How do I deal with a DNA bombshell?
May 25, 2011 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Some heavy shit went down this week and I've become the unwilling party to a new family secret. I want to tell one or two trusted family members because it affects them to a lesser degree. Can people with calmer heads and more perspective help me sort through this and figure out the best line to take? (Caution: longwinded)

My husband has twin daughters from an earlier relationship - they were unplanned and the result of an affair and my husband was quite young when they were born. I've been in their lives since they were 6 (they're now 20) and I've worked very hard to maintain a good relationship with their mother and we are friendly.

However, recently as part of sorting out a bureaucratic snarl with birth certificates, the girls decided that they wanted DNA testing and their mother and my husband were happy to oblige. Needless to say, it turns out that he's not their father.

End. Of. The. World.

The girls are upset with their mother, my husband is generally upset and I am swinging between anger and grief depending on what bit of the mess I'm dealing with at the time. The mother's reaction is unknown and frankly I don't care right now - years of friendliness have gone out the window and I really couldn't say what I do right now if she walked into my house. I suspect it would be both noisy and very messy.

The only people who know about this mess are the two girls, their mother, my husband and me - but secrets being what they are, I'm sure that this will eventually get out somehow. I want to tell my sister in law about this mess now - we are very close, she doesn't have kids and it doesn't seem likely that she will either - and she dotes on her nieces. She, however, loathes their mother for various reason and my main worries are that she'll do or say something to inadvertently aggravate the situation and also that she might perhaps not want to know. Is ignorance bliss or would you want to know??

Some extra flavor to the mix: due to shitty genetics, I probably can't have kids (marrying a man with kids was an awesome bonus and a relief) and my husband had a vasectomy after the girls were born on the understanding that two girls were enough for him.

Also, obviously, neither my husband nor myself intend on treating the girls any differently than before and life will go on as before. Only it won't.

So what do I do - I'm too messed up to look at this with any degree of sanity.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (57 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It's absolutely not your secret to tell. Secrets regarding someone's parentage are theirs to tell.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:02 AM on May 25, 2011 [102 favorites]

If you love the daughters you adopted, and I understand you do, then simply love them. DNA scarcely matters; they are a part of your life, and so long as you and your husband show them how you feel, things will work out.

Sometimes it's important to simply ask: "Is this helping?" Carrying around fury for their mother doesn't seem productive.
posted by Marquis at 7:05 AM on May 25, 2011 [23 favorites]

I want to tell my sister in law about this mess now

I really don't understand from your description (i) why your sister-in-law would need or want to know this right now, or (ii) why _you_ would be the one to decide to tell her this (as opposed to e.g. her nieces themselves, or her brother). It sounds like you just want someone to talk to about this, but perhaps if so a disinterested third party such as a therapist would be a better choice.
posted by advil at 7:06 AM on May 25, 2011 [18 favorites]

It's not your job or your place to tell anyone. The tip-off here is your best reason is that you "really want to."

Focus on supporting the girls.
posted by rokusan at 7:08 AM on May 25, 2011

Why are you even angry about this at all?

What does your husband's vasectomy have to do with it? Is his need to have children based on genetic descent?
posted by rr at 7:15 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

My husband has twin daughters from an earlier relationship - they were unplanned and the result of an affair and my husband was quite young when they were born.

This is ambiguous. Was your now husband cuckolding another man, and it was assumed that your now husband was the father? I ask because that could mean there was another man, the presumed cuckold, who was the actual father, the husband to the mother of the daughters, and perhaps a strong a figure in their lives. Also, if that were the case, it would add another layer of drama as that is yet another person's life who has been altered dramatically and needs to be considered.

Or was is that your husband was in a committed relationship and had an affair with another woman outside of his relationship, and when the children were born she fingered him as the father? Also sticky but in a different way because this does shed a more harsh light on the mother who seemingly had the choice to pick the father and picked your now husband for monetary or other reasons.

I do think that under the different scenarios, advice you receive here might change by degree, but ultimately not by kind. What others have said remains true. This is not for you to tell others. However, perhaps you could speak with the daughters and ask them how they want to deal with this. You could mention that you think Aunt So and So would like to know, but before you tell her, you wanted to discuss it with them first. Gauge their reaction and see how willing they are to let this current secret stay a secret. Maybe they don't care - maybe they want everyone to know.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:18 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone else re continuing to love the children, and that it's not your secret to tell. You know that the girls will probably tell her within a few weeks, don't you? This is not going to be some crazy soap opera plot where she never finder out.

Also, don't forget that the mother was happy to do DNA testing, which suggests that she thought your husband was the father -- and if there was no intent to deceive, there is no sudden new reason to hate her.
posted by kestrel251 at 7:18 AM on May 25, 2011 [43 favorites]

I am so, so sorry for all of you. This is heartbreaking and I'm sure the world feels like it's upside down for all of you. Because of that, it's probably best to stand back and wait for the dust to settle a bit before you all make decisions about when/if to disclose this information.

I agree with the posters above that ultimately it seems like it is your daughters' decision to make about how this information is handled. It has the most impact on them and their relationships with their family members now and in the future. What is important, though, is that genetics or no, you all are all family and that relationship is no different now than before you all had this bombshell fall into your laps.

It is completely understandable that you are all furious and grieving to different degrees, and it's going to be important to have a safe spot to work through all of that. I'd also like to recommend seeking counseling, at least for yourself, as you sort through all of it. Counseling with your husband and your daughters would be even better if they are ready.

I wish you all peace as you make sense of it all.
posted by goggie at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ok, so you now know these girls who you have loved for the past 14 years are not biologically related to your husband. Now what?

First, the DNA results DO NOT change who these girls are and it does not have to change your relationships to them. This is the most important thing. Are you going to suddenly walk away just because some code you thought was there isn't? Are the emotions you and your husband have invested in your relationships with the girls suddenly invalidated just because it wasn't his sperm that got their mother pregnant? No. None of that changes. What you have here is an opportunity to realize that regardless of the truth of their biological parentage, you and your husband have played important roles in the girls' lives. You have an opportunity to say "We're still here for you. We still love you. I know this sucks and we're stunned too. BUT, we still love you." That's what a parent does. You and your husband made a choice years ago to love these girls. Please, keep that going and continue being there for them.

Secondly, you're the grown-ups here. Step up and focus on what the girls are feeling and not on how angry you are at their mother. Let's consider for a moment that maybe their mother is just as stunned as everyone else is that your husband is not the father. Maybe she hasn't been telling you lies for the past two decades because she honestly believed he was the father. Give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was a very upsetting but real mistake and not something done out of malice. Given that, it really is the girls' emotions here that need to be supported.

Finally, the secret isn't yours to share. Why share it and cause further alienation between the girls' mother and your sister-in-law? Why share it when, as I mentioned above, it may have been an honest mistake? What good does sharing it do? If you're still going to love and treat the girls as the daughters you always thought them to be, there's no need to create the drama that will result by you sharing this information.

Good luck.
posted by onhazier at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2011 [13 favorites]

Why do you want to tell? Because you think she needs to know this for some reason? In that case it's not your secret to tell.

I suspect the real reason you want to tell her is because you want someone to vent to, a shoulder to cry on, in which case she's still not a good choice, because she's going to go through her own process of processing this information. In that case, if you have a trusted friend who doesn't know the girls well, I'd ask the girls' permission to talk to a friend about it - it's not unreasonable for you to need someone to help you process this. However, if you don't have a friend that fits in that category or you're not comfortable asking the girls' permission, then you need to talk to a counselor, as that's the best and only way to have someone to help you process this while still keeping the secret.

I'll also be another voice in the "genetics doesn't matter" camp. Daughters are daughters. It doesn't matter who contributed your parts, who carried you - all that matters is who loves you.
posted by anastasiav at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I want to tell one or two trusted family members because it affects them to a lesser degree.

I find it hard to believe that the biological identity of your daughters would affect anyone. Your daughters are adults, and if they want to tell people they can. You would not be doing them any favors by sharing this information with anyone else.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Did their mother even know your husband wasn't the father? Because if she knew and she hid it all these years, that's shitty and I endorse feeling angry at her. But if she didn't, I'm sure this is as much a surprise to her as it was to everyone else. She willingly offered up DNA for the test, which is probably something she would have discouraged if she thought he might not be the father.

Also, as hard as it is, you have to keep your mouth shut. You are not a principal player in this drama, and it's up to them to let the cat out of the bag.
posted by crankylex at 7:21 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I am going to go against the grain here and tell you to consider telling whomever you would like. Why would I suggest this crazy idea and risk the rest of MeFi getting upset with me? Well, a few reasons:

1) In my wife's family there are soooooo many dark secrets where people are getting very, very hurt throughout their entire lives because of the secrets. Once there is a death in the family and secrets are revealed here and there, things get easier and people admit that life would be easier and healthier all around if the secrets just weren't secrets in the first place.

2) In my best friend's family there was a secret similar to the original asker's question that I didn't know was a secret. I mentioned [something] about [something] while family was present. There was a half-hour of uncomfortable tension, but within a week or so, five people's lives were affected positively and I am still thanked to this day that I let the cat out of the bag. My best friend tells me the family is closer than ever and for the first time everyone gets along. And I couldn't have been any more of an innocent party whatsoever!

3) I think that in society as a whole, people need to simply talk more about stuff, no matter what it is. Ugh! I could write a multi-volume book on why this bothers me so much, but now isn't the time.
posted by TinWhistle at 7:23 AM on May 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

She willingly offered up DNA for the test, which is probably something she would have discouraged if she thought he might not be the father.

Her DNA is irrelevant in determining if he was the father or not.

But nthing shut up about it as it's not your secret to do with as you please, it's hubby's and the kids. They're his daughters no matter what and none of what their mother did should effect the relationship anyone has with them. None of this is their fault.
posted by inturnaround at 7:25 AM on May 25, 2011

"I'm too messed up to look at this with any degree of sanity."

Then don't do anything. Tell no one until you feel sane. Seriously. If you need to talk to someone about this, find a therapist. Telling someone who loathes the girls' mother and who you half expect to aggravate the situation is a terrible idea.
posted by something something at 7:26 AM on May 25, 2011 [10 favorites]

A shitty situation for sure. But it's up to your husband.

However, echoing other people - does it really change anything? He raised them. they spent their lives with you and him, and your family. The results will definately open old wounds, but it shouldn't throw that past 20 years of their upbringing and family ties into question.
posted by rich at 7:27 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Her DNA is irrelevant in determining if he was the father or not.

My point is that she would have discouraged the DNA test at all if she knew that he was not the father, not that her DNA was relevant to the question of his paternity.
posted by crankylex at 7:27 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

N'thing "Don't tell's not your secret to tell". I feel horrible for you and, more importantly, for your husband. I'm sure you'll treat them the same but for those people who say it's no different, they really don't know what they are talking about.

I fully endorse you hating on their birth mother. She is worthy of your, and more importantly, your husband's scorn.

And to those people who think the mother would have discouraged the DNA test if she knew he wasn't the father, you should think again: the kids are past child support paying years.....the mother had nothing to lose by allowing the DNA test.
posted by PsuDab93 at 7:32 AM on May 25, 2011

You're not going to treat the girls any differently, so you're still going to be there for them during this difficult time. One way for you to be there for them is to avoid increasing the drama. You say your SIL already hates their mom. What if you tell your SIL and she says something about it to the girls? They're undoubtedly going through a lot of emotions, and having someone speak hatefully about their mother isn't going to help--even if they're furious with their mother right now.

Also, consider the possibility that the situation was a) a mistake (Mom didn't know your husband wasn't the father) and/or b) in some ways, a good thing (you and your husband are good parents to the girls).
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:35 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

It seems your main issue lies with how to deal with the mother going forward, someone you can't easily extricate from your life due to the girls. My suggestion is instead of staying angry at her for lying to your husband all these years think of her lie as a wonderful gift to you. Stay with me. She gave you wonderful children you might otherwise not have had. It's possible that had your husband had been childless when you met the fact that you could not have children might have been a point of stress in the relationship even continuing. The world is a messy place but a lot of good can come from these messes and I think it would be extremely healthy for you and your family to see all the good that came from this.
posted by any major dude at 7:39 AM on May 25, 2011 [31 favorites]

Talk to a counselor. Every other alternative invites further drama and is unlikely to make you feel better. Also: you are not the wronged party here. Try not to be offended or angry on the behalf of other people, especially when it doesn't do anyone any good (as in this case.)
posted by SMPA at 7:41 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Would I *want* to know if I were your sister in law? Definitely, this is big news. Does she have a right or a need to know? No. Her nieces can tell her if they want to, and they probably will.

I am not sure how this news should change your relationship with the girls or the mother - indications are that everyone is flipping out because he isn't their biological father. He's been their father all these years, why does the DNA change that? And if you're mad that you think the mother knew and lied and actively hid it, then that's something to be angry about, but you don't really have standing to be pissed that she cheated on the father 20 years ago.

I get that this is a big thing if you are living it, and that it's a big deal to have something you fundamentally thought you knew end up to be wrong. Your not having children isn't relevant either - you had the girls, all of that still happened and was just as valid as if they had been biologically who you thought they were.
posted by mrs. taters at 7:42 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you really want to tell their aunt, ask your daughters and your husband if you can, or if they prefer to tell her themselves. Secrets can be poison, but so can betrayal.

If you want to tell your sister-in-law because you want to talk to someone about this, go find someone else (therapist, pastor) outside the family circle to talk to.
posted by rtha at 7:42 AM on May 25, 2011

What an explosive situation. I respectfully suggest you find a family therapist stat. The advice of well-meaning people on the internet is not going to help here. Find a professional who can help you, your husband, the girls navigate this for the best possible outcome.

Best of luck.
posted by Sublimity at 7:42 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

You are reeling at the moment. That's cool, reel for a bit. Don't do anything until the initial novel shock has worn off and the emotion has dissipated a little.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 7:44 AM on May 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

the results of the testing do not affect the history of the relationships involved. and they will affect the relationships now only to the extent that you allow.

i think you should examine whether all the drama around this situation exists merely because you think it's supposed to exist in this kind of situation.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 7:48 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I disagree that this doesn't effect you personally and that this isn't about you, too. For one thing, you and your husband made reproductive decisions based on the fact that he already had 2 kids, when in fact, he does not. While I agree your love for your daughters is unaffected by this news, it's still a big big deal for you and your husband.

Seek a neutral third party to process this with.
posted by jbenben at 7:51 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

It is clear that you are very deeply affected by this issue and I would certainly give yourself some time to process before you talk to another member of the family. Find a good friend, co-worker, or ideally therapist to whom you can vent and talk this through before you approach a family member. For example in just reading this a few thoughts come to mind that a an outside person may also help you see:
- You are very lucky the girls are over 18. Their decisions about a relationship with you and your husband are completely up to them to determine. If they were under 18 there is a chance that this could get ugly with custody if all relationships between everyone went to hell. I’m sure they are not going to let go of 20 years of a parent-child relationship with your husband and 14 years of it with you.

-There seem to be a lot of conflicted emotions about the mother of these girls. I have a feeling that if you and your sister in law got together a lot of very unpleasant things would be said about this woman. While that might feel good right now in the heat of the moment, it could be something you would regret in the future.

- This woman is and will continue to be the mother of these girls. It doesn’t sound like she was intentionally hiding their paternity. While they are probably pretty angry right now, I’m guessing they are going to continue to have a relationship with her. This person will continue to be in all of your lives.

-For the sake of these girls please think about maintaining a relationship with their mother. In the next 10 years you are most likely going to share weddings, graduations, the birth of grandchildren, etc. You don’t want these events to be forever uncomfortable for them because there are feelings of unresolved anger and hurt.

That being said, of course your grief and anger are completely understandable at this time. I would strongly encourage that you talk this through with someone, just not someone who is already emotionally involved in the situation. You need to have someone with whom to work out your feelings so you can continue to be there for your step-daughters. Hopefully when the dust settles you can continue to move forward as a family.
posted by Palmcorder Yajna at 7:55 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I were the questioner, mefi's general holiness: "Why would this even possibly matter to you? What? You care about your genes?!?" would not be helpful. She says that they're not going to treat the girls any differently so let it go.

As for the question I don't know that it's your "secret to tell" but neither is it a dark secret that you're responsible for keeping and any possible negative consequences of someone not knowing. Why not give it some more time and likely the girls will handle it in a way that makes them feel like they're in control.
posted by Wood at 7:57 AM on May 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

I fully endorse you hating on their birth mother. She is worthy of your, and more importantly, your husband's scorn.

How? If the mother thought this woman's husband was the father, then this is new information to her. If the husband's children were the product of an affair, then the husband is just as scorn-worthy for participating in cheating.

To the OP, I would absolutely not tell your sister-in-law about this. From the tone of your post, you seem to want to find someone to hate and punish for this, and since you've landed on the twins' mother as the object of your anger, you want an ally, which is easy because your sister-in-law doesn't like her anyway.

Step back and let this process, and after that, still don't tell anyone. It's not your secret to tell.
posted by xingcat at 8:08 AM on May 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

It is clear that you are very deeply affected by this issue and I would certainly give yourself some time to process before you talk to another member of the family.

Seconding this. You're still sorting out how you feel about this - what if, once you've calmed down, you've decided that you'd rather she not know? Then it'd be too late.

Why not give it some more time and likely the girls will handle it in a way that makes them feel like they're in control.

Also seconding this. You've been affected only secondarily -- the girls have been affected directly. Giving them back a measure of control is the best thing you can do for them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:20 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

While I think that this knowledge should be openly shared, it should not be you, but your husband or the girls themselves to do it.

Your job is to support the girls since your blood ties with them has not changed: encourage them to be open with the rest of the family. You should also remind your husband that a sperm donor does not a father make.
posted by francesca too at 8:21 AM on May 25, 2011

I can see why you would want to tell. It's a huge, HUGE deal for you. Not just for them, not just for your husband, but for you.

The best person to tell would be a therapist. Next best would be someone who knows none of these people (like, shit, a bartender or something).
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:28 AM on May 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

You can make this into a big thing or you can help to reduce the drama.

These girls are still your girls. It seems to me that you are reacting to this from the point of view that the mother of the girls has suddenly been found to have been conning your husband for all these years. Maybe you think some kind of scam has happened, and that your husband shouldn't have been financially responsible for these girls' lives for this long based on the fact that he's not their biological father.

It's possible that the mother simply didn't know that your husband wasn't the father. The unfortunate thing about being a woman is that if you have a complicated sex life then when things like pregancy arise you can't always be 100% sure about who the biological father is. It might seem like a low-life thing to those who haven't been in that situation. The thing is, it's not necessarily. You weren't there back then and you don't know the circumstances about the conception.

Your husband stepped up and agreed to be the father to these girls because obviously he'd had a relationship with the mother and it seemed likely that he was the biological father. From your description it seems that he has been a good father to the girls and that you all have a great relationship. This doesn't have to change.

Your sister-in-law is still their aunt. You are still their step-mother. Their father is still their father. Blood is not all that binds.

I'll admit that I'm writing this from the point of view of someone who has two adopted siblings and a son who has a father who is not a biological relative. In my family, it has always been very open, this whole non-blood relative thing. I feel the same way about adopted siblings as I do my blood sibling. My son loves his father and his father loves him. My oldest son loves his brother as his brother, without any equivocation about the fact that they have different biological fathers.

You are all still family. The mother is not necessarily a villian. Even if it turned out to be true that she deliberately told your husband he was the father whilst knowing all the time that he wasn't, biologically, it's been a great family up until now, hasn't it? You still love those girls, don't you? And they you? And their father? And their mother? And their aunts and grandparents and cousins etc.

You can help to make it less of a thing when it invariably comes out simply by remembering that they are who you've always known them to be, your husband's daughters. He is their father. He was there from their birth and he'll love them until the end. That's all that matters.
posted by h00py at 8:32 AM on May 25, 2011 [10 favorites]

They don't have your DNA, either, but they've always had your love. Why break what works, when you pretty much have your hand on the trigger (telling your SiL) and could only cause harm? When they're ready, it'll be their decision.

(And good on you for adopting them in the first place. It's clear you have a big heart -- now just let it out a bit here and there and you can probably fit this in, too.)
posted by wenestvedt at 8:46 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm guessing the word "affair" was just used to indicate they weren't married when the kids were conceived, not that this was some dark cheating thing.

But there seem to be so many different issues going on here, it's hard to land on the real question. It sounds as if you're saying "You always wanted kids, but are unable to have them because of genetics. Your husband had two kids who became yours and have been a loving part of your life from the time they were 6 until adulthood. Your husband had a vasectomy, so even if you could have children, you can't with him, and now it feels like these bonus children suddenly aren't his anymore. Your sister-in-law also can not or may not have children, and loves the girls, but hates their mom. Can you tell her."

As far as telling / not telling, it depends on who you want to tell - while it's more their secret and not yours, it's still a secret that affects your emotional well-being as their parent. Telling a trusted friend, one who can you can be confident will not spread the information (even to the girls, if asked) but is only listening because they love you and are there for you, is not really a problem. There is betrayal operating on so many levels here, that to paint this issue as only affecting the girls is being naive. I would suggest a therapist rather than a friend because there is no chance of the information traveling. Your sister-in-law (by which I assume you mean your husband's sister), is not a good candidate for this. If your husband wants to tell her, and trusts her, it's up to him. But you, and she, have nothing to gain by letting her know.

The issue that I seem to be getting most clearly from all this, is your mention of your own, your sister-in-law's, and your husband's lack of future progeny. It's as if you are saying, I can't have kids, but I lucked out and got these beautiful girls and that made it okay. My sister in law can't have kids, but she has these wonderful nieces, and that made it okay. Your husband got a vasectomy, but he had two amazing daughters, so that made it okay. And now it turns out all that was built on sand, and it's no longer okay after all that there will be no more babies.

And that's (sorry) bullshit. This new information affects the girls' relationship with their mother somewhat, because she may have lied - but it sounds like it's also possible that this is news to her too, in which case all of them will be dealing with it together. Otherwise, the only thing this information changes is, when the girls fill out medical forms, there is information they don't know. It is literally the same in your case and essentially the same in your husband's, as if you had adopted these children and raised them. They are yours (and their mother's). You are the parents. DNA is important, but it's not love. It doesn't stay up through the night with a fever or give a hug at graduation or help a person in any way the way parenting does. You still have these girls. You may be losing them to adulthood - that happens - but not to biology. If they already loved you before, they love you now. If they had a troubled relationship with you then and are now using this info to further the breach, they likely would have done so anyway, over something more trivial. You haven't lost anything by this new information.

The way you talk about the girls' bio-mother makes it sound like part of what's going on in your mind is wanting to punish her for this betrayal. That telling your sister-in-law is tempting precisely because you know that she might follow through in some way. I don't think that would help anything. If she was stupid, she's being punished enough by what her daughters will definitely put her through next. If she was evil and chose your husband as the father knowing that he wasn't, that makes her look worse than anything you can do to her. If this has anything to do with child support (I hope not, and you don't mention money, so I'm just putting it out there), then finding out the girls' bio-father may get you recompense if you want to go to court, though it's unlikely.

Just be grateful this is happening as the girls have entered adulthood and are starting to have perspective about their lives and relationships. Had it happened at 13-15, you could all have been in for far more pain. Try to sit back and be there for the girls. Right now, as their stepmother, you have a real advantage over everyone else involved: you were never genetically related to them, and you chose them. You loved them even though you didn’t have to by any biological imperative at all. It’s up to you to set the tone for their father, and eventually possibly (but not through you) their aunt. That you can love someone completely even without a DNA connection. That being a fantastic parent has nothing to do with biology at all.

You and your husband have two great girls. Love them. Try to see this as nothing more than learning they have a different blood type than everyone thought – it affects them if they have to go into the hospital, but can’t change anything in the past.

On preview, what h00py said.
posted by Mchelly at 9:03 AM on May 25, 2011 [17 favorites]

[few comments removed - be kind or come back when you can be.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:11 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

When the dust settles from the big reveal, nothing much is likely to change in your relationship to the girls in the long run. They'll still be your daughters and you'll still be their parents. Does anyone else really need to know the particulars?

Don't think of it as a secret, think of it as a private matter. And sidestep a whole lot of drama in the process.

If the girls decide they want to tell it around then support them, but otherwise let your business be your business.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:17 AM on May 25, 2011

Honestly, as the least aggrieved party in this situation maybe you should be working on being the one of the prevailing "calmer heads" in the mix. It seems beyond obvious to me, for starters, that it's beyond not your place to unilaterally decide to inform you husband's sister that your stepdaughters were not biologically fathered by her brother.

Further, if years of work on maintaining friendly relations with their mother get thrown out the window, you will be the one doing the throwing, and you might want to ask yourself to what benefit and with what justification. Wishful thinking is a very powerful motivation in situations like this. You have to ask yourself, what would you have her do? And when would you have her do it? Basically her window for dealing with this in the most appropriate manner is 21 years in the past and predates your relationship with your husband by a half dozen years.

Their mother is still the woman who bore them and their connection to their full genetic identity. Your husband remains their father: being a father is not a matter of contributing a speck of genetic matter. Your 14 year history with them as a parent remains literally unchanged.

And though you can't help the feelings about this history new information creates, you ultimately have some of the control over whether it strengthens the network of relationships in question (as helping to maintain peace with their mother, supporting your husband in his emotional reaction, and helping the girls to work through their feelings about this information will ultimately do) or weakens it (as contributing to the breakdown of relationships with their mother or taking part in spreading this information in a backhanded manner will do). Exercise that control wisely.
posted by nanojath at 9:18 AM on May 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've been child-free philosophically for years.

Ages ago, a good friend of mine got a vasectomy. A few years later his wife turned up pregnant. For a few years, he kept up the "vasectomies fail" and "it's different when it's your own" talk with me. Then, one day in a dark moment in his marriage when he came to me for advice on how to proceed, he mentioned that he wasn't the biological father.

It was probably an appropriate thing to mention in trying to suss out the details of his marriage, but it also then put me in an interesting place, because I was now privy to the secret. My relationship to his wife, their daughter, and how they interacted within our social circle, had to not externally change.

This has worked out okay (and they're divorced and mostly out about it now so I don't feel too bad talking about the circumstances abstractly under a relatively thin alias), however:

Something to consider here is that as long as this is generally a secret, when you tell someone else, you're asking them to keep the secret. Beyond that, though, you're setting up that other someone for failure: What are you going to think of them if they allow some aspect of their behavior to show that they're now treating the various parties differently? Are you now going to be looking at their behavior to see if it changes? If the secret comes out and their behavior is somehow involved in that, are you going to blame them?

Understand that when you share that secret with someone you're changing your relationship with the person you're sharing that secret with, and that change can be a difficult thing to manage.
posted by straw at 9:40 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

While I agree that you should go with what the girls want, I think you should tell somebody for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is sorting out how you feel about this. It's a large revelation and you're bound to be feeling a lot of different things. If you had a very trusted friend who could help you sort through your thoughts and feelings, I think you would have told them already, so maybe finding a neutral person like a therapist isn't a bad idea. Talking things out will help you make more sense of the whole thing and put it in perspective. You are still shocked by the news, once you have had time to digest it and make sense of it, you'll know better how to proceed but don't make any hasty decisions while you are reeling from new, loaded information.
Straw makes a very good point about secrets, so maybe confidentiality is a big plus in finding someone to talk to.
posted by provoliminal at 9:44 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you watched as much Young and the Restless as I do, you would know these 2-1/2 things:

1) DNA is just a small part of family and relationships. Mix-ups happen, but there are bonds beyond blood. People who find out the biological truth can make the conscious decision to have the same loving familial bonds, and maybe even to have more of them.

2) All the secrets will get out.
a) You don't want to be the one to let them out.
posted by oreofuchi at 10:05 AM on May 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

Oh my, this is an effed up situation. Didn't try to deceive because she thought he was the father? Look, there was deceit here somewhere. While the details of the mother and your husband's relationship is not clear, the mother was deceiving either your husband or another third party, the biological father of the twins. While I cannot adequately describe it, I find this woman, the mother of the twins, contemptible.

I wouldn't be the one to say something, but I am not sure that is an appropriate answer to your question. First, is this an agreed upon secret? Did the twins ask y'all not to say anything? Second, in any situation where you are spreading gossip, ask yourself what good you hope to achieve. Is it for your benefit or for your SIL or the twins?

If your relationship with the twins is good (or even if it is not), you and your DH should sit down with them and talk to them about this. One of the items of discussion, probably the last item, should be to what level the twins want to keep this a secret. I must say though that if 5 people already know, it is unlikely to remain a secret to the community for long.

(On preview, although I was more into All my Kids, what oreofuchi just posted.)
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:13 AM on May 25, 2011

I'm surprised nobody has said this, but you might want to think about getting a second DNA test from another company. It's not unheard of for there to be a mistake.

At the least, the time between deciding to get a second test and getting a more unequivocal answer might give all of you some time to process things.
posted by overhauser at 10:16 AM on May 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

You really need to talk about this to someone who understands the situation. DON'T. It's not your information to share. Find a good therapist or really trusted minister or other professional secret-keeper to talk to. Over time, the secret will come out, but if you let it out now, I think it will make things worse, and could jeopardize your relationship with these young women. Listen to them as much as they want; what difficult news to process.

He knew about an affair, and he supported and loved the girls without question. Nice man, give him a hug.
posted by theora55 at 11:02 AM on May 25, 2011

First, congratulations to you for being their mother, and for being a mother who Gives A Shit. You've said that this adultery thing happened a long time ago when your husband was young, we'll assume mom was too. What doesn't matter any more are the circumstances of how the girls were conceived or who has been deceived, etc.

What matters is that here are two young ladies at a crux time in their lives who are now realizing that their mom isn't who they thought she was and that this guy who has always been there dad has been doing something he "didn't need to do."

What you need to do now, more than ever, is draw in your wings and make it clear that everything you have always done with them has been your choice, and that you will fight like the burning lava of a thousand volcanoes to protect them and make them understand how much they are loved and wanted.

Your husband needs to, if he has any, release his anger. Just dump it. Drop it. Waft it away. Chances are he wouldn't trade the last 20 years if he was asked to, he's their dad and screw anyone who says otherwise.

Your job here isn't to spread the tale, to damage the moms reputation, or dig deeper into a festering pool of shit. Your job here is to realize that circumstances are what they are and no matter what, you've got 2 lovely daughters and that's what counts.

There's a Darius Rucker song out right now about how every wrong turn led me right here to you---and even if you don't like Hootie, you have to appreciate the sentiment. You've had the privilege of knowing and mothering these girls for 14 years, your husband for 20. You're intertwined in each others lives like roses on a fence---and that's how you need to look at it.

Don't be vindictive, don't be mean, don't make it worse. Be their mom.
posted by TomMelee at 11:23 AM on May 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Agreeing with the 'don't tell' camp. First of all, because of the girls, but second of all (and if this was mentioned in another answer I didn't catch it) you don't want to place yourself between your husband and your sister-in-law. You may be very close friends with the sister-in-law, but getting into that sibling dynamic with something like this -- Bad Idea. She may need to know, but in that respect it's either up to the girls or to your husband, her brother, to tell her.

It can't be easy. Good luck. If there's an upside, it's that I don't expect that this will remain a secret for long. You might as well not be the messenger to shoot.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:31 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Be ready with an answer to the kids if they ask you what to do. And make sure all the parents are in agreement before answering, if possible.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:51 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I understand where a lot of previous posters are coming from but I have a... different perspective on this. (Ironically, it really isn't my story to tell publicly, so Anonymous if you want to know where I am viewing this from, feel free to MeMail me.)

My advice is in three parts:

1) Give this some time for emotions to ramp down. An event has happened; you feel the need to react and to make a decision on telling the SIL now. You do not need to do that. Just wait. Things that seem dramatic and appalling now will mellow out into the new normal later and calmer heads will prevail.

2) Other people's privacy are more important than your desire to tell. Every player in this story - the girls, your husband, their mother - is now an adult and their privacy should be respected even if you don't like them.

3) The people who should tell or not tell your SIL are a) your husband, his sister; b) either girl; c) their mother. Any or all or none of them may choose to tell whomever they wish because it is their story. It is not yours to tell; as close as you are to this, it is not your call.

I have expended a good deal of thought on this over the last few years, and my appraoch is to be scrupulously circumspect with the details of the information I have because it is not my information to impart. If my husband is standing right next to me and chooses to elaborate, that is his call entirely. Of all the parties involved, it is least about me, so I sit way in the back seat and let everyone else lead - often in their own individual directions.

As an added bonus, everyone is still speaking to me because I am not fucking around in their business. I highly recommend this approach.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:52 AM on May 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

[folks, telling the OP how she should feel is not so helpful, please answer the question? Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:06 PM on May 25, 2011

There's a number of claims that your husband is still their father. That just isn't so. We know this because another man is the father. Your husband may wish to continue in that role but there's a difference here. Why pretend otherwise? The twins are not the only ones directly affected. Several other people dedicated their time and resources to taking care of these girls. They made decisions based on a belief that turned out to not be so and they too have the right to know the truth. If I was in the SiL's position, I would want to know. That said, I wouldn't expect this to change very much beyond how their mother is regarded by your husband's family. If the twins are open to talking to you about this you can point out the interest of others in knowing, and that it's unlikely to remain a secret indefinitely. Let them be the ones to bring it up. It would likely be easier for them to be the ones to tell the rest of the family, so respect that. Leaving the time and means of disclosure is one of the more practical gifts you can offer them.
posted by BigSky at 2:13 PM on May 25, 2011

My mother and father met when my brother (my mother's biological son) was four. My father decided to treat my brother as his son. He did so even when my parents divorced six years later. they are now 65 and 45, respectively, and they are still very much father and son. My fatheris a poet and my brother is a novelist and they just did a father and son reading together. Family is not based on biology. It's based on love and shared experiences. These girls are still your husband's daughters, but they probably need to be reassured of that. Since they're adults, I would let them decide who to tell.
posted by bananafish at 2:59 PM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

The people directly involved in this discovery are the ones who get to reveal it. As a privileged member of the family who was brought in on the details, it is your responsibility to continue to hold that confidentiality. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

to the issue that others are addressing:
I have beloved nieces and nephews, some of which are blood-related and some of which are not. There have certainly been personal issues between the adults involved over the years. It has never and I don't believe should ever change how much we love and support those kids. You've spent so much of their lives with them, longer than foster families of deep devotion often get...I'm hoping that you see that the love and bonds built are stronger than any aged acrimony or schadenfreude for someone who hasn't always fit into the family.

Those poor girls. I hope they never know the pain of family jumping ship because the definition was so much flimsier for some than years of love should have built. I hope you are all more compassionate and reasonable than that.
posted by batmonkey at 4:12 PM on May 25, 2011

The people most affected are these girls. Twenty is not so old that they can be expected to react with great wisdom. I would expect them to feel pretty angry and betrayed. It wouldn't be surprising if your husband came under attack, and you, and everyone who was involved with their having lived in a perfect falsehood about their very identity for their entire lives.

I'm trying to exaggerate a bit, but whatever the adults are feeling, presumably you know to get some counseling, come to a meeting of the minds and recognize that you've all invested twenty years in loving these girls and that you quite possibly want to keep on doing so. They, on the other hand, might be on the warpath to find out the truth and their mother might not be the only one they blame for this deception and betrayal. The years between twenty and thirty are very dramatic. These women are free to move their lives away from all of you, to make decisions that can truly wreck their lives. I hope you all will come together to support their journey through this very rocky place. Finding out they might intend to track down their "real" father could add immeasurably to this problem.

I think also that you and your husband both need to have someone to talk to, separately and together, about the reactions and feelings you are having and a course of action for the future. I hope you will do it soon so that you can achieve a united front and support your daughters emotionally. It might be asking too much right now, but I believe there is a real need to process and get past any anger you two might be feeling for the mother. Adding to any negative feelings about their mother will not help their situation. They are women, now, entering a world which is still very misogynist. They are going to have a hard enough time approving of themselves without being tacitly encouraged to disapprove of their mother.

Everyone in this sad story needs some compassion.
posted by Anitanola at 6:03 PM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

The girls are 20 -- this is their secret to out, not yours.

Take a deep breath, talk freely with your husband, but don't talk about it elsewhere until the girls have decided to start talking to other family members.

There are millions of families with adopted children in the world. Now you get to join them, in spirit if not in fact. Accept that the DNA is different and move on with life. The mom may or may not choose to explain, but at this point, what difference does it make? Keep the girls first in mind -- their mom will always be their mom, just as you and your husband will always be family. Don't make things harder for them by alienating their mother or stirring things up with other family members.
posted by hms71 at 6:26 PM on May 25, 2011

The girls are upset with their mother, my husband is generally upset and I am swinging between anger and grief depending on what bit of the mess I'm dealing with at the time. The mother's reaction is unknown and frankly I don't care right now - years of friendliness have gone out the window

This is curious... Are you saying that their mother knew? It sounds like she was just as surprised as everyone else, perhaps she just assumed the father was your husband. Quite a difference between a poor assumption, and years of deception.

I can understand you want to tell someone so you can chat about it, but I do not think it is your place to do so. You will have to wait until they find out by other means.
posted by lundman at 7:07 PM on May 25, 2011

I can understand you want to tell someone so you can chat about it

Chat with a therapist. Even two or three sessions will help you understand your own feelings about this and help you get it off your chest.
posted by sweetkid at 10:17 PM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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