Guest Author, Anne Kass, - a retired District Judge of Albuquerque, New Mexico
All too frequently I have seen parents who are being divorced suddenly disclose that the oldest child in their family is not really the husband's biological child. They reveal that the oldest child's biological father either left shortly after the child was born or before he even knew a child was expected.
Most often, the now-divorcing couple met and married when the child was very young, and though they both knew the truth, they both pretended that the husband was the child's biological father. Often the make-believe is extensive. The child will have been called by the husband's name, and younger brothers and sisters will have been led to believe they and their oldest sibling share the same parents. Frequently grandparents participate in the charade.
When these couples decide to divorce, one of three things is likely to occur:
1. The husband will refuse to pay child support for the child who is, "not his".
2. The mother will resist a future relationship between the husband and the child who is, "not his."
3. Both spouses feel guilty about the lie they've been living, and they want to assuage their conscience.
Whether the spouses are being stingy or vindictive or feeling a need to confess, the result is a child having his or her life turned upside down.
The situation is similar to adoption, and adoption experts agree that when and how a child should be told that he or she is adopted is a difficult matter. Telling a child who is too young may be useless because the child doesn't understand. Waiting too long to disclose the adoption can be severely damaging to the child's ability to trust. Two things are clear from the research: Parents should never lie or pretend about the biological truth. Parents should never disclose biological parentage in times of other crises, such as divorce.
Secrecy about biological parentage is dangerous in real adoption situations where a legal parent-child relationship exists. The child may discover they have been misled about their biological circumstances, but at least the parents won't disappear. In pretend-adoption situations, secrecy is devastating. The child's trust is shattered. Their sense of identity is destroyed. Their feelings of connectedness to their siblings are damaged. In addition, they often do lose the person they thought was dad, sometimes through alienation, sometimes by abandonment.
Lying to a child about his or her paternity is a fundamental lie. It should not be done, but if it has been done and the parents are being divorced, neither should disclose the truth alone. The revelation must be handled tenderly, with the help of a trained counselor, followed with on-going counseling to help repair the harm.
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