Unmarried dad-to-be excluded by ex

Dear Mr. Dad: My ex-girlfriend and I broke up even though she’s expecting our baby shortly. I’ve been very clear that I want to be involved in our child’s life, but she’s already excluded me from the labor and delivery and I’m worried that she’ll do the same after the baby is born. Is there anything I can do to protect my parental rights?

A: The fact that you want to be a part of your child’s life, even though you and the child’s mother are no longer together, is a very good thing. It means your baby has a fighting chance of growing up with two loving parents—albeit separated—and that he or she will benefit from your presence from the very beginning.

A number of attorneys I’ve spoken with urged me to emphasize that dads have just as many rights as moms do—and that those rights come with responsibilities. (Others say that while dads and moms have equal rights, the courts are far less likely to enforce a dad’s than a mom’s.)

Your first assignment is to get some legal help. I know that sounds expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a variety of organizations that offer free or low-cost advice to guys in your exact situation. In California , for example, family law proceedings start with a document called “Petition to Establish Parental Relationship,” which is something of a double-edged sword. Women use it to establish paternity and court-ordered child support, and men use it to get themselves legally recognized as the father, as well as to establish visitation and custody rights.

I know it’s hard right now, but try for a moment to look at this situation from your ex’s point of view: She’s probably finding the prospect of being a single mother pretty frightening (and with good reason). She might be worried about money, childcare, living arrangements, work, and more. On top of that, she’s dealing with the emotional and hormonal upheavals and day-to-day discomforts of pregnancy. I’m not trying to excuse her behavior, just give you some insight into why she may be behaving as she is.

There’s also a good chance that her unreasonable attitude will turn out to be temporary. Once the baby is born and she has the time to recover, her thinking might be less guided by emotions and more by the desire to raise the child in the best possible conditions, that is, with the presence of a loving and supportive father.

If you feel you can’t discuss this issue amicably (or at least rationally) with her, is there mutual a friend or family member who could intervene on your behalf? A non-confrontational approach through a mediator might help pave the way toward a mutually acceptable solution. The key is to make your ex understand the benefits of your presence in the child’s (and her) life, beyond the financial support, which, of course, you’re legally bound to provide. For example, telling her you’ll be available to care for the baby when mom goes back to work (if that’s true), could go a long way towards reassuring her—and will give you a great opportunity to spend time with your child. And don’t forget about all the research about the importance of fathers in their children’s lives; she might balk now, but may be more open after the birth.

Even if you can’t agree on how you’ll participate in the labor and delivery, look beyond the birth. Talk to your attorney about what you have to do to ensure that your rights are protected. And don’t forget about your responsibilities. Whatever you do, make sure you find ways of bonding with your child as early as possible.

Fighting all these battles might seem like an uphill struggle, but when it comes to being a good father, no mountain is too high.