We’ve heard from other people in the #DNASurprise series of guest blog posts who have discovered for themselves that their father isn’t their biological father. Many people in this situation refer to themselves as NPEs (not the parent expected) when it happens to them, as in “I found out I was an NPE six months ago” or “Other NPEs understand what this experience is like.”
It sometimes happens that other people realize the NPE situation not for themselves but for another person. The person who makes the discovery must then decide if, when, and how to share that news, or whether to let the NPE make the discovery on their own.
Heather and Jessica are sisters who have recently discovered that they have a half-sister they never knew about. Their father knew of this child he had fathered, but due to circumstances, he was not involved in the child’s life and hadn’t told anyone in the family he had another daughter until he realized a DNA test might soon “out” his secret.
In addition to confronting this surprising new knowledge, the sisters must now decide whether (and how) to tell their half-sister. Should they maintain the secret, or reach out to this unsuspecting stranger to tell her the truth about her paternity? I asked Heather and Jessica some questions about this new discovery, how it has affected them, and their feelings about moving forward. Both agreed to have their answers featured here.
Thank you so much to both Heather and Jessica for your openness in sharing your experience.
You recently discovered a half-sibling. Did this surprise come out of the blue?
Jessica: I was not surprised to find out about a half-sibling as my dad was single after my mother and him divorced when I was five and did not re-marry until I was 10. He dated frequently during that time, from what I remember. My older sister made the discovery when she submitted her DNA first and found a “close relative” match but did not understand the implications until later.
Recently my sister asked my dad if he would be interested in taking a DNA test for genealogy purposes at which time he admitted he had another daughter. He figured it would come out if he ended up going through with the DNA test.
He told my sister the story of how he knew about her: short fling with a married woman, one year later she called him to tell him he had a daughter, she was just calling for health history from him and the daughter would be raised by her husband.
Heather: It was pretty unexpected. I had taken the test to discover my exact ethnicity. I've spent years researching my family's genealogy and thought I knew everyone there was to know, so I hadn't paid much attention to my DNA matches. Then last Christmas I asked my father if he would like an AncestryDNA test - I didn't want to just buy him one if he wasn't interested. He told me he was on board. Then I guess it occurred to him that I might discover a family secret before he could tell me. So he told me he had another daughter 20-something years ago that he'd never met. He was divorced from my mother at the time but the woman was married, and her husband raised the baby as his own. When he told me about her, I immediately logged in to my AncestryDNA account and saw a match that I remember showing up when I first took the test. At the time I thought it was a first cousin - before I researched more about centimorgan matches. Turns out she had taken the test too.
Does everyone in your family know about this new surprise relative, or is it still a secret? How has the news been shared?
Jessica: I’m not positive who my dad has told, he does not know we found her through AncestryDNA. My sister and I and our immediate families know. Our former step-mother may know as her and my dad were married at the time he found out about her but we have not had a relationship since they divorced years ago so I cannot say for sure.
Heather: No, unfortunately it is still a secret. I haven't even told my father I found her yet. I'm kind of in this mental limbo, not sure what to do with this powerful information. I told my full sister immediately and my husband, kids and closest friends know. I hate secrets and it's kind of making me sick inside.
Your father has known about this person’s existence for many years but kept the secret. How do you feel about that now that you know? Has it changed your relationship or how you feel about him?
Jessica: It has not changed our relationship at all. Though we are not estranged, we are not extremely close, so I was not surprised that he did not tell either of us about her. To him, the circumstances warranted secrecy, as the mother expected no parental/financial accountability of him.
I say these things as though they are a fact. My sister only got his side of the story, he has never said anything to me about it. He implied that he had told my full sister about our half-sister, as if it were not a big secret, but we would remember if we had another sister, so he is mistaken!
Heather: It hasn't really changed my relationship with my father. I actually feel bad that he never got the opportunity to know his own child. Now that I know, I have gone through many phases of emotion. I've been excited for myself. I have been angry about losing 25 years knowing my sister, and angry about the responsibility that somehow landed on me - if I don't tell her this secret, she may never know. I'm worried that she might not find out until my dad passes away, then she may never get the chance to know him. I have cried a lot and been engulfed with thoughts about the unknown, like:
What kind of childhood did she have?
How will she feel when she learns that she was lied to by the people she was supposed to trust most?
What if she doesn't care to know me or is angry with me for telling her this secret?
You’ve mentioned wanting to reach out and get to know this new half-sister, but not knowing how to do it. When you think about having a new person enter your life or your family in some capacity, what are your hopes for what comes from it? What are your fears, if you have any?
Jessica: After my dad made his confession to her, my sister realized she already had a “close relative” match on AncestryDNA who she did not know and did some research. All the clues pointed to this person being our half-sister and not a ‘possible first cousin’ as the site suggested. My sister reached out to her, as she assumed our half-sister was curious about her parentage and was looking for biological relatives using this site, but she did not seem to know. My sister did not press anything further when she realized our half-sister did not even consider that they could be half-siblings and seemingly had no suspicion as to who her biological parents were. Our half-sister suggested they might be cousins as she was not close to any of her extended family and my sister has not reached out to her since.
I would be open to a new family member; my only fear is for how this revelation would affect our half-sister. She is in her mid-twenties, which can be a precarious time in anyone’s life. It’s hard to say whether my sister and I have the “right” to tell her that her dad is not her biological father after so many years.
Heather: I don't have much in the way of close family. I often think my full sister is all that I have outside of my husband and kids. In my sugar-coated dreamland, I would like to meet with her and talk about our similarities and find a real connection that could become a sisterhood. In reality, I know that I'm far less affected by this than she is. I'm afraid she will be overwhelmed by all of this and not want anything to do with it or us. I'm afraid that I will reach out in the wrong way or at the wrong time and blow my opportunity right out of the gate.
Is there something you wish were available to people like yourself, who are not involved in the surprise but make the discovery?
Jessica: I have not found many resources on the “etiquette” (for lack of a better word) in a special circumstance such as ours. My sister and I have life-changing, intimate knowledge about a relative stranger. It is difficult to know if, when, or how to tell her. Our half-sister has this information at her disposal as well but she does not seem to understand the DNA match and it did not click when my sister reached out to her initially. Now we are left with the dilemma to tell or not to tell.
Heather: Definitely more resources would be great. There is very little information out there to help guide someone in my position to take the right steps. I was so happy to find you, your site and groups.
Conclusion from Brianne:
DNA testing has led to a shift in power from parents to children. Paternity truth was once entirely in the hands of the mother (or parents) to give or to hide; that power now resides in the hands of their children who need only a DNA kit to discover something doesn’t line up with the story they’ve always been told about their genetic origins.
This new dynamic is rocking the worlds of many, but as we shift into a place of truth about the genetic identity of every person, the stories navigating these choppy waters will help us learn how to best make adjustments from secrets and lies to openness and honesty.
Thank you again to Jessica and Heather for sharing your stories. Sometimes the most helpful thing to know when you are struggling is that you’re not alone, and I’m glad the two of you have each other and your immediate family for support as you move forward.
If you or someone you know has experienced a DNA surprise and are grappling with the aftermath, please know that you are not alone and that there are resources available to you. Reach out to me or scan the resources available on my site.