Children of Extramarital Affairs

At least 10% of Australian children are conceived in an affair. Some DNA studies put it as high as 15%.

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.

Children conceived in an extramarital affair are vulnerable to exposure by one of their parent's requesting DNA testing in a future maintenance dispute. They are equally at risk by their own adult discoveries in blood typing experiments at college or by the necessity of transplantation matching when they, their siblings or parents fall ill needing, for example, bone marrow or a kidney. 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 another person challenges the ethical principles of, respect for human dignity, individual autonomy, equality and the right to information about oneself.' Ken Daniels in Eubios

The story of a child conceived in an affair

In her thirty-fifth year, Miranda developed an aggressive cervical cancer after a decade of disasters attempting pregnancy. Radical hysterectomy had the better survival rates in those days and so she took it. A near death and childlessness affected her and Andre deeply. They took a 3 month holiday researching overseas adoptions, rejected the idea and returned to the jobs they loved in the Marine Park. Miranda settled more easily into her research while Andre seemed to be despairing about everything, including his job as a park manager. He had been the stronger on having kids and his emotional distance Miranda read as grieving.

A year later, Andre met Bryoni at a conference. They shared a passion for reef turtles. She was married with two boys, though she said it was more like living with three since husband Bill was 'just a big kid' who never took anything seriously. 'Enjoy every moment while you can,' was his philosophy.

Andre began to stay with them when he came to Canberra and became part of the family. But at a conference one year, 'just friends' turned into something more and a pregnancy ensued that went full term. Bill was blind, Andre ecstatic, Bryoni unsure of the paternity and Miranda thought at last Andre was moving on. When Rebecca was born, Bryoni freaked out at the physical resemblance to Andre, worried sick for six months and then broke off all contact with him. He was doubly devastated. Miranda sensed something was wrong, but put it down to the old issues resurfacing. Respecting his privacy, they didn't talk.

By the time Rebecca was five, the difference between her and Bryoni and Bill's two boys Daniel and Tim was so marked and the similarity to the photographs of Andre, particularly the Gaelic nose and colouring, so obvious that the boys teased her about it, literally 'you're not one of us, freak!' The effect on Becky's esteem, it seemed to Bryoni, made a modified disclosure unavoidable before the child's self-doubt became entrenched. She began with Bill, who after a week's bitter silence just said, flatly, 'Shit happens, it will turn out alright, don't worry love. Boys will be boys, they'll grow out of it'.

Bryoni, sensing an edge of Bill now joining the boys in making an exception of Becky, feared he was going to take his unspoken revenge out on the daughter who was not his own flesh and blood. This was an accusation Bill took deep offense to. It took a lot of persuading for Bill, an ambulance officer, to go with Becky 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 a multi car pile up some years back on the Hume Highway outside Canberra, and he knew it when he had those nightmares he wouldn't talk about. He and his mates had scraped the body parts of a young family out of the rear of their car after it was hit head on by a bus without seat belts and full of school children, to whom they had attended the hurt and dying. It was a very long night and one of Australia's worst bus accidents but in the trauma debrief after it, Bill just shrugged it off, minimized it. He reiterated his cheerful philosophy, 'just shows you, you've got to live while you're alive, cos you're dead a long time'.

In the journey of healing Bill found he could take some of life seriously. Becky's needs and those of her biological father became signals to him, he identified with their family connection and wanted that to survive. Though he loved Becky as his own he would say, 'blood is thicker than water'. By the time Rebecca 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 Becky would someday 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 Canberra, Andre had his 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 Miranda. She was smashed into pieces, heart broken, betrayed and said, 'You've just wiped the last six years of my lifeŠ poison and lies! I haven't spent my life protecting the reef to have my home destroyed by filth. It will take us years to clean up the mess' she said. 'We don't have years,' he 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.

A year or so later, relationship therapy and their marriage, wobbly but back on the road they welcomed the phone call from Bill, having come to the point where they figured it was their next move as well.

Going at a gentle pace and with family therapy, 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 the other stormed off or gave up. But every time, Becky's nose 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 a great deal about openness and reconciliation.

Miranda and Andre became 'aunt' and 'uncle' to Daniel and Tim. 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 and she went up there for the summer holidays without Bill and Bryoni.

A couple of years ago, 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 wearing her nose with Gaelic pride. Miranda, her other mum had died a year ago and she was still broken up about it, more than she thought was appropriate to the loss in comparison to those she dealt with in her work, re-integrating women and children into communities from which they had been taken.

She and Miranda had become very close during the alternating hopeful and despairing phone calls through the months of chemotherapy. Finally, Becky had taken time off work to be with Miranda at home during her last weeks. When she died, Andre fell apart, and Becky felt she had to be the strong one, which she was and it pissed her off.

It was hard for her to admit she resented Andre's neediness, that he didn't have the resources to support her and that it was always Bill who was there for her and it was Bill who didn't expect her to be strong. The old identity issues had resurfaced with her grief. They were resolved in a couple of sessions, more than anything because of the struggle these two families had made in her early years affirming her unusual identity.

Children involved in an affair

Statistics don't just represent the kids who are casualties of infidelity. Children can be involved 'accidentally' by witnessing the careless or indiscrete parent's philandering. They can catch the 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 be deliberately involved. 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 for support of weak alibis or to cover their tracks. Some manipulate their children 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 affair that have 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 of the affair got out. 'Don't tell anyone because if your mother/father found out it would break up the family.'

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 research that suggests boys whose mother's were unfaithful are over represented in the ranks of morbidly jealous husbands; girls whose fathers were philanderers are more likely to tolerate husbands who stray - 'that's the way men are'.

If there is a question about their 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 integrity and respect that manifest with infidelity. Where some who are betrayed can deal with their own hurt, it is beyond belief that their partner would involve and hurt the children. 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 honoured 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, even life saving and many parent help lines are local call numbers.

Handling the dual crisis of discovery of the affair both by the betrayed and by the kids requires a cool head and a clear plan executed collaboratively to prevent 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 gates in place before having to deal with the kids, but once they are involved, whether by accident or design, there is little chance of escaping or postponing it.

Depending on their age and awareness, children require a consistent, effective parenting style, safety, security, peace and parental fidelity - they say 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.

Depending on the intensity and duration of exposure to the affair and/or the threatened dissolution of the family, children may also exhibit grief and will need timely, appropriate parental support to exit that journey strengthened.

'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.' Children's Grief

Divorce or separation is not necessarily 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 your selves and be emotionally available to the kids. Get good support for your selves and each other. This too will pass. Remember to breathe and to stop and smell the flowers. This is no time for a case of affluenza induced, quality time poverty.

It's not conflict that wounds but the tactics used to manage it. Slow down and consider all your options.

Disclaimer: This article is offered as an educational service, reading it does not create any form of legal or professional relationship. It is dangerous to rely on generalized information or guidance. You should ALWAYS seek independent professional advice in order that it can be tailored to your own individual circumstances.

Posted on 05 July 2005 in - Library - Family and Parenting

Peter Fox

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