In the early summer of 2018, I received my highly anticipated results from a home genetic testing kit purchased through AncestryDNA.com. I became very excited and couldn’t wait to see my results. From a very young age, I would hear stories about my family’s diverse, multiracial and multiethnic backgrounds – some born from a legacy of enslavement and others through European immigration into my home culture.
I was very hopeful I would both confirm and learn how close to reality these stories were. More importantly, I might discover where on the African continent I hailed from.
As expected, my maternal side results confirmed many of the family heritage legends and revealed ethnicities and locations that I had no knowledge about. These results were even more fascinating than the stories I had been told: 17 ethnicities, including West, East and North Africa, Northern and Southern Europe, Asia and Pacific Islander ancestry.
However, these results also revealed results that were unexpected and did not match what I knew about my paternal side.
When reviewing my ethnicity and inheritance locations, I immediately noticed something odd. My results showed zero percentage Native American or Indigenous ancestry, and the country of Mexico was not circled on my inheritance location maps, as I had presumed would be the case. It was puzzling, because a few weeks earlier, my paternal first cousin had called to share her results about our racial and ethnic backgrounds.
OPENING A GENETIC PANDORA’S BOX
Strikingly, none of what she had disclosed about our heritage was shown in my DNA story. I noticed names listed in my DNA matches that I didn’t recognize. I franticly searched for my cousin in my list. Her name wasn’t there. I thought to myself: “That can’t be. There has to be an error.”
Deep down, however, I knew I had stumbled onto something that would rock the foundation of my identity. I had genetically opened Pandora’s box.
As this truth began to emerge in my thoughts, my phone rang. It was my cousin letting me know she had received the email for the DNA test that she administered for my father. I could hear the shift in her voice and tone from our previous conversation. Tearfully, I asked if my name was showing as a match in his results. She confirmed the conclusion that I was already beginning to draw: I was not listed in his matches, nor hers.
In less than 10 minutes, I learned that my father was not my biological parent. In a flash, 50% of my identity as I knew it was shattered. I was utterly devastated, as was my birth certificate parent.
When I made the decision to take the genetic test for fun, I had no idea that it would lead to the discovery of my deceased mother’s long-held secret and the unraveling of my identity as I knew it. The burning question became, “If I am not who I thought I was, then Who Am I, NOW?!
If I am not who I thought I was, then Who Am I, NOW?!Dr. Paulette Bethel
UPENDING GENETIC FAMILY NARRATIVES
Access to direct-to-consumer DNA tests and analyses, such as AncestryDNA, 23andMe, My Heritage and FamilyTree DNA are becoming increasingly popular around the globe. In 2019, it was estimated that more than 26 million people have taken an at-home DNA test. According to the 2021 World Consumer DNA (Genetic) Testing Market Report, it was estimated that around 100 million kits were sold in 2021, with a forecasted annual growth rate of 12.25%. The report projected over US$1 billion in earnings by 2026.
Commercial genetic testing kits are marketed and sold to consumers who self-select the genetic testing company of their choice “for a multitude of reasons, ranging from learning about their ancestry, to receiving personalized information about health risks.”
“While at-home genetic testing can be helpful in identifying ancestry markers and genetic matches to others, it can also reveal surprising information not anticipated by the consumer. Some will discover that they are not biologically related to a presumed parent. These occurrences are known as Non-Paternal Events in the conventional genetic testing field, or Not Parent Expected (NPE), to describe individuals who discover they are not biologically related to their father or mother. NPE results can be the result of several scenarios, including misattributed paternity/maternity, adoption, and donor conception (Heilman, 2022).” (This Culturs article uses Not Parent Expected as the preferred usage.)
A recent study (Chen, et.al,) cited “estimates that range from less than 1% to over 10% (International Society of Genetic Genealogy, 2022). Recently, Guerrini et al surveyed 23,196 people who used the DTC service FamilyTreeDNA and found that 5% of participants discovered an unexpected biological parent of any gender (Guerrini et al, 2022).”
Though the foundation of my world had been utterly rocked, I soon discovered that I was not alone.Catherine St. Clair
THE ‘NOT PARENT EXPECTED’ EXPERIENCE
In 2017, NPE Fellowship Founder Catherine St. Clair made her unexpected DNA discovery.
“It’s felt like an earthquake had cracked my foundation, and I had lost my stable grounding,” says St. Clair. Many in her life did not understand the emotional turmoil that she was experiencing at the discovery of learning that her “daddy was not her dad.” She felt lost and alone and began to wonder if there were others like her. “Surely, I can’t be the only one going through this.”
After searching for emotional support to assist with her NPE journey, and failing to find anything online, she started the NPE Friends Fellowship Facebook group. Within one week, the group had 20 members. Catherine realized the impact on the lives of NPEs worldwide, and that there were too few resources to support NPEs and their families. Determined that more must be done to help, Catherine launched the NPE Friends Fellowship organization in 2018.
It’s felt like an earthquake had cracked my foundation, and I had lost my stable grounding.
When I discovered and joined the group after reading an article about St. Claire and the NPE Facebook group, they had already grown to over 1,000 members by their first anniversary in 2018. The group now has over 11,000 members.
Brianne Kirkpatrick, a genetic counselor at 23andMe and the founder of Watershed DNA says: “The larger the DNA databases grow, the more unexpected discoveries impact individuals and ripple outward, sometimes through multiple generations of the family. We are already in a new era in which DNA findings become a piece of information that builds our identity. It’s already an experience millions of people have had.”
UNDERSTANDING THE NPE IDENTITY DISRUPTION AND TRAUMA IMPACT
In a 2022 research study conducted by Michele Grethel, she identified that “Identity transformation after unexpected DNA results is often accompanied by intense change in personal and community identity and a shift in identity related to race, ethnicity, religion, family status, belonging or other facets of oneself.”
In her seminal research study, genetic counselor Julia Becker found that the NPE event has a strong impact on identity and experiences of grief and loss were numerous.
As in my personal “lifequake” experience, the discovery of one’s NPE status results in revealing long-held secrets that can shake our most profound beliefs about our family history and identity.
When I attempted to speak to family and friends about my experience and the enormous pain, it was very hard for them to understand. They were unable to provide the support I needed. They would say well-intentioned statements like “blood doesn’t make family, your dad is still your dad” or “nothing’s changed.”
For me, everything changed.
I spent hours in isolation and many sleepless nights trying to grasp this emotionally painful experience. In these dark hours of distress, I attempted to process my emotions, often with the not always understanding, but compassionately supportive help from my devoted spouse. I ultimately developed an NPE Identity Disruption Trauma Recovery Model™ as a tool to help me sort through my experience of confusion, feelings of betrayal, grief and loss.
When I attempted to speak to family and friends about my experience and the enormous pain, it was very hard for them to understand.
When I presented this concept at the first NPE Fellowship retreat conference, it was well received. Attendees shared that the concept was instrumental in helping them recognize the intense, roller coaster of emotions that they were experiencing was a trauma response to an event outside of their control.
Many shared that they had been unable to find therapists or other helping professionals who were able to understand this very traumatic life event and the profound impact it had on their lives and sense of self.
JODI GIRARD’S GENETIC STORY
Fellow NPE Jodi Girard grew up Caucasian in a small city in Iowa. Like thousands of others, a DNA kit uncovered her family secret, and it profoundly unraveled her identity. Not only was her beloved Caucasian dad not her biological parent, she discovered that her actual biological father was African American.
“I was absolutely in shock,” she says. “It was like someone taking the book of my life and ripping all the pages out, throwing them up in the air and adding a bunch of pages that contain characters that I don’t know and describing events that I wasn’t a part of, but am related to now due to my DNA discovery. Even though the mirror had been telling me the truth for years, I couldn’t believe my parents had lied to me for 45 years. I was told I looked like my dad’s side. Some have dark hair and tan in the summer but did not have a black skin tone.”
This NPE experience is like losing a loved one while at the same time welcoming in a stranger into your innermost parts of yourself.Jodi Girard
“Following my discovery, I looked in the mirror and for the first time, I could make sense of what I had been seeing all along,” she continues. “For people like me, there is so much grief and confusion. I grieve the culture that was kept from me, and I’m totally lost as to how to embrace it now as an adult, who is fully integrated into the monoracial identity that I had been led to believe was mine. This NPE experience is like losing a loved one while at the same time welcoming in a stranger into your innermost parts of yourself.”
“Now, I am left with the task of picking up all the pages and must put them back in some sort of order that makes sense,” according to Girard. “And these pages now don’t seem to go together, at least not logically, yet. Do I throw some pages out? Does it make sense to keep all the pages of this new family history that I didn’t live? It’s just crazy, even now that I’m four years out, it is still hard to get people to understand how emotionally traumatic this loss (or change) of race and ethnicity can be.”
If you’re an NPE, you’re not alone. Taking care of your mental health through practices such as physical exercise and meditation can be very helpful. You may also consider:
- Seeking out the support of a knowledgeable therapist or trauma informed coach, that specializes in working with the NPE community. Also find NPE support groups, communities and supportive people who can walk with you as you navigate the shock, chaos and confusion of this often-traumatizing experience.
Please be aware that the pain and loss that NPEs experience is very real. It can be overwhelming and can leave an NPE feeling broken at their core. Too often, well-meaning but insensitive comments from family, friends, doctors and even therapists add to the grief and trauma of this upending experience. Avoid language that increases the sense of loss:
- Advice such as, “blood doesn’t make family, “you’re still the same person,” “he’s still your dad,” “you’ll get over it,” “this doesn’t change anything,” “it doesn’t make a difference in you are,” “it’s not a big deal, get over it!” can come across as insensitive, invoke shame or lead the NPE to isolate even more due to their grief experience being disenfranchised.
Organizations that provide emotional, educational and practical support include: The NPE Friends Fellowship and The International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaches for a list of certified NPE Trauma Recovery Coaches.
You can also contact other trauma-informed organizations to find licensed therapists and resources to help you navigate the NPE experience.