A few days ago, Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax responded to this letter:
I always wanted kids, but fate and life being as it is, I’d managed to get to my early 40s with no husband or children. Not from lack of trying, I assure you, but nothing took.
Three months ago, I started seeing a nice guy. He has potential. But I feared he’d go the way so many had: dating for a while, then moving on. This time I was determined to at least try to get something of what I want, so I did what I never thought I’d do. I lied when he asked if I was taking birth control. My bad luck coupled with the pure statistical improbability of it all really led me to believe I had little to no chance of getting pregnant.
Well, I’m looking at a positive pregnancy test. How do I do this? How do I tell this man I barely know that I lied to him and, hey, sorry but I’m about to torpedo your life?
And the worst part is what I thought would be the happiest day of my life is making me want to cry and throw up. I’ve made a huge mess and I don’t know how to fix it. I think I just didn’t realize until right now how badly I wanted the whole white-picket-fence thing, too.
In all fairness, the woman is facing an exceptionally difficult moral dilemma. Hax insists that the woman find a very good therapist, which is reasonable if said therapist has some experience with crisis management.
For my part, I talked it over with a woman friend, one whose judgment I trust. My own response is an amalgam of what we came up with in conversation.
A wise friend who knows the woman well might be a better guide than a therapist who does not know her at all.
When Hax adds that the woman needs to become more self-aware she is adding too much psychobabble. This woman needs to learn how to manage a crisis, not how to gain insight into how she found herself in her current condition.
And when Hax says that the woman needs to become more compassionate, she offers a gratuitous slur against the woman’s character. What does compassionate have to do with it, anyway?
This woman might confide in a close family member. She might start rallying her support system. From a psychological point of view she should, above all else, not feel that she is in it alone.
In fact, I see little advantage to soul searching. It will stress her out and to torment herself. It is better that she does everything possible to maintain her emotional equilibrium and prepare for the arrival of her child.
Surely, Hax is correct to see that, without knowing anything about this woman or her lover’s specific circumstances, it is nearly impossible to offer serious advice. We do not know whether she is gainfully employed, whether she can care for a child on her own (or with family), whether the man in question is gainfully employed, is single or married, with or without children. Of course, we do not know how old he is. And, Hax adds, we do not know how the expectant mother feels about her baby’s father or vice versa.
For her part, Hax begins with a moral absolute: tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. She correctly modifies that view because, as all adults know, life is more complicated than that. Be careful when applying moral absolutes to complex human dilemmas. One size does not fit all.
And, Hax is correct to note that the woman has already made up her mind. She is going to keep the baby. It should go without saying, but it probably doesn’t, that no one, not even a therapist, should try to talk her out of her decision.
Now, we get to the tricky part. Did she really lie and should she confess her lie to her lover?
True enough, she said she was on birth control when she was not. On the other hand she thought to herself that she was too old to conceive, and thus, despairing of ever getting pregnant, she did not feel a need to use contraception.
One might say that she has defrauded her lover. Or, one might say that she decided to leave it in God’s hands ... by practicing her own version of the rhythm method.
So, she needs to tell the man in question as soon as possible. It is best to tell him in a public place, because in public places people are much more likely to be better behaved.
What should she say? She should say that her birth control failed. Yes, I know, it sounds like another lie. But still, making it seem like an act of God is better than making it look like an act of fraud.
Admittedly, we are advising her to shade the truth, but this story is not entirely false. Besides, she gains nothing morally by thinking that she is a liar and a cheat. No one should suggest that she could.
This assumes that she can tell a story that is slightly deceptive. It is not self-evident that she can. Again, we do not know enough about her to have an opinion on the matter.
Still, the act-of-God story does not relieve her of responsibility.
If she had taken charge of the birth control, she is responsible for the consequences of its failure. She ought to tell the man that she is willing to care for the child herself and that she will not expect him to participate. She should not make him feel that she has tricked him into fatherhood and is going to hold him accountable,but she should not make him feel that she would not want him to be part of her child’s life.
If he offers to participate, on any level, she should express gratitude. He ought to do so but she should not make him feel that she is going to force him to do so. Again, what he has to do legally is another question.
We, like Hax, are avoiding the legal issues. I don’t know what the common law says about these circumstances, but I suspect that it would hold him accountable for his child.
Obviously, we do not know how the man will react. He might have wanted a child himself. He might be thrilled to become a father for the first time. He might already have several children from a previous marriage. He might have been thinking of marrying her or he might have decided that the relationship has no future.
By framing the issue as we suggest, the women will be allowing him to do the right thing, freely, of his own volition. She should not make it appear that she is now going to force him into being a father or a husband.
Under these circumstances, any man who is not a complete clod will step up and accept his responsibility in the matter. He will, almost surely, want to be part of his child’s life, in one way or another. But, he is more likely to want to do so if he does not feel that he is being pressured or forced to do so.
Obviously, the situation is less than ideal. It is a lot less than ideal. But, it is real and needs very good management more than it needs very good therapy.