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When "Daddy" is Not Biological Dad

QUESTION: I am in need of advice on how to tell my son about his real father. My son is 3 and-a-half years old and I left my ex-husband with him when he was only five months old. I met a man about three months later and we have been together ever since. We plan to marry next year. My ex-husband is in another state and has no contact with his son at all. My fiancÚ and my son have a great bond -- he even calls him "Daddy". He has been the only father figure in my son's life. How and when should I speak to my son about his real father, and explain to him that his "Daddy" is not a biological parent?

ANSWER: Children benefit from knowing the truth about their origins. The earlier factual information is presented in a natural and age-appropriate manner, the easier it is to assimilate. Furthermore, tension and confusion created by keeping family "secrets" can contribute to problems at a later date. Yet, in order to present this information you must first be comfortable with these facts yourself.

First, reflect on your own use of "real" father. Do you mean "biological" father? It appears from your description that the man you are marrying and forming family with is indeed a father in the sociological definition. He is very "real" to your son and he is his "Daddy". Although it is true that many people can biologically "parent", only some people can truly accept the emotional responsibility of rearing a child. Your own comfort or conflict with this distinction will be communicated. Naturally, it is beneficial to resolve your own feelings about your son's reality of these two different aspects of fatherhood before explaining it to him.

Talk with your fiancÚ about this topic. Explore his feelings, beliefs and concerns. If you decide to plan a talk with your son on this subject, do so together. It is likely that this issue is coming up now because you are legalizing your family bonds through marriage. This automatically makes your fiancÚ your son's stepfather. What a beautiful blending of the "spirit" of family with the legal reality.

Another legitimate approach to addressing this issue is to simply take advantage of a situation that would naturally lend itself towards explaining the "facts". For example, your son might have a friend whose biological father does not live with him. Or perhaps he asks about "adopted" children. When your son asks questions about such circumstances or comments on them, you may find it easy to segue into this discussion about fatherhood and what it means.

Your son will have different questions at different points in his development. "Age-appropriate" explanation means to present the facts simply and directly and then respond to the questions he asks. Do not tell him more than he asks. This allows him to pace his own readiness. Do communicate that he can come to you with his questions as they occur.

Be aware that the questions he has now will be different from those he asks as a teenager or a young adult. Answer his questions as directly and honestly as possible as they come up. Do not be surprised if he has few questions in the beginning and for long stretches of time, then suddenly has a string of them. Eventually, he may indeed want to know more about his biological roots. Your job as parents is to assist him in learning about himself and answering his needs as they arise.

It is important that you take some time to consider how you want to approach this topic, but do not wait too long! Tell your son the truth before someone else beats you to it. The best people to learn about himself are you and his "Daddy". The older he gets, the more difficult this discussion will be and the more likely that he may feel "betrayed" instead of informed.

Consider also, that this period prior to your wedding may serve as an opportune time to integrate this new information. The upcoming ritual of declaring yourselves "family" reaffirms the reality of the very real and special connection already forged with this man who has always been his "Daddy".


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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