Bond: Michael Gove, eight, with his adoptive parents, Ernest and Christine
What makes a father? Is it the duplication of the genes, the resemblance in the eyes, the shared hair colour, the very obviously inherited sticky-out ears?
Or is it time spent together, the endless stories at bedtime, the joint adventures, the memories — good and bad — of moments shared?
Richard Mason, the 55-year-old millionaire co-founder of internet price comparison site MoneySupermarket.com, believes in the former. So much so that, having discovered by accident that his three sons are not biologically his, he seems hell-bent on revenge.
As well as suing his former wife for paternity fraud — and securing a £250,000 payout — he has also decided to tell the entire world about her deception . . . and expose his children to the gaze of the nation.
In an emotional interview in The Mail on Sunday yesterday, he details how he made the discovery after he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF) two years ago.
Because men with CF cannot conceive without the aid of IVF, his consultant was adamant: Mason’s three boys — a 23-year-old and 19-year-old twins — could not possibly be his.
‘In an instant I discovered I didn’t really have any children,’ he says.
The biological father is a man, as yet unknown (but Mason has offered a £5,000 reward for information leading to the discovery of his identity) with whom Mason’s ex-wife, Kate, had an on/off four-year affair during their — by Mason’s own admission — unhappy 20-year marriage.
Richard Mason, the 55-year-old millionaire co-founder of internet price comparison site MoneySupermarket.com, pictured with his ex-wife and three sons
Now, there can be no doubt that Kate’s behaviour constitutes a terrible betrayal, almost Biblical in scale. The whole sorry saga is made even sadder by Mason’s own, possibly life-limiting illness, and the health of his second wife, Emma, 46, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
But here’s the thing: does all that really negate his role as a father? And however awful the circumstances, however heartless the ex-wife’s actions, however painful the realisation of her infidelity, however humiliating and traumatic the discovery, can any of it justify this howl of rage, this visiting the sins of the mother on the children?
Because that, in effect, is what Mason has done. Those words ‘I didn’t really have any children’ say it all. In telling the world that he no longer feels he is their father, he is depriving those children of the only one they have ever known.
And all for what? What good will any of this do, save to undermine the emotions of three young men already, one imagines, deeply traumatised by their parents’ divorce and the news that their father has a debilitating illness?
Mason’s rage and anguish is perfectly understandable — indeed, I daresay any of us would feel much the same in his situation. But it’s how you respond to situations such as these that, ultimately, is the measure of the man. And in his desire to punish his ex-wife, Kate — they were divorced in 2007 after what Mason described as a ‘cold and joyless’ marriage — he has, perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless inevitably, shown himself at best a narcissist, at worst a man who will not hesitate to use the three boys he still claims to love as a weapon against the woman he hates.
Blinded by his own rage and humiliation, he has not only exposed them to the spotlight but has also inflicted serious emotional trauma.
Because even though Mason may no longer consider himself the children’s father, he still mourns the fact that two of the three are so outraged at his actions that they no longer want contact with him.
The eldest made it clear that if Mason persisted in suing his ex, he would ‘never speak to you again’, although one of the twins has been more generous, telling him that he ‘will always be Dad’.
Mason, pictured with wife Emma, launched a paternity fraud case against his ex
On a human scale, it’s worthy of a Greek tragedy. In a wider context, it goes to the very heart of what being a parent truly is. In his interview, Mason distinguishes between being the boys’ father — which he says he is not — and being their ‘dad’, which he claims he still is.
But you cannot categorise parenthood like that. It is, and always should be, unconditional: either you’re in or you’re out; you can’t pick and choose.
Besides, being a parent is about so much more than replicating your DNA. It’s about love, nurture, inspiration, support, protection and guidance. Above all, it’s about understanding that it’s not always about you. Something Mason has singularly failed to do.
The truth is that many happy families are not founded on shared biology at all.
I have a friend whose partner has generously brought up her two children from a previous marriage, as well as their shared child. There are plenty of people who happily care for step-children — or even the children of total strangers via fostering or adoption.
And what about children conceived via sperm donors and lovingly raised by a father who has no genetic stake in their make up? And everywhere you look, people are scooping up other people’s children, either casualties of marriage breakdown, romantic mistakes, accidents or personal tragedy. Are these relationships less real, less valid, simply because they lack a genetic link?
Of course not. My husband, Michael Gove, would certainly not think so. His parents adopted him and his sister as babies — and despite very obvious genetic differences have shown both just as much love — perhaps even more — than many biological parents.
My father-in-law was an accomplished amateur footballer who longed to teach his adopted son the rudiments of the beautiful game. But any visions of the young Michael being scouted by the Dons — their local team, Aberdeen FC — soon dissipated when it became painfully clear that the boy had two left feet.
Chalk and cheese, it never made a jot of difference. And when the clumsy child they had adopted grew up into a bookish cuckoo, clearly fundamentally unsuited to all forms of outdoor activity or productive manual labour but capable of devouring 1,000 pages of impenetrable prose in a day, he and my mother-in-law went out of their way to ensure Michael got the education he craved.
They understood the fundamental principle of good parenting: children are not vanity projects, there to make their parents look good. They are individuals to be guided and nurtured — wherever that may lead.
They are also not pawns in the tangled affairs of adults. And any man who uses his three sons — disowning them in this most public and hurtful of ways — to punish a woman who, despite her actions, is still their mother, should understand exactly what’s at stake.
As to Mason’s wish that the three boys’ ‘real’ father should come forward . . . I fail to see how this would help matters — if anything, it would probably make life harder for the boys.
The truth is that they already know who their ‘real’ father is. It’s Mason, the man who saw them being born, who raised them, shaped them, taught them, helped them with their homework, who was there for birthdays, holidays, Christmases — all the normal things that fathers do.
What does it matter whose genes they carry? Those are the formative moments in their lives, the childhood memories and important experiences that will last a lifetime.
If only Mason could see through his rage, he might understand that that is all that matters, and realise how fortunate he is to have had these boys in his life at all. And maybe, before it is too late, reconcile with them.