THE ONE THING I thought distinguished fatherhood from everything else in life was that it was forever. Jobs could come and jobs could go and so, for that matter, could friends, marriages, and even revealed truth. What made fatherhood different was that you couldn't sell it or quit it or divorce it or return it or change your mind about it. It turns out, though, that it can be taken away.
It has happened in Washington. The court here effectively stripped a man of his fatherhood by allowing another man -- his former wife's new husband -- to adopt his children. Everybody apparently thought it was a dandy idea -- the two kids, the former wife, the judge, and, of course, the new daddy-by-fiat. Only the father has objected. The Supreme Court will hear his appeal soon.
The case begins the way marriages end -- with a divorce. The natural father divorced his wife in 1968 after nearly seven years of marriage. She got custody of the two children, then four and two, and, in due course, a new husband. Along with a new baby, they comprised a family unit. None of them liked or could even abide the old father. The children considered him a pest and mightily resented his attempt to get them to acknowledge him as their father -- to get an ounce of affection from them. They didn't want him around, and to make sure he didn't have a legal right to come around, the stepfather sought, and gained, their adoption.
In some respects, this case resembles the one of the Ukrainian boy in Chicago who does not want to return to the Soviet Union with his parents. The details are significantly different, of course, but what is the same is the willingness of the court to say that its wisdom -- in one case political, in the other psychological -- is sufficient to override the age-old presumption that the bond between parent and child should never be severed. In Chicago, there was a condition attached: the boy stays if the parents stay. In Washington, there are no conditions, just an accomplished fact. The man has lost his children.
Just why this has been done is not entirely clear. Since it is an adoption case, most of the records are sealed, and only one party in the dispute, the natural father, is talking to the press. But one thing is clear, and that is that the judge has decided that the children would be better off not being tugged back and forth between their new family and their old father. The judge used the phrase "for the good of the child" and relied, apparently, on a whole body of psychological theory that supports his reasoning.
But the trouble with this kind of decision is that it looks biology in the face and spits in its eye. It says other things can be more important. And while that might be the case, and sometimes is, there is still something that binds parent and child -- something that is more than simple folklore or romantic nonsense. You see it in the efforts of adopted children to determine the identity of their natural parents, and you see it in your own life -- the realization that more of you than you might like was inherited from your mother and your father and the people who went before.
It is for this reason that there are such things as stepparents. It is recognition that there will always be a place -- maybe a very special place, maybe a very small place -- for the natural parent. It is acknowledgement that biology plays a role -- that circumstances cannot wholly erase the bond that exists between natural parent and child and certainly exists, even in a one-way fashion, in this case. To think otherwise is to take the very small amount of knowledge we now have about children and parents and families and use it to refute all we do know about what people traditionally have respected and cherished. We should be more humble in the face of tradition, less certain when deciding a matter like this for all time.
No matter. The solution here was intended to be irrevocable even though the problem may be temporary. The natural father in this case is no ax murderer. He hasn't abandoned his children, and he certainly hasn't shown that he doesn't care about them. His kids don't want to see him now, but they may someday change their minds. They are, after all, just kids and he is, after all, their father.If he is a menace to his kids at the moment, the judge can enjoin him from visiting. If there is a problem, there are temporary solutions.
This case like so much in life is probably all muddled. There probably is much more here than we will ever know, and you have to assume that there had to be some reason for the trial judge to rule as he did. But no one can be so confident of just what is the good of the child that an irrevocable bond can be severed -- that a man can be told against his will that he was a father once but he is one no more. Only fate can do that. Otherwise, fatherhood is forever.