Dear Dr. Jann: When I was 20 years old I had a daughter. Her father had no interest in having a child and we lost contact soon after I told him I was pregnant. Two years later I met a wonderful man. We have been together ever since and we now have two more children. My daughter thinks my husband is her biological dad. Thinking I would never see her father again, I never told her that he wasn’t. I thought everything was fine, but two days ago I got a phone call. It was my daughter’s father. He had tracked me down through old friends and now wants to see his daughter. She’s seven years old! I don’t know what to do. What age is best to tell a child something like this?
Dr. Jann says: I don’t know if it will make you feel better, but I do run into this question quite a bit — the birth parent has lost contact or has died and the child and perhaps others believe that the stepparent is the biological parent. What often happens—and this is stereotypical down to gender, a couple gets pregnant very young. The father (sorry, but this is what I see most) is too young to accept the responsibility of a child and moves on. The mother, usually with help from extended family, raises the child. She meets someone else who also learns to love the child and they get married. Mom thinks she’s never going to see the biological father again and so she and the stepfather raise the child as their own. Meanwhile, the biological father, older and wiser, meets someone else and has another child. Having THAT child makes him realize his mistake and he tries to write the wrong by introducing himself to the child he left behind—but he or she is 7 or 8 years old and has a life. Now you have to decide whether its truly in the child’s best interest to introduce bio dad at this time in her life.
Unfortunately, this kind of information is very hard to keep secret. It is likely that someone other than you knows the truth and will tell your child when you are not around. To prevent the trauma this might bring, experts agree that it is best to tell your child when she is young so that she can grow up knowing. This helps the information to appear less of a shock. Try to avoid asking her to keep her parentage a secret as the need for secrets may cause her to feel guilty and afraid that someone has done something wrong—and she’s at the center of the wrong doing.
With something this serious, if you can, get direction from a therapist-a professional who gets to know your daughter, your family, and her father and can give you firsthand advice as to the best way to break the news. A commitment from Dad to participate in counseling to help prepare for the introduction would also demonstrate the strength of his commitment.