Family Secrets

Archived Q&A and Reviews

January 2003

My husband has a most complex family tree. As an adult, he gained knowledge that the father who raised him was not his biological father. A mentor-figure to him was, in truth, his biological father. (His mother had an affair with this man). It is a strong secret among his family (the concerned adults knew and took the decision to maintain a secret). Even those few family members who know, don't talk of it. How my husband learned the truth is a complicated story in its own, which I will not go into here.

I wonder: when do we speak to our children (both under 6 years old) of their actual biological grandfather? Has anyone experienced a similar situation? How does one balance discretion and truthfulness? How do you make peace with deceiving one's children? I know it is important that they not be informed until they are capable of keeping the informations a secret, as family members would be hurt by the open discussion of it. I thank you for any advices you may offer.

The question I would ask is ''What benefit is it to tell the children?'' It doesn't sound like the bio grandfather is playing the grandfather role. Why undermine their relationship with your husband's parents' You ask, ''How do you make peace with deceiving one's children?'' I don't see it as deception - I see it as keeping a private issue private. We don't, and shouldn't, disclose everything to our children (e.g., our sex lives, our finances, etc.) To me, biology doesn't mean much - it's the actual time and effort that people put into the relationship that counts. anon

I think that biological relationships are really overated. A parent or grandparent can be defined in terms of biology or in terms of emotional and physical contribution to one's life. So the information about who is the actual biological grandparent is pretty much irrelavant to a young kid. You can never have too many loving grandparents, biological or otherwise and lots of kids have grandparent figures that are not biological (step parents, close family friends, adoptive). My point is that both the bio grandpa and the non-bio grandpa are relationships worth cultivating, and kids don't really care about which is which!

I don't think you can ever make peace with decieving your children, so I don't have any strategies for dealing with that. My guess is that they are too young for lessons about balancing truthfulness and discretion. So, I would advise embracing the bio grandfather as just another grandfather figure in thier lives. I would approach this as a widening of your family circle. There is no reason that you need to go into the details with your kids at this point, especially if you think it would be hurtful to others. All they need to know is that this is someone very important to thier Dad. At some point it will become important enough or easy enough or obvious enough that the information will flow freely. In the meantime just refer to all of them as grandparents and enjoy them while you can! Leslie

Sounds to me like the whole family is living in a fog, consumed by this dirty little secret and you have bought into the idea that keeping this secret is important. The pain that people in the family are feeling around this isn't ever going to go away until it is all brought into the light of truth telling. And don't kid yourself into thinking that some of the adults involved are better off not knowing. This is like a cancer that affects every relationship in the family. What happened, happened- how is talking about it going to inflict harm? Sure, some people are/will be angry and feeling/will feel betrayed and hurt. But they are continueing to feel this way BECAUSE it is a secret.

Although it is not clear from your posting, I would assume that your husband thinks of the man that raised him as ''Dad''. In terms of your children this man IS grandpa. What difference does it make who the sperm donor was? But do you really want to poison your children, at any age, with the desperate drive to keep this secret quiet? What kind of life lesson is that? The adults need to clean up this mess and then it won't make any difference if you ever tell your children. anon

Why do the kids need to know this? I can't imagine what good it would do them, and can see that it could cause a lot of hurt and confusion. It is not deceptive, because the ''biological dad'' is not the father any more than the donor at a sperm bank. When they are adults and can understand all the complexities of life maybe they should be told if there are medical reasons. Otherwise, you would be harming them, in my opinion. Telling them would be for your satisfaction, NOT their benefit. You husband's father is the man that raised him and the grandfather of your children, unless there is something you have not said. Do not do this to your kids, or to the man who raised your husband. anonymous

We have a similar issue. My husband's biological father is out of the picture, as is pretty much everyone else on his side of the family except his mother. My husband cut off contact with them when he was in high school due to their emotional and physical abuse. My husband's mother lives in the Bay Area with her husband (my husband's stepfather) and our two children are very close to their Gramma and Grampa. However, we are at a loss as to what to say to our kids when they start asking questions about my husband's biological father. We do want to be as honest as possible, but at the same time we do not want to invoke any unwarranted fears in our own kids (telling our kids Daddy doesn't talk to *his* Daddy anymore because they had fights and he doesn't love him anymore sounds like a very bad idea). So far we have kept it simple, by telling the kids where my husband's father is located but we have not gone into specifics yet. Our children are both under 6 as well.

We don't feel like we are deceiving them because the truth of the matter is, his stepfather was more of a father to him than his actual father (his stepfather came into the picture when my husband was in his early teens). He is now enjoying his grandparent role with enjoyment and love for our children. I have never met my husband's biological father, nor do I particularly want to. Our children assume that my husband's stepfather is his biological father (and therefore their biological grandfather) and at this point, it is pointless to explain the difference. My 4 yo is still having problems working out the logistics of the simple family tree (eg that Mom's brother is your uncle), let alone the complicated one (stepfamilies, half-siblings, etc.).

One thing that is important to realize is that your husband's baggage is not yours nor your children's. It sounds like your husband is somewhat traumatized by the discovery of his paternity. It also sounds like the whole family is scandalized, as well. In our experience, if you make it a big deal, it becomes one. Be frank. You don't need to go into the details of the affair or the emotional anguish apparently suffered by the family (I'm not making light of your situation, just trying to provide perspective) because once you do, your children will get caught up in it too.

Wait a while until you feel your kids are responsible enough to handle the news, at leat until they're 10 but probably older than that. good luck. Anon

Read books! There are so many great books about coping and grieving, especially in relation to adoption; because, in the end, your husband was adopted... Your husband probably is going through all of it, very quickly. By the way, the politically correct term to use these days is birthparent not biological parent... One book comes to mind, it's called: Being adopted, a lifelong search for self by Brodzinnsky, Schechter and Marantz. Sounds pretty deep but it mainly deals with grieving. There is also an organization called Pact. They are located in Richmond and have a website ( They are a non-profit adoption facilitator and the 2 co-founders are just great resources for books and therapists. There names are Beth Hall and Gail Steinberg. They should be able to help you find a way to help your husband. good luck

Gosh, it just seems to me that the person who raised your husband *is* his father, for all intents and purposes. Why tell your kids any different, at least until they are much, much older? What could be gained by it? If somebody starts needing information for a genetic problem, OK, but otherwise, it should be presented to them as adults or near-adults that the grandpa they know and love is not actually biologically related to them, and that ''dear old Uncle Bob'' is their genetic grandfather. Calling Grandpa ''Grandpa'' is not dishonest. Letitia

I was so surprised by most of the comments on this issue that I had to write. I completely disagree with the assessment that biological relations are ''overrated'' or that the issue is ''private.'' It was important information to your husband that he is not biologically related to his father. In the same way, I think the information is important to your children. I don't know why ANY of us care where our genes came from, but we do. Didn't I just read a thread in the Recs newsletter about agencies for finding birth parents?

And as for how and when to tell your kids, I think open adoption is a good model to follow here -- it should never be a secret, but the details can be explained as questions arise.

I DO think this kind of secret silently poisons a family. Moreover, I firmly believe you have no obligation to keep a secret that you never asked to know in the first place! Good luck to you! Anon

I offer things to think about rather than specific advice. My story is that I found out at age 18 that the father I'd been raised by since birth was not my biological father. Since that time I have come to understand how much suffering keeping this secret caused my parents, and how it negatively affected my relationship with my (non-biological) Dad during my childhood. I think it also affected my relationship with the entire older generation, who knew while I and the younger set did not.

Your situation sounds different because it is a generation removed, but while I agree with the posts that emphasize the importance of relationship over biology, I would caution anyone with family secrets that just keeping the secret can in and of itself be damaging in various ways. I seem to have suffered the least - finding out was not the traumatic event you might imagine.

That said, I'm struggling with how to break this secret. As my younger siblings grew old enough to know, I told them. But it was very awkward to do so (now I see why it was so hard for my parents to tell me), and I still haven't told the youngest. My 2.5 year old son has met my biological father (who lives abroad, so contact is rare) but is still too young for me to explain his role in my life. I want to be sure to tell him young enough and often enough in a casual way that it doesn't seem like a big deal. However, it is still a very taboo topic in my family, mostly out of respect for my Dad's feelings...

Privacy is privacy, but I feel like if I expect my children to be honest and forthright with me, I need to be the same with them, no matter how difficult the topic. I hope I will find the way to do so over the years. still searching for answers