When I purchased my AncestryDNA kit, I was pandemic bored. I had no suspicions about my family history. I knew who I was.
I was born to a white mother and a Mexican father in the mid-80s. I was 35, almost 36 years old. I was a mother and wife. I was finally stepping into myself as a professional, having recently accepted a promotion at work. I was a friend, sister, and daughter. I had a strong sense of self — and zero inclination that a bombshell was about to drop.
The test had been on my Amazon wishlist for years, to no avail. On a Prime Day whim, I decided to buy it for myself.
I figured it might be neat to learn more about my indigenous ancestors. You see, my paternal grandmother had been researching our background at the time of her death, long before we had consumer DNA testing kits at our fingertips. It seemed like an interesting thing to uncover, to continue her work.
I read the instructions. I spit in the tube. As I sealed the package, a strange thought popped up in the back of my mind: Wouldn’t it be weird if my dad wasn’t my dad? I quickly dismissed it as a runaway imagination thing. I was prone to that. I sent the package off without hesitation. That was impossible. I knew where I came from. I knew who I was.
My origin story (the first one)
My origin story — the original one — was a mix of feminism and fate.
The story goes something like this: my parents were both in the military and met overseas, even though they were from the same city in Texas (fate!). They met at a club, dated for a short time, and soon after, my mom was pregnant.
My dad offered to marry her, but my mom declined, saying it was too soon (feminism!). They continued to date throughout her pregnancy and ultimately got married when I was nine months old. Because my mom was unsure of whether or not they’d end up together, she didn’t put his name on my birth certificate. My first last name was her maiden name.
Ultimately, they chose each other, and not just because they had a baby together. I really liked that story.
I was just about to join a work meeting when the notification popped up on my phone. “Your AncestryDNA results are in!”
The app opened. I clicked on my ethnicity results first — I wasn’t looking for family. I was interested in my background. But that was the first sign that something was very wrong.
According to AncestryDNA, I was 40% African American, a descendant of early Carolinas peoples.
There was no Latinx in my results. No Mexican, no indigenous peoples, no Spanish. When I looked at the world map at the top of the screen, I saw Europe, as I expected. Scottish, German, and British were all known to me. But instead of Mexico, my results highlighted Africa. Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon, to be specific. I looked over to the United States section and saw dark blue shading over the Carolinas.
My hands started to go numb while I looked at the percentage breakdown. According to AncestryDNA, I was 40% African American, a descendant of early Carolinas peoples.
This was clearly a mistake.
I clicked on my matches. At this point, my brain starts tingling. The first result is a parent-child match. I have no idea who this man is. I click on his profile but nothing makes sense to me. I go back to my matches, sure that my sample was lost or switched or something. But then I see my mom’s brother.
I called my sister, who told me to call my mother. My mother said she was shocked, but she didn’t sound shocked. I had to get off the phone — it was time for me to join that meeting.
I spent the next day and a half trying to determine if a mistake was in any way possible. I dissociated. I cried. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I researched more and more about DNA testing. About this new man.
And then my parents came over and told me the truth.
My origin story (as I know it now)
The first thing my dad told me was, “I met you and your mom at the same time, when you were two months old.”
My mom had been in an abusive relationship that ended shortly after she found out she was pregnant with me. She went through the rest of the pregnancy alone. A friend was with her in the hospital when I was born.
She met my dad shortly after having me and he fell in love with both of us. He decided to raise me as his own and they agreed not to tell me the truth. They told their friends and family the same. Much of my extended family knew.
But the person that my parents believed was my bio dad, the one they wanted to keep me safe from, was not black. They were mistaken.
I don’t know the full story of how I was conceived. I probably never will. What I do know is that this man is not my biological father.
Flashbacks and family, new and old
After I learned the truth, so many things made sense. I was always the most ambiguous-looking of my sisters. The tan skin I attributed to my Mexican background actually came from my African American biological father’s side. My curly hair. My interests. I even lived in North Carolina in my twenties, long before I knew the truth.
The truth is that my bio father grew up not far from where I lived in the South. Like my parents, he joined the military and was stationed overseas. After I was born, he went on to get married and have more children. He settled down in Alabama. He never knew about me.
Luckily for me, the news of a long-lost daughter was welcomed. I met my father, my sister, and my brother. I went to my sister’s wedding. I’m attending a family reunion soon. As far as DNA surprise stories go, mine has a mostly happy ending.
In many ways, I’m happier than ever. On other days, I’ve never been worse.
My raised family unit isn’t the same. I’m not sure that it ever will be. I’ve grown closer to some and more distant from others. I hope that at some point we can return to normalcy.
I’ve immersed myself in therapy, working through this massive trauma. I’ve grieved for the loss of a life unlived, for a loss of trust, for a loss of my reality. I’ve turned my pain toward helping others heal and share their stories. In many ways, I’m happier than ever. On other days, I’ve never been worse.
I’ve forgiven my parents for what they did. I believe that a combination of shame and a genuine belief that they were doing the right thing led to their decision. I can’t imagine living with that secret for more than three decades, but even more, I can’t imagine living with the knowledge that the decision was made in error.
I can’t imagine making the decision at all, but my parents aren’t the only ones who have. Far from it.
*NPE: Not Parent Expected
It’s estimated that 5 percent of the population has an NPE — a non-parental (or non-paternal) event. Not Parent Expected. That translates to more than 16 million Americans. If NPEs were a state, they’d be the sixth-largest in the U.S.
NPEs happen for myriad reasons, from affairs, to fertility fraud, to honest mistakes. With the popularization of consumer DNA tests like AncestryDNA and 23&Me, more and more are uncovered every day.
I’m a member of multiple Facebook groups for people who have experienced DNA surprises, and every day someone posts something similar to my own first post.
They ask if the tests are wrong. They express utter devastation at “losing” their birth certificate fathers. They ask about how to contact new family. They vent about their raised families. They ask for help. They feel alone.
It’s estimated that 5 percent of the population has an NPE — a non-parental event. Not Parent Expected As common as DNA surprises are, not many people know that they have a name.
More and more resources are becoming available to people experiencing the shock of an NPE. Organizations like Right to Know offer phone, text, and email support, mentorships, and virtual support groups. There are retreats for NPEs, dozens of Facebook groups, and several podcasts where people share their stories.
We share our stories for people who feel alone. For people who wish to reduce the shame and stigma around parentage. For people who are trying to navigate a new reality. For people who once felt like they knew who they were, but now aren’t so sure.
For people like me.