Help me deal with my mom’s deathbed disclosure
September 10, 2019 12:42 AM   Subscribe

In her last days my mom disclosed that she had doubts about who my biological father was. DNA testing after her death has confirmed her suspicions. Now what?

From the account she gave me before she died I believe she was a victim of acquaintance rape and I was the result. However maybe there was more to it. I finally did DNA testing and used various genealogy sites to find out that her suspicions were correct. She never told my dad — the man who raised me.

So now I’m burdened with this secret and I’m struggling with a lot. I’ve been working with a therapist about it; but it is hard and lonely. It has really shook my identity more than it probably should — traditional cultural norms around cuckoldry and legitimacy are deeply imprinted into my psyche. I also fear losing the only dad I’ve ever known. Yet keeping the secret hurts.

So now what? A couple of more pointed questions. First is there any kind of online community focused on these issues — it feels very lonely to be in this circumstance. I’ve got a therapist; but I would like to talk with people who are in the same situation. Second should I contact my biological father, if so how and what do I say/write? Part of me is pretty angry at him; part of me is curious. He’s pretty old so the clock is ticking and for all I know he could have dementia.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Firtst of all, it was shitty (maybe understandable?) on your mother's part to tell you and nobody else (your 'dad') right at the end, leaving this all on you as well as the loss of your mother. There are two issues here. First, whether/when/what to tell your 'dad', second ditto re your 'bio father'. Assuming that you love him and care about him, I am in the 'tell him' camp, but tell him in such a way that he understands that this does not change the love and respect you have for him, and stand by him as he deals with this shock.

Re your 'bio father', are you 100% sure that you have identified him? Do you want to proceed to confront him with this knowledge, and (if he agrees) vent your anger (note, he may not even know about you, unless your mother said otherwise), satisfy some curiousity in the almost certain knowledge that this will hurt your 'dad' (but this your 'dad' hopefully will realise you have to do it, and will be happy to wear).

Difficult times for you, I feel for you.
posted by GeeEmm at 2:27 AM on September 10, 2019

Oh dude. It was a sort of family story that I was the cuckoo, and I talked to my dad when he was dying to ask if he minded if I wasn't his biological child, and he said it made no difference to him, which was a big help to me. This year I finally got round to doing a DNA test and discovered yes, I am the odd one out, and biological father is unknown, although the possibilities are somewhat known. I have adopted kids in an open adoption, so this is a weird thing to be coming at as an adult adoptive mother, like a new tangle and also reassuring - I know in my bones that family can mean choosing who you love, and that blood kinship can also matter deeply in different and similar ways. I've already lived that one way, so it's easier to trust that it can go the other way and to see that it's really messy too.

There's a community out there of adults who find out they are later non-biological children. There are various names for different groups and the most active people are the ones in the most distress over the secrecy and/or rejection. I would not look online for long.

Talk to your dad if you need to. Chances are he sort of knew. My dad knew, while he was a deeply flawed dad, he loved me as much as the other kids. Family secrets are weird. Sometimes it's better just to walk away if you can.

As for your bio-dad, I would go cautiously because if it was a case of rape, there's a lot to process first. It's not just him though - his side of the family, his siblings and their children and whatever are your family tree too. Do they seem like people you feel an urge to connect closer to? Or people you want to hide from? Listen to your body and your therapist when your mind is whirling.

I looked up the most likely people, asked bluntly, and when they turned out to not be my dads, shrugged and went back to waiting for more information. I'd had several years of getting used to the idea since my dad's death to prepare though so the DNA confirmation was just to actually doing the paperwork and making calls/emails. I wish I'd gone slower but I also think - you didn't ask to be born, and it's not your responsibility to make family secrets smooth and hidden to make people who were adults when you were a baby comfortable now. You have a right to your own family history and heritage.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:55 AM on September 10, 2019 [12 favorites]

There are Facebook groups for this (NPE = "not parent expected" or "non-paternity event"), but they are obviously private/closed to protect the privacy of members. This article refers to them and has a way to get added (basically, you get added to a "waiting" group, then they chat a bit about your circumstances to figure out the best sub-group to add you to).
posted by DoubleLune at 6:38 AM on September 10, 2019

i am coming at this from the perspective of someone who, at 39, learned i had a half sister that no one, not even my dad, knew about.

why does it matter to you? your dad raised you and loved you and your bio-dad possibly raped your mom. what do you want to get out of knowing who that was or revealing yourself to him? do you want to have a relationship with this person? i mean, you really need to do some thinking about what the end goal is.

to me, this "bio" stuff doesn't matter. who raised you, who loved you, who showed up to your life is what's important.

the only reason "bio" stuff really matters in modern times is hereditary health concerns.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:45 AM on September 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

Not that it probably helps, but I have kids and while I’d be maybe a bit disappointed in the circumstances if I found one wasn’t my biological child, it would make no difference in how I felt about them. Parenting is what you do for N years, not what you did for N minutes. Your father is the person who chose to be your father, because as we see from life around us, he could have weaseled out of things by hook or by crook ... if he were a weasel.

Note: I’m not saying “tell him.” I think I’d tend the other way if pressed, but I’m saying that emotionally you can consider it as a “who cares.” I know, easy for me to say. Good luck and good life to you.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:50 AM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

My biological mother recently passed away and it was only with her passing that I got to know some of my other relatives (her siblings) closer as they drew in and wanted to know my story and felt free to talk. I was an "open secret" and there was a lot of guesses and misinformation going on around my birth. After her memorial service and after I had gotten more info, I wrote a letter to my new relatives about what I considered "my story" knowing that I really can only know a slice of it and only from a certain perspective. But it felt good to compile the story and to feel like I now know it and have shared it.

Now I have the question of whether to seek my biological father. From my point of view, he seems like your average horny opportunist who definitely didn't stick around and made my mom's life kind of shitty in the process. She claimed no ill will toward him and that was one of the few questions I got answered before she passed. I was afraid it was a rape kind of situation. And, really, from my perspective...maybe it wasn't rape but his actions were definitely manipulative and gross. And just so boring and basic. Do I need this man in my life? This man who didn't care? He knows I exist in the world. But, hey, he clearly wasn't father material and maybe if he'd have stuck around, my life would be in a very different and not-good place.

I've been listening to the Family Secrets podcast. And these stories of late-in-life biological discoveries are more common than anyone could think. And it's only due to current technology (genetic testing) that so many are coming to light and coming to light definitively. You might find listening to some of these stories helps you process your own. And definitely seek out some online community, the podcast Facebook page might have some resources.

I'll tell you what, though, the cuckold thing, as you've rightly identified, is a very corrosive and a nasty thought to hold in your mind and frankly has zero bearing on your story. Your story is not one of some man getting one over on another man. Your story is about your mother and the fact that she had a child due to trauma and she felt that her best course of action, to protect herself and to protect you was to keep that trauma a secret. For many, many years she has kept a secret that she never asked for and I bet she felt afraid for herself but also so afraid that if she let it out, harm would come to you. So forget that other narrative. I know parent/child relationships can be fraught and I don't know your mom and your relationship with her but I do know this: her attempt to swallow and hide that pain and fear was an act of love for you. She was your first protector. I feel for her that she held that for so long and it clearly tormented her or she wouldn't have felt the need to unburden herself at death. And unfortunate that you don't get to process and heal with her. She denied herself healing and that's a real tragedy.
posted by amanda at 7:18 AM on September 10, 2019 [33 favorites]

I strangely keep thinking of a moment from the movie Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, where the main character, Peter Quill, is wrestling with a similar issue - he's met his biological father at long last, and ultimately discovered the biological father is a jerk - and the character Yondu, who raised him from the age of ten, says "He may have been your father, but he wasn't your daddy."

Not that your biological father is a sentient omnipotent brain floating in space and not that the man who raised you is a blue-skinned space pirate, but there's still something to that, I think.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:21 AM on September 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

However maybe there was more to it.

Under the circumstances, I would vote towards taking your mother's description of what happened at face value. If she wanted to conceal from you what happened, she just wouldn't have said anything. There's no reason to doubt this account, and if that's the case--it's not that your mom had an affair or something that would render anybody in your family a bad guy. I don't know if you should tell your dad, but he is your dad. He parented you. Given that you seem to care about him and his feelings, do you actually think he's the sort of person who would have refused to support a child after his wife was sexually assaulted? You might be genetically related to this other man instead, but he wasn't your dad.

Your dad wasn't "cuckolded". Your mother was raped. The framing you give this kind of stuff makes a lot of difference to your emotional response to it, and while the latter framing is still really painful, I think it will help to work out your feelings, if you have confidence that your real father was a decent human being.

Given that we're in the age of said DNA tests and Promethease, I might otherwise have said that the only reason to contact this other guy was to find out if there's any health stuff you should be concerned about, but honestly I don't even think there's a reason to do that. There is absolutely no reason for him to be honest with you about anything that happened and you don't have any reason to trust him, because you have no preexisting relationship. I don't see any reason to let him have a place in your life.
posted by Sequence at 7:28 AM on September 10, 2019 [17 favorites]

I think you have received some good advice above. I wanted to recommend a book for you to read by an author who found out that her father was not her bio-father after both parents' deaths. She truly struggled for many reasons and it was interesting to see how she worked through so many feelings. I think this may be helpful to you and also make you feel less alone in your situation. Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro

With the increasing interest in genetic testing / ancestry kits, I think we are going to see more and more of this. My grandmother tried to tell my mother something on her deathbed, but ended up not saying anything. There is suspicion that one of her children had a different father (and we know who it would be). The "child" in question seems to have no idea and would be totally crushed if they found out (more so than the others) so I understand how hard this can be and wish you the best.
posted by maxg94 at 9:01 AM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would think long and hard about letting your real Dad, the one who raised you, know. It seems like it could only cause hurt. You could mention you're thinking of DNA testing, but not why,to sound him out.

You might want to talk to your biological dad because of health information, if nothing else.

A man in my extended family has a biological child he knew of but did not support or know. His biological child has contacted him, wants a relationship. The 1/2 siblings are fairly ambivalent.

This is a minefield, but as regards your biological parent, I would proceed, discreetly, in the direction that is best for you, and I suspect you will want to contact him, because knowledge of your background would be hard to ignore. This is hard, but you are who you are, and this is only a part of you.
posted by theora55 at 9:10 AM on September 10, 2019

Ah, but that seems an impossible strategy. To seek out your biological father while not letting the Dad who raised you in on the secret? How would that work out?

I'm ambivalent about biological fathers...well, I'm actually ambivalent about all fathers, sadly.* The man who raised me, my adoptive father, was problematic (to put it mildly and succinctly) and I worry that seeking out my biological father would be also me seeking out a better father. But from what little information I have gleaned, he was at best a very basic, horny dude who took some advantage of his age (26 to my mother's 18) and then skipped off when she let him off the hook and seemingly never looked back. At worst, well, who knows? I did some digging and there's the potential of an "at worst" due to some info that I found. Do I really need a second disappointing father?

Laboratory testing today can reveal all kinds of health info that you don't need to get from the mouth of relatives if you have a specific concern. And, in fact, even if you do get in touch, they may not have a full health history secrets! So, I feel like that is fading as a motivation to seek out biological family.

But, if you have a decent and loving relationship with the father who raised you, that's a place to hold tight to your heart. If you have a kind and empathetic relative–a sibling, an Aunt, a partner–who could help you process this in terms of your family culture and dynamic before springing this on your Dad, that might be an avenue of support and clarification. I have a feeling that this secret will come out. What is your top desired outcome? Maybe see if you can speak that out loud and some of the other issues will fall into place.

*Edited to add: I don't want to throw shade on all the great fathers out there. But it's not until I was an adult that I felt like I really met some great fathers. And I think there's a generational element at play. My husband is a great father and now that I know what that can look like, I'm giving my fathers even more side-eye.
posted by amanda at 9:43 AM on September 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Somehow this is a thing in my family. Because of cancer screening, we recently discovered our great-granddad had an entirely other family we had never heard of.
I've always known my mother had another bio-dad, and was adopted by my real granddad, but it was a very unpleasant surprise when she chose to contact bio-dad and meet up with all the other aunts and uncles.
When my brother was born, my step-grandmother thought my dad was his father, since she was still married to him, but she had already moved in with my stepdad.
One of my cousins is in a similar situation to yours.
The paternal grandmother of my youngest child had two kids with unknown paternity before she met my ex's father and settled down. There is more, but I guess this was enough to sketch out the situation.
To be honest, I don't think you should involve your dad in this. I know he is an adult and should be able to deal with this, but maybe he isn't, and if so it could ruin the rest of the time you have together. The bad old days were different from now. I don't lie to my children or their dads (not least because of the tragedy I've seen), but in some cases no good will come out of imposing our values on another age.
Also: when members of my very extended family have found their biological fathers, it has always been a very sad experience. Every. Single. Time. But I recently saw my ex's elder brother, and in spite of the rejection he met from his bio-dad, he had sought out his half siblings after the father died, and that was a very positive experience. So maybe wait, if you can.

My mother sought out her biological dad when I was 14. I remember every second of that time. It was terrible. I don't remember if she or I told my grandparents, but I know now that they were so angry they disowned her (which is why I am now a farmer on the side). My grandfather was like a wounded lion lashing out at everyone and anyone, he had loved her and cared for her since she was a baby, and now she was calling this shallow person who had rejected her "dad". They never reconciled, and my mother has not recovered from the loss. Today, I can understand my mother's feelings about the whole thing, it's really complicated, and I probably learnt from the whole thing that adults aren't always rational or in control of their feelings. But back then, it tore us apart. I'd always been very close to my grandparents because of the divorce when I was a baby, and now they drew me even closer and basically I cut off communication with my mother. I remember once going to some event with my granddad and both of us loving it when someone told us how much we looked like each other. I love all of my family, almost, but my granddad was my closest confidant and role model. Losing him would have been terrible. I can feel how terrible it was to my mother who still struggles with mental health issues, all focused on her relationship with her parents.

About secrets: my dad told me a secret when he was dying, and I am keeping it. In the beginning it was really hard, and I told myself that when the time came, I would tell my family. But now, nearly ten years later, I've realized I don't have to because it doesn't matter. Of course there are things like genetics that might be relevant to your children if you have any. But if you wait long enough they can come without the emotional baggage. My grandmother cared a lot about her dad's infidelity, but my siblings and I couldn't care less. We never knew him.
posted by mumimor at 10:24 AM on September 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

First of all, it was shitty (maybe understandable?) on your mother's part to tell you and nobody else (your 'dad') right at the end, leaving this all on you...

I mean, not really. The OP has a right to know his origin and identity. The OP's mother had an ethical obligation to tell her son about his paternity. She has absolutely no such obligation to tell her husband she was sexually assaulted. Every single survivor does the best she can with the tools she has at hand. We know nothing of the era, place, or culture of the OP's conception and birth, but we do know that today, in 2019, men leave women who are raped all the time. That isn't a possibility that diminishes as we go back in time.

OP, I really am so sympathetic and sorry you found this out this way. You are absolutely not alone. Going off that article, I would look at at Ancestry Facebook page and check conversations -- this is so common that people must be congregating around this experience. I'm sorry I don't know where, but I do know that there are therapists who specialise in adult adoptees, and your story is very, very similar to many they will have heard. You might consider seeing if a specialist therapist might be a good ear for you and/or help you with resources.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:45 PM on September 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

My adult (50 y.o.) adopted cousin discovered, through DNA testing, an entire family, including one full sibling (my cousin was given up when his parents had him as teenagers before they married and had another child) and several half-siblings, as well as both parents, now divorced. The half siblings were from subsequent marriages. His father has terminal gastric cancer, but is currently talkative and happy to acknowledge his son. It has been important for my cousin to discover his biologically connected parents and siblings. He has been warmly welcomed. I assume this is not always, or even often the case. In this circumstance, he's very happy he pursued this and is determined to nurture these relationships in the years to come. I should also mention that is adopted dad is fine with this, but he waited until his adopted mom passed away, as she was threatened by the very notion of his seeking his biological parents.

I would not assume that even if you can determine who your biological father is, that he or his family are aware you exist.

My husband never knew his father, though his mother taunted him with the information. Really. She was a teenager, he was a young professional who turned her head, and she became bitter and angry, taking much of it out on her son. On her deathbed she finally told him his dad's first name. He could do absolutely nothing with this skimpy information, and he'll never be able to. After all these years, he tells me he no longer cares that much. It would be nice to know if he has half-siblings, but the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim. He did, however, do 23 and me, and indicated that he could be contacted. No contacts so far. Sometimes it seems that's what happens - nothing.
posted by citygirl at 7:20 PM on September 14, 2019

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