Intro from Brianne:
The recorded re-telling of a painful and emotional experience of uncovering a DNA surprise is helpful for others to read. It supports and validates others who are going through the same thing, and it provides insight for the friends, family, and professionals who will be there alongside a person on their journey following the unexpected discovery.
An important point that my next guest blogger, Christa, makes is that receiving the truth from her mother rather than denial held so much value to her. She was so grateful that her mom ‘came clean’ straight away when she came to her with the discovery that the father she had grown up believing was her biological father was not.
From others’ stories of a discovery about a father who raised them not being their biological father, we find out that not all mothers react the same way. Some get defensive, angry, upset, and deflect the blame and place it onto others. There are reasons this happens, if the discovery brings up a past trauma buried deep, for example. Or if that person’s knee-jerk reaction in all tough situations has always been to deflect, avoid, or overreact to get something to just go away.
Sometimes these behaviors can be part of a life-long struggle with mental health or a personality disorder, and sometimes it is isolated to certain situations. Trauma is something that many psychologists and therapists know a lot about and can help to sort out and support, when it occurs. A licensed marriage and family therapist would be a great partner to work with if you are involved in a DNA Surprise and want or need to rebuild existing family relationships. They can also help you understand why a family member has reacted in a certain way and how you might learn to deal with family reactions that are outside your control. These professionals exist to help individuals and families tease through complex situations as they move forward after an unexpected discovery.
If it is possible for a parent to take a deep breath and be honest and truthful when their child confronts them with a discovery, this is the best next-step to take. Whether the discovery involves a biological father identity, a donor conception, or an adoption that hasn’t been disclosed yet, giving the truth to someone about their biological origins is crucial. It can be powerful and healing for child and parents to have the truth be known, and it can be a first step towards a deeper and close relationship.
I encourage parents who are keeping a secret to start thinking and preparing. Things won’t be perfect, but healing needs to start on a foundation of honesty. You might not be able to be the one to come out and share the secret, at least maybe not right now. But start to think about it.
You may feel paralyzed, you may feel alone. You may feel like no one else has ever been through what you are going through, but that’s not true; there are thousands - if not millions - of parents who have, are, and will deal with these same tough conversations and situations. Christa and her parents are already on their way.
THANK YOU to Christa for sharing her reflection on her experience. -Brianne
“I am thankful that she told me the truth when I asked”
Christa’s Story of a DNA Surprise
I am not a genealogist, but the work I do is in a closely-related field. I track down heirs of deceased mineral owners so oil and gas companies can negotiate with them. This has given me experience looking for other people's families.
I started research on my own family to learn more about my father's mother, as she is adopted, and I am estranged from the father who raised me and his family for many years. I was curious what I could find, so naturally, I turned to DNA testing. I actually was quite reluctant to do testing at first, but my husband’s encouragement finally changed my mind. He was curious for information for health reasons, and I was more interested in my heritage and family.
When my results came back and I looked through my DNA relatives match list, I noticed that I did not recognize anyone from my father’s family.
After going through the process of separating out my maternal side from the unknown matches, I identified a mystery person and messaged her. My initial thought was that my paternal grandmother was her grandfather's sibling, after I found information on a website called DNA Painter about how to identify possible relationships based on how much DNA you share with them.
After messaging back and forth and considering several scenarios, it was clear our grandparents were full siblings. But there was one very large problem: the ethnicity of my paternal grandmother differed significantly from that of hers. I expected surprises as my reason for testing was to investigate the family of my adopted grandparent, but the thought that my father might not be my biological father never crossed my mind as a possibility. Now that I had this new and unexpected information, I realized there was only one explanation.
I should have had a suspicion when my DNA results were 100% European rather than matching what I knew about the ethnicity of my father’s side, but I had convinced myself that I just took after my mom. I quickly contacted my paternal half-sister and asked about her DNA results. Her results were back, and yet she wasn’t appearing on my list; we were not a match.
I was in denial for days and could not sleep, only obsess.
I finally asked my mother about it two days later. She confirmed my suspicion but would not give me a name. I told her I do this for a living, and I will find him. I could not guarantee my curiosity wouldn’t get the best of me.
I waited about two weeks before tracking him down myself. About a month after I had made the discovery about my paternity, I gave my mother the name of the man I believed is my biological father. She confirmed it was him but requested that I not contact him for a few more years. I realize now that my mom was probably trying to get to a new phase of her life before having to deal with something she’s been keeping hidden for years.
We all deal with these discoveries in different ways, and her approach was to push it out into the future to deal with later.
My mother’s request that I put this aside was very hard for me. What she was asking me to do was not at all what I wanted. I could not respond, I kept opening my mouth waiting for the words “Okay, I won’t contact him” to come out, but I could not say it. I was conflicted.
Honoring my mother’s wishes would have been at my expense, emotionally.
I had already written my biological father a letter but had not sent it yet. I told her about it, emphasizing that I had asked mainly about family medical history. I see now that it was my way to explaining why I couldn’t promise what she wanted me to. I did not want her to be blind-sided if I did decide to contact him.
After our conversation I felt guilty, like I ambushed my mother with questions. At the time I felt it was necessary, and I hoped she could understand my compelling need to know him.
The next day, I read my letter again and decided not to wait any longer.
I asked my husband to drive me to my biological father’s house. I knew I wanted to contact my father, but I wanted to do some further screening. I wanted to see where he lived and gain some insight, look for red flags. Something that I would take as a sign to not contact him. I joked to my husband that maybe I’ll see something terrible like a dog fighting pit or people arguing on the front lawn, something bad enough to make me believe I am better off without this man.
I put the letter in my purse, and my husband and I started the 45-mile drive. I was unsure what I would do with my letter at that point. We listened to a podcast, and I remember looking out the passenger’s side window at the landscape and construction; I wanted to avoid my phone for a bit and clear my head. My whole body was shaking when we finally exited the highway and made our way into my biological father’s neighborhood.
I wanted to stop and get a good look at the house, but there was a car behind us and there was no room to pull over. We drove by several times. I wanted someone to notice and come out and confront me about why I am casing their home, but that did not happen.
The house looked completely normal.
The backyard looked like it was made for entertaining, I imagined family gatherings and summer cookouts with family.
I was not yet satisfied that this was the right house and I looked for a mailbox with my father’s last name. I studied the house for a minute or two and noticed a statue of an animal near the garden; It resembled their beloved family pet featured on social media, and I decided that was enough evidence. I was at the right house, and he is a normal person with a normal family.
On our last drive-by, I asked my husband to pull over. I got out of the car, placed my letter in the mailbox, hastily got back into the car and said, “Drive, let’s go.”
I was nervous that night. I felt that what I had done was impulsive and irresponsible.
I contemplated driving back and retrieving my letter, but I stayed strong (or maybe it was cowardice that kept me home). I ultimately decided the ball was in his court now, my mission was complete. I did my part.
The next morning, I went on with my life as normal. I imagined he would find the letter and toss it in the trash.
At one point I pulled out my phone to add an appointment to my calendar and there was a missed call and voicemail from an unfamiliar number.
It was him. I called him back and he answered.
He told me his hearing is not great, so I’ll have to speak up before placing me on hold for a moment to go somewhere he could talk. I muttered expletives under my breath as I waited. This guy is about to lecture me, I thought.
When he returned to the call, I remember repeatedly apologizing for going to his home and violating his privacy, as I was sure he was furious.
“Are you sick?” He said with a concerned voice. “Have you talked to your mother? You need to talk to your mother.” I realized my letter may have made him concerned for my health, an unintended result that I had not considered.
“I know who you are,” I said.
He was kind and understanding and realized that my motives for writing him were not purely health-related. We talked for a while, and I decided to go meet him immediately. When I arrived, I saw him waiting at the door and I knew he was as interested in meeting me as I was in him.
I was shocked to learn that I was not a surprise to him. He had been waiting for me to find him.
He has known about me my entire life.
My mother did tell me she told him to stay away from me, but if my memory serves me correctly, she did not tell me that he knew about me, only that he suspected. I showed him photos, and he had already seen them. He knew my birthday and the names of my family members.
I'm not mad at either of them, but I am left now to deal with grief of lost time.
This is all still new to me, and I am grappling with tough emotions. I feel like I am grieving the death of a loved one. The anxiety has been intense.
When I was in the phase of trying to figure out who my father was, my thoughts would race and I was fixated on solving the mystery. My throat would tighten up. It felt like a pill was stuck in my throat, so I kept swallowing and drinking excessive amounts of water to dislodge it.
Sometimes it lasted for days, like it was going to close up and I would suffocate.
I developed an irrational fear of dying from some unknown hereditary disease. I self-medicated with over-the-counter medications that cause drowsiness. I can see now I was using a substance as a crutch in a time of crisis. I was trying to make myself too tired to be anxious, to get some relief from the tightening feeling in my throat and from my obsessive thoughts.
My mother experienced so much pain before I was born, she tells me I was the thing that gave her the courage to rebuild. She only cared that I was safe and happy. I realize now that my mother has been burdened with this secret my entire life.
My experience these past few weeks gives me a new perspective on what these years must have been like for her.
It brings me insurmountable pain knowing what she must have endured. I just hope that she is okay.
There is no mending needed for my relationship with my mother. I love my mom, and I hope that we can be even closer. I do not blame her, and I forgive her. We all make mistakes, some bigger than others, but we are all just doing our best.
I am thankful that she told me the truth when I asked.
I have met my biological father twice in the short time since I found out about him. I want so badly to know him. Part of me wants to go see him every day and learn more about him, and another part of me is holding back. I’m intentionally limiting my time with him because I’m fearful of appearing desperate. I am fearful that I may make things hard on his wife and family, although they have given me no indication of the sort.
I still want to remain cognizant of how this may have affected his wife.
I do not think that she dislikes me or does not want me around, I just worry that she is having a hard time and I want her to know that it’s okay. I won’t take it personally, this is a big thing and the effects are not limited to myself and my parents. I realize it is going to affect both of our families to a degree, I just hope we can all get through it.
I may be trying to keep my distance to protect my own feelings.
I want to tell him that I love him and call him “Dad” and have the father-daughter relationship that other people have, but I am so fearful of rejection that I can’t find the courage. I simply don’t know how to have a relationship with him, but I am trying, and glad I’m getting a chance. I am attempting to take things slow and give everyone their space, but I think about the whole thing all day and all night.
This experience has been painful, and I have cried nearly every day. Sometimes multiple times.
But I consider myself one of the lucky ones. My mother loves and protects me to this day, and my biological father was receptive to meeting me when I reached out to him. I experienced a lot of worries for a while. Will he reject me? Will he show up at my house and threaten me because of my letter? Who knows about this? Am I the only one who has been left in the dark? But the outcome for me has been best-case scenario, and for that I am grateful.
Like I wrote earlier, I am experiencing grief of time lost with my father, and I cannot help but cry when I think about the pain my mother and biological father experienced through the years. I forgive them and my wish is for them to forgive themselves.
I wish I had the courage to say these things to their faces, but I am not ready for that.
My purpose for writing this is to give the world my version of events and maybe give a little comfort to someone who is experiencing something similar; I do not completely know what happened in the past, so I cannot speak for my parents’ versions of events. I hope that when or if they see this, they will gain some insight into who I am as a person.
This experience has deepened my understanding of love and grief in many ways, but one thing that will never waver is the love I have always felt for my mother (somethings never change, no matter what) and the love that has developed for the father I never knew.
Christa has developed a deep self-awareness that is obvious through her writing. She confided in me that bringing up the fact that she used an OTC medication to make herself feel drowsy was hard for her, and she felt a bit of shame about it. We talked about the fact that there is a difference between substance abuse and using a substance as a crutch in a time of crisis, and self-awareness can be really important in assessing where that line is. That helped her find the courage to share about this very personal aspect of her journey.
If you recognize yourself in Christa’s story, especially that part of it, take stock in the way you deal with anxiety. What is your reliance on substances like alcohol? Is it changing your mood or your personality? Affecting your relationships or ability to function at home and work? It is worth reaching out to your doctor or a therapist or counselor for a discussion about it so they can help you figure out if your use of drugs, alcohol, prescriptions, and over-the-counter medications are crossing the line into dependency, misuse, or abuse. Finding a healthy way to deal with stress and anxiety is possible and matters not just to you, but the people in your life who look to you for guidance.
Looking for more stories or support? Check out the Resources for You tab of this website for much more on the topic of DNA Surprise.