Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where players, slayers, and sashayers alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about privacy and your obligations to not-so-strangers.
I was recently contacted on Facebook by a woman who found me through a DNA database that suggested we are 2nd or 3rd cousins. She is searching for her birth mother, and gave me what information she had, including where and when she was born and her mother’s age.
After verifying her identity and our apparent degree of consanguinity, I told her I would do what I can to help. My family is originally from the part of the country where she was born and although I haven’t lived there since I was a child, I have numerous relatives, including a fairly large contingent of cousins, who would have been in the right place at the right time to be this woman’s mother.
Since I’m not close to this branch of the family, I’ve passed the information on to an older relative who may know more. If this relative can identify the teen mother, or make an educated guess, I’m not sure what I should do with the information.
I’m not really comfortable invading someone’s privacy by passing her name along to a stranger, “We sussed it out and counted backwards and this must be your mom. Here’s her phone number.” Especially, if it’s only an “educated guess.” However, I also think that family secrets can be destructive and I believe this woman has a right to try to contact her birth mother, especially, as may be the case, if there are hereditary medical issues.
But I also don’t want to volunteer as mediator. As I mentioned, I’m not close to this branch of the family, so I would be as much of a stranger as anyone if I tried to contact the alleged birth mother. (“You don’t know me but my mom knows your uncle and we were gossiping and wondered if you had a baby in high school and never told anyone. OKBYEEE.”)
So, dearest Muffle, what do you advise?
23 and Us
Man, the Internet is a weird and wonderful thing. Even ten years ago, this woman would have been stuck with publicly available records and genealogy sites; twenty years ago, with paper records. Today, she sends off a bottle o’ spit and gets back a list of folks who share her blood. The question becomes, though, how to handle these delicate questions of etiquette and the right to knowledge in the age of ever-decreasing personal privacy.
Ultimately, I think this is a relatively simple question, but one that requires you (or your older relative) to have a conversation with the potential mama here. For whatever reason, this woman chose to give up a child a long time ago, and did so without leaving her identity behind. I’m not sure what the state of adoption would have been during this time period and the place where this happened, so maybe she had no choice; maybe, one she decided to give the child up, she had to do so anonymously. Or maybe she felt ashamed, and wanted this whole situation to just… go away. Or maybe, or maybe, or maybe…
The point is, you don’t know enough to make an informed decision at this point. Ultimately, my position is that it is the mother’s call as to whether she wants to be identified and contacted by her daughter. It’s very possible that, with the years, she’s changed her mind. But it’s equally possible that she hasn’t, and it’s not for you to make that decision for her. Even in the age of the death of privacy, I believe strongly that we are entitled to our secrets. It would be inappropriate for you to exercise your amateur sleuthing skills to reveal something as personal as this just because you think you’ve determined the right answer. (And, as a side note, think about what might happen if you’re wrong; you say you’re not close to that branch of the family, but few women old enough to have an adult daughter would appreciate being accused of youthful promiscuity and of abandoning their supposed secret offspring…)
To be clear, I’m not saying that the daughter doesn’t have the right to do further research and figure this out on her own, if she can, but that’s her prerogative. And even if she does find her mother, the mother can still choose not to engage with her in any way. Basically, you’ve been roped into a situation that really shouldn’t involve you at all; you’ve done exactly what you should feel morally obligated to do, and I would advise against doing anything else until you know more about the wishes of everyone this actually effects. Remember, you consented to sharing your DNA on the internet, not your family member; she shouldn’t be forced to reckon with the consequences of your decision.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.