Amanda was shocked to find out in her late 30s that her father was not her biological father. Her mother was also shocked, having been pretty sure of her daughter's paternity all of those years.
I recently spoke with a gentleman who was shocked to find out at age 78 that his two adult children did not match him genetically. It was an unexpected finding that rocked his world and enraged not only himself but also his two children.
"We did not need this, we just did this 23andMe thing for fun," the man explained to me over the phone. His voice was tinged with rage and sadness. I couldn't see his face, but the crack in his voice allowed me to imagine the pain it must have registered at that moment.
"We did not need this," he repeated a second time.
His ex-wife, when confronted, admitted to past infidelities. But in her own defense, she told him that she had thought all of those years that their children were his.
The man was understandably confused and furious. At one point he tried and struggled to find words to explain exactly how he felt. "My kids are mine, and they always will be...but, but they aren't mine...How can this be?"
His questions for me centered around what, if anything, could be done to know for sure whether the DNA results were right. "Could they be wrong?" he asked. He wanted to know whether he needed to accept the results, or if there was anything else to be done to know for sure.
There are different ways to approach this, I explained. I gave him the options to consider. There are three.
First path: Repeat ancestry testing for himself and his children, but with a different company. If the same results come back the same as the first test, this lowers the chance of a DNA sample mix-up having happened somewhere along the way. Repeat testing can provide confirmation one way or another.
Second path: Consider testing with a paternity testing lab. The test results are legally binding, and they are black-and-white. Paternity is ruled in or out, with odds of one or the other provided.
Third path: Accept the results as true and begin to adjust to what that means. I explained there aren't any cases I am aware of in which ancestry testing missed a parent/child relationship, with the exception of one unusual case of chimerism in the father.
He expressed some interest in the middle option. As he explained it, he admitted he was still in the tight grip of anger. He had a rocky marriage, but never knew about his ex-wife's infidelity. He might one day want to take it up with her as a legal matter, depending on how he felt once the anger subsided. I advised him to seek out an attorney to consult on the situation, as I could not advise him on his rights, or legal precedent for such a case.
These types of DNA surprises are growing so common that I have started a few different support groups, and there are other larger groups like it on Facebook. Should he and/or his children be interested in finding support from others in similar situations, the available resources are growing.
Some people want a second test, while others prefer to live with the possibility of the initial test results were wrong. We talked a little more about the difference between ancestry testing and paternity testing.
No decisions were made and no further tests were ordered that day. My client left with a better sense of what it takes to know whether the first set of DNA results were true or false, and with a list of online resources should he or his children wish to look into them further.
Families are complicated, and family secrets are no longer locked away in the past.
If you don't need individual support, you might find comfort in joining an online support group or looking for a counselor or therapist in your area to work through the emotional shock of your discovery. You may be able to access free counseling services through an employee assistance program (EAP) provided by you or your spouse’s employer. A recently-founded non-profit called NPE Friends Fellowship has developed a set of resources for those affected by these surprises -- check out their site if you discover that your parentage is not what you believed prior to your DNA test.
If you're still not sure if you're interpreting your family-matching results properly, look into joining a Facebook group like DNA Detectives or DNA Central to learn more about how it works at the different testing companies. You can see posts by others and ask your own questions, to understand how ancestry testing helps identify and rule out genetic relationships.
There isn't one "right" path to choose, and you don't have to decide what to do right away.
But know that when you are ready, there are other people out there who can help you decide what to do if you discover a DNA surprise.
Have you been in this situation before? If so, what path did you choose, and were there other paths not considered in this post? Leave a comment if you have been affected by a DNA surprise and have thoughts and advice for others who will find themselves in your shoes in the future.
I came across this website and think it provides a great introduction to the different ancestry test options. This would be a great place to start if your main question is, "Which company should I choose to test with?" Check it out!
If you still have questions or want advice specific to your situation, consider scheduling a session with me to talk about your needs. I can direct you to the right test, whether for ancestry purposes or medical/health ones.
Do you know or belong to a group who might like to have a certified genetic counselor speak about 23andMe or another particular topic related to at-home genetic testing? I have a part-time private practice specializing in at-home testing and am available to give this type of live video chat to your group.
Since I'm independent from all the testing companies, I can give you candid answers about the various tests on the market. My years of experiences working with people who have tested and passion speaking on this topic help make the discussion relevant to your group.
Here are just a few examples of talks that can be customized for your group:
Direct-to-consumer Genetic Testing: How does it work and what can it tell me?
DNA Ancestry Testing: Understanding Your Options
DNA Raw Data and Third-Party Tools: Their Power, Their Limits, and Things You Must Know
Bridging At-home Testing and the Clinic
One women's group approached me about a year ago to ask if I'd present a webinar to their discussion group about 23andMe. Each had ordered testing, and they wanted a genetic counselor knowledgeable about 23andMe to help them understand their reports and use the information. The women's group was in Colorado, and I'm in central Virginia, so we arranged for the presentation and discussion to take place over webcam. I shared my computer screen as we chatted, and we interacted with some of the 23andMe online reports live and in real time.
We talked about the ever-changing list of health, trait, and wellness reports from 23andMe, reviewed DNA testing for ancestry and for matching cousins and other family, and concluded with a discussion about the raw data files and what to know about using them. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to hear what concerns different test-takers have, and it provided the group an opportunity to have a genetic counselor on hand to answer the common questions that arise with 23andMe testing. We explored a lot of issues that come into play with at-home DNA testing, and I don't think any of us wanted the conversation to end at the end of the hour.
Those with lingering questions or specific concerns were encouraged to reach out to me afterward and find out about scheduling an individual session with myself or a colleague who is in the Genome Medical network.
Do you know or belong to a group community group or training program and your group might like to have me speak about 23andMe or another particular topic related to at-home genetic testing? I could happily chat about this topic for hours on end, if not days! Helping people understand the complexities of genetic testing - including the various at-home and in-clinic varieties - is my passion. I let this passion come out through stories based in real life situations involving testing.
If you have an Internet connection and an ability to broadcast a computer desktop to a large TV or screen, you're golden. Don't have this capability where your group usually meets? Look into seeing whether a local library would allow you to reserve a conference or meeting room with AV equipment.
Reach out to me for details on scheduling and pricing if you are interested in a webinar and Q&A session for your group. These are a great way to get the most up-to-date information to your group about the fast-changing world of direct-to-consumer genetics. I am unaffiliated with all testing companies and am able to answer questions about them freely.
Last month I published the first #DNASurprise story, written by Casey who discovered a family surprise after DNA testing. Another person, Mary, has bravely volunteered to share her story as well.
If you'd like to see your #DNASurprise story shared here, reach out to me. And if you'd like to join a secret support group on Facebook for the DNA Surprise you've discovered about yourself or another person, email me or send me a DM through Facebook. Summarize your surprise and the email address you have associated with your Facebook account so I can make sure the group is a good fit before I add you. I now have one group dedicated to those who discovered misattributed parentage for themselves, and a second general group.
Here is Mary's story. She deserves our acknowledgment for the strength it took for her to recount her heartaches and even greater respect for the ability to rise from them.
It took almost two years after my 23andMe results, but I can say this and mean it now:
I feel like the Phoenix rising from the fire.
My story is one of shock and disappointment in the family of my childhood, the uncovering of lies and truths, and the emergence and growth of new family and new relationships after DNA testing.
I was 51 and received a call from a maternal cousin. “So sorry…your mum is dead.”
I had a very erratic relationship with my mother, and the last conversation I recall between us was regarding a conversation I had with a woman I had known all my life. We had gone to school together. I told my mother this woman had stopped to tell me we shared the same father.
My mother wasn't very nice as I recounted this story to her.
In fact, she staunchly denied it and accused me of trying to cause trouble in the family.
We never spoke again, and that was seven years before her death. She had been ill for some time and hospitalized for a week prior to her death, but no one had reached out to tell me.
The next few weeks following her death, I was in shock. I reached out to my step father again after many years of not speaking. Two months after my mother’s death, we had a conversation. “Well, it was never a secret between me and your mum that xxxx was your father. If you had asked me directly I would have told you.”
I'm not actually sure what my response was. He then said, “Oh, you really didn't know? I'm so sorry. I know where he is, I'll take you to see him now.” Again, I'm can’t recall my response to him.
The time during and after this conversation was a blur.
I drove home in shock and cannot recall what I said to my family once I was back home.
A few months later, I contacted the woman who told me we shared a father and asked her to meet me. She kindly agreed to test her DNA with the kit I had brought along, and six weeks later the results came in. They showed a 99% chance of her being my half-sister. Yet, I doubted it; I kept thinking that perhaps we were in the 1% that were related in some other way.
Twenty years before, I had taken a massive step and gone to see my mother’s first husband; he was the man named as my father on my birth certificate. If he wasn't my father, then maybe she wasn't my sister, I reasoned.
Almost a year later, I was still trying to ignore what I knew. I just decided my mother wouldn't lie, and someone in the family would have told me before if it were true. It must have been all wrong, and the woman who said we shared a father was not actually my half-sister.
I had done a 23andMe test sometime during the year for health purposes, so I decided to buy this woman one for Christmas.
Deep down, I think I was double-checking to see if the first test was wrong.
It was not wrong. My biological father died a week before the woman’s results came in; the results arrived eleven hours before his funeral. I remember just staring at the screen and seeing a message come in from the woman I knew saying, “Hi, sis.”
I was totally stunned.
My mind was spinning. There were so many pointers from the past. I felt a fool for not realising why my grandmother had once said to me, “Don't believe all you hear about your father, he wasn't a bad man.” This was strange to me at the time as my mother’s first husband was one of the most vile men I had ever met.
The sister of the man listed on my birth certificate as my father, had said, “Are you the one that isn't my brother’s child?” Her brother told me to ignore her, that she was a crazy lady. The differences between me and whom I thought was my full sister were both physical and intellectual.
My mother had always told me, “If you can’t trust your mother, who can you trust?”
I know now that it was hypocritical of her to say that, but I had believed her. She was my mother. It is hard to get over that type of betrayal.
There are still so many questions I have. I realized later the man who is my biological father had tried to approach me at my mother’s funeral. My Aunty drug him away, which confused me at the time and still does today. Why did she feel she needed to do that?
Crazier still is that I played with my eldest two paternal half-sisters as a child, and we went to the same school. I was in the same class as my half-brother and two of my paternal-side cousins, and none of us knew I was related to them. My biological father and his children lived around the corner from me, two doors down from my Aunty.
As a child and well into adulthood, I thought the man I later learned was my biological father was a weird man. He used to wink and smile at me when he saw me. He often held conversations with my mother, and his wife used to say hello to my mother. I have a large number of paternal cousins and grew up knowing around half of them.
It is mind blowing to think that I was with so many members of my family all along.
After a while, an acceptance set in, and I was able to start seeing the positive side. The shock subsided, and I was able to accept the results of the DNA tests. I have begun to feel happy about what I now know about myself, my origins, and my family.
For instance, I am very, very happy the man listed on my birth certificate is not my biological father. I'm also ecstatic that the sister I thought was a full sister is only a half-sister. I always wanted brother…now I have three! My new family are completely different and most of them want me in their lives.
Today, I have a fantastic relationship with one of my paternal sisters, a paternal niece whom I'm close to, and a paternal cousin who is like my best friend.
My life has changed, and the lies and deceit of the past cannot be erased.
But now, I am complete. I have my identity. I look at in the mirror, and at my children and grandchildren, and can see who we truly look like. It feels good to know they will never grow up with a false identity, that they know from which family they descend.
I am whole for the first time. I know who I am.
- Mary, guest blogger