Author: E. O’Neill
When I heard Arnold Schwarzenegger tell “60 Minutes” host Lesley Stahl that fathering a love child during his affair was the “stupidest thing I have ever done,” I cringed. Those words confirmed for me the stigma of being illegitimate. I know, because I am a secret love child.
I was raised in an upper middle class family in upstate New York. As the middle child of three, I always knew something was “off” in my family. Intuitively, I felt I was the problem — that things would be better between my parents if I wasn’t there. My father did not treat me with the love he had for my brother and sister. Sometimes, the awareness that I didn’t fit in made me feel like I was in the wrong house with the wrong family.
Life at home became unbearable because I felt I wasn’t wanted. Having remarkable survival instincts and a strong work ethic, I moved out on my own at a very young age and became self-supporting. Neither of my parents balked at my decision in my teens, which further validated my inclinations. I put myself through college and fell into a lucrative career. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was an outcast, despite continually seeking out a sense of belonging. By this point, I was well into using food and alcohol to fill the void I was born with.
I found myself in a 12-step recovery program at the age of 23. Finally, I’d found my place amongst strangers who understood me, and I belonged. However, the recovery process stresses that self-centeredness was the nature of our dilemma. Again, I must be the problem. There had to be a solution.
At 25 I entered into a marriage that was doomed from the start. I was choosing from a wounded place and just didn’t know it. By 31, I found myself alone with two babies under the age of two. It was just before my thirty-second birthday when who I was came to me. Literally, it came to me.
During a massage, while in a dream-like state, I heard a conversation between my parents. I immediately phoned my father from Boca Raton, where I was living. He had found his own 12-step recovery for alcoholism by this time, and we had begun to mend our relationship. I told him about this “dream.” I asked him if he had ever wondered whether or not I was his child, at which point he became very emotional. He shared that he had carried secret doubts for over three decades. He agreed to DNA testing, and I flew back to my hometown within days. Three weeks later the results confirmed that I was not his. Rather, I was the product of a four-year affair between my mother and his boss, who was also his good friend. During my mom’s pregnancy with me, he had confronted her because he didn’t feel the same connection that he had during their first pregnancy with my sister. Mom told him he must be crazy, and he carried guilt for not believing her. The DNA results were an “ah-ha” moment-for both of us. The truth set us free. Now I could start to trust my instincts. There was a lot of work ahead to heal these wounds, but my parents — who had divorced by this time — were committed to healing our relationships.
A short time later, the father of my children left the area and stayed away. Seemingly, I had created a parallel situation for my own two children, who now had no father figure. I couldn’t help but wonder if being alone was my destiny.
I contacted my biological father, and he refused to admit that he was my parent. My own father, who was now “Dad-not,” stepped into my life and the lives of my children as a grandparent extraordinaire — and in this way, made his living amends to me for not being a parent during my childhood, when I was the scapegoat and misfit and didn’t know why.
My Dad-not passed in 2010 after becoming my best friend and a remarkable role model to my son and daughter. Meanwhile, I had to forgive my mother for keeping my origin a secret. After intense therapy, I realized that in 1961 (the year I was born) she was in a lose-lose situation as a Catholic. Leaving her marriage to be with her lover was taboo; keeping the fact I was a love child a secret was practically a societal requirement.
Miraculously, and with a great deal of introspective work in recovery, I became the parent I never had. The greatest blessings in my life are my 21-year-old son, Brit, and 22-year-old daughter, Jane. They are the fuel that drives my unstoppable commitment to break the dysfunctional family dynamics in which I was raised. My book, >Ellen Who? Story of a Secret Love Child, tells the in-depth story of my experience being a secret love child. With my instincts in conflict with the facts, I was inherently wired not to trust myself. After all that has occurred, my definition of success is what a person decides to become in spite of their life circumstances. I am no longer an overeater, and haven’t consumed alcohol in twenty-seven years.
Everyone has secrets, but being the secret is much different. A love child is the walking evidence and reminder of our parent’s adultery. Being born as a result of an affair affects one’s entire identity and origin, with effects that are beyond explanation. In many situations, fear prevents people from facing their wrongs and taking full responsibility. Additionally, the biological parent may have so much shame that they unknowingly transfer that onto the love child. I suspect this is why the subject of love children is not talked about too much; my hope is that the discussion will begin now.