“And your dad?” A question I have been asked countless times, by countless people.
It seems natural for most people to ask about someone’s father. It’s on every medical form you fill out, it’s a ‘get to know you’ question for many and for most people the response is probably completely straightforward. Instead, I have had a ‘Days of Our Lives-esque’ experience, leaving me with an awkward silence, followed by a vague response or if I’m brave, the truth; a truth which seems to usually be the source of absolute fascination, almost entertainment, for whoever it is hearing it.
Although I can totally understand this, it creates a twinge of pain within me that connects directly to my sense of worth and identity, a slow and painful hurting that I have had for as long as I have known. This experience has shaped me in many ways and is something that even now, in my thirties, continues to influence my life.
My ‘dad’ Thomas* is a man that I have never really met. He is a man that had an affair in his late thirties. My mum was the ‘other woman’ and also his student- she was a mature-aged postgraduate student; he was her tutor at a well-known university.
Their affair wasn’t a night of passion or because he was unhappy in his marriage. It lasted seven years, five before I was born and two afterwards. My ‘dad’ always said he “loved” his wife and that she was his “best friend”. I still don’t know why he did what he did or why my mum did it either.
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Although this in itself has enough material to make for a season of any soap opera, like any other ‘juicy’ storyline it doesn’t stop there. My ‘dad’ is also the father to another, 11 days younger than me. My ‘brother’ for his whole life has had no idea about me, no idea about his dad’s secret.
He has lived a life where his dad was his dad. He saw him, talked to him, lived with him, knew him, called him “dad”. He was loved, cared for, embraced. The ‘only child’ of a man and his loving wife; his secret was far away, hidden in a world that would never be uncovered by his real family. A world where the decisions made by two people would influence my life so incredibly, shaping me into me.
A part of my identity has always been that of the ‘secret child’. Dealing with the complexities of secrets and truths that form who I am and how this has led me to where I am now.
Finding out the truth was definitely an enormous moment in my life but ironically, I can’t remember the exact details of how it unfolded. I was about seven or eight at the time, still at primary school, still filled with that childhood positivity and naivety that makes that period so happy.
I do remember searching through photo albums for the images of my mum and dad’s wedding from a marriage I was told hadn’t worked out. Needless to say, this search was in vain. There would never be any images as there was never a wedding, at least not between them.
“Where are your wedding photos?” I asked my mother. I can’t remember the precise words my mum used to answer my question, but I do remember the way it made me feel and the way it changed me forever. Although I didn’t completely understand what she had told me, I knew it was a situation different to most others, and that being different wasn’t really something I wanted to be.
My father had been non-existent in my life for as long as I could remember. I had no memory of him being around, I had no idea what he even looked like. There were no photos of him, my mum had never taken any. My mum told me that for the first two years of my life he had been present, active in fact, and would see me often. I have no actual memory of that as I was so young. Later in life, even still today, I wasn’t really sure how to process that fact; how could a father be active in their daughter’s life and then just choose not to be? How could he be a father to a son a few suburbs away and then one to me, all the while maintaining this secret from his wife?
While I was growing up, a few times a year the phone would ring and it would be him on the other end. Sometimes if I had answered, he would ask me questions. I can’t remember what they were now, I assume some general questions about school, questions you’d ask to be polite to a child you didn’t really know anymore. I would awkwardly answer this stranger and get my mum as quickly as possible so I could go and do the things I wanted to do, he things that didn’t make me uncomfortable. I was told years later that he called every school holidays. With he and my mum being both teachers, this was obviously the most practical and convenient time to fit into his schedule. He always called from a phone box, usually near a train station, I could sometimes hear other people walking past and the noise of the trains stopping and going by.
My mum usually talked with him for a while. She was always happy when it was him that was calling and from what I could hear, their conversations seemed natural and positive, like they just took off from the last phone call a few months prior. There was no bitterness or discomfort in the tone of my mum’s voice, something you think would be present for divorced parents that they apparently were. It is funny how in hindsight you pick up on all of these obvious clues that indicate that perhaps the truth wasn’t in fact the information that had been passed on to you.
He sent $100 for my birthday and another $100 at Christmas. Other than that there was no monetary contribution provided, small cash gifts were his way of keeping his secret. The card which was sent separately, always signed off ‘Your pal’. I wasn’t even worthy of ‘dad’ in a card, not even his name. He was just my ‘pal’.
For most of my life, I lived as if he didn’t exist. I think looking back at it now, this is what I had to do to keep going. He wasn’t active or present at all. I found mention of him by mother sickening. I was, I am still, resentful of his actions. Every time she mentioned something about him I’d ignore it. I did not engage in a conversation about him nor did I ask any questions. I guess it was easier this way.
When I turned 18 my mum stopped hearing from him. He cut off all contact without any explanation. She thought he had died.
As my life went on and I found myself a mother of two beautiful girls and married to a wonderful man, my curiosity grew. The bewilderment of his actions grew, together with a desire to know his medical history and just something about him.
When I was 32 I decided to investigate. I googled his name but found nothing. I then tried my brother’s name and there he was. He had a young family and as the photo of him looked back at me on the computer screen, I could tell this was the right guy.
I never had any intention of telling him the truth. Why would I hurt him with the truth, like the truth had hurt me? But I did want my dad's contact details, so my creative writing skills and a fake email address came into play. I said I was searching for a family member who went to school with his dad. I asked in an email to him, it turns out he was. He passed on my email to his father Thomas who replied the following day.
Hi. My son Mike* has said you would like to contact me. Please do so anytime at this address.
So that was in the first email, the first contact I had had from my father in over a decade. I replied almost instantly.
I am not sure the best way to approach this situation, if there even is a ‘way’. I would firstly like to say that I am not contacting you for any ulterior motive or to create any sort of disruption. From saying this you are probably aware of who I am.
I’d also like to say that my mother does not know that I am doing this and I would prefer it remained that way.
I don’t know the situation on your side, what is known and what isn’t. I have had to piece together pieces of information to lead me to this point, I have tried to do this in the most discreet way for everyone involved.
My life has changed in the past few years. I now have a family of my own, two young girls with my husband. I think this is the reason I was prompted to contact you. The interaction between them and their father is beautiful, as is their relationship with each other. Witnessing this and reflecting on my own past has definitely raised some questions for me of late. I am hoping that you may be able to assist with some of these before it comes to a point where this is no longer possible?
If you can let me know if you are able to assist me that would be appreciated.
I’d like to write a story about how this all turned out well, how my father embraced me and apologised, how now we are making up for the time we’d never spent together but this is definitely not what happened.
Initially, the communication was relatively polite and courteous. Although shocked by me contacting him, he seemed willing to communicate, even to meet me.
Although he never asked me any questions he passed on some medical information about himself and other blood relations to me for myself and my daughters’ sake.
But after a week or so, I assume once the reality had sunk in a bit more, the fear seemed to take hold of him. His secret was still a secret from his wife and son. He was very firm in the fact that this could never change. His emails to me began to become demanding, condescending and at times emotionally manipulative.
I was told that if his family found out that he’d never speak to me again, that his blood pressure rose each time I emailed him and this was a concern for him so he would need a few weeks “rest”. He requested time and space to sort through this and “find a way forward.” In the end he told me that he would not meet me because he wouldn’t leave his wife for the time it took to do this, that he needed a “break from all of this.”
I often look back through the emails we sent back and forth analysing the words I used, the words I used trying to work out if there was something I had said, whether I was too unreasonable or too demanding of him. In all honesty some of my emails to him were quite emotional, but I know this was a reaction to the pain he had caused me. I was upset by his use of words, by the absence of other words and absence of questions and interest in my life. It felt as if he would use any excuse as a reason not to meet me or to not have to communicate with me anymore. I felt completely and utterly rejected, like I was unworthy, an embarrassment and a mistake. Instead of some sort of reconciliation, I was shown a weak man, with little compassion or integrity.
I haven’t heard from my father again. I have tried several times by emailing him but have had no response. I gave him so many changes to try to make it right. Only recently did I concede in my mind that this was the end, a short-lived relationship that offered nothing more than pain. I wrote him a final email. I have no idea if he has read it but I am certain I will never have a reply.
I share my story not just because it is therapeutic, but for other people who have been treated in such a cruel way by someone who should do the opposite. I do it for my mum, to show the world how amazing and strong one person can be. Family is so important and life-shaping, but the best family isn't always those who share your biology, it is the ones who respect you, value you for who you are, are supportive, loving, forgiving. And who you know will always be there.
*Names have been changed.
Shona Hendley is a is a mother of six creative, imaginative, hilarious and beautiful humans and animals - two human girls, two goats and two fur babies (cats). She lives with them, her wonderful husband and mother on a property in regional Victoria. She is currently working on her first memoir, exploring her experience as the secret child of an affair and how that has impacted her life.