Family secrets are painful memories that we conceal with the hope that they will disappear in time, never to be exposed. Sometimes we bury these secrets believing we are protecting others, and other times we do so just to protect ourselves. But more often, these family secrets find their way into the light, and the pain that emerges is far worse than the original truth. This is the story of how my husband and his sister uncovered their family secrets, and the ways they each are navigating their unique emotional journeys. I have changed some names to protect privacy.
The news comes from Rick’s daughter, Jessica. Her 23andMe results came back, and she has what appears to be a cousin, “Dustin,” in Dallas. She’s excited about the discovery.
Her “cousin” is asking his mom, “Lynn” to take the genetic test, so Jessica asks her dad to do the same. Rick has known since the age of 10 that the man who raised him was not his biological father, so Jessica’s revelation comes as little surprise.
Rick unwittingly uncovered the family secret about his biological father when he found his baby beads bearing an unfamiliar last name. The beads were tucked away in the home he shared with his parents and two brothers.
Upon this discovery, his dad invited him to ask any questions he may have, and that ended the spoken conversation. But the unspoken questions lingered in Rick’s mind for the next 55 years. He loved the man he knew as his father and held his silence for fear of causing him pain.
He held on to the last name on the baby beads and gathered bits and pieces of information from his aunt about the circumstances surrounding his birth. She told him his mom and dad were very young when he was born and that they sought an annulment because the family didn’t approve of his father. That’s all he really knew until Dustin’s mom took the test.
When Lynn takes the test and it becomes apparent that she is a closer match to Jessica than her son, Dustin, she has no idea what to think. Her stepmother studies genealogy as a hobby, so she casually mentions her 23andMe results, asking her what they could mean. She confirmed they mean she is closely related to Jessica. But how? Could her dad or uncle have family secrets? She has another casual conversation with her dad, and he doesn’t think anything of the results.
He puts it aside and that’s the end of it. Lynn takes a second, more detailed DNA test from another company – the same one her dad took in support of her stepmother’s genealogy project. She is not a match to her dad. She knows now that the connection must be through her mother.
But how could that be? Her mom is so proper and strait-laced. How could her dad not be her dad? She knows she needs to talk to her mom, but she must do it in person. The conversation takes place a month or two later.
Jessica calls again, this time to report that Dustin’s mom, Lynn, is Rick’s half-sibling. Rick is both shocked and thrilled. He is also nervous. Does she know his biological father? Does she know about him? What will he say to this new family member who he has never met before in his life?
Jessica spoke to her, and Lynn seems quite nice, if not a bit taken aback. Rick calls her on FaceTime. The conversation goes well, almost like they’ve known each other for years. But at the same time, it’s awkward, as they’re both still strangers. Rick is managing the realization that he has a sister, but Lynn is dealing with much larger emotions – her father is not her father. A man who had an affair with her mother decades ago is her biological father.
Her mother doesn’t know that she knows the family secret, and her father doesn’t know anything at all
Lynn's Search for the Truth
Lynn finally meets her mom for lunch. She tells her mom about the DNA test, and her mom asks Jessica’s name. When Lynn tells her, she says “oh no, that’s not it.”
This inadvertent slip of the tongue confirms she has been keeping a secret. Lynn asks what happened and her mom starts to cry. “I just need to know, Mom,” she says. “I won’t tell Dad.”
Mom says she had an affair with Bio-dad when Lynn’s dad was overseas in the military. It lasted about six months, and she found herself pregnant shortly after her husband returned home. She had not told Bio-dad until Lynn’s senior year in high school after she and Lynn’s dad divorced. Still, she kept it a secret from Lynn until now; Lynn’s dad will likely never know.
Lynn has mixed emotions about her mom’s secret. She can forgive her mom for cheating on her dad before she was born. But what is much more difficult is that her mom denied her the right to know her biological father and her other half-siblings before she grew up. This is where she comes from and who she is, at least biologically.
And yet, her mom decided unilaterally that she didn’t need to know, at least not then. “It was never the right time,” her mom said. But is it ever?
The Search for "Bio-dad"
Rick is much further along on this journey than Lynn, as he’s known most of his life that the man who raised him is not his father. That man passed away a year prior, so more than ever he wants to know the full truth about Bio-dad.
Now that Lynn has had time to digest the information, she too is determined to discover who he is. They contact a private investigator in Dallas and provide him with the breadcrumbs they were given. Within a day, they know the state where he lives and that he owns a restaurant there.
More Family Secrets
The private investigator reaches out to Bio-dad and tells him of Rick’s and Lynn’s interest in finding him. At first, he’s not interested. He’s worried what his wife and family might think, as he also has been keeping this family secret from them. He’s contacted two more times and still refuses to talk to Rick and Lynn. The private investigator says that he can’t give out his phone number, so Lynn and Rick must sort through their feelings of rejection once again.
After several weeks, Rick’s and Lynn’s anger about Bio-dad’s nonresponse is getting more intense. He’s ignored them for their entire lives, and now this slap in the face? He owes them more, they conclude.
After some Internet sleuthing, Rick puts the pieces together and finds Bio-dad’s contact information. Should he call? He decides it’s time. He calls Bio-dad and when he picks up the phone, Rick tentatively says, “do you know who this is?” Bio-dad admits he does. The conversation proceeds into small talk and a comparative history lesson gleaned from the stories Rick’s been told and Bio-dad’s own recollection.
Processing the Family Secrets
Rick finishes the phone call cautiously optimistic about a future relationship. He tells Lynn, and she too makes contact. Her conversation with Bio-dad sounds a lot like Rick’s.
Bio-dad wants to know about Lynn’s mother, and they share details about their families. She feels a bond, but at the same time it feels so arms-length. Does he want to get to know them? What will their relationship look like?
Both Rick and Lynn grow closer to each other over the next few months, bonding over their desire to know Bio-dad and the anger over his reluctance to tell his wife and family.
That changes when Bio-dad shares the news with his wife, and they both agree to meet Rick and Lynn, as well as Lynn’s husband and me a couple days before Rick and I are to be married. The initial meeting is awkward at first. But by the end of the evening, we all feel a certain comfort level and begin to think it could even develop into a bond in time. But Bio-dad still has not told the rest of his family out of fear they will judge him for his indiscretions. Rick and Lynn are hopeful he’ll come around.
Now that they know Bio-dad, they speak with him every couple of months. At first, they initiate the calls, and then Bio-dad begins reciprocating.
They start to feel a kinship, not really like that of a parent and child, but more like a friendly uncle. Unfortunately, those feelings are confused by nagging doubts.
“Why doesn’t Bio-dad tell his kids?” “Is he ashamed of us?” “He cast us off our entire lives, why are we still his secrets?” Bio-dad dips his toe into a relationship with Rick and Lynn, but he hesitates to step in all the way. That is the ongoing push and pull, the notion that this man created them but doesn’t see fit to stand up and claim them as his own.
Rick and Lynn are both impatient and patiently waiting for Bio-dad to unveil his secrets to his family. They don’t know if he ever will, but they are resigned to meet him where he is. It hurts both to be a secret and to be kept from the truth.
If, and when Bio-dad tells his family, the fact that he kept this from them may hurt much more than the fact of his fathering Rick and Lynn. For now, if Rick and Lynn want a relationship with Bio-dad, they will have to be satisfied with a few phone calls here and there. This makes them angry, but they can’t let him go. He is a part of their history, and a piece of him lives in them.
Lynn will never reveal the truth to her real dad, the man that raised her. Is it better that way? Sometimes people don’t want to know the painful truth, even if it’s right in front of them. It’s easier not to know, to push it down. Secrets are complicated.
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