Q.I had you for sex ed in the early ’90s. When we were seniors, you taught a class on sexuality and ethics. I still remember it. I have an ethical question now. I hope you can help me sort out what to do. I’m the youngest of three. My next oldest sibling is into family history and bought me a DNA test for my birthday. I did it, just for the fun of it. When my results came back and I got together with him, it turns out half of our DNA is very similar, but the other half is really different. I immediately thought one of us was the product of our mom having an affair! Our dad was a great dad, and he died when I was in my 20s. Our mom is in her late 60s and in frail health, so I told my brother we’d leave this alone. Kind of like a soap opera, you know? Then, I got to thinking. We have an aunt who’s always been a huge part of my life. Her daughter is 10 years younger than me and we’ve never got along well. When my cousin was an angry teen she would sometimes taunt me and say she knew a secret about me. So, with this DNA information in my hand, I went to her. She told me the truth. Her mom – my aunt – is my biological mom. My aunt was only 15 when I was born and the family pretended I wasn’t hers. The woman who raised me was actually her older sister. After I got over the shock, and after my husband and I decided this really IS like a soap opera, I started thinking about confronting both my aunt (my birth mom) and the woman I thought was my mother. What do you think? What is the ethical thing to do? Thanks.
Mary Jo’s response: I loved teaching the class on ethics and sexuality! Time in schools is so tight these days, I seldom teach it. I’m truly touched you remembered.
Ethical questions are often challenging, especially when there’s no clear right or wrong.
Your concern is a deeply personal one. You have every right to feel hurt, confused, and angry. I’m glad you have support from your husband; I’m guessing your brother is supportive, as well. It also seems you grew up with good family support.
As much as I treasure you seeking advice from me, I’d like to share my belief in your unique ability to sort this out and make the right decision. There are so many nuances to your situation; I am not privy to your true feelings, your childhood experiences, or your current relationship with these two women.
I’d like to ask you a few questions. I hope your decision will be easier when you consider your answers.
- Are you close to both these women at this point in your life? How will confronting them change your relationships?
- You mention your mom’s failing health. Is her cognition steady – is she able to recognize people and comprehend reality?
- Confronting either your birth mom or the mom who raised you could be hurtful to these two women. What is your goal? Do you simply want to clear the air in your family? Your feelings do matter; important aspects of your life were kept secret.
- Are you interested in the why of the situation? Was your biological mom forced to pretend to be your aunt? Can you have empathy for the pain she felt as a teen mother?
- Was the woman who raised you a caring parent? Do you think she was under pressure from your grandparents?
I began volunteering with young parents in the ‘70s; your scenario wasn’t uncommon then. Families often hid teen pregnancies. I recall babies being raised as if their young mothers were their older sisters. I remember one family where the teen’s baby was sent to live with family out of state; the child never really knew his mother. Adoptions were often carried out in secret, leaving no connections. Your family was part of the culture of the times.
I’ll be happy to continue our conversation. I respect you and your choice. Consider how your decision will bring joy or sorrow to you and your family. Your peace of mind is important. I believe you will do the right thing.
Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at firstname.lastname@example.org.