Father’s Day

by Jason Stotts

Note, I was originally intending to have this published on Father’s Day, but it wasn’t ready in time.

Today, on the day that we celebrate fatherhood and thank our fathers for bringing us into existence and raising us well, I think it makes sense to discuss what fatherhood is, and paternity more generally, and what defines it.  This post is dually motivated for me.  On the one hand I don’t consider the man who sired me to be my father.  On the other, I recently came across an example of a man who had no genetic connection to “his” child, but yet it seemed clear that he was her father.

In my own case, I haven’t spoken with my father in many years; in fact, it’s nearly been a decade.  There are all too many reasons for this, but suffice it to say that he has done some of those things that one cites when one is looking for an example of action that is so obviously immoral and loathsome that no one could object to it as an example of something foul.  To be even briefer, I don’t speak with him because he is a moral monster.  Because of this, even though I can’t deny that he sired me and that we share half our genes, I do not consider him my father.

On the other hand I recently met a man named Antonio who raised a daughter who was not genetically related to him.  From what I understand, he met her mother when she was pregnant and chose to marry her nonetheless and they raised her daughter together.  He later had two other children who are half-siblings with the first daughter, Miranda.  Now, just by looking at them, you would never think they were related.  They look nothing alike; in fact, he is black and she is white.  Yet this man seemed to be much more of a father to her, even though he was of no genetic relation, than my own biological father is to me.

So, there is something strange going on here.  A man who is genetically related to me is not a father, while a man who is not genetically related to Miranda is a father.  There must be something more to being a parent than a simple biological connection.  Indeed, such a connection doesn’t even seem to be necessary.

So, then question then is: what makes a father?  If mixing semen together with an egg isn’t enough, then what does it take to be a father?  More broadly, if imparting your genetic material and bringing a new human into existence is not enough to be a real parent, then what does it take?  What other thing might it be?

I think it is clear that this other thing is how one goes about trying to be a parent.  Sometimes we choose to have offspring and sometimes we do not.  Either way, it is our next choice, the choice to take responsibility for a child and to rear them to the best of our abilities, that determines whether we will be good or bad parents, or whether we should even be called parents at all. Good parents and bad parents should be thought of as on a continuum and admitting of degrees, but without anything in the middle.  A parent that was only doing the bare minimum to keep the child alive, a “neutral” parent, should be considered a bad parent.  The category of “non-parents” we will restrict to people who are genetically related to a child, but who do such a monstrous job of raising their child that they should not be considered parents (thus, we’re excluding everyone else who is not genetically related to the child as simply irrelevant and not part of the category of “non-parent”).

The above distinction rests on the choice of how to raise the child and how well the parent does at this.  In terms of fatherhood, the question is whether the man did his best to raise his child and impart good ideas to him.  I also think that there are ways to fail in parenthood that are so serious that one should no longer be considered a parent.  No one would, or perhaps should, call a man a father who abused his children all his life and who had no real concern for them.  It may be true that this person is genetically related to the children, but he is certainly not acting like a parent.

For a very similar reason, I think it’s strange that some people who are adopted want to find their “real parents.”  I think that is a complete perversion of the idea of paternity and a desire for no more than to meet someone who is necessarily (biologically) connected to them.  But, isn’t it much better to have people who associate with you because they want to and love you, than who are merely related and who neither love you nor even care about you?  If your biological relatives give you up for adoption, they stop being your parents, even if that is the best choice for all involved.  Further, I think it’s clear that sometimes the best parents are not (genetically) related to their children at all.  If your adopted parents are good parents, then there is nothing to be gained by looking for one’s genetic ancestors, unless one merely wants to know about any history of disease in one’s genetic line, but even that can be ascertained by genetic testing now.

Ultimately, I want to argue that being a parent is not about a genetic relationship, but is more about raising a child and helping him to grow and be able to live a good life.  Whether a person is biologically related to the child is completely irrelevant (although a biological parent might have an obligation to raise his child well, born of his choice to have a child).  So, sometimes a man genetically related to a child is not a father and sometimes a man not genetically related to his child is a good father.

1 Response to “Father’s Day”


  1. Erosophia

    […] know that in 31 states a rapist can claim paternal rights?  Frankly, I think that’s sick.  Paternity is so much more than simply transmission of biological material. Moreover, to shackle a woman to her rapist for the […]