Birth Fathers: Looking at the Stereotypes

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     Relatively little has been written about or by birth fathers. They are even more in the shadows than birth mothers, and are less apt to search or be searched for. We tend to have about three stereotypes of birth fathers, all very negative. We tend to perceive of them as either very young, too young to take any responsibility for being a parent, and probably not wanting to do so; or as being involved with several young women at once, eagerly impregnating as many as possible and bragging about it, while taking no responsibility (“drive-by” mentality); or, finally, we picture a married man involved with someone else but not leaving his wife to marry this person or supporting her or their child, not acknowledging that he is the biological father. In short, society tends to see birth fathers as irresponsible, thinking only of themselves, and bearing no consequences.
     Of course, some men fit, these stereotypes to some degree, but we have not acknowledged that many birth fathers feel a great deal of responsibility, grief, and loss about their children, may have wanted to marry and/or support the birth mother (and may have been forced on threat of their lives not to have any contact), may have felt so bad they never told anyone, or may not have even been informed of the pregnancy.
     Some birth fathers have been able to make decisions along with the birth mothers concerning relinquishment and adoption; some have later married the birth mother and they’ve had other children together, which may have caused sadness and stress, knowing that first child is not with them. Some birth fathers have tried to get custody and raise the child themselves. A few such cases have been highly publicized, in which the child had not been legally relinquished in the first place, because the birth father had not been notified or had not signed for termination of his parental rights. While these cases have been tragic for the child caught in the middle, the media has rarely emphasized that the child may not have been legally available for adoption in the first place.
     Another factor is that, in the past, birth mothers were advised not to list the birth father’s name on the birth certificate or adoption papers, in order to “simplify the adoption”; in other words, so the birth father did not have to be notified and therefore could not protest the adoption, which might have resulted in “giving away her secret.” We might question if it were the birth mother being protected, or the birth mother’s parents. In many cases, the birth mother’s family condemned the young man for getting her pregnant (regardless of her age or their commitment to each other), then condemned him more for not taking responsibility, but at the same time prevented him from doing so in any way. What a bind! At the same time, the young woman was told to state “Father Unknown,” implying that she was either raped by a stranger who fled, or that she was so promiscuous she had no idea which of several sexual partners was the father. For most birth mothers, nothing was further from the truth, and to say “Father Unknown” was terribly humiliating. This was presumably the “awful truth which must never be revealed,” hence the sealing of the original birth certificate. These procedures also made it nearly impossible for a birth father to search for his child later on, particularly if he bad no contact after learning of the pregnancy; he would not even have a birth date or the sex of the child.
     Although few books deal solely with birth fathers, some do discuss their feelings, experiences, and in some cases, reunions. Out of the Shadows: Birthfathers’ Stories (reviewed in this issue), is particularly well done, giving a wide variety of stories and situations. For many birth fathers today, the issue may not the adoption because the mother has kept the child, but maybe his level of involvement and support, the need for parenting skills, and establishment of custody. Many birth fathers receive no counseling or help in making a decision, including one about subsequent adoption of the child by a new stepfather, or having a legal agreement about future contact with the child.
     There is a need for therapists interested in helping men address their birth-father issues, whether the immediate issues of a current pregnancy, or long-term issues for men who fathered children years ago. The negative stereotype of “He got off scot-free and never cared” is simply not true in many cases. Operation Identity welcomes and encourages the involvement of more birth fathers in our meetings, and offers non-judgmental support.
     (This paper was included in the materials at the workshop on long-term adoption issues for therapists, “It’s Not Over When It’s Final,” held on April 25, 1998, in Albuquerque.)

Excerpted from the July 1998 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 1998 Operation Identity