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Many years ago, after a girlfriend and I broke up, she had a baby at age 18. Over the years, I heard rumors that I was the father, although the little girl was told someone else was her biological father. I decided that if the girl ever learned the truth and decided to contact me, I would be receptive. I'm now in my 40s and married with two small children. Before I married, I told my future wife about this situation. When my daughter became an adult, her mother told her the truth; my daughter contacted me, and we met. I also wrote an email to her mother, who felt guilty for not telling me. I was heavily into drugs as a young man, and I told her she made the best out of a bad situation. My daughter is an interesting and good person. The problem is my wife: She is hysterical about this. I was open about meeting my daughter the first time, but when I got back, she was in tears about my "new family." I have since met my daughter secretly, while my wife was visiting relatives. I feel sleazy about that. I'd like to be open about the fact that she's my daughter. She has expressed an interest in meeting my sons, and I know they would love having a sister, but my wife would freak out. What is particularly inexplicable is that my wife's father abandoned her. I would think a biological father trying to do the right thing would be pleasing to her, but this is not the case. What can I do?
—New and Old Dad
Before this goes any further, you should establish that you actually are the father. It's great you want your daughter in your life, but you need to confirm that's who she is. Suggesting a paternity test should not be insulting but reassuring. Assuming she is yours, it would be helpful if your wife would keep in mind that she is not finding out about a love child you fathered during your marriage. She is not even finding out about a secret child you had before you met her. You warned her that one day a young woman might walk into your lives, so she should have been prepared—or as prepared as one can be—for this eventuality. But human psychology can be a perverse thing. Certainly a woman who was abandoned by her father should encourage her husband to be a father to his out-of-wedlock child. But it sounds as if you daughter's arrival has taken your wife back to the trauma of her own abandonment. Irrational as it is, your "new family" brought back fears she'd be left behind again. The solution is not for you to cut this daughter out of your life, or to sneak around to see her, but to deal with this as forthrightly as possible. Gently tell your wife you understand your daughter's sudden arrival has stirred up all sorts of difficult feelings. Reassure her that a new family is the furthest thing from your mind—after all, your daughter is already a grown woman. But you would like to make a place for her with your family, especially as a big sister. If your wife remains unhinged, suggest the two of you see a counselor to help you figure out how best to incorporate this new addition into your happy family.
Dear Prudence: Facebook Photo Flub?
Six years ago, I learned my parents were on the brink of a second bankruptcy and the bank was taking back my childhood home. My brother and I bought the home from the bank and fixed it up. A year later, our parents divorced after 30 years. Mom moved out. Dad stayed and continues to pay rent. I live far away and usually see Dad only when I visit my brother. On a recent trip to my hometown, I told Dad I wanted to visit with him, but he made an excuse and left town. I stopped by the house anyway. When I looked in the windows, I could see trash stacked floor to ceiling. A toilet is completely missing. A sink is torn from the wall. A small path winds through the garbage from one room to the next. While I do care about my investment in the house, my bigger concern is my father's emotional health. I have no idea how to approach this topic or how to find help for Dad—we're not close, anyway. What should I do?
—Stacked With Emotions
Your father is mentally ill, and hoarding is hard to treat. Often it gets out of control after a traumatic event, such as a divorce. I know approaching your father about this seems painful, and he's embarrassed about how he's living. But sooner or later the house is going to start to smell, the neighbors are going to call the police, and possibly the property will be condemned. Alternately, your father could be crushed under his own debris like one of the Collyer brothers. You and your brother bought the home to help your parents. The property is benefiting no one if your father is destroying your investment and living in squalor. You should contact an attorney who can help you sort out your legal situation. You need to get your father out of the house and have it cleaned up. Possibly you and your brother need to become your father's legal guardian. At the very least, he needs a full physical and mental evaluation—many hoarders have multiple medical diagnoses, including, commonly, drinking problems. The best Father's Day gift you could give is for you and your brother to start digging your father out of this mess.
My dad is turning 80 in July. He loves his six children very much, and we are lucky to have such a wonderful father. We have been trying to plan a surprise birthday party for him but have created nothing but conflict. Some people are even writing insulting messages on Facebook. I feel as a family we should honor Dad on his actual birthday, which falls on a weekend. Others say the following weekend is more convenient. We also can't decide what to do for the party. Some want a park setting, which would be great considering there are a lot of grandchildren, but my Dad sweats heavily and can't handle the heat. Some people want a "bash," but Dad has cochlear implants and loud music hurts his ears. I suggested a meal at a buffet-style restaurant that costs $10 per adult. But some complain this would be too expensive. What should we do?
The ideal way for all of you to honor your father is not to get into such vicious squabbles over party planning that none of you is speaking to each other by the time he turns 80. Forget about a surprise party. Sure, they can be great, but at his age you run the risk of causing a heart attack. Include your father in the discussion of what kind of celebration he'd like. I think restaurant parties for huge broods are generally a bad idea. They're noisy, you end up talking only to the people on either side of you, and very quickly the kids start acting up. For that reason a celebration in a park would be ideal—except for the excessive-sweat issue. But maybe you can make the event for later in the day and make sure there is an umbrella to shade Dad. I'm sure he'd also agree that the actual date of the event is less important than the ability to have everyone he cares about there. (And if no date is good for the whole crew, a few people will have to celebrate separately with your father.) Being flexible and keeping a sense of humor about your loved ones will help ensure that the birthday celebration is a happy event and not one that has your father wondering how many more family gatherings he can stand.
When my husband and I got married 24 years ago, I was divorced with sons who were 6 and 3. Their biological father died a few years later. My husband has always treated those boys as if they were his own. He helped them with homework, repaired their autos, and taught them to be men. In recent years he's helped them financially, and he's Grandpa to their kids. My sons have never recognized him on Father's Day or his birthday—no telephone call, no card, nothing. They come to dinner on those days only because I invite them. How do I impress upon these grown men that it would mean the world to him to have some sort of recognition on these two days of the year?
It's too bad that long ago you didn't make clear to them that you expected gratitude to their stepfather, who for much of their lives has been the only father they've had. It sounds as if you have been quietly steaming for many years now over how oblivious these two have been about the need to reciprocate some of what they've gotten from their stepfather. But it's not too late to finally make it happen this year. Tell them you want them to step up and honor their stepfather this Sunday. Since your sons may be broke, that might just mean getting a card. Impress upon them they need to do more than just sign their names; they need to actually write a few lines about what your husband has meant to them. Add that during dinner you want them to raise their glasses and offer a toast—no matter how awkward they feel—to the man who's always been there for them.
More Dear Prudence Columns
"Financial Affairs: I want to bequeath money to my mistress in my will. Is that wrong?" Posted March 24, 2011.
"A Fool for Love: My wife is super hot but dumb. How can I make the best of our union?" Posted March 17, 2011.
"I Can't Relate: My estranged half-sister wants to get to know me, but I'm afraid my parents won't approve." Posted March 10, 2011.
"Diamonds Aren't a Girl's Best Friend: My ex is blackmailing me for sex. How can I get out of it?" Posted March 3, 2011.
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
"This Baby Shower Is a Wash: Dear Prudence advises a reader who thinks her brother impregnated his girlfriend to steal her own baby's thunder—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com." Posted March 21, 2011.
"Teacher Gone Wild: Dear Prudence advises a schoolteacher caught on tape acting a drunken fool—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com." Posted March 14, 2011.
"Dead Letters at the Office: Prudie counsels an office worker who found love letters while cleaning out the desk of a recently deceased colleague that are not from her widower—and other advice-seekers." Posted March 7, 2011.
"Nightmare Vacation: Prudie counsels a reader who regrets her promise to take an ailing family member to Disneyland—in this week's live chat." Posted Feb. 28, 2011.