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Sink or Swim Fatherhood

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Bob has just discovered that Charlie, a virtual stranger, is his son. Bob now has a serious problem. He is expected to raise this kid without any of the experience or knowledge that a father would be normally expected to have. There can be any number of reasons for this. Maybe Bob's own father was out of the picture, leaving Bob with no idea of what a father is supposed to be like. Maybe Bob is simply too young or immature to play the role he's meant to play. Or it may just be that Bob's personality or lifestyle just isn't suited for fatherhood. Regardless of the reason, Bob is now in a situation where he must either rapidly become the parent Charlie needs, or risk screwing him up for life. Congratulations, Bob: you've just entered into Sink or Swim Fatherhood.

To qualify for this trope, a male (who need not necessarily be related to the child, simply acting in a fatherly role) must suddenly be given sole responsibility over this child AND not have enough prior experience in this capacity to know what the heck he is doing. Maybe there was a divorce, and the kid lived with Mom but she died or ran off. Maybe he just took in an unrelated child off the streets, or his Kid from the Future ended up on his doorstep. Either way, he has to shape up fast. This is often the basis of many Child Care and Babysitting Stories, in which the plot's primary focus is a character (often male as well) who's suddenly tasked with raising a child and their whole fatherhood-like experience.

Often goes hand in hand with Doorstop Baby, Luke, You Are My Father, Children Raise You, Missing Mom and Resentful Guardian (but only at first). If the 'Dad' in question is not actually the father but some other relation or not blood related at all, it will result in Promotion to Parent. Not actually related to Bumbling Dad. Not to be confused with Sink or Swim Mentor.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Bunny Drop, Daikichi, despite being a bachelor, adopts his grandfather's illegitimate 6-year old daughter (yes, that makes her his aunt), when no one else in his family would take on the responsibility. It could be a subversion in that he has to ask for advice and goes through a lot of crap at work trying to make time to be able to pick her up from preschool, but all in all he does a really good job.
  • Otaku no Musume-san is about an otaku who gets his formerly unknown daughter dumped on him by his high school sweetheart. Furthermore, the climax of the story is what happens when the mother comes back and intends to take the daughter back.
  • In Black Cat, Sven adopts Eve after rescuing her from a weapons dealer. Later on, the gang does discover Eve's creator and biological genitor (that is, the scientist who cloned Eve from herself); both feel a sort of filial connection and there's talk about Eve staying with her but they commonly decide not to.
  • Sakende Yaruze! features a type two, where the father, unaware that he had a kid, has his seventeen year old son show up on his doorstep one day after his mother's death. Though they do manage to build something of a relationship in spite of their conflict, they ultimately can't make it work and the son moves back in with his maternal grandmother at the end.
  • This happens in the backstory of Yotsuba&!. Koiwai adopts Yotsuba without having any prior parenting experience.
  • In My Girl by Mizu Sahara, the hero gets his formerly unknown five-year-old daughter dropped in his lap when his high-school sweetheart dies. The story is played for the heart-warming drama.
    • In subversion, he got a lot of help from his own parents and his dead lover's mom.
  • In Listen to me, girls. I am your father!, university freshman Segawa Yuuta takes in his sister's three daughters (ages 14, 10, and 3) to prevent the other family members from separating them. Naturally, the move from their home to his one room apartment causes problems...and problems.
  • The premise of Hyakunichikan!! is high schooler Shuuto having to take care of five-year-old Chiho for three months while both their parents are out of the country.

    Fan Works 
  • In Codex Equus, this happens to Prince Red Blade, Golden Scepter's sixteenth son. He quite unexpectedly became the adoptive father of Mercy when Silver Bane arrived and left Mercy in his care to protect her from the Poenan Pantheon. While Red Blade initially had no idea how to raise a child and distrusted Mercy due to being reminded of the demonic sword that possessed his older brother, Palatine Phoenix, it's subverted in that he heavily relied on his father and brothers for help on parenting. He does eventually learn to love and accept Mercy for who she is, and he mans up and takes care of her on his own, causing him to be quite mature than some of his brothers.
  • Dante as ten-year-old Nero's father in the AU Devil May Cry fic Like Father, Like Son, fully demonstrated in chapter 6. Trish also lampshades it in the same chapter, chastising Dante that he has to "grow up, at least a little bit" and "shape up". Patty doesn't quite count as Dante's kid, as she visits the shop instead of permanently living there.

    Films — Animated 
  • In Despicable Me, Gru adopts three little girls as part of his own insidious plans. At first he ignores them and does a terrible job parenting, having no intention of actually being their father, only to use them, but eventually he comes around and really gets into being a Dad, and takes on the challenge for real.
  • The Interquel Bambi II focuses on Bambi's father, the Great Prince, who as the leader of his herd (and a stag keeping with semi-realistic natural behaviour), never played much part in raising his son. Following the infamous death of Bambi's mother however, he is left to take care of Bambi. Despite protests and attempts to hand him over to a surrogate doe, he comes to bond with his son and accept the role.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Jungle 2 Jungle, Tim Allen's character is suddenly stuck with his 13-year-old son who has been raised by his mother with indigenous people in the Amazon, because his mother told him when he was a man he could go visit his father, and based on tribal traditions he's a man at this age.
  • In The Game Plan, Dwayne Johnson's character is a professional football player suddenly stuck with a 8-year old daughter who he didn't know existed until she showed up on his door step. He doesn't take it well.
  • In Matchstick Men, Roy Waller suddenly has to take care of his 14-year old daughter, whom he hadn't seen since she was in the womb. Considering he's a neurotic, obsessive compulsive, bachelor con artist you can guess how prepared he is for it.
  • Buddy's biological dad in Elf is this, although the focus of the film is elsewhere. On the other hand, Walter is involved in the upbringing of his younger son by a different woman.
  • In Breakfast with Scot, the titular Scot's mother dies of a drug overdose, and custody is supposed to go to her ex-boyfriend Billy (who isn't Scot's biological father). Since Billy is busy being a jerkass off in Brazil, Scot ends up with Billy's brother Sam and his partner Eric, neither of whom have any experience at parenting.
  • In Big Daddy this happens to the main character's roommate but the roommate is out of town when the kid arrives so the main character tells child services he's the kid's father. Eventually child services finds out the main character was lying and a trial ensues where the child's real dad saves the day.
  • Kolya tells the story of Louka, an ageing confirmed (but womanising) bachelor agreeing to a sham marriage to grant Czech citizenship to a Russian woman and allow her more freedom from Soviet Russia... which she promptly uses to escape to Germany, leaving behind her 5-year old son Kolya. Naturally Louka ends up saddled with him...
  • Three Men and a Baby (and its French original version, Three Men and a Cradle. Both films feature three swinging bachelors who share a large apartment, and how they are immediately plunged into fatherhood when a Doorstop Baby (the bio daughter of one of the men) is left at their front door.
  • The movie Parenthood has Larry, whose response to having his newly discovered son dumped on him is to in turn dump the kid on his parents.
  • Gender-flipped in Raising Helen, where high-living Helen ends up as a single mom to her newly orphaned nieces and nephews. Her new love interest, the local pastor, adjusts far more easily to the kids.
  • Old Dogs: Robin Williams' character discovers that his short marriage resulted in twins when his ex-wife dumps them on his doorstep and asks him to take care of them while she faces jail time for an environmental protest.
  • A variation in Real Steel; the Jerkass self-admitted unfit father played by Hugh Jackman starts by off-handedly signing the adoption papers that will give his son (who he hasn't seen in years,) to the boy's mother's family. However, the recently married husband of that family wants one summer holiday alone with his new wife before becoming a full time parent, so pays the jerkass to look after his biological son for that period of time. Neither the biological nor the adopted father are aiming for any father-son bonding to happen, and fully expect the boy to be happily adopted and never to have anything to do with his useless biological father, but needless to say, this trope ends up being played completely straight.
  • It's played this way in Jack & Sarah when the protagonist's wife dies in childbirth, leaving him to raise their baby alone. Between the shock of his wife's death and the fact he doesn't have her around to help, he's totally lost and ends up doing things such as putting the baby in a large envelope for want of nappies.
  • Gender-flipped in Maleficent, when three female pixies have no idea how to raise a human baby. They never become competent parents, instead, two other non-humans, one male, one female, have to ensure that the baby survives.
  • Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace ends with Obi-Wan Kenobi taking Anakin Skywalker as his Padawan, despite having been knighted less than two minutes earlier. He does this mostly to honor his own Master's dying wish.
  • In Fielder's Choice, an advertising executive finds himself the guardian of his recently-orphaned autistic nephew and faces a Family Versus Career decision.
  • Instructions Not Included: A womanizing guy has an old fling show up on his doorstep with a baby implied to be his. She borrows some money to pay the cab fare, and doesn't come back. He finds out later that he's not even the father (biologically speaking), which becomes a significant plot point.

  • In Mostly Harmless, Trillian leaves her daughter in Arthur's care, saying that she is his daughter, too. However, it's only true in biological sense: her pregnancy was via artificial insemination and Arthur just happened to be the only human sperm donor left in the universe after the destruction of Earth.
  • The Suvi Kinos series begins with the titular character being orphaned in a car accident. She ends up in the care of her uncles. Her five hulking, academical doctor uncles. They are varying mixes of caveman and nerd, so hilarity ensues. For example, when little Suvi cries to not be pacified by default maintenance, they look up a childcare book, and end up desperate because there's no index entry for "vocal alarm". The entire first book, dealing with Suvi's years 0 to 6, is a big zigzagging of this trope.
  • Irene Hannon's book Apprentice Father is all about this trope: the main character's sister gets murdered by her husband, and her two young children go to him. He's got no parenting experience whatsoever, and on top of that has to take into account the emotional damage from what they've been through, but thanks to his new housekeeper, ends up creating a happy environment for them and finds he likes being a dad.

    Live-Action TV 
  • My Two Dads is made from this. Woman dies, wills that the father of her daughter should raise her—but it could be one of two guys (it started before genetic testing was mainstream, though this was addressed in a later episode). So they both raise her. Neither one knew of the child until the death of the mother.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
    • Happens to Worf twice: the first time, he learns about his son Alexander shortly before Alexander's mother is killed, and about a season later, Worf's parents (who have been looking after him) send Alexander to the Enterprise to live with his father.
    • In a later season this happens to Captain Picard of all people. He only learns he had a son because a Ferengi with a grudge against him makes threats against his life, and their reunion gets off to a bad start. That the son in question is a bit of a Satisfied Street Rat with a lengthy rap sheet for petty theft and disorderly conduct doesn't help... And then it turns out that Picard, who is less upset by the boy's troubled past than one might expect, isn't actually his father after all.
  • A few in-universe years later in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it happens again during the Dominion War. An apparently late-teen Alexander (who according to the timeline should be about 11-12), shows up as a newly enlisted recruit aboard the Klingon warship on which Worf is serving as First Officer. This time, instead of a strong-willed child, Worf has to deal with an angry teen. He does much better this time around and they quickly come to terms with each other. Alexander even serves as his best-man at his wedding.
  • Happens in Badger. Much of the domestic plot is driven by Wilf, the teenaged daughter Tom McCabe never knew he had, who shows up on his doorstep.
  • Happens in Angel season 4 Angel's son comes back as a teen after being raised in a hell dimension since he was a baby. In fact, Angel could be considered a victim of this from the moment he discovered Connor's existence: vampiric sexual contact doesn't produce offspring. Ever. And Angel is the king of vampiric exceptions, as both he and Darla were dismayed to discover.
  • Crochety photographer Henry Warnimont discovers Punky Brewster living by herself in a vacant apartment (she was abandoned by her mother) and initially planned to take her to Fenster Hall orphanage. That is, until Punky warmed his heart. It didn't take long for Henry to be able to swim as her new dad.
  • Happens a lot on 16 and Pregnant. A lot of the dads...really aren't emotionally ready to be dads due to their young ages. (The same could be said about some of the moms, but it seems to happen more with the dads.) Some of these teen dads do eventually get into their new role...the vast majority of them don't. (Or they do for a little while, only to lapse right back into their old partying ways.)
  • NCIS: Tony learns that Ziva had a daughter before dying. In his case, it's a combo of Turning In His Badge, Passing the Torch, and Promotion to Parent.
  • Ash vs. Evil Dead: In season 3, Ash is visited by Candy Barr, one of his old flames, who tells him that they conceived a daughter years ago who's a teenager by now, Brandy. Her mother dies not much later at the hands of the Deadites, leaving Ash to suddenly figure out how to be a father. He tries to be a "cool dad" to Brandy, but considering he frequently has to fight the forces of evil and hacking up monsters with a chainsaw, the results... are sub-optimal.

    Video Games 

    Visual Novels 
  • In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, the newly disbarred Phoenix Wright becomes an instant dad after choosing to adopt the young daughter of his disappeared client. It's lucky little Trucy is so competent.

    Web Original 
  • Happens in Niels when Niels' until-then-unknown half-black son Magnus seeks him out after his mother dies. Though Magnus still lives with his adopted mother, he and Niels manage to form a functional relationship.
  • QSMP: After the Dragon supposedly woke up and disappeared, the Duckling announces that the server-members must adopt one of its egg children and keep them alive until the Dragon returns, forcing everyone into parenthood with no prior notice. Some of them take to parenthood quite well (considering the circumstances), and others… not so much. Of course, it's a Gender-Inverted Trope for the female guest population of the Island (read: 2 at the moment).

    Western Animation 
  • The Family Guy segment with Peter's imaginary sitcom "My Black Son" where a preteen boy shows up on his front step and the lyrics comment "Don't even remember sleeping with that lady."
    • In "Quagmire's Baby", Quagmire finds a baby that resulted from a one-night stand on his doorstep. After struggling with taking care of her, he decides to put her up for adoption.
  • The Powerpuff Girls were the result of Professor Utonium mixing of known elements (sugar, spice and everything nice) and an unstable element (Chemical X). He initially set out to create "the perfect little girl" to bring a little sunshine into his corner of the cruel world—he got three superpowered girls in the bargain. Warts and all, he wouldn't trade being their dad for anything.
  • The Batman's interpretation of Robin's origin has an element of this. As an orphan himself, Bruce Wayne decides to take Dick in as a foster son, telling Alfred he wants to give him the same stability and support Alfred gave him as a child... but he's not very good at it, at first, because he's also determined that Dick won't spend his life agonizing over his parents' killer getting away, while often leaving Dick alone. It takes him some time (and Dick some superhero initiative) to find the right balance of grandiose favors and just being there for him.