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Telling my dad my mom has herpes
February 1, 2006 9:49 AM   Subscribe

My mother has asked me to tell my father that she has been diagnosed with genital herpes.

My parents have been divorced for about 10 years and while they act civilly toward one another on the rare occasions that they are forced to interact (the most recent example of this was a brief encounter at my sister's college graduation 3 years ago), they are not "over" the divorce in any sense and still harbor a lot of hostility and resentment. I get along fine with both of my parents, though I am probably a bit closer to my mom.

My mom doesn't feel comfortable talking to my dad about it, so she has asked me to tell him in case this will have an effect on his health. My mother is baffled as to how she contracted this virus, which is part of the reason she thinks my father needs to know about it (in other words, it may be possible that she got it from him or gave it to him unknowingly). She doesn't know how long she's had it, but she just had her first outbreak this year (she is 52). She will not be going on Valtrex because she says it's only used to treat outbreaks and her doctor told her that it is unlikely she will have another outbreak. My questions:

1) How important is it that I tell my dad about this? In other words, how likely is it that my dad has something to worry about and what can he do even if he should be worried? If it were you, would you want to know? I've heard that you are very likely to test negative for the virus even if you have it if you're not experiencing an outbeak when you are tested. I'm not trying to back out of doing this, but I am trying to "gear up" for it I guess.

2) How do I tell him? I am 22 and female and my dad is 55. We just don't talk about this kind of thing. He was very shy about his vasectomy last year and he would get very uncomfortable when his wife mentioned it. What's the best way to break the news without totally freaking him out? Am I the best source to hear it from? We don't live in the same town, I'd have to tell him over the phone. He doesn't have any sons.

3) Would it be better if I told his wife and asked her to tell him? It would be more comfortable for both me and my father, but perhaps he would view it as a violation of privacy?

4) And, as a side note, should I personally be worried about herpes?
posted by Crushinator to Health & Fitness (41 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Dear lord, man. Tell your mother to be an adult and do it herself.
posted by chiababe at 9:53 AM on February 1, 2006


Uh, when was the last time they had intercourse? Herpes can be dormant for a long time, but I'm thinking 10 years is stretching it.
posted by machaus at 9:54 AM on February 1, 2006


This is the sort of thing I'd like to hear straight, with no warming up, and little conversation afterwards. I do not think you should tell his wife first--that should be up to him.

Speaking as a divorced parent, I'd be really, really pissed at my ex if she used our daughter to deliver news such as this. But I guess that's off topic.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:54 AM on February 1, 2006


1. Standard operating procedure when you discover you have VD is to notify your previous sexual partners. Frankly, I believe your mom should be doing this, not you, but you absolutely must not tell your mom "uh, ok, yeah, I'll tell dad" and then fail to tell him.

2. Just tell him. Say "Dad, I know this is awkward for you, and you can bet it's incredibly awkward for me, but it's something you need to know. Mom asked me to tell you she's got herpes."

3. No. There's sort of a "chain of command" protocol with these things, so unless your mom has had sex with your father's current wife (dear god, please say it ain't so), this goes to your dad first.

4. I am not a doctor. Can you contract herpes while passing through the birth canal or by nursing? I don't know.
posted by adamrice at 10:02 AM on February 1, 2006


I would recommend against getting involved in this. Your mother needs to step up and talk to your father herself. I can’t help you much on the herpes issue but I know a bit about divorced parents who don’t get along very well. When my siblings and I were in our twenties we served as go betweens as we thought it was easier and its didn’t come up much. Now in our thirties, and with grandchildren in the picture, it comes up all the time and we are in the very difficult situation of having to remove ourselves from the role of go between and demanding that they sort stuff out themselves. I know other people dealing with similar issues. If you don’t train them to act like adults now then they will become more and more like children as the complexity of your life progresses. They will make your life difficult and won’t even begin to understand. Your mother is being very unreasonable and perversly unfair to you.
posted by anglophiliated at 10:02 AM on February 1, 2006


She has to do it herself. They have much to discuss. This is not your job.
posted by Radio7 at 10:11 AM on February 1, 2006


1) Ten years is a really long time for HSV to lay dormant. I don't think it's very likely that she gave it to him. Also, he's been sexually active for a decade--you'd think he'd be aware if something were amiss. Did your mother's doctor advise her to tell him? (Maybe you should talk to *your* doctor and ask what s/he would advise, from a medical angle.)

1a) I know you didn't ask, but I think it's absolutely unfair of your mother to ask you to do this. I don't think this falls into the territory of things an adult child of divorced parents is obligated to do. I think it's kind of inappropriate. (I say that as an adult child of divorced parents myself, one whose mother has asked her to do a lot of inappropriate things for her because she wasn't "over" the divorce.)
posted by veronica sawyer at 10:12 AM on February 1, 2006


My Mother has, at times, involved my sister and me in inappropriate ways regsarding communication with my Dad though nothing like this. I have also had to notify long-past partners that I had VD way back when and it's lousy. I sympathize. My two reactions are

1. this is completely inappropriate for her to do to you, and I think you're totally justified in saying "no, hell no" to her
2. that said, if you feel that you need to do it anyhow, feel free to point this out to your father and make it clear that a) you think this is not your responsibiltiy but your Mom called in a favor or whatever and b) all follow-up needs to be direct with her not you.

"Dad, there is no easy way to say this, Mom has been diagnosed with genital herpes and gave me the unpleasant task of telling you, which I think isn't quite cool of her, but I'm doing it anyhow. This is what I know [insert details]. And you'll need to talk to her about the rest. I'm sorry, I know this is awkward for you, it sure is for me. "

If you really think you're going to drop the ball on this otherwise, I'd write down everything you know about the situation in a letter (email in a worse case scenario, but I wouldn't do that because of privacy concerns) and send it to him. Don't tell the wife first, that won't go well. My guess is he will have some questions or at the very least, some reactions and saying "This is all I have, you need to talk to Mom for anything else" puts the responsibility where it belongs, in her court.
posted by jessamyn at 10:13 AM on February 1, 2006


I can somewhat understand your mother's reluctance to be the one to break the news, but yeah, she really does need to do it herself and it's very unfair of her to get you involved in this. Maybe you can ask her to think about the worst-case scenario -- what's the worst that can happen if she tells him herself? He might get furious, call her names, make accusations, etc. But he's just as likely to do those things regardless of who tells him, right? That is, if mom tells him herself over the phone, he could go off on her and make her feel like shit, but if you tell him he's just as likely to call her up and go off on her, I'm guessing.

Maybe she could avoid some of the potential drama by writing him a letter, though she is almost certainly going to hear from him on the matter one way or another. Point out to her that's there's really no way for her to avoid a confrontation after a revelation like this, and, you know, be supportive when it happens.

At least she's willing to tell him. Some people, especially the bitter types, would've swept it under the rug altogether.
posted by Gator at 10:17 AM on February 1, 2006


Get your dad to read Metafilter.
posted by Hildago at 10:23 AM on February 1, 2006


Perhaps something like this would help? I think it's really unfortunate that your mom would put you in this position - this is so far from your responsibility it's not even in the same zip code.

I wish you all the best with a really uncomfortable situation. Good luck.
posted by Space Kitty at 10:30 AM on February 1, 2006


My opinions:

1) and 2) you are being squeezed as a tool in a power play. I'd put my foot down and let her handle it. If you must get involved, try to negotiate a F2F meeting between the two of them.

3) I think that the more links added to this chain, the worse it gets.

4) Probably not. Herpes can cause eye infections in infancy, but such transmission is rare and would be obvious.

And to correct some misinformation above, HSV viruses can be asymptomatic for any length of time, and some outbreaks can be very mild. There is no way to tell when the initial infection occured.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:47 AM on February 1, 2006


Ditto above. Speaking as someone who often acted as a go-between for parents, you have to get out of the triangular relationship. Let them form their own channels of communication.
posted by about_time at 10:53 AM on February 1, 2006


Sweet Fancy Moses! If you must do it, be blunt, be quick, get in, get out. Do it now and then run away! (If you can't get out of it)
posted by blue_beetle at 10:53 AM on February 1, 2006


Get your mom to write your dad a note.
posted by o2b at 11:08 AM on February 1, 2006


"Mom, I'm sorry that you're uncomfortable about having to tell my father that you have genital herpes. I can only imagine what his reaction will be like. But that is all I will ever do is imagine what his reaction will be like. This is between you and him. I can assure you that I have nothing to do with this, and therefore never will. If you need to talk to someone about it afterwards, you know you can call me/meet me for coffee/etc. I love you."
posted by iurodivii at 11:17 AM on February 1, 2006


You should not tell him under any circumstances. Your mother does not need to tell him, either. Her doctor probably told her that, but she wants him to know anyway for her own personal reasons.

As a gynecologist, I can tell you that this story sounds very suspicious. HSV (herpes simplex virus type II) is not the same thing as HPV (human papilloma virus). A woman can harbor HPV for years without knowing about it, and in the meantime, she can develop serious problems because of it.

HSV is entirely different. The first (primary) episode usually occurs within weeks of exposure, so it is exceptionally unlikely that your mother contracted it from your father. Furthermore, if he has it, he may already know about it, since he will have had symptoms, too.

I cannot imagine any doctor telling your mother that she will not have further episodes of genital herpes. There is no reason to think that.

Even if you were sure that your mother is telling the truth, there is no reason for you to tell your father. This is especially important when you consider that your mother may not be telling the truth, or may have misunderstood what she was told.

Your father is not subject to any medical harm by not knowing whether he has been exposed to genital herpes. It is not curable and it is not likely to cause any other medical problems besides the lesions themselves. There is a theoretical risk that he could pass on the virus, but that applies to anyone who has ever been sexually active.
posted by DrAmy at 11:26 AM on February 1, 2006


If you feel comfortable saying to Dad and his wife, "Mom just got diagnosed w/ Herpes and she thought you should know just in case it might affect you. I feel really awkward being the go-between, so I'd prefer not to discuss this further " then by all means, go ahead. Write him a note if it's easier.

However, I really agree that it's not at all your responsibility to do this, and it puts a strain on your relationship with Dad, so ask your Mom to ask the Doctor to inform your dad. Get Out Of Hell Free.
posted by theora55 at 11:29 AM on February 1, 2006


What Jessamyn said.

It is a Very Bad Idea for divorced people to use their children as go-betweens, for any reason. Parents are by definition grownups, and if they can manage to get through a divorce, they should be able to write a letter. It is exceedingly unfair to put a child (even an adult child) in between her parents.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:04 PM on February 1, 2006


I feel, even if you have already told your mom that you'd deliver this message to your father, you can still back out of it. Just explain that, after some deliberation, you've decided it is not your place to give him this information. You are his daughter. How do you think he would feel hearing from you that his ex-wife has herpes? If your mother wants him to know, she must do it herself.
posted by viachicago at 12:30 PM on February 1, 2006


It's your mom's responsibility to notify her sexual partners; it's your dad's responsibility to get checked and if necessary do notifications his partners. I totally agree that putting you in the middle of their sexual history and marital discord is inappropriate, and it has the potential to worsen their strained relationship or your parent-child relationships with them. Dragging a fourth person (the new wife) into it prematurely sounds like an even worse idea.

If someone with an STD can't stand to tell an ex-lover in person or over the phone, she can pull out a piece of paper and mail him a note. Or she can ask her doctor to do the notification.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:44 PM on February 1, 2006


Also, I know it's an unpleasant prospect, but it's possible that your Mom isn't telling Dad because it's the right thing to do, she's doing it because she's angry and hurt and whatever else some older women go through after divorces when their spouses have remarried. I'm not saying it's likely and I'm not talking trash about your Mom, I just want to say it's a possibility and one that you should evaluate as you decide what to do.

Sometimes people find ways of prolonging connections, even negative connections, that are not all all appropriate after a divorce or during a bad marriage or relationship. In my family this manifested itself by two people who really shouldn't have been living together and raising children having horrible arguments about what was basically nothing, because it was the only bond that really kept them together. They had real reasons for why each person felt the other needed to answer for what they had done, but at the end of the day they created a very negative space that was more the absence of a relationship than a relationship itself, and yet it endured. If your Mom could possibly be engaged in something like this [my father called it "emotional terrorism", my mother insists it never happened], using this medical news to create a connection with your father who does not want a connection then it behooves you to try to not be any part of it.

I know it's an outside chance, but with my family, involving the children in their wars against each other was a way for my parents to believe that their gripes and petty bullshit was legitimate and justified, so you might want to also look at your Mom's instistence on your involvement through that lens as well. I know this is mostly based on my own dark childhood, but your scenario set off some "I've seen this before" alarms.
posted by jessamyn at 12:45 PM on February 1, 2006


Thanks everyone for your input, I think I will take the advice of many here and let Mom know that I just don't feel comfortable talking to Dad about this (and I think Dad will be all the happier never knowing that his daughter has been thinking about him in relation to STDs).

You should not tell him under any circumstances. Your mother does not need to tell him, either. Her doctor probably told her that, but she wants him to know anyway for her own personal reasons.

DrAmy's comment raises another issue. Do I recommend to my mother that she talk to my father? Is it a health risk for him or not? This interaction will upset the both of them a lot, but my thinking is that if there's even a remote chance that he's at risk, he needs to know about it.
posted by Crushinator at 1:10 PM on February 1, 2006


Your mom is flat out manipulating you.

What possibly makes putting up with that toxic garbage worth it? Tell her she needs to talk to your father. No matter how old you are, it is still none of your business or problem to have to deal with.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 1:21 PM on February 1, 2006


DrAmy:Your mother does not need to tell him, either. Your father is not subject to any medical harm by not knowing whether he has been exposed to genital herpes.

This seems like very strange advice to me. Clearly, IANAD and you are, but isn't the risk of Crushinator's father unknowingly transmitting the virus enough to warrant notification? I've never heard anyone advocating not telling former partners about STDs.
posted by youarenothere at 1:43 PM on February 1, 2006


Piling on the bandwagon: Your mother's a grownup, tell her to act like one. This isn't your business, it's between them.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:55 PM on February 1, 2006


Oh, and I agree that a number of points made in DrAmy's comment are curious, to say the least. Plenty of HSV cases erupt years after probably acquisition, and it would take a complete loon to confuse HPV w/ herpes.

And Dad actually does have a great deal to gain from this. Say he takes a trip to the Caribbean, the sun triggers his first outbreak, but he ain't travelling with any treatment, gets disseminated HSV and winds up as fertilizer. It's not very far fetched, and he needs to know that if he gets a painful outbreak of vesicles on his willy it isn't to be ignored.
posted by docpops at 2:01 PM on February 1, 2006


isn't the risk of Crushinator's father unknowingly transmitting the virus enough to warrant notification?

I think what DrAmy means is that it's almost certain that Crushinator's father wasn't exposed to HSV, and furthermore, herpes isn't *harmful*.

I think that she also brings up an interesting question that bears repeating: Crushinator, are you sure that your mother understood her diagnosis? And are you sure that she's being honest with you?
posted by veronica sawyer at 2:05 PM on February 1, 2006


Fact sheet on genital herpes from the National Institutes of Health: They do say that "Often, though, people don’t recognize their first or subsequent outbreaks. People who have mild or no symptoms at all may not think they are infected with herpes."
posted by Gator at 2:27 PM on February 1, 2006


Crushinator, are you sure that your mother understood her diagnosis? And are you sure that she's being honest with you?

Being honest? Do you mean do I think she's lying about the fact that she has herpes? No, I don't think she's lying. I also think she'd honestly rather not have my father find out because she's embarrassed about it. I'm afraid that if I don't tell my dad, then she'll be too embarrassed to do it herself. It is certainly possible that she misunderstood some of the information her doctor told her or that I misunderstood the information she told me.

I think what DrAmy means is that it's almost certain that Crushinator's father wasn't exposed to HSV, and furthermore, herpes isn't *harmful*.

It's very hard to get accurate information about STDs, but all this sounds wrong to me. Like I said before, if there is even a slight chance that he could have the virus, he needs to know. It's a long-shot (although just how long I can't say) but God forbid a situation like docpops mentions should occur.
posted by Crushinator at 2:32 PM on February 1, 2006


If you're stuck being involved, you could compromise -- facilitate without delivering the news. Maybe your mom would agree to you calling your dad to tell him that you're putting your mom on the phone because she needs to discuss a medical problem with him. Assure him that she's fine and that it's nothing life-threatening. Turn over the phone to mom and hold her hand. Smooth over embarassment with mom via copious amoutns of ice cream immediately following. Yeah, it's a little role-reversal-y, but sometimes we gotta parent our parents.

My dad had a prostate cancer scare; I had to explain some facts about biology and male anatomy. I was pretty squeamish, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Not remotely the same situation, as it was just embarrassing, not inappropriate, but most of us would still prefer to have no discussion with our parents about their genitals.
posted by desuetude at 2:44 PM on February 1, 2006


if there is even a slight chance that he could have the virus, he needs to know

Well, yes, but your parents were divorced 10 years ago.. right?..so how likely is a 10 year hibernation that would be a concern to your father? He has a new wife and possibly more partners than that in the last 10 years. I would say there's more than a slight chance he has the virus (since it's so common) but there's not necessarily a connection with your mother's outbreak. Unless there's something she's not telling you.

I think it's not your business and your mom might have other reasons to want to tell him (accuse him). I think you need to recuse yourself from this mess.
posted by dness2 at 2:46 PM on February 1, 2006


I'm afraid that if I don't tell my dad, then she'll be too embarrassed to do it herself.

I see by your highlighting of viachicago's answer that you do recognize it's your mother's responsibility to tell your father. But if you do eventually feel you have to let him know, I suggest that you write him a note.

Ask her exactly what she wants you to tell him. Then you can write, "Dear Dad, Because she feels awkward talking with you about it, Mom has asked me to tell you the following: [What mom said.] I know you can imagine how uncomfortable it make me feel to be the one to notify you. I'm doing so because it was clear Mom wasn't going to contact you."
posted by wryly at 3:15 PM on February 1, 2006


I'm somewhat skeptical of your mother's claim: perhaps (as suggested above) she didn't quite understand the diagnosis (HPV vs HSV), or -- unlikely, but possible -- she might be deceptive and trying to inflict emotional pain (stress) on your father.

Buck up - tell Mom to take responsibility for her actions and her wishes -- and do not feel bad/guilty/tormented/confused about not being her "messenger."
posted by davidmsc at 5:06 PM on February 1, 2006


Your father is not subject to any medical harm by not knowing whether he has been exposed to genital herpes. It is not curable and it is not likely to cause any other medical problems besides the lesions themselves. There is a theoretical risk that he could pass on the virus, but that applies to anyone who has ever been sexually active.

Worst advice ever. And from a doctor, for shame. Seriously, if your mother has not had sex with anyone SINCE your father, she probably acquired it from him. And there's a possibility that it hasn't been ten years since they last had sex (maybe they hooked up post breakup. It wouldn't be the first time something like that happened to a longtime couple).

Anyway, if it's at all likely she was with your father when this was acquired, he needs to know, although it is her responsibility and not yours.
posted by digitalis at 5:23 PM on February 1, 2006


Tell your mom to do it herself. It's her responsibility.
posted by cellphone at 5:47 PM on February 1, 2006


isn't the risk of Crushinator's father unknowingly transmitting the virus enough to warrant notification? I've never heard anyone advocating not telling former partners about STDs.

I did not say that people who may unknowingly have the virus should not be warned. What I said was that there are several facts and inconsistencies in the story that suggest that Crushinator's father was not exposed to HSV.

The typical incubation period for HSV2 is 2 weeks. Therefore, unless Mom was celibate for the last 10 years, the chances that Dad gave it to her are quite small.

Second, Mom claims that her doctor told her that she will have no further outbreaks. If she truly has HSV2, there is a more than 80% chance that she will have an outbreak in the next year.

The CDC recommends (but does not require) informing current and future sexual partners. It does not even suggest informing past sexual partners.

And Dad actually does have a great deal to gain from this. Say he takes a trip to the Caribbean, the sun triggers his first outbreak, but he ain't travelling with any treatment, gets disseminated HSV and winds up as fertilizer.

It is my understanding that disseminated HSV2 is a disease of newborns or those who are severely imunocompromised. The CDC and NIH do not mention anything about preventing or watching for disseminated HSV2 in normal adults.

Furthermore, I have not heard of sun triggering outbreaks of genital herpes, but perhaps there is information that you could share.

In summary, obviously people who have been exposed to HSV2 should be informed. If Mom is simply concerned about Dad's chance of exposure, she could just ask her doctor to write him a letter. Doctors and public health personnel write such letters all the time.

I suspect (for the reasons listed above) that Mom isn't not concerned about Dad's health, but is interesting in destroying Crushinator's relationship with her Dad, or at least tainting it. She has told Crushinator that she has HSV2, but of course, there is no way for Crushinator to know that is true. She has also told her that she got it from Dad, but, again, there is no way for daughter to know that this is true, either.

The fundamental point is that there is good reason to believe that Crushinator's father is being slandered and she should consider that carefully before deciding on her next step.
posted by DrAmy at 5:54 PM on February 1, 2006


DrAmy: I have not heard of sun triggering outbreaks of genital herpes, but perhaps there is information that you could share.

"Once infected, the virus stays in the body for...life. Some people never have another episode; some have frequent recurrences... Subsequent infections tend to occur after sexual intercourse, exposure to the sun, and after stressful events." source
posted by davidmsc at 7:07 PM on February 1, 2006


While it's imperfect, anonymous notification of possible STD exposure is an option (this comment on getting the local health department's help is the best answer given in that thread). Not saying it's what your mom should do; just offering another alternative to her not saying anything to your dad. Perhaps saying no to your mom's request (which you absolutely have every right to do) will be easier for you if you temper it with other options your mom has. Especially if you're concerned that if you don't comply, your dad won't know about the situation & would be at risk. (It can be tough to say no to crummy requests when they come from someone you love. Good luck!)
posted by neda at 8:59 PM on February 1, 2006


Umm what Doctor would ever tell someone that they won't have another outbreak? That's ridiculous.
posted by yodelingisfun at 9:17 PM on February 1, 2006


Man, they just don't make Hallmark cards for times like these, do they?

First off, right on about backing out. Second off, if it does come down to your mom not saying anything, just be blunt with your dad. "Hey pops, this is gonna be a thirty-second conversation. Mom has herpes. She wouldn't tell you, and that's wrong. Give her a call. I'm not touching this topic again ever."
posted by klangklangston at 10:10 PM on February 1, 2006


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