Dear Dr. Jann: I got pregnant at 17 and had a son. His father had no interest in having a child. My son and I lived with my parents for about a year and a half. During that time I met a wonderful man. We have been married for four years. My son adores my husband. He thinks he is his daddy and we have never told him differently. Last month my son’s biological father caught up with me on Facebook. He now wants to be part of our son’s life. I do not know what to do. I had not intended to tell my son–ever—and now I am forced to. How do I handle it? What’s good ex-etiquette?
Dr. Jann: Even though this is far more common than you think, the fact that you were never going to tell your son the truth is very concerning. You may think that keeping a secret of that magnitude will protect him, but in actuality, it only complicates the issue and make matters worse.
There are quite a few concerns to consider. First, finding out this sort of information by accident can be extremely disturbing to a child. It can undermine their security and trust if they find out by mistake—and you’re not the only person who knows your secret. There are relatives and friends who might drop the bomb without your consent, so start the conversation as soon as possible. YOU want to control the flow of information.
Although you should have been talking about it all along, your son is just now at an age where he can grasp an explanation. But, before you start talking about anything, do a little research. Know where his father lives, family history–are there other siblings? Most of all, come to an agreement on how you are going to present the story and then stick to it.
Although you may want to tell him all sorts of specifics and how everything happened, your son will really only care about how all this impacts him. Don’t’ justify your behavior. Remember Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #1, “Put the children first.” Introduce the subject using easy to understand age appropriate language. “Age-appropriate” means presenting the facts simply and directly and then responding only to the questions he asks. This will allow him to grasp what he’s ready to understand and pace his own readiness. Let him know that he can come to you with any questions at any time, and don’t be surprised if time passes and you must repeat yourself.
It will also help if you have a plan in place for how you’re going to proceed once your son knows the truth. Consider the following questions:
- How often will the biological father want to see your son?
- Will there be a formal parenting plan?
- Will your husband and the biological father work together in your son’s best interest?
- Is the bio dad open to taking it slow while your son gets used to him being in his life?
- And, most importantly, is bio dad ready to be invested this time? It will be extremely detrimental to your son to introduce dad, allow them to get close, and then dad disappears again. If he can’t be there for the long haul, don’t start the process. Tell your son the truth about his parentage and that’s it.
You may want to consult an attorney to explore the legalities associated with all this, plus a therapist to help ease your son’s anxiety if you find him getting confused or even serve as a buffer when the initial meetings begin.
Finally, make a special effort not to undermine or badmouth the other parent in front of your child (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #3). It will further confuse him and make him check his allegiance to the people who are supposed to be taking care of him. There’s no competition. Your son can’t have too many people love him. That’s good ex-etiquette.