Help! How Do I Tell My Son His Dad Is Not His Biological Father?

Advice on manners and morals.
Feb. 6 2014 6:00 AM

Dada Isn’t

How do I tell my 20-year-old son his dad is not his biological father?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
My husband and I married about 25 years ago and had a daughter not long after. A few years later I had an affair with a co-worker. My husband and I split up, I moved in with my parents and continued to see the “other” man. I got pregnant by him and we decided to be together. But I realized it was lust, not love, and told him it was not going to work out. He immediately moved across the country. We had some tense conversations about the baby and things ended on a bad note. I reconciled with my husband and delivered a healthy boy my husband has loved from the beginning. I heard sporadically from the “other” man but he never filed for paternity and only requested a few pictures. My husband raised the baby as his own, and our son is now 20 years old. He and my husband are so close it’s amazing. Now, the “other” man has contacted me, after all this time, and wants to meet our son. It will crush my son and destroy his trust. He will question his identity, he will hate me, and it will just be awful. My husband will be devastated. He always thought we would take this secret to our graves and our son would never know. Do I tell our son and hope he can forgive us? What do we do?

—Desperate

Dear Desperate,
I wish that when your son was a little boy you and your husband had explained his unconventional paternity. You could have told him that some people have different biological parents from the ones who are raising them—surely he had friends who were adopted or had a stepparent. You could have explained that you two would always answer any of his questions about this. You would have emphasized that his real father is, and will always will, be the man he calls Dad. Then you wouldn’t have had to hope this secret could be buried along with the two of you. Nor would you have feared what is happening now, that the man who was essentially a sperm donor reappears, asserting his paternity. I understand why you couldn’t bring yourselves to tell. But you were deluded to think that a man who has been lurking around the periphery of your lives would just simply vanish. There was always a chance he’d want to see how his son turned out. Sure, you could try to persuade your former lover that showing up will only cause havoc and beg him to go away. But you know you’d probably never rest easy again, wondering if this man might decide to bypass you and contact your son directly. Imagine your son coming to you and saying, “I got a bizarre email yesterday from a man claiming to be my father.” So now you and your husband have to sit your son down and have a version of that long-delayed conversation outlined above, and apologize for not telling him sooner. (You will also need to inform your daughter.) Yes, his world will be roiled. But I’m betting that after all of you work through this, you will find your family still rests on the secure foundation of love you’ve all built.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Culinary Madman

Dear Prudence,
I am a teacher at a small community college. I strongly suspect that one of my new students this semester is a trans woman. My problem is that I'm a voice teacher. If I’m right, her larynx has been affected by testosterone, and is functionally male. Even if she’s taking female hormones, the voice changes that puberty brings are permanent. For example, she will be reaching her high notes in falsetto, which requires slightly different technique from that used by a cis woman singing in head voice. But even using the word "falsetto" to describe her high notes seems insulting to me, with its implication that she's using a "false" voice. I can't think of a good way to initiate a conversation about this, but avoiding the issue may compromise how much I can help her sing better. Can I go to my supervisor for advice without violating her privacy? And, dear God, what if I'm wrong?

—Finding Her Voice

Dear Voice,
Yes, you want to help your student find her voice, but you can’t do it if you’re hung up on her hormonal status. For advice I turned to Anne Peckham, chair of the voice department at the Berklee College of Music, and author of the guidebook, The Contemporary Singer. A voice teacher is not just training a larynx, or applying a technique, but, as Peckham points out, your job is to understand the entire person in front of you. So begin a dialogue with your student and discover why she’s in your class. This has nothing to do with chromosomes or gender identity. You want to know what she hopes to accomplish. Once you have a better understanding of that, Peckham says you can start listening sensitively to her voice. Be alert for tension or constriction, which will inform you how to guide your student’s voice to its natural home. Peckham says this process should be no different with a pupil you think might be transgender. Peckham advises recording your student’s voice and listening to it with her, which will help her hear what’s working and what needs improvement. Peckham suggests you let go of phrases that carry gender assignment, such as “falsetto,” and instead talk about upper and lower register. Work with your student without presenting your concerns to your supervisor. You simply don’t know if that person would be sensitive and supportive, and you don’t want to endanger either your relationship with your student or her privacy. If you apply Peckham’s advice in a relaxed and confident way, I bet you two will be making beautiful music together.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
You are the go-to person for workplace bathroom etiquette, and I have a problem with a colleague of mine. Every time I use the bathroom and he is in a stall (I know it's him because we work in a small office), he flushes the toilet about seven times before he is done! Admittedly I am a bleeding-heart environmentalist, but this one really bugs me because we live in California, which is suffering from extreme drought. I think it is incredibly offensive to be wasting so much water. Is there any way I can bring this up? Would it be rude to do so? Can I do it anonymously or can I maybe incorporate it into a teasing-style joke that maybe he would get the hint? Should I just keep quiet? I wish this kind of stuff didn't bug me so much, but it does. 

—Flush With Anger

Dear Flush,
I have always wanted to be an expert at something, and it’s so gratifying to know that I have achieved this life ambition! There is a socially arrived at agreement that the other stall is what in international law is described as terra nullius, or land belonging to no one. Sure, when someone settles into the stall, it briefly becomes occupied territory, but what goes on there is supposed to be off-limits to acknowledgement or conversation. (There is an exception when someone appears to be endangering themselves or engaging in illegal activity. But most people would rather butt out than investigate this.) What your colleague is doing is strange, and I’m going to guess he may be dealing with a compulsion. But since you’re the one consumed with counting how many times a co-worker flushes, try to be more sympathetic to someone struggling with useless obsessions. I understand that your state is parched and everyone must do their bit to conserve water. But you won’t solve the drought singlehandedly by curtailing your co-worker’s bathroom habits. If it will make you feel better, when you get home, try to make up for his profligacy by flushing less and taking shorter showers. And just think, if you consume less water at work, you’ll spend less time listening to what’s going on in the next stall.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I’m a gay man and I’ve been dating a wonderful man for the last four months. I’m in my late 20s and he is in his early 40s. I just got out of the Army, living under “don’t ask, don’t tell” most of that time, so I have very little relationship experience and he has a lot. Valentine’s Day is coming up and as this is my first one with someone really special in my life. I'm the type of guy who on a special occasion likes to be surprised with flowers or taken out to dinner. But I know it’s unfair of me to expect him to plan anything over the top, especially without my hinting that I would like him to. But telling him what I want would ruin the chance of a surprise by him. I do plan on doing something fun and special for him because I realize Valentine’s Day is a two-way street. What should I do or say?

—Overthinking the Big V

Dear V,
Four months is a difficult point for a new couple to find themselves facing their first Valentine’s Day. You’re far enough along that you can’t just ignore it, but you’re generally not so established that you’re sure of what to expect or ask for. Since you lack relationship experience, this Valentine’s Day will be a good way for you to get some. Don’t be coy—just tell your guy what you’ve told me. That is, you’re really looking forward to Valentine’s Day with him, and you want to make it something special. Mutually agree upon some suitable restaurants and snag a reservation. Then get him a nice, but not over-the-top, gift. It’s wonderful when the man of your dreams seems to be able to read your mind and fulfill every romantic desire. But remember that for some people, checking to make sure you have enough oil in your car is a surer display of caring than buying the most extravagant bouquet.

—Prudie

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

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