What if my kids are not mine?
May 2, 2011 6:07 AM   Subscribe

I am going through a divorce and have recently found out that my wife has had numerous affairs while we were married. This information has got me thinking that one of my children may not be biologically mine. So now what?

I have been married 17 years and am getting divorced from my wife. We have two children, both not quite teenagers. As I find out more about her secret life, I have discovered that she has had numerous affairs during our marriage.

I have often suspected that one of my children was possibly not mine, and have even joked about it as he looks nothing like me. Now, I wonder even more in light of the new information.

Legally, we are a couple months from being divorced. We have been very friendly during the process. We have decided 50/50 custody with no child support or alimony.

At this point I really want the divorce to be over so I can move on with my life. However, I am now considering having a paternity test on my children to see if they are really biologically mine. Is this a good idea or not?

Some back story... I am adopted, along with my brother and sister. Regardless of any paternity test results, I would still love my kids until the end of the earth. It wouldn't affect my relationship to them at all. It would however affect their relationship to me. Would they want to know their real biological father, would they sek him out? If one of the children were not mine I am certain it would affect the divorce as well, but I am not a lawyer so I don't know in what ways.

I would like to do nothing for now because it will only complicate things with the divorce. In the future when the youngest turns 18 (or some other milestone age) I can tell them both and let them decide what to do. But I not sure this is a good idea either as it will be putting the burden on them and really only making things easier for me now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (50 answers total)
We have decided 50/50 custody with no child support or alimony.

Then let it go, definitely.

As for "when they turn 18", you have a long time to think about that. You may find that you and your ex actually agree on a strategy, sooner or later. No need to decide today.
posted by rokusan at 6:12 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't burden your kids with this.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:20 AM on May 2, 2011 [36 favorites]

Let it go. Stop joking about it and don't mention it to your siblings or anyone.

I come from a family where paternity is in question (my father seemed to enjoy telling the four of us that I'm the only one that's actually his) and it's pretty miserable.

It feeds a gossip mill, and it hurts kids. Knowing about their mother's extra-marital activities helps them in no way, but it may shake their trust in her, and cause resentment toward you.

Yes, they. Both of your children would be affected by this.

Do nothing.
posted by bilabial at 6:23 AM on May 2, 2011 [14 favorites]

At this point I really want the divorce to be over so I can move on with my life. However, I am now considering having a paternity test on my children to see if they are really biologically mine. Is this a good idea or not?

Whatever you decide, remember, that for all intents and purposes, you are their father, you raised them.

Speaking personally, I would probably have the test as it would help the kids in terms of having a factual biological/medical history of their genes. Having the information would necessarily please me, but it would be better for the kids in the larger picture.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:27 AM on May 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was married to a woman who got pregnant extramaritally. We have since divorced. The child in question is an adult and I've never mentioned this to her. If she were to come to me and ask me questions about paternity, I would certainy do whatever I could to help her answer that question if that was what she wanted.

However, there was never anything to be gained by opening that cam of worms myself and there never will be.

Just let this go. Trust me.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:28 AM on May 2, 2011 [15 favorites]

I'm going to vote the other direction and say that you should tell them, simply because if I were them and found out that this was kept from me, I would be very very mad. For medical reasons, if nothing else. That said, tell them when they are college age, have a more mature grasp on their emotions, and when the shock of your divorce has receded into the past. Telling them now would be rubbing salt in the wound.
posted by tempythethird at 6:29 AM on May 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

You're in the middle of a terribly emotional and difficult time right now. This is really not the time to think about whether you want to question your children's paternity. I vote you let it go for now. When they're actually 18, which is the age at which you think you'd raise it with them, you can revisit the possibility of discussing this with them, and then they can decide whether they want paternity testing. There's no value in having the information and sitting on it. Nothing is lost if you don't pursue this until the time when you'd actually feel comfortable discussing it with your kids (assuming that ever happens.)
posted by craichead at 6:30 AM on May 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm going to depart with the advice you're getting here. If either of your children is, in fact, not yours, it seems like they should have a right to know their father, and they should have a right to know the truth.

All that said, these kids are entering (if they're not already there) one of the most emotionally fraught, personality shaping times in their lives. Adolescents are just feeling their way into themselves, and so a revelation like this can't be gone into lightly.

I think the first thing I would do (if it's possible and you're on speaking terms) is to go ask the soon to be ex to tell you the truth. That might clear it up a bit.

I would also recommend seeing a therapist. Maybe even seeing a therapist on your own and with your kids. I would see what the shrink recommends, and how they recommend you tell the kids. It's important that this unfold gently, and

Gossip and hurtful innuendo suck to be sure, but so does finding out one day when you're 35 that your biological father, who you never knew, is dead, and your dad has just "had his suspicions" but never advocated on behalf of his kids for 20+ years. I'm not speaking from personal experience, but from the experience of a close friend whose only interaction with her biological father was cleaning out his apartment after his funeral.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 6:31 AM on May 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your question is framed inside of an ongoing divorce and revelations of adultery. Keep your kids out of it. Ask the question again when your divorce is over and you have moved on from the betrayal. Please don't do this to your kids now.
posted by headnsouth at 6:40 AM on May 2, 2011 [9 favorites]

Don't "just let this go." I understand you've agreed to share custody and you will not be paying any child support, but that could change. What if, down the road, your soon to be ex seeks and wins a greater share of custody? You could be on the hook for a lot of child support you shouldn't be paying.

It's pretty strange for people to be suggesting that your child's happiness depends on them being deceived about who his or her father is.
posted by jayder at 6:41 AM on May 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Knowing about their mother's extra-marital activities helps them in no way, but it may shake their trust in her, and cause resentment toward you.

You think it would be better to completely destroy their trust in both parents when the children find out somewhere down the line that they have colluded to keep this information from them for years?
posted by enn at 6:43 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could be on the hook for a lot of child support you shouldn't be paying.
I'm pretty sure that any court in the US is going to consider the OP the children's father, no matter what their biological paternity is. And challenging paternity to get out of paying child-support on teenage children is incredibly scummy behavior, which the OP doesn't sound like he's interested in doing.
posted by craichead at 6:44 AM on May 2, 2011 [22 favorites]

craichead writes "I'm pretty sure that any court in the US is going to consider the OP the children's father, no matter what their biological paternity is. And challenging paternity to get out of paying child-support on teenage children is incredibly scummy behavior, which the OP doesn't sound like he's interested in doing."

This is also the case in Canada.

I would not tell your kids even if I knew for sure. It gains very little if anything (medically it is something you can keep in mind but you don't have to burden your kids with yet). It'll just create drama with the only benefit being knowledge of their biological father. Especially at this time you'll just come across as petty. If you do decide to tell your kids at some point it should be either your wife who tells them or the two of you together should tell them.
posted by Mitheral at 7:04 AM on May 2, 2011

When the kids are adults, let them decide if they want a paternity test or not.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:05 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

The revelation that Dad may not be Dad in a biological sense may be a world rocking event for someone. You don't know how your children will respond to this concept.

You assume that it would change their relationship to you but deny that it will change your relationship to them. I think this is shortsighted. When the facts fall out, you don't know for sure at this moment how you're going to respond. You don't know how knowing, even if your children don't know, the paternity of the child will shape your future interactions with that child.

I would not do this now. I would continue loving your children and stop making paternity jokes. When this comes up after your children are adults, then and only then, would I advise you cautiously tread this path. You're not denying this child information about themselves in quite the way people above are saying. IF one of the children is not biologically yours, you're not sitting on the actual biological father's name, contact info and medical history. You don't know that information to share it. At the same time, you committed to loving the kids and have invested yourself in that relationship their entire lives. Be the better parent and continue in the role of loving and supportive father. Don't change their concepts of themselves, each other and their mother just to satisfy your curiosity.
posted by onhazier at 7:14 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Surely you're not the only person who would know. Their mother, the (possible) biological dad, and whomever they may have confided in my also know. Nasty rumors like this have a way of spreading. I'd be honest about it with the kids, instead of having them find out when some mean kid in gym class yells "Hey, my Mom said your Mom's a slut and your real dad is the cable guy!" Might as well have them hear the truth from you and their mother, who can assure them that they're loved, etc.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:29 AM on May 2, 2011

I can't answer your question, but I can ask another one. What would you do differently if you discovered that one of the children was not yours? Child support isn't an issue (you said) and, presumably, since you raised the child and aren't an asshole you will want to continue being a "father" to this child. What would you do differently?

There's an old saying that before doing an experiment you should decide what you would do in case of a positive result and in case of a negative result and, if they are the same, not bother with the experiment.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 7:33 AM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's a REALLY bad time to undermine your kids' sense of belonging. When they are older, they will be able to understand that you love them no matter what, but at this age it will always be in their mind, and undermine their belief in your love and who they are. Pre-teen and early teen years are a very difficult time in any circumstances; they already have a divorce to deal with (and it's a really tough time for
that). Let them know your suspicons when they are an adult, and tell them that you love them
and that you didn't tell them
before because you didn't want them to worry that you didn't love/want them.
posted by jb at 7:35 AM on May 2, 2011

Your children are in the middle of a divorce, which is hard enough. Do not do this NOW -- it will damage their relationship with BOTH parents at a time that's emotionally fraught anyway.

Wait until they are adults and either ASK you, or it becomes necessary because of some medical issue. I suspect your children will appreciate that you protected them from MORE upheaval during the divorce and allowed them to preserve a relationship with their mother. This is too adult a thing to ask a child -- especially one mid-divorce -- to cope with.

"It's pretty strange for people to be suggesting that your child's happiness depends on them being deceived about who his or her father is."

These children know who their father is: The man who has raised them from birth.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:38 AM on May 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

Not quite teenagers, so they are only 11 or 12? Yeah, this is WAY too young to burden them with this kind of information. Just wait.
posted by yarly at 7:40 AM on May 2, 2011

also, you don't know that a child is not yours simply because he looks nothing like you. My neice looks nothing like her father, and entirely like her mother - or so we thought until we compared baby photos. Another friend simply looks very little like her mother or father, but a great deal like her paternal great-grandmother.
posted by jb at 7:41 AM on May 2, 2011

I don't really see how sitting on this "information" is a form of deception. The OP's only reason for suspecting anything is that his wife has had affairs and one of his kids maybe doesn't look like him.

Can you imagine how awful it would be to know that you dad loves you so little that the mere fact of a lack of strong resemblance is enough for him to decide he doesn't really want to claim you as his?

Especially if it turned out that you really were your father's biological child after all. Ew.

OP, unless your wife knows more about the facts than you're letting on, I would drop this. Your kids are going to have a tough enough time over the next several years. They don't need even more evidence that their parents' love might not be entirely unconditional.
posted by Sara C. at 7:42 AM on May 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

A family therapist would be a good expert to consult regarding when and how to pursue this if at all - they'd know about developmental stages and the benefits/drawbacks to pursuing this at different times. Agreed they are far too young now to be burdened with this, but at a certain point the secrecy will be more of a burden.
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:08 AM on May 2, 2011

You're the only father they've ever known. Who cares about DNA? Maybe, someday, they might need medical information, but I doubt that any genetic knowledge will ever be as important as your being Daddy.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:14 AM on May 2, 2011

I would do it, do it now before the divorce, and have the information noted in the divorce petition. If your wife had multiple affairs, your level of trust should be non-existent as far as terms of the divorce. You need to protect yourself legally for the future. You also need to keep the information from your kids until they are old enough to deal with it.
posted by raisingsand at 8:55 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think the OP needs to question his kids' paternity in order to raise the issue of his wife's infidelity. Presumably he has independent evidence that his wife was unfaithful.
posted by craichead at 9:05 AM on May 2, 2011

They deserve to know, someday. Go with your first instinct.
posted by MangyCarface at 9:18 AM on May 2, 2011

The point is that he may be legally obligated to support a child that isn't his, if he doesn't confirm the parentage. He was possibly led to believe another man's child is his as a result of his wife's fraud. (In my state, this sort of situation counts as fraud and would be a basis for not having a child support obligation toward the other man's child.)

The OP may CHOOSE to pay child support. Let it be voluntary, a gift. But given the harshness of child support laws (which routinely reduce noncustodial parents to destitution, plus costing them their drivers licenses and other privileges) it would be foolhardy to let yourself be saddled with a child support obligation that you shouldn't, due to fraud, be saddled with.
posted by jayder at 9:21 AM on May 2, 2011

I think you should find out but sometime after the divorce is over. There is a enough new earth shattering information going on in your families lives right now.

Also, I think it would be good to try to do the test discretely, like using a hair for the child's DNA sample.
posted by zephyr_words at 9:50 AM on May 2, 2011

@jayder, I would also like to see some evidence. The default position in all common-law jurisdictions that I am aware of, including across the U.S., is that anything that comes out of your wife's uterus while you're married to her is your legal child. A handful of courts have allowed this presumption to be rebutted, typically when the sperm-father attempts to get visitation, but there are many cases that even when lack of biological paternity is proven (i.e., some other man is the father), legal paternity has been determined to remain with the man who was married to the woman at the time.

In the U.S., in states that allow challenges to paternity for a married couple, generally paternity can only be challenged within two years of the child's birth; after that the presumption is conclusive. The Uniform Parentage Act is the most-adopted model.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:52 AM on May 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm not you, but if I was, I would want to know, not because of how it would change my view towards the children, but because I would want to know the full extent of my ex's betrayal and avoid personalities like her in the future. 2nd a discreet test using hair or some other "found DNA".

I feel like your curiousity will eat at you if you don't have a conclusive answer. Once you get an answer, if you are the father, fine, and if not, still fine, keep the results to youself until the kids are older, or possibly forever (whichever you prefer). Just the fact that you posted this question says that the unknown is bothering you. Find out.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:11 AM on May 2, 2011

Not wanting a legal obligation you shouldn't have, is not "jerky."

He may very well decide to fully support the child who isn't his, out of kindness and love.

But this is a strictly legal consideration. Given that he can't know what the future may hold in terms of his custody, job security, personal finances, relationship with his children, etc., it's best to have as much information as possible.
posted by jayder at 10:27 AM on May 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

If I were YOU, I would also want to know and would go ahead trying to do a discreet DNA test. I know someone who paid child support for years for a kid he ALWAYS suspected was not his, once the kid found his real father a lot of things became more clear. Even without that example, I would want to know for my sake, for the sake of knowledge and just because you need to know in your heart if your genes are indeed part of those guys.
posted by The1andonly at 10:29 AM on May 2, 2011

What are you gaining from this? Seriously, define it.

Consult a lawyer, but I'm willing to bet you still pay child support (yes, I saw your agreement, I'm just saying if that's a factor in the future -- and if you have *any* questions about legal ramifications, consult a lawyer - I don't see why you'd divorce without one - you have no idea what you don't know). You already know about the affairs, and if a DNA test won't affect how you feel, then what's the upside? So is it just wanting to know the answer?

I don't see much upside here. I see a lot of downside, for you and a lot for your kids, who even if they are "yours" would perhaps be devastated to even know that you wanted a DNA test.

Whatever you do, remember there's no cramming these worms back in the can if you take action.
posted by mrs. taters at 10:52 AM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

What does your future ex-wife say about this? Does she know (and admit) for a fact that the child isn't yours? Would she admit to such? It seems to me that finding out how much cooperation you can get from her on this issue might determine what happens.

In general, I would say not to tell the kids unless it comes up for medical information, especially if you don't know for sure that any of them are not yours. Which right now, you don't know for sure. As for getting tested yourself, talk to your ex-wife and see what she says, and see if you trust what she says. I'm not sure if it's a good idea or not unless medical issues come up, maybe wait until then to decide. That's when it would be relevant, because by now they are both your kids by raising anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:49 AM on May 2, 2011

You might want to check out this recent question
posted by Blasdelb at 12:03 PM on May 2, 2011

Consider speaking with a lawyer who knows the local law (and the actual way the local courts tend to go) when it comes to these kinds of cases. First, because you need to know how it will affect the divorce. Second, because you should rule out the chance that you could lose custody or visitation rights to your child because "well, you're not the REAL dad anyway..." Asshole judges are out there and the system already tends to be stacked against fathers (again, depending on the jurisdiction.

If that's a valid worry for you, then you might want to avoid getting the test done while custody is still an issue (which, if you're cautious, is until after the child turns 18).

If your son would seek out his biological father--you and I have no way of knowing. He might, he might not care, he might when he's older, he might and he might not tell you about it.

I think that people have the right to know who their biological parents are, if possible. I think that it is not a right that can be waived on their behalf. I think this in the case of adopted children and in this case as well.

In terms of medical history, waiting until you know that there is a medical problem to say something is stupid. A large of knowing your medical history is so that doctors know what to look out for and test for. My thyroid gets tested every time I sneeze because all of my immediate family members have bad thyroids. The second my partner (and his sister) had unexplained diarrhea they were tested for celiac because of their father. With me, they suspected endometriosis and have never seriously considered celiac.

Then there are genetic conditions that can affect fetuses--if your son does have a different father and gets someone pregnant they won't know have the whole picture when it comes to risk, and that can affect decisions for genetic testing, amniocentesis, lots of things.

Good luck, you sound like a great father.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:35 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

[folks, please chill out a little about who is or is not reprehensible and answer the OPs question or feel free to move on. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 12:44 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't see anything being gained by going down this road. My advice echoes many others, let it go and move on (yes, that means continuing to treat your kids as your kids).
posted by fenriq at 12:48 PM on May 2, 2011

If there's any way to do a test without your kids and wife knowing, that's really the only way I'd pursue this. Even that feels icky, but ickier is asking about it without proof or mentioning it and being wrong that the child isn't yours.
posted by Nixy at 2:19 PM on May 2, 2011

I can only offer anecdotes about my feelings on paternity/maternity as an adopted child myself. I was raised with the knowledge that I was adopted (as all adopted kids should be, I think) and when I was 18, I sought out my birth mother. We met and I met her other two (younger) kids. We reconnected again recently and I've been a little uncomfortable with her sense that she has re-found her daughter. I've even been contacted by other extended family members who want to connect with me. It's weird! I told one person that I couldn't be friends on Facebook because I have other family members there and that would be uncomfortable. So, this is a strange mix of biological connection with actual real-life connections and it can be confusing. To my lifelong family, I am a daughter and sister and cousin, etc. That my biological family might feel this way, too, is just too much for me to wrap my head around for now.

So, I think that getting to know some guy who is their biological father is not necessarily the right thing to do just because the facts can eventually be determined. I was given the choice when I was 18 to do what I wanted to do with full support of my parents. I think that after the divorce is settled and with an understanding with your ex-wife -- you could approach the kids when the youngest reaches maturity and let them decide what to do.

I'd also be inclined to discuss this with a lawyer though not your current divorce lawyer as I'd be worried that this would muddy the waters. You are these kids' father. No matter what. Forever, I think. If this is what happened with your wife, that's so unfortunate but just make sure that you don't let go of the kid.

After my (adopted) father's death, I found out that he made comments to one of my siblings about blood being most important of all. So, you know, I guess he had conflicted feelings about his adopted children and that really does hurt. You are bound to feel conflicted but please don't let your kids know or ever waver in your love for them. No other person can take your place at this point in life. You are their father. Forget biology -- it's the love and support that matters.

And I'm so sorry you're going through this. I hope everything turns out for the better.
posted by amanda at 3:05 PM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

One last thought: genes are funny things. Sometimes the kids all look alike and sometimes they don't. And you can't even go by their personalities! Temperament characteristics are a complicated dance of nature, nurture, birth order and magic. Almost as traumatizing as the news that one's father is not their real father would be their real father thinking erroneously that they weren't their kid. That would surely magnify any issues between the two of you. If you already have a tense relationship with the suspect kid then work on that.
posted by amanda at 3:21 PM on May 2, 2011

Don't be selfish. They're your kids. Put their needs and emotions first in what will be a difficult time for them. Don't screw with their minds like this. Just let it go.
posted by joannemullen at 3:40 PM on May 2, 2011

Rather than being optimistic that you might not have to pay child support (which some people are suggesting, but which you, yourself, seem to have no interest in even considering, for which I commend you), I'd be concerned about whether being found to not be the father of your children might put at risk that 50/50 custody arrangement you've worked out. It might be better not to know anything for sure until your kids are grown so the information can't be used against you.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:06 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of the truth and not a big fan of what selective truth telling does in families.

But I think it's worthwhile to be very very careful about how to handle truths. If you know you don't want anything to change with the children now anyway, I would sit on this for now.

Find a good therapist, a really good one, to talk this through with, both your own feelings and how to one day talk about it with your ex-wife, and also, if it does turn out that one of the children isn't biologically related to you, with your kids. Off hand, an ideal might be if the the truth came from both of you, together. But when? How? I don't begin to know but it seems like the intensity of the divorce situation makes it probably not the greatest time to add this into the mix.

Also, I think it's probably a good idea not to talk about it with anybody but your therapist and a very trusted friend/sibling, until you're ready to talk about it more openly with your family/have more information. Rumors can hurt a lot.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:04 PM on May 2, 2011

What young-rope-rider said. It would be very easy for a paternity test to end up with you retaining all financial liability for the children and for you to be denied many or all of your parental rights. The former is based upon the legal fact of fatherhood (an effectively irrebutable presumption at this point in the US) and the latter is based upon the best interests of the children (as subjectively determined by the court) and the children's own preferences given their ages.
posted by MattD at 5:36 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Follow your gut: when the time comes (when your children are over 18 or whatever the legal age of adulthood is by you), sit down with them. Explain infidelity was a factor in your divorce, so while they are BOTH your children and will always be YOUR children if they'd like to get paternity testing (in the interest of having a fuller medical history) you'd participate.

In an ideal world you and your soon-to-be ex are successful co-parents -- your ex-wife will be present for this conversation and will even take point. A loving, open, adult conversation as what you want; right now the kids are just too young and the split is earth-shattering enough. Agreeing with the chorus to stop joking about the lack of a resemblance, and that seeing a lawyer is a swell idea (even in a "friendly" divorce).
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:14 PM on May 2, 2011

It wouldn't affect my relationship to them at all. It would however affect their relationship to me.

Then let them ask for a test when they want one.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:36 PM on May 2, 2011

I wouldn't, based on my personality, be able to let this lie, were I in your shoes. Will you be able to dismiss the question from your mind? Or will you always be wondering?

A quick first step might be to check blood type compatibility. That's a lot easier then swiping DNA.
posted by bq at 6:19 PM on May 3, 2011

In terms of medical history, waiting until you know that there is a medical problem to say something is stupid. A large of knowing your medical history is so that doctors know what to look out for and test for.

In one sense this is true. OTOH, if there is another parent out there to seek medical history from, who's to say if they would even be findable after 12 years, let alone willing to talk about their medical information -- or they could be all too enthusiastic to insert themselves into your child's life at a difficult time. Plus, you would need to have them submit to testing to verify that they are the genetic parent, which is likely to be difficult as they may think this could make them liable for child support, cause problems with their own spouse/children/career, or just value their privacy.

If you can't trust your spouse to tell you if there is another parent, how could you trust her to give you good information as to who that other parent might be? A paternity test will only tell you if YOU are or are not the genetic father, it won't give you answers to who that person is or what their medical history is.

Unless there's something that's a big looming concern lurking in your own medical history that is causing a lot of anxiety or invasive testing to be done, this isn't a good reason to get the test.
posted by yohko at 7:02 PM on May 3, 2011

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