I Learned I Fathered a Daughter. Should I Contact Her, Against My Ex’s Wishes?

Twenty-five years ago, I unknowingly impregnated a girlfriend. We broke up soon after she conceived, and she moved away without telling me she was pregnant. She married, and brought her daughter up to believe that her husband was the biological father.

Several years ago, the ex-girlfriend contacted me out of the blue to inform me of all this. She said she intended to tell the girl, who was then a teenager, the truth, and wanted me to be prepared in case our daughter wanted to meet me. She assured me that I was the child’s father, and that she’d do a DNA test if I wanted one. We had several conversations, and my wife and I decided that we were open to meeting my daughter. During those conversations, the mother asked me whether I have any genetic issues that might affect the girl, and I told her that I have none. Very soon thereafter, she pulled a 180, saying she’d decided not to tell the child the truth, and our conversations ended.

I was upset, because it seems unethical to deny a child the truth on basic principle, but also because it denies the child the ability to choose for herself whether to meet me. I was also upset because I suspect her entire outreach to me was a cover for her wanting to know about my genetics (Part of the reason we broke up was the mother’s near-pathological habit of keeping secrets and sometimes lying). Still, I felt it wasn’t my place to break the mother’s secret while the girl was still a minor.

Now that she’s an adult, I wonder: What is the ethical path? I know little about the young woman other than what I learned by some simple social-media searches: She seems to have had a stable middle-class upbringing, has graduated from college and is now working in Europe. I contributed nothing to her upbringing, so I don’t feel any sort of parental “right.” But we do share a genetic connection, and to participate in hiding that kinship seems wrong. I would hope to meet this young woman, but I understand she may have no interest in meeting me, and I’d respect her choice. I also don’t feel bound to keep the mother’s secret, though it wouldn’t be right to tell my daughter just to release myself from the burden of carrying this confidence; I do feel bound to try to minimize unnecessary pain.

I don’t know which is more harmful: revealing her mother’s lie to her or implicitly agreeing to maintain it. If I decide to reveal the truth, how do I go about it? Does the daughter have a right to know? Who gets to make that choice? — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

As a general principle, we are, as I’ve often said, entitled to know the central truths about our lives. This young woman should have been told who her biological father was, at least by the time she was an adult. Instead, your ex has apparently kept her in the dark, just as she kept you in the dark about this pregnancy. You have no special duties to your ex. But yes, you do need to think about the effect this disclosure will have on your offspring. Learning the truth about her paternity could affect her deeply in all sorts of ways. It could certainly affect her bond with her mother.

Still, unless you have reason to believe that her life would be entirely thrown off course by the news, the most important consideration is her right to know. Tell her the truth as best you understand it (though you can keep your assessment of her mother’s character to yourself). Tell her too that you’d like to meet her if she were open to that, but that you will honor whatever decision she makes. If she says yes, you can set out to explore a possible relationship. If she says no, you’ll still be better off than you were before you asked: You’ll no longer be complicit in keeping from your daughter something she deserves to know.

Readers Respond

Last week’s question was from a reader who out-earns her husband and wants him to find a better job. She wrote: “I’ve been happily married for more than 10 years, and my husband is wonderful — he’s my best friend and a great partner in almost every respect. The only major issue is that, while I earn a relatively modest salary, I still make more than 80 percent of the household income and have done so for almost all of our time together, though I’ve never consented to this. He has a small business that he has never tried to properly expand, and because of where we live, he can only work remotely, which is not easy. We have been having conversations about this for years and — while he agrees with me about the problem and that he needs to get a job — nothing ever changes. … I’m thinking about telling him that if he isn’t earning a certain (low, highly attainable) amount by a certain date, I’m going to enlist his sister to the cause. … I think that she would provide the accountability he might need, and I think the prospect of having to report to his sister would motivate him into action before the deadline arises. Is this a reasonable course of action?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “You’ll want, in any case, to be able to tell your husband not just that you want him to bring in a larger income but also why it’s important to you. You’ll want to get a better sense, too, of why he has been struggling to find work. Is it a matter of motivation? Is he depressed? Is there a mismatch between his abilities and the prospects of remote employment? … Given the difficulty of this conversation, you might consider enlisting a couples counselor. Enlisting your sister-in-law is another matter. True, a marriage can define a relationship between families as well as between individuals. And I’d have no worries if you both agreed on bringing in your sister-in-law as a coach and consultant. But the ultimatum you’re considering doesn’t sound like a respectful way of trying to influence your husband.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

As a mental health professional, I agree with the Ethicist’s response. My husband has been unemployed for a few years now. It is definitely tough, so going to therapy (both individually and as a couple) has helped. Marsha

I strongly agree with the Ethicist’s counsel to seek professional support and to avoid triangulating the conversation with inclusion of the letter writer’s sister-in-law. The letter writer seems to want to include her sister-in-law only for the purposes of achieving a desired outcome versus facilitating true communication. The writer’s opening references to her happy marriage and “wonderful” partner seem seriously contradicted by most of the rest of the letter. The situation sounds neither happy nor wonderful but one of a profound failure to speak truths and communicate effectively. Patrick

Why not treat marriage as a partnership, where each person contributes what they can to the joint life of the couple? Consider the situation of some parents with children, when one parent becomes the stay-at-home parent and the other works. One works at a job for money, the other works like crazy for no pay at all. It’s the combination that makes the family unit click. Caroline

In an era of high divorce rates, the letter writer would do better to appreciate her husband, if my interpretation is correct: He’s easy-going and pleasant to share life with. Why? He’s not into competition. Money and the rat race aren’t everything. The couple have happiness. Money does not buy happiness as much as the ads would have us think. Suzanne

My wife has had the larger of our two incomes since early in our marriage, and the lopsidedness only grew. I started as a schoolteacher, while she has been steadily climbing an executive ladder. Her career has required a couple of relocations, with me starting over in new places and sometimes in new fields. This has worked well for us, as we share all our finances and financial decisions, but it has required me to let go of my own (sometimes nebulous) career plans and to evolve my ego a bit. In our partnership, it was logical that her career became our career, and one of my roles is to support her progress — something she has always gratefully acknowledged. That’s worked for 41 years. Her salary is now nearly three times mine, leaving us well positioned for retirement. Erik

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