On Psychology

Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 1998 / 18 Elul, 5758

Dr. Wade Horn


By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I have a four month old daughter. Unfortunately, her father is an alcoholic. He left me when he found out I was pregnant and has made no effort to see me or the child. Since then, I have met a wonderful man and we love each other very much. We intend to raise my daughter together in the most loving and stable environment possible.

My question is should she call him "dad" even though he is not her biological father?

Also, could you give me some advice on when and how (if ever) I should tell her about the details of her biological father? I wish I didn't have to.

A: The answers to these questions are not as simple as they may first appear for several reasons.

First, it is unclear whether or not the biological father has any paternal rights over your daughter or whether his paternal rights have been terminated. You say that so far he has shown no interest in the child. But you also imply that he knows the child exists and that he is the father.

This brings up several issues. As the biological father of the child, he may decide at any time to go to court and assert his right to be the legal father of your daughter. Just because he does not currently show any interest in doing so, does not mean he will not change his mind in the future. If he does change his mind, the courts would be likely to do two things:

Order him to pay child support and provide him with access/visitation rights to his daughter.

Consequently, the decision as to whether or not the biological father will be a part of your daughter's life will remain up in the air until either he goes to court to assert his paternal rights or you go to court to terminate his paternal rights over the child.

Even if you decide to go to court to terminate his paternal rights, he may resist. The courts are generally loath to terminate the parental rights of anyone who can show they are reasonably responsible and interested in the child. So, for example, if the biological father came to court armed with documentation that he is in treatment for his alcoholism and expressing a desire to be a part of his daughter's life, it is unlikely that the court would terminate his parental rights.

On the other hand, he may welcome the relinquishment of his paternal rights, especially if he is not invested in the child and doing so would allow him to avoid having to pay child support.

Hence, whether or not your daughter is eventually told about her biological father is not entirely up to you -- at least not as things currently stand. Unless his paternal rights are terminated, the father may decide at any time to re-appear and attempt to establish a relationship with your daughter.

The first order of business, then, is to clear up the biological father's legal rights pertaining to your daughter. If your daughter is brought up being told that this other man is her "natural" father, and later the biological father re-appears, this could be confusing, perhaps even devastating, to her.

The second issue that is unclear is whether or not you are married to the man with whom you are currently living. If not, I do not recommend that your daughter be taught to call him "daddy." Although you describe him as a wonderful man who loves you dearly, the cold, hard fact is that cohabitation is a very weak family form. Couple breakup rates are much, much higher for cohabiting, as compared with, married couples.

So, while I applaud your desire to raise your daughter in a stable, loving environment, that environment is marriage, not cohabitation. If you are cohabiting, not only do I advise against your encouraging your daughter calling him "daddy," but I strongly recommend the two of you stop cohabiting. And not after several more months, but immediately --- before your daughter begins to establish an attachment to him. Your daughter has already been abandoned by one father; it will do her no good to experience abandonment by a second.

Even if the two of you do get married, you will have to face up to the legal issues concerning the biological father. Getting married by itself would be insufficient to establish him as the legal father of your daughter. For that to happen, he would have to legally adopt her --- which would require the termination of the biological father's paternal rights.

Thus, I advise that your daughter be taught to call this second man "daddy" if and only if you and he are married, the paternal rights of the biological father are relinquished, and your daughter is legally adopted by your husband.

I know this all sounds very legalistic and complicated. That's because it is. And please be aware that on legal issues, I am not an expert. So if you do choose to pursue these legal matters, you will need to consult with an attorney.

But on matters of the heart, I do have one or two important things to say. Here is one of them: Children need and deserve a loving and responsible mother and a loving and responsible father. The most likely route to this birthright -- not a perfect route to be sure, but certainly the most likely -- is marriage. It is unfortunate that too few adults today understand that staying sexually abstinent until marriage is the only way to ensure they do not find themselves in as complicated a situation as yours.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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5/21/98: When child-support becomes a 'catch-22'
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4/26/98: It's time parents learned to 'Just Say No!'

© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn