The Other Father
I didn’t tell my son’s father I was pregnant until my mother made me.
I was 16 in 1970 when I got pregnant in the backseat of my boyfriend’s Ford without going all the way. Facing up to the unlikely consequences of that October night felt impossible. My boyfriend and I were good students, intent on escaping blue-collar life in our small Catholic Midwestern town. We were in love, had been going steady for years, and planned to marry — being pregnant would ruin it all.
Something better than minimum-wage jobs awaited us, I was sure, and so I kept my secret to myself. Aided by 1970’s tent dresses, empire waists, and my Catholic school uniform, which helped me looked exactly as I had the day before, we took a trip with our chorus to Chicago at Christmastime, were crowned runners-up to the king and queen at the prom, and at the end of May, strode onto the temporary stage in our high school gymnasium to receive our diplomas in front of our 124 classmates and a crowd of proud families. No one suspected I was pregnant.
The baby’s due date was only six weeks away when, the week after graduation, my mother asked me why I hadn’t been using any Kotex. With my scheme to run away to Chicago and have the baby in secret derailed, new plans to get me out of town were hastily concocted. I would stay with a foster family in the countryside 60 miles from my hometown. They would be ready for me the day after tomorrow. My mother insisted that I tell my boyfriend that I was pregnant before I left.
“It was that one time,” I stammered after I broke the news. My parents, my boyfriend, and I paced next to the pool table in our basement rec room. Being in my own uncomfortable shoes, I could only imagine what it felt like to be in his. I’d had almost eight months to get used to the idea of what one night in the backseat had wrought, but he was blindsided, dropped into fatherhood from a precipice. Not to mention how unfair it must have seemed to have gotten a girl pregnant and not have been granted the fun of any further sex.
“It takes two to tango,” my father said, trying to ease my boyfriend’s terror. He looked from my boyfriend’s blanched face to my own. “Do you two want to get married?” he asked. Fear flickered in my boyfriend’s eyes. “No,” I said. It was way too late for a church wedding, and that was the only kind of wedding people had in my town. A wedding was not possible. The baby would be given up for adoption.
Knowing that my boyfriend’s father would be much less understanding than my own, the four of us promised that our secret would be held between us. My boyfriend and I kissed goodnight, and the next morning I was gone.
My son’s father was not present for the birth of our son. Not named on the birth certificate, he was not acknowledged in any official way. “We want to protect his good name,” the social worker told me the day I filled out the forms. My son’s father did not see our son, as I insisted on doing, before I said good-bye. Looking back, I see now that he had even fewer rights than I did.
A couple of weeks later my boyfriend and I went off to our separate colleges, clinging to our commitment to each other, convinced that marriage and future children would expunge our teenage transgression. But the grip on those intentions grew slippery by the beginning of junior year. The son we lost was not yet three years old when we lost each other.
A decade passed before I saw my son’s father again. I was married and living in Los Angeles when he called to say he was in town. My husband and I invited him to Disneyland, and the only detail I remember is riding Space Mountain with the two of them — a roller coaster ride in the dark — rounding one curve, leaning into my past, and around the next, leaning into my future.
Several years later, after the birth of my second daughter, when I was wrestling with yet another post-partum depression, I decided to search for my son. Unbeknownst to me, by that time my son’s father had moved to the Los Angeles area. I made the 30-minute drive from my house to his office and told him what I wanted to do. He was supportive though it seemed unlikely then that I would find our son. But despite being relinquished in a sealed record adoption in a conservative state, I did find him. Not long after my son and I met, I contacted my old boyfriend again and asked if he’d like to be put in touch with the son we’d given up. It was a couple of weeks past Father’s Day when they met for the first time.
Father’s Day is, on its face a simple joyful holiday, yet there are deeper currents beneath its celebratory surface. Like birthmothers, birthfathers often are unacknowledged. But unlike birthmothers, birthfathers might not even know they are fathers.
Have you ever wondered if you’re that guy?