A: As scary and life-altering as this all is, there is a lot of good news in your note. Let’s review:
1. You clearly love your daughter to pieces, and you are married to a man who also loves her.
2. Your husband is supporting whatever you need to do, which is also a gift.
3. And although you may have wished your daughter’s father to stay away forever, it is also good that he wishes to know her.
But nonetheless, you are in a real pickle. Even after you break the news to her about her biological father, there is going to be a cascade of emotions, which may last for a long time. She is not simply gaining a birth father; she is also finding out that her supposed birth father is her stepfather, and this could result in a loss of trust. At her age (assuming she’s older than 10, which it sounds as though she might be), she is old enough to really consider these issues with rational thought. But her confusion will be acute and her anger will be justified.
So how do you handle this with as much sensitivity as you can?
Whenever adults are getting ready to reveal truths to children, they must meet among themselves to clarify their goals. If I could offer any advice that could be helpful, it would be to use an excellent family-systems therapist to facilitate this process. A good therapist will help identify the role of each adult in the family and begin to clarify how the birth father can become a part of this unit.
And while I (almost) always support birthparents’ being in the picture, this father does not get to strut in with his objectives and have high expectations for how he will be received. If he really wants to be a part of his daughter’s life, he will need to understand that it will be on her terms and her timeline. Period. A good therapist will clarify this, examine her developmental age and appropriate expectations, and examine how you and your husband really feel about this change.
Your husband says he supports the birth father’s being in the family, but those emotions deserve a deeper dive. He has raised this girl her entire life, and he may feel his role is being altered or threatened. Those feelings deserve to be examined.
You may have feelings of shame (teen pregnancy), guilt (maintaining a falsehood for a decade) and resentment (for the father’s stepping out of the picture). These feelings are real, and if you are experiencing them, they need to be acknowledged. When I spoke with Kelly Theis from FamilyFirst Psychological Services in Vienna, she said something that puts things into perspective: “The mother and her husband have played roles for this girl that are not going to change even with this news. They are still the nurturers and providers that have been there for her since she was born.”
A good therapist will help all three of you prepare to tell your daughter this news. You don’t want to build in drama and turn it into a scene from “General Hospital,” but you want to use language and phrasing that is truthful, clear, complete, forthright and reassuring. Although the news will be jarring, Theis says, “the clearer they can be with the message and the more they can be on the same page, the better it will be for the daughter.”
No matter what, Theis makes a key point when she says, “It’s important to acknowledge that the biological father is an important piece of this girl’s history and that whether or not he ultimately is actively involved in her life, it is important that she understand her history and background as well as possible.”
Like it or not, this man is her father, and as painful as this shock will be, there is great potential to having more loving adults in your daughter’s life. That is a risk worth taking. Just proceed slowly and with support.
Find this over on The Washington Post.