Birth Fathers:
Is the Stereotype Wrong?

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     A few days before Mother’s Day and Birth Mother’s Day, while traveling in Switzerland, I visited an apartment in Bern, where Albert Einstein had lived with his first wife, when he was working at the patent office and before he became famous. Among the information there was the story of their relationship. They had been in the same group, studying science and mathematics, and gradually became involved with each other. There was an important and difficult examination which she took and did not pass the first time. Apparently many did not pass it the first time. Disappointed, she went back to her family’s home for the summer. While there, she realized she was pregnant, by Albert Einstein, and she gave birth to a baby girl while at her parents’ home. Before she returned to Bern, apparently several months after the child was born, she relinquished the child, and there is no record of what happened to her. There is speculation she was adopted by a family in Hungary, but no one has found any written records at all.
     My first reaction was one of sorrow for Mileva, the mother, who must have been so devastated at having the relinquish her baby. This was 1902, and one could hardly go back to university classes in Zurich with an infant. She never was able to contact her child again. I couldn’t help but wonder what became of this daughter, what she was told or wasn’t about her birth parents, whether she was as brilliant as both of them, and if she ever heard of them. The sign board said Einstein never saw his daughter. Probably he never even saw a picture of her.
     When Mileva returned to Zurich, she began to feel somewhat pushed aside by the rest of the group. She and Albert married. She took the exam again but did not pass, and gradually became a housewife and mother while he went on to his great career. They had two sons, one of whom had some disabilities, and eventually Albert and Mileva divorced, against her will, because he wanted to marry his cousin, with whom he had been close since childhood.
     As I read these facts, looked at the pictures, and the furnishings in the apartment, I felt great compassion for Mileva, but I also felt sorrow for Albert, who may have grieved over not being able to raise the daughter, nor even to ever see her. I do not, of course, know the feelings and conversations between the couple. I had never pictured Albert Einstein as a birth father before! There was no such term in his day. Certainly he has not been known as a close and nurturing father, and many people, not just men, who are extremely dedicated to their careers are not devoted parents.
     Yet, I have to wonder how his experience of being a birth father may have influenced his decision to marry Mileva, or to gradually pull away from her and their sons, and how her loss may have changed her. No one was doing films and recordings of families in those days, or reality shows. I left there with a whole new view of Albert Einstein, seeing him as a young man in a complicated relationship with no real guidelines. Perhaps he grieved the loss of the daughter, perhaps not. I noticed that my encyclopedia did not mention any of this. I think I had previously read something about it in an article, but it did not have the same impact as seeing pictures of both of them as young adults, and seeing pictures of her with the next child, and of seeing their little apartment. The proximity to Mother’s Day made it more poignant, too. Then, as Father’s Day approached, I thought again of Einstein as a birth father.
     We have a cultural stereotype of birth fathers as uncaring, whether they know about their children or not. To be sure, there are some men who do know about their children, relinquished or not, and who do not appear to care. I cannot speculate what actual feelings they may have. Many, especially in the past, were not allowed to marry the mother, nor even to contact her again. Some chose not to, and unlike young unmarried mothers, they were not expelled from school, sent away to sane “home” for unwed fathers, or expected to keep the secret forever. Some were never even told their girlfriend was pregnant. In other cases, the mother herself wanted no more contact, and either told him so, or just never told him she was pregnant. It’s hard to be a caring father if one doesn’t even know one is a father.
     In my own career as a therapist, I met numerous men who were birth fathers. Some had spent many years feeling loss, shame and guilt over their inability to support and raise a child who was relinquished. Some did not, indeed, have any idea of the child’s existence until contacted by the birth mother or the adult child many years later. Some did not know how to react, while others welcomed the offspring with open arms. Lots of other men have spent their adult years wondering if they’d fathered a child of whom they had no knowledge. That is very different from a birth mother, who knows she had a child, no matter what happened afterward. In most cases, she knows whether she had a boy or girl, and knows the birth date. In a few cases, she was so drugged she has no memory of the birth and may have even been so medicated she can’t remember the exact birth date. Still, she experienced the pregnancy, and however horrendous the loss over the years, she really didn’t forget. Many birth fathers did not even have that connection.
     In today’s world of open adoptions, parents keeping their children whether they are married or not, and expectations of fathers’ involvement with their children, young parents’ experiences may be far different. Still, there are children sired by someone other than a woman’s husband—donor fathers, one-night stands, a short romance while a couple was separated, a relationship that doesn’t last until the child is born, and even rape. Some of these fathers do have continued access to the child, some do not. In this article, I am not addressing the feelings of those men who raped a woman, whether he knew her or not. I do know of numerous cases where a young man was accused of rape when it was not, and he has had a very difficult time dealing with that. I also know women who were raped by their husbands and became pregnant, and have never revealed that to the offspring.
     I have noticed that books, films and television dramas dealing with birth fathers tend to perpetuate the stereotype of the uncaring birth father. In cases where he does care, he is expected to care from a distance. In a drama I watched recently (a rerun of an episode of Hetty Wainthrope Investigates, actually), the father longed to meet his grown daughter, but was advised to see her only from a distance and let her continue to think her mother’s husband was her father. In today’s real world, DNA testing might change that advice. The mother was advised to stay with the husband, even though she loathed him, especially after learning he had falsely accused the father of theft and ruined his military career, before she was aware of her pregnancy, then quickly married her “to make an honest woman of her.” All this was supposed to keep the daughter happy, or at least deceived. So the birth father, being a “gentleman,” went away.
     Many birth parents, both mothers and fathers, have been told, even today, not to expect any public acknowledgment of their being birth parents, such as attending weddings, graduations, birthdays, etc., of their offspring, or having a known relationship with the adoptive parents, or they may be told they can attend a graduation or wedding but must “sit in the back and leave immediately.” This seems rather similar to the days of slavery when a slave might be good enough to cook the food, feed the children, and even raise them, but must sit in the kitchen to eat, and never attend public events with the family. We outlawed slavery a long time ago, but we have not outlawed classism, stereotypes, and deception.
     Are there birth fathers who don’t care? Certainly there are, but most do care, if they know. Although we have come far enough to have a Birth Mother’s Day, even though Hallmark hasn’t discovered it yet, there is still no Birth Father’s Day at all. Will it take another generation before their existence is acknowledged?

Excerpted from the July 2013 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2013 Operation Identity