I've known that I was adopted for as long as I can remember. But what did that mean to me as a child? My earliest understanding was mother-focused. I understood that I had not grown in my adoptive mother's "belly," as was the norm, but had joined the family through some other way. Eventually I was given a word for the woman whose womb I had been in: "birth mother." At what point in my life did I become aware that there would also have been a male involved, that somewhere out there was a man who was in some sense a "father" to me? I don't recall.
Birth father. Natural father. First father. Whatever you want to call him, he was fairly abstract concept for most of my life. I rarely thought about him. I was not consciously aware of his absence, and yet … in my teen years a girl in my small town went through a very public reunion with a man who was revealed to be her biological father (previously we had all assumed her father was a different man), and it disturbed my emotional equilibrium in a way I didn't fully understand. I didn't consciously connect her situation with my own, but I was very agitated by it. Only much later did I understand why this was so.
When I made contact with my mother in 1995 she shared some information about my biological father, including his name, and sent me a picture of the two of them at her junior prom. For the next 17 years, my father was a handsome 18-year-old in a white sports jacket, but still very much an abstract figure. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know that all of that changed this summer when I met him in person.
My father and I majored in the same subject in college, participated in the same sports in high school, and wear corrective inserts in our shoes for the same malady. And yet even these similarities don't fully capture my connection to him. What struck me most when I met him is that he is my father. He simply is. Forty-five years of separation did not undo that. And yet, at the same time we are strangers. Less so now than previously, but we are still new in this relationship, tentatively feeling our way forward.
As the law of strange coincidences would have it, the day I met my father was the same day I first held in my hand the document that declares me fatherless. I am talking about my original birth certificate. When I arrived home that afternoon, I found that it had arrived in the mail. Because my parents were unmarried, he is not listed on that document, though my mother could have, and did, name him. She remembers seeing him listed in the adoption paperwork as my “alleged” father. I won’t be seeking a paternity test; I know who he is.
As an unmarried father in the mid-1960s, my father had few options and fewer rights. Legally, he didn’t exist. He was not present at my birth, nor was he required to sign any papers relinquishing me. Now, I’m not saying that he lacked free will or that he couldn’t have made choices that would have changed the outcome of our story. It’s easy to look back from this vantage point decades later and say that this or that could have happened differently, but I’m not interested in that. I understand the context in which my adoption occurred, and the lack of support that my young parents received. I’m simply making the point that at the time of my birth, “natural fathers’ rights,” as we know them now, did not exist.
Has that changed? Yes and no. Currently, laws regulating fathers’ rights vary dramatically from state to state. Adoption agencies are aware of this, and some of the less scrupulous ones take advantage of the discrepancy by encouraging the expectant mothers they are working with to give birth in states that have weak fathers’ rights laws. When I read about a father who wants to parent but has been stripped of his rights by an adoption that occurred without his consent, I feel sad and angry. Though I don’t believe that adoptions should never occur, I do believe that in most circumstances it is preferable for a child to be raised by biological relatives than to be severed from them by adoption. If an adoption can be prevented by the active participation of a biological father, I am in favor of his participation.
But now it’s time for my confession … the thing I have never directly stated on this blog. Though my husband and I have a very open relationship with our adopted daughter’s biological mother, brothers, and other maternal family members, we have no contact with her biological father. And this is completely intentional. We do not consider him to be a safe person for our daughter to have a relationship with. He was abusive to Ashley’s first mother, and he was abusive to the woman he was with after their divorce. I know this because of the disclosure information we received prior to Ashley’s placement, and I know it because of things that Erica, Ashley’s biological mother, has told me. She shares our opinion that Ashley would not benefit from contact with him at this point.
So, in the end, what it comes down to is this: I believe in fathers’ rights and I believe in openness, but I place the safety of my daughter above all of this. Ashley has two mama-bear protectors, and we are united in this viewpoint. Perhaps we are hypocrites, but, first and foremost, we are mothers.