When the Birth Dad Says He’s Not

Question: My spouse and I believe in openness in adoption and are practicing it in all ways possible. With the birth mother’s side of the family, it has worked out in a way that suits all of us.

The birth father in this case refuses to acknowledge paternity. The twins are now at an age (6 years old) where they are curious about their birth father. I have told them I do not know much, which is the truth. I am looking for advice from folks who have walked this path on how to go about making children understand the truth of their situation?       — Laila

open adoption advice

Birds and Bees

Dear Laila: Your kids are young so you’ll need to keep it simple for now. Have you had the “birds and bees” talk with them yet? It will come up with birth father talk, as they go hand-in-hand. Assuming you have started these conversations, I might say something like this:

It’s easy to tell who a person’s birth mom is because she gives birth to the baby. With fathers, it’s a little different. Remember how a woman’s egg and a father’s sperm meet each other when they have intercourse? And that’s how a baby begins growing inside the mother? Well, because of that, sometimes the father may not be exactly known, even to the father. There is a long time, 9 months, between the father’s participation and the baby’s birth.

But there are tests that can be done, if everyone is willing, to show if the father and the child are connected in this way. We think it’s possible that Steven is your birth father because of many clues ( but we don’t know for sure). He is having a hard time accepting that, though. It means a big loss for him — losing the chance to parent you. And right now perhaps he’s not able to tolerate such a big loss so he may be pretending there is no loss. Also, there are complicated feelings between him and Naomi, your birth mom, that may affect his thinking on the matter.

No matter what, though, you are very loved and you are connected both here in our home and by many people in your birth family.

birth father paternity

My goals in the talk would be to:

  • be open and truthful with the children
  • allow room for uncertainty (unless you are absolutely sure that this man is the father)
  • build trust by sharing what you do know
  • build trust by letting the children know you are alongside them on their journey
  • end with the notion that the children are loved and connected

Community Participation

Lynn Grubb, editor of The Adoptee Survival Guide, suggests that if the man denies paternity, parents can send the child’s DNA to Ancestry.com and build a tree for the child.

I write often about the benefits to the child of claiming and being claimed by both his clan of biology and his clan of biology. Readers, have you walked Laila’s path, that of having a non-claiming birth parent? What words of advice or been-there-ness do you have?

See also:

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About this Open Adoption Advice Column

  • I may occasionally call on others to help with answers, to tap into group wisdom.
  • I am not trained as a therapist. Please do not rely on words in this space to make your own major or minor decisions.
  • Readers are encouraged to weigh in thoughtfully and respectfully. I ask everyone to remember that this is a teaching endeavor rather than a shaming endeavor, and that we aim to bring light rather than heat. It’s my belief that people do the best they can with what they have to work with, and our goal is to give folks more to work with.

Send in your own open adoption question. I’ll either offer an answer or find someone who can address your issue.

6 thoughts on “When the Birth Dad Says He’s Not”

  1. Great subject. This has to come up not so rarely, and thinking about it from the open adoptive parent’s point of view is great.

    My daughter’s father had no quesitons or qualms of his paternity at the time of birth–he actually supported me for months–but 16 years later when he was asked to meet her, now suddenly, he wants to know more. No suddenly he has questions. DNA was just becoming into reality at that time, but we didn’t do it, and then…he died.

    My daughter looked just like one of his other daughters.

    1. I just finished reading your memoir, Hole in My Heart, Lorraine, and I have a better understanding of some situations faced by men like your daughter’s biological father. And also of the dynamics between biological mothers and fathers. There can be a gazillion permutations on that, eh?

      I cried not only for Jane’s loss of him, but also his loss of her.

  2. Well, my first reaction on reading was to want to ask them how they knew he actually was the birth dad. The second question would be: why do you think he is taking that stance? It is not even clear that they know that directly from him.

    Your advice with respect to their kids at this point seems spot on. However, I’d advise that they treat each of the birthparents as equally reliable sources of information. If they disagree about matters of fact, then the conclusion (in the absence of other substantiating information) is simply that they don’t know the truth. Indeed, the birth parents may not know it either.

    The other thing worth imparting to any adopted person is that people’s remembrances of events will differ. Adoptees I’ve met set out on a quest to discover who is lying when, in fact, they might just be hearing two sides of the same story. If birthparents agreed on the experiences that shaped their relationships, they would more probably be parents.

    So, lets assume he really is the birthparent. That leaves the question of why he is acting the way he is. One possibility (yes perhaps it is a dumb man-thing) is that he might believe that he would be a liability to the family he hopes (and was told) will better than he could.

    Certainly in my era, that was drummed into me over and over. It was a bias that was a significant part of the decision and it kept me from reunion for decades. That kind of thinking is necessary (well, for me anyway) to lose you child. How could one make that choice unless one feels it is necessary. If it IS necessary, then best to be absent.

    1. True, Mike, that there are places to go with this regarding the birth dad. Like how reliable is the information the asker is getting? Is it possible to hear this man’s side of the story?

      And as you bring up, Truth can be elusive. Two people can have their own different truths, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that either teller is lying.

      Thanks for sharing this reason why a man might think it better to stay away. Ugh, the shame in adoption.

  3. I like the advice and guidance that has been provided. But for a 6 year old it might need to be really simple like “We think that your father might be X but we are not sure”. Your birth mother thinks that X is the father but he doesn’t think he is. For some kids, they will never know their whole biology. It is important though that parents are wondering with their child and feeling empathy for the child’s dilemma is they have unanswered questions. In my view that is more important than having the actual answer. (although the answer is good too),

    There are sometimes people who acted like a parent even if they were not biological parents. It is important and helpful to acknolwedge those people too especially if the child has met those people, or lived with them – a birth mother’s boyfriend for a grandparent. This is often the case when children are older and adopted through the child welfare system.

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