Care and Feeding

The Truth About Dad

How do I tell my son about his biological father?

Photo illustration of a child holding hands with a dad.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an amazing 6 ½-year-old boy. He’s so bright and loving, and I’m so proud of him. His biological dad was a man who I was just fooling around with at the time. I was so excited when I accidentally got pregnant because I previously thought that I couldn’t have children. I was less excited about the bio dad. We tried to make something work for almost two years. During this time, my son called him “Dad” and I tried to have them spend as much time together as possible, even though his bio dad didn’t have a car and lived 45 minutes away. While he was kind to my son during that time, eventually he just gave up and has essentially abandoned him since he was 2 ½. I no longer have a way to contact him, and I have no idea where he could even be.

I have since met a wonderful man who wanted to become a family. We’ve now been married for nearly three years. My son only knows my husband as his dad and doesn’t remember his bio dad. I tried to tell him the truth when he was younger and still had some vague memories of the man, but my husband became very upset about it and didn’t want to continue explaining the truth. This has always bothered me. But even though I think our son should know this information so it’s not a surprise to him later, I didn’t want to make my husband feel like he wasn’t a “real dad.” My husband has since been incredibly sensitive about this subject, and I’m not sure how to proceed.

The other issue is that our son’s last name is a combination of his bio dad’s and my maiden name. I’m not sure how he really understands this in his head. He’s just always had a different name and doesn’t question it. One of the things that was discussed before marriage was my husband adopting my son and then changing his name to our one family name. However, after researching, that process could be very long and expensive, and I’d have to do my “due diligence” to find the bio dad so he can sign off on the adoption. I don’t want to risk actually finding the bio dad and bringing him back into our son’s life. I’m so worried that digging all this up will end up hurting him.

How do I begin to tell my son that his dad is not his biological father? How can I calm the fears of my husband and make him understand that it doesn’t take away from his role as father in our son’s life? Should I go through the adoption process even if I do find the bio dad?

—Not So Simple Father’s Day

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Dear NSSFD,

You have a difficult and complicated situation on your hands here, and I feel for you. It seems to me what is most challenging are the elements of this that you feel responsible for but cannot control to your liking—namely the wills, whims, and feelings of both of these men.

Your kid’s bio dad has made it clear that he is not capable of being there. As you no doubt know, there is nothing you can do to change that. If he wanted to see his kid, he’d see his kid—somehow, some way. “Forty-five minutes and no car” is a challenge but it is not an excuse, and if his lack of ability and care to show up wasn’t clear before, him simply vanishing should make it crystal.

Your current husband is also in his feelings in a way that is not helpful to the situation. I don’t know whether his freakout is based in ego and competition, or a desire to protect your son from difficult truths, but honestly it doesn’t matter. It’s a freak out and it’s not helpful. He doesn’t get to determine how you talk to your son about his parentage. That is yours to figure out and my advice on that is to be forthright, age-appropriate, and let your son’s questions guide the conversation. When he wants to know more, tell him more. It is not helpful or right to hide the truth from him if he’s asking for the truth.

Among the list of things that you do not need to concern yourself with in this process are: maintaining your husband’s primacy in your son’s life (his parenting will do that, and it is not your responsibility) and protecting your husband’s feelings (he’s a grown-up).

Adoption in this case strikes me as a perfectly reasonable option, provided it’s what you want to do and not just a method to assuage your husband’s feelings. You are right to worry about getting bio dad’s signoff. That alone might make the option untenable for you, and that’s perfectly legit. Again, you are in charge of how this works here. And as a loving parent, you will be guided first by the desire to best care for and protect your child and then by what feels right to you. But I invite you to remove the hope or thought of satisfying either of these guys from your mind and see where your instinct is telling you to go.

Good luck. My heart is with you.

—Carvell