and cruel if the mother could then deny him access to the child based simply on a DNA test.
So if a DNA test isn't enough to sever a man's parental rights, it seems somewhat logical that it's not enough to get him out of his responsibilities, either.
But cases like Mike's raise an interesting moral question. In theory, there's no reason the child has to suffer financially in his case. The girls' biological dad is living with her and could easily step up. Indeed, it seems unjust that her biological father is able to weasel out of his responsibilities because of the way the law recognizes parental rights.
While I can't decide what I think about how the law should deal with cases like Mike's, there's one thing I am clear about: There is something seriously wrong about men who, upon learning a child isn't biologically theirs, abandon them completely.
Ironically, some courts actually reward this morally abhorrent behaviour -- because a father who abandons his child when he learns it's not genetically his can make a stronger case later on that DNA was all that ever linked him to the kid.
There was something deeply sad about reading in the story about cases of fathers who completely stopped seeing their children upon learning they weren't biologically linked:
The last time [Carnell] Smith saw his one-time daughter was nine years ago, when she was 11. His outrage at Chandria’s mother and the system remains close to the surface. “We’re penalized for trusting our wives or girlfriends!” Smith seethed to me. He has long since lost track of Chandria. It is as if she ceased to exist once their biological connection evaporated.
Chandria, however, has not forgotten Smith. Her memories of her 11 years with him are happy ones, which makes what happened afterward so hard for her to grasp. As Chandria, who is now 20, remembers it, Smith just disappeared from her life. “I was just a kid, so I didn’t really understand what happened or why,” she said. “He never did explain why he didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.” Chandria says he wouldn’t answer when she called him at home, or he would promise to call back but never did.
I know that -- from a strictly evolutionary perspective -- it makes no sense for a man to take care of a child who isn't biologically his (indeed, as I've written before, that partly explains why everyone always says babies look so much like their dad).
But even a believer in evolution has to concede that we are more than just gene machines -- how else to explain adoptive parents who devote so much time and money to raising and loving children they know aren't biologically their own?
I've often thought that parenting is an interesting balance between selfishness and selflessness. In many ways, we invest in our children for selfish reasons -- they carry our genes into the next generation and their success reflects back on us as parents.
Yet much of what we do as parents is about selflessly putting our children's needs above our own.
It seems to me that men who completely abandon a child because a DNA test says they aren't biologically linked reveals that, for them, parenting was only ever a selfish pursuit.
If a child isn't going to pass on their genes, they see investing any time in the relationship as a complete waste of time.
It's hard not to read an article like this and wonder what you would do if you found out your child wasn't biologically yours. (This is also, I've learned, the kind of thing that -- even when posed as a purely hypothetical question -- can offend your wife.)
I know I can't imagine abandoning The Boy in such a situation -- both because it would be an act of cruelty against a child I love but also because the emotional bond I have with him is about more than simple biology.