Dear Prudence

Help! There’s a Mystery About My Son I’m Not Sure We Want to Solve.

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.

Father and son, and a strand of DNA behind them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by shironosov/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 wife “Jenny” has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Prognosis is cautiously hopeful, but the last few months have started me wondering if I should broach the long-ignored fact that my eldest (who is 15) maybe isn’t biologically mine.

The thing was that when Jenny got pregnant, we both knew that her family would kick her out, whereas mine would be more willing to help out, especially since I was going to juvie for a while. So even though there were two other guys it might have been (neither of us were exclusive, or smart, looking back), we just said it was mine. When I got home, “Ronnie” was a few months old, the apple of everyone’s eye, and I think Jenny had just gotten used to the idea he was mine. We never talked about the fact that he maybe wasn’t again.

I know I could have raised the subject too, but I didn’t want to. My whole life I’d been a loser, and now there was this little person that just loved me. It was the best thing I’d ever felt. He’s the reason I got anywhere in life. I don’t think he’s biologically mine—when we tried to have more children, it wasn’t possible, and we eventually adopted our daughter—but as far as I’m concerned, he is my son.

The possibility that my wife might not have the outcome we hope, though, has made me wonder if we owe it to Ronnie to tell him the truth, or to even find out the truth. It just seems that if we’re ever going to, it should be while his mom is here to answer his questions and help him track down his biological family.

Or would it be better to let sleeping dogs lie? The last thing either of them need in the middle of all this is the thought that I’m looking to hand him off to someone else if the worst happens.

— DNA or Dad

Dear DNA or Dad,

When I asked readers for help answering your question, their opinions were all over the map. The main places where people differed seemed to be on these questions:

Is biological parentage a super important thing that makes your son who he is, and that he has a right to know, or does his loving relationship with you matter more?

Should the truth be told as soon as possible because secrets are always bad, or is it okay to keep a secret to protect your son from additional trauma during this already challenging time?

Reasonable people can disagree on these things. But I found the first set of questions easier to answer because, as a few people pointed out, whether he has a “right” to know is not really relevant—he will eventually know. After all, we live in the age of easy-to-access DNA and ancestry testing. So the information about your son’s biological parent—if it doesn’t come from you—is almost definitely going to come out somehow in the future. By the same token (thanks, technology!), it’s easier than ever for you to find out the truth and determine whether this is even an issue before you do anything. So I think I agree with the readers who suggested that you—in consultation and partnership with your wife, of course—go ahead and do the testing, discreetly, to figure out if you and your son are biologically related before you make any decisions.

This happened in my family. My older half-brother only found out his Dad wasn’t his bio-dad (who is MY dad *and* bio-dad) until AFTER his Dad passed away. Bro was devastated by the reveal (Gee, thanks 23andMe). Talk to Jenny, take DNA tests, go from there. — @drunchmenu

First, LW should get a DNA test (discreetly of course). Discuss whether or how to reveal it with wife, as she’s the son’s mother and also has a right to decide. Please consider that he’s only 15 and weighed down by his mother’s illness—disclosure could wait for a later time. — @sibauchi

If they do choose to tell him, they absolutely shouldn’t do it until they know for sure. Ronnie is already dealing with waiting - to see what treatment is next, to see if any treatment will work - and waiting to find out if Dad is really his dad seems cruel. — @yrfriendamelia

Assuming you are not Ronnie’s biological father, it’s so hard to say whether you should let him know now, when he’s already dealing with the pain of his mom’s illness. Many people made the case that he deserves to know immediately to make sure he can ask questions while she is here. But I was more convinced by the responses—especially those from people who have been in similar situations—that argued this would simply be too much information to absorb, and made suggestions for creative ways to put his mom’s thoughts on the record if she does pass, like a letter or video explaining what happened and answering likely questions. I think this is a good idea, and your gut will tell you when it’s the right time to share it.

This is just my experience, and it’s only from one side of the issue, but my mom had breast cancer when I was around the same age as Ronnie and I think if in the midst of that my dad had decided to bring up that I *possibly* wasn’t his I would have lost my mind — @BartenderHemry

This is just my personal experience, but this isn’t the right time. Losing a loving parent can be a crushing experience, doesn’t make sense to add a significant reveal to that, especially with the uncertainty. What if they worked together to document/record relevant information in the event of an untimely passing? Hopefully it won’t be necessary, but at least then they preserve their best guess at answers to questions their son may have in the future and spare him the added trauma now. — @ErnestEzeugo

That being said the husband should immediately have a test conducted discretely & if he’s not the father he should have a conversation with his wife about all of this & record that convo for the kid to hear when the time comes to tell him (assuming his mother doesn’t survive) — @rlesterK

Ugh, I’ve known I was adopted for as long as I can remember (and longer than I could pronounce it properly), but I know nothing about my biological father. Maybe a first name and the story that he signed off on his parental rights to avoid being charged with statutory rape. So, on the one hand, I appreciate the fact that my parents were totally transparent with me but also at peace with not knowing what they weren’t told. And 15 seems like a really rough age to process that news top of anxiety about mom’s health — @ellesie99

Something that stood out to me and many readers was how clear it is that you love your son and will be there for him no matter what. This isn’t a relationship in which biology matters. Make sure you tell Ronnie that as many times as he needs to hear it.

I hope that’s helpful. But most of all, I hope your wife’s health improves and that the DNA test makes all of this a non-issue.

Classic Prudie

Both of my children were made possible by the modern miracle of fertility science. My parents and my wife’s parents are aware of the help we received and were thrilled when the treatment worked. My kids look very much like both my wife and me, but my mother-in-law insists that we test their DNA because she has a sneaking suspicion that the fertility clinic used someone else’s sperm. This is a not-so-subtle jab at me.