I came to know Michelle and Eden when they joined the first secret support group I set up for people receiving DNA surprises for themselves or for someone’s DNA account they manage. I wasn’t sure how it would go, having two people from the same “surprise” situation in the group together, but they both understood the other would be admitted and wanted to do it. My fears ended up being unfounded; their presence as the only set of “DNA sisters” in the group has been only positive. I’ve noticed Michelle and Eden often post supportive comments in response to others who share about their tough times. Neither of them had an entirely happy experience, but as they’ve shared in the group, finding one another and developing a sisterhood/friendship has been a silver lining for both. They also haven’t held back on sharing the negative feelings even though the other sister may see. Their openness with their feelings sets a great example for the group.
I asked the two of them to respond separately to some questions I had. The responses shed light to us as readers on how the same “DNA Surprise” event can be experienced differently. Not only is this okay, this is what we should expect. No two human experiences and emotional journeys are the same, and yet our experiences are ours alone. Each one is equally valid and justified.
It took a great deal of courage to agree to participate in this Q&A interview, not knowing what the other sister would write.
Thank you so much (times a million) to Michelle and Eden. You both did a wonderful job.
How did the surprise discovery of your half-sister take place? Who figured it out first and how did you communicate about it?
Michelle: I found out first. I took the Ancestry test for genealogical purposes, but now that I know the truth, I think I probably always knew that I might find something startling. When I first saw that we matched in July of 2016, I saw it as “Close Family-First Cousin” which is how Ancestry labels it. I really wasn’t in to DNA genealogy at all at that point, so I didn’t know to looks for centimorgans (a measurement of DNA) or what other relationship that could mean. I very quickly sent Eden a quick note saying that Ancestry says we are first cousins and did I know her. In the meantime, I was able to piece together her surname from her screen name and her limited public family tree. I asked my mother about the name and told her we matched as cousins, but she said she didn’t know the name. I did some sleuthing and found Eden on Facebook, but I didn’t message her there because I guess deep down I knew the truth and I was afraid to know. We had lots of matches in common and there were distinctive surname matches that I knew I should not match if my dad was my biological father. My dad’s family has an active lineage society, so I expected to see those names as matches and they were not there. So, I just waited for Eden to get back to me. In the meantime, I was all consumed by the puzzle, but I didn’t know there were Facebook groups online that could point me in the right direction. I just started researching her limited public tree and doing some obituary searches to see that there were surnames there that matched my DNA cousin matches. While I was occasionally sad and worried about what I was seeing, and I was convinced that my dad was not my father, I didn’t allow myself to fully believe it at this point. I was holding on to hope that she was a cousin, or maybe she was my dad’s child and she was going to be the one with the misattributed paternity. Eden did not see my Ancestry message until the following January. For those six months I was wrapped up in my mystery I called “Who the hell is Eden.”
I was on vacation with my husband when she finally messaged me. We were having dinner and I checked my phone and there it was—a message from her. She told me that she knew all her cousins and told me where she was from. I already knew that because I had been researching! We messaged back and forth several times that night. We rather quickly figured out that my mother and her father worked at the same place the year I was conceived. She will say that she knew the truth right away, but I slipped into some deep denial for a few days. I began to rationalize that it was probably not on my side, and maybe there was something different at the grandparent level. She just let me work through all that until I couldn’t deny it. We uploaded our raw DNA to GEDmatch, so we could take a look at the X chromosome on a browser and we would know for sure what we were looking at. I was on the plane flying back from vacation when the results posted and I saw that we were a total match on the X. We knew that we have the same father, and it seemed very unlikely that my dad would be her father. We knew the man who raised me was not my biological father. I messaged her the results from the plane and told my husband I was getting off that plane with a lot more baggage then I got on with.
Eden: In the spring of 2016, my husband suggested that both he and I do the Ancestry DNA test, so that our children could learn more about their ethnic makeup. When I received my results in April 2016, I took great interest in the ethnicity part but also noted I had some DNA matches, including one that was labeled “Close family” with extremely high confidence. I shrugged it off as someone else having a similar ethnic heritage. Fast forward to January 2017. I decided I needed a hobby for the evenings when I am home alone since my children are grown and my husband travels. I have always been interested in history and genealogy, so I decided to join Ancestry.com and work on my family tree. Immediately after I joined, I saw that I had a message from another member, dated July 2016. She stated that she noticed we are very close DNA matches and that she suspected we are first cousins. I sent a nice reply saying that I know all 12 of my cousins and described where everyone lived. Much to my surprise, Michelle replied that she grew up 10 miles from where I was born and that she is a few years younger than me! Now, it got real. At that moment, I knew the truth in my gut. I heard rumors many years ago that my dad had had an affair, a rumor which a family member later confirmed. Michelle and I messaged back and forth a few times and figured out her mom and my dad once worked at the same place. I think it hit us both. To be sure, we uploaded our DNA to GedMatch and found that we share an X chromosome. Michelle had been doing research on her own since July 2016 and had waited patiently for me to log on to Ancestry to discuss her discovery.
How would you describe the emotional experience of the days and weeks after your discovery of your sister and new understanding of your genetic connection to your family?
Michelle: I cried nearly every day for a year. I was always the family historian, and now it all felt like a big lie. I felt like my whole family died on the same day. Some days were better than others, of course, but it was very difficult. Many nights I woke up in the middle of the night crying. Family is more than biology and I’ve always known that, but everything has changed for me. Now that some time has passed, I realize that there was also some relief. I solved the mystery, and I was right about that. I was also the black-sheep of the family I grew up with and so now it kind of made sense to me on some level. A lot of the pain and grief I was feeling, and still feel, has to do more with keeping the secret than the actual discovery itself.
Eden: Obviously, I was very upset with my dad. At the time that Michelle was conceived, my parents had been married for only four years and had two small children. I felt badly for my mom being home with us while my dad was out having an affair. However, I’m also a realist and had no animosity against Michelle whatsoever. It wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t my fault. We continued to message constantly, learning about each other’s lives. The more I talked to her, the more I liked her. I have always wanted a sister, albeit not under these circumstances. I also began to realize that there are many others like us out there and that I, nor Michelle, have anything about which to be ashamed.
Did you find that your daily life and/or relationships were impacted?
Michelle: My life has changed a lot. My mother and I have been estranged for nearly a year. When I first confronted her with the story, she denied even knowing the biological father’s name and it was a complete shock to her. Her story changed several times and she has been angry with me for asking for the truth. She thinks I am deliberately trying to hurt her. She was very angry that I told my adult children the truth because she thinks it damages their image of her. She asked me not to tell the siblings I was raised with. I absolutely forgive my mother for making a bad choice when she was very young, but there is still a big rift over how she has treated me now since I found out. She has lied about some of the important details and that’s been hard for me to accept. There is still a huge circle of secrecy around this. I don’t think the dad who raised me knows the truth, and as far as I know, my mother’s current husband doesn’t even know. I feel like I am finally healing from the shock of everything, but the secret about secret is still difficult. It’s been a heavy burden for me.
Eden: My husband thought I should “let sleeping dogs lie” and cautioned me about pursuing a relationship with Michelle and the news getting back to my parents. I contacted my brother and told him. He has had his own infidelity issues that came to light at a point in the past. At that time, my mom told my sister-in-law about my dad’s infidelity, in hopes that she could also “forgive and forget” my brother. My sister-in-law later shared that information with me. My brother didn’t really want to hear about it or have any relationship with Michelle. My brother chose not to tell his family because he didn’t want to bring up all the old feelings. Other than that, my life went on pretty much as it had.
How long did the shock last? Days, weeks, months, longer?
Michelle: For me it’s an ongoing thing. In the beginning I thought about it every waking moment and a lot of sleeping moments too! I cried every day. A good counselor helped, as did joining Watershed Moments Facebook group and knowing that there are so many other people who have this happen in their families. I still have some surreal moments. Last weekend I had the occasion to be at public location where my biological grandfather had worked and was well known, and it felt really strange to be there, knowing he walked the same hallways. Some days I still wake up and think, “Did this really happen?”
Eden: The shock really didn’t last long for me. I would only say a matter of days before I came to accept the situation and forge a relationship with Michelle.
Some people describe as DNA surprise as a grief experience, whether grieving over loss of innocence or trust, or grieving over lost time with the other person. Did it feel this way for yoU?
Michelle: It has absolutely been a grief experience for me. I have been through all the stages of grief-denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’ve bounced back and forth through all of those. My biological father now knows about me and while my sister has given him information about me, he is keeping me a secret. He is elderly and in poor health, and I worry that I will regret not meeting him before he passes. I don’t need another dad, I already have one of those who raised me, but I would like to meet my biological father. I’ve promised not to show up on his doorstep. If he wants contact he knows how to find me. I also share another sibling with Eden. He accepts the DNA results, but we have not met, and he has not been interested in doing so. This has been hard for me too. I would like to someday have a relationship with him, but I’m not going to chase him for that. Like our father, he knows how to find me if he’s ever ready. Some adoptees describe a feeling of “secondary rejection” when their birth families deny contact. I can’t say that I necessarily feel rejected, but I am very curious about my biofather and half-brother. I’d like to see if I have some of their traits and mannerisms.
I did feel some grief that I never met my biological grandparents. I’m told I look a bit like our grandmother, but I don’t see it. Eden has shared pictures and stories about them and that has helped immensely. I have visited their grave sites and the grave sites of several other ancestors on that side of my newly discovered family. I’ve left a little stone to mark my visit and pay my respects. That has seemed to help me with the grief of a lost relationship.
Eden: I really didn’t feel grief. As I said, I have always wanted a sister, but I’m glad this didn’t come to light until we were mature adults and could deal with the situation on our own. I had a happy childhood and am glad this didn’t complicate that, although for my parents, it was always there under the surface.
How have you been able to develop a relationship with your DNA sister? Over text or email, over phone calls or video chats?
Michelle: The bulk of our relationship happens by text. In the beginning we texted every night while we were getting to know each other. It took me awhile to be ready for a phone call but we eventually did speak on the phone. She has sent me so many pictures of our father at various ages as well as other family members. We’ve shared pictures of ourselves at various ages. She has given me valuable medical history that I needed to know, and access to view her/our family tree online. I am so lucky to have all that information. I consider it a true gift.
We met face to face for the first time 4 months after we first discovered we are sisters. We had a lovely lunch together. I brought one of my adult children for moral support and she brought one of hers and a friend. There were a lot of tears but we all got along very well. We met in a restaurant half- way in between where we both live now, but our grandfather once lived in that town, and it seemed kind of full-circle for me. Since that meeting we have seen each other a few times in the last year and we text a couple times a couple times a week. Last summer we took a day trip together and she showed me where she grew up, and some of the places she has lived and worked which I really enjoyed. When we first started texting, I told my husband “I talk to her more than I talk to my own sisters” and then I realized she IS my own sister. That was another one of those surreal moments.
For me, getting to know each other like this has been like online dating—you want the other person to like you, but you don’t want to try too hard. I still worry that I’m texting too much, or then not enough. Should I text first, or wait for her to text me? There are no rules for these relationships and these new feelings, so I just wing it. I would like to spend more time with her but it’s difficult because we are still keeping our relationship a secret from most people to protect the innocent. It’s frustrating to me not to be able to say “my sister, Eden” or acknowledge my new nieces and nephews publicly.
Eden: Michelle and I only live a few hours apart. We text often and occasionally talk on the phone. We first met in May 2017 at a neutral site with a few family members in tow. We had a lovely lunch and she brought me flowers with a balloon attached that said, “It’s a Girl!” We both cried but talked easily. We met in person again two months later. One of Michelle’s children lives only about a half an hour from me, so the three of us met for dinner. The next day, Michelle and I went exploring sights on our own. The last time we met, earlier this year, we brought our husbands and the four of us had dinner in a town near where we were born. That was a little risky that neither of us saw anyone we knew. We are both busy people but I hope to get together again soon!
How many people know about your new sister and how have you maintained control over who knows and who doesn’t?
Michelle: My husband and my adult children have known from the beginning. I would not have gotten through this without them. A have a few close friends who know.
I have not told the dad who raised me, and I don’t know if he has ever questioned my paternity or not. Eden’s mother is still married to our father, and she does not know. We have kept the secret to protect them. I struggle with this. We don’t want to hurt them, but I would also feel horrible if they find out from someone else and find out that we knew and kept it from them. It’s hard to know the right thing to do; probably because there is no one right thing to do.
I have told my siblings that I grew up with and it has not gone well. I suppose they have gone through their own grief process as well. I say “suppose” because they do not want to discuss any of this discovery, so I don’t really know where they are with it. They have asked a few basic questions the first time I told them, but they have specifically told me they don’t want to know any more. I am respecting that wish, but it hurts me. Finding this sister and forming this loving relationship with her has been the bright side of a very painful part of my life.
Eden: I have told my children, my husband and his sister, my brother, and numerous friends who do not know my parents. My main goal is to protect my mom. The day after Father’s Day in 2017, I went up to see my parents and took my dad out for lunch just the two of us. As we were driving to lunch, I started to tell him the story. He acted like he didn’t understand until I finally said, “Do you remember so-and-so? You’re the father of her daughter.” There was an awkward silence. I asked him if he wanted to talk and he said, “Not right now.” Once we were at the restaurant and seated, he asked me to tell him again. I did, and he said, “Well, I don’t know what to say. I’m not going to deny that it’s not possible.” I said, “Dad, DNA doesn’t lie. She is your daughter.” He asked if I was going to tell Mom and I said of course not. He then shared that my mom did know about the affair and that it was a bad time for them. My heart really hurts for my mom, knowing that she’s endured at least two bouts of infidelity and still stands by him after 58 years. My dad also said that he always wondered if the baby was his. Michelle’s mom quit work and quickly married her high school sweetheart after she found out that she was pregnant; to my knowledge, she and Dad have had no contact since then, even though they now live about a mile from each other. I asked Dad that day if he wanted to see pictures and he said no, but did ask about her family and said, “So I have three great-grandsons?” Last fall, my mom went on a trip with friends and Dad asked me to email him information and pictures about Michelle. I think he read it and then destroyed it before Mom came home. This past January, my dad developed some health concerns. I took a day off of work to spend time with him, just the two of us. While we were sitting there, he asked how “Shelley” is doing. I updated him and then asked him if he would like to meet her. He said he didn’t think so. He asks about her occasionally.
From the bravely-shared experiences of both Eden and Michelle, we learn about the tugging and pulling of loyalties to parents and siblings, the deeply-entrenched love and the desire for protection of the hearts of the ones most dear, and the unclear path forward when secrets long-hidden are suddenly and unexpectedly revealed. I wish this for everyone involved: patience, healing, openness, and continued communication as the new version of “family” emerges. Thank you again to both of you for sharing. You’ll never know how many lives you’ll touch by having shared your story. -Brianne