I Was Your Father, Until I Wasn't
Anna Sale: Do you think you were a father?
AS: Is it past tense?
T: Yeah, probably. I wouldn't consider myself a father now.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
…and need to talk about more.
I'm Anna Sale.
Six years ago, when Tony was in his mid 20s, he was working as a bartender and a photographer in a western college town. One night after work, and a few drinks, he hooked up with a woman he dated back in high school.
T: It was just pretty random. The whole thing just kind of happened really fast and then was over.
Then, a few weeks later, she told him she was pregnant.
T: There was a really, really, really long silence after she told me, because I was pretty careful with what I wanted to say, for sure. And, um, I told her that it was her choice—everything. And if she chose to keep it then, I would be a good dad and I would take care of her and the baby. And I did give her a disclaimer that night and said that I didn't want to start a relationship with her because of a child.
AS: Did you say, "Are you sure it's mine?"
T: Um, yeah, we kind of talked that over and, um, it was just a brief, like, "You know that this is - this is mine?" And she said, "Yeah."
Tony kept the pregnancy a secret from his family and friends for a few months.
T: I was freaking out.
But he started going to doctor's appointments with the baby's mother. They took parenting classes together, and he was in the room when the baby was born.
T: I cut her umbilical cord. And the first time I really remember holding her was later that afternoon, um, after she was all cleaned up. And the nurse just plopped her right in my lap, and we just hung out.
AS: What's the feeling you remember when you were looking down at her that first day?
T: Um. Just that I needed to - I had a lot to figure out. But I was determined to do that for her—to figure out how to be a good dad, to make money, to provide for her. She was mine. I was really proud of the fact I created that.
For the first few months, the baby spent most of her time at her mother's house. Tony would go over there a lot. But after the baby would take a bottle, Tony says he started taking care of her at his place a few days a week.
T: I played guitar for her every time she took a bath so we'd play guitar and then we'd Facetime with my parents, and that was always fun.
AS: A little girl in a bathtub being serenaded with a guitar is pretty nice. (Laughs)
T: (Laughs) Yeah. She's a good little swimmer. She made a mess anyways, but it was fun. There was a lot of laughter between me and her. We played a lot. We were really just good buddies, you know? It felt good to have purpose, and it felt amazing to love something so much, in a completely new way.
But as the baby grew into a toddler, Tony's relationship with her mother became more and more strained. Especially around money.
T: I started paying, like, child support from a couple months before she was born, just to help out. So we did that and we started to have kind of a just mutual agreement, um, but that's tough to hold on to without getting a professional to say, okay, we just need to lay down some ground rules. And at that time I think I was working three jobs, and it made things really tense at times. And then money just became - it was just not good.
AS: Was there ever - did a judge grant a certain amount of child support and codify what your custody sharing was gonna be?
T: No. That was the process that we were going through was all that legal stuff. Kind of at the peak of me going, "I need to get this test taken." Because at that point, I was having doubt.
AS: When did you have that first flash of, "I'm not sure if this child is mine?"
T: I maybe had doubts at about a year. Like, her eyes were starting to be darker and darker. I have blue-green eyes and her mother has hazel eyes, And she has this crazy curly hair. When she was little—she still has it—but, like wild. People in the community would be like, "Where did she get that hair?" "Where does she -" you know? I'd be like, "I don't know." (Laughs) I really don't. I couldn't play it dumb forever.
I'd talked to two of my best friends at the time, and said I was thinking about doing it about a week before. And you could almost like feel a sense of relief on their faces, too. Like it was something that they had thought about but maybe didn't ever want to talk to me about.
AS: Was there part of you that thought, "I don't want to know."
T: Yeah, totally. That's why I think it took so long for me to do it. That's not something that you want to know, especially when you love something so much.
AS: How old the baby when you had the test?
T: She was almost 16 months, I think?
AS: What did the test involve? How did you do it?
T: You just show up, and they do a cheek swab. It's really simple. You just sign a couple documents -
AS: Did you take her?
T: Yeah. I took her in. And since I was the legal guardian, I didn't have to have mother's consent, and so I just went.
AS: How did you get the results?
T: Through a phone call. I was at work. And then the woman gave me the statistical analysis of the DNA and ended with, "You have a zero percent probability of being the father." I didn't really know what to say. Just kind of in shock. But almost expecting it.
AS: Why did it matter?
T: What do you mean? Why did it matter if she was mine or not? I think it's just biology. I think there's something that you need to know that that's your baby, you know? And I just didn't want to be living like a lie, or be lied to.
AS: When you saw the baby next after getting the results, did it feel different?
T: Yeah. Man, it was - man, it was really sad for me. I felt really guilty. Whew, sorry.
AS: It's okay, take your time.
T: I just felt really guilty to feel that way.
AS: Guilty to feel which way?
T: Just to feel different. It was nothing to do with me and my daughter's relationship. I knew all of that stuff was so genuine, and that was why it was so hard and why I felt so guilty about feeling that way, was because what we had was so real. I mean, I was her father. Even with the results in my hand I was her father. Because I raised her and she was my little girl and I loved her. But the reality was it wasn't going to pan out that way.
We talked with the mother of the baby. She confirmed the details of this story, and said she didn't want to comment further.
Victor: I think he texted me about talking about getting together and it might have -
T: I thought he reached out to me, but maybe we did-
V: Who knows. I don't remember.
Tony meets his daughter's other father.
V: The way I've lived my life, it was kind of one of those things where, who didn't expect my first child to come this way? You know, in some sort of a Maury Povich-style moment, you know?
Since our episode about breakups came out last month, you've continued to add your tips to the Breakup Survival Kit we've been building together. It's a Google doc of what's helped you through. The link is at deathsexmoney.org.
It's made those of you NOT going through a breakup jealous, and want your own survival kit. A listener named Brooke emailed this week, "I loved your Breakup Survival Kit, and I was wondering if you have considered doing a marriage survival kit, or parent survival kit."
This made me smile, thinking about how all of us—no matter what life phase—could use a handy Google Doc. I tweeted about it and got a response from @missElaMap—a painter based in, as her Twitter bio says, the "deep hot humid South."
She wrote, "How about an 'I'm almost 50 and single and living in a new town and know no one' survival kit?"
So, we can't make a survival kit for all of your life phases right now, but let's start here, with tips for Ela. Have you ever moved somewhere alone? How'd you start to feel grounded? And if you've moved a lot in your life, how has it felt different for you at different ages?
I've been thinking about this as I get settled after this big move out here to California. I have my husband, my baby and my dog to keep me company. But that also keeps me from leaving the house!
Send your tips for getting settled in a new town to us at email@example.com—and we'll build a very personalized survival kit for Miss Ela out there. And I may steal some of the tips for myself.
On the next episode, a prison guard at San Quentin, who came to a turning point in her career five years ago when she realized she wanted to come out as trans.
Mandi Hauwert: I felt like I had a couple options. Leave San Quentin and transition somewhere else. Or stay at San Quentin and never transition. There was never transition at San Quentin because who would do that? That's insane.
This Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I'm Anna Sale.
After Tony got the results of his paternity test, things moved fast. He called the mother…
T: And I asked her if she knew who the father was. And she said, "I think so."
AS: Did she sound surprised?
T: She sounded caught.
AS: Did you feel angry with her?
T: Yeah. Yeah. I felt pretty upset. I just didn't know what to think at all. I didn't know whether to be mad or sad or relief in some weird way. So I wasn't like, you know, wasn't screaming at her over the phone or anything. I just said, "You need to figure out who the father is and tell him."
V: The second I heard her on the phone I had kind of known whatever was going on had, had changed completely.
This is Victor. He has dark eyes, and a history with the same woman as Tony. Victor heard from her right after Tony got the test results.
V: She asked me to go over there, and I said okay. So just I went up there, and I walked in the door. There was my daughter, and not another word about it. I actually just kind of sat there with her for a while.
AS: Did she respond to you like you were a stranger?
V: Oddly, no. I mean, it was, it was kind of a - you know we just - with my daughter, one thing anybody can attest to is that she'll make sure you guys are friends no matter what. You know, whether you want to or not. So…
T: She's super social.
V: Yeah, so, I mean, to say that she was totally responsive in a way that, you know, she realized there was some sort of connection? I don't know. Because I've seen her do that with people at the grocery store. (Laughs)
Before all of this happened, Tony and Victor didn't know each other, even though they live in the same town and were both single guys hanging around the bar scene.
When Victor heard about the pregnancy, he wondered if he could be the father. But he heard that Tony was the dad, so he let it go. Then, the baby was born and Victor saw pictures of her on Facebook, through her mother's account.
V: As soon as I saw the pictures it was kind of like an overwhelming reality for me.
AS: Did you think the little girl looked like you?
V: Yeah. Yeah.
Victor started mentioning his suspicions to other people they knew. But getting proof? That was complicated.
V: I had discussed it with her friends before I said "I need your help" to do this. Like give me a piece of hair from a brush and I'll go do the rest, you know. I'll take care of everything. Called the state and they're like, "We can't just go DNA test kids that you think look like you." And I'm like…
AS: You called.
V: Yeah, I called a bunch.
AS: Do you, like shame about that that you didn't that you didn't find a way to step in sooner or you just didn't know how?
V: Always, yeah, there will always be that, you know small sense of shame. It was kind of like, "Hey. Now, something needs to be done and now how do I do it?" How do I do it without you know, just, leaving behind a trail of destruction for two families, possibly three?" You know, in terms of what if I'm wrong. There was always that outside chance, even though I saw her face, I saw everything going on, I had known the timelines, everything like that—what if I was wrong? The one time I did meet my daughter my family went to breakfast on Father's Day. And somebody yelled my name from behind me, and I turned around and it was, um, my baby's mother and my child sitting at a table with her family for Father's Day. So I went over and said hello. And I think I just stared, just like hawk-eyeing the kid.
T: The irony.
V: I, I don't even remember what the mother said. And I was like, I'm sitting here, on Father's Day, looking at my kid and my whole family is sitting behind me. And I went over to my brother and I sat down. He's like, "Is that, the moth--is that, you know, Mom?" I said yeah, and he's like, "Well, what do we do?" And I was like, you shut up because if my mom finds out, then this place is going to get torn apart. (Laughs) She even, like, smells that kid, we're going to have a problem. So yeah, I just sat down and I was quiet. And I think that was probably one of the longest breakfasts I ever had in my life.
AS: Did you know that?
T: I didn't know that.
V: Oh you didn't? Yeah. It was a -
T: No. I spent Father's Day, weirdly enough, while you were doing that I was probably researching the DNA test. Because I remember I didn't have her for the morning, and that was like on my, on my brain around that time.
V: A lot of wheels turning on Father's Day that year, I guess.
T: Yeah it was a big day. (Laughs)
Hearing Tony and Victor laugh together like this, it was not what I expected when I first heard about this story in an email from Tony. Disputes about paternity, I thought, pit men against each other. Like, there is not a more potent threat to masculinity than thinking you fathered a child and being wrong.
But that's not how it was with Tony and Victor, from the first time they met over beers. It was just a few days after Tony found out the truth.
T: I was, really nervous and, um, I just, you know, was praying that he was a good guy.
V: We were both upset, we were both hurt, and you know, mad, so. I think we actually took that--those two emotions like, all those emotions that we both had, um, and somehow rolled it into a bit of a positive thing. You know, when you're sitting there feeling that way by yourself, you can just—it can snowball. But, you know, seeing somebody else feel that way, it's kind of like, "Mmmkay, you know, I'm not the only person that's going through this, so, maybe I can empathize instead of just sit here and focus on how mad I am." So.
AS: So you looked at Tony as a guy who understood in a way that many other people couldn't?
V: Exactly. I mean, hell, I think the first time we met, we joked about like, "Man, just wish we could do this together," you know? Like, this is working out well.
T: Let's just raise a child together.
V: This is going great, let's just do this thing. (Laughs)
AS: When you first started talking about what the next steps were, how did you talk together about which roles of a father which of you were going to do?
V: Um, what I wanted Tony to know initially was that you know, I'd I'd love him to stay involved in any capacity that he felt comfortable. Never wanted him to feel like, you know he was being shooed away from, from my side of the family. And the way I initially thought about it is just what's wrong with having more people around to love her? You know? Why would there be an issue with that?
That's what Tony thought too. At first.
T: I thought that I would still be a part of her life, but that I would play definitely a lesser role.
AS: And what did you picture when you pictured that?
T: I pictured taking her to go get a cheeseburger and some ice cream, or go to a basketball game or something. You know, long term, that could be my role as just like an uncle.
AS: When did you notice that she was becoming aware that there was something changing?
T: Well when we introduced Victor in, it was obviously a new adult in her life, and then he was assuming roles and doing things that we would be doing, you know, picking her up from daycare, you know. Cooking dinner, hanging out. And when she would call me "dad," you know? It was like, oh, there's a new thing I need to like, figure out. Do I tell her not to call me dad? Or do we just let that happen naturally? And then I obviously saw her a little bit less and less, and she was a little confused. You know?
AS: How could you tell?
T: She was just a little more, distracted. I don't know how to explain it. I mean, you're a parent. She could read me like a book and I could read her the same way. And, you know, she would look to me like, "What's the deal, man?" You know, "Why haven't I seen you in a week?" And you could feel that, you know? And I knew that it was only going to get longer and longer. So that was really hard for me—that transition was. And it just got to a point where I just couldn't do it at all.
AS: It was too hard.
T: Yeah it was just like reliving that same thing over and over again. And I just felt like I was breaking our trust every time. You know? Like I was letting her down.
AS: So it was your choice to change that?
T: Yeah. And Victor was transitioning more and more into it. And so, you know, he was doing a good job filling that role. It just felt like time to just maybe try to move on. Or just let it be them. Let them figure it out for awhile without me in the picture.
AS: Victor, did you—when Tony told you that it was too hard for him to have regular visits with your daughter, that he thought it would be ah, best to step out of her life—did you worry about what that would mean for your daughter to lose him?
V: I don't think - like I said, the more people that we had to love her, the better. And I was excited about that. But at no point did I feel like anybody walked away from anything that was, you know, not understandable. And also I think that, you know, we all knew that we were all going to be there when we needed to. So filling in for that spot, I didn't feel like there was a hole left. It just kind of put the pressure on me: this is going to change for her and it can't affect her. You know, so I've gotta do this—I've gotta step in and be who I need to be. And I was ready to be there, you know, I had kind of been sitting watching for a long time, and seeing everything transpire, and so I was ready to get in.
Victor started paying child support. Tony stopped. Between them, they decided to treat it like they were square, so Victor didn't reimburse Tony or anything like that. But he did take a truckload of baby stuff off Tony's hands, when Tony was beginning to try to move on.
T: I had a baby dresser, crib, chair, tons of toys. You know, it's what a baby's room looks like. And so rather than him spend all of this money and buy new things, it made sense just to have the things that she already loved and cared about. And so one day, he just came over to my house, backed his truck into my driveway and I just unloaded everything into his truck, and that was...I mean, physically and literally, all in one afternoon, it became pretty real. You know? To just put everything in boxes and then to give it to this guy.
AS: You loaded up the truck together?
AS: Did you cry?
T: Um, like around him? (Laughs) No. No. I think we just shook hands.
AS: How long has it been since you saw your little girl?
T: Probably two years.
AS: Why so long?
T: I just don't know how to approach it now. You know what I mean? Because I am trying to put closure on all of this. And I'll love her forever for what we had but, we don't have that anymore.
AS: Are there things that you want Victor to know about this little girl when she was a little baby?
T: I've never really thought about that. If he ever needed to know anything about it or was curious then I would tell him. But yeah, I don't know, I think that part is my time with her. And, um, she was an amazing little baby, you know. And she's still an amazing girl. And I think he already knows that. So I mean, as far as specific goes, there's - if he was ever curious I would tell him in a heartbeat, but nothing off the top of my head that I'm, you know, gonna -
V: Yeah, those memories still belong to him. I mean, he's the one that was putting in the work and the time in those situations. It's not - without him volunteering the information, you know, it's just like asking somebody what their favorite parts of their ex-girlfriend was. And, you know, it's just, it's information that's there that, um, if it's that good and it's that worth talking about then he'll talk to me about it. I mean, he could have told me that she farts like a truck driver, but - (Laughs)
T: That's a no-brainer.
V: Yeah. That would have been a nice heads-up. But other than that then all that's his.
T: Yeah, sorry about that.
That's Tony and Victor.
Victor now has joint custody of his daughter. She's five years old.
And at the end of this month, Tony is leaving town after living there for more than a decade. He's still looking for a fresh start.
Death Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I'm based at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville, CA. The team includes Katie Bishop, Chester Jesus Soria, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Our intern is Adrianna Rush.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney.
And on our Facebook page right now you'll see the posting for a paid internship with the Death, Sex & Money team this summer. Go check it out if you're interested.
AS: Do you think about becoming a father again?
T: Yeah, I think about it.
AS: Is it something you want?
T: I don't know. My mother will hate to hear that. If I find someone who I love and want to have a baby with, then yeah, I could totally do that. I just don't see it in my near future.
I'm Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.