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Virginia Ironside Dilemmas: 'An older woman told me she had a 25-year-old daughter by my husband'

Dear Virginia, Last week, on dropping off my daughter at playgroup, an older woman who helps out came up to me and claimed she had a 25-year-old daughter by my husband. She only told me because the daughter occasionally helps out at the group. I'm in a state of shock. We've been together 12 years, and have three children. He'd have been 16 when this girl was conceived. I feel betrayed, not only by him but by his family, that I was never told. And surely he should made provision for his daughter? I'm not ready for a conversation as I think I'll explode. What can I do? Can I ever forgive him? Yours sincerely, Angie

While I can quite understand why you feel like this, I think what you've failed to do is to put yourself in your husband's shoes. And your inability to understand how other people's minds and hearts might work might be exactly the reason your husband didn't tell you – because he knew that you'd be so incensed you wouldn't even consider his side of the story.

I suspect that you imagine that, at 16, your husband was pretty much an adult, perhaps a boastful, testosterone-charged lad who couldn't wait to get into bed with this woman. Despite her protests, he slept with her without using birth control and, when she got pregnant, simply gave an unpleasant laugh, claimed it was not his business, and as far as he was concerned she could lump it. He wasn't going to take any responsibility and he was going to forget all about it. The reason he never told you was, simply, because he had pretty much forgotten all about it and put it down to childish high jinks.

But I can imagine another scenario. A very young 16-year-old, perhaps only days after his 15th birthday, more of a boy than a man, meets an older woman hell-bent on having a baby. She inveigles him into bed, against his better judgment, swearing she's using birth control and, when she becomes pregnant, insists that she wants to bring this child up by herself, with no financial support from anyone else. Your husband and his parents might have begged her to have an abortion, but she refused. This baby – now a woman – has been on his conscience all his life, and he remembers the whole incident with shame. There have been times he has tried to contact his daughter but has been met with blank refusal. There have also been times when he wanted to confide in you, but he feared that if he mentioned it he would lose you.

Now of course I have no idea what the exact scenario was, and my version may be – probably is – just as skewed as yours. But you have to admit, you have absolutely no idea of the facts.

Obviously you and your husband have to talk, but as you say you'll explode if you open up the subject, I suggest you discuss it in front of a third party. You could go to see a Relate counsellor, on your own, and ask if she or he would invigilate. Then you could ask your husband to come along for just one meeting. That way you can bring up the subject without the whole thing getting out of control, and giving him a chance to tell you the truth of what really happened.

You need the facts

Don an ice pack and view the situation with a cool head. Firstly, has this woman provided evidence? Has your husband owned up? Indeed, did he even know he'd fathered a child 25 years ago? Apart from her daughter possibly having contact with a half-sibling, what other motives might this woman have for raising this? Is she envious of your marriage and three lovely children? Remember, she was the other half of the hot-blooded, adolescent pairing that occurred; she could have said 'No', and she could, subsequently, have had a legal termination. She is not blameless, if blame is to be apportioned.

Your husband is, doubtless, now a very different person from the 16-year-old who allegedly impregnated a girl, long before you hove into view. Even if the story is true, you must ask yourself whether you are going to let this woman destroy your life, whether you can forgive your husband his youthful folly and repair the damage, or whether you feel too betrayed ever to trust him and his family again. You are having a "for better for worse" episode in your marriage – is this the worst thing that could ever happen?

Name and address supplied

Times have changed

Twenty-five years ago it was 1986. A very different world. When a very young girl got pregnant (and kept the baby) it's very likely that the girl's parents had a big say in say in whether the boy-father was even told. Absent fathers were rarely seriously expected to support the child and the girl's parents may not have wanted him to because they may not have wanted him anywhere near their daughter! To expect a 16-year-old boy in 1986 to behave as a grown man is now expected to behave is unrealistic.

Find out from your husband his story of what happened. Find out of he wants to know the young woman now and whether she wants to know him. If they do want to know each other, get to know her and introduce her slowly to your children and get over it like a grown-up mother of three children has to get over things, because, believe me, there are worse storms ahead than this one!

Deborah Berns by email

He was a child himself

Although I can appreciate the shock you must feel, surely if he was 16 then the chances are that this was a childhood mistake. Did he know straight way he was the father? Even if he did, surely you can't blame him and condemn him for something that happened so long ago? Also, you say he should have made provision for his daughter. Do you know if he had tried to?

Perhaps he should have told you, but he was a child when this happened and may not have felt able to.

You have three children together and, without wishing to simplify the whole thing, surely your future together is not worth risking? You should forgive him as it was before you were together. Finally, what if this woman is not telling the truth?

Ian Brown by email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I have three sons by a previous marriage and I know they had a difficult time, as they were too young to understand their father was a bully, and thought it was my fault he left. Now I've married a very nice man, and my sons are all grown up. Although two of my sons and I get on well enough – and I am very fond of their partners and my grandchildren – the middle son is always against me and last week he again accused me of everything under the sun. My eldest son said I shouldn't bother with him because he thinks the world's against him. What do you think? All I want is some acknowledgement that I did my best when they were small. It seems whatever I do for my middle son – look after the children, take them on holiday – it's never enough.

Yours sincerely, Zena

What would you advise Zena to do?

Email your dilemmas and comments to dilemmas @independent.co.uk. Anyone whose advice is quoted will receive a £25 voucher from the wine website Fine Wine Sellers (www.finewinesellers.co.uk)