My father has a sibling he never knew about
August 18, 2011 11:53 PM   Subscribe

Should I tell my father that he has a sibling who was given up for adoption?

Shortly before my grandmother died a couple years ago, she told her other granddaughter, A., that she’d become pregnant in her early twenties and had given the child up for adoption. The news was a shock to A., and to me – both of us were very close to Grandma, and she hadn’t held back about other incidents in her life that might seem as surprising as this one.

A. waited to tell me until she could do so in person, which she did last week.

The only way my father will hear about this is from me.

A. and I are aware that this is not an unusual story for the times Grandma lived in, except perhaps for the fact that the adoptive parent was celebrated enough for us to find details about the child. (Because the child was adopted by a mildly celebrated person, I've found that s/he seems to have been a loved child and grew into a successful person. I don't know if this person is still living.) My father will not be able to see it in that dispassionate a light – I can’t either. I loved my grandmother and the pain she must have gone through saddens me. But for my father, it must mean even more.

Do I tell him? It is his business, his mother, and this may throw some light on her character. But he is an elderly man, an emotional man, with regrets about his own life. I don’t want to increase his burden. And this information has no practical application to his life.

There’s no one in the family I can consult about this – Dad’s something of a recluse and deals almost exclusively with me. I have a brother, but he’s not helpful about anything to do with emotions and has a tense relationship with his father. I may discuss it with him anyway, but not yet.

Surely other people have been through this. Can anyone shed some light? I want to consider everything I can, and right now I’m going in circles.
posted by goofyfoot to Human Relations (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've been in your father's position. I think you should tell him.
posted by smorange at 12:07 AM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'd consider trying to ascertain whether the brother is alive and would be nice for your father to talk to; if so, then yes, tell him.
posted by amtho at 12:14 AM on August 19, 2011

Like smorange, I've been in your father's position, and the most painful part of finding out in my late 20's that I had a half-sibling was that no-one ever told me. It hurt a lot when I discovered that other people had been told - particularly the spouse of my parent - but apparently it wasn't important for me to know that I wasn't an only child after all.

In my case it did throw some light on the character of the birth parent. It made it easier for me to forgive some behaviour and attitudes. I'm still a tad bitter, though, in case you couldn't tell.

I vote for telling him. But maybe you should ask yourself, if you were your dad, would you want to know?
posted by malibustacey9999 at 12:27 AM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I should say that this sibling would be in his/her 80s, if s/he's alive. My father is in his seventies. There's almost no chance of a potential meeting.
posted by goofyfoot at 12:33 AM on August 19, 2011

They could still talk on the phone. Tell him.
posted by procrastination at 2:04 AM on August 19, 2011

The only reason I would ever not tell someone is if it would harm them in some way. Given what you've described (even given his age and temperament) I don't think that's grounds enough to not tell him. What will he gain from it - well, probably not much from an external perspective, but for his own self, probably a great deal, and he does have a right to know and you don't really have a right to not tell him.

I also agree that as other do already people know, if you were to not tell him and he were to find out, that would cause more harm.
posted by mleigh at 2:10 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Let sleeping dogs lie.

I'll take the other side of this question. We don't know much about your father, and it is hard to answer this question. Given that, my answer is the conservative one. As mleigh mentions just above, "what will he gain from it - well, probably not much....."

The danger I see is that, if this is disturbing to him for some reason, he does not have the opportunity to process this with his mother who kept the information from him. And, given that you're not even sure this sibling is still alive, what is to be gained?
posted by tomswift at 3:12 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm of the opinion that it's not your duty or right to "protect" any adult from family origin info about themselves. Aside from that, even if I had no chance of meeting a newly discovered sibling, I wouldn't want someone withholding this information from me.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:30 AM on August 19, 2011 [17 favorites]

Imagine yourself in retrospect with one of two inevitable "what if" questions:
how bad/guilty would you feel for not having told him?
how bad/guilty would you feel if your telling him about his sibling upset him somehow?

There's at least a chance that he won't react badly at all, so telling seems safer for both of you.
posted by Namlit at 3:54 AM on August 19, 2011

Older people are tougher than you think. For all you know, he suspects as much. And the information belongs more to him than it does to you.
posted by availablelight at 4:07 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you should tell him. After my father died, I learned things about him that changed my whole view of him, and I had a better understanding of him. It changed my whole perspective of him, and shed some light on things in my life, in regards to my relationship with him, his relationship with my mother, and his relationship with the rest of the world. This, in turn, has changed my view of the world and how I react to some things. Your father deserves to have that same opportunity, regardless of how old he is.
posted by MexicanYenta at 4:54 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, you absolutely should tell him. "This information has no practical application to his life" isn't the point; despite the fact that you currently hold this information, the point is that it is his information to have and make choices about, not yours. Tell him everything you know.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:21 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You say that your father is reclusive; is he naturally this way, or has he been feeling isolated of late? Finding out that he has a sibling (that he can't talk to) via his mother (who he also can't talk to) may make him feel even more alone. Imagine all of his regrets with an added dimension: "What if x happened in y way instead of x way, and my sibling could have been there alongside with me?" I will agree with the others that he absolutely has a right to know - it is his history, after all - but please, please consider how tortured he may feel as a result of knowing so late.

If you decide to tell him, be prepared to be his shoulder to cry on - this is extremely heavy news.
posted by Ashen at 5:24 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think keeping things between you and your father open and truthful is best, as painful as that truth could may also be revealing on something that he has deep down suspected but never fully realized. The alternative could be that it would weigh heavily on your conscious if he passed away someday never knowing what you've come to know about his family. It would fully become your burden to bear.

How to approach this with him is going to be the tough part. It may be a very solemn moment in both of your lives. However, there may still be hope of tracking down his long lost sibling, or at least find out more about him or her.
posted by samsara at 5:45 AM on August 19, 2011

We're talking about adding a sibling to his life. Tell him.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:25 AM on August 19, 2011

What does your cousin think? Her mom or dad is your father's sibling. Is that person still alive? Do you have other first cousins on that side of the family?

I think you should tell him, and the sooner the better. His half-sib may still be alive and if he or she is not, there might still be new cousins for you.

Have you considered tracking the half-sib down first and making contact before you tell your dad?
posted by mareli at 6:27 AM on August 19, 2011

Response by poster: The fact that it is my father's family is what makes me think I can't withhold this. But I know my dad - he's a difficult, reclusive, drinking, lonely man, who barely leaves his apartment. He's going to sit with this information and brood.

The sibling - I know his/her name, and can contact his/her parent's biographer to ask if s/he's alive. But my grandma's child is a person in his/her 80s - if s/he''s even still alive - who might not have any interest whatsoever in antecedents. S/he probably knew who the biological parent was; the adoption was informal, managed via my grandmother's sister, who knew the adoptive parent. They lived in a small arts community. This adoption is apparently how it was done in the early part of the last century between a woman who needed to give up a baby and a woman who wanted one.

I found out a lot about the adopted child - I found pictures - but I don't know if s/he's still alive at the age of 83, and I doubt there's any way to arrange a meeting. I don't want to bother this person, neither does my cousin, or her father - my grandmother's other son. I don't think my father will either.
posted by goofyfoot at 6:49 AM on August 19, 2011

I think there is nothing to gain by telling him at this stage in his life. Chances of a meeting are slim. You risk upsetting him. You know he will "brood" about it. I would not tell him based on your description.
posted by nogero at 7:35 AM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I told my mother about her younger half-sister (my mother was the one given up for adoption, as her mother was single and 15 when she was born) as mom was about two months away from dying. I think had she been in better health her reaction would have been different. There was no chance for a reunion (we didn't seek out biological family for a reunion, but stumbled upon a helpful relative who provided us with photos) and I don't think mom, who had been raised as an only child, really grasped the meaning of it (mom also had twin half-sisters who died in infancy in addition to this sister who lived to adulthood).

I think every human being has the right to accurate and truthful information about their heritage and lives. What they choose to do with that information is part of the freedom one should enjoy as a human being. Although tough to be in a situation where you hold unknown information over someone, you don't have the right to decide what is best for them.

Although he may react negatively, he should know. You may also be surprised ... he might already know or even suspect something!
posted by kuppajava at 7:53 AM on August 19, 2011

There is a story like this in my family that isn't mine to share here (memail me if you'd like), but the upshot is - I have seen firsthand how the knowledge, finally, of a secret sibling, helped clear up decades of confusion and the pervasive sense that there was something going on. He might brood, but he might also be able to put to rest a lot of things when he knows this story, especially if you can talk through this with him.

I, too, vote that you tell him.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 8:03 AM on August 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

Can you live with not having told him, after you no longer have the option?
posted by jessicapierce at 8:16 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You, [or really your cousin] can tell him what his mother said and no more.
Stop investigating-- this is not your information to act upon.
Just tell him what his mother told your cousin and listen to see if he wants to find out more.
Given his age, he just might want to file it away as "somthing I didn't know before" and continue with his life.
posted by calgirl at 8:47 AM on August 19, 2011

My partner is a very experienced social worker specializing in elder care. I asked him this question and he said you should definitely tell your father. According to my partner, older people should be treated the same way as younger people (except with regards to physical limitations of course) and that almost all older people would tell you this themselves. So basically ask yourself if you'd want to know if you had a secret sister. I would, personally.
posted by hazyjane at 9:48 AM on August 19, 2011

I disagree with others who say the information "is his information to have make choices about". The information belonged to your grandmother. What were her wishes regarding it? If she never told him, perhaps she had reasons. OTOH, perhaps she told your cousin because she wanted the information divulged after she passed. Do you know her intentions? You seem to have been close, so I would think what she wanted and follow that route.
posted by I am the Walrus at 9:55 AM on August 19, 2011

Response by poster: I wonder about my grandmother's wishes. Her stated concern to my cousin was that she never told her mother that she was pregnant. She apparently knew it was the 2000s and she was talking to her granddaughter, but worried about her mother's opinion. Her mother died in the early 1940s.

Years ago my grandma told me about an abortion she had in the 1920s - she had to take a ferry across the bay to San Francisco for the operation. It was no big deal to her, as she presented it, which may have been in response to my disclosure that I'd had an abortion and was grateful it was so easy.

The fact that she was open with the story of her abortion makes me think she'd be okay with her son knowing she'd had a child. But the fact that she kept this hidden almost to a deathbed confession is a whole other thing.
posted by goofyfoot at 10:27 AM on August 19, 2011

Secrecy is corrosive.
posted by stebulus at 10:53 AM on August 19, 2011

Coming from a family that just loooooved its secrets, my opinion is that NO family should have big secrets. Secrets - not the "planning a surprise party" or "getting a new puppy" kind, but the kind centered around fear and shame - are BAD and corrosive.

Tell the truth. ImproviseorDie is right - it's not your job to "protect" an adult. It's your father's sibling, after all, not a third cousin once removed.

Chances are your father always suspected something was amiss anyway, and that might have contributed to his drinking and reclusiveness.

I'll repeat: Secrets are bad.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:00 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't tell your father that he had a sibling. Sit your father down and tell him that his mother shared something to the person who told you, and that you don't know whether he's aware of that information or not. Then ask him if he wants to hear it in case he doesn't know, or if he'd rather you keep it to yourself (and not tell anyone else), because you don't want to keep secrets from him unless he wants you to keep that secret.
posted by davejay at 11:30 AM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not really getting what the big shameful secret is. I'm an adopted child and the best thing for me was openness. It would be one thing if your Dad was adopted and raised not to know. I mean, I realize that secrets take on a life of their own with time but I don't think you, his daughter, should be the one to keep this. I also think you should stop digging in to this on your own. That's not fair. Tell your Dad. It might be appropriate to have your cousin tell since she is the one with firsthand info.
posted by amanda at 1:13 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Firstly, I'm not clear why you think that he doesn't already know. Having said that, I'm voting for tell him and tell him soon.

I was 18 years old when I found out that I had a sibling (same mother AND father as me) who had been adopted out at birth. I found out via someone in my family who hated me - she wanted the satisfaction of telling me - not one of the other many people in my family who knew. My cousins of a similar age knew before me!

Once the shock wore off a little, I was able to put things together - this was the reason why my mother was so very crazy when I was a teenager (she was terrified I would do the same as her). It explained some of the reason my parents were forced by their parents to marry. It explained the little things too, like why my mother referred to me as her 'oldest daughter' and never her 'first child' or 'oldest child'. In short, it answered a more questions for me than it has raised.

I went through a stage of jealousy; I was quite confident that my adopted sibling had a much happier childhood than I did (and, frankly, it wouldn't have taken much to have had a better time of growing up than I did). If your dad has regrets about his life, maybe being presented with the story of a sibling who has led a successful life might cause him to be cross for a while, but really, that's not reason enough not to tell him.

In a fit of rage, I told my mother I knew. That was 15 years ago and she has never once spoken of it. So I know nothing from her point of view and just a very little from others in the family. So, as for his mother not being around for him to talk to... meh. He should be still be told.
posted by RosiePosie at 7:42 PM on August 19, 2011

I'm only in my 30s, but I've increasingly come to value those I have deep connections to: friends from my youth, family members, the friends I truly and deeply connect with. I might be projecting, but you did say he's a lonely man. You see it as bothering or troubling him and her. I don't see it that way. Finding out I had a sister would be an immense gift. Even if I was too depressed or angry to step up and truly form a meaningful connection, the love I would feel and want to act on would remind me of my best self.
posted by salvia at 9:51 PM on August 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for your posts. Different perspectives are very helpful.
posted by goofyfoot at 7:05 AM on August 23, 2011

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