Family secrets – should you tell the truth about adoption and paternity?

Katharine Whitehorn / 04 March 2016

Agony aunt Katharine Whitehorn shares what she has learnt from those affected by family secrets, such as adoption and true paternity, brought to light.



Thanks partly to the internet and a growing interest in genealogy, thousands of people who were adopted or brought up by step-parents are now finding it easier to trace their biological parents. But what’s it like to find out that you were misled in your childhood, and that you are not biologically related to one or both parents?

Visit Katharine Whitehorn's author page for her answers to reader dilemmas.

To tell the truth or not

When I originally asked to hear from anyone who had been told, as a grown up, that the person they thought was their parent was actually no such thing, I hoped I would be able to come to some conclusions about the wisdom or otherwise of telling the truth – however belatedly. Now, faced with dozens of letters, some immensely moving, some bitter, some just sad, I realise that there’s absolutely no general rule – but some surprising conclusions.

To know who you are, to know where you come from, to whom you belong – that seems to be a pretty universal need. But whether it’s a good idea to be faced with an entirely new lineage after half a lifetime or more is another matter.

Some of the stories you told me follow well-worn paths: there’s the affair, glossed over to protect an otherwise strong marriage, the child brought up as one of their own, or the boy who grows up not knowing that his “sister” is actually his mother.

Then there is the child conceived in wartime, when a lonely wife has kissed the lips that were nearest: “I shall never forget the phone call when my Mum came straight out with it: ‘Your Dad is not your father.’ Mum cried as I had never heard her cry before, and she explained it was the war and that she had had an affair after my Dad had gone abroad with the army… I told her it did not matter to me and that I was so grateful that I had had such a happy upbringing… but from a purely selfish point of view, I wish I had never known.”

When the children had known from the beginning that “Daddy” wasn’t their biological father, the story was often a happy one: knowing the truth hadn’t stopped them growing up adoring him and the grandmother and aunts that went with him.

We know that Michael Gove was adopted, and he has said he didn’t want to find his birth parents, as he thought those who’d brought him up would be hurt.

But there were sad stories from one or two people with the “wrong” father who had been treated differently from the others and didn’t know why; at least when they found out decades later they understood the truth.

Shocking revelations and the need to get to the truth

From just about all the letters it was clear that discovering that your parents, good or bad, were not who you thought they were was a terrific shock. And in letter after letter from people who came to such knowledge later in life, there shone an appetite to find out more. 

They needed to know not just who the real parent was, but to learn about the family to which he – or she – really belonged, the clan, the heritage. To be left knowing you don’t spring from the family that brought you up, but don’t know where you do come from can, I realise, be devastating – small wonder that there are dozens who try to trace their origins on the internet.

It was this, I suppose, that surprised me most. In recent decades – perhaps for a century or more – with our growing interest in psychology and more concern for equality, we have tended to downplay the importance of heritage; few talk about “coming from a good family” implying that the haves are just born superior. 

The assumption has been that you could swap a couple of babies in their cradles and the one who grew up in a well-off educated family would be brighter, while the one living in a deprived slum would be a loser whatever the parents had been like, so everyone should have the same chances.

Paradoxically, an emphasis on heritage and background returned to centre stage when it comes to race. The government only recently persuaded adoption agencies to let white parents adopt black and mixed race children. 

It may indeed be better for such a baby to go to black adoptive parents rather than white ones where either is available; but to suggest that a child would be better off in care than with loving white parents is surely to disregard what the care system is actually like. And at least a child that was a different colour from the family it lived with would know it was adopted – as all the agencies advise that adopted children should be.

There were good humanitarian reasons for refusing to consider the children of less fortunate families inherently inferior; but perhaps it led to underestimating the amazingly strong pull of kinship and family. In plenty of developing countries, after all, the ties of tribe and kin are paramount; the genetic bond is obviously strong. Perhaps it’s not surprising that however late people find out they are adopted, they ache to know where they came from, where they really should belong.

Dilemma: I'm not my father's biological child.

Making sense of life

Interestingly, the craving seems to be just as strong even in later life: one woman wrote: “I am now 78 and ironically “not knowing!” causes me more anguish than it ever did”. Psychologist Elizabeth Campbell is not surprised “They need to put things right, to understand – they feel they need to make sense of their lives by knowing the full story.”

Probably we all know people who were adopted into a loving family and grew up happily, contented that their mother could say: “You didn’t grow under my heart, you grew in it” But for some there remains an insoluble difficulty. There is plainly a strong consensus that it is better for a child to know from an early age that it was adopted, and that in such a situation the right adoptive parents can do quite as good a job as birth parents (or as one successful adopting mother referred to her, “your tummy Mummy”).

For one or two people the question of the family’s medical history came into the picture: one woman, who had married into a family greatly prone to cancer, wanted to reassure the son, with whom she’d been unwisely pregnant on her wedding day, that he wasn’t at such risk, but her husband, perhaps wisely, advised her against it.

It was also clear that though one or two of the secrets had been kept for decades, the truth all too often came out anyway: a malicious neighbour knew and spilled the beans; a birth certificate was needed and gave the game away. Or the mother herself did: one woman wrote that she had adored her father and had constant rows with her mother; in the middle of one row, when she was taking her father’s side, her furious mother blurted out “Anyway he’s not your real father!” (Stung, the daughter had stuck up for him all the more, going round singing “Oh my Papa, to me he is so wonderful.” Of families, I could believe anything.)

It seems there is no golden rule; each case is different. I’m left with a strong feeling that the lucky ones are those who know the truth from the start; small wonder that adopting parents are usually advised that the children should be brought up knowing that, as one mother put it, “You didn’t grow in my stomach you grew up in my heart” And that anyone deciding to tell a grownup the truth about their origins should think twice about doing it.

Tracing lost family members

In a world increasingly dominated by the internet and social networking, there has recently been a parallel explosion of interest in genealogy.

Whether we’re descended from monarchs or muggers, knights or knaves, it seems we all want to discover our roots, to have our own family trees, just like those the aristocracy proudly display in their stately homes. One offshoot of all this activity is that many of those researching their own ancestry have come across some surprises, some pleasant, some profoundly shocking. 

Previously unknown aunts, cousins and other family members emerge from the woodwork – usually prompting joy all round – but sometimes there is grief as long-held family secrets are laid bare.

Imagine finding out that the person you’ve always known as “Mum” is not your mother at all… There are countless websites catering for this preoccupation with family history and one of the top sites is Genes Reunited, an offshoot of the once hugely successful (but now closed down) Friends Reunited. The following messages, posted on the website, demonstrate how, with a bit of help from the GR team, tangled histories can be unravelled:

“Just from mucking around on GR and doing a basic family tree, a lady used [our] details to find us and my Grandfather – her biological father! He was removed from her life as a baby through divorce after the Second World War, and although we knew of a child from a previous marriage, we had nothing to go on. Unfortunately he has passed away, but we can send photos and lots of information about him for her. A lovely surprise for my mum to find her half-sister!”

“Just to say my search was successful, I was adopted and after much heart rending searching have now found my family, Mum has died but [we’ve] found some lovely people. So take advice, keep trying… it’s worth it in the end.”

Some quotes from our readers

We asked readers of Saga Magazine to tell us their stories of growing up with family secrets. This is a selection of what they had to say...

"Nobody had asked my mother who my real father was, and by the time I was told everyone who knew was dead; if my father had been my uncle or a mass murderer etc perhaps it would have been wise to keep quiet… but surely somebody should have been given the real story."

"My feelings were initially of anger that my mother never told me the truth; I have a right to know who my father was."

"I can now see the reasons why I was treated differently from my half sister – and why I was never cuddled or told I was good at anything."

"I think one should be told, otherwise people like myself can spend the rest of their lives trying to find out who their real father was."

"I suddenly only knew the half of who I was… it was devastating to find out later on. You feel as if your whole childhood was a lie. Life has a way where the truth will always come out, and it’s better sooner than later."

"I knew who my real father was but he walked out on my mother and ignored me; when he died in 1994 I actually cried – why I don’t know – perhaps for what he did to my mother and me. But I had a loving “Dad” who loved me like his own… it is quite a relief to write all this and tell someone what I experienced."

"I have in fact told my daughter about her real father, but am feeling now that I was wrong to do so. She was very upset. She said she always felt one of the family and she needed time to get used to the idea. She says she would prefer not to have known."

"All my life I had felt I was a disappointment to my “mother” I had never been able to understand what I had done to make her hate me. Realising I was just not who she wanted helped me shed years of depression and guilt."

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