I was in the middle of a nasty separation from my first wife, and our two children were staying with their mother, a result of our 50-50 custody agreement. The house was eerily quiet. I missed their giggles and the thumping of little feet racing across the floor to tumble into my arms. I missed their constant chatter and the way they would collapse on my chest as I read them to sleep. The photos on the walls were a painful reminder that our home was shattered. I should have started jamming on the growing to-do list around the house, but a deep depression began to engulf me. The bar sounded like a better place to forget about everything.
A few weeks later, I got the call.
“Brian, it’s Sarah.” I instantly recognized the unusual, raspy voice. It was the woman I’d taken home from the bar that night. “I just wanted to let you know: I’m pregnant, and I’m pretty sure it’s yours.” I said nothing. Sarah tried to gauge my reaction, seemingly delighted by the news. She began informing me of my obligations to her baby. I cut her off and told her I’d call her back, “once,” I said, “the shock had worn off.”
I’d considered myself to be many things—reckless, stupid, pious and unholy at the same time—but I’d never considered myself callous. And yet, there was an undeniable safety in having no emotional connection to this woman. I needed a moment, or maybe a few months, to figure things out. Right then, the one thing I knew was that I couldn’t make the decision to be a father to another child overnight—to a child that was never planned, from a woman that I barely knew. All I could think about was that one sullen, drunken night was about to turn my world upside down—if I let it.
I initially decided that I’d have nothing to do with the child. I told Sarah that I would pay the court-ordered financial obligation if a DNA test proved that I was indeed the child’s father. I called it being a “Paycheck Daddy.” Sarah didn’t care for that term. More to the point, she knew I was a good father to my other children, and I think she was confident I would eventually come around and do the right thing.
Months went by, and a couple of days after Sarah gave birth, prompted by curiosity, I visited the hospital. I needed to see if the baby resembled me. As I entered the recovery room at the hospital, Sarah was lying in her bed with her newborn daughter in her arms. She told me to come in, and asked if I wanted to hold the child. I walked past a row of flowers and teddy bears and approached the bedside, where Sarah handed me the tightly swaddled infant. I’m sure the expression of recognition on my face exclaimed an innate awareness of something familiar, of something intrinsically paternal. She looked every bit like me and, more so, like my two children—the ones I considered mine. She awoke as I held her, stretching and yawning, and I was finally able to peek into her eyes, the same striking blue eyes all my children possess. Her name, Sarah told me, was Olivia.
Exactly 30 years earlier, my old man had gotten himself into a similar situation. He’d knocked up his high school sweetheart, and for weeks he teetered back and forth between wanting to help raise their child and planning his exit from their life indefinitely. Their waning teenage love, combined with my father’s concern about how his girlfriend’s older brothers would react to the news, led him to lie about who the father was. He concocted a story of his girlfriend’s infidelity, then simply left her, and his unborn child, behind.
Twenty years later, my dad got the phone call.
His forgotten daughter, Becky, had found him in the phone book, called him, and begun a dialogue two decades in the making. The past 20 years of my dad’s life had been plagued with two dissolved marriages, his children’s legal troubles, a failed business venture, and so many smaller problems and inconveniences that he referred to himself as a direct relative of the famed Murphy of Murphy’s Law. He felt that his choices had led to a karmic payback of sorts, which could be traced back directly to his running out on his daughter. Now, after a series of pleasant telephone conversations, Pops, a traveling generator salesman from Aurora, had a business meeting in Arizona, where Becky lived at the time. He was going to fly out and see Becky in Phoenix. It would be their first face-to-face meeting.
Both Dad and Becky still cry when they recall that day. At the time, Becky worked at a Home Depot as a cashier. My dad had nervously driven around town, having landed earlier than planned, killing time while Becky finished her shift. Finally, as Becky was closing out her drawer for the night, my father walked through the bright-orange automatic doors. He approached the counter, and both of them instantly recognized one another. Becky, urged by a coworker, walked around the counter and hugged her dad. Onlookers, privy to the unfolding of the day’s events, clapped and cried. A great deal of heartache from the past was seemingly instantly forgiven—or at least silenced for the moment—by the joy.
Since that day, my sister and I have become close. We’re both misfits of sorts, and probably would have gotten along great as kids. There was instant acceptance between us, and the unconditional love from her long-lost family laid a promising foundation for the future. Becky reminds us, though, that we all still barely know one another—20 years, she says, is a long time to make up. My father agrees, and he, too, has talked with me about the pain of not being able to regain what was lost over those years.
Now, I found myself in the same spot, and I thought that maybe the old cliché was right: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. More important, perhaps, I silently wondered if the fact that I wasn’t part of her life would hurt Olivia.
The first year of Olivia’s life passed by before Sarah pursued the paternity test. At the time, I wasn’t bothered by not knowing what was happening: I was busy raising my two children, and had married a woman, Nikki, who had two children of her own. Like Olivia, Nikki’s kids didn’t have a biological father around to share in the parenting duties. Nikki and I were crazy about each other from the first night we met. We were married in Vegas during a business trip, and she was pregnant within a month of our wedding. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic about our new life together as a big, blended family. This was what I was used to: It was how I had grown up as a kid, and I often remembered it fondly. It was near perfect. But something was still missing.
During her pregnancy, Nikki and I began discussing, in more detail, our thoughts about the future of our children. Olivia began weighing heavily on both Nikki and my consciences. We went through the same flood of emotions that I had experienced the first night Sarah called to inform me of the pregnancy: We were confused, concerned, and scared of doing the wrong thing for our kids. How could we bring another child into the world knowing full well I was rejecting the last one I had fathered?
When Nikki, pregnant and now raising four children, offered to take in another child, it was the most unselfish act I’d ever seen up to that point in my life—with the exception of my stepmother taking in Becky when she came into my father’s life. I had lived through five marriages by the time I was 15, and plenty of selfish men and women had come in and out of my life as I was growing up. But Nikki was different, she saw the bigger picture, and she encouraged me to be more than just a Paycheck Daddy.
Ten days after the DNA test I learned what I’d known the moment I held Olivia in the hospital: that she was, in fact, my daughter. Sarah was gracious and allowed me into Olivia’s life, despite the fact that I hadn’t been part of it for her first couple of years. I took on a new role as Olivia’s father, on gradual terms, and we eased into one another’s lives.
It’s been two years now, and I see her every other weekend, plus the occasional holiday. Olivia grows up a lot between our visits, her ever-expanding vocabulary a constant reminder of how much I miss when she’s away. Most days have been full of laughter—trips to the park, backyard trampoline adventures with her siblings—sharing in genuine moments of love and revelation and learning what makes each other tick. We’ve both had moments where we struggle to bond, like when she misses her mother during bedtime, and I’m forced to wonder why the solace of my arms isn’t enough to comfort her. But as I finish writing this essay, she’s down the hall and our take-it-one-day-at-a-time routine of discovery has tuckered her out. On the heels of a birthday party with her extended family, she’s off to la-la land, her blonde locks draped across her princess pillow.
I’m constantly concerned that I’ll fall short. I know that her life, that our life together, with Nikki and the rest of my children, will be a challenge. But I also know the odds are stacked against a child who doesn’t have a father in her life—that she would be at least twice as likely to be poor, to experiment with drugs, to have trouble at school and at home. While I don’t excuse my dad for making the decisions he made with Becky, he was always there when I needed him. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that being there is a huge part of being a dad.
I may not know for years—if ever—whether or not I’m doing it right. The only thing I can do is be certain that I’m around when my children need me, and close by when they don’t. I’ve found that loving unconditionally and without fail is all it takes to get through the incredibly complicated maze that is being a father. The photos on our home’s walls are lined with mystery, hope, and a hint of the unexpected—and, instead of being reminders of what has been lost, they are rooted with possibility. While I know I’m not a perfect father, I’d never know what it takes to get there if I didn’t at least answer the call.