Advice

I took a DNA test to learn about my family tree, and discovered my brother has a daughter he’s never met

Dear Wayne and Wanda,

Last fall, while checking my DNA matches on Ancestry, I discovered I have a niece that my younger brother fathered around 40 years ago. I contacted her, and she was unaware of who her father was, which I thought was tragic. I also contacted my brother, and he said he was unaware of her existence. He said had no interest in meeting her, as he was afraid to upset his wife. They have a son and daughter in their 30s, and the timing of the conception may overlap when he was dating his wife. My newly discovered niece confronted her mother, and her mother said that my brother knew about her all along, which means he lied to me.

By all indications, my niece is a very nice person, in a good marriage, with children. She lives in Illinois; so does my brother and his family. I plan to meet her when I go to a high school reunion next year.

Here’s my question. My brother’s daughter, i.e., the niece I’ve known my whole life, has a wedding in Chicago this December, and I’m attending. My brother’s son — my nephew — will be there. I’m debating telling my nephew that he has a half-sister. I don’t want to rain on my niece’s wedding parade, so I’ll leave talking with her for another time. I think my nephew should know that he has a half-sister. He can do nothing about it if he chooses, which would make him just like his father. I don’t know him well enough to know how he’ll react.

What do you think? Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or should I try to facilitate expanding the family?

Wanda says:

You’re in a tough position and any action you take risks irreversible fallout — from angering or alienating your brother, to rocking the stability of the lives of his adult children, to blowing up his marriage or even messing up the wedding day of his daughter. That said, it’s understandable that you feel driven to do the right thing, whatever that may be. After all, you’ve learned your brother carried on a lifelong deception at the expense of costing a woman her relationship with her biological father. That would spur anyone to consider action.

Let’s walk it back: does your new niece even want to meet her estranged dad and his brood? It’s great the two of you have struck up correspondence and could possibly build your own familial relationship. But you’re a very different matter than your brother, who represents a past of missed opportunity. He has lied about his very knowledge of her existence, and basically chose his own comfort and happiness over owning up to his actions and subsequent consequences.

So rather than make judgment calls on what you think people deserve to know, dig in a little deeper on what she’s looking for, if anything. Is she interested in knowing her half-siblings? Would that be exciting for her, or conversely, would they always too closely represent a life that could have been? You say she’s married with kids; she’s possibly quite fine as she is, with no interest in rocking the boat.

Either way, you’re weighing actions with potentially massive outcomes. Fully discuss this with your newly discovered niece to understand where her head is at before you go dropping truth bombs just before the bouquet toss.

Wayne says:

Dude, the real tragedy is that you have stuck your nose so far into something that isn’t your business that you can’t even see that you are dropping bombs on your relationship with your brother, the life of a woman who is doing just fine without her dad and his family members including you — thank you very much — and your nephew and niece, who don’t even need to be dragged into this, not to mention two established families that don’t need the drama. And you want to break the news to your nephew at his sister’s wedding? Seriously?

Sorry Wanda, but this isn’t a tough spot. Not his role to force any kind of relationship between his brother and his estranged, and possibly unknown, daughter. Not his role to determine if the mom is really telling the truth and the brother is lying. Not his role to meet up with his newly discovered niece, though fully within his rights — anticipating the start of a great friendship, some closure or Unknown Uncle of the Year Award? (What could a coffee and convo at Starbucks hurt? Maybe a lot, maybe not at all. Just think about why you’re really doing this before doing this, please.) And not his role to drag his known nephew and niece — not his son and daughter, his nephew and niece — into an awkward-at-best situation. That role is his brother’s alone.

You found a new relative. You let your brother know he has a daughter and let the daughter know who her dad is. You talked with the mom. That’s the end of your investigation, Magnum P.I. These are families with calm and settled lives, man! Now respectfully keep your mouth shut and move on. If any of the truly important and affected parties want to do any kind of connecting, you’ve set them up to do so. Feel good about that if you want.

And if your heart is compelling you to do something really significant to help the lives of parentless young people, donate some of your travel money and enthusiasm to an organization that supports foster children. They have their whole lives ahead of them and someone with your passion might actually help them in a positive way.

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