Overcoming The Shame Of Not Knowing Who My Baby's Father Was
vI shifted uncomfortably, the white paper sheet crackling beneath me. My stomach was in knots. As I looked at the OB-GYN’s face, my impending sense of dread multiplied. I knew.
“The test is positive. You are pregnant.”
The look on my face must have tipped her off that saying “Congratulations” might be a bit off-base so we just sat in silence for a long moment, as my mind started spinning wildly. I had just turned 21.
I was young and terrified. I was terrified of all the usual things: I was too young. I was too selfish. I was too stupid. The world was too awful a place for kids, I didn’t want kids. I was irresponsible. I would be a terrible mom. I can’t take care of myself; how am I going to take care of a child? But I was terrified for another reason — a much deeper, darker, more embarrassing one — I didn’t know who the father was.
It’s taken me many years to write those two short paragraphs, and they aren’t even particularly well-written. The shame is something I had to address and overcome, but the stigma seemed insurmountable. Paternity testing conjures up images of “Maury” episodes and paints a picture of a certain kind of woman: a stereotype, an extreme. I always thought one day I would write about it — this huge, secret part of my life — one day when my parents have passed and can no longer be ashamed, when the people involved are less likely to read it, when the world is a little bit kinder, when I am a little bit braver.
None of those things have happened, but I am writing this anyway.
To sit and do nothing seemed wrong. I call myself a feminist. I want desperately to break down the social barriers that cage us — the slut-shaming, the rape culture. I don’t want women in the same position to feel ashamed, afraid, and alone like I did , but I have done nothing to share my experience in a meaningful way.
So often people visualize lower-income, poorly educated, people of color as those with paternity issues — a myth I can help dispel. I want to have courageous conversations. I want to challenge false assumptions. I want to continue to stay open to learning and hearing new voices. It happened to me: educated, middle-class white girl, raised in a “good, Christian home.” I am no exception. I am also a spiritual person, but I was hurt by the church and judged by it for the choices I made. My story might help start conversations that I believe desperately need to be had. But, still, I sit, doing nothing — a hypocrite.
I thought about my daughter reading it one day. How would she feel? From the moment I decided I would be a mother, her feelings were the highest priority to me. Will she read this and say, “My mother didn’t want me?” Will she be ashamed of me, like I had been of myself? Or will she see me as a brave woman who is sharing her story to help challenge the way we look at women and mothers? I hope the latter, but I can’t be sure. Most likely, she will just be really grossed out to read anything that hints at the existence of her mother’s sex life and immediately stop reading.
This is part of her story too. But it is just that — a part — and a part she bears no responsibility for and one that has no weight on her value and identity. This mess was my own. This part was my own — my story — and my truth to tell. And it ultimately has to be my decision to share it. So I am doing that today. Honestly, it still feels scary because I feel very much like I did on that day, in the OB-GYN’s office: alone. But the “me” of today knows I am not alone. It happens , and probably more often than you think. No one talks about it — not seriously. But I am going to be that person today.
I cried as I sat in the waiting room before the ultrasound. (“To see how far along you are,” she said, like I would know the difference between 5 weeks and 15.) Happy, expectant mothers proudly stroked their protruding bellies. They were full of joyous life. A Bible sat prominently on a shelf before me, glaring into me, boring holes in my skin.
I stared blankly at the doctor as she explained my options. I nodded. I made little sounds of understanding. I left. I climbed in the car, clutching a black-and-white picture of my “baby” — a little ball of unrecognizable humanity. I drove to work in a haze. I threw up in the parking lot. The stress made my body feel like I was boiling, my skin was fire.
In a few seconds, a thousand ideas rushed through my mind. There was the immediate answer: Just don’t have the baby. It is a decision I wrestled with, but I knew, I knew deep inside my bones, in a hidden place, that I would have the baby. I can’t do it, part of me said. But I knew I could and I would (and I did). And that part of me, the part that knew that is the bigger part, and the part that won.
But still there was the situation. You know, the fact that I didn’t know whose baby I was going to have. I went where I usually go for answers: Google. I just need one hopeful story, I thought. I just need to read one person’s experience. How did she get through it? How did she feel? How did she handle it? But five minutes of internet searching was all I needed to make me feel terrible, because instead of some meaningful insight, I read things like this:
“that’s trashy af”
“Horrible parents. Horrible human beings.”
“Unless you were raped or a prostitute how can you not know or at least have an idea of who the father is? I don’t get it.”
I was already busy name-calling and insulting myself. Now I felt like the target of their attacks, the object of their derision , and I wasn’t even the person asking the question, hoping for helpful advice. Every mean thing anyone said about me or to me (or behind my back) was a drop in the bucket of self-loathing I experienced immediately following my realization that I was pregnant. I literally hated myself. And comments like the ones above (and those spoken to me) gave me an instant mentality of “it’s me vs. the world.”
I did some 10-minute research on how to figure out the day of conception (a topic I should have researched before, I know). Of course, I knew who I had sex with. Of course, I knew when we had sex. But I had no idea when my last period was or when I “normally” got it or how late I was. I was too busy working, going to school, living my life — not concerned with being in sync with my bodily processes.
In one month, I had spent a week in a relationship (that ended), briefly dated a new guy (it was awkward), tried to rekindle an old romance (failed attempt), and started dating someone new (it was going well).
I had been faithful when I was in relationships. I, strangely, didn’t even consider this “sleeping around.” I had morals and reasons. I could justify it , and I tried to. Until I realized I have nothing to justify or prove. Four weeks is a long time when you are in relationship transition — a lot can happen, and a lot did. For one, my birth control pills had failed me. Now, here I was, lining up suspects and guessing at probability. I couldn’t be sure, not absolutely.
Option 1: Eeenie-meenie-minie-moe-pick-a-father-since-you-don’t-know. But that was low, even for me (and I was feeling rather low).
Option 2: The mystery approach. Just don’t tell anyone anything. Just make vague references when asked. “The father, oh yes, he was a good man. A solitary type of man.” Purse my lips, shrug. “Oh yes, the father, well, he died in the war.” Adjust my perfect ’50s-style chignon as I walked away, hips swinging, heels clinking.
Option 3: Honesty. With everyone. No matter how much it hurt (it did). No matter how much it sucked (greatly). Watch every face fall in disappointment, hear every sigh, every insult (and those said behind my back that I had to feel instead), have every difficult conversation, and dive headlong into my feelings of shame.
Honesty promised me what felt the most important: My daughter’s right to know who her father was. It would be cruel and selfish to rob her of that part of her identity: a part she could embrace or disregard. It was her right to that decision that motivated me greatly. I had been irresponsible and stupid, but the least I could do was to give her the truth. I had visions of her at 18, desperately searching for a part of her story that I had so casually robbed her of.
“Excuse me, sir? Are you my father?”
I could at least save her from that, even though it meant doing things and asking things that were incredibly awkward and difficult. It was my responsibility. My choices had made this question a possibility, and it would have to be my choices that provided the answer. Here’s how I knew I was going to be an okay mother even before she was born: I put her needs above my own.
It was my choices that made this question a possibility, and it would have to be my choices that provided the answer.
By the way, I want to write (because I may never write about this again), I regret nothing. I will admit I was irresponsible and naive , but who isn’t at some point in their life? I wish the news of my daughter’s existence had been met with joyous rapture and not with all the baggage and pain that I created but, I love her madly, can’t imagine life without her, and still stand by my belief that your sex life is your choice — one only you can make — and it doesn’t make anyone better or worse than anyone else. Today, I don’t feel any pain or regret. I just feel love and thankfulness that a situation that felt like “the worst thing to ever happen to me” became the best thing. I don’t feel any shame . I left all of that behind me a long time ago. It’s cheesy, yes, but true.
I went into work and tried to go through the motions of a normal shift. I hid behind a fake smile, absentmindedly jotted down orders, delivered food. But my heart was pounding and everyone kept asking me “What’s wrong?” Um, my whole life just changed, so do you want fries with that?
My manager sent me home early. “You don’t look so good.”
I didn’t feel good, either. I wasn’t good. Or was I? I hadn’t done good. But I could. I could do good. And I would. And I did.
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