When Darrick Rizzo was 18, his girlfriend of three years told him she was pregnant. With the couple on the cusp of their college careers and unprepared to parent, his girlfriend chose to pursue adoption. Despite opposing the decision, Rizzo ultimately acquiesced, hoping to offer the best life possible for his son.
“I was willing to do anything for my boy, even if that meant listening to his mom and choosing an open adoption,” wrote Rizzo in his book, The Open Adoption: A Birth Father’s Journey.
Rizzo was committed to his role as a birth father and sent letters and gifts to his son. Years later, he learned his child had never received his correspondence. Despite a desire to be an involved birth father, his efforts were thwarted.
Whether or not they make the effort, the reality is that many birth fathers end up absent from the lives of their adopted children. And until recently, the relationship between adoptees and their birth fathers had not been given too much consideration in the context of the adoption conversation.
But as social media and family genealogy tracing allow more children to find and connect with their biological dads, Christians involved in adoption are thinking about the significance of such relationships.
“We’re starting to see a little more discussion around birth fathers, where historically they’ve been left out of the picture,” said Cam Lee, an adoptee and a Christian who now works as a therapist with adoptive families.
Most adoptions feature communication exclusively with birth mothers. Lee has noticed that adoptees on social media are speaking out more about their interest in their other parent too.
For Christians, these new conversations around birth fathers represent an opportunity to affirm their role and welcome them into the adoption story.
Paul Batura, the father of three boys through adoption, says it’s important to remember and uplift his sons’ biological dads. In a recent essay, he wrote a letter to them, extending his gratitude for their part in their existence. He also expressed a desire that they one day meet their sons, and that “it will further affirm them—and you” as beloved and important.
It’s a complicated reality, but nothing God didn’t anticipate. “As the adoptive son of Joseph, Jesus didn’t have an earthly biological father,” said Batura, who serves as vice president of communications for Focus on the Family. “But we can know with certainty that it was God’s plan because God doesn’t make mistakes.”
Given that his sons’ birth fathers know his name, Batura said he published the essay hoping they might recognize themselves in it. “We always try to honor them in our conversations and stories,” he said.
But many birth fathers aren’t aware they have a child on the way—or in the world. Until a couple generations ago, out-of-wedlock pregnancy carried such an intense stigma that unwed mothers were usually silently ferried away until delivery and adoption were complete. Fathers were rarely part of the decision-making.
Back then, most adoptions were closed and identity records sealed. Prior to 1972, adoption didn’t even require the consent of an unmarried father. Today, birth father rights vary from state to state, and at least 24 states have a putative father registry, which allows unmarried fathers to establish their potential paternity and attempt to maintain legal rights.
In addition to more legal protection for fathers, now 60–70 percent of adoptions are open and 95 percent include at least some minimal type of contact between birth and adoptive families. This shift in adoption culture came after research showing that adoptees in open adoptions fare better personally and socially.
Bringing birth fathers into the narrative could be life-changing for families. If adoptees knowing their birth mothers produces better personal results, having knowledge of and relationship with birth fathers offers even better results.
“What we know is that when birth fathers are involved … it’s a better outcome,” said Jennifer McCallum, foster care and adoption counseling supervisor for Buckner International, a Christian organization that facilitates open adoptions.
“We tend to think of the expectant moms as the only one making a sacrifice or grieving,” said McCallum. “But we want birth fathers to be a part of the entire process.”
Both parents can experience a sense of loss when their child is adopted. There isn’t much research out there, but one study of 30 birth fathers found that they experience feelings similar to birth mothers: grief, distress, and pain, for example.
“Birth fathers reported similar waves of emotion around birthdays, holidays, major life events and other major triggers,” according to the National Council for Adoption’s report.
Roger Matthews, 61, placed his son up for adoption over 40 years ago. He maintains it was the right decision for him and his girlfriend, both just 18 at the time, and one born out of their nascent Christian faith at the time.
Years later, Matthews met his adult son, and it was the beginning of a new family tree for them both. Matthews’s son initially sought contact with his birth mother, who then connected the three of them. “We now see them regularly,” Matthews said in an email. “I count them as part of our family.”
Theodora Blanchfield, 38, was adopted as a newborn. As an adult, she met her birth mother first. That desire felt “urgent” at the time. But it wasn’t long after that when she was compelled to find her birth father, too.
“Growing up, I had envy of people who weren’t adopted,” said Blanchfield. “People who took knowing stuff about themselves for granted.” Though she said meeting her father was somewhat anticlimactic, she was thankful for the opportunity.
Lee, the therapist who works with adoptive families, never met the birth father who died when he was a baby. But he has a “living curiosity” about him, including regular thoughts and dreams. “There’s a longing to humanize him,” he said.
He believes it would be beneficial to start incorporating birth fathers more into his work with families. Without the presence of a birth father in any way, he said, identity development can be harmed.
“If we were able to have access to them in some kind of way,” said Lee, “there’s a higher chance we could make sense of that story … and how we want to think or feel about it.” (He did acknowledge that there are some situations when connecting with a birth father would be “deemed unsafe.”)
For those who don’t know their birth fathers and never fully “make sense” of their backstories, God promises in the Bible to be a “Father to the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5). It’s a comfort for the many children who grow up without their biological fathers around, whether because of adoption or other circumstances. My husband, who grew up without a father, experienced the fulfillment of that promise, which we wrote about in our book, Leaving Cloud 9.
Darrick Rizzo continued to reach out to his son, and once his son was a teenager, they were able to form a personal relationship. Both say they are better off now that the puzzle pieces of their lives have come back together.
More recognition for birth fathers, wrote Roger Matthews, might “contradict the American worldview that views people merely as representatives of groups,” rather than individuals formed by a Creator for relationship, marriage, and family. It may also help equalize the pressure and stigma that so often falls onto birth mothers alone.
On Father’s Day and beyond, advocates like Batura say thanking birth fathers publicly is appropriate, validating, and kind. There will always be brokenness in an adoption story, but even in adoption, God’s design for humanity and family can be sustained.
Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer in Indianapolis. She hosts the Worth Your Time podcast and is writing a book about women and church.