My Surprise Biological Father Doesn’t Want to Meet Me

Posted June 19, 2018 2:30 p.m. EDT

Dear Sugars,

My mother died of cancer two years ago, when I was 33. Shortly before she died, she called me, my two sisters and our dad to her bedside. She held my hands, looked me in the eye and said, “The biggest mistake of my life was the best mistake of my life — Bill is not your father.”

Bill was her husband of 50 years and the only father I’d ever known, yet the moment she spoke those words, I knew them to be true. My mother had an affair with my biological father that had lasted several years. He’s still married to the woman he’s been with for decades, and they have three children together, all several years older than me. He has kept his affair, and my existence, a secret from them.

Over a year ago, I contacted my biological father and told him I wanted to meet him. He said no. He told me he “lives in constant fear” and would rather “cash in his chips” than face the consequences he believes the truth would bring. I’ve given up on meeting him, but I’d still like to meet my half-siblings and I’m wrestling with the ethics of contacting them. They, too, are victims of this decades-old lie, which will continue, barring a confession from their (our) father.

Hoping to offer them some measure of consent in discovering my existence, I took DNA tests with 23andMe and Ancestry and made my profile public, but none of them appear to have participated in those programs. I now wonder what to do. Should I interrupt their lives in the hopes of building positive new relationships or leave them alone? — The Secret Son

Cheryl Strayed: I think you should contact your half-siblings, Secret Son, but only after you’ve let go of your expectations about how they will respond. While I empathize with your wish to build “positive new relationships” with your half-siblings, I caution you against making assumptions about how they will receive the news of your existence. Not because it’s so far-fetched to believe that your half-siblings may want to have a relationship with you, but because you can’t yet know if that’s the case. They may not want to meet you. They may agree to meet you but opt not to develop a relationship with you. They may welcome you fully into their lives. The information you give them about your father’s life may be surprising and hurtful to them, or it may be confirming and clarifying. Because there are three of them, they’ll very likely respond in a range of ways. So let the truth be your guide, rather than your attachment to a particular outcome. Start with the simple fact — their father is also your father — and see where that leads you.

Steve Almond: This is quite a betrayal to absorb, especially in the midst of grieving your mother’s untimely death. The loss of a beloved parent, a mother in particular, throws our world into chaos. That pain has been magnified and distorted by this deceit. Your sense of identity has been cast into doubt. I understand your anger, especially at your biological father, who has rejected the chance to meet his own son. But I think the central question you need to answer is not whether to reach out to your half-siblings. It’s whether you can forgive your mother and Bill for not having the courage to be honest with you sooner. The two people you trusted most in the world violated that trust in a profound manner. They did so to protect you and your siblings, but also to protect themselves. This is not to dismiss the potential of building positive new relationships. But before you can move forward, Secret Son, you need to make your peace with a complicated past.

CS: As for the ethics of contacting your half-siblings, I think you’re in the clear, Secret Son. It was your father who made the ethical breach, not you. In situations as messy as this, intention matters a lot. And your intention, to connect, far outshines his in any principled measurement, which is to continue to deceive his wife. Your father’s decision to keep your existence a secret is both self-serving and morally vacant. He wants you to disappear because doing so would keep him from being held to account for his duplicity. To honor his wish not only makes you a passive accomplice to his lie, it also requires you to sacrifice something that clearly matters to you: the opportunity to know, and perhaps come to love, your half-siblings. So don’t honor it. Honor instead what your mother taught you when she bravely made her deathbed confession: that the truth, even when it hurts, is a liberating force. You have the right to say who you are. Say it.

SA: Cheryl is offering a direct response to your question, which has to do with the ethics of contacting your biological half-siblings. I agree with her that, in this pursuit, your guiding principle should be to tell the truth and see where it leads. It could be that your own feelings toward your parents are completely resolved. But I find it curious that you make no mention of having talked about any of this with Bill, the man who actually raised you. In her desire to come clean at the end of her life, your mother claimed Bill was not your father. But as any parent knows, the essential work of rearing a child resides in the love and attention we offer them over months and years, not the genetic material bestowed at conception. In this sense, Bill was and is your father. In our podcast this week, we speak with Steve Lickteig, who absorbed a betrayal akin to yours. I urge you to listen to the episode. In it, Steve talks about the process of reckoning with the biological truth of who he is, which included reaching out to newly discovered half-siblings, while also trying to resolve his feelings toward those who withheld that truth and, at the same time, lovingly raised him. I see these goals as inextricably linked, a kind of double helix of selfhood. And I encourage you to honor both.