I used to tell my niece Jasmin that she didn't need her father. My sister's regrettable first love was in and out of jail, but when it came to his daughter's life, he was simply out of it from the beginning. "It's better to have men in your life who love you and are good to you, no matter how they're related," I told her many years ago. Back then, when she was pining for that mythological man, I'm not sure she believed me.
Last weekend she turned 19, the same age my sister was when she gave birth. I was 15 when the doctor handed me my newborn niece and asked me if I'd like to cut the umbilical cord. Since then, I've thought of myself as a substitute father first, and an uncle second.
After more than two years on the relationship beat, I've read countless times about how a man is psychologically built to invest his time and resources foremost into children who will make certain the unique shape of his nose makes its way down the line of humanity. Way back in the 1970s, during the founding years of modern evolutionary psychology, researchers called this "discriminate parental solicitude." Quite cynically, the drive has even been used to explain why a man is less likely to murder his own kid than a stepchild.
I know this is all based on some kind of evidence and I'm sure that one day science will explain love to my satisfaction. Until then, I'm skeptical. In the Golden Age of the Combined and Ragtag Family, does this idea of fatherhood still make any sense?
This week, one of my friends put me in touch with a guy she calls "the best father" she has ever known. Kevin's 10-year-old daughter is not his biological child, but he's been raising her since a very early age: negative seven months. That is, he and the mother started dating when she was pregnant. "She didn't have health insurance and I made a joke about her marrying me to get it," he said, explaining his pick-up line.
Even more surprising than a guy dating a pregnant woman is the fact that when they broke up, after two years, Kevin was adamant about remaining an active father to his daughter (he calls her that, so I will as well).
For the few years that Kevin and the mother lived in different cities, he would travel five hours every other week to visit his daughter. In fact, as opposed to worrying about the fact that his earnings were nourishing a child of different blood, he was concerned that his unrelated status (he and the mother never actually got around to marrying) would make it easier for him to lose legal rights to see her.
Kevin told me that in his own family, his sister was adopted. "And when my dad remarried it was to a woman with two children, both adopted. I grew up with the philosophy that you make decisions about family and then follow through with those decisions."
Kevin's 10-year-old has a philosophy as well, which he says she repeats often: "Daddy Pete put me in mommy's stomach and Daddy Kevin brought me out. You got the funner job," she tells him.
I often think the problem with evolutionary psychology is that it explains abstract attitudes – men preferring women without children and fearing cuckoldry above all else – but not the complicated nature of actually living a particular life.
My friend Stuart – who got together with his wife when her son was 3 – says he was never worried about investing in his stepson.
"At the time, I was a little wary, but not because I'm a monkey tied to a drive to further my own semen," he told me. "I worried a little about the relationship because of us being at profoundly different stages in our lives. But then I figured every relationship is complicated and has a story. This was the geography of ours."
In other words, even if Stuart would have said on a survey that he prefers a woman-without-child, when he met his future wife he discarded that preference as quickly as he could've outwitted a Neanderthal.
"What makes us interesting is how we surpass our evolutionary heritage, how we step beyond that architecture," he concluded.
We hear a lot about the crisis in marriage and so-called broken families. No doubt these things are worrying, but that's also the glass-half-empty view. After all, the ideal world may not be the purist one – where mother and father stay together to raise every child – but instead one where love crosses the boundary of kin and where a man can become a father to any child in need of one.
Several years ago, at Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and her third husband – my stepfather for the last 20 years – Jasmin told me and "grampy" that when she walks down the aisle at her wedding, she wants the two of us at her side.
She is technically my half-niece and his step-grandchild, but we both told her we'd be happy and proud to do that. And then, later, I gave her a short lecture about boys and birth control.
Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks .