The Effects Unknown Fathers Have on Their Children

Some children grow up without knowing who their father was. Happily, it isn't a particularly common situation. However, when it does occur, it doesn't have to condemn the individual to an unhappy life. But, to ensure it doesn't happen, the adults around them have to take certain variables into account.
The Effects Unknown Fathers Have on Their Children
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 08 April, 2023

Being the child of an unknown father is a complex condition. Sometimes, it happens when a woman has had several casual relationships, some perhaps with men she barely knows. Then, when she gets pregnant, she can’t figure out who the father is. This type of event occurs mostly in adolescence.

There’s currently another situation that leads to a child being born with an unknown father; artificial insemination from an anonymous donor. This can occur in a couple affected by infertility. In that case, there’s a biological father (unknown) and a foster father (known). However, if the woman is single, there’s a lack of both information and presence.

These types of situations make up a scenario that must be handled extremely sensitively. The impact on the child as the offspring of an unknown father must be reduced. At the same time, the ideal is for the mother to prepare herself to compensate for this lack.

We should try more to be parents of our future rather than the offspring of our past .”

-Miguel de Unamuno-

Sad boy looking out the window

Children with unknown fathers

Having a child with an unknown father was undoubtedly the norm for many of our most distant ancestors. That’s because, as well as the processes of gestation being unknown, monogamy was also yet to make an appearance. Therefore, it was impossible to give the title of father to any particular man.

When the institution of the family started to be configured and stable couples were formed, paternity was presumed by virtue of this structure. That said, it wasn’t possible to establish with absolute certainty who was the child of whom. That possibility only became a reality at the end of the 20th century, with the arrival of DNA tests.

Before this time, the idea of a child with an unknown father was somewhat taboo. Private property and the rights that came from having the father’s name made those who had no father a kind of outcast. As were their mothers.

Today, we’re at a rather strange point when it comes to parenthood. For example, thanks to artificial insemination, there are cases such as that of the British doctor, Bertold Wiesner, who used his own sperm to fertilize many women. In fact, he can be considered the father of some 600 children. In this case, the father is known, but he’s a paradoxical and confusing figure.

The importance of the father

A single and definitive answer can’t be provided to the question of the role that a father plays in the upbringing of a child but cultural factors play an extremely important role. They also dictate the place occupied by the child of an unknown father. In effect, having or not having a father figure has psychological effects, but also socioeconomic and cultural ones.

In principle, it’s important that the child has a third party that becomes, so to speak, an alternative referent to which they can turn. That’s because, if the dyadic relationship with the mother becomes exclusive, it can be an obstacle to healthy psychological development. The third party doesn’t have to be their father. Someone else can take their place.

Ideally, both parents should be present during the first years of a child’s life. This usually favors all three individuals and increases the chances that the child will have a more balanced development. On the other hand, the absence of a father doesn’t necessarily have to cause serious effects. It’s perhaps not the most desirable starting situation, but it doesn’t necessarily have to condition the child’s development.

Mother talking to her daughter

Who is my father?

As long as the mental model of a family made up of father, mother, and children predominates (although in practice there are more families that don’t correspond to that model) it’s highly likely that, at some point, the child will want to know who their father is. This isn’t an easy question to answer if the father is unknown.

In all cases, the most important thing is not to give false or tendentious answers. When answering, the age of the child should always be taken into account. Moreover, it’s essential not to speak negatively about the father. With younger children, it’s best to narrate everything as a story, positive and nuanced, but without any lies. On the other hand, teens can be spoken to in a more direct way.

However, no matter how old the child is, they shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations. It must be made clear to them that it’s highly likely that their father won’t play a part in their life. There may come a time when they experience pain over this fact. At this point, their social environment will play a really important role, to the extent that it’ll either make life easier or more difficult for them. Finally, the most encouraging news is that a child with an unknown father can eventually turn out to be a balanced and happy individual.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.