Dear Prudence

Daddy Issues

Father’s Day advice on dubious paternity, mysterious last wishes, ungrateful kids, and more.

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Dear Prudence,
I met my husband more than a decade ago and fell deeply in love with him and his two boys from a previous marriage. At the time, they were in elementary school. I have raised them as my own since then. They are now teenagers. The younger one looks like a carbon copy of his father, and so does the son we had together. Our oldest boy looks different—facial features, body shape, hair, eyes, everything! I once mentioned this to my sister-in-law, who informed me that at the time of the oldest son’s conception, my husband and his ex-wife were separated. Then she showed me a picture of a mutual male friend whom she believed to be his biological father. In the picture I saw our oldest boy’s face staring back at me! Not that it matters—I love him all the same. But now that he is approaching adulthood, does he have the right to know? Should my husband get a DNA test? My husband also once asked me (in private) how his son could look so different.

—Nosy Noodle

Dear Nosy,
I’m trying to figure out your motive for suggesting your husband and stepson get cheek swabs. It could be that the male friend has a genetic propensity for toenail fungus, and you want to make sure your oldest stepson is aware of this medical history—medical history being a popular reason people give for wanting to inform other people who their “real” family is. Maybe your sister-in-law’s supposition is true; maybe not. None of the people who actually know about his possible alternative paternity have spoken up all these years. And your husband’s idle remark is just that, not a mandate to investigate. If you look around, you will see many examples of siblings who don’t resemble each other. Your best course would be to conclude that genes are funny things and not play Watson and Crick. There is no purpose to try and fray the bond that exists between your husband and his son. Since there is a blabby sister-in-law, perhaps the speculation will reach the ears of your stepson one day. If so, he and your husband can decide what to do. And whatever happens, your job should be what it’s always been: to make your stepson feel he’s yours.


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Dear Prudence,
I am in my mid-20s and have a great relationship with my father. He’s more like my best friend. The problem is that he has a “burn box.” He has stated that in the event of his death, I am to go to his house, retrieve the box out of a shed, and burn it immediately. He has said I can’t tell anyone about this box, including my siblings and especially his new wife. He said there is a gold watch in the box he wants me to retrieve, but everything else he wants burned. He said I can look at it, as long as no one else sees what’s in it. He gave me my own key to the shed. He even said that if he ends up in the hospital and it doesn’t look like he is going to make it, I am to retrieve the box before coming to visit him. That way, he’ll know before he dies that I have taken care of it. I love my father, but I can’t help but feel as though I should refuse this “mission.” I don’t want it to self-destruct in my face if anyone, especially my new stepmom, finds out. Or should I honor what is basically my father’s last request of me?

—The Good Son

Dear Son,
If you won’t take on this mission, I will, because I can’t stand the suspense! Generally it’s a bad idea for parents to have final wishes that let one child in on a secret and not others. But you and your father are particularly close, and he feels you will be both understanding of what you find and willing to destroy the evidence. If you’re nervous about pulling this off, study The Bank Job, or Heist, or some other favorite crime caper to prepare yourself. You owe it to your father to put his mind at ease, and you owe it to yourself to find out just what’s in the box.


Dear Prudence,
I have a college freshman son who survived cancer. He had major surgery and went through chemo but has come back strong. He now lives at college nearby. He is good-looking with a winning personality and is very popular. He meets with and encourages sick kids. Cancer charities give him lots of tickets to professional sporting events. His mother and I (we’re divorced) teamed together and went through hell to help him fight and survive. We spent days and nights in the hospital during his ordeal. But now when I want to spend any time with him, he ignores me. He has never invited his mom or me to any games he has free tickets to. I invite him to family events, but he’s a no-show. I’m a dad whose feelings are hurt, but I still love my son. I want him to move on, be independent, and live his life to the fullest. I don’t believe in using guilt trips, but a little bit of thankfulness on his part would be appreciated.


Dear Hurting,
You know your son loves you and is so grateful for what you did. You all walked together through the valley of the shadow of death. Now he has returned to green pastures and is busy reclaiming his youth while helping others. For him, right now, that means pushing his parents away hard to show that he doesn’t need you—because he knows how very much he did. And while he’s feeling vibrant again, you’re probably still recovering from your fear and pain. Maybe he sees in your face how grateful you are that he’s here, and a hint of the worry that will be hard for you to shake. He might be feeling that your emotions are too much for him right now. So let this go. That doesn’t mean not staying in touch. Continue to let him know about the family gatherings and suggest dinners. One of these days, he will show. Winston Churchill, who saved England, and civilization, through his wartime leadership, was voted out as prime minister at the end of World War II. It wasn’t that the British weren’t grateful, but that they wanted to put everything about the war behind them. But a few years later, they returned Churchill to office. Be patient—your son, too, will have a change of heart.


Dear Prudie,
My father passed away when my sister and I were very young, and my mother raised us on her own. I’m 30 now, and this year she finally remarried. The guy is great. I like him a lot but do not see him as a father figure. Every year, we gave to my mother on both Mother’s and Father’s Day since she was covering both jobs. I’m confused as to what to do this year. Should we keep the tradition alive and ignore my stepfather? Give them both small tokens of affection? Or skip mom and just give a gift to my new stepfather? If no feelings were involved, I’d keep our old tradition running as I feel my mother has earned it and I have no real fatherly attachment to the new hubby. But he is a nice guy, so I don’t want to hurt his feelings.

—Confused Stepdaughter

Dear Confused,
How lovely that you and your sister have honored your mother this way over the years. There’s no reason to drop the tradition now. Do whatever you would have done if she hadn’t remarried but also make a gesture to your new stepfather. Give him a little present and write a card welcoming him to the family. Explain that your mother has always done double duty for her kids, so you are going to continue to honor her. But that on this Father’s Day you are grateful to him for giving her the gift you always hoped she would receive—being loved the way she deserves.