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Last edit 14/10/2012
Children of extramarital affairs
At least 10% of Australian and Canadian children are conceived in an affair. Some DNA studies put it as high as 15%. Further information on the excellent Canadian Children's Rights Council.
In 2003 more than 3,000 DNA paternity tests were commissioned by Australian men, and in almost a quarter of those cases, the test revealed that 'their' child had been fathered by someone else. In 30%of paternity tests by the American Association of Blood Banks the father was not the true biological parent. What happens next in some of those stories is not pretty.
Children conceived in an extramarital affair are vulnerable to exposure from:
- one of their parent's requesting DNA testing in a paternity/maintenance dispute
- increasingly common from DNA diagnostic testing for disease
- their own blood typing experiments at college
- by the necessity of transplantation matching when they, their siblings or parents fall ill needing, for example, bone marrow or a kidney
- outstanding differences in appearance between the child and their siblings.
If your child had a terminal illness requiring a life saving compatible tissue or organ donation, would you not tell them they had an 'other parent' or 'other siblings' whom they could ask when they ran out of donor options in the known family?
This raises questions today of whether, how, whom and when to tell. It is not something you can responsibly gamble they will never find out.
'Is it ethically acceptable to keep a secret from someone else, especially if that secret relates to the origins and identity of the person concerned? My contention is that most, if not all people attending a conference on ethics, would answer that it is not ethically acceptable. For one person to have and hold a secret over another person, means that the holder of the secret is in a more powerful position. Power over other persons challenges the ethical principles of, respect for human dignity, individual autonomy, equality and the right to information about oneself.' Daniels in eubios
Defining the best interests of the child vary across family law jurisdictions.
Follow these Canadian links to child identity and paternity fraud and an Australian site with legal resources.
The nearest, related exploration of the issues and challenges for affair conceived children can be found in complex adoption and assisted reproduction technology, where children are conceived with donor egg or sperm.
'If persons, so conceived, knew of the nature of their conception, it is argued this would be damaging to their identity and to family relationships. There is now growing evidence that in fact the contrary is the case, with a number of offspring saying that they have been psychosocially damaged by the secrets that have been part of their families.' Daniels in eubios
The experiences of adoptees also translate into these dilemmas.
The Family Scholars blog and an article from Australian Institute of Family Studies are places to start learning about the children's perspective, disclosure and it's effects. For example a 22 year old's perspective posted on the Family Scholars page:
'I am a donor conceived person from Australia and I strongly believe that it is every person’s right to have both of their biological parents on their birth certificates, whether their parents are a heterosexual or same sex couple. There needs to be more emphasis on what is best for the child as they grow up and as most people grow up they want to know where they come from. Allowing birth certificates to record lies about people’s origins is morally and ethically wrong and needs to be rectified world-wide. These falsified certificates allow parents to lie to their children, this should not be the case. No one should have to question their birth certificate, especially when it is a certificate being falsified through legislation and clinics. I would love for one day to have both my dad and my biological father’s name on my birth certificate, for that would represent my true identity.'
A journey of one conceived in an affair
In her thirty-fifth year, Miranda developed an aggressive cervical cancer. It followed a decade of disastrous attempts at falling pregnant.
Radical hysterectomy had the better survival rates in those days and so she took it. A near death and childlessness affected she and her partner Andre deeply. They took a 3 month holiday researching overseas adoptions, rejected the idea and returned to the jobs they loved in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Miranda settled more easily into her research than Andre who seemed despairing about everything, including his job as a park manager. He had been the stronger on having kids. Miranda read his emotional distance from her as grieving.
A year later, Andre met Bryoni at a conference. They shared a passion for reef turtles. Bryoni was married with two boys, though she said it was more like living with three since husband Bill was 'just a big kid'. He never took anything seriously. 'Enjoy every moment whilst you can,' was his philosophy.
When Andre came to Lismore for work at the University he stayed with Bryoni and Bill. He became like a part of the family. At a conference during one of those stays, 'just friends' turned into something more. A pregnancy ensued that would go full term. Bill was blind to what lay behind it; Andre was ecstatic; Bryoni unsure of the paternity, and Miranda read Andre's mood change and thought 'at last he was moving on.'
The child was a girl whom they called Beck. The day of her birth, Bryoni freaked out at the physical when she saw the resemblance to Andre. She was worried sick for six months and then broke off all contact with Andre to protect herself and she thought, Beck.
Andre was doubly devastated. His partner Miranda sensed something was wrong, but put it down to the old issues of childlessness resurfacing. Respecting his privacy, they didn't talk.
By the time Beck was five, the difference between her and Bry and Bill's two boys was so marked and the similarity to the photographs of Andre, particularly the gaelic nose and coloring so obvious, that the boys teased her about it. One said, 'you're not one of us, freak!'
The effect on Beck's esteem, it seemed to Bryoni, made a modified disclosure unavoidable before the child's self-doubt became entrenched. She began with Bill. He was dumbfounded. After a week's bitter silence he just said, flatly, 'shit happens, it will turn out alright, don't worry love. Boys will be boys, they'll grow out of it too'.
Bryoni, sensing an edge of Bill now joining the boys in making an exception of Becky, feared he was going to take an unspoken revenge out on the daughter who was not his own flesh and blood. She raised this fear with him. It was an unjust accusation that deeply offended Bill. They began to fight about little things, bitterly. Bryoni decided they needed help to navigate the storm.
It took considerable persuasion for Bill, an ambulance officer, to go with Bryoni for help. He would only go to the ambo's trauma counselor, who had been with the guys through tough times and unknown to Bill, was an adoptee. She understood some of the identity issues that Becky was going to face as a teenager.
Bill had an unspoken reason for going for help. He was loaded with unfinished business from an horrific multi car pile up some years back at a black spot on the Pacific Highway between Ballina and Grafton. He knew it was trauma when he had recurring nightmares about it. He wouldn't talk about it to anyone. He and his mates had scraped the body parts of a young family out of the rear of a car after it was hit head on by a bus. The bus full of school children was without seat belts. They also tended the hurt and dying spread all over the road.
It was a very long night and one of Australia's worst road accidents. In the formal trauma debrief after it Bill just shrugged it off. He minimized it and reiterated his cheerful philosophy, 'just shows you, you've got to live whilst you're alive, cos you're dead a long time'.
In the journey of healing that trauma, Bill found that he could take some of life seriously.
He returned to Becky's needs and those of her father Andre with a deeper sense of its importance. He identified with their blood ties. Though he loved Becky as his own he would say that 'blood is thicker than water'. By the time Becky was nine, Bill was ready to risk losing her, if that is what transpired. Typical of a straight shooter, he contacted Andre 'man to man'.
Over the same period of time, Andre had respected Bryoni's wishes, made no contact but had explored his paternity rights and obligations. He had begun to tell himself a story about how one day Becky would ask why she looked so different to her siblings and start probing with awkward questions.
Then one day, at about the same time as things were moving along in Lismore, Andre had an epiphany. He saw his fatherhood resolving but not by the slow revelation method, rather by having it all out in the open, now.
He told his partner Miranda of this revelation. She felt shattered, heart broken, betrayed again by him and told him, 'You've just wiped the last six years of my life with poison and lies! I haven't spent the time recovering from cancer to have the rest of my life destroyed by Beck dividing us. It will take us years to clean up the mess you made', she said. 'I am not ready for this.'
'We don't have years,' Andre replied. 'The child's going on eight. In my dream I saw that she could grow to be a daughter for us both.'
'Never, not on your life, forget it!' replied Miranda.
'We need help then', said Andre.
A year later, couple therapy had put their marriage albeit wobbly, back on the road. Coincidentally they were ready and could welcome the 'man to man' phone call from Bill. They had come to the point where it was their next move as well.
At a gentle pace and with intensive family therapy in Brisbane, the two couples evolved unique, kind and inclusive solutions that expanded their circle of 'family'. It was distressing, at times overwhelming and many times one or other stormed off or gave up. But every time, their love of Becky brought them back to the table.
That these huge issues arising from betrayal were bridged by the wish for all to be at peace with an outcome in the best interests of the child, taught me about openness and reconciliation in these situations. They don't always work out so well.
Miranda and Andre became 'aunt' and 'uncle' to Bryoni and Bill's kids. Becky had a second mum and dad. The boys scored scuba diving and sailing and still teased Beck about her nose, but with a fierce, protective pride - 'she's one of us'. All three kids and two families holidayed most years on the reef, until only Beck was left at home. She went up there for the summer holidays without Bill and Bryoni.
Some years afterward, Becky came back to see me by herself.
She had grown into a remarkable person, fluent in a number of languages, working in Europe and carrying her gaelic good looks with pride. Miranda, her other mum had died a year ago and she was still broken up about it. She felt it more than she believed was equal to the loss - especially compared to those she dealt with in her work. Her job was re-integrating children into communities from which they had been sold in the sex trade.
She and Miranda had become very close during the alternating hopeful and despairing months of chemotherapy when Miranda came out of remission. Becky came back to Australia to be with Miranda at home during her last weeks.
When she died, Andre, her biological father fell apart. Becky felt she had to be the strong one, which she was. It pissed her off.
It was hard for her to admit she resented Andre's neediness, his insecurity and that he didn't have the resources to support her. It was always Bill who was there for her and it was Bill who didn't expect her to be strong, who held her when she was upset. The old identity issues resurfaced in her grief and this is what we worked through together.
Beck was able to move on from this stuff, more than anything because of the struggle these two families had made in her early years affirming her unusual identity. It was for her a source of strength rather than the nagging doubts of one who's parents denied her origins.
Not all stories go down this track no matter how desperately one and particularly one party may wish it so.
The same intentions held by all parties and pursued with the same vigor and skill do not always produce the same result.
Children involved in an affair
The statistics don't represent the kids who are a casualties of infidelity.
They can be involved 'accidentally' by witnessing the careless or indiscrete parent philandering. Kids can catch their parent when they come home unexpectedly from school; overhear inappropriate conversations; open emails or enter a chat room left open by a distracted parent.
They can suspect a parent's absences are to an affair and know that their parent's denials are lies. This has consequences in the parent-child relationship beyond the ambit of the affair.
Kids can be deliberately involved. Triangulated.
For example, planning for their lover's or their own divorce, some intending to divorce parents and future step parents, for all the best reasons make terribly wrong, deliberate and in hindsight, unbelievably stupid moves toward involving the children of one or other of the affair partners. They have 'innocent' family picnics, 'bump' into each other at school fetes, 'discover' they have joined the same after school drama group, etc.
Damagingly, some parents come to rely on their children to support weak alibis or to cover their tracks. Some manipulate their children's loyalties by complaining about the other parent's failings as a spouse in order to covertly gain the kids' sanctioning of the affair, which they intend to disclose 'when the time is right'.
In these situations children learn weird behaviours from their parent's affairs.
It has a profound effect on later life intimacy for better and for worse. For example, how to deceive someone you love and how to deny your own painful emotional reactions in order to protect a betrayed parent. How to cope feeling responsible for preventing the family from breaking up if the secret got out and for keep the family together when it finally blows up. 'Don't tell anyone because if your mother/father found out it would break up the family' can be a secret that contaminates everything that follows.
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable because they are trying to make sense of power, sex and intimacy. They can use these examples of parental deceit to justify their own misdemeanors. And there is some limited research that suggests boys whose mother's were unfaithful are over-represented in the ranks of morbidly jealous husbands; and girls whose fathers were philanderers more likely to tolerate husbands who stray - 'that's the way men are'.
If there is a question about their own genetic origins, then the already challenging identity crisis is magnified by betrayal of trust.
How to help children cope
These concerns about children go to the very issues of personal responsibility, integrity and respect that manifest with infidelity.
Where the betrayed must deal with their own hurt, it is sometimes beyond belief that their partner would involve and hurt innocent children who have no choice in the matter. For some it is another betrayal of trust and an unconscionable violation of their children's right to safety and security.
When there is absence of malice, time to think and the will of both parents to develop win-win, collaborative solutions, there are few family crises that can't be honored and cared for through to a robust reconciliation and healing.
If there are insufficient resources within the couple, extended family or close friends to facilitate it, there are competent family counselors and child psychologists available both in face to face contact, over the phone and some via email.
In rural and remote areas the latter methods are vital. More on how to parent on site. More on how to choose a therapist on site.
My first aid page has some useful first contacts. Many parent help lines are free calls.
Here is a pamphlet on helping children and resources on talking to youth about crisis.
It is not usual nor best practice for a counselor/therapist/psychiatrist to conclude after three sessions working with problems of this magnitude, that the couple would be better to break up. If you hear that professional opinion reported by the betraying partner be a little dubious. Check it directly.
However, if you hear it from the horse's mouth, give it another shot with another therapist before giving up! Not all counselors can handle the distress in these situations.
How to choose a therapist on site.
Managing a dual crises
The crises of both discovering an affair and realizing that the kids were involved requires a cool head and a clear plan executed collaboratively, to prevent both boundary slippage and cyclical uproar.
Kids can suss when they're being conned, when parents say everything's cool and it is not - some kids more so than others. It would be great if the parents had got their relationship back together and new boundaries in place before having to deal with the kids. However, once they are involved by accident or design, there is little chance of escaping or postponing working through the issue with the kids, going at their pace at the same time as sorting out the marital catastrophe.
Depending on their age and awareness, children's needs are for a consistent, effective parenting style; safety; security; peace and parental fidelity. What parents say is what they mean and that is what they do.
In witnessing the impact on the kids, the betrayer may finally get the magnitude of damage their behaviour has inflicted on those they love. But I recommend being very wary of window dressing self-pity, of public self-flagellation and inflated promises of change.
Real change is profound. It is slow to arrive. It is widespread in effect. Those not involved and who out of the loop, notice the change and report it accidentally and in a matter of fact way.
Depending on the intensity and duration of exposure to the affair and/or the threatened dissolution of the family, children may also exhibit some of the stages of grief described at on this page and will need timely, appropriate parental support to exit that journey strengthened rather than broken.
'When life issues are unexpressed or un-acknowledged, they become locked in “frozen blocks of time”. These frozen blocks of time stop the normal grief process denying the child the ability to grieve. It can feel as if life stops and time stands still. The natural flow of feelings is inhibited. There is no movement forward until the issues are resolved and the feelings released.' From childrens grief
Kids can be incredibly resilient
They respond well to age appropriate information in manageable doses.
They can sense unfinished business and that can keep them hunting for information they don't actually want or need. They thrive on love, respect and honesty. They grow to embrace the crazy world we live in because they were believed in as children by even just one person who never gave up on them. No matter how tough their life's challenges were, no matter what the cards they were dealt, that one person stood by them, all the way.
Divorce or separation is not the best solution to this kind of crisis involving the kids. It is another challenge to their capacity to adapt and to grieve. Decisions made in haste are regretted at leisure - slow down and calm yourselves and be emotionally available to the kids as well. Get good support for yourselves and each other. This too will pass.
'Divorce didn’t typically: reduce symptoms of depression, raise self esteem or increase a sense of mastery. This was true even after controlling for race, age, gender & income. Even unhappy spouses who had divorced & remarried were no happier on average than those who stayed married.' From a five year follow-up of 5,232 couples.
It's not conflict that wounds but the tactics used to handle it. Gather information from the sources on this site. Talk to close and trusted allies of the family. Ditch those who covertly supported the affair. Slow down and consider all your options.
More on how to begin mending a broken relationship on site.
Q. 'I have a child from a married man. Currently the father has no contact, by his choice. Our daughter is young so I’m not so worried about explaining all this to her yet, but I have older children from my first marriage who ask me a lot of questions. How do I explain the situation to them? Their father has contact with them but the more questions they ask, the more scared I get of creating issues for my baby later? Her father has run from this since the day I told him. What can I do with my hate towards him for not wanting this precious child? At some point my baby is going to see the older two going to visit their dad and she won’t be. How do I handle this?'
A. I'm going to assume you have read my section on the other woman and that you are honoring yourself even when he scorns you and the baby. I imagine your little one was conceived in love and that you are grieving the loss of your connection and in anticipation grieving her loss of a relationship with her father - a man once dear to you. You're scared you might mishandle the situation as she comes to understand it and starts to wonder about her worth to her father, her identity and even her connection with half siblings if he has children in his marriage.
I think the big challenge for you will be to heal well enough to convey the love you felt for the baby's father and he for you in the story of her conception, pregnancy and her birth, without the bitterness and recriminations that followed. You are teaching your kids about compassion by modeling healing of intimate betrayal. If you can do it, they can do it.
Grief and fear will inhibit your creativity and flexibility and these tend to erode your patience. You will require all of that, in balance, to deal with the twins' questions.
With any other unfinished business and with the hatred of your baby's father, it would be hard for any one to think through the issues and remember what they already know about adult grief and fear and child psychology and identity.
Your hate says to me you are yet to cancel the expectation that he be involved in your baby's life. Absent and unforgiven, he could weigh you down.
At this point in time, he and his wife, if she knows, have fully rejected his ‘other child’ and it may be time for you to draw that line in the sand. There is no one to bargain with anymore. You may have made an error of judgment about his character and integrity, but now it's over and it sucks.
I wonder whether you are through grieving the past and future losses and forgiving yourself the choices you made? Try this step by step forgiveness program to start canceling the expectations that you hold him to, in your mind. Forgiveness can be concluded even when his behaviour is unforgivable, provided you are ready to let go and move on.
Face to face counseling would help to clear the anger and grief so that you can think fearlessly about your questions and find answers that fit a situation I can only guess at. Your babe and the twins have potentially a big, mysterious and unreachable family out there, some of whom may not know of the babe and some afraid of her very existence.
How to explain all of that to the twins in digestible doses is a lot to worry about, but with one small step at a time you are already growing good enough answers. Have patience with everything unresolved and try to love the questions themselves.
These issues are very familiar in step and adoptive families. Here's one set of rules from an adoption site that can be adapted to the challenges you face: Begin talking when your child is young. Keep your conversations developmentally appropriate. Be honest. Show that you’re willing to talk when your child wants to. If your child isn’t talking, consider using techniques to spark conversation. Help them learn to express their feelings and to receive the explanations and support they need. Learn how to respond appropriately to others’ questions and comments and teach your children the same skill. Feel free to adapt, break or ignore the rules. Don’t talk too much.
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