Not the Parent Expected
Health Street recently discovered that 56% of Americans have questions about their biological relationships to family members. Of those who sought DNA testing to confirm their biological relationship to other family members, over 80% waited more than a year, and 13% waited for over a decade to do family relationship DNA testing. But what happens when someone learns that the parent who raised them isn’t their biological parent? With increased availability of direct to consumer DNA testing, this uncomfortable situation is becoming more common. There are now several names for this circumstance, including:
DNA tests to discover relationships are booming — so are surprises
According to the Pew Research Center, about one-in-seven adults in the U.S. have used a family relationship DNA test. Almost 40% of the people responding to Pew’s survey said that the results of their test surprised them. And 27% of Pew survey respondents said they learned new information about close relatives.
When your father isn’t your father
Some people begin to suspect that one of their parents isn’t their biological parent because of physical or personality differences. But when 34-year-old Laura took a consumer DNA test along with her newly-wedded husband, the couple were just looking to find out whether they had a higher risk of passing on Alzheimer’s disease than other couples. Since Laura’s mother had Alzheimer’s disease, she had reason to be concerned.
Laura’s results showed a 12.5% risk of passing on Alzheimer’s disease. But shockingly, the result also pointed to the fact that her father had totally different genes.
How was this possible? Laura eventually discovered that she had been conceived through a fertility program using donor sperm. Decades ago, parents typically did not tell their children that they used fertility services to conceive them, although psychologists now advise that children should be told early on about the circumstances of their birth. When kids are old enough to understand the difference between biological parents and the parents who are raising them, it’s time to explain what’s going on.
What unexpected relationships can be revealed?
CeCe Moore, a consultant for television’s Finding Your Roots, told The Atlantic magazine, “It’s getting harder to keep secrets in our society.” Moore’s work that helps people to discover their biological relatives has revealed secret pregnancies and affairs on a number of occasions.
Sometimes family relationship DNA testing has even revealed fertility doctors using their own sperm (illegally, of course) to inseminate women. Canadian fertility doctor Norman Barwin used his own sperm to fertilize at least 11 women in incidents dating back to the 1970s. Barwin may have impregnated as many as 50 to 100 women with his own sperm. His scheme was uncovered in 2015 by a former patient’s daughter who began to question her parentage.
Questions of identity and healing from trauma
Many people who discover unexpected family relationships through consumer DNA testing question their identity and experience grieving and trauma. Support groups have sprung up, including NPE Friends, which maintains a Facebook group and a website.
Dawn spent her whole life wondering if her father was her biological father because she felt “different” from her siblings. DNA tests revealed that her suspicions were correct, and her biological father was her mother’s high school sweetheart, a man with Italian heritage.
When Dawn told her friends about her test results, they joked with her about making Italian food. But, “They don’t understand the gravity,” she told The Atlantic magazine. She sought therapy, but it was as unhelpful as her friends. Then, she began participating in the NPE Friends support group via Facebook. Dawn said that participating along with others who shared her experiences was “better than therapy.”
Support groups aren’t any replacement for professional therapy, but they can fill another need: sharing experiences and finding a sense of community. “The very foundation of who I thought I was was ripped out from under me,” Dawn said. Erin, another woman who learned she’d been conceived through a sperm donor, said she spent four months grieving, completely questioning her identity.
What if you are the unexpected parent or other relative?
For every person who discovers they have biological relatives they never knew before through DNA testing, there is an unexpected relative on the other side. DNA NPE Friends offers some guidance for people who may receive a message from an NPE relative: be kind, and be aware that the NPE who is searching is adjusting to a shock just as you will be. They advise building a friendship, not jumping into a relationship that never existed before.
Most NPE relatives are grateful for receiving a few images of their missing parent and learning medical information. “There’s no standard social protocol,” DNA NPE Friends advises. “Be patient with me,” the site suggests. With unexpected news, an opportunity to have more people to love, and to love you back, could arise.