Paternity: “DNA Doesn’t Make You My Father”

Have you ever looked at your children and wondered if they are truly yours? In recent years, three out of every ten Nigerian men have been made to raise children that are not theirs. They have been deceived by lying and unfaithful wives. So they cater for children from infancy to adulthood only to be knocked out by shocking revelations later on. The beast in some of these men has been triggered and some have been influenced to maim.

A man in Lagos was reported to have killed his three children by poisoning when he found out that they were not his. He was going to kill his wife and then kill himself when other tenants intervened. Would you blame him? Please leave your answers in the comments section. In other news, a 70-year-old man was reported to have died of cardiac arrest when he found out that the 34-year-old man he raised was not his son.

The gist of these stories is that such outcomes are not only ludicrous but unjust. It is important to know that these kinds of tales do not appear in the mainstream media for new’s sake; they are borne out of actual events. More women are deceiving their husbands into raising children they had for other men. And they do so to cover up the shame that comes with their acts of infidelity.

This piece, however, is not about the increasing rate of paternity fraud in Nigeria; that is a discussion for another day. It is an exposition on what true fatherhood is. Do you know what they say about fatherhood? People say that it is more than sperm donation and has very little to do with what DNA test results say.

So yes, a man finds out after 20 years that “his child” is not his. Does that automatically strip him of his role and responsibilities as a father?

Fatherhood and DNA Testing

Recently DNA testing – once only accessible to doctors and detectives – has been extended to anyone who is curious about where they came from and willing to spend small money to find out. It emerged in the 1980s, with its promise to reveal the identity of an individual’s biological father. For most of human history, no such technology existed – nor was it missed. Paternity was based on presumption, deduced from social behaviors and legal conventions, and everybody was happy.

Now, there are cases of people learning that they were conceived from donated sperm or even that they were switched at birth, says genealogist Debbie Kennett. “Lots of secrets covered up in the past are starting to come out”, she concluded.

But history suggests that such cases are not so strange. In fact, they follow from a long tradition in which paternity was a social and legal relationship, not a biological one. The kits that screen and tell of a person’s genealogy have delivered interesting results, no doubts. But all of these tests are typically taken in a spirit of casual curiosity. People usually do not prepare to have their lives rocked by what they eventually find out.

Who is a father?

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Historically, a father was defined by marriage. In the Roman formulation, the father is he whom marriage indicates, even in circumstances when, well, he could not be. The tradition carried forward over the centuries. According to 17th-century English common law, for example, if a husband was located anywhere within the “Four Seas” of the King of England at the time of his wife’s conception, he was legally presumed to be the father of her child.

As for children born out of wedlock, courts, especially those operating in the civil law tradition, deduced paternity from a man’s actions or public reputation. The father was he who cohabited with the mother or kissed the baby in public, the man whom a neighbor saw paying the wet nurse. Paternity was performative.

See also: DNA Testing Is Destroying Marriages

Such definitions of fatherhood did not mean it was less certain or less true: it was simply that the truth of paternity was social, not physical.

This situation contrasted with the logic of maternity. The mother is always certain, in the Roman formulation. Maternal identity could presumably be known by the physical facts of pregnancy and birth.

In primordial Africa, however, it was more about a connection. It didn’t matter whether a child was from a man’s groin or not. As far as the child grows up under his tutelage, he assumes the role of a father in word and in deeds. If the wife is found guilty of paternity fraud, she is punished as the laws of the land demand, but punishment (in forms of abandonment or death) was never meted out on the children.

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As for modern times, Milanich explains, neither the public nor the courts have been able to make any distinction between legal and biological fatherhood. A man becomes father to a child when he claims fatherhood status and behaves as a father is expected to by providing care and shelter.

The husband of a wife is generally understood, by society and by most countries’ laws, to be the father of a woman’s children and thus responsible for providing for them—a rule that proves frustrating to some men when suspicions about their wife’s marital fidelity arises.

The expectation for a husband to also necessarily be a father is why the notion of “stepchildren” didn’t really break into mainstream consciousness until the 20th century. It’s also why, Milanich points out, children born to unmarried mothers and absent fathers were for generations simply considered “fatherless,” and many ended up in the custody of the Church or the state when their mothers couldn’t adequately provide for them.

Anyone can ‘father’ a child, but…

A father is not a just sperm donor, or a person listed by some DNA testing results if that person has never made any effort to be part of a child’s life. Psychologists say anyone can ‘father’ a child, but being a ‘father’ takes a lifetime. And this is so because fathers play a role in every child’s life that cannot be filled by others. This role can have a large impact on a child and help shape him or her into the person they become.

Fathers, like mothers, are pillars in the development of every child’s emotional well-being. As they grow, you find children looking to their fathers to lay down rules and enforce them. They also look to their fathers to provide a feeling of security, both physical and emotional.

Studies, in the past, have also shown that when fathers are affectionate and supportive, it greatly affects a child’s cognitive and social development. Their presence in a child’s life goes a long way in instilling an overall sense of well-being and self confidence.

We cannot take away the fact that revelations like these will hurt so much and for a really long time. But when it pushes one to act in a rash manner – say kill the children he has raised or denounce them, it shows that he wasn’t their father in the first place.

If man is able to provide, support and care for a child in ways that a father should and within the boundaries of marriage, then he deserves the right to be called that child’s father. They have poured out a part of themselves into the child, so much so that they can not be anything else but their offspring.

Where spirituality may not hold water in cases like this, I would still opine that it wasn’t a coincidence that men like these were made responsible for such children. See it from this angle, both individuals were supposed to be on the same journey in this mortality. If it were not so, they wouldn’t have crossed paths. Just my two cents.

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