What Do You Do When You Learn You're Not Who You Thought?

You’ve learned you have biological family you never heard of before. You learned this as the result of the DNA test your sister gave you for the holidays. “This is going to be fun!” she said. “You’ve always wanted to know more about the family history so I got one for each of us,” she added. You were skeptical because you’ve heard Big-Brother-type stories of these companies hoarding personal information like DNA to catalog who everyone is for nefarious purposes later. You’ve also heard lots of stories of people finding long lost family but you wrote those surprises off as belonging only to adoptees or Jerry Springer cases.

You know you have nothing to worry about; your family is upper middle class, educated, stable. Your parents have a happy marriage and you and your sister are…normal, albeit very different in appearance and personality. So you agree, and spit in the tube. Funny that your dad won’t, he really doesn’t like the idea of having his DNA filed away somewhere where they know everything about him. Chalking it up to old-school privacy concerns of the older generation, you dismiss it. After all, they’re not really tech savvy and haven’t embraced that everything is online now anyway.

Serve a food again and again. If your child rejects a new dish, don't give up hope. You may have to offer it another six, eight, or even 10 times before he eats it and decides he likes it.

Garrett Sears/UnsplashNavigating the Meaning of DNA tests Source: Garrett Sears/Unsplash

Three weeks later, the results for yours test appear in your inbox. In your results you see your sister as a relation, listed second after a name you don’t recognize. You take a mental note to wonder about that later. After looking over your own results, you skim down her ethnicity findings. At first blush you see she has a few minor differences in ethnicity ratios than you – which has triggered that skepticism again. The results should be exactly the same, right? You do a quick Google search and learn that not all siblings will have the exact same results because DNA it is not uniformly dispersed from parents to children.

Now you notice a glaring difference: she doesn’t have the Italian heritage you do. In fact, your percentage is quite high – 48%. She’s all Anglo, a smattering of mom and dad’s combined Irish/British heritage the family always talks about with pride. Immediately you think the test is bogus - they got something wrong. So you make a call into their customer service line.

The representative is calm, pleasant even when leading you through the results. She starts comparing the centimorgans on your two profiles, and you notice she has a long pause. Finally she blurts out that with that range of centimorgan match you cannot be full siblings, you share only one parent. You’re not sure why but you become very angry and think it has to be because the company mixed up the results, something like that. The rep assures you the tests are valid and suggests you seek psychotherapy to explore the newly discovered changes in your family.

For once, your sister is not bubbly but wisely restrains herself when you explain it. While you are take her through it, some things fall into place that you filed away over the years; always wondering why you had dark hair and everyone had light hair, why your features resembled mom’s so strongly but also had something you couldn’t identify, why you acted so different than everyone - especially dad’s side of the family. There was always a sense of being different but no way to ascertain why, just a feeling. Dad simply explained that you took after mom while your sister took after him. She was his spitting image. You do look like mom, but in a different way. How do you tell your parents!

Pick your battles. Kids can't absorb too many rules without turning off completely. Forget arguing about little stuff like fashion choices and occasional potty language. Focus on the things that really matter - that means no hitting, rude talk, or lying.

Greg Raines/UnsplashSource: Greg Raines/Unsplash

Quickly, you go back to your profile and look at the unknown name at the top of your relations list. The small tutorial you had from the representative helps you identify that you share a similar centimorgan range as that of your sister. That makes them a sibling too. OMG.

You place a call to your mom and she becomes very quiet. So quiet in fact, it starts to feel like a horror movie with a jump scare around the corner. “MOM!” you yell into the phone. “What don't I know? Is dad my dad?”

This story is a fictional account mirroring close to 2 million stories (at the time of this blog) that have similar results. You may recognize yourself, a family member or a previously unknown family member in this story. This phenomenon is known as Not Parent Expected , Non-Paternal Event or as I’ve renamed it, Parental Identity Discovery™ . It changes everything, particularly the identity that person had been living with until the point of discovery. What comes next is a journey to find the truth and who they belong to biologically. This is becoming more and more common as the at-home tests become more popular and affordable and it also has significant consequences to the fabric of families and the individual’s identities within them.

If someone you've never heard of has contacted you and they claim a DNA match, please read about this phenomenon at length before you respond by shutting them out. This person is braving a journey of discovery that may have implications for you too, and going through it with some support is better going through a journey completely alone.