Published in the Express August 19th 2004
The Secretary of State for Home Affairs, David Blunkett, is reportedly in love with a
pregnant married woman. As a psychotherapist, I know from experience that this
problem will eventually find a solution – “this too will pass”. But Mr Blunkett’s walk-on
role in the national soap opera has drawn attention to the troubling issue of paternity.
Since the dawn of time a dilemma has existed: While every mother knows her own
child, a man must take his lover’s word for it.
How would you feel, for instance, if you were certain your partner was carrying
somebody else’s baby? Might you be tempted towards the heroic and say I’ll cope?
Could you overlook the fault?
What happens if a woman isn’t sure who actually made her pregnant? Over the
years I have counselled several who had made love to two different men in a month
and were now distraught with guilt at the result of a positive pregnancy test.
In such instances the mother is usually far less worried about having a child. What
any woman in a love triangle most seems to fear is the destructive hostility of the
mate who, like a lion, wants to kill his rival’s cubs.
Shakespeare is literally obsessed with this theme of “cuckoldry” and puts men‘s
darkest fears into the vilest words: “And many a man there is… now while I speak
this…holds his wife by the arm… but little thinks she has been sluiced in his
Of course we have never heard from Mrs Shakespeare about coping with William’s
playing away but in most literature the greatest hurt is invariably claimed by the men.
The most extreme explanation says that such sexual double standards stem from the
rules foisted on us by Moses in the Wilderness.
To guarantee that property was safely inherited, it was essential for men to ‘ensure
their children were their own’ and the only way to do that was for Jewish men to
isolate their wives and daughters. Hence the rules of sexual misconduct have always
been biased. If men played away, it was called a Beckham. If women played away,
it was called a be-heading.
But even this doesn’t quite account for the extremely primeval responses of some
(but not all) men to paternity. I believe the explanation is much simpler. Men’s
psycho-sexual life is ruled by anxiety – from fear of impotence to fear of personal
insignificance. For some of us, our strong sense of inferiority in a too competitive
world makes us literally see our children as property – no more no less – whom we
regard as a salve and compensation for all the slights we have ever suffered. This
feeling is based on what the French knowingly call amour propre, or male self-love.
And it has prevailed for far too long.
There are straws in the wind suggesting it does not have to be this way backed up by
technological improvements in DNA testing which will compel us to face facts that in
the past we could more easily overlook. According to scientists in paternity testing
laboratories, “at least one in 10 children was not sired by the man who believes he is
their father”. Some laboratories have reported the level of “unexpected” paternity to
be as high as one in seven. All labs now boast that they can prove to “an extremely
high degree of certainty” whose sperm really was present at the conception.
So if we can always know the facts today the question becomes
how truly important are these facts anyway (aside from any implications for genetic
illnesses)? Perhaps we can learn from the characters in Polanksi’s 2002 film “The
Pianist” starring Adrien Brody and accept that the genuine parent is not he who
provides the sperm but he who pushes the pram?
Or look to Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honour Trilogy” (made for tv in 2000) where the hero
Guy Crouchback feels that he is blessed to have another man’s child to raise as his
own after the death of his wife. Genetic immortality is but one form of self-preservation.
You can also hand on your character traits to the next generation by the quality of
the parenting you provide. Guy appears to evolve from restless teenager to mature male when he
realises the privilege and opportunity he’s been handed. Humans are animals
capable of overlooking crude biological Darwinism by raising what we might call
Surely what the situation is beginning to suggest is that men really ought to find a
new take on fatherhood? In my book, it is not enough to be present at the
conception. It may not even be necessary. Those fathers who work 150 hours a
week and never see their kids except on Sundays, for example, seem paternal to me
only in name. I whole-heartedly agree it is emotionally easier if you think your
offspring are of your own blood but it is frankly less interesting in some ways than
whether your children are civilised human beings with kind hearts.
And if you should get some devastating news that makes you feel as if you’ve been fooled into raising
a cuckoo, stop and look into the eyes of the child who must call you father. Are you
more interested in the ties of love or DNA acids?
Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and