Dear Prudence

Help! My 20-Year-Old Secret Has Come Back to Haunt Me.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A graphic of a DNA strand and a woman holding up her hand and closing her eyes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ricochet64/iStock/Getty Images Plus and champja/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My family moved from one state to another when I was in my late teens. I stayed behind to help my aunt recover from surgery. During this time, I had a one-night stand and found that I was pregnant. I confided this in my aunt, and she asked what I wanted to do. Abortion seemed too scary, and I said that I’d like to adopt the baby out. She arranged with my parents that I could stay with her until I graduated high school and helped me arrange the baby’s adoption. Right or wrong, this was done without informing my parents, and after the delivery, adoption, and graduation, I joined my family in our new state with no one the wiser.

I’ve never second-guessed this decision, but my sister contacted me last week saying that someone on a DNA ancestry site came back as related to her, and she couldn’t figure out how. After she shared a couple of pictures of this person, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s the baby I had 20 years ago—they bear little resemblance to me but have the very striking features that attracted me to their father. Their age and region are accurate to being my baby as well.

I had no intention of saying anything about how this person is related to us, but since discovering them, my sister has been theorizing that our dad may have had an affair. I don’t know what my next move here should be. I never expected to hear of this baby ever again, but they’re in active communication with my sister trying to figure out where the family tie is. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before they or my sister find themselves on the right trail.

I never did and still don’t want to meet or interact with them. What my family chooses to do— whether they puzzle this out on their own or whether I “come clean” is up to them; I just don’t know what I should do or say from here. I know that regardless of how the family connections are discovered, it’s going to be a rocky road with a lot of questions ahead, many of which I believe aren’t anyone’s business but my own.

—Not the Plan

Dear Not the Plan,

Your situation is tough to respond to because I really believe you’re right that none of this is anyone’s business, and in a perfect world, you would enjoy the level of privacy you expected to when you arranged the adoption. You never could have predicted then that DNA ancestry sites would be created, that your family would begin to raise questions, or that the child you gave birth to would find you. But here we are: The facts are coming out, and your baby is their own person whose needs now have to be considered. So I asked for advice on how to deal with this new reality that you didn’t sign up for.

There was a consensus that lying to keep the secret is unlikely to work much longer, will be a massive drain on your energy, could set your father up for judgment he doesn’t deserve, and could frustrate your biological child’s efforts to seek medical information that they might need. It’s time to tell the truth about the decision:

I don’t think she has any choice but to be honest; she can certainly request that her sister honor her wishes not discuss it further while knowing her sister or other relatives may choose to have a relationship with the adoptee. Pretending it didn’t happen isn’t viable anymore. —@halfwrittenSong

This secret is out; keeping quiet at this point will only cause pain. Tell your sister what happened and that you’re not interested in being in contact. —@piaowens

From the perspective of someone that does genealogy, and has ran across this before. She needs to tell her sister, and do damage control from there. That close of a match she is going to figure it out, if she doesn’t already know. Watch out for her to get dad a DNA test. —@goldenbass

1. They’re going to figure it out. 2. Talk with Aunt and set up a meeting with the parents and siblings to come clean. Think about how they want to approach the inevitable hurt feelings beforehand. —@Mboehm@214

But remember that the choice you made was not and is not shameful, and you do not owe anyone a justification or explanation—just the facts. And if the facts include not wanting a relationship now, that’s fair. Just be kind and clear about it.

So sounds like you made a good decision for you & family at the time. Now make another. You don’t owe anyone an apology or explanation of why but you should simply & clearly state the what. To some extent, you can say “nope” to any extra drama anyone wants to bring. —@Kat_Maybird

as an adoptee, the only thing I’d be curious about would be family medical history tbh. If she doesn’t want any contact with the child in question, that’s fine, but she probably should say something to her Aunt so there’s no possibility of “hidden secrets” within the family. —@mark_Kawada

I thought @kim_lindman offered the best road map for approaching this, informed by her perspective as an adoptee:

I’m an adoptee who connected with my bio family through ancestry—this person needs to reach out to their child directly/immediately and have a conversation regarding the level of contact. This is much kinder to the adoptee, and will result in a lot less family drama

It’s ok to not want future contact, but hoping the adoptee will read their mind and go away is cruel and unrealistic. Talk to them, give them the answers they’re looking for (within reason), and graciously set boundaries.

And please try not to make them feel guilty for exposing your secret—they’re probably already immensely nervous and insecure, and they did not ask to be in this situation.

Now of course, your sister or other relatives might choose to have a relationship with your biological child even if you don’t, and there’s probably not much you can do to avoid this, so you shouldn’t attempt to get in the way. As @MsRaney wrote:

I hope some adoptees weigh in, but I as an adoptive parent I would say that the child/now-adult has a right to seek relationships with her birth family if they are open to it, even if the birth mother isn’t interested. Letter writer can decide for herself what she is open to, but her parents and siblings may decide differently. Come clean, set polite but firm boundaries with all involved, and let everyone else make their own choices on what contact they would like to have

I hope all of you can offer one another some of the compassion your aunt showed when she supported you in making the decision that was right for you.

Classic Prudie

My husband and I don’t have kids or pets. We’d love both or either but we haven’t been blessed, so we sort of started a game of pretend with a beloved stuffed animal. It started as a joke, but four years later, our stuffed animal has a personality, “talks,” and even has a fleshed-out backstory.

We both know she isn’t alive, nor do we wish her to be, but I feel like this is something I should hide from others even though we’re not doing anything that weird. Or is it super weird for adults to anthropomorphize a teddy bear? Why can’t I continue to play my harmless game without guilt? Is this the most pathetic letter ever?