Health & Beauty | November 2009
|Who Knew I Was Not the Father? - 4|
Ruth Padawer - New York Times
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November 22, 2009
Mike’s first inkling that something was amiss in his marriage was in 2000, when he was digging through a closet looking for the source of some mice. He didn’t find any nests, but he did come upon a plastic grocery bag of love letters to his wife, Stephanie, from her co-worker Rob. Confronted, Stephanie confessed to a fleeting affair but assured Mike that L., then nearly 3, was his. A year later, according to Mike’s undisputed court testimony, while changing the sheets, Mike found Rob’s photograph tucked under Stephanie’s side of the mattress. Despite Stephanie’s assurances that L. was his child, Mike’s doubts haunted him. The marriage deteriorated, and as L. approached her 5th birthday, Mike asked Stephanie to take a DNA test with him and their child. They told the girl that all three of them had to take a test for the doctor. Mike remembers telling her that rolling the swab inside her cheek wouldn’t hurt one bit.
“The day the results came back was the most devastating day of my life,” Mike said, beginning to cry as he described opening the envelope from the lab and reading there was no chance he was L.’s father. “This little girl,” he whispered, his throat tight, “is not my child. I ran upstairs, locked myself in the bathroom and cried and dry-heaved for 45 minutes. I felt like my guts were being ripped out.”
Mike and Stephanie separated immediately. Mike expected Rob to pay L.’s support and remembers asking Stephanie if Rob would “step up” to be L.’s father. He recalls Stephanie saying no, although Stephanie, in court documents, denies that such a conversation ever occurred. Mike would later claim that he agreed to support L. only because her rightful father would not.
After Mike moved out, the lawyers he consulted told him there was no use contesting paternity: if he denied he was the father, they said, he wouldn’t get to see L. at all, and the state would probably take his money anyway. So when a clerk at the child-support office handed Mike a form confirming he was the natural father, he signed. Since then, Mike — a human-resources analyst for an equipment manufacturer — says he has paid $7,500 a year in child support, child care, camp and medical insurance.
At first, whenever Mike saw Stephanie after the divorce, he felt a stabbing bitterness, but eventually, he grudgingly accepted the situation. In 2005, he began dating Lori, a woman he had met at his church and whom he would later marry. Lori deeply resented the chunk of Mike’s salary that went to another man’s child, while she was reduced to clipping coupons. But she accepted L. They made scrapbooks together, baked scones and pizza and picked berries at a local farm. Neither Mike nor Lori had any idea Rob was in L.’s life until 2006, when Stephanie called and said she was marrying him. It was then that Mike became consumed with resentment. “The courts insist on the best interest of the child,” Mike fumes, “but it was in the child’s best interest for Stephanie and Rob not to do this in the first place. So why is that burden all of a sudden put on me?”
A year after Mike learned about Rob and Stephanie’s marriage, Lori read an article in the local newspaper about a paternity case involving Mark Hudson, a Pennsylvania doctor who discovered he wasn’t related to his 11-year-old son. Like Mike, Hudson had questioned his wife about the child’s origins and was assured he was the father. In Hudson’s case, the state appellate court deemed this misrepresentation fraudulent and dismissed his $1,400-a-month child-support obligation. Lori showed Mike the article and urged him to file suit. For the first time, Mike felt he had a chance at being understood. There were, however, two crucial differences between the cases: Unlike Hudson, Mike had signed a paternity acknowledgment knowing it was a lie. And unlike Mike, when Hudson petitioned to end his legal fatherhood, he wholly disengaged from the child, underscoring for the court that he had stopped acting as the boy’s parent.
Ruth Padawer is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her last article for the magazine was about a dating site for “sugar daddies.”