Case study 7 – The child of a marriage conceived in an affair
In her thirty-fifth year, Miranda developed an aggressive cervical cancer. It followed a decade of disastrous attempts at falling pregnant.
Radical hysterectomy had the better survival rates in those days and so she took it. A near death and childlessness affected she and her partner Andre deeply. They took a 3 month holiday researching overseas adoptions, rejected the idea and returned to the jobs they loved in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Miranda settled more easily into her research than Andre who seemed despairing about everything, including his job as a park manager. He had been the stronger on having kids. Miranda read his emotional distance from her as his grieving.
A year later, Andre met Bryoni at a conference. They shared a passion for reef turtles. Bryoni was married with two boys, though she said it was more like living with three since husband Bill was ‘just a big kid’. He never took anything seriously. ‘Enjoy every moment whilst you can,’ was his philosophy.
When Andre came to Brisbane for work at the University he stayed with Bryoni and Bill. He became like a part of the family. At a conference during one of those stays, ‘just friends’ turned into something more. A pregnancy ensued that would go full term. Bill was blind to what lay behind it; Andre was ecstatic; Bryoni unsure of the paternity, and Miranda read Andre’s mood change and thought ‘at last he was moving on.’
The child was a girl whom they called Beck. The day of her birth, Bryoni freaked out at her physical appearance when she saw the resemblance to Andre. She was worried sick for six months and then broke off all contact with Andre to protect herself and she thought, Beck.
Andre was doubly devastated. His partner Miranda sensed something was wrong, but put it down to the old issues of childlessness resurfacing. Respecting his privacy, they didn’t talk.
By the time Beck was five, the difference between her and Bry and Bill’s two boys was so marked and the similarity to the photographs of Andre, particularly the gaelic nose and coloring so obvious, that the boys teased her about it. One said, ‘you’re not one of us, freak!’
The effect on Beck’s esteem, it seemed to Bryoni, made a modified disclosure unavoidable before the child’s self-doubt became entrenched. She began with Bill. He was dumbfounded. After a week’s bitter silence he just said, flatly, ‘shit happens, it will turn out alright, don’t worry love. Boys will be boys, they’ll grow out of it too’.
Bryoni, sensing an edge of Bill now joining the boys in making an exception of Becky, feared he was going to take an unspoken revenge out on the daughter who was not his own flesh and blood. She raised this fear with him. It was an unjust accusation that deeply offended Bill. They began to fight about little things, bitterly. Bryoni decided they needed help to navigate the storm.
It took considerable persuasion for Bill, an ambulance officer, to go with Bryoni for help. He would only go to the ambo’s trauma counselor, who had been with the guys through tough times and unknown to Bill, was an adoptee. She understood some of the identity issues that Becky was going to face as a teenager.
Bill had an unspoken reason for going for help. He was loaded with unfinished business from an horrific multi car pile up some years back at a black spot on the Pacific Highway north of Brizy. He knew it was trauma when he had recurring nightmares about it. He wouldn’t talk about it to anyone. He and his mates had scraped the body parts of a young family out of the rear of a car after it was hit head on by a bus. The bus full of school children was without seat belts. They also tended the hurt and dying spread all over the road.
It was a very long night and one of Australia’s worst road accidents. In the formal trauma debrief after it Bill just shrugged it off. He minimized it and reiterated his cheerful philosophy, ‘just shows you, you’ve got to live whilst you’re alive, cos you’re dead a long time’.
In the journey of healing that trauma, Bill found that he could take some of life seriously.
He returned to Becky’s needs and those of her biological father Andre with a deeper sense of its importance. He identified with their blood ties. Though he loved Becky as his own he would say that ‘blood is thicker than water’. By the time Becky was nine, Bill was ready to risk losing her, if that is what transpired. Typical of a straight shooter, he contacted Andre ‘man to man’.
Over the same period of time, Andre had respected Bryoni’s wishes, made no contact but had explored his paternity rights and obligations. He had begun to tell himself a story about how one day Becky would ask why she looked so different to her siblings and start probing with awkward questions.
Then one day, at about the same time as things were moving along in Brisbane, Andre had an epiphany. He saw his fatherhood resolving but not by the slow revelation method, rather by having it all out in the open, now.
He told his partner Miranda of this revelation. She felt shattered, heart broken, betrayed again by him and told him, ‘You’ve just wiped the last eight years of my life with poison and lies! I haven’t spent the time recovering from cancer to have the rest of my life destroyed by another woman dividing us. It will take us years to clean up the mess you made’, she said. ‘I am not ready for this.’
‘We don’t have years,’ Andre replied. ‘The child’s going on eight. In my dream I saw that she could grow to be a daughter for us both.’
‘Never, not on your life, forget it!’ replied Miranda.
‘We need help then’, said Andre.
A year later, the emotion focussed couple therapy I provided had put their marriage albeit wobbly, back on the road. Coincidentally they were ready and could welcome the ‘man to man’ phone call from Bill. They had come to the point where it was their next move as well.
At a gentle pace and with intensive family therapy in Brisbane, the two couples evolved unique, kind and inclusive solutions that expanded their circle of ‘family’. It was distressing, at times overwhelming and many times one or other stormed off or gave up. But every time, their love of Becky brought them back to the table.
That these huge issues arising from betrayal were bridged by the wish for all to be at peace with an outcome in the best interests of the child, taught me about openness and reconciliation in these situations. They don’t always work out so well.
Miranda and Andre became ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ to Bryoni and Bill’s kids. Becky had a second mum and dad. The boys scored scuba diving and sailing and still teased Beck about her nose, but with a fierce, protective pride – ‘she’s one of us’. All three kids and two families holidayed most years on the reef, until only Beck was left at home. She went up there for the summer holidays without Bill and Bryoni.
Some years afterward, Becky came back to see me by herself.
She had grown into a remarkable person, fluent in a number of languages, working in Europe and carrying her gaelic good looks with pride. Miranda, her other mum had died a year ago and she was still broken up about it. She felt it more than she believed was equal to the loss – especially compared to those she dealt with in her work. Her job was re-integrating children into communities from which they had been sold in the sex trade.
She and Miranda had become very close during the alternating hopeful and despairing months of chemotherapy when Miranda came out of remission. Becky came back to Australia to be with Miranda at home during her last weeks.
When she died, Andre, her biological father fell apart. Becky felt she had to be the strong one, which she was. It pissed her off.
It was hard for her to admit she resented Andre’s neediness, his insecurity and that he didn’t have the resources to support her. It was always Bill who was there for her and it was Bill who didn’t expect her to be strong, who held her when she was upset. The old identity issues resurfaced in her grief and this is what we worked through together.
Beck was able to move on from this stuff, more than anything because of the struggle these two families had made in her early years affirming her unusual identity. It was for her a source of strength rather than the nagging doubts of one who’s parents denied her origins.
Not all stories go down this track no matter how desperately one and particularly one party may wish it so.
The same intentions held by all parties and pursued with the same vigor and skill do not always produce the same result.