‘There are all sorts of conversations you can have before any big secrets are divulged.’

Secrets in families are rarely a good idea, says Annalisa Barbieri

I have a son, aged 22: J. He was born with physical disabilities and special educational needs. He’s a happy, well-adjusted young manhe’ll never be able to live independently, but he is fairly self-sufficient. His mother and I are divorced, and he lives with me. He has older and younger siblings. The problem is that he is not biologically my son. I found this out some years after I split with my ex, and she has admitted it. J doesn’t know – very few people do. One of them is his natural father, who has shown no interest.

If my son were to find out the truth, he would be devastated. I’m not sure he would be able to process it in a safe way. The chances are this will never come out and I can happily take this secret to the grave. Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee that: life has a habit of hitting you with things you don’t expectIf the worst happens and this does come out, at least I am aware of it and can do the best I can for my son.

My worry is if it comes out after I’ve passed away, the shock will be great throughout the whole family and I’m worried how my son will cope. My eldest is in his late 20s, and J adores him. He’s a great older brother and, while I don’t want to put this burden on him, I am thinking of telling him so that if the worst-case scenario does happen, there is someone who is prepared. Should I?

You sound very caring and compassionate, but this secret isn’t yours alone. Your ex-wife and your son’s biological father share it. What do they say? If the father is not on the scene, what does J’s mother say? Why should it be you alone who faces this? These little “cells” of secrets in families – where various people know, but no one talks about it – are rarely a good idea.

You didn’t say what sort of special needs your son has, and this may make a huge difference in terms of how he may handle it. Alison Roy, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), suggested you might want to consider contacting support groups that specialise in his particular need.

Roy also wondered why you were writing now – has something happened? “Honesty is usually best, but that doesn’t mean you have to tell J everything – and certainly not straight away. But you do need to find a way to be more honest with your son.” Roy suggested finding ways of talking to your son more generally about families and “what being a parent – a dad – means”. And how it’s about far more than just providing the raw materials.

There are all sorts of conversations you can have before any big secrets are divulged. “It’s very important that [if you do tell your son] it isn’t just dumped on him,” Roy said. “Try to think of this as less a question of getting skeletons out of closets, but more about conversations to help improve your relationship with J and help him with the complexities of life.”

When or if it comes to it, the things Roy thought were important to get across were that “your son is loved, that he knows who his parents are (you and his mum), and where his home is. And that none of that is going to change. ‘I am your dad, I have always been your dad, but I didn’t make you and I haven’t always known this.’”

Roy works a lot with adoptive families – which is different, but there are similarities. She helps people look at what it means to parent a child who doesn’t have their biological imprint. “What else do they have of you? They are still part of your family tree, they may share your way of doing things.” You do father him – you have done and will continue to do so. This is the part to concentrate on.

“If this secret is getting too hot and hurtful,” Roy said, “you may want to think about getting some support of your own first.” But if it is too big a burden, it’s not the responsibility of either of your sons to help you with that.

I don’t see how your older son would be more prepared to deal with this after your death than you are now, and how telling him wouldn’t cause more issues. All you would be doing is creating another little “cell”. If you decide to share this secret, you need to do some groundwork with J, and then you and your ex-wife need to blow it out of the water once and for all: share it with all your children, so they can support each other.

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