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Family secret surfaces: She’s not technically an only child

Dear Carolyn: I’m an only child in my late 30s, the daughter of doting, super-involved, loving parents, but I recently found out a secret.

In doing some genealogical research, I was shocked to learn that my father had a family before marrying my mother, which I knew nothing about. I asked my aunt about it, and she was surprised I was never told about the family. Apparently, he divorced his first wife and, soon after, allowed his two young children to be adopted by his ex-wife’s new husband. And he never saw his children again.

My aunt said my mom was fully aware of all this.

Being an only child is a big part of my identity, and I’m shocked to learn I have two half-siblings out in the world. As a mom myself, I’m also shocked my dad gave up those children and agreed to never see them again.

I can’t decide whether to confront my parents about this. We’re very close, but I feel like broaching this subject might be painful for them. And a part of me hates to bring that on them. It also feels like none of my business; this previous family had nothing to do with me. But at the same time, I’m extremely curious about it. I kind of want to meet my half-siblings, but I also don’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest.

— Only Child No Longer

Dear Only Child: R.I.P. the Dark Family Secret: born, beginning of time; died, 2018.

You know, and now we sort-of know, your story. Your parents have a story too — as they always did, obviously. You’ve just learned it’s more complicated than you could possibly have imagined. That alone doesn’t say it’s a damning story, just that it’s beyond your understanding right now.

So here’s what you need to ask yourself: Can you continue to have the same relationship with your parents as you always have, with only the information you now possess?

If yes, then you have the option of leaving this discovery right where you found it. I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t, just that you can.

If no, then you need to talk to your parents. It’s not fair to be the reason your relationship changes and not tell them this reason yourself.

Note, I didn’t say “confront.” It doesn’t have to be you versus your parents, the world, the truth. There are always choices. You can always opt to approach them with love and assurances, not poised to burn it all down.

They have choices too, of course, and among them is the option to respond as if you’re burning it all down no matter how lovingly you approach. And I think we can safely agree this is one of the more exquisitely painful topics a person can raise, no matter how kindly you do it.

But the symmetry here can inform you. You’re raising the memory of lost children, yes, but it’s only in the face of your parents’ losing, potentially, their lifelong, cherished, intimate connection with you. Should you opt to use your power, do so with care.

Hi, Carolyn: I’m in my mid-50s, dating women in my age range after a divorce. Many if not most are looking for a long-term relationship, as am I.

Suppose I go out with someone a couple of times, she’s nice, we have things in common, I’m somewhat attracted, and she seems to like me. I feel like it could be fun to spend some more time together, and I would sleep with her if the opportunity arises (hey, it’s been a while), but I’m not getting that heady feeling like she is the right one for me. How do I decide whether to move ahead, at each stage of increasing intimacy, when I’m not sure it really has long-term potential?

By the way, I’ve also learned the heady feeling doesn’t mean it’s going to work out either, but in those situations I have no hesitation in jumping in to see where it goes.

— Trying to Be Honest and Kind

Dear Trying to Be Honest: If I were shooting for satire and wanted the most joyless, squarest, tamest, most achingly earnest answer, then I would say this: Save yourself for the person you feel you could talk to all night and still want to see again tomorrow.

And, yeah. That’s my real answer, too.

Don’t advance to any stage of intimacy you hesitate to jump into. Just don’t. Say the difficult thing(s) you need to say to keep yourself right where you are until you know where you’d rather be. If that blows up your chances for a next date, so be it. It’s still better than the fallout from being more committed than your feelings can support.

If it has “been a while” for her, too, and if you both can consenting-adult your way into an honest and pitfall-aware resetting of that clock, this is me primly looking the other way.

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