Who’s the daddy? The question is guaranteed to cause titters in most polite conversations, yet it is fundamental to manynegotiations about child support. After doing this for awhile, I have reluctantly arrived at several conclusions about the issues of paternity:

Even loving fathers in divorce often question whether the children are really theirs.

There is a wonderful bond between a father and a child that is glorious to behold when it’s working. Fathers have a peculiar ability to discipline a child and make it stick, usually not because of any physical punishment or even threat of punishment but rather because children simply respond better to them in that way. And is there anything more satisfying, more hope-filled, more life-giving, than the tender love between a father and his child?

Nevertheless, and for reasons the culture doesn’t understand, even loving, caring fathers who have found their children to be a source of joy, strength and purpose before divorce often change during conversations about divorce. They begin to ask, first quietly and then more insistently, “is this really my child?”

Is it because they’ve been wondering all along and now the financial ramifications of parenthood are making the question more urgent? Is it because they have little doubt but are searching for a way to hurt the mother? Is it because they’re financially shell-shocked and searching desperately for ANY WAY to lessen the burden? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it happens too often to ignore, so I tell you about it.

Even loving mothers who should know better often screw up their kids’ lives by blurting out the truth about their paternity

This section is going to sound judgmental, particularly to the women I most want to reach here. I apologize, but this is how I see it.

I have tender compassion toward women who have conceived a child by the wrong man. They have fallen victim to a night of passion or an affair, and the result is a child. For understandable reasons, they decide, often with the cooperation of a loving husband or fiancé, to raise the child as if he or she were the child of another man. This is often a wonderful gift to the child from the mother and the man who agrees to act as the child’s father. So far so good.

Unfortunately, far too many women who have made this agonizing life choice decide as the child grows up – frequently in adolescence – that their son or daughter “deserves to know the truth” about their paternity. Bull! Their son or daughter deserves to grow up secure in their relationship with their father. Hearing that the man you’re always known to be your father isn’t really your father after all is NEVER a source of comfort. It’s the kind of incendiary news that needs to stay quiet.

Now comes the sermon. If you’ve had the imprudence to conceive a child and decide to allow that child to grow up believing another man is his or her daddy, the least you can do – the very least you can do – is to go to your grave carrying that secret. There is no age at which it is appropriate to tell any child that the person they know as their father isn’t really their father. Just keep your mouth shut. Like I said, it’s the least you can do.

Paternity is a “strict liability” concept

Every lawyer who handles divorces has heard a hundred great stories. I’ll tell you a couple of mine.

Ronnie was outraged because he and his wife had agreed that they would wait until they paid off his student loan before they had their first child. Yet a year ago, she had quietly stopped taking birth control pills. Predictably, they conceived a child, and now their marriage is ending. Sorry, Ronnie, you may have grounds to be angry, but you’re still the daddy, and you will owe child support for that child until he or she is grown.

We family lawyer types have a legendary case that we talk about often called the “Turkey baster case.” The gist of it was that a woman seduced her boyfriend to have oral sex with her (although it’s not at all clear how much resistance he offered). She pretended to swallow his sperm but secretly spit it into a cup. Shortly after climax she siphoned the sperm into a turkey baster and used it to insert the seminal fluid directly into her vagina. In a triumph of nature (life demanding as it does to live), she conceived a child.

This child, conceived as it was in trickery and deceit, is nevertheless the child of that man. And the father is going to pay child support, even though he never intended to father a child.

You can debate if you wish whether this is fair. In some ways it certainly isn’t. However, our strict liability approach to paternity has its origins in one simple and inescapable point: no judge, no society wishes to intentionally bastardize a child. So when we as a society weigh the rights of an innocent child against those of an adult who may not have intended to conceive but certainly intended to have some fun, we side with the child every time.

Given that we are who we are and do what we do, we demand paternity testing

Think about it. For the first time in centuries of imprecision and doubt, we now have the ability to know. We can swab the inside of a man’s cheek with a Q-tip and then swab the inside of a child’s cheek with another Q-tip, and a few days later we can say with astonishing confidence either that this child is or is not the child of that man. It’s remarkable.

One place to have DNA testing performed is at a hospital in your community. In my own community of about a million people, for example, there is one medical clinic that does the court-appointed paternity testing for a five-county area. You can get the name and the phone number by calling your local family court. In addition, here are the names of some companies that advertise DNA paternity testing. I haven’t made any attempt to evaluate any of them:

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