When a DNA test brings shocking results
Born in the early 1970s, Petra* and her elder sister Lena* had been raised in the UK by their white British mother and Japanese father. Petra’s father had died suddenly more than two decades ago and her mother, now in her 80s, was in a care home suffering from dementia.
Both daughters had glossy black hair, like their parents, and when they were children, strangers would comment that Lena’s features were a perfect combination of her mother and father’s. No such observations were made about Petra. “Nan on my Mum’s side once told me I had Mum’s turned-up nose, but nobody has ever said I look Asian,” recalls Petra.
“It sounds unbelievable, but we never discussed in the family that I looked so different from Lena,” she continues. “Looking back, it was clearly a taboo area that no one dared venture into. We weren’t an affectionate, close family who chatted about how we felt. Lena moved to Berlin to study when she was 18. She got married out there and I don’t see much of her now.
“After Dad’s funeral, I screwed up my courage and blurted out to Mum, ‘Why don’t I look like Lena?’ She gave me a look of such hurt and fury and then stormed off to the bathroom I didn’t dare bring it up again.”
In recent years, Petra toyed with the idea of taking a DNA test but was worried about what she might find. “My dad was so lovely, so kind, that the idea he might not be my birth dad was just too painful,” she recalls. However, in 2019, Petra took the plunge and had a test. It confirmed her worst fears – she came out as 99% European. The man who had raised her was not her real father.
“While it’s not a surprise exactly, it’s still really shocking,” she explains. “I guess I was a bit in denial about it, but I had hoped that I had at least some of Dad’s DNA, somehow. But I have none. I’m single and my surname is very obviously Asian. I feel such a fraud now I know I’m not Japanese at all.
“What do I do now? Mum barely recognises me – I can hardly ask her to explain. Lena isn’t interested and says she knows nothing about what might have gone on. Mum has no siblings and we never even met any of Dad’s family. Lena and I never questioned it, but maybe this is why. It’s a mystery, with me in the middle and nowhere to turn for answers.
“So who is my real dad? Do I even want to know what happened? One day I do, the next I want to just forget I ever took the test. I’m so anxious and confused. I have no idea who I am anymore. I’m so angry with my mother for hiding the truth from me. And what on earth did my Japanese dad make of the situation?”
Like Petra, more and more of us are taking DNA tests as part of our journey to connect with our ancestors and add to our personal story. So great is the interest in finding our forebears that the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are? which follows celebrities researching their family trees, regularly attracts 3 million viewers. While tracing your relatives can be fun and exciting, unfortunately, DNA tests can also bring to light information that’s upsetting and rocks your world view of who you thought you or your family are.
The three most popular home DNA tests in the UK are 23andMe, Ancestry and MyHeritage, with Ancestry alone proclaiming in August 2020 that it had more than 18 million people on its database. Similarly, in August, 880 people a month searched Google for DNA home testing kits. Costing around £100, you swab the inside of your cheek or spit into a tube, post it off and the companies analyse your DNA to identify where your ancestors came from.
Secrets from the past
It seems a lot of skeletons have come tumbling out of closets and, like Petra, quite a few people are finding themselves bewildered, distressed and wondering how much of the truth they actually want to know.
While Petra had long suspected the facts about her parentage, for increasing numbers of individuals, finding out their mother/father isn’t who they thought they are is a huge, shattering shock. People also report discoveries such as:
- They were conceived using a sperm donor – with some having a great many siblings they had no idea about.
- They have ethnicities they weren’t expecting, linking them to countries and communities outside of their experience.
- Neither they nor their siblings are related to their father.
- They’ve been contacted by strangers via DNA testing sites who are revealed to be relatives their family didn’t want them to know about.
- Siblings who had been adopted turning up when the person was completely unaware their mother had given up a child for adoption.
Such findings can blow your world apart, plunging you into an existential crisis where everything you used to take for granted is in question.
Finding new meaning
How do you begin to move forward after a distressing DNA test result?
Shock, disbelief and denial are perfectly normal initial responses
This grief reaction to what you’ve lost is the first stage in beginning to process your thoughts and feelings around the situation. It can be likened to death – the death of the old you and your view of your family. As with any major loss, it takes time to adjust to a new reality without the elements that were an integral part of your life and identity.
Be kind to yourself
Treat yourself with compassion, as you would someone you love who has suffered a tremendous shock and begin a self-care routine. Consider journaling regularly about your thoughts and feelings, and explore ways to calm yourself, such as mindfulness, visualisation and breathing techniques.
Be patient with yourself
It’s taken you a lifetime to build your identity, so changes to how you view yourself won’t happen overnight. There will be many different components for you to negotiate. For some, the DNA test result brings relief as it answers questions they’ve had for many years.
Expect extremes of emotion
It’s common to feel angry and betrayed when considering how a parent or other family members have behaved. Your perception of them has been challenged but, in time, you may come to understand why they acted as they did.
Find solid support
This is crucial, so please don’t be stoic and try to handle this alone. While not everyone will understand the magnitude of your feelings, hopefully, there is at least one person in your social circle or family who will listen without judging. There is an increasing number of DNA results support groups online. Facebook has several, including DNA NPE Friends, a private group for those whose parent wasn’t who they were expecting.
Be cautious when it comes to contacting new relatives
While some family members are receptive to approaches concerning DNA results, sadly there are reports of the seeker being rejected by their newfound relatives. It’s vital to have trusted people around who have your back, understand your circumstances to the best of their ability and will stand by you if you choose to reach out to new kin.
This may be the time to find a therapist who can be alongside you while you mourn, sift through your maelstrom of feelings, work on your changing identity and tackle new and evolving relationships. They can also help you think about how to approach family members old and new.
Everyone can get free counselling sessions via their GP and the NHS, though there may be long waitlists. Private therapy is also an option. Many counsellors work online, so it’s simple and easy to find someone you resonate with and who may have a special interest in this area.
Petra feels she’s just beginning her journey. Although her sister remains unsympathetic, she’s fortunate to have an understanding best friend who listens patiently to her worries and fears.
“I still can’t say for sure that I’m ready to embrace the idea of having another man as my dad - and possibly meeting new family,” says Petra. “It’s terrifying. I might send a tentative email to the two people on the site’s database who are most closely related to me. But that’s a huge step I’m not quite up to yet. I’ve found a counsellor who is supporting me and I’m taking things really slowly.”
*Names and details have been changed to protect identities.