“Do you wish you’d never done a DNA test?”
A friend at work asked me this question recently. For the first time in months, I had to really think about my answer.
“No,” I said, realizing that I actually meant it. Earlier this year, that answer would have been unthinkable. But as the word came out of my mouth, I knew it was the truth.
I grew up as the daughter of a single mom. My father and my mother had divorced soon after a hasty marriage in college, and he was an absent parent. I was very close to my grandparents, my great grandmother, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins; while I felt the absence of a father in my life, I had plenty of family around. My father and I met in my teens and a somewhat cordial but strained relationship developed, then died out when I moved away to attend college. We rarely speak, and my half sister from his second marriage is a stranger.
My maternal grandparents had always been interested in family history and genealogy, and I grew up hearing stories of cleaning up old family cemeteries, road trips to old homesteads, and hours spent in archives researching our family tree. When I married and had my own child, my interest in finding my own family history was piqued, and I began researching and building my family tree. Finding documents, stories, and sometimes even photographs of ancestors made them come alive to me, and I loved putting together the stories of their births, marriages, babies, jobs, houses, and moves throughout the country. I felt connected to these people and deeply rooted in my family history.
I felt connected to these people and deeply rooted in my family history.
In 2014, consumer DNA tests were gaining popularity among genealogists. I saved up my money, waited for a sale, and spit into a tube, eagerly awaiting my results. They were pretty much what I expected—my ethnicity showed I was from Great Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, with some Scandinavian and a few other European areas thrown in. I had a list of people who shared my DNA, although I could actually place only a handful—my mother’s second cousin, a few third and fourth cousins on my mom’s side. I even had a couple of matches who seemed to share really distant ancestors on my father’s side. I knew, through my research, that some of my maternal grandmother’s ancestors had immigrated from Ireland, and my maternal grandfather’s ancestors were from Scotland by way of Northern Ireland. My father’s family had immigrated from Ireland in the 1700s. So I was Irish, Scottish, and English? Not a surprise.
As time passed, I got more DNA matches, but few were closely related, and even fewer were recognizable. I became active in genealogy forums on Facebook, and helped answer DNA and genealogy questions from “newbies.” Consumer DNA testing grew in popularity, and more matches rolled in every week. Although I’d done my DNA test on ancestry.com, I decided to upload my DNA test results to other, smaller sites to see my DNA matches there. I wanted to confirm some of my genealogical ancestor “guesses” and find new relatives.
As time passed, I got more DNA matches, but few were closely related, and even fewer were recognizable.
In January of 2018, I got a notification from one of those other sites. The “You have a new DNA match!” emails were pretty common, and the matches were so distantly related that I couldn’t figure out how we were connected. I ignored most of them, but for some reason, I opened this email. The match was a close one—this man and I shared DNA at the level of a half brother or uncle—and I didn’t recognize the name. At all. What?
My new DNA match didn’t match my maternal relatives, so he was clearly related to my father. I spent several hours trying to figure out how it was possible my father had been adopted, as he was the middle child of a happily married couple and he definitely resembled his parents and siblings. Or, I wondered, had my grandparents somehow given up a child (who was now around my father’s age) for adoption? Yes: I, a reasonably intelligent researcher, a person who sometimes helped others with their genealogy and DNA questions, went there. My only excuse is that when it’s your DNA surprise—your story—sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.
When it’s your DNA surprise—your story—sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.
To make a long story short: the match was my paternal uncle. My biological father was not who my mother (or I) always thought he was—he was a college friend of my mom’s, and this was a surprise to her as well as to me. We were both stunned, shocked, and I think we probably both felt like we were going to throw up when we finally were able to talk about it.
The family I’d always known as mine, wasn’t. Those ancestors I’d carefully researched and whose stories I’d cherished? Not mine. But the worst part was that my biological dad was deceased. I’d never get a chance to meet him—for closure, or curiosity, or any other reason. Door shut. End of story.
Over the next few months, I felt like my world had turned upside down. I felt lost...it’s hard to find out in your late 40s that you aren’t who you thought you were all of your life, and I didn’t take it well. I cried at inopportune moments, I wondered what I’d done to anger the Universe, and I grieved for that family I’d lost. Similarly, I found myself mourning the relationship with the man I’d always thought was my father, though it had been practically nonexistent for years. I’d always harbored a tiny hope that we’d fix it someday. Now, there was not even a biological link to tie us together when nothing else had.
I felt like my world had turned upside down.
But—and there’s usually a “but” in these stories, right? I have a living uncle, with a kind and accepting wife, who wants to meet me. I have an amazing brother who is about a year younger than me and is like me in so many ways. He makes me laugh, and challenges me, and inspires me to be a a good big sister and a better person overall. I wish we’d been able to know each other growing up, but I’m glad we do now.
Is the “surprise dad” thing still hard? Oh, yeah. There are days when I have trouble dealing with my emotions. I’ll suddenly think of my not-father’s parents and miss them—and wonder if they ever suspected. (I don't think so.) I’ll drive by a battlefield where a relative died and think of his sacrifice…and then remember he’s not my relative. I think about my not-father and our fractured relationship, and I feel sad and guilty. I think of the lost opportunities to know my biological family--especially my grandmother, who by all accounts was a wonderful lady--and all the years I missed out on knowing my brother. It hurts.
I’ve gained so much, though, and that’s why my answer to my friend’s question was “no.” I don’t regret doing the DNA test. I’m slowly developing relationships with my new family, and I’ll be meeting them for the first time this summer. I’m learning about my history and undiscovered ancestors. I’m adding their stories in my family tree to those of my former ancestors, who still hold a place in my heart even though we don’t share genes. I know the truth now, and while sometimes the truth is uncomfortable and scary and sad, it’s also important. I’m a different person now, I think—or maybe I’m the same person, just with different roots and a different family. Everything I thought about myself has been challenged, and it’s been hard. But I think things will be OK. I think I’ll be OK.