When I first learned I was an NPE, I was determined to never tell my dad (bcf) for several reasons. From my perspective, he was aging rapidly, had a recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, survived two cancers, and has always been functionally, clinically depressed. He was married to my mother for a decade, but they only lived together on and off for about 3 years. He will not talk about it with me but when she died, he was devastated. She was the love of his life and I believe he hoped one day they would reunite. My mother remarried and he eventually married my stepmother. They were married for 28 years before she died in 2006. He has been alone ever since. As his only child, it seemed cruel and unnecessary to burden him with the sadness and anger I was feeling in 2018 with my newfound NPE status.
From interviews with other NPEs, I know I am fortunate to have my dad and my biological father still living. Many others would prefer to have these problems but for me, maintaining a relationship with my dad knowing what I knew, AND starting a new relationship with my biological father, a literal stranger, has been a complicated mental struggle for me. I felt like I have somehow been disloyal to my dad and I hated perpetuating my mother’s secret. I also had this fierce desire to protect my dad from emotional pain – learning that my mother lied to him and left him with another man’s child to raise – my dad’s life could have been so different.
This worked for me for two and a half years. Many people asked if I thought that maybe my dad knew about my paternity. I was sure he did not. I know this man. There is NO WAY he would raise a child that did not belong to him. I was the collateral that he hoped would bring my mom back.
I hinted at this earlier but my dad does not open up about emotional topics. His father died when he was eighteen and although I have asked about him no less than twenty times in my life, he always shuts the conversation down. He tells me almost nothing when I ask about his time with my mom. He tells me he loves me at the end of a phone call but he doesn’t ask or check in with me on anything emotional or deep. He never asked what I was researching when I was working on my doctorate (NPE related studies). I planned to tell him the truth if he did. He just never asked about it in the four years I was working on it. I am a talker. I have always overshared. This trait was something that made me wonder how we could be related when I was younger. I always believed I was his child but we are so incredibly different that I did have moments and fantasies that I belonged somewhere else. I just assumed I must be like my absent mother.
What led to my telling him
Because of my doctorate and clinical background, I was asked to be a part of an article about unexpected DNA surprises by a national newspaper. I also expected to be a footnote to the story and turns out, I felt like a feature. The picture and first sentence completely outed my paternity status. I panicked. My dad has seven siblings. Many of his siblings have adult children who are on Facebook (where I was tagged and congratulated about the article). I had to get ahead of this. I didn’t even have a heads up on when the article was coming out so imagine my surprise when I started getting messages about the article from friends! It was a Thursday evening after work when this all blew up.
By Friday at lunch time, I was at his house. I had called ahead to tell him I had something I needed to share and that it was very important. I could feel how eager he was to figure out why I would leave work at lunchtime to see him. I took it slow and shared the history – why I wanted to take an ancestry test, what I discovered with the ethnicity. I reminded him that I had shared the ethnicity results with him. He nodded his head to agree with the memory of this.
Then I paused. I couldn’t say the words I needed to say next. I had committed to never telling him. It was my last minute of protecting him from this. He looked me straight in the eye and said, just tell me. So I said it. I said, you are not my biological father. I think my heart stopped in this moment. He loudly said, WHAT? That can’t be true. I said, yes, dad. Remember I asked you to take one of these tests too? When your test came back it confirmed that we are not biologically related. From this point, I got emotional and cried about how I never wanted to tell him because it makes no difference, and how he’s been such a good dad to me. I then got very emotional telling him how mad I am that my mother determined the direction of his life with her lies and decisions. He cried a little too and hugged me long and hard telling me that it is all ok. It was probably one of the most emotional experiences we have ever had together.
He was amazing. He was calm and kind and sweet and sensitive. I eventually went back to work feeling like such a burden was off of me and celebrated the rare bonding experience for both of us.
This was not my information to share but it was my responsibility to tell him myself since I have been working with and in the NPE arena for the past few years. I owed it to him to hear it from me and no one else.
No surprise that since then, he has not wanted to engage in any conversation about this topic. He talks to me about neutral things only – the weather, my kids, the holidays.
A week and a half after I told him, his mother died in her sleep.
On the way to her funeral, I tried to talk to him about his feelings about her death and he shut me out. This is where we are again. He is not going to discuss hard, emotional topics. I worry about what this is doing to him but he won’t open up.
Next week, I am taking him to have a biopsy for a mass on his lung. If it is cancer, it will be the third round.
This entire experience has reignited my anger and frustration toward my mother. This was hers to share with him – not mine.
It’s been three weeks since I took him in for the biopsy. It’s lung cancer. Turns out he’s been aware of the mass for almost a year unbeknownst to me. He starts chemotherapy again soon. We did discuss his wishes for health care but nothing else about my NPE status, my mom or his mom since November 2021. This NPE stuff is tricky – even as a clinical social worker, I don’t know if I should push him or give him space. I have usually deferred to space and yet, I don’t know if that is the right thing to do. Ultimately I suppose it’s up to him and I will respect that.