When a Birthparent Tries to Have It Both Ways

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A new reader with a new angle on the popular thread:

I adopted my daughter when she was seven. She is now 22. I have been a hands-on dad, and I cherish our close relationship.

The circumstances of the adoption are that my daughter’s birthfather was unwilling to take financial or parental responsibility for her. I was married to her mother and was raising her as my own. Her birthfather refused to pay child support and saw her rarely, so we approached him about adoption. His only question was whether or not it would mean that he could legally avoid child support. Told that he would be off the hook, he signed papers assenting to her adoption. I expected to see little of him after that.

I was surprised that upon the inception of the adoption, the birthfather began calling my daughter frequently, demanding that she visit him, making her feel guilty for abandoning him.

Unfortunately, other family members seemed to be intimidated by him, including my wife. I was smart enough to realize that forbidding contact with her birthfather was likely to backfire. But I did my best to provide a stable presence for her and limit contact when I could. It was nerve-wracking.

At times I resented the fact that I was the man who paid the bills, attended teacher conferences, enforced curfews, took her to the hospital when she cracked her chin open … while the birthfather was always on the periphery with bribes. He has been a constant thorn in my life. It stings when I hear someone ask my daughter about her real father.

Now that my daughter is grown, it doesn’t matter very much. We are close and I don’t care as much about the identity issue. She calls me dad … except in those awkward moments when we run into people who know her from her birthfather. On those occasions, she will introduce me as her stepdad, and that hurts. For his part, the birthfather pretends that I don't exist and that he raised this remarkable young lady.

This makes me wonder if anyone ever gets exactly what he or she wants in an adoption. I wanted a daughter. And I have one, but with a constant presence in the wings, proclaiming that I am not her real dad. My daughter’s birthfather wanted to get out of paying child support, but I suspect that he never expected to be replaced by me at center stage, so I doubt that he is happy with the situation either.

I hope that in all of this, my daughter is the best off. As much as the situation irks me, I have always tried to put her interests above my own issues, and I have never spoken ill of her birthfather. To be fair, his family is quite loving, and I can’t mind the fact that lots of people love her—even if they do consider me her stepdad.

I can’t think of what I would have done differently. Somewhere in all of those parenting activities, my daughter and I formed the strongest bond I have with anyone. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her. And I have a sweet daughter who tells me she loves me, who comes to me for guidance, and who is a hell of a lot of fun to be with.

Still, I have to admit that I’m a bit wistful at this point in my life to not have a child without adoption strings. I can expect to see my daughter's birthfather at her wedding, demanding to walk her down the aisle, pushing me out of the way at the reception to give a lengthy toast about his girl. If that’s not hell, it’s at least purgatory.