The XX Factor

When Fatherhood Becomes a Solomon-Worthy Question

In the world of adoptive parents (I am one), there is one golden truth that stands out above all others: Your true family is the family that raises you. Mothers, fathers, sliblings, grandparents-these are not ties of blood and biology, but ties of love and history. Relationships transcend genetics. But the issue here, of course, is that these fathers thought they had both. What must it take to become, in essence, the adopted father of a child you thought carried your genes?

The brilliance of that NYT article on biological paternity is that it took the most extreme possible case-that of a man whose ex-wife has actually married the biological father of a child he thought was genetically his, but is still required to pay his full child support-and let us see that even then, the answer isn’t easy. This guy-“Mike L.”-loves his daughter. She spends every other weekend with him. “Just because our relationship started because of someone else’s lie doesn’t mean the bond … isn’t real,” he says. He’s right, but who wouldn’t feel his outrage? The court said that its hands were tied. State law in that case didn’t allow for the recognition of two fathers of the same child. It was all or nothing for Mike L., and the court felt that by continuing to parent his daughter-and she is his daughter-he’d made his choice. A man can no more be “a little bit dad” than a woman can be “a little bit pregnant.” Maybe that’s the court’s way of trying to even the biological score.

But of course, it’s not that simple. Nothing about parenting, or love, or families, is simple. The judge in Mike L.’s case is part of a group petitioning his state legislature to let courts consider all the messy evidence in these cases, to treat custody, paternity and support separately where appropriate. As hard as it is to figure out what the “right thing” would be for Mike and his daughter, the court wanted to get there. It didn’t want to define fatherhood as a DNA contribution, but it also didn’t want to leave the fact of that DNA contribution out of the picture.

One commenter on Amanda’s post reminded us that women arguably now have more legal choice than men when it comes to child-rearing (or at least, they get to make their choice after a pregnancy is discovered, not before they have sex). With varying political goals coming from both sides of the aisle, there’s been much recent effort to ensure that biological fathers take at least fiscal responsibility for children born outside the boundaries of a relationship, whether it would have been his choice or not. If nothing else, one goal is to put two people on the hook for a child’s welfare. But-“mother’s baby, father’s, maybe”-some of the time that second person isn’t, biologically at least, the “right” one.

To some small and maybe frightening degree, parenting is about choice. We choose how we parent, and sometimes we choose whether to parent. Mike L. stepped up, and he’s effectively being punished. On the other hand, thousands of step-parents, lesbian nonbiological mothers, and adoptive parents have stepped up, too, and when a court recognizes that their status as parent has nothing to do with blood ties, that’s their reward. It’s not that courts are behind in dealing with the wonders of DNA testing, it’s that they’ve already put aside the idea that biology is all-controlling, and are now realizing that neither nature nor nurture holds all the answers.

The law is trying to deal prophylactically with this problem, proposing infant DNA tests or clear limits on the timing for challenging paternity, at least as it relates to child support. But until the dust settles (if it ever does) around this issue, courts stuck with wrestling with the impossibly difficult issues that arise when family ties begin to unravel should be allowed to consider everything from DNA to carpooling to sliced bread, if it helps them to move mothers, fathers,and children past the disputes and back into doing the best they can to lead their lives.

And to Mike L., if the facts of that article are correct, both sympathy and congratulation are in order. He’s being screwed, but (unlike some of the other men profiled) he’s a big enough man not to screw up his daughter in the name of fai