, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 303-310

Undisclosed Paternal Identity in Narratives of Distress Among Young People in Eastern Cape, South Africa

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Abstract

Life trajectories of children with no connections to support from their fathers have received research attention. Within this group is a sub-group who do not know their fathers and no research has attempted to understand their experiences. We present accounts of how young South Africans deal with and seek to uncover undisclosed paternity. Forty young men and women aged 16 to 22 volunteered to participate in a qualitative study on distress that was conducted in the Eastern Cape Province. All interviews were conducted in isiXhosa, following a semi-structured guide. Our findings show that interest in father identity was motivated by harsh circumstances in the maternal home, notably when financial difficulties, exclusion from critical decision making and bullying by non-biological siblings were felt. The search for father identity was pursued in solitude by some participants: their fear of elders’ response restrained them from asking. Some thought that it would be interpreted as being disrespectful and ungrateful to ask ‘such a question’, whilst others worried that they might be victimized or, worse, thrown out by their mothers or maternal guardians. We present accounts of accidental disclosures by strangers and also inadvertent involvement in an incestuous relationship. Open and honest communication with children about their paternal identity should be promoted to prevent the currents of silence, secrecy and anxiety, and avoid unpleasant surprises for the children.