Often a couple will bear a child and then split up under acrimonious circumstances. Although this is the case and the mother and father bear ill will toward each other, the remaining parent (or other parental figure) doesn't want to poison the child's mind against the other parent. Or they really would prefer not to have to admit to the child or anyone else that they were abandoned/left.
Or one person will abandon the relationship leaving the other hurt. But still, a child is an innocent.
Or the missing parent is in some sort of special circumstance, regardless of feelings on either side.
So they'll tell a comforting lie or spin an embellishment of the truth that will allow the child to grow up proud of (or at the least, not ashamed of and humiliated by) their Disappeared Dad or Missing Mom. If the vitriol is sufficient, the reverse will also be true. The lie told about the parent is to make the child ashamed, and the truth is they are a better person than the child was led to believe.
Sometimes the child grows up, discovers the truth, and is disappointed. Sometimes the child grows up to find out the truth and doesn't care because they're simply happy to have the other parent in their lives again. The parent can also not care they've disappointed their progeny, or they can live up (or down) to the expectation placed on them by what the child was told.
Occasionally it's a mentor figure who does the deceiving about the legacy of their absent parent. Guilt over keeping the truth from the innocent child may result in a Revealing Hug.
Contrast Tell Me About My Father. I Wished You Were Dead is related in a roundabout way, but in this trope, it's usually one parent or the other declaring that the other is "dead to me". Also related to Motivational Lie, as a child burdened with shame might need the lie to go forward, or a child burdened with shame may get angry enough to overcome what s/he believes is their parents' awful legacy.
- In the Speed Racer episode "Man on the Lam", an escaped convict comes across a house in the woods where a little a blind girl lives all alone. He enthusiastically greets and hugs her, commenting on how big and heavy she had gotten. She tells him that her father had died and her mother was off making money for surgery so she could see again. The man tells her that he was an old friend of her father. It is later revealed that she is friends with Sprital. Leading and after the storm he takes Speed hostage and makes him drive to where the loot was stashed. This leads to a mountain chase and shootout with the police and other criminals involved in the robbery ending with the man getting the mortally injured and telling speed to give his eyes to the little girl who was his daughter.
- Half-averted in Code Geass: Marianne, whose death served as motivation for her son Lelouch, really was killed in the backstory, only to have cheated death via Soul Jar, and was revealed to be a co-conspirator with Emperor Charles in his Assimilation Plot.
- Marvel Comics:
- X-Factor: Hangman's ex, the mother of his son, lied and told the boy, Terry, that his dad is a super hero when the opposite is true. Hangman is astonished to hear this, but goes back and tries to do something heroic for the sake of making his son proud.
- Daredevil: Played with. The Kingpin killed Echo's father, but honored the man's Dying Wish to raise her like his own. So Fisk told Echo Daredevil killed her father. She eventually found out the truth. It was not pretty.
- In Kick-Ass, Big Daddy tells Hit Girl that her mother was killed by the mob, fuelling their Roaring Rampage of Revenge against the Genovese family. It's revealed however, that her mother is very much alive, and Big Daddy simply snuck off with her when she was an infant, so he could raise her to be Little Miss Badass and live out his fantasy of being a vigilante superhero. After Big Daddy is killed, she goes back to her mother, who had been searching for her for years.
- Armageddon: Chick's wife, ashamed of his gambling problem, and angry that he showed up unnanounced to see his son before going into space tells their small son that Chick was "a salesman". She changes her story, though, when the news reveals that Chick is on the teams going to save Earth from a giant asteroid.
- The eponymous character of Forrest Gump has a Disappeared Dad and his mom tells people that "he's on vacation." Though Forrest tells us that she told him that "he's on vacation" means he's never coming back, we don't see her clarify this for other people.
- In The Mask of Zorro, Elena was raised to believe Don Rafael was her father. But Rafael ordered the attack on Don Diego de la Vega which resulted in Esperanza's death. Rafael took Elena as his own because he'd loved Esperanza, but she'd chosen Diego. Elena grew up believing her mother died in childbirth. When Diego returns, he sets the record straight.
- In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Everett's wife Penny tells their daughters that their father died, rather than tell them he's in jail.
- Rookie of the Year: Henry's mother told him growing up about his great father who was a baseball pitcher, when in reality he left when she was pregnant with Henry. Subverted by the fact that Henry's grandmother had told him the truth years ago, and he'd long since made his peace with it.
- Star Wars: In A New Hope, Obi-Wan tells Luke that Darth Vader killed his father. We know that Vader reveals that to be a lie (after a fashion: Obi-Wan considered Anakin dead, and grieved his loss, once he went over to the Dark Side and became Vader).
- Also, Uncle Owen told Luke that his father was a navigator on a spice freighter, in an effort to get Luke to forget about leaving home and becoming a Jedi.
- In The Waterboy, Bobby Boucher's mother tells him his father was a missionary who died of thirst in the desert. Later on, she admits that she lied, and that his dad actually left her for another woman.
- Wonder Woman: Hippolyta tells Diana that she so much wanted a child to love that she sculpted a child statue of clay, and beseeched the gods to breathe life into it, until Zeus granted her wish. The truth is that Zeus and Hippolyta conceived Diana in the human manner. The clay story is to prevent Diana finding out she's really a demigoddess... which Diana does eventually discover. The fact she was a demigoddess would in itself not have been a problem on its own — what Hippolyta was really trying to conceal was the true reason why Diana was born: to kill her brother Ares, as only a god can kill another god.
- In A Brother's Price, Eldie Porter and everyone else is told that her father was some guy in a so-called "crib", a kind of brothel where women pay for a try at getting pregnant. However, it turns out that she was fathered by a man that is regarded as the brother of her mother. It is not actual sibling-incest, they're cousins by blood, but socially it's a different matter.
- In the Harry Potter books, the Dursleys, Harry's abusive and mundane aunt and uncle, make out his parents like terrible people. Harry only finds out they're revered with love once he meets the Wizarding community.
- In the first book of the Percy Jackson series, it's admitted near the beginning that the eponymous character's mom claimed his father was lost at sea. Of course, the truth eventually comes out.
- In the Warrior Cats graphic novel trilogy Tigerstar and Sasha, Sasha gets pregnant with Tigerstar's kits before she realizes that he's a power-crazy murderer bent on ruling the entire forest. She raises her kits on her own, only telling them stories about how their father Tigerstar was strong and brave and that he'd be proud of them. A while after Tigerstar's death, Sasha takes the kits to RiverClan. Imagine the kits' shock when they see young RiverClan cats pretending to be the evil Tigerstar and reenacting his death.
- The Disney Channel series Andi Mack uses this as the plot. On her 13th birthday, Andi is happy when her cool older sister Bex returns to town after a few years away. Later that night, however, Bex breaks to Andi the truth: Their "mother" is actually her grandmother as Bex is Andi's real mom. Andi handling this new dynamic drives the show (and her initial reaction provides the page quote).
- Doctor Who:
- "Father's Day": Rose's mother Jackie tells her that her dead father Pete was a great inventor and entrepreneur. Then Rose goes back in time & meets Pete, and discovers he's a bit of a prat.
- "Demons of the Punjab" plays with this: On a trip to the past, Yasmin Khan discovers important things about her grandmother's life that she never knew about, most importantly her grandmother's sadly short-lived first marriage, to a man who wasn't her grandfather. By the end, Yaz completely understands why her grandmother didn't tell her family any of this.
- On Family Matters Jimmy Baines drops by the house, claiming to be an old college friend although neither Carl or Harriet remember him. That night, Jimmy confesses the truth to Carl: He's Harriet and Rachel's supposedly dead father. He explains that he was overwhelmed being a father and so walked out on the family when the girls were little. For a time, Jimmy sent over cards and money but his wife finally wrote back to tell him to stop. She had told the girls that their father had been shot down during the Korean War as she wanted them to "think he was a hero, not a heel." Jimmy wants to simply leave but Carl convinces him to tell his daughters the truth and after their initial anger, they accept a new chance to know him.
- In Friends, Phoebe's grandmother (on Phoebe's mother's instructions, it turns out) tells Phoebe that her father is a tree surgeon worshiped by villagers in South America. She also buys photo frames and tells Phoebe that the stock photo of the guy who comes with the frame is her father. This was done so Phoebe would feel like she had an interesting dad, but would never try to track him down.
- Glee: It turns out that Finn Hudson's mother had been lying about her husband the entire time - he didn't die a glorious war hero like Finn thought, but was discharged dishonorably and died a drug pusher in Cincinnati.
- Among Sue's defenses for her crazy behavior is the fact her parents were never around as they were busy hunting Nazis. In the final season, during a TV interview, Sue's mom confesses that she and her husband were accountants and made up the Nazi hunting because they just couldn't stand to be around Sue.
- On Grey's Anatomy, Jackson Avery prides himself on being the grandson of the acclaimed surgeon Harper Avery, a man who has awards and a hospital named after him. He needs aid from a doctor at another hospital for a case but she refuses as she has a non-disclosure agreement with anything having to do with Harper. Thinking it's for a medical issue, Jackson waives the agreement which sends his mother Catherine into a frenzy. She breaks the truth that Harper was a serial sexual predator who not only harassed female doctors/nurses but would fire them if they refused his advances. Thirteen women went on record for it but, for the good of the hospital, Catherine helped cover it up. This means the hospital can now be liable for lawsuits from these women. Jackson is horrified to realize his grandfather was a monster and dedicates himself to finding justice for these women, no matter if it ruins their name.
- Heroes Reborn: Tommy and his sister are twins, but due to the world-saving usefulness of their powers, they are separated and raised by Hiro and their grandmother, respectively. As a result of mindwipe, Tommy doesn't find out the truth until later: he and his twin sister are Claire Bennet's children, and their heroic destiny is to save the world. Due to Time Travel, he was angry at first to discover that the woman he believed was his mother isn't. After the timeline is tweaked, however, he's not angry; he's excited and thrilled to know he has a sister he's never met, and that he's gonna save the world.
- How I Met Your Mother, Barney's mother told him that his father was Bob Barker (because he was who happened to be on TV at the time). Barney clings to it because he wants an awesome dad. This was to cover up the identity of his real father, who Barney's mother didn't want in the picture.
- Heart-wrenchingly subverted in In Plain Sight. Jynx tells Mary that all of the stories about how Mary's father loved her most were lies made up to comfort the distraught young Mary. Mary flips the script by showing her mom all of the letters she's gotten from her dad over the years, asking "How many did he send you?"
- A variation on Jessie. Ravi tells Jessie of his first day as the adopted child of the Rosses. He mentions his surprise they had a small bed for his komodo dragon and how his room wasn't quite ready yet. In the flashbacks, we see the bed is a crib and the room quite obviously a nursery as the Rosses frantically try to hide all the baby toys. Ignoring the waves of Luke and Emma, Jessie states that it almost sounds as if the Rosses expected Ravi to be an infant rather than ten years old. Ravi realizes this is the case and upset that not only was he not the child they wanted but they hid it from him.
Christina: We weren't planning on telling him until after we were dead!
Morgan: Séance, time travel, we hadn't worked out the details!
- Mighty Med: Double subverted: Alan Diaz has never met his father. Horace told him it is because his father is a great and powerful superhero with an equally great and powerful enemy, so for Alan's safety, the family can have no contact with him. Alan and Skylar dig up Alan's file and find the man they believe to be his father, Nelson. But when they meet him, he's an odd, slovenly, broke and unemployed Normo. Horace figures out where they went and comes to collect them. Alan, in frustration and determination endangers Nelson, only to hurt him. Then he endangers himself only to have Nelson get badly injured shoving him out of harm's way. Once Horace sends the kids on their way, the truth is revealed: Nelson really is the great hero Horace told Alan he is. Nelson is Clark Kenting. He's covering his heroic physique with bad clothes, and staying in character as an unemployed, weirdo slob who is kind of off-putting, to protect his Secret Identity.
- On Modern Family Cam and his sister, Pam, are having a fight when Cam talks about how great their dad was. Pam fires off on how he was a scumbag who walked out on their mother to spend a year living with a younger woman until she dumped him and he came crawling back. Cam snorts that's not true as "the only time Daddy was away from us was when he went to fight in the war." Pam fires back on how "It was 1977! What war?" It takes seeing Cam stunned to the point of catatonic for Pam to realize Cam honestly had no idea their dad was a serial cheater.
- On Mom Violet wants to know why Christy never talks about her father who left them before she was born. Grandmother Bonnie brings Violet to a grave to tell her that her father was abusive and that's why Christy never wanted to talk about him and happy he's out of their lives. Violet accepts it as she hugs her mother. As soon as she's out of earshot, Christy asks Bonnie "So, whose grave is this?" Meaning Violet's father is alive but both women feel it's better Violet think he's dead rather than hunt him down.
- In My Mad Fat Diary, Rae has been led to believe all her life that her Disappeared Dad is living in the Outer Hebrides and is sending her regular postcards with news and inspirational quotes. It's eventually revealed that Rae's mum is the one who has been writing them the whole time and has been lying to her. In reality she has no idea where her Dad really is nor has he ever tried to contact them. Rae takes it quite well, considering.
- Once Upon a Time: Emma tells Henry that his biological father was a fireman and a real hero, who died heroically, and that she has nothing to remember him by to pass on to Henry. She was lying: she and his father Neal Cassady were criminals, and he abandoned her to be caught by the police on one of their con jobs. He's also Baelfire, son of Rumplestiltskin, though Emma didn't know this at the time.
- Orange Is the New Black: Alex grew up poor, and raised by a single mother, who was always going on about Alex's biological father, saying what a great musician he was. When Alex had the chance to meet him as an adult, she saw that he was an Addled Addict who valued women primarily for sex. When she told him that she was his daughter, he even commented on how awkward it would have been if they had accidentally had sex.
- A rare heartwarming version on Psych Shawn has long been angry with father Henry for driving his mom, Madeline, away and costing them years together. When Madeline returns, Shawn is amazed she and Henry are on good terms. He yells at his mother about it, how she can be so close to Henry after he left her and ruined the family. A stunned Madeline relates that she was the one who left the marriage for a job opportunity. Both are thrown to realize that Henry has allowed Shawn to blame him for the marriage ending rather than be angry with his mother.
- In Raising Hope, Jimmy's mother Virginia was raised by her grandmother (Maw Maw). Maw Maw claimed that Virginia's mother had died when trying to get honey from bees - she apparently put a plastic bag over her head to protect herself from the bees, passed out, fell, and hit her head on a porcelain duck. It turns out that Maw Maw was just lying to protect Virginia from the fact that her mother abandoned her.
- On Shameless (US), Kev is worried after a health scare and insists on multiple tests. He's thrown when the doctors inform him that he is a very rare breed of genetics. This leads to Kev making the discovery that he descends from a community that was basically cut off from the rest of the world by a flood in the 1800s and not found until decades later. It also turns out he's basically the result of years of inbreeding among his ancestors and his real name is Bart.
- Kev goes to meet his family who talk of losing him during a trip when he was a kid. But during a big family gathering, a cousin reveals that Kev's father left him behind on purpose as they had to "cut costs". This, combined with the realization these people are hard-core racists, pushes Kev to decide he's better off having nothing to do with them.
- On the Freeform series Siren, Ben has grown up in the coastal town of Bristol Cove listening to the tales of his great-great-great-grandfather Charles who fell in love with a mermaid and they and humans lived in peace. Naturally, he doesn't believe in them until he catches video of a mysterious woman transforming into one. Ben goes to Helen, the owner of a local historical shop who confirms this. Ben thinks this is wonderful but Helen is actually terrified. She informs him that the truth of the legend is that the mermaid chose to return to sea which drove Charles mad and thus he and his crew slaughtered every mermaid they could find. She even hands him one of the crew logs packed with drawings of the massacre. Ben is horrified to realize how the town has spent 150 years celebrating his ancestor who was an utter monster trying to wipe out an entire species just because of a broken heart.
Helen: Genocide. That is your legacy.
- Ben confronts his father on "the truth" with his dad shrugging that Charles was a crazy drunk who imagined mermaids and the family just put on the story of his "romance" to help the town get attention from tourists. Ben realizes his father doesn't believe the mermaids exist and decides it's best not to reveal them just yet.
- Star Trek: Voyager has an unintentional version. Janeway talks with pride of how she was inspired to join Starfleet by the stories of her ancestor, Shannon O'Donnell who was an astronaut, one of the first Mars colonists and single-handedly pushed ahead for a special "Millennium Gate" tower against massive opposition. But going over some old Earth records, Janeway realizes that over the centuries, Shannon's "exploits" have been massively overblown. She was never an astronaut, she was only a consultant on the Tower and there was no massive opposition as it was welcomed with open arms. Janeway tries to cope, shrugging her big concern is how to break it to her aunt that the great family legend is false.
- A unique case on Timeless as Lucy and sister Amy tend to their comatose mother together. In the pilot, Lucy is part of a time travel mission that causes the Hindenburg to crash a day later with only two deaths. When she returns home, Lucy finds her mother is perfectly healthy but Amy no longer exists. Investigating, Lucy finds that her father, Henry, married someone else and thus Amy was never born. Lucy is baffled as to how she can exist if her parents never met... then realizes that's because Henry was never her father and Lucy's mother has been lying all along about who her dad is.
- It gets worse as Lucy realizes her real father is a high-ranking member of Rittenhouse, the organization that's been manipulating America for centuries and wants to use the time machine for sinister reasons. In the first season finale, Lucy finally discovers Carol is from "Rittenhouse stock", has known all along about Lucy's mission and intends to continue Rittenhouse's quest to warp American history for their own ends.
- A common theme on Touched by an Angel as people will discover the shocking secrets their families have kept from them.
- In "Manny", stuffy Harrison Trowbridge Archibald IV has his world rocked when his mother reveals the truth: She's actually from a poor town, a waitress who met Harrison's father at a party and spun the story of being from a rich family. Before he can recover, she also reveals that Harrison is the product of an affair she had with a gardener. Thus, Harrison realizes he doesn't have a drop of "blue blood" in him.
- In "Charades", a woman is rocked to learn her father's best friend was the one who named him during the Blacklist era and drove him to suicide. She's ready to expose the truth at a ceremony but her mother begs her not to... because the "friend" is really her birth father.
- In "How Do You Spell Faith?" a young boy is cheered up by his father walking out on the family years ago by the fact that he gets letters and postcards from his dad from the road for his birthday and holidays. When his beloved older brother dies, the boy decides to find his father to break the news in person. He tracks down the source of the letters to a post office a few towns over. The boy realizes his brother was the one writing all the letters and making it look like they were sent from different places so the boy wouldn't realize their dad had truly abandoned them.
- True Blood, Hoyt grew up believing his father was shot and killed by a burglar when he was 10 years old and he thus wanted to care more for his mother who was supposedly in fear of it happening again. In season 2, his mom, under a demonic influence, reveals that Hoyt's father killed himself and she faked the burglary story in order to cash in on his life insurance and use that "fear" to make sure Hoyt never left her.
- The series Twice In a Lifetime has a person dying and then given a chance to go back in time in a new body to sway their younger selves from a major mistake. Along the way, many discover the truth about their families.
- A woman long blamed her father for not giving the bone marrow that would have saved her sister. Sent back as a doctor, she tracks her father down and demands he do it but he reveals he can't...because he's not her sister's father. Her mother had an affair with a married man and kept it quiet and the woman realizes she's been wrongly blaming her father all these years.
- A variation as an architect had been in love with a poor woman but when his rich girlfriend got pregnant, married her instead. Twenty years later, he's stuck in a loveless marriage with two spoiled and rotten kids. Sent back as a priest, he's rocked to discover his girlfriend had cheated on him and he was never the father and now tries to get his past self with his true love.
- A young teen is killed just after seeing an image of himself on a "Missing" milk carton. Sent back, he helps his younger self realize his father abducted him and his sister from their mother years before.
- Mixed with Broken Pedestal, a corrupt cop is sent back to stop his younger self from starting on this path. But he's stunned to discover that his policeman father, who always instilled a sense of right and wrong, was actually on the take himself.
- Selina Meyer of Veep grew up believing her late father was a warm-hearted man who built up the family fortune and loved her deeply. He always bought her snowglobes from his business trips and a horse that her mother later sold off. Selina considered her mother a cold woman who just lived off the fortune and treated Selina badly. On a trip home, however, Selina discovers the truth: Her father had been cheating with his secretary for years and died having sex with her. He was the one who sold off Selina's horse to pay debts as he was a terrible businessman and the "business trips" were just trysts with the secretary who was also the one buying Selina the snowglobes. To top it all off, it's mentioned the mistress kept getting taken to the doctor, indicating Selina's dad was forcing her to get abortions and the woman had a breakdown after his death. Selina is rocked to realize her father was a total scumbag (just like Selina's ex-husband) and Selina's mom was really the financial wiz who allowed her daughter to hate her for years rather than ruin the image of her wonderful father.
- In Veronica Mars, one of the cases of the week the eponymous character receives is to track down a classmate's father. It turns out that his mother told him that his father was dead to hide the fact that his father has had a sex change.
- DuckTales (2017): Donald and Scrooge parted ways under bad terms 10 years before the events of the series' first episode. Huey, Dewey, and Louie grow up hearing all about Scrooge since he is a public figure, but despite Donald's rage at Scrooge, he never fills his young nephews' heads with negativity about Scrooge. Instead, he tells them nothing at all. It comes as a complete surprise to Huey, Dewey, and Louie when Donald takes them to Scrooge's mansion and addresses Scrooge as "Uncle Scrooge".
- In Futurama, Leela's parents left a note written in an alien language after dropping her off at an Orphanerium (which served as a Rosetta stone for fans since the same language appeared elsewhere in the show and a translation of the note was given) so she (and everyone else) would think that she was a Rubber Forehead Alien rather than a mutant who was lucky enough to be quite close to a baseline human.. This is an odd case of both parents being missing and telling the lie in the hopes of improving the life of the child.
- G.I. Joe: Renegades: Storm Shadow tells Jinx that Snake Eyes killed her father. The odd truth is that Storm Shadow believes it to be true, but it is not. But he convinces Jinx to renounce her connection to Snake Eyes and take up her name as Kim Ashikage.
- Gravity Falls: "Blendin's Game" reveals that Soos as a child, for eight years, got post cards from his father with the same message indicating he was too busy to come for his son's birthday but would definitely be there next year. Soos' Abuelita is all too aware that Soos' dad is never returning, but for the sake of her grandson upholds the lie that he wants to come, but can't because he's too busy. Soos figures it out for himself at age 12, and it destroys his birthday for him until Dipper and Mabel fight Grobnar vs. Blendin Blandin to give Soos a time wish so he can see his father and have happy birthdays from the past until their present.
- In the Jonny Quest sequel film Jonny's Golden Quest, Jessie Jade finds out that the father she'd believed dead all her life is actually Race Bannon, with whom she's been traveling for half the film at this point.