My son, his mother, her partner, and me
October 10, 2018 6:20 AM   Subscribe

I (male) have a 25 year old son ‘Adam’ with a previous partner, ‘Deb.’ We had only dated two or three times, and for various reasons not important here, Deb decided she wanted to travel and raise Adam by herself. She returned after a short time, and moved in with a mutual friend of ours, ‘Paul.’ Deb and Paul set up house together, and brought up Adam. It was all reasonably cool, certainly not acrimonious.

Then I moved international, permanently. On a couple of infrequent trips back home, I met up with Adam, Deb, and Paul, and we all went out to do things, eat pizza, etc. In his late teens, Adam came to visit me where I live, as part of a solo international backpacking trip. After that, we kept in touch intermittently, although always in a very friendly way, as he drifted round the world and then settled in back home. Deb passed away during those years.

This past spring, some eight years later, Adam came to visit me again (again, he was off on an international adventure). He’s now in his late twenties. And, now that the puppy fat has worn off, and he’s an adult - he’s a very good match for Paul.

I want to make clear that this is not some random guessing. Paul and I have different ethnic backgrounds, and completely different facial hair, skin tone, body hair, everything. It’s not like we have the same ethnicity and look a little similar anyway. I was staring at Adam’s profile this past visit, his forehead, the set of his jaw, his frown of concentration, and thinking, where does he get that from - and then it clicked - he reminded me of Paul. Deb always insisted I was Adam’s biological dad, and that Paul was Adam’s family dad. But now I think that Paul (not me) is possibly the biological dad too.

But what to do? First, I should say that none of this affects what I think of Adam. But - what if I am right? And maybe also Adam and Paul know, but they do not want to tell me. I’d be surprised if no-one else had looked at them standing next to each other, and made the same guess. But then even if I’m right, Adam and Paul might not know, or even want to know. And then of course maybe I’m wrong. I just don’t know. It really has thrown me for a loop, and I cannot even figure out what question I should be asking here - it all depends partly on the Schroedinger’s box of what Adam and Paul either know or have guessed at. And that’s not to touch the topic of Deb’s thoughts and motivations (and she passed away a few years ago).

This has come in the middle of other life transitions - parental fraility and death, amongst other things. I'm skidding and flailing on ice, and looking for a way to gain traction. So: How might I think about doing this? Therapy is always an option. I acknowledge that DNA testing is also an option, but jeez, how to broach that one? Should I leave any first move up to Adam and Paul? Should I put this box away and never open it all? Or even think about it? In some ways, I want to know, dammit. Anyway, it would be good as always to hear the hive wisdom. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Before answering that, I'm wondering what difference it would make? I mean, imagine that Paul is indeed the biological father and Deb was, for whatever reason, incorrect in telling you that you were. How would you treat Adam differently, going forward? ie why is this important to you? Or is this about you understanding your previous life experiences in a different way?

These feelings may be something you need to talk over with a therapist first, before you take any actual action, is what I'm saying.
posted by Mogur at 6:28 AM on October 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

I think it's safe to assume that Adam is Paul's son. And they probably know it, or at least deeply suspect it. (After all, Paul would have to be involved.) They may feel that telling you might change the pleasant relationship they have with you. And they probably don't have any idea how you'd react if you broached the subject. So, what does it matter to you? Figure that out, with therapy if necessary.

Then, maybe, one time that Adam is visiting, just say, "you know, Adam, speaking hypothetically, if you were Paul's biological son, not mine, water under the bridge and all, that wouldn't change how I feel about our relationship." (If that's the case.) Maybe then Adam says "oh, gosh, thank god, we guessed it ourselves but didn't talk to you about it because we didn't know how you'd react." Or maybe he says, "I never thought about that! Let's ask Paul."

Or whatever. But the important thing is to do the work up front to figure out, of the possible answers, how you'd begin to deal with "collapsing this uncertainty" in all of its likely cases.

What does it mean to you?
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:33 AM on October 10, 2018 [15 favorites]

Yeah, I think therapy can at least help you unpick why you want to know, and maybe you can work on that "why" for yourself first. The danger of trying to find this out would be that you could potentially disrupt two other people's lives completely - maybe Adam and Paul haven't ever suspected anything, and if it is suddenly proven that you're right then they both have a sudden shock to deal with.

That's why instead I'd figure out why you want to know; do you suspect that Deb may have been duplicitous on purpose? Do you think maybe she just didn't know and you're secretly a little miffed that she was cavalier about it? Did you unconsciously have some kind of identity from being a biological father that is now a little threatened? ....I'm just throwing out possible motivations here (I am NOT claiming any of these are yours, these are just possibilities); only you and a therapist could figure out what is motivating these feelings.

Once you get to the bottom of why you want to know this, maybe spend some time working on the "why" instead first, in a way that doesn't involve Adam and Paul, to see if that satisfies you. Maybe it isn't necessary to involve them at all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:36 AM on October 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Are there any genetic issues in you/your family that Adam would need to know about? That might be one angle by which to approach the conversation ... after the therapy, that is.
posted by mccxxiii at 6:38 AM on October 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

What ever the genetics say, it seems to me from your description, Deb wanted you to be a part of Adam’s life. Accept that as a powerful acknowledgement of your importance in her life and what you can bring to his.

Counseling is a good idea. You are a key member of an unexpected family.
posted by michswiss at 6:53 AM on October 10, 2018 [49 favorites]

You need to seek therapy for the other things that have you skidding first. This is a distraction. It hasn’t mattered for over two decades, it can wait a while longer.

While you address this in, think about what you want to have when the dust settles.
posted by RainyJay at 7:04 AM on October 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

What difference would it make? If the resemblance is that obvious, I’m sure Adam and Paul have thought about it too. It doesn’t sound like you had much to do with bringing up Adam anyway, Paul is already functionally his dad.
posted by cakelite at 7:07 AM on October 10, 2018

Paternity and parenting are different things. You may or may not be Adam's father. Regardless, Paul is and always has been his dad. I think I would leave this well alone unless you have other putative offspring who may be impacted by inheritance issues. If not, you have to leave your shit to someone, so...
posted by DarlingBri at 7:09 AM on October 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

none of this affects what I think of Adam.

Then continue being the friendly-uncle-dad-like-type of person you have always been to him.

But - what if I am right?

Then you're right.
posted by headnsouth at 7:10 AM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

It sounds like the relationships are all cool. But as people get older, genetics can be important for medical reasons. It'd be nice if Adam knew what inherited risk factors he's actually got.
posted by zompist at 7:16 AM on October 10, 2018 [11 favorites]

I'm in Adam's shoes.

Talk to a therapist first. I still haven't done the genetic testing needed, because it will mean a lot of difficult conversations I'm not ready for yet. In large families I know where paternity is clear, there's still quite a lot of variation in appearance. My youngest looks nothing like me for example.

I asked my father if it mattered to him that I was possibly not his genetic child. He was in his final months at that point, and the question had come up a lot with other relatives. I can't remember exactly what he said, just basically grumble grumble what rubbish, go and make me some tea and stop worrying about such nonsense, what difference should that make. He was a pretty awful father for other reasons but not rejecting me over genetics meant a lot still.

You have a relationship with Paul and Adam now as family. Family is more than genetics alone. Talk to a therapist about what that means for you with these people (and Debbie's memory) before you decide on testing and what comes after.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:43 AM on October 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

There's an acclaimed documentary called Stories We Tell, in which the filmmaker, Sarah Polley, does a series of interviews with the dad who raised her (whom she doesn't physically resemble)-- and with the three men her mother had affairs with the year she was born. May be worth a watch as you sort out your feelings.

A friend of mine had a similar situation to yours- in his late teens his mother finally confirmed what everyone had suspected, which was that she had had a long affair with a tall dark-haired thin man, and the affair had produced my friend, who, being tall, dark-haired, and thin, had always stood out amongst his short blond stocky family.

My friend and the man who had raised him had one conversation about it which was a short and emphatic one: "look it's obvious who your biological father, I've suspected for years so knowing doesn't change anything. I love you, and to me, I'm your dad and you're my son." It actually made them closer.

In their case a DNA test actually wasn't needed because the resemblances were clear and the emotions were even clearer.

At the heart of it, perhaps this is true in your case, too?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:59 AM on October 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

Do you have contact with Paul? If so, I would start there rather than with Adam. Paul has raised Adam, and if there’s a resemblance he will have noticed it. If Paul was plausibly involved in Adam’s conception he would most likely remember it. So, by talking with Paul (in a very non accusatory, non-acrimonious way) you might actually get to the truth of the matter before bringing it up (if at all) with Adam, who has a lot more emotionally at stake. And then from there you could decide if it’s something that you want/need to talk to Adam about from a position of certainty rather than uncertainty.
posted by permiechickie at 8:16 AM on October 10, 2018 [20 favorites]

I was staring at Adam’s profile this past visit, his forehead, the set of his jaw, his frown of concentration, and thinking, where does he get that from - and then it clicked - he reminded me of Paul.

To offer a possible different anecdote: my wife and I are constantly mistaken for sisters. Sometimes people continue to insist that we just look soooo alike even after we tell them we are married. We are roughly alike in being two white women of similar height and weight, but we are most assuredly not genetically related.

There is probably a lot of heteronormativity there, but I also mean that human brains are powerful at picking up micro-connections. Much of what you describe strikes me as things Adam could/would have emulated from any man he grew up in the same house with. My wife and I have only been together 8 years and our level of social/behavioral mirroring clearly tricks people all the time.

Sure, it's totally possible he's not your biological son, but it's also possible you are seeing similar micro-behaviors and backfilling from there that gee, they look an awful lot alike too - because this happens to Mrs Molerats and I all the time. I know you say you and Paul are different ethnicities, but unless you know all of Deb's family line, well, genetics is complicated.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:36 AM on October 10, 2018 [29 favorites]

Whatever your reason for wanting to know is, at the root, it's probably not about Adam, it's about you. Adam sounds like a reasonably intelligent lad, and he will probably figure out any discrepancies about his lineage on his own. If he wants to bring you in on any questions that's pretty much his decision. My suggestion is to work out your feelings on the matter with a counselor or therapist on your own, and If Adam wants to have a discussion about it on his terms and at his initiation, great. My suggestion is that you continue to be there for Adam on his terms and continue to be the person that you've always been for him, and if those terms change in whatever way, if/when he determines Paul is his biological dad you should support him as best you can.
posted by Dr. Twist at 8:46 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is there something else involved here, like did you pay generous child support all these years, money that subsidized Deb and Paul?

Are your fragile family members leaving Adam piles of money?

If either of the above is true then you've got a complicated mess if Adam is actually Paul's bio son.

If neither of the above is correct then talk to Paul.
posted by mareli at 8:47 AM on October 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

I get the sense that you may be feeling some complicated resentment or at least confusion towards Deb, in as much as (if your hunch is valid) she, a relative stranger, deeply intertwined you into her life based on a fact that seemed more certain that it turned out to be.

However, I would also take your own hunch with a grain of salt. I feel like if the resemblance was really that blindingly obvious, it wouldn't have taken that long to notice. And most of the traits you mention - - the "set of his jaw", his "frown of concentration" - - are just as likely environmentally acquired from the people who raised him!

I think ultimately you're grappling with this sense of, if you're neither someone's biological parent nor someone present in their life, what are you to them? But first I would really just explore with yourself how real your realization actually might be.
posted by dusty potato at 8:54 AM on October 10, 2018 [6 favorites]

Seconding everyone who says counseling to figure out why it's thrown you for a loop.

Also seconding those who say not to jump to conclusions re: paternity. Genetics can be strange sometimes! I'm ethnically Korean, my husband is Caucasian (half-German, half-"mutt," as his family says), and our daughter is, of course, biracial. I have a good friend who is Jewish. When my friend, my daughter, and I used to go get groceries together, people would invariably believe that my friend was my daughter's mother and that I was an unrelated friend. By some weird quirk of genetics, my friend and daughter look really similar despite having no ethnicity in common--the friend really does look like at least an aunt or something. So it could still be a weird if discomfiting coincidence.
posted by yhlee at 9:29 AM on October 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Another documentary for your watchlist while you think about this: Gaby Dunn's A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT MY FAMILY SECRET (THERE'S A TWIST).

There's some thoughtful commentary there from several people involved, and there may be something there for you to bounce off of while you think about what that conversation would mean for you if you decide to have it.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

This part of your question leapt out at me: "This has come in the middle of other life transitions - parental fraility and death, amongst other things." I have a feeling this quandary has come up for you specifically because of the other things in your life that are happening. I nth the recommendation to talk to a therapist about it first.
posted by purple_bird at 9:55 AM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I dunno, it seems reasonable to me you'd be thrown by this because it's kinda--no it's really--weird; for 25 years you thought you'd reproduced... now suddenly [bass drop/record scratch] maybe not? That would disconcert most human persons. You don't have to be oldschoolreactionary about being somebody's "real dad" or have a complex about fidelity or whatever nonsense to be weirded out by this supremely weird circumstance.

I also think it's highly reasonable to want to find the hell out, for one thing, in case Adam's genetic history turns out to be important medically.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:09 AM on October 10, 2018 [25 favorites]

People like closure. They like to wrap up a story in a nice package with a clear ending. Sometimes they end well, and, well, sometimes they end not so well. I think you need to decide what is more important to you, the closure of knowing or the continuance of what appears to be a good relationship between you and your son.
posted by AugustWest at 10:43 AM on October 10, 2018

I haven’t read all the responses but want to weigh in as an adoptee. Everyone has the right to know the truth about their biology full stop. You may decide what to do w/the result later but now you sure as heck can consider discussing this with Adam or Paul and see where it goes. You don’t have to have therapy before going further into this. You may find one or both of them to be relieved you see their similarities and that they also want to know. You won’t know until you bring it up. Be kind, be tactful but do talk to them. Maybe start with Paul. It’s not your responsibility to leave this alone because its a little awkward either.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 10:57 AM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also want to add that more importantly Adam deserves to know the truth about himself. Fuck anyone saying otherwise-the days of pretending who are a person’s parent(s) are long gone-that shit is wrong on every level. So consider Adam too please.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 11:02 AM on October 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would approach Paul first.

And it is important that Adam know so that he is aware of any genetic or family health history.
posted by terrapin at 12:04 PM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeah, instead of making this into a big drama up front, simply approach Paul and see what he says.

Then if you have to make it into a big drama, at least the way forward is clear. I cuncur Paul may already know.
posted by jbenben at 12:24 PM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a big believer that people have a right to know their biology, when possible. We can say it's for medical reasons, but I think it's more than that. And you should get to know, too. This might be worth raising with Paul, first, but I think it's worth raising with Adam. But the first question to address is if this would have impact on finances or something where they think you might have ulterior motives. I am presuming you don't and there aren't suspicious motives here.

With Paul, it could go something like, "On Adam's last visit, I finally noticed what should have been obvious all along: he resembles you strongly. Is it possible you are his biological dad? I love him dearly, and this wouldn't change how I feel about him. Do you have any information you can share with me?"
posted by bluedaisy at 12:36 PM on October 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

If you want to make a statement to Adam, along the lines of "You may not be my son genetically but you will forever be the son of my heart," I'd wait awhile. If he is your son then you will be telling him that you don't really think he is your son.

And after a few months of thinking about this your reaction could turn into scorched rage and you might want to have nothing to do with Paul and Deb ever again, and can't stand to be around Adam as a reminder of that.

I hope that's not what's going to happen.

Gonna suggest that when you have percolated this for awhile and are sure that you don't unbond with Adam you consider saying, "You are such a perfect son, if you were somebody else's kid, I would have wanted to be your Dad." It says the same thing but without telling Adam that he ain't yours. I wouldn't say that you would have wanted to adopt him, because you never pushed for custody, and he might have wished you had.

I'd get a couple of second opinions, and then discuss this with Deb. Maybe start with, "Did you ever get Adam genetically tested..."

Consider that it is also possible that Adam is neither the son of Paul or you. If Deb has a certain taste in guys Paul might look a lot like an earlier partner. Be aware too, that Adam's conception could have been a coerced one, and she picked you for the father because anything was better than the actual guy. These things are not probable. But they could be the situation.

I also think Adam has a right to know for sure what his genetic heritage is.

I ended up with a child of uncertain paternity. One guy was right for dates, the other guy was right for blood type and I didn't know the first guy's blood type and had no way to get in touch with him. However the blood type was not the most common one which made the first guy less probable... When the kid hit adolescence she started looking for the first time like her bio-dad, and knew that the dates were wrong and the blood type was right.

Deb could have found herself in a similar situation, rather than setting out to deceive you. Or she could have neurotically got you involved while in a major state of denial. That's what I'd be asking myself. How likely is it that Deb could have made a mistake honestly, or could have convinced herself despite some contrary evidence? You know Deb. You might be able to rule out the paternity suspicions, or you might have to admit that it's very plausible for other reasons than the fact that Paul and Adam look like each other.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:53 PM on October 10, 2018

(OP mentioned that Deb is dead, for anyone who missed it in the post).
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:15 PM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Unless you're leaving some things out, it sounds as if your presence in Adam's life has been pleasant but minimal. You don't even mention paying child support. Which, frankly, makes this just about none of your business. Keep your opinion to yourself unless it's solicited.

(A lot of talk about Adam having the right to know his parentage, but it's not like OP has some kind of privileged information. He's looking at Adam and jumping to a conclusion, which Adam, Deb, and Paul have all had the ability to do for his whole life. Unless this is a special skill of his, he is not withholding any information from Adam.)
posted by praemunire at 1:48 PM on October 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

I like the idea of talking to Paul first. Secondly, I really feel strongly that knowing one's genetic history is important. Knowing your true family story, such that it can be known, provides context for your life and closure. Start with Paul. I mean, what is the story about Paul and Deb? It would definitely be strange to suddenly be not the genetic father you thought you were but you can cross that bridge if and when you get that far. Let me tell you, I can use (here at mid-age) all the positive older generation influence that I can get. If I had a "trusted uncle" type in my life, I would be so enriched. And, frankly, as my daughter grows, I hope I can be a "trusted aunt" to some of her friends should they need one. It is a richer world when we open our hearts this way. I was adopted and I feel as though I have two fathers and two mothers. Though, I don't know my birth father and my adopted father is deceased. But it's important to me to know my story. The story is important. There will be questions later and the longer you wait, the harder they may be to answer.
posted by amanda at 2:18 PM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

One of my second cousins was "Adam". At some point his father coerced him into getting a gene-test, and it turned out that yes, my "Adam"s bio-dad was someone else. It has been a terrible trauma for all involved all the time, and it remains unresolved after the father died. I can't see any positive coming from that process. The failure was to even engage in the question. Don't go there. Really. Don't go there, it has no meaning and it only leads to confusion and pain.
There has also been a persistent 40+ year long rumor that my dad was the biological father of my half-brother (which is ridiculous if you look at my brother). Luckily my step-dad wasn't phased by any of that, so for all of his rather grave failings as a human being, he managed that gracefully.
If Adam himself wants to research his genetic background and rewrite his family history, that is fine, let him do it. But don't push it.
posted by mumimor at 2:30 PM on October 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would ask Paul about it first and not bring it up to Adam. I understand it doesn't make a difference in how you feel about Adam, but personally I do think it's reasonable to want to know and it would be fair for Adam to know. I think it depends on your relationships with these people and whether it could be a big mess. If Paul insists he has no idea what you're talking about and he's never discussed anything like that with Adam, then just leave it be. If Paul says yeah, he's talked about it with Adam, well there you go.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:56 AM on October 11, 2018

The thing is, children are mimics. It's inherent to child development for a child to mirror the adults in their life. Paul has been the pattern of a man to Adam all his life. Adam will have automatically and unconsciously acquired his bearing, his mannerisms, probably the way he eats his food (does he save the perfect bite? does he lick his knife if he thinks noone is watching?); his way of addressing strangers and so on and on and on. I've seen blended families and adopted families where there are striking physical similarities between non-bio parents and children. As you've described your suspicions they seem to me to be implausible. They do remind me though, of a time I had a visceral bodily loss and I spent months believing that it hadn't happened, that something else had happened, even though I knew, rationally, that it hadn't. It was very disorienting, and the way you talk about what you're feeling now reminds me of that time. Like, I knew it wasn't true but every little thing that happened to me felt like more evidence that it was true.

I would guess from the way you write about this that you're ruminating and it's become an intrusive thought, and I think people's advice to go through some counseling is good. Really it does seem that this irrepressible idea has popped into your mind when in fact there are other more troubling thoughts you might be finding more painful if you had to dwell on them.

Two more things to think about. Why on earth would his mother have told you you were the father if it wasn't true? What in the world was in it for her, or Adam, because as you've written about it, in her case absolutely nothing and in Adam's case, not very much at all. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh but basically an uncle, or even a godparent, could have had a more significant presence in Adam's life than you have had.

The second thing to think about is whether your query about Adam's parentage will come across as a rejection on your part of even the little connection that there is between you. Do you want to risk that? Does that matter to you at all?

Honestly for your suspicion to be correct there'd have to have been a Byzantian level of plotting and complications and abstruse reasoning going on in the past. How likely is that, bearing in mind the personality of everyone involved at the time?

I do have a lot of sympathy for you because there have been times in my life I've become locked into extravagant problem creating, and it's usually when things are long-term difficult and some practical action needs to be taken urgently. This is why I think your fears may be a distraction and there's something else you need to be dealing with. If it's difficult to conceive what that is, hopefully counseling will help but ruminating will take you in ever decreasing circles.
posted by glasseyes at 7:04 AM on October 11, 2018

I mean, since Paul is Adam's very-present-all-his-life dad, if he was the bio dad as well,
1. wouldn't he be aware that he could be?
2. what possible reason would Deb have for saying he wasn't?

In general if a theory requires people to have acted untypically in every human way, let alone be themselves opaque and have inexplicable motives, that's a fairly reliable sign the theory may be unrealistic.
posted by glasseyes at 7:25 AM on October 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

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