HE tangled web that some women weave begins when they discover they are pregnant. Perhaps they had an extramarital fling; or one relationship ended the same month that another started; or they were raped or coerced into the kind of sex that few would call consensual.
The result: one pregnancy, two potential fathers, and the beginnings of a dark and painful secret.
Why Women Don’t Tell is the title of the latest paper in a study that talks to men and women who have dealt with doubts about who is the father of a child. Most of the women who were uncertain of their child’s paternity did not intend to commit “paternity fraud”, researcher Dr Lyn Turney, of Swinburne University of Technology, said.
They just found themselves in a position where they could not be sure and kept their uncertainty to themselves.
The longer it went on, the harder it became to confess, mostly because they did not want to damage the relationship between their child and their partner.
“You just have to see them together to see how much they love each other,” one woman said. “And love’s an intangible thing and it’s something that grows with you . . . It takes a long time . . . And since the day (she) was born, that’s it, he’s Dad.”
The interviews with more than 50 people found that even when the social father suspects – because the child does not look like him, or friends have dropped hints, or there were unexplained tears or whisperings at the time of the child’s birth – he rarely takes any action while the relationship is happy.
It is when the relationship breaks down, and he finds himself financially supporting a child with whom he no longer lives, that he pursues paternity testing.
“For both men and women, the common (trigger for testing) is child-support payments,” Dr Turney said.
The issue of “paternity fraud” hit the headlines earlier this year with the case of Liam Magill.
Because of bureaucratic errors, Mr Magill had to pay child support well above the legal percentage over eight years for three children. DNA tests proved that two of the children conceived during his four-year marriage were not his own.
Mr Magill, 54, was awarded $70,000 by the Victorian County Court in November 2002 after he sued his former wife for damages and economic loss for deceiving him.
But his ex-wife, Meredith (Pat) Magill, 37, successfully appealed against the decision. Her defence argued that in putting his name on birth notification forms, Mrs Magill had not intended to assert that he was the biological father.
The Victorian Court of Appeal ruled Mr Magill had not relied on statements in the forms in any respect other than the children’s names. Mr Magill is now appealing to the High Court.
The case launched a blaze of publicity, with claims the incidence of “cuckoo chicks in the nest” is between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of all children.
Dr Turney and her colleague, Professor Michael Gilding, say there are no reputable studies that back those figures, and that the most reliable estimates suggest the true incidence is between 1 per cent and 3 per cent of children.
Dr Turney said the women in her study, reported on in the Journal of Family Studies, did not fit the “moral panic” stereotype of unfaithful, manipulative partners. Many were young, naive and sexually inexperienced.
“The pregnancies usually resulted (from) one-off encounters that occurred at the margins of monogamous relationships,” Dr Turney says.
“They did not involve infidelity or deception, as the women were either free of a relationship or minimally attached to dying, old, or embryonic new relationships.”
But the women feared their new relationships would not withstand revelations about a prior sexual encounter.
One woman had unplanned sex with a long-time friend, the first since the death of her husband a year earlier; several days later she met a new man who then became her partner. “I found that I was pregnant so I just assumed it was the second chap because I’d continued sleeping with him,” she said.
Some reported being “in denial” and choosing the course of least resistance: not telling, and not deciding whether to terminate the pregnancy. All the women blamed themselves.
One woman who did tell her partner about a single sexual episode during a brief separation was knocked to the floor and kicked until a rib broke.
Some women reported conceiving while trapped in abusive relationships in which they were forced by their husbands to have sex with other men.
“I got, ‘If you love me, you will do this for me’,” one said. The paternity of resulting children was accepted by such husbands only until the relationship ended.
Either side can use paternity – or lack of it – as a dirty tool in Family Court battles. In an earlier paper, Dr Turney reported that men told of some mothers pursuing testing so that their ex-husbands could be made legally a “non-father”, often losing custody and access. “There is a child out there who loves me and was ripped away from me,” said one man. “I miss him every day.”
Some men who had testing done secretly were shocked that their ex-partners then refused them access to a child they no longer wanted to pay for.
Women in the study reported having to force testing upon errant partners who denied paternity for tactical reasons, trying to delay the onset of child support payments. They felt humiliated at the suggestion that they had had other sexual partners.
Some professional women did not want money but for the father to have an emotional relationship with the child.
According to one, “I thought that, when he had incontrovertible evidence there, that it might enable him to make a bond with the child”.
Dr Turney said the cases in her study suggested that the realities of paternity uncertainty were complicated. There needed to be an acceptance that such cases were “mistakes due to the human condition”. “It’s a really complex situation for both men and women,” she said.
For further information about the study or if you have a paternity story, phone 1800 007 166 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
DESPERATELY SEEKING DADDY
Up to 5000 paternity tests are conducted in Australia a year – about 0.25 tests for every 1000 people. In the US, there are 340,800 tests annually – 1.2 tests per 1000 people.
Between half and two-thirds of tests are initiated by men or parties acting on their behalf (eg: a man’s parents or his new wife).
On average, 25 per cent of tests are conducted with the consent of one parent only. These tests were overwhelmingly “motherless tests” – the mother was the parent who had not consented.
With “motherless tests”, only 10 per cent confirmed the man was not the father.
SOURCE: PROFESSOR MICHAEL GILDING, SWINBURNE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY
First published in The Age.