Family Almanac: Dad’s secret son

July 16, 2012

Q. I am a woman in her 50s with three older sisters and a secret my father shared with me a year before he died.

I was still in college when he told me that he had fathered a boy when he himself was in college, that the boy had been put up for adoption and that he was afraid my sister — then living with her boyfriend — would repeat his mistake. I never saw my father so distraught.

He never told his parents about this child, which haunted him, but he did tell my mother because they had a wonderful marriage and, apparently, no secrets. I’ve discussed it with her twice since then and she said that he really must have trusted me to be so confiding, but she didn’t volunteer any information and I didn’t press her. I was just relieved to know that she knew!

I never told my sisters, but the secret has begun to weigh on me as we get older. I don’t know (or care) where my half brother is, who he is or who his mother was, but would my sisters want to know? And how would the news affect them?

I think it would probably hurt the oldest one, because she was the closest to my dad, and she always thought of herself as his firstborn child. It might also have a negative effect on my second sister because she is emotionally frail, and it might be hard on my third sister, too. She is the one who was living with her boyfriend, but she’s married now and has two children. Her life, however, has not been easy, and she and my dad had a terrible fight around the time he told me his secret and they were essentially estranged until he died. Would this information help her realize that he was upset because he loved her? That he was afraid for her because they were so much alike? Would it make her bad memories seem better? Or worse?


(Hadley Hooper/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

A. You’ve kept your secret long enough. It’s time to lay this ghost to rest.

You need to tell your sisters about your half brother, not because it will make you feel better but because honesty is the bedrock of any family. Without it, conclusions get skewed, feelings get hurt and relationships get bent out of shape.

This won’t be an easy conversation to have, but it will go better if you’re kind, gentle and open-minded when you talk with them and if you have it at a place where your sisters can be as outraged — or as weepy — as they want.

Don’t expect them to act the same. One sister might be angry at you because you kept this secret for such a long time or be hurt because your dad told you instead of her, while another sister might need to mourn because her father wasn’t the man she thought he was. The third sister might jump right over your news and insist on meeting her brother right away (or not at all). Whatever their reactions, listen as quietly and as patiently as possible. You’ve had 30 years to adjust to this news; you can’t expect them to accept it in 30 minutes.

Your sisters shouldn’t be your only consideration. No matter how much your half brother loves his adoptive parents, he might be trying to dig up his biological roots while you’ve been burying them. Many adoptees have a desperate need to know their medical histories, but most of them simply want to know why their birthparents put them up for adoption. It can be hard to understand the pressures that were placed on unwed mothers 50 years ago when the same news barely makes society raise its eyebrow today.

If any of your sisters want to meet your half brother, they should ask your mom whether your dad left any information about him or whether she knows the date of his birth, the name of his birth mother or where the adoption took place. They might be able to connect with him if he was adopted in a state that has a mutual consent registry to which they, and the adoptive family, have added their names.

They can also check out adoption registries online, but screen them carefully — many are outdated or expensive. Among the best: www.isrr.org, a free nonprofit mutual-consent site, or www.adoptiondatabase.org, a 16-year-old nonprofit volunteer group that costs $10 to join, $25 for a dedicated search and another $175 if the person is found.

8 Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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