Dear Prudence

Help! My Daughter Is Close to Figuring Out Her Mother’s Secret.

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 woman fixing her hair, looking into a graphic mirror that depicts a family tree.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Photoplotnikov/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Rowan Jordan/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 late wife discovered something about her ancestry early in our marriage, and it shook her up.

It turns out she was adopted, and the circumstances were not happy (her birth mother was 13, for a start). Even with counseling, it took nine years before my wife was comfortable having children. Her adoptive parents died when our kids were young, and my wife was an only child, so there is a void on the maternal side. That was made even deeper when my wife died from breast cancer when our children were in high school. I miss her every day. My wife requested that the past stay buried; she didn’t want to give our children the same horrors she discovered.

My problem is my 20-year-old daughter is extremely curious about her mother’s biological origins. Her coloring is dark, and she is often mistaken for other nationalities. Her friends have encouraged her to dig deeper because they have done ancestry tests themselves and been happily surprised.

I kept the truth from my kids, and I have told my daughter that her mother never wanted to look into her past and she should respect her wishes. My daughter got mad and told me she had a God-given right to know her roots. I told her I would pay for genetic counseling if she was worried about carrying certain hereditary factors, but otherwise to stop this.

I think I only fanned the flames. What should I do? My daughter is stubborn but a sensitive soul. I don’t want to see her suffer like my wife did.

— Skeletons in the Closet

Dear Skeletons,

I can tell how much you loved your wife and want to honor her wishes, and how much you want to protect your daughter from information you think will hurt her. I can absolutely see how all of that is making this situation with your daughter really difficult.

But when I shared your dilemma with readers, they offered some great suggestions for reframing it that could allow you to make decisions that would reflect your compassion for both women and give your daughter more of what she says she needs.

First, it might make sense for you to think of this not as your daughter wanting to pry into the details of her mother’s life, but rather her wanting to know what may be relevant to her own life and identity, and the way she is perceived in the world because of the way she looks.

that said: if this daughter is having differently racialized experiences from her family that are being waved away bc her mother’s family story is “none of her business,” that’s something that the LW needs to address and talk through. — @GeeDee215

that’s where I am, the poster seems to be burying the lede here. I think what needs to be addressed is her history *relative to her issues* that the father seems to be… idk trying to “out of sight out of mind” the child, who is being driven crazy by the dissonance. — @ItsMarisWorld

The daughter isn’t looking for her mother’s history she’s delving for her own. Their shared family tree isn’t solely her mom’s to hoard. Losing her mom at a young age was hard enough. Even if the results are painful, she shouldn’t also lose what connects her to her history. — @TMitchellPorter

So, as these people pointed out, it’s not as if your daughter is just being nosy or wanting to do detective work for fun. She is trying to make sense of her own life by obtaining the same information most other people have access to.

Second, on a practical note, readers noted that your daughter is an adult and that ancestry tests are easily available, so whether or not she chooses to do her research is really not your decision to make. From what I can see, these tests run about $50 to $150, so it’s likely something she can save and pay for herself if she wants to.

Tactically, nothing can stop the daughter from doing an ancestry test with options to connect with relatives. If there’s painful family context (grandmother being 13), wouldn’t he want to share that rather than her finding out and potentially being in touch with people unaware? — @kourtbitterly

He doesn’t have to help, but he should get out of the way. This is part of her heritage. She can use a DNA test to find out her general ethnic/racial ancestry. I suspect, as her dad noted, that she’s smart and resourceful enough to discover this with or w/o him. — @Karenbates

Finally, readers pointed out that you can speak for your wife by telling your daughter everything you think she might have said about why it could be painful to look into this family history. Also, getting a preview from you will likely be less disturbing for her than stumbling upon it alone, without any warning.

I think the risk of her finding out distressing information alone is greater than the risk of telling her what he knows first, before she stumbles upon it. At least she’ll only have to process the info and not additional feelings of hurt over her father withholding the info. — @Jen_Jaw

Sometimes, the sooner one initiates hard conversations, the better. I think this is one of those cases. She is going to get info, one way or another, and that info will raise questions, and if LW continues to duck, it will hurt their relationship. — @kjshrimpt

He should have a sit down conversation and explain her mom specifically requested they let the past stay buried, but if she is determined to pursue it, he should tell her what he does know. He can’t make this decision for her, he’s just leaving her unprepared. — @WiseWyzard

With that, I think your job as a loyal husband will be done, and you’ll have to trust your daughter to make the right choice for herself. I have no doubt that you’ll be there to support her, however she reacts to what she learns.

Classic Prudie

Anne and I have daughters enrolled in the same dance classes. We both often stay at the lessons and chat with other moms. But I’ve always gotten the impression that Anne doesn’t like me. She never returns my greetings and often turns away from the conversation when I’m talking. Last week we were both walking to our cars, so I asked, “Anne, have I done something to offend you? I hope not, because I’d really enjoy getting to know you better.” Anne turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, but I am against adoption. I believe buying children is ethically deplorable.” She got in her car and drove off. I should now explain that I am white and my husband is Black, so our daughter has darker skin than me. Since she’s never met my husband, Anne assumed I adopted my daughter from Africa. I found her assumption to be DEEPLY offensive, because although my daughter is not adopted, I am. I’m pretty grossed out by Anne’s judgment, but I don’t know how to respond, or if I should even bother engaging such a narrow-minded person.