Should I tell my daughter about her mother's two abortions?

I'm a single dad with a senior in high school -- does she need to know this secret, and should she hear it from me?

Published May 7, 2007 11:10AM (EDT)

Hi, Cary,

Got an interesting dilemma. My daughter, a senior in high school, moved in with me for her final year of high school, and it has been great, but difficult going from a single guy back to a custodial parent (single father, to boot!). Anyway, she seems to have converted from gay to straight this year, plus she's sexually active, so we've both got to start worrying about the whole pregnancy issue, among other things.

My question is this: Two of my ex-wife's pregnancies by me were ended by abortion. I was as much a participant in her abortions as I was with her two live births and accept equal responsibility, for better or worse. Does the secrecy of the abortions belong to her alone, or is the secret as much my right to divulge as hers?

I'm leaning toward equality here, even though my feet weren't in stirrups.

Single Dad

Dear Single Dad,

If the father is considered an equal participant in childbirth, then I suppose the father might also be considered an equal participant in abortion. But assuming this sort of equivalency only points up the deficiencies in the argument.

Responsibility is different from experience. You may be responsible in that you made a decision together. And you may be essential in that you are the biological father. And your emotional involvement, your felt experience, may be equal in intensity. But that does not make your experiences equal. It is two different experiences. You cannot talk with equal authority about the experience of giving birth, nor about the experience of having an abortion.

The mother gives birth to a child. The father watches. The father is not in any practical way an equal participant in a birth. How these two experiences could be considered equivalent is beyond me.

If you and your wife decide together that you will have a vasectomy, it is not your wife's vasectomy. It is yours. You are the only one who can speak with personal authority about the experience. So if your daughter were thinking about having a vasectomy, you would be the person to talk to about it.

But she is no more likely to have a vasectomy than you are likely to have an abortion. So if your daughter is to be told about the abortions her mother had, her mother should tell her.

I'm not at all sure that she should be told. But if you think she should, then call your ex-wife and tell her that you believe she should tell your daughter about the abortions.

Why? your ex-wife will ask.

Why, indeed. It's an excellent question. The answer must be that this will help your daughter make informed, rational decisions. But how will knowing about her mother's abortions help her make informed, rational decisions? It may do just the opposite. If, for instance, she is intent on differentiating herself from her parents, then she may decide, well, if my mother had two abortions, that's the last thing I'm going to do! No matter what!

In which case, if she should become pregnant, she may give undue weight to the desire to do things differently from her parents -- and have the kid no matter what.

So consider carefully whether this is something she should be told.

There are other reasons that even if she is to be told, her mother should tell her, not you. If you tell her, the conclusion she may well reach is that her mother kept these things secret from her because her mother has some defect of character. It portrays the mother in a less than flattering light, as a secret keeper, someone who cannot be trusted to tell the daughter the truth. You, by contrast, appear as the truth giver. It creates a conspiratorial atmosphere between you and your daughter against her mother.

It may be that you want very much to appear in your daughter's eyes as the truth-telling parent, the responsible one, the one who is facing up to life's challenges. But when we tell someone else's truth without his or her OK, we are committing a kind of theft. So you will not really appear as the virtuous one in your daughter's eyes. Even if she cannot consciously explain it, she will sense that all is not on the up-and-up. She will feel uncomfortable with this knowledge. She will sense that she is in the middle of something. She will sense that she is being used.

This is your ex-wife's truth to tell. They were her abortions. It is her story.

But my, how I do go on. So, to sum up: First, consider carefully whether this is really something your daughter can use responsibly to make the best decisions in her own life. Keep in mind that if she is intent on differentiating herself from you and your ex-wife, she may use this information to do the opposite of what you hope she will do.

Then, after all that, if you still honestly think she needs to know, call your ex-wife and tell her you think it's time she told your daughter about her abortions.

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