Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Disappearing Birthfather: Reality and Myth

Relationships end. Thank God that they do. Imagine the number of horrendous middle and high school relationships we would be doomed to otherwise. As a society we can recognize that some relationships should not continue. The relationship itself may be unhealthy, or one or more of the participants may be an unhealthy partner for the other. Sometimes no one is as fault and two healthy people simply aren't a good fit for each other, despite all appearances to the contrary. And in some instances, even love is not enough to make the relationship work.

Yet for all our understanding, when a relationship ends during pregnancy, in most cases, the man is villainized. Nowhere is this shown more frequently, nor more brazenly, than in the discussion of adoption. The disappearance of the birthfather is often cited as a primary reason for choosing to place a child for adoption.  But where do these men go? Why did they leave, not only the birthmother, but their child as well?

The unfortunate truth is we have practically no idea what the answers to these questions may be. The men in question are largely silent. Or are we looking at the equation backwards? Are the men silent and disappeared, or have they been abandoned and the questions left unasked? I suspect the real answer is both.

Many women who choose to place their children for adoption were left by their male partners. But before we start pointing fingers, it's important to take a few considerations into account. First, failed romantic relationships outnumber lifelong partnerships for most people by at least an order of magnitude. For some people, two orders. After all, a lifelong partnership is just that. A lifelong commitment. That isn't the sort of relationship that happens every day. Second, the stress, conflict, and duress that is implicit in an adoption plan is enough to shatter most relationships, let alone one that may have been unstable from the start. To give a parallel, many marriages end after the loss of a child. The grief and existential pain that must be processed, both as individuals and as a couple, is significant enough to justify some couples parting ways. It's not an exact corollary, but close enough that we can see some similarities.

Further, many men actually try to stay involved but aren't given that opportunity. Just as many men will end a relationship during pregnancy, so will many women. This is the circumstance that creates the possibility for a stereotypical last minute contest to an adoption. The birthfather swoops in and tries to claim custody. Often this happens after placement of the child has occurred, and is very upsetting for the adoptive family, and typically the birthmother as well. But looking at this scenario from the other perspective, the birthfather, he is merely trying to do what he feels is right. The birthfather is trying to raise his child, often emptying his savings to pay lawyer fees in the process. It's a scenario that no one wants, and is painful to everyone involved. At the very thought of this scenario, most people I've encountered suggest temperance on the part of the father. It is wished that he'd "do the right thing" and "step aside" to let the adoptive family continue their role as caregivers and fully step into the role of lifelong parenthood. This attitude tips its hat to a dangerous thought process.

In adoption, the child is somehow less the father's than the mother's.  That is to say, the mother has more claim to choice regarding a child, and contact after placement than the father does. In most adoption scenarios the birthfather's contact with the adoptive family and placed child is contingent upon his continuing romantic relationship with the birthmother. So if the birthfather is to have any contact with his child, it is to be meted out by the birthmother. Rarely adoptive families will step into a direct relationship with both birthparents as individuals. It is truly exciting when that happens. But its infrequency, from a birthfather's perspective, is unacceptable.

Birthfathers do leave. So do birthmothers. Relationships can end, and thank God that they do. But what does any of that have to do with a mother's or father's relationship with their child? The assumptions made about birthfathers highlight some problematic hypocrisy. We praise women for leaving hurtful relationships even during pregnancy, raising their children alone, and standing against social convention to follow their conscience. When men attempt the same, they are condemned as the villain.


  1. As usual, a GREAT post. It should be submitted to Adoptive Families magazine (or others, for general readership) or something.

  2. Excellent. I appreciate how you think about things in ways most people don't even consider.

  3. BetsysFriend5/04/2012 5:11 PM

    "Relationships end. Thank God that they do."

    These have got to be some of the wisest words ever written in Adopt-o-ville. Actually, it's embarrassing how the guys are usually an afterthought. They usually come up when everyone's hating on everyone else and someone screams, "AND WHAT ABOUT THE MEN?" And then Adopt-o-ville screams, "Aw, fuck them too!"

    I too admire the way you are able to take apart an idea and present us with new things to think about.

  4. Oh crap, I think I may have posted anonymously when I said "awesome". If so, it wasn't intentional. If not, I'm saying it now. Awesome.

  5. Great post.

    As an adult adoptee whose father was never even told she existed, I feel for him and all fathers who don't have the chance to contribute their thoughts or make choices about ongoing relationships with their children. I feel I have been cheated out of a relationship with my father. My mother can't/won't say who he is, either, which also hurts. Why should she get to choose *for* him? Sigh.

  6. Great post and thank you for writing on this subject. I would like to post a link on my blog to this post with your permission.

  7. I just stumbled on your blog and I am so glad I did! I am a foster parent who blogs. I am currently putting together a mythbusters series on birthparents and would like to cover the myth that birth fathers are NEVER involved. You are proof positive that its a myth. If you'd like to submit and guest post and/or have your blog listed on my blogroll, check out the site and let me know what you think! Thanks, Alisa,


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