What to do when you learn your father isn't who you thought it was!
I checked the data over and over again just incase there was something I had missed. Nope. The results were clear. How was I going to tell Jan?!
This was not the first time I had encountered this, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last; but this time it was a little different. A few months previously, a new client, we’ll call her Jan, started her family history journey with me, and as part of the process she wanted to take a DNA test. Then, as any genealogist would do, I also suggested that her 86-year-old father take a test as well. After all, DNA tests are more useful for genealogical research when taken by family members of the earliest-living generation. Jan spoke with her father, and he eagerly agreed.
Now, with test results in hand, here I was in a very awkward position—how was I going to tell Jan that her father was not her father???!!!
Jan was aged 60 and her mother had died about five years previously. What was more significant is that Jan’s parents had married three years prior to her birth. Yet, the data was clear, Jan was not her father’s biological child.
I broke the news to Jan, who was shocked (obviously). When she approached her father and sister about the news, the entire family was beyond upset and demanded that new tests be issued. This time, Jan’s sister joined in. However, the re-do tests came back with the same answer—only now nailing the coffin by showing that Jan and her sister were biologically half-siblings. Tests were then taken with a different company; yet again, the results were the same. By now, the family was convinced—Jan’s mother died with a secret.
Scenarios like this happen quite often in my profession. Clients take a DNA test only to discover that either their father, grandfather or great-grandfather are not the biological ones they thought they had. In the genealogy world, we even have a couple of terms for this; a non-paternal event (NPE), or a more accurate term: a misattributed paternity.
I don’t have a percentage to illustrate how frequently this happens, but out of all the clients I work with on a yearly basis, I deal with this sort of thing fairly regularly.
To learn your biological father (or grandfather) is not who you thought it was can be a very difficult discovery. It tends to bring a flood of new emotions and questions. First, the very identity of who you thought you were is now compromised. Second, the character(s) of your parents and/or grandparents may be challenged or called into question. And thirdly, feelings of anger and betrayal can surface because you may feel you were lied to.
All of these are normal emotions, and I also want to point out that it is completely okay to feel them! If you have experienced this, or potentially going through this now, I would offer much kindness and empathy to you. I would also like to offer a few thoughts you may find helpful as you navigate very new and interesting terrain.
The identity we hold is very important for our mental and spiritual well-being. So, having part of that identity ruptured can feel very frightening. Then, the part of our identity linked to our place in a family system can have a great deal of importance. Many people grow up hearing things like “blood is thicker than water.” So to find we no longer carry “blood” of a specific family line can churn up a great deal of internal disruption and send the ego into a panic. On a subconscious level, we may fear we will no longer have the love and support of the family we have always had by our side. Even though we may “know” (consciously) that isn’t true, the subconscious operates on very different beliefs—unconscious ones we have carried since early childhood.
While it may seem obvious, it is important to emphatically state that just because a DNA test shows you may not be biologically linked to your father, that does NOT mean your relationship has to change in any way, or that you can no longer consider that person your father.
Genetic connections inherited from ancestors certainly impact us. “Blood” does have a place and role in our biology and epigenetics. There is importance there. However, it’s our “chosen family”, or what I call “heart family,” that has even deeper impact on our soul. Sometimes our “heart family” is also our “blood family”, but not always.
Upon discovering a biological paternal surprise, it is only natural to begin asking questions. What happened!? Why? What? Where? Etcetera. It’s natural to ask these questions. And, it’s also natural for our brains to then begin forming stories to help us answer them—even if we really don’t know if those stories are true.
It can be very easy, for instance, to assume things about a mother or grandmother. However, this is where I offer extreme caution—be slow to judge the people in your family tree when it concerns sex and sexuality!
I have encountered situations where a person’s father sired multiple children with other women at the same time they were married to a client’s mother. I have seen client’s discover their mothers gave birth to other children and gave them up for adoption prior to marriage. I have seen siblings discover they all had different fathers (despite believing they all had the same one). I have encountered a lot of surprises from DNA tests. In each of these scenarios, there are a myriad of potential explanations and reasons for how and why things happened. I offer a few.
First, it can be easy to assume a mother or grandmother was a bit “loosey-goosey”, but you have to also remember that history has not been kind to women (and we’re not out of the weeds yet as far as I’m concerned). Many pregnancies throughout history were the byproducts of rape (even within marriage); and in those precarious and traumatic situations, there were NO resources or options for women but to simply keep quiet and hope no one found out.
Something else to possibly consider is sperm donation, which I have encountered a number of times for people born in the 1950s and 1960s—when In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) technology was new. Sometimes parents sought fertility help in the early days of the science and never said anything to their children. In fact, I once encountered a situation where a client learned her father was not who she thought it was; and after further research, we learned her parents (a married couple) were participants in early trials of IVF at a university. While a pregnancy resulted, the DNA test revealed that the doctor who oversaw the program secretly used his own semen versus her father’s. (There are actually a number of these cases that have come to light in recent years!).
I offer these examples only to illustrate the fact that there are many potential explanations for a misattributed paternity. But just as I offer caution in creating stories and passing judgement, I would also caution against insisting the situation had to be something you deem as more “moral”. Western culture’s religious history has tarnished the beauty of sex and sexuality (especially having sex while not being married). While this essay is not the place to explain why I think that concept is harmful and incorrect, I will say that just as you must hold space for rape when confronting a misattributed paternity, you must also hold space for the fact that people are people and have always been people—and the vast majority of people yearn for and seek meaningful sexual intimacy (whether it ends up being in healthy ways or not).
We have a tendency to idealize “the good ol’ days” because we have been fed this weird idea that people were “more moral” in past times. Well, in my nearly 20 years of researching people in history, I am convinced that is a huge lie. People were not more “moral” or “righteous” than people today. They were just good at hiding things because they had to. After all, it was shameful to admit certain things about who you were in past times (and sometimes it can still be today). As a result, many people had an “alter life” they lived in secret, and sometimes hints of those alter lives emerge in historical or genetic records. Other times they were taken to the grave.
At the end of the day, we can never know the full story unless a living parent or grandparent is willing to reveal more. The most important thing to remember is that you weren’t there! So be slow to judge your ancestors. The facts can only tell us who you are related to and where a person may have been when they sired or conceived a child. Beyond that, we don’t know circumstances and people’s motives.
What to do?
If you find yourself in any of the situations I have mentioned, I strongly encourage very slow and thoughtful reactions. First, take time to allow the news of a surprise to sink in and honor the difficulties and complexities. Second, take time to talk through it with a trusted confidant. That could be a close friend, a spouse, or therapist. I don’t suggest confronting a parent right away at this stage, and you may also pause on telling your siblings. You need time to ground yourself first so that when you do begin to talk with a parent and/or sibling that you can remain strong and centered while they then take time to process and adjust.
When it comes to reaching out to newly-found family through your DNA test platform, I also encourage slow action. Again, make sure you have processed and adjusted to the information since you do not know how a person on the other side may react.
As you feel ready to begin talking with immediate family and close genetic matches, I offer a few tips.
Talking with Family
When it comes to genetic testing with the most reputable companies (Ancestry, 23andMe, MyHeritage, FamilyTreDNA), the science is very sound in predicting relationships of close family. So you can go into these conversations with a tremendous amount of confidence in the conclusions (and if you’re not, make sure you seek help from a professional genetic genealogist or someone very knowledgeable in genetic testing).
If it’s a parent you need to confront about the news, you will probably know how best to approach them. However, I have often seen it helpful to bring a trusted sibling (or two or three) into the conversation first so that you can all be there to help support the parent as you share the news. Being able to process such a shocking and important surprise in a group will be much more healing, and there will need to be follow-up afterwards with siblings and parents to make sure they are coping well. Where needed, seek a licensed counselor to help process any grief that may come along with such heavy revelations—especially in cases where a parent has been hiding a secret for many years! In the long-run, such exposure will be very freeing and healthy for them, but in the beginning, they may struggle with a lot of shame and guilt. They will likely need loads of tender love and support!
Reaching out to Genetic Matches
This is a very sensitive step because you likely want answers, and you want to know who this new biological parent or grandparent is/was. Hence, you don’t want to scare people away if you can avoid it. Sometimes people will not reply or engage no matter what you do. However, I find that when approached tactfully, most people respond and the connections turn out positively.
When you reach out, be more vague and inquisitive at first. They have clearly taken a DNA test themselves, and so they likely have interest in learning about family. However, they may not be expecting to find a half-sibling, child, or new cousin. So, I suggest reaching out and something like “Hello! I took a DNA test and see that we match as close family. I would love to collaborate more. I was born in [year] and grew up in [such and such place]. I look forward to connecting and learning more about how we’re related.”
A message like this is much less threatening than “Hi, I think we’re half-siblings!” Even if you suspect you know the relationship, hold off on sharing that initially. Give them the opportunity to come to you with willingness to engage, but they may surprise you and confirm the relationship first! I have seen this before where a half-sibling reaches back and says “Yes, I think we’re half-siblings. Dad told me he may have left a few out there during his military days!” You just never know what people already know or suspect.
In cases where you need to nurture the connection along, if you sense hesitation, try and help the person arrive at the conclusion themselves. Otherwise, if they seem very engaged and open to any outcome, you may be able to be more direct. Really be present and thoughtful about the person you’re connecting with and honoring the way they need to engage and process information!
I could share a lot more about this phase since there are so many possible scenarios, but the bottom line is to approach it with care, patience, and thoughtfulness. If you try a few times to reach someone and they don’t respond, I suggest to make a final attempt and be direct so that they have the information and know how to reach you. Then leave them alone! (Just make sure you’ve tried to reach them a couple of different ways, if possible). I have seen many instances where clients reach out to a half-sibling and don’t hear back for months or years. People sometimes need a lot of time to process! Honor the times when you don’t hear back and accept you may not for the present time. Respect people’s boundaries and timing no matter how badly you want answers and connection!
If you find yourself navigating this journey of genetic surprises, know you are not alone! We are just beginning to learn as a society how to deal with these kinds of surprises because we have built in such specific expectations about family systems and morals into our culture.
While it is scary, new terrain, I personally think it is a good thing that genetic technology is revealing so many things about ourselves as a human family! We need to expose secrets. We need to confront trauma, and we need to acknowledge humanness. Healing occurs on a spiritual and cellular level when we confront truth about ourselves, our lineages, and the circumstances that impacted both.
I have a strong, personal belief that the ancestors want us to confront all of the secrets of the past. We are the ancestors embodied, and so by bringing things into the light, we foster healing on both personal and collective levels. So, know that as you navigate this journey, you have a lot of ancestral energy behind you that will support, sustain, and guide you through the process of uncovering who you are and why you might be the person to bring about change and healing for your people!