Ex-Etiquette: Get professional’s help to prepare to tell son the truth about his parentage

Q. I got pregnant right out of high school. My son’s father was equally as young and did not want to take on the responsibility. He enlisted in the army, and I have not seen him in nine years. I married my husband when my son was almost 2 and my husband has raised our son as his own. We also have two other boys. My ex was evidently surfing Facebook recently, found us, and now wants to meet his son. Our son does not know my husband is not his biological father. What’s good ex-etiquette?

A. This situation is not that uncommon, but the aspect that continually surprises me is why parentage is kept a secret. I’m sure everyone who has faced this dilemma has a reason; however, the damage the secret causes can be devastating to the child. It’s the same principle as how damaging keeping adoption a secret can be. When children find out, it is as if their entire life rug is ripped from beneath them.

The scenario I often see is exactly as you have explained: with a catch. The biological father isn’t a bad guy, just young and scared and unfortunately bails on the mother, who is also young and scared. Years go by, the mother raises the child, meets someone who loves them both, marries, and hoping for that perfect two-parent family, keeps the name of the child’s father a secret. No one knows except mom and her husband and possibly extended family and friends if they continue to live in the same town. That means quite a few people know, and there is always the danger of someone telling the child the truth. Most of the time it’s another child who has overheard gossip and does not realize the hurt he or she will cause when he passes on the rumor.

Back to biological dad … the biological father meets someone new as well. They form a family and have children. Dad realizes how he feels about those children. The light bulb goes on — “I have another child out there” — and he starts a campaign to find the child.

Of course, this may not be the exact situation you have faced, but it is the one I see the most. My advice at this point is to tell your son the truth, whether his biological father becomes a fixture in his life or not. Don’t just blurt it out one day; enlist the help of a counselor for guidance. It would be helpful if the counselor got to know your child and could then work with you to tailor an approach.

For the record, most professionals will suggest you go slow, possibly beginning with the information from both you and your husband accompanied by a letter from his biological father, then a phone call, then a meeting (possibly in the counselor’s office) and progress from there. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone is different.

Your son’s biological father must be prepared to stay in your son’s life if he makes this effort and be willing to gently assimilate into your child’s routine. To think he will just show up, say hi and add your child to his life is a very selfish way to progress. It goes without saying: Everyone must put the child first (Good Ex-etiquette for Parents Rule #1). That’s good ex-etiquette.