The Trouble With Paternity Secrets: Sin and Grace In Oprah’s “Greenleaf”

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I’ve been binge-watching a Netflix series as of late called “Greenleaf.” With Executive Producer and Talk Show Queen Oprah Winfrey at the helm, the series is all about church life and corruption within it. “Greenleaf” is all about a family (with the surname Greenleaf) in church life, where the father is Bishop, a daughter and son are preachers, and their sister is a singer with a craving for the spotlight. The daughter Grace holds a privileged position as a dynamic preacher alongside her father. Bishop’s wife and Grace’s mother, Mae, is a First Lady who can preach in her own right, though she’s given up her desire to go to Divinity School so that she could be a wife and mother.

But Mae also has a secret she’s been holding in: her daughter Grace, with whom she’s always been somewhat hostile, isn’t Bishop’s biological daughter. Grace Greenleaf is not Bishop’s daughter. She isn’t a bonafide Greenleaf. And the worst part of it all is that Grace’s father is a man with whom Mae had an affair. It wasn’t meant to be anything more than just a step-out adventure on her husband.

In the opening moments of season 3, Episode 11 in Greenleaf, Mae tells a dear friend of hers, Maxine (Maxine the friend being played by Patti LaBelle), “When James cheated with Mavis, I…I wanted to leave him, at least for a little while, you know, to scare him. But then we had this annual vacation coming up with…Lionel and Patrice…that’s all it was meant to be, was a fling. I mean, I just needed to get my groove back a little. But then I got pregnant. And now that Lionel is dying, he wants to tell the woman that he’s sure is his daughter the truth…I’m telling you, God has it in for me…this selfish old man wants to die like an exiled patriarch, leavin’ me behind with this girl blaming me…oh, she’s gonna think all this is the key to all my sorrows, this is my answer to life — ‘My mother…was ashamed of me,’ and you know what? she wouldn’t be completely wrong.”

Mae is ashamed of her daughter (named Grace, mind you) because “Grace” is a reminder of her sin, her affair with a man who was not her husband. And she did it out of spite to get back at Bishop, her husband. But the trouble in all this is that she’s concerned in her words above about being left with the secret that she’ll have to tell her daughter. Lionel wants the truth to prevail, and Mae would rather keep it hidden because of how humiliated she will feel when it all comes out. Once again, Mae is doing what so many in her position have done: think of themselves.

But before I get into more about why I disagree with Mae and her mindset, let’s take a look at Mae’s decision and possible reasons behind doing it.

Why some women keep paternity secrets

Why do some women keep paternity secrets? The answer can be found in the fact that mothers/wives/women want to maintain a set way of life they have achieved. Think about it: if a woman is married to the man she wants to be with, why tell him one of her children isn’t his and ruin a “good thing”? Mae has been a Pastor’s wife, and as the First Lady, she has a reputation to maintain. Sexual sin in the Pastor’s household diminishes the reputation of the First Family of any church. I’m sure this needs no explanation, but I provide it as a benefit for those who want to know. Some women marry into respectable families and like to leave their less-than-respectable pasts alone, in the dust, back where they believe they belong. This doesn’t make it right, but this is one reason.

Another reason pertains to the father in question, his home life, living situation, and family life. The father in question may not be a respectable person. He may be a notorious criminal who’s in and out of jail. He may be a drug dealer, an assassin, any notorious person you could think of with a notorious past and present. And mothers in those situations may deem the father to be unfit in their minds to have time with their child or children.

Some mothers refuse to tell the father about the child because they play on the father’s ignorance. He doesn’t know, they say, so a lifetime of ignorance won’t hurt any worse than the current ignorance does. Since the father doesn’t know now, he isn’t harmed because “what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him,” some say. There’s a problem with this, but for now, I’m just stating the reasons.

The mother may decide the father isn’t someone she can co-parent with because the father is rude and disrespectful to her and has never wanted children, or is someone who runs away from paternity claims. So the mother thinks to herself, if the man has never wanted children, what makes him want her child?

There are other reasons, but Mae’s reason she never told Grace as a child (in Greenleaf) is that she wanted to maintain her reputation as the Bishop’s wife and keep a happy home life. Without her own divinity education and without degrees of any sort, her financial life without the Bishop would have been difficult if not downright terrible. And as Mae says above, she didn’t want to have a family with Lionel. Lionel was just a fling for her, just a one-night stand that she could have then put out of her mind. She never laid down with the intent of making a child (Grace) with Lionel, though, as Paternity Court’s Judge Lauren Lake says, if you lay down with someone with no protection, you intend to make a baby. It’s as simple as that.

speaking up for the children: the trouble with paternity secrets

Mothers make all kinds of decisions with regard to their children, but some take the projectory of Mae’s mindset above. They decide that their child’s father isn’t fit or that they don’t want him to be in their child’s life, so they don’t tell him and they don’t tell the child. But this only hurts the child. In the end, the child is the one who grows up without a father. The child is the one who misses out on a lifetime of memories because he or she doesn’t know who their father is. In the case of Grace Greenleaf, she discovers that Lionel is her father after he finally dies. She asks her mother Mae about Lionel, to which Mae says, “I don’t know.” A blood test with Lionel’s son, Aaron (who also works in the same church where the Greenleafs preside, by the way), confirms that Lionel is her father.

But by the time she learns the truth, Lionel is dead and buried. Grace has not only missed out on a childhood with her biological father, she’s missed out on mourning his death, too, because she doesn’t even get to appear at his funeral. So Grace is robbed in life (as is Lionel) and in death. Lionel knows Grace is his, but he doesn’t get to celebrate it because James didn’t know. So James gets to assume a child that isn’t his while Lionel is denied the prestige and recognition that come with his upcoming star preacher daughter, Grace.

Mothers, when you deny the father his rights to the child, and deny him knowledge that he has a child in the world, you may think you’re getting over on the father — but you’re robbing your child, too. Imagine if you were that child. Would you want to be denied your father because your mother held a grudge or simply didn’t want you to know? The Golden Rule applies here, too (Matthew 7:12).


Mothers, you can give a million reasons why you don’t want your child’s father in his or her life, but none of them suffice because of one simple truth: every child deserves to know his or her father. Every child deserves the unconditional right to know their paternity, what man gave them life and helped bring them into the world. When you rob your children of that knowledge and you rob men of that knowledge and the recognition that comes with it, nothing good will come out of it. And your children will live to resent you. And God will judge you for it. Remember, there’s nothing we do under the sun for which we will not be judged. We will be judged for every deed, for not only what we’ve committed but also the truth we’ve suppressed (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 1:18).

Even Jesus knew who His biological father was. Joseph was chosen by God and blessed to be Jesus’ earthly father, but Joseph never replaced God the Father in the life of God’s Son, Jesus. And no stepfather or earthly father will ever take the place of a child’s biological father — no matter how good the substitute may be or how loving he is…or even how happy you, the mother, may be with the new man.

Finally, I leave you with something else to think about. Whether you know it or not, DNA kits and testing are all the rage these days. Someday, your child is going to send in his or her DNA sample to see where they come from. The last thing you want is a surprise when he or she gets a match at the top of his or her list that says “father.” I’ve talked to many cousins that have had this experience, and trust me when I tell you, it isn’t fun. And some of those cousins have cut ties completely with their biological mother over it. The best you can do if you plan to keep paternity secrets is hope and pray that your child(ren) will never do a DNA test — but the chances of that are slim to none.

Even in 2021, honesty (even about paternity) is still the best policy.