Divorced parent didn't announce his new marriage, but is now asking a favor for newborn half-sibling, what to do?
July 7, 2011 4:42 PM   Subscribe

I recently received an email from my dad, asking me to pick out several English names for my half-sister and I'm at a loss at how to deal with the situation due to the way my parents divorced and how my dad handled his new marriage (snowflake details below).

My parents divorced two years ago after 30 years of marriage. The divorce happened as a result of my dad cheating on my mom with a woman who works for him (my dad has his own firm). Apparently they've been having an affair for some time, neither my mom or I suspected anything at the time. My mom only found out about the affair when she went back home one time unannounced. My mother is shocked and angry when she found out. My dad, however, announced that he has found the "love of his life" and moved out of the house and started to live with the other woman.

I live in the US, but my parents don't. My dad moved back to the home country years ago due to work and my mom stays for months at a time in between the two countries to visit my dad and me. After my mother discovered the affair, she initially wanted to save the marriage, but my dad wouldn't talk or see her, so my mom asked me to fly back. Now I did my best try not to appear biased towards my mom in my interactions with my dad and I stayed calm when I try to talk to my dad in figuring out what's going on. But he wouldn't let anyone in the family know where he is living at the time, refuses to talk to me in private, wouldn't tell me anything about the other woman, just in general not being honest and forthcoming about what's going on.

Eventually my parents divorced and my mom came to the US. My dad married the other woman, he didn't tell me or my mom about the marriage, but he announced it to all our relatives and my mom heard about the marriage from them. My family come from a culture where saving face is important and this is a major loss of face. The other loss of face in this whole saga is that the other woman is younger than me, their only child, and I'm an unmarried female close to 30. Also major loss of face there.

now I still have email contact with my father sometimes. These contacts are usually short and courteous. He never mentioned once that he remarried and his new wife is expecting a baby. So it was a complete shock to me when the other day he emailed me with the news that I have a new half-sister, born a month ago and asking me to pick out English names for her.

There're a couple of questions in my mind that I would like the answer to and I don't quite know how I should go about it.

1. My mom is planning to go back to the home country soon. She doesn't know about the new baby. I imagine she would know about it soon after she's back. It'd be very bad if she found out I knew about it and not telling her. But at the same time, she is still in mourning mode over her lost marriage. She's frequently upset and emotional, still mentions my dad a lot even when I tell her the best way to move on is not to think or talk about him at all. So I'm not sure that telling her right now is good for her emotional well-being. But if not now, then when? And how can I bring this up in the gentlest way possible? What can I do after I tell her about it to support her?

2. I don't think my dad handled his affair in the most mature way. I don't know why he would keep his remarriage and the new wife's pregnancy a secret from his own child and ex-spouse, but announcing the remarriage (and possibly the pregnancy and birth) to other members of our family. I don't know if I should raise this issue to him, and if so, how? We pretty much only communicates over email and it's unlikely that I'll visit anytime soon.

3. I'm not sure why my dad, after keeping his remarriage a secret from me and my mom, suddenly decides to send me this email asking English names for the new sibling a month after the baby is born. Normally people send out birth announcements right after the baby is born. In my case, even the email is rather impersonal, just "XXX, your sister is born on XXX, she would like you to pick out several English names for her. Thank you." No baby pictures were attached to the email. To me, this behavior is rather odd. Considering I have no relationship with the other woman, the impersonal tone of the email, and the fact that my dad did not make any attempt integrating me into his new family in any way (he never mentions his new family or his personal life in his emails, only polite chit-chat about the weather), I'm not even sure if I should respond to this request. if so, how?

4. the chance of me having a sisterly relationship (as in day-to-day sibling relations) with the baby is very slim. I've mentioned that my dad doesn't make any effort in integrating me into the new family. I live in a different country now and have my own life here. We're 30 years apart in terms of age. But there might be interactions in the future. I could totally envision my dad asking my help to sponsor the child to attend school in the US down the line and right now, I don't know if that's something I'm willing to do. Should I set out boundaries now in terms of expectations and future behaviors?

Thanks so much for the help.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You know what doesn't matter?
The circumstances around your parents' divorce.
Your dad's remarriage and his secrecy surrounding same.
Your relationship with new half-sister.

Your father asked for some suggestions as to English language names. Maybe he wants to get your approval, maybe he's asking because he doesn't know what's popular in baby-names, maybe he's trying in a weird way to include you.

Me? I'd send back an email with some suggestions of names I like, and wish him and the family well. You don't have to pretend to be involved, you don't have to stew over what he expects. Pick Emily, Jack and Hortense and be on your way.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:53 PM on July 7, 2011 [8 favorites]

Her English name should be "My dad's a heel". Tell him that. Or don't, and respond that she should be "Mydah". Only you will know.
posted by notsnot at 5:08 PM on July 7, 2011

I like Ideefixe's suggestion, unless you belong to a culture where naming a child imposes godparent like obligations.
posted by Jahaza at 5:11 PM on July 7, 2011

You have every right to be upset about your dad treating your mom poorly and not integrating you into his new life and family. But it's a pretty simple request, and the high road is to send back a polite email saying you're happy for them and some of your favorite english names are Grace, Sarah, and Louisa.

He's not asking for sponsorship now, so don't get into it. Feel free to think through what your boundaries are for the future. Don't feel you have to tell your mother - it's not your news to share, and you've already done an awful lot for her around all of this. It's their relationship and lack-thereof, not yours (I know it's hard when you're an only child trying to protect a parent).

Lastly, remember that the baby did nothing wrong, and she's your sister. If you ever have a chance to meet her, be loving and kind. For all you know she's the little sister that will care for you when you are old and gray, or just be a fast friend later in life.
posted by ldthomps at 5:13 PM on July 7, 2011 [13 favorites]

The obvious answer is to send back name suggestions. Horrible, tacky English names suggestions.

Bertha? Gladys? Brandy? LaFawnda? Adolfette?
posted by custard heart at 5:16 PM on July 7, 2011

As cathartic as it'd be to send names you don't like back, the poor kid isn't at fault, so it doesn't seem fair to punish her for the sins of her father. If I were in your shoes, I'd send nice names in a not-chatty email back, and hoping that the new baby sister doesn't one day find herself in the same situation.
posted by smirkette at 5:22 PM on July 7, 2011 [11 favorites]

The whole situation sucks and I'm sorry that you have to go through it. If I were you, I'd send my dad a quick email that said something like, "Congratulations, Dad, on your new child. I don't have any English name suggestions right now, but I do have a lot of questions and issues that I'd like to discuss with you whenever you have the time." He'll probably ignore it, but maybe it'll open up some communication between you two.

And yes, I would tell your mom now about the baby, since you know she'll hear about it when she goes back. It's shitty for you to be stuck in the middle, but it would be a kind thing for you to do for her.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:27 PM on July 7, 2011 [13 favorites]

If I were in your place I'd send a baby name book (the kind you find at a supermarket) with a note saying I don't feel comfortable naming a child I've never met.

It would be really tempting to come up with insulting names, but like smirkette said it isn't the poor little baby's fault that her dad is such an ass.
posted by TooFewShoes at 5:28 PM on July 7, 2011 [19 favorites]

I find it odd that he'd ask you. Presumably he knows some English or can Google it. I'd guess this is his weird way of letting you know.

As someone else says, your half-sister didn't do anything wrong. Take it slow and see where things go with her. Don't do anything that would make you unavailable.
posted by k8t at 5:33 PM on July 7, 2011

I'm with Ideefixe. Your dad had an affair - that's your dad's problem. It sucks for your mom, but she has to choose her own way of healing and moving on.

But he wouldn't let anyone in the family know where he is living at the time, refuses to talk to me in private, wouldn't tell me anything about the other woman, just in general not being honest and forthcoming about what's going on.

He knows he did something shitty. He doesn't want to deal with people's questions and why he did this and why he didn't do that. Because those are the types of conversations you want to have, right? Ask yourself. What do you want to know and why? What would it do to you if you did know the answers? What would it do to you if you didn't?

It sounds like your dad wants to involve you and this is the best way he knows how. You're 30 and an adult, and your dad probably thinks you don't need him in your life anymore (of course he'd be wrong). But that's why it's a good idea to just keep your distance, like Ideefixe said (wish him and the family well), and get on with your life. He's getting on with his.

I don't know if you should tell your mom about the baby. He should tell her, but she'll lose face to the relatives if she doesn't know, right? I think it's unfair that she'd rely on YOU to help her emotionally/save face, but what the hey. Rip the bandaid off and just tell her. Honestly, there's no good time to do it.
posted by foxjacket at 5:35 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I really so no reason for you to hold back. Your dad is being a complete asshole - go ahead and tell him that. It does not help you, your mom, your sister, or your relationship with your dad to deny the fact that he is a dickwad.

As for your mom, I think you should tell her now. This is never going to be easy for her. And by concealing it, you are continuing the whole sick dynamic of evasion and secrecy.
posted by yarly at 5:36 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow - what a mess. You are a brave soul to confront this so rationally and compassionately.

I would agree with most of the other posters that your immediate response should be a short cordial note to your father with a few name ideas.

With regards to your other questions.

1. It would be a compassionate thing to do for you to privately inform your mother about the new baby. From how you describe your country's culture, saving face is a big deal, and letting her fall apart in private, before she gets back to the home country and has an audience would be a mercy. No, it shouldn't be your "job" -- but there it is. To support her -- just listen, I would think.

2. He didn't behave like a responsible adult at all, but this is not a battle you can win.

3. It is odd -- but yes, short cordial note, and be done with it.

4. I wouldn't make too many rules right now -- it sounds like a lot has gone on in a short time, and more might be coming. The baby might be someone you want to know someday, and for all you know, your dad could leave this new woman too. Your half-sister may really need you then. Just take one step at a time.
posted by pantarei70 at 5:37 PM on July 7, 2011

This sounds like the sort of drama my extended family would be a part of(and I'm Chinese).

It sort of sounds like your dad is just asking you because you live in the US and he's probably being asked what the kid's English name is by colleagues and figured you'd probably have some idea.

The kid already has a name, anyway, but the fact that he didn't tell you what that name was(I assume), and didn't attach pictures sort of implies that he really doesn't care whether you pick a name or not.
posted by sawdustbear at 5:45 PM on July 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Write back an email with 4 or 5 name suggestions, nothing else. Make them decent, ordinary names: nothing outre' or tacky (Adolfette?!? Love it, but sadly, no.) Do NOT offer any names you've saved in the back of your mind for any future child of your own.
Tell your mother as soon as you can. Yes, it'll hurt her, but it'd hurt more the more that knowledge is delayed.
Don't worry about some possible future request from your father that you sponsor the child; that won't happen, IF it happens, for years, and the situation may change radically again before then.
posted by easily confused at 5:45 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Honestly I would pretend I never got the email.

Either that tell him you would rather not name the poor innocent child of his paramour.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:52 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Be gracious. Someday you may wish or need to establish contact with your father; do future you a favor and don't close any doors. Send back a few suggestions, avoiding any family names or choices that you might want to use
some day. Tell your mother about the baby, the request and your response; it would also be bad if she discovered that you had named little Lucy and felt betrayed. I hope you have an opportunity to meet your father's new family. Yes, he's been a complete jackass but sometimes the heart wants what it wants. It's both a joy and a tribulation of adulthood to see our parents as the flawed people they are and love them anyway.
posted by carmicha at 6:07 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh and this may be your father's way of ensuring that your mother knows about the baby.
posted by carmicha at 6:08 PM on July 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Too weird!

I'd send back the most unobtrusive names possible. No name you're in love with; no name you'd regret if she showed up on your doorstep one day announcing her love for you, her name-giver. Fairly classic names. Maybe:
Ann, Elizabeth, Laura, Sarah?

Wish them well. Then tell your mom. Then keep on focusing on your own life.
posted by salvia at 6:17 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

The new sister may or may not ever be part of your life. My own half-sister is something like 20-30 years older than me, and as you might guess from my uncertainty in her age, I don't really know her at all. We have met, very briefly, once at a funeral.

In her eyes and experiences, my dad was kind of a heel, too. In my life, he was a pretty good dad. Don't punish your sister with awful names, but don't feel like you need to get involved in the baby's life in any way either. Were I you, I would respond that I don't feel comfortable choosing names for a stranger; whether that would work in your/your father's cultural situation, I can't say.

I would also gently tell your mom. While it is probably healthy for her to start putting things behind her, finding out from a more distant relative and possibly finding out that you knew and didn't tell her will hurt her more than just getting it out of the way.
posted by asciident at 6:25 PM on July 7, 2011

Your half-sister is innocent in this. You may one day have a relationship with her, in which case you will have this as a bond. You may never have a relationship with her, in which case she will have this one thing you've done for her. (And honestly, do you really want "was mean to a baby" on your list of life accomplishments?)

I understand that you don't want you mom to obsess over the divorce and move on, but at the same time she's grieving and she needs to go all the way through that and she doesn't need to be scolded for ever thinking about it. She's going to. This news would probably be best coming from you, and you're probably right that it would hurt her to find that you knew and didn't tell her.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:35 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder if, by asking you to help name the baby, he's asking for your acceptance of his new child and new life, and perhaps even your involvement in their lives? It's important to remember that he divorced your mom, not you, and presumably loves you as much as ever. It's certainly understandable to be mad at him, though. But under the stoic facade might be a man who knows he has hurt his child and is afraid of losing you. I don't know - I never met him - just a thought.
posted by Knowyournuts at 7:30 PM on July 7, 2011

Do you want to have a relationship with your father? If yes, reply anywhere from generic politeness ("Congratulations, I'm not sure what names to suggest but common English names are ___ and ____, good luck with the daughter") to enthusiastic ("congratulations! You must be so excited, I love the name ____, send me some pictures when you have the time!").

If you don't want to have a relationship with him, then either just ignore the email or explain to him that you're "not comfortable with that, he shouldn't contact you a whole month after the birth of his kid, you shouldn't be the last of the relatives to know, goodbye." A similar situation happened to me (although I was much younger when the father was out of my life, so I didn't have 30 years of father-daughter relationship to give up), but I pretty much said "no thanks" to an email that invited me to be a part of his new kid's life, and honestly have never regretted it or wondered "what if."
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 7:31 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

TooFewShoes is wise. I would stay out of the whole mess and make sure my dad understands why I'm staying out of it.

I don't know what culture the OP is from, and my own (first generation immigrant) family is far from traditional in these matters, but if I grew up hearing that "so-and-so named me" I would find it odd to never have any interactions with that person, or to find out that there's some sort of longstanding intrafamily strife. That is, I almost perceive this naming ritual to be a way for the dad to guilt the OP into overlooking his shitty behaviour for the sake of the kid, which is yet again pretty shitty behaviour.

But, to be fair, I have tons of baggage towards my own dad, and that is something he would do, so...YMMV.
posted by Phire at 8:24 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't take it out on the baby. If you're not comfortable suggesting names for her, just say that you can't help on the naming front.

Also, my dad also married the much younger "other woman" without telling his children. My sister and I found out about our new stepmother from our mother's parents. We email occasionally, and he STILL has not mentioned that he has a wife. They've been together for at least ten years at this point. You're not alone. Hang in there.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 10:32 PM on July 7, 2011

Pick three names. Email them. Move on with your life - he has.
posted by mleigh at 1:07 AM on July 8, 2011

If it were me I just wouldn't respond. He didn't tell you about his marriage or new baby until he wanted something from you. Don't take it out on the baby by suggesting stupid names.
posted by missmagenta at 2:27 AM on July 8, 2011

1. In your place I would probably give my mother the heads up. It's not going to be easy on her, but she deserves to know the truth. Still, you'd know better than any stranger if she's the type of person who would be okay with things being kept from her for her own good.

2. I don't think your dad handled things in the most mature or healthy way either, but in all honesty talking to him about it probably won't benefit you in any way; if he were the type to behave and communicate in a reasonable way you wouldn't be in this situation. I would leave this alone unless you're comfortable with drama and prepared to be left unsatisfied with the results.

3. Who knows. It could be him reaching out. It could be him assuaging guilt over his treatment of you. It could be him being passive aggressive. Ultimately, you should only respond if you want to respond. If you do respond I'd recommend keeping it short and unemotional because it doesn't sound like you need any more drama. Put in a couple of names and leave it at that. If he wants to open up a dialogue between you, he's capable of it.

4. If you like, but be sure that this is something you won't regret down the track before you say anything. It's fine if you don't view the baby as family, because blood is not automatically family, but I think it might be better to leave your rejections until there's reason to give them because you may still be too close to the situation and inclined to lash out, and you might regret acting in anger against the baby if you did so. Down the track it might be easier to just be dispassionate.
posted by Lina Lamont at 4:29 AM on July 8, 2011

20 years from now:

Dear Sarah,

I was glad to get your letter about Dad’s health; please let me know if the situation changes. Are you getting the support you need? I hope this hasn’t interfered too much with your studies.

As to the “family story” that I gave you your English name, it’s true enough. That was how Dad announced your birth, by asking me for English names for you. I selected several – I think the others were Laura, Elizabeth and Anna – because they are classic names with no surprising connotations, and are easy to pronounce in our culture of origin. Dad and your mother chose Sarah out of those. I hope it’s been suitable; those were tense times, and I wanted to do what I could to start your life out right.

I mean, if I’d left it to Dad, he might have called you Hermione.

Take care.
Your Sibling
posted by endless_forms at 6:12 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

That's an odd sounding email given the circumstances. Anyway, I wouldn't send back a nice note with some nice names, unless you want to essentially say that his behavior is okay with you. I would send him a baby name book or a link to the Social Security popular name sites and suggest that he might find a name there that he thinks suits his new daughter.

I would tell your mom. I think it's the kind thing to do - your mom is going to go there and find out, and she will react better if she has some time to get used to the idea before she travels there. I am not sure how to do it gently, or even if you should try too hard to cushion it - maybe knowing that he has moved on like that will be a turning point for her?

If you really want to sort things out with your dad then you can talk to him about all of this and how he's handled it. Honestly, I am not optimistic that he will suddenly realize how he has treated you and act differently in the future. I don't think it's productive to bring up.

I can't see you ever having a big relationship with his baby - you are 30 years older, living in a different country, and are not close with her family. If he asks you for favors for the child down the line, deal with it then according to how you feel at the time.
posted by mrs. taters at 6:14 AM on July 8, 2011

I don't think it's a request for the official baby name, it sounds like what I've known some Chinese colleagues have done - a nickname that foreigners can pronounce.

I wouldn't reply, it's such a curt request. I wouldn't really want Dad to think it's at all welcomed to ask things of me anymore, in your situation, without his indication that he'd like to make amends. Until then, he's not worth the anxiety. He's already done so much damage to your honor, will this one little thing really matter?
posted by ergo at 7:38 AM on July 8, 2011

Sawdustbear has it. Without that cultural insight the rest of us can only speculate from our own, very removed, Western perspectives.
posted by Dragonness at 7:50 AM on July 8, 2011

...I think I'd try to shock him back.
'Well, I named my kids Aaron and Chris, and they seem to like them well enough." Let him wonder about your life as well.

But yes, please tell your Mom-it would be humiliating here in America to find out and react in public of that situitation and we are not all about face saving. This way she will have time to come up with a reply when people ask if she knew or how she feels about it

Good luck to both of you. I wish I could do more
posted by Frosted Cactus at 8:41 AM on July 8, 2011

I would either nickname the kid Lil' Bastard or I would ignore the note entirely. It would depend on if I felt like being a nice person or not.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:01 PM on July 8, 2011

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