Help! My Son Is the Product of an Affair. Do I Have To Tell My In-Laws?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 6 2012 4:12 PM

Not My Husband’s Baby

In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman whose in-laws fawn over her son—not knowing he’s the product of an affair.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I'm looking forward to your questions.

Q. Complicated Family Issues: My husband was estranged from his parents for many years. He reached out to them when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. They didn't have enough time to discuss and resolve their past, but they were at peace with each other when he died. Now my husband's parents wish to keep in touch with me and my toddler-age son, as he is the only link they have to their only child. The problem is that my son is not my husband's biological child. I had an affair, the biological father dumped me upon realizing I was pregnant, and my husband (to cut the complicated story short) decided to raise the baby as his own. He didn't legally adopt our son—we simply put his name on the birth certificate and that was that—or tell anybody other than our marriage therapist. It was a painful, regretful, and humiliating episode of my life and I do not wish to tell even my own parents. But I feel incredibly guilty whenever my in-laws talk to me about how grateful they are to have a grandchild to remember their son, or make comparisons between my son and my husband when he was at a similar age. I feel like I need to come clean with them before they develop a strong attachment to him. They are already talking about changing their will to include their "grandson." What should I do?

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A: Your late husband was your baby's father. In untangling your tale, my reading is that that you were married to your late husband, you cheated and became pregnant, your husband knew, but he stepped up and claimed paternity. I'm sure readers better versed in family law will chime in, but my understanding is that in such a situation your husband would be considered your son's legal father and no adoption procedure was necessary. He also was your boy's father in every other sense. Yes, you will have quite a story to tell your son when he's older, and I believe he is entitled to hear it. (When you do bring this up, you can put the best face on the fact that your husband, his father, loved him and wanted to raise him, and not cast his origin story as that his biological father was a slime. ) But I don't think your late husband's parents need to hear this. Of course they see similarities between your son and theirs. It may be that both boys were confident and verbal, so their observation is correct. In any case, seeing such connections is natural and there's no reason to disabuse them of this. Keeping up a connection to your son's paternal family surely will only benefit him—he's not going to get anything from his actual biological father. And I don't see any reason to deprive your child of a potential inheritance. There has already been enough loss in your little boy's life. There's no call to cause an estrangement with loving grandparents; it's not deceptive that their son was your son's father. And some night, after you tuck your boy into bed, watch the excellent film, The Painted Veil.

Dear Prudence: Drama in the Break Room

Q. Father/Son Problem: My husband and I raised three wonderful children together, two daughters and a son. All of them are adults (our son is the youngest, at 24). Last weekend when my son was visiting, I was shocked to find them in the computer room together viewing pornography online! This is the first time I've ever caught my husband watching porn, so that was a hard blow in and of itself, but I realize a lot of men are into it and are very good at keeping it discrete, so I can get over that part of it I guess. What really freaks me out though, is that they were watching it together. Is it normal for a father and son to share this pastime, or am I right in being very concerned about what's going on? I still need to get over the shock of this before I can listen to my husband explain himself.

A: So your husband and son were planning to watch the Olympics, and they couldn't take any more gymnastics, so they turned to what they each agreed was a more entertaining format for watching the contortions the human body is capable of. Father-son bonding is to be encouraged, but I agree this is a seriously icky form of it. Your husband should have known better and I'm surprised your son didn't say, "Dad I don't think I want to watch your favorite porn star with you." However, I don't think becoming "very concerned" is the way to go. A little wryness would go a long way here. You can just state to your husband that you have heard all men watch porn, but you hope he understands it was disconcerting to see that proven in your own computer room. Say you don't intend to start monitoring your husband's computer use. You respect that both he and your son are adults, but watching porn together erased some lines you think are better left sharp. Then drop it. And next time you hear the two of them shout, "Perfect dismount!" don't open the door.

Q. Crying During Sex: My boyfriend has recently grown a beard and I told him that I don't like it, but he's kept growing it. I tried changing my strategy and telling him how much I love it, but he's done nothing about it. A few weeks ago, while being intimate, I told him that it bothered me. We've been intimate since then and it's been the usual great time. However, this weekend (we only see each other on the weekends due to my work situation), we were doing our thing and I started to sob uncontrollably. Something about his beard was making me extremely uncomfortable and panicky. He stopped but he was hurt. I tried to explain my feelings to him, but he doesn't understand. I've not been molested by anyone that I know of and I cannot explain what happened with the overwhelming feeling of panic with the beard. What happened and what do I do to get over it?

A: It's a good thing this is not a universal reaction of the female of the species to bearded faces or else today there would be no female or male of our species because Og and Oga would never have gotten it on. Since you don't say you are subject to panic attacks, this sounds like a strange anomaly, one that you don't want to make too much off so that you create your own Pavlovian reaction. You can understand your boyfriend being baffled that some facial hair caused a complete psychological meltdown. It also could come across as rather manipulative: Even though you don't like his beard and will try to live with it, he'll just have to live with your getting hysterical and hyperventilating if he touches you. I don't know what happened to you, but spending more time with your boyfriend in the daylight outside of bed might help you readjust your expectation of what his face looks like. You two could also try to bring a sense of humor to this episode ("The Great Beard Meltdown"). But if this continues you either need to see a therapist, or he needs to get reacquainted with his razor.

Q. Workplace Awkwardness: I'm in a really awkward situation here. A co-worker with whom I've had several five-minute conversations but nothing more recently sent me an email telling me how beautiful I am and wondering if I had a boyfriend. I figured it was for somebody else, so I ignored it. I then received a Facebook message with much the same content, so I know it was for me. This guy doesn't even really know me—we've only spoken a few times! I have absolutely no attraction toward him. He's a nice guy though, and I try to be a nice person as well, and I am totally unsure of how to handle this. Do I just live through the awkwardness at work and pretend nothing ever happened? I'm usually a drama-free person who can handle this sort of stuff just fine, but I am really dreading returning to work now.

A: You need to step up and deal with it in a drama-free way. Tell him his emails and Facebook posts were totally inappropriate and you don't want to get any more such personal messages. Keep copies or screenshots of what he sent. Then if he won't stop, take the evidence to human resources and say you tried dealing with this yourself, but he's not getting the message.

Q. I May Have Gone Too Far With My Daughter: I have the most wonderful 16-year-old daughter, but this weekend I was horrified I might have been too open and honest with her. My wife and I have always tried to be as forthcoming as possible with her. As she has grown, we have had to obviously teach her about more adult topics. For instance, when she mentioned her friends had beer at a party, we lectured her on the dangers of drinking and driving, and supervised her drinking some beer at home (including showing her the effects using a breathalizer). When she started to get interested in sex, we lectured her on the dangers of teenage pregnancy and STDs, as well as giving her detailed lessons on her anatomy. Well, she started to get really interested in boys this summer, so my wife and I decided we would take the next step and show her the ways of self-pleasure in case she started to get those types of feelings when she goes back to school this fall. I even went so far as buying her a "toy" women can use to help relieve these desires and tensions, and I showed her how to use it. Now I just feel horrible. Should I have just let natural development take its course and trust in the education and lectures we have given her over the years? I sure hope I haven't damaged her growth and development. She really is a beautiful young woman and I just want what is best for her. Thanks for any advice!

A: Your hands-on approach, from alcohol to sex toys, needs some serious rethinking. I also have a 16-year-old daughter and I just reviewed a book for Slate about talking to your kids about sex. I'm all in favor of honesty and openness (even if I'm not in favor of watching porn with your grown children), but I'm having a hard time calling forth the image of you, Dad, demonstrating how to use a vibrator. Please tell me you demonstrated on yourself, not her. If it's the latter, then you have committed a grotesque violation and your daughter will need to see a counselor—who might call the authorities on you. Every family is different, but in the natural course of events your 16-year-old develops an aversion to explicit sex talk with Mom and Dad, especially talk that involves conversation about her clitoris and how best to stimulate it. There are plenty of great books out there on sexuality you could have given her and said you two are around to answer any questions she may have. But again, if in helping her to understand self-pleasure you applied a vibrator to your daughter, then you need professional help.

Q. Deception by Omission: Prudie, your advice with the LW whose child is not the bio son of her dead husband is pretty shady. If the bio dad does pop back up and wants some kind of relationship with the kid, her lies are going to surface and it is going to be bad for her, the child, and the grandparents. This is a case where she should be honest, that her husband agreed to raise the child as his own and he is listed as the father on the birth certificate, but is not the biological dad. Otherwise, it's a lie by omission that they will eventually find out about (I say that assuming she will tell her child at some point that his father is not his bio father), and all heck may break loose.

A: As I said, legally and I believe morally the boy was the son of his late father. I don't think it's a lie for the grandparents not to know about the affair, and it is not shady to maximize the relationship between a fatherless boy and his grandparents.

Q. Re: Father/Son Problem: My ex and his father watch porn together. I found out when I walked in on them in the "man cave" at his parent’s house. Later, when I expressed my shock/discomfort, he was equally surprised that I didn't watch porn with my mom. This was five years ago when my ex was 35. I am not saying it is any less gross. I am just letting you know that your husband/son aren't the only ones doing this.

A: You have a minority response. Others are suggesting that this may be a sign there is some long standing sexual violations going on between father and son. Even though every day I get letters showing how depraved people can be, I don't think there's any reason to think what mom saw was evidence of something worse than what it was. Sure, she should talk to her husband, but I still say keeping cool is the way to approach this.

Q. My Single Life Upsets People: My wife and I had a whirlwind romance. We met just after college, got married five months later, and had a great relationship—until she passed away shortly before our first wedding anniversary. This was almost 10 years ago. Despite our short married life I still love her and feel as though she might walk in through the door any minute. There have been some women romantically interested in me but I didn't feel the same way about them. My family and friends have been vocally critical about my single status over the years. They say I'm depressed and over doing my grieving, neither of which is true. I still love my wife, but I don't feel like I'm still in my grieving stage, nor do I feel sad or depressed. They say it's weird for me to remain single for so long and that I should "find happiness" with someone new. But I am perfectly happy with my life, I don't feel lonely, and I have no real desire to start a relationship with anyone. Are they right, though? Is there something wrong with me for not wanting to get married again?

A: Even though you say you're not sad and grieving, it's striking that 10 years later you still expect her to walk through the door. You might be suffering from a form of "complicated grief," and I think it would do you good to explore this with a counselor. Sure it may be that your late wife was the one and only love of your life. But as someone who married a widower, I was lucky to find out people can have more than one love of their life. I think your friends are onto something when they think that someone who was capable of great devotion and connection is missing something by going through life without a partner. But if after exploring this you conclude you're happiest solo, then you can confidently tell them you appreciate their concerns, but your life works for you.

Q. My Womb, My Choice: I recently went to lunch with a friend I hadn't seen in quite some time. Over lunch we were catching up on our lives and what was currently going on. When I mentioned that I was five months along with my fourth child, she freaked out! She told me that I was selfish for having another baby and for not opting to adopt a fourth child. She also said that anyone who has three kids should be FORCED to adopt if they are planning on having more children. I was speechless and not sure what to say to this. She of course is a single woman with one child. She went on and on about how I was selfish because there were kids that needed families and that by me having more of my own children I was making the world's overpopulation worse. I told her that somehow I doubt my four kids will kill the water and food supply. She just kept saying that I was selfish. Thankfully, the check had arrived so I paid for my meal and left. Since this disastrous lunch, she has been emailing me articles about the pros of adoption. She also has left messages on my cellphone asking to see me. I don't know what to do besides ignore her, but I am tired of the incessant phone calls and emails!

A: Please don't compound her horrible mischaracterization of you by making one of your own: "She of course is a single woman with one child." I'm not single, but I only have one child and I wish you only happiness with your brood, and appreciate you're doing more to create taxpayers to fund my Social Security payments than I have myself. (You will appreciate the new comedy video by Jim Gaffigan. He and his wife just had their fourth and he says people say such things as, "That's wonderful. I didn't realize you were Amish." ) Your friend's idea about forcing reproductive choices on people would make her a successful local functionary in China, but it turns out she is a lousy friend here. Send her an email that states her communication to you has become harassment and if it doesn't stop immediately you unfortunately will be forced to take legal action. Then block her emails, and if you can, her calls. And if she won't stop, it might be worth the small payment to have a lawyer send her a cease and desist letter.

Q. Re: Workplace Awkwardness: Does she really have to be such a jerk? This guy is, by her own admission, a "nice guy"—not the office sleazeball. He's also a co-worker, not a boss. He wrote to say she's beautiful, and wants to know if she has a boyfriend. Presumably he wants to ask her out. I think it's enough that she just says "I'm flattered, but I'm not interested," without threatening to call HR on him! Men have it hard these days ...

A: OK, OK, good point. I'm turned off by his approach. Sending a co-worker messages about her beauty shows very poor judgment. He should have engaged her in conversation, seen how it went, and then asked, "If you're not seeing anyone, would you be interested in getting dinner some night?" I agree she should politely tell him she's not interested—but I still think she should take that screen shot.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. Next week the chat starts at a permanent new time, 12:00 noon Eastern!

Starting this week, we’ll be spreading out the chat, publishing the transcript in a shorter, more digestible form. You will still be getting all the questions and answers (just not all at once).

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.