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 the other.
Second path: Consider testing with a paternity testing lab. The test results are admissible in a court of law, 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 whether there existed 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.