• While my mother could have provided the correct name for that certificate, she did not. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
My father was married, in fact he still is, to a woman he once described as his “best friend” but this woman was not, is not, my mother.
By
Shona Hendley

16 Sep 2020 - 8:57 AM  UPDATED 18 Sep 2020 - 1:06 PM

As a writer, what I find the most engaging — the stories that really suspend your disbelief — are personal stories. Often they’re about a person’s own family, where inevitably there is some sort of scandal, a ‘black sheep’ or a secret.

For years I have interviewed people about theirs, listened as they shared the complexities, the ongoing impacts that these experiences have caused. I have heard the most unbelievable accounts of ordinary people, some so soap opera-like you wouldn’t believe it could be true, except of course it is.

But from these stories, it’s perhaps my own that is the most incredulous. It is also an experience which has caused me immense pain throughout my life, even now. 

You see, I am a secret. I am a secret daughter. I was born from an affair.

Thirty-five years ago, in a Melbourne women’s hospital I entered the world. On my birth certificate which was filled out in the days following, all the details were completed, except for one. The section ‘Father’, where my father’s name should have been written, was instead the word ‘unknown’.

While my mother could have provided the correct name for that certificate, she did not. And with this, in one symbolic moment my identity was forever, officially intertwined with this secret that I had never had a choice in.

While my mother could have provided the correct name for that certificate, she did not. And with this, in one symbolic moment my identity was forever, officially intertwined with this secret that I had never had a choice in.

My father was married, in fact he still is, to a woman he once described as his “best friend” but this woman was not, is not, my mother. 

My parents met when Mum was studying as a mature age student at a Melbourne university, he was her tutor. A relationship blossomed between them and lasted for seven years. It wasn’t a quick, passion-filled affair that could be blamed on a lapse of judgment or intoxication. It was long term, planned impeccably in parts, deliberate and mutual.

About four or five years into this relationship, this secret affair, my mum expressed her desire for a baby. Ultimately (and by freewill I may add) my father agreed.

When I was young, still in primary school, Mum told me the nature of her relationship with my father and how I came to be. At that point I didn’t really understand what she meant, I was seven or eight, how could I comprehend? I had simply wanted to know why there were no photos of them at their wedding, the marriage that she had told me happened but hadn’t lasted. But there were no photos because there had been no wedding I would of course find out.

In fact, there were no photos of my father at all. Not one. I had no idea what he looked like other than a vague description my mother provided. For the majority of my life the only information I ever understood about my dad was also from her.

I didn’t see my father after my mother and I moved away from Melbourne, when I was about two years old. After that he would call us on the phone a few times a year, from a public phone box where the trains could be heard in the background.

He would send us birthday cards and Christmas cards, they were signed ‘your pal’, never his name, an action, just like the birth certificate, of self-protection so that his identity could never be, on paper, revealed.

Then after my 18th birthday my mother and I never heard from him again. She thought he may have died. For a long time after this, I didn’t think about him, at least not consciously.

Then after my 18th birthday my mother and I never heard from him again. She thought he may have died. For a long time after this, I didn’t think about him, at least not consciously.

When I became a mother myself nearly eight years ago my ‘nonchalant’ attitude, as I would imagine my father saying, about him lessened and the desire to understand an integral part of my identity, of my heritage, of my biological father grew. There was also the medical history of him and his family that I had no idea about and that also was important for me to know – for myself and my daughters.

So, through a convoluted social media and online investigation I found a way to contact him. And I did, via email.

What happened after that is heartbreaking for me, even still three years on.

While his responses at the start of our correspondence were cordial and polite they soon, when I asked if we could meet, turned into something else.

I explained that meeting him, even just once, would mean a lot to me. That I wasn’t interested in exposing his secret to his family or wife, that I would just like the chance to meet my own father in person.

I explained that meeting him, even just once, would mean a lot to me. That I wasn’t interested in exposing his secret to his family or wife, that I would just like the chance to meet my own father in person.

But this idea was never even considered. He told me that he could not in any way shape or form meet me, he refused to even call me on the phone as an alternative. I was then blamed for making his blood pressure rise.  Finally, he said that if I insisted on meeting that he would no longer email me either, I would be, as I had already been for years before, cut off.

And eventually I was. His fake email was deleted, all modes of contacting him were gone.

Although deleted from his computer history, I am still very much here. In his eyes I may be a secret, but for me, my story and who I am is not a secret, not anymore. 

In the three years that have passed since I communicated with my father I have felt a constant ebb and flow of emotions.

There is a part of me that will always want to have some sort of fulfilling resolution to this, ideally one that would see him find the courage to reveal his secret and reach out to me, as his child who just wants to know him, from a father who wants to know his daughter.

In the three years that have passed since I communicated with my father I have felt a constant ebb and flow of emotions.

There is another part of me, on bad days, who hopes that the corrosiveness of his secret will eat him up inside — not because of the affair itself but because of the cold rejection of us, of me.

Ultimately though, I have no control over any of this, just as I had no control over the circumstances of my creation.

I know that I have done what is within my power. And I know that I have been honest, brutally so; I have been brave, I have exposed myself in the most raw and vulnerable way. And most importantly, I have been myself, something that my father is still struggling to be. 


Shona Hendley is a freelance writer. Follow her on Instagram @shonamarion.  

Every Family Has A Secret season 2 premieres on Tuesday 22 September at 7.30pm on SBS. Episodes will also screen as an encore on SBS VICELAND Thursdays at 11pm.

Every Family Has A Secret will be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic and added to the subtitled collection at SBS On Demand, available immediately after its premiere.

RECOMMENDED
The secret strain behind my wedding photos
Some of my extended family worried that this was not a marriage that would last. It was declared we "would not make it past our seventh anniversary” and it still triggers a sting to this day.
The emotional toll of my secret dating life
I have dated outside my ethnic background and navigated differences in culture, religion, class and family expectations. None of it was easy.
My sister was my secret ally in my infertility struggles
My sister and I are only 15 months apart. These days, we are often mistaken for twins.