01/05/2012 05:07 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Single Mom Secrets: Why Some Women Don't Reveal Their Kids' Paternity

By Amy Levin-Epstein

Mary* is a 40-year-old business owner and a single mom by choice to her 2-year-old daughter. When she decided to start a family sans partner, she turned to a good friend, a gay man, instead of going to a sperm bank (being adopted, she wanted her daughter to know where she came from). The outcome wasn't exactly as planned. "It can and did get complicated, and emotions about parenting roles and responsibilities are something [that are still being] figured out. He wanted to be a father and I wasn't looking to co-parent," says Mary. While her daughter's biological father lives in California, she moved to the East Coast to raise her daughter solo -- and most people in her new life have no idea of how her daughter came to be. "Most people don't push for more details. If asked where he is, I simply say 'I'm single and he lives in California.'"

For Sarah*, a 30-year-old single mom who lives with her three sons and her mom out West, things are a bit different. She says she's not a single mom by choice but is keeping the fathers of each of her two youngest, 7 and 2, sons a secret -- from the boys themselves. Both men left while she was pregnant and because of their lack of involvement, she has chosen to hide their identity from all but a few people (only her mother has met both). While her 2-year-old has not asked yet about his father, the older child has. "He was about 4 when he did ask," she recounted, "and I told him that he didn't have a father. I told him I didn't know what happened to him but he has me, his grandmother (who lives with us), and his brothers and that we all love him." Though it was difficult, at the time Sarah felt it was better to lie than to admit the truth. She worried how her child would feel knowing that his father really left before he was even born, got into drugs, and has never called to check in on him. And for now, her story seems to have stuck. "[Now] he doesn't ask about his father, but I've overheard him tell his friends that he doesn't have a dad and he doesn't know where he is." 10 things every woman should do before having kids

As for her younger son, Sarah says she'll wait as long as she can before dealing with the paternal identity issue: "I don't plan on ever bringing it up until he's old enough to ask. I haven't formulated a response yet for when that day comes."

Being a single mom isn't an anomaly anymore -- according to recent Census figures, 41 percent of births are to unmarried mothers. With these increasing rates come new issues, like co-parenting, and how -- if relationships end badly or are very complicated -- to tell your children and those around you about the father. While Mary and Sarah both want to protect their families, letting Dad remain a mystery to friends, family, and even their children isn't a decision made lightly.

Mary says she doesn't feel right sharing the unusual way her daughter was born because she's not sure who will accept it and if it's what her daughter will want. "It's not a matter of hiding it. It's just not my story anymore -- it's our story." Mary adds that since moving to the East Coast, she's that much more hesitant to share the father's identity, "While the East coast considers itself liberal, I definitely think that the definition of 'family' on the West Coast is much more open and far less judgmental." For now, questions aren't asked often, but she wonders if that will change when her daughter is old enough to enroll in school, particularly because of her skin color -- she's light skinned and her mother is black.

As more "single moms by choice" like Mary grow their modern families, paternal identity will become a more common issue, says Mikki Morrissette, author of Choosing Single Motherhood. She agrees with Mary that once the baby arrives, the story of paternity belongs to the whole family. "As that child grows, the origin story is his or hers... and having many people know it first might seem like an eventual invasion of the child's private story." Furthermore, the story of a child's paternity may not be warmly welcomed by everyone. "The mother of a woman I know who had a child with a gay friend told her daughter that she'd be sorry if the child grows up with AIDS," recounts Morrisette.

Then there's the issue of why you're keeping the father's identity a secret. "It's one thing if the woman is feeling protective of herself or her child's privacy, but it's another thing if she's not proud of the way she's building her family because that could get passed on to the child in subtle ways." Psychologist and author of The Secrets of Happy Families, Scott Haltzman, M.D., agrees. "Often women will choose to withhold the identity of the man not only because of some of his bad qualities, but because the mother herself has some sense of shame and embarrassment about who she chose as a sexual partner," he says. "[Other] women choose to withhold the identity of a father because of the view that if the child can hold onto an idealized version of a parent, then he or she is less likely to be hurt."

For Sarah, wanting to protect her kids from their fathers' substance abuse and abandonment is balanced by concern for how they will cope with the void of information. "For the 7-year-old, I've noticed that when father/son functions come up (there have been two so far) it bothers him. As for the 2-year-old, I think he'll feel the same as his older brother about not having a father -- perplexed."

And unfortunately, giving kids a vague answer early on eventually leads to tough questions down the road, says Haltzman. "We find that clinically, children typically are interested in learning about their parentage; it's a very rare child that is able to accept 'you don't have a father,' as an explanation about his or her roots," he notes. As Shakespeare wrote, past is prologue. By denying a child his or her past, it may be hard for them to see where they've come from -- and where they go from here.

Sarah is happy to keep the fathers of her two boys identities hidden for now, and has not encouraged their interaction -- financial or otherwise -- in any way. She says she doesn't worry that her kids will find out their identities through word of mouth at school or through friends. "I may be naive about this, but I'm not worried about that. The few people who know the details also know this is a delicate topic and are not the type to talk about it without referring to me first. If this does happen, I'll know that the time has come to answer their questions about their fathers in more detail."

Single mom-by-choice Mary is getting ready to make another tough choice -- to let her daughter's biological father into their lives in a more public way. Until now she's been reluctant to co-parent, but admits that respecting her daughter's heritage may mean doing just that. "He's there, and he wants to be a part of her life and I need to let that evolve into whatever it is for the two of them."