' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Who's your Daddy? Why some first mothers won't tell

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Who's your Daddy? Why some first mothers won't tell

While we at First Mother Forum encourage mothers to tell their children who their fathers are, we know it's not rare for mothers to be reluctant to reveal this information--or to downright refuse to tell. 

Adoptee/memorists B. J. Lifton, Amy Dean, Jean Strauss, and Zara Phillips write of their struggle to learn their father's identity. Lorraine readily shared information with her daughter Jane about Jane's father. Blogger Jane didn't need to tell her daughter Rebecca who her father was--she found him before she found Jane.

We understand the need to know about one's father, and appreciate the frustration when mothers refuse to tell. Since we don't believe that people in general and birth mothers in particular are cruel, we offer
some possibilities why women might refuse to reveal who made them pregnant. But let's start with the concept that you, the child they gave up, are asking your mother about possibly the person who caused them the most pain and grief of her entire life. "Who is my father?' is not a simple question for many of them.

The most obvious reason for not answering is that the birth mother simply does not know who the father is, something that might be hard for her to admit because she is so embarrassed. By saying that, she is admitting that she had sex with more than one person in a given time frame. Yet today it should not be that hard for anyone to understand.

After the Pill became widely accepted as birth control there was a period when young men were unseemly aggressive about sex--it wasn't an assault but suddenly many felt they had to right to push for sex after every date. It was a time when the culture suddenly said, Hey, free love it good! Both men and women bought into that for a while. Some men felt fewer constraints about taking advantage of a woman when she had drunk too much. (This is happening today as all the data about rape on college campuses, military bases, and elsewhere attest.) Some men began convincing themselves that NO! really meant I want you to be rough! 

Yet at the same time, societal norms had not evolved to the point where men--young and old--felt they had any responsibility regarding sex. Women did not keep condoms in their wallets or on the bed stand. Men could refuse to use them and get away with it. Other methods of birth control were iffy. The result was that a lot of young women ended up pregnant.

This may be hard to accept, but if you do want to know, fully think through this possibility before you broach the subject with your first mother. Though we understand that you will be going through all kinds of emotional turmoil yourself--and this is not the answer your want--remember that she also is roiling inside. Your first mother is emotionally reliving all the turbulent grief she went through when she was forced into sex (or not), discovered the unhappy news she was pregnant, carried you for most of a year, and then gave you up. 

Our advice: If a first mother is reluctant to tell you the father suggest this as a possibility yourself and tell her that you will not be angry with her if that is the reason. But before you say this, try to accept that truth yourself--and be prepared to NOT be visibly upset if that is the answer you get. She may cry, and any hint of condemnation from you will only make her feel worse--and you are less likely to learn who might be your birth father. 

Another possibility is that she is angry at the father who is the source of so much misery and wants to protect herself from more pain. He may have left her in the lurch when she thought he would marry her; he may have had the other boys in school say they also had slept with her--when they had not. This happened to a cousin of Lorraine's husband. The sex may have been close to an assault, but since the woman didn't end up black and blue, she felt she had no right to report it, and instead, cried herself to sleep--and then discovered that she was pregnant.  A 1992 survey considered to be the most accurate accounting of the incidence of sexual assault in the United States found that only 16 percent--about one in six--of all rapes are ever reported to the police.* Women today still do not report all rapes--and even fewer did in the forties, fifties and sixties. Lorraine never reported her rape in the seventies--why? Because she knew the guy and let him in her apartment.

Now this child wants to meet the man who did this to her? And possibly relate to him--as her father? It's too horrible to contemplate. Even the mention of his name may trigger all the emotions of the past. They had sex; she got pregnant; he went on with his life; her life was irrevocably altered. Now she has to consider that if the child meets him some twenty or thirty or forty years later, she or he may prefer him to her. Today he may be a responsible family man, and the child born of that unfortunate sex act will have a difficult time meshing what her mother says about him with who he is today. And she may not want to admit that he "nearly raped" her. So many men--even today--who are good men in every other way treat women shabbily. We have seen it with our girl friends, we have been on the receiving end our selves. Men will pursue a woman whose instincts tell her to stay away, but when she finally succumbs to his charms, she may end in that age old way: seduced and abandoned.

Jane confesses to a certain amount of jealously when her daughter met her father. What if she bonded with him and discarded her? He could be very charming. Lorraine's story is different in that while the father of her child was married, they had a lengthy love affair, and he supported her financially and emotionally throughout the entire pregnancy and after. He was planning to leave his wife, but three children kept him back. When he finally did, it was too late for Lorraine and him as a couple, but she did not harbor ill will towards him.

Another possibility is that a woman may be ashamed to acknowledge she was intimate with the man.  "You had sex with that creep?" Or "You were conned into going to bed with him?" Perhaps it was a one-night stand and she has no idea what happened to him, or isn't even sure of his name. Perhaps the mother fears that once her child contacts his father, the father will return and try to re-enter the mother's life--and that is the last thing in the world she wants. In fact, she never wants to see or hear from him again! 

Incest and sexual abuse by a relative or neighbor may be another cause, and the women who endure this are typically scarred for life by the experience. What's not recognized is how widespread incest is: Wikipedia notes that research has concluded that in North America, for example, approximately 15  to 25 percent of women were sexually abused when they were children. Because it is unlikely that many of these men bothered with condoms, this undoubtedly led to a surprising number of babies. Women so abused are often extremely reluctant to talk about it, and they may feel that no matter how much heartache not knowing causes the returned child, telling the truth--my father is your father, for instance--would be even worse. We suspect that a great many of the women who do not want to meet their children may actually be survivors of incest. 

In another scenario, the mother may want to protect the father's career or his marriage; perhaps she was even paid for her silence. The father may be a priest, a church elder or a prominent person. John Edwards, Jesse Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Strom Thurmond and many other men (Thomas Jefferson!) have tried to keep their love children secret, lest it damage their careers and their marriages. The father may be wanted by government authorities--a 1960's fugitive radical; disclosing him might lead to his apprehension and imprisonment. This might seem like a remote possibility, but it is a possibility. Stranger things have happened.

A mother's silence may feel cruel, and in truth, it is. Adoptees deserve no less than the truth, even if it is not pretty. Yet those who run into a brick wall when they ask this question should consider all the reasons why a birth mother may be reluctant to reveal who the father is. She may not want to say--I don't know! or It was a one-night stand! (think Philomena) or He (almost!) raped me but I was too embarrassed to admit it! or He seduced me and then never called the next day and broke my heart! or Now he's Mr. Mayor or Bank President and he's never gonna tell you what really happened! When an adoptee is faced with silence as she asks about the father, gently and bravely suggest these possibilities--but with understanding. These are all so embarrassing to admit; and the adoptee may not want to bring them up because they are embarrassing!

Just as you are experiencing  all kinds of emotions, remember so is she: giving you away may be the
worst thing that ever happened to her and the mention of him is triggering even more grief. Be gentle. Whatever anger you feel about having to keep your emotions about being adopted hidden with your adoptive parents should not be vested on the mother, especially at this moment. Adoptees often say: this isn't about you--this is about me! But asking who the father is, of taking a first mother back to the moment she was abandoned, is about her. Reunion means the reuniting of two people. 

Finally, when there is nothing an adoptee can do to learn his name from the mother, you may have to resort to other family members. We encourage adoptees to be patient--from our experience mothers do eventually disclose the information once they feel secure in their relationship with their child, or believe that once the truth comes out they are not going to be further hurt by it. Eventually Lifton, Strauss, and Phillips did learn their fathers' name.  We don't know about Dean.--jane and lorraine

We'd like our readers to add their thoughts and experiences. 
*Rape in America, done by the Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center of the Medical University of South Carolina, the first national survey in which women's attitudes toward the word "rape" were considered. The responses blew the previous government statistics on rape and sexual assault out of the water, more than tripling the number of sexual assaults the Justice Department had reported at that time. This is from Lorraine Dusky's book: Still Unequal: The Shameful Truth about Women and Justice in America (Crown, New York) 1996.

Chasing Away the Shadows: An Adoptee's Journey to Motherhood by Zara Phillips
"A vivid and entertaining story of one determined young woman's quest to find her unique place in the world. Adopted as an infant by well-to-do parents in a London suburb, the author felt wracked with a sense of displacement she couldn't explain--an inner turmoil at odds with her developing persona as a cool rock singer. In secret, she decided that she must discover her truth of her identity. The cost, as turned out, would be great. Phillips takes the reader along for the whole rich ride, through rage and drugs and tours and men to the hard-earned happiness of motherhood and marriage."--A reader at Amazon

Beneath a Tall Tree by Jean Strauss 
Stauss's quest to unearth her past is an incredibly funny and touching journey that redefines the meaning of family and celebrates the universal connections that link us all. 



  1. Thank you for this post. So many adoptees have this exact question.

  2. I was less certain about reaching out to my birth father as I did contacting my birth mother. Frankly, I had not thought much about him over the years, certainly not as much as I thought about Mom (like everyday). Finally, I decided that reaching out was the right thing to do for my kids to know their heritage. Turned out to be a GREAT decision! Birth Dad was/is totally accepting and thankfully so is his wonderful wife. I have 2 half sisters who have been so fun to get to know. Knowing my B-D gives me a well-rounded sense of where I get certain traits. My husband keeps saying, "Ah, everything is making sense now!" Yes, it is!

  3. My son's father was married at the time of our affair. I never even told my parents I'd had an affair with a married man. I lost my son and he came back to marry me with his divorce papers in his hand. I could not marry him after he'd deserted me and our child when I needed most so I refused to see him ever again. I told my son who his father was and they had a relationship which made me very angry because I am still angry at this man even though he is dead.I'm having a hard time forgiving him after all these years because I lost my son because of him.

  4. I've offered to tell my son. I feel it's his right to know as much as it was my right to know who my son is.

    At this point he has declined the information so I assured him if he changed his mind he only need ask.

    It is difficult because in my case the birth father has for years denied paternity. This originally caused me great embarrassment and even now causes me to feel poorly about my relationship.

    But I feel that my son, who is the innocent in this situation, has the right to know. Therefore, as a mother should, I am putting his feelings before my own.

  5. Just a few comments... Of the estimated 15 to 25 percent of women who are/were sexually molested as children, not ALL of the perpetrators are/were male. (Grasping desperately at straws here for a bright side, female molesters leave emotional scars but no pregnancies behind.)

    Famous fathers of out-of-wedlock offspring? Let us not forget Strom Thurmond!

    Regarding children conceived through rape, there's a whole chapter devoted to the subject in Andrew Solomon's magnificent 2012 book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. The results of a decade of interviews and research, Far From the Tree is a sensitive and engrossing look at all kinds of instances in which children are just plain... different from their parents: gay, deaf, schizophrenic, criminal, dwarf, autistic, prodigies, and much more. Probably the best book I've read in a year or more, and I hoover through as many as a book a day.

  6. I can understand your urging people to be kind and patient; that mothers are traumatized, etc. I did pretty much everything that you asked. My still mother refused to speak of my father. She said she didn't know anything about him, although my file had many details about him:even a name! The CI found this man in 2008, but told me that he had died. I live in a state that prevents CIs sharing names, and then my mother said that she had made up all that information so that the social worker would not think badly of her. I felt awful for her, having to create a person out of thin air. How hard would that be? I also found it weird that the CI could find a fake guy, but she could easily say that and throw me off. I had no way of verifying.

    My mother asked me to give up trying to find him. I asked if she was the survivor of rape or incest. She said she wasn't.

    I have had serious health issues and really needed to find my father. Imagine my surprise when I tested with 23andMe and matched with a first cousin. I asked her if she had a male relative who fit the description given in my file. She did have an uncle who matched nearly perfectly, including some arcane details. And guess what? He had died in exactly the place in exactly the year that the CI had described. Not a coincidence.

    I went back to my mother and asked her to talk about him, now that I knew his name. She said that this was my story, not hers. Well, not exactly. She *did* meet him and know him. Clearly my parents broke up on not great terms for her to be so vehemently opposed to speaking about him. There was too much information in my file for him to be a complete stranger to her.

    I definitely belong to my father's family (and my father's mini me in looks). Family members and my father's friends tear up just to see me. He was well loved.

    My father never married and never had any other children (that we know of, anyway). His family calls me a gift, and wishes that my mother had told him and them about her pregnancy. They would have helped, and likely taken me in rather than have me put up for adoption. That hurts to hear, but it's also lovely. (And of course easy to say many decades later.) I see that I would have belonged effortlessly.

    I find the situation tragic. My mother is sad; I am sad. I missed out on knowing my father. He missed out on knowing me at all, since he was never told about me. I understand the assertion that some men are monsters, but my father, from all accounts, was *not* that guy, never was. My mother isn't trashing him, just maintaining that she doesn't know who he is (despite her giving lots of information to the social worker back at the time of my birth). Maybe she has successfully wiped her brain clean of him.

    I'd say all three of us lost out.

  7. Eh my comment disappeared when I hit publish! Just wanted to say this rings true and is a good reminder.
    My husband's first mother declines all contact, and described someone else as the father in adoption papers. We don't know if she wasn't sure who the father was, or she purposely set it up as a red herring to protect the real father, who turns out to be someone prominent in his field. And yes, my husband found out his father anyway, through DNA testing.
    Thanks for the reminders.

  8. Excellent post, Jane! Thank you!

    Two thoughts:

    #1. People need to be cautious in believing wholeheartedly what they're told in the here-and-now about anyone's behavior or personality "back then".

    People change; people mature. Life has a way of kicking ass and taking names.........and family's have a way of rewriting history in favor of their loved one; especially if that person is no longer with them.

    Yet no one can say with absolute conviction what another person would've done if they'd known they had a child out there somewhere. We'd like to think we know but that doesn't make it so. In most cases, we're talking about people who were barely adults at the time - IF they were adults.

    #2 I agree wholeheartedly with Jane. No one could've possibly predicted the fallout of the sexual revolution. And it is BEYOND TRUE boys were very aggressive about sex during those times.

    I call them boys because they were young. They weren't men anymore than I was a woman in the troubled era of the late 60's, early 70's.

    We were really just children having children and the saddest reality is that it's our children who've suffered for it.

    Anonymous in the North

  9. @ms. marginalia, my first mother did not tell my father about my existence, either.

    They had a relationship for several months. After finding out she was pregnant, she decided to end it abruptly and move with friends across the country, sort of in denial that there was a baby involved. My father was heartbroken, as he really loved her and would have married her. (I found him several years after finding her, one of the reasons she ended our relationship for good.)

    When my mother and I were still talking, she told me how close she and her dad were throughout her life. With that experience, I could not figure out how she thought it was okay to deny me and my father that opportunity. So strange.

    Unless the pregnancy involves rape or abuse, it seems almost criminal to not tell a man about his child before giving it up for adoption.

  10. Anon in the North:

    Caution is always wise. It seems to have been missing in too many people's lives.

    Adoptee Not Wearing Rose-Colored Glasses, Thanks

  11. Yes, we do need to be cautious and aware of the possibility that our family members are rewriting history.

    Having read the non-identifying information from two different agencies and having heard both of my parents' recollections of events, I can say that it is highly likely that my father's story is more factually based than my mother's version.

  12. My mother gave me my father's name. There was one condition: I was not to tell him anything about her life (not her name, not where she lived, nothing).

    That was a fair request. Her life is none of his business.

    It bothers me that people think it's okay to withhold the name of the father in certain cases. It's never okay. If a mother knows the name of the father (or names of the possible fathers), it is morally repugnant to withhold that information from the adoptee (if the adoptee wants to know).

  13. I don't know that I would call my father--who was 27 with a degree and financially stable when I was born--a boy. Seems insulting. He was actually very private and respectful. My paternal uncle, on the other hand, a professional musician, had a reputation as being more wild. The family apparently always teased my uncle about having likely children out there, so my father's having a child (not my uncle) was a big surprise.

    My father was not given a chance to make a decision about me. We cannot say what that decision would have been, but he was not given that choice. That is a fact.

    I am sure that much rewriting of histories goes on, but from everything I know, there wasn't much rewriting to do. I have spoken to more than just his family, btw. To his high school friends, fraternity brothers, and others with no need to whitewash anything. There is the possibility that he wasn't a jerk, as much as you might argue that he must have been.

    I don't doubt that he hurt my mother, not at all. He left to travel; she was pregnant and didn't know it when he left. Awkward. And yet I still believe that she could have reached out to him, or barring that, told me who he was, or barring that, said "I forgot." It's complicated.

  14. My post wasn't meant as offense to anyone, or in judgment of their particular families.

    I was writing my thoughts about the past and how everyone; all of us everywhere; look back on our lives and the lives of those we've known from the "now".

    However I was writing on the fly before work and didn't realize how my post came across.

    My apologies.

    Anonymous in the North

    Anonymous in the North.

  15. I know absolutely nothing about my first father. the only thing I can surmise is that he was hardly a boy. If my mother was a 35 year old art teacher, maybe he was someone she worked with and had an affair with? Maybe he was married? In any case, she felt compelled to protect him or hide him. On my non-id info sheet the entire section regarding birth father was marked "not reported". The only thing that was mentioned about him was that he abandoned my mother upon learning she was pregnant.

    The attitude some people have about the first father amazes me. When my friend found her first father's family through DNA testing, my A-mom said "I can't understand why she would want to know those people at all." As if the father didn't exist.

    I don't know what to make of all this, honestly.

  16. Anonymous in the North and Anon with Rose Colored Glasses and all the other anonymouses out there:

    Could I ask a favor? Instead of going with the "anonymous" selection when you post, choose the Name/URL and type in Anonymous in the North. It will make it much much easier for all of us. YOU DO NOT NEED A URL TO USE THAT SELECTION.

    thank you.

  17. The link to the Freya story is under SOURCES at the end of the blog post. Whenever we can, we provide links to the sources of our news-related blogs. Link below again, it's near the end of the magazine.


  18. It is sad that birth mothers have to go through all of that and end up experiencing the turmoil repeatedly. However, by sharing information with their children, it may sometimes help them to know they are helping their children find closure.

  19. Hello, I was born on May the 14th 1969 in Bristol. I understand that my birth name was David Townsend and that the lady who gave me up was called Janet. I assume her last name was Townsend too. After over 45 years, I still feel abandoned and while the void that has been left doesn't permeate everything, it did lead to trust issues when I was younger. I'd like to find out who Janet was at the time as I'm sure I will be able to put myself in her shoes. No doubt, it will be something that she thought about again over the years (if she's even still alive). I have a young family myself now so would love them to eventually meet her. If anyone knows anything, no matter how small, please get in touch.

    1. Nigel: You will get more traction looking for your mother by posting this information on a wider platform, such as Facebook. If you haven't don't that yet,I urge you to do so, and check out the various adoptee/birth mother search pages there, one is solely devoted to search like yours. It's a long shot, but it is shot.



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