Southern Family Values
I was raised in the coalfields of West Virginia, a place unlike any other in the United States. I was surrounded by poverty, though I didn’t know it, and a society that valued family above all else. Growing up, I was told that my mom, dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins were all much more important than friends and strangers and that I should uphold their wellbeing above all else. This belief is quite common in Appalachia, where families could be large and full of shared trauma that brought them closer together.
However, the opioid epidemic has proven too large of a trauma for West Virginia to handle. This, on top of lost opportunities with the loss of coal, shocked the region to its core. Families are now seemingly still allegiant to one another while also being torn apart. This was the case for my conflicted family as well. We’d die for each other if we didn’t kill one another first.
The fragile state of my family, one left in disarray with displaced children and mentally ill addicts, had left me fragile too. I had no idea how in the world I could feel close to my parents again, especially with the mental abuse I’d suffered from them as an adult. I had blocked a lot of my childhood demons away in the wake of my son’s birth, but the fresh scars would not heal. It was for this reason that I wanted to better understand my background. I scoured the Internet for hours trying to find information on relatives who had perished long ago, getting frustrated at every dead end I would hit. It was hard finding information from my immediate family as well, because they seemed grouchy at the thought. In the most traditional way, they said that the past did not matter and that their focus was on the future. The clearest emphasis was on the family that you had, not the family you wish you had.
Sometimes I wish that I had listened.
I found out that my mother and my grandfather were not biologically related. Everyone says that they just assumed that I knew and took the insistence to hear about it very personally. My grandparents told me that he was my grandfather no matter what, a fact I hadn’t once contested. Their insecurity in this was unfathomable to me. However, it did give me the chance to learn more. I started on the newest branch of my family tree, only to get stuck very soon after. I tried to reach out to my biological grandfather once, but he was never interested. My mother said that his wife was extremely jealous, so I just gave up on it. Sure, I felt kind of bad, but it didn’t break my heart too badly.
From there, I was desperate to get some new leads on my family tree, and I guess I was hoping to make some new connections. I had been told that family was incredibly important, but I was more or less estranged from my parents and my brother never talked to me, so it made sense. This led me to AncestryDNA.
I took the test, sent it back, and waited for results. When my results came back, I rushed to my computer. To be clear, I had no expectations with my ethnicity. I just knew that I was pretty white, so no shocks when I saw all that Irish, Scottish, and European heritage matched to my DNA. The moneymaker for me was the DNA matches page, where you can see other users you are related to. I searched my last name in the search bar to no avail. I was incredibly confused. I tried my grandmother’s maiden name, and some users popped up. I recognized a few of them, which led me to further question why I didn’t recognize any of the names that popped up as immediate relatives. A second cousin, a man whom I’d known from school, got me to thinking. How were we related? I’d never heard of us being related, but he had a surname that I knew my father was associated with, so I assumed that was how and that no direct family member on my dad’s side had taken the test.
For a couple of months afterwards, I would inquire about this to my family. I even slyly asked my dad if he was related to the man who’d shown up as my second cousin. He shrugged, told me he wasn’t sure, and disregarded the question as my typical nonsense. This was the response I had gotten from just about everyone else as well. I tried to explain the significance to them, but they didn’t seem to understand. Their insistence was that it didn’t matter. He was always and would always be my dad.
So I approached my mother. More accurately, I had cornered her on the phone. Could I have a different biological father? She skirted around the question, but I made my position very clear. I had physical evidence; I just needed someone to confirm the missing details for me. I heard her shuffle awkwardly as she told me that there could be someone else. She gave me his name, a name I recognized.
It hit me harder than I’d expected.
I cried all night, on and off for weeks to come, and occasionally still shed tears over the thought. It’s not because I feel differently about my dad (birth certificate father, or BCF, from here on out) or even my mother, who had asked me to keep this a secret. I was confused because this stranger was my parent, and family was important, but strangersweren’t. Who was he supposed to be to me? I assumed that since he was my family biologically, he was my family through and through. Automatically, I felt a kinship to him because I was supposedto. I clung to the possibilities of who he was, who he could have been in my life if given the chance. I wondered if my traumatic childhood could have gone drastically differently if only he had had a way to know. I believed in the possibility of him more than I believed in my own BCF, a stoic alcoholic that I hardly ever heard from.
If only I had known how dangerous this was.
I asked my mother to have him call me. Turns out, she was even dating him, which was an odd and uncomfortable turn of events. Long story short, he never called. I was heartbroken, my image of who this person could have been to me shattered. My desire for cliché parental love, the kind you see in “normal families” was shot down. I was angry. I still am. I still don’t know why I expected anything different; I suppose I was seeing the possibilities through rose-colored glasses.
The reality? This man had no responsibilities to anyone but himself. I also didn’t really know him, only his relatives from around town. Why would he suddenly change that for a 24-year-old that he really didn’t know? Most importantly, who said that we had the same idea of, or dedication to, family? This man did not see me as his family, in whatever case, and I had to accept it one way or another.
I still haven’t reached acceptance yet, but I am moving forward in my journey by asking my parents to be more involved in my life. Hopefully, they can fill the hole that I have learned only they can fill.
A DNA surprise discovery takes a while to sink in and depending on your choices, this could be the end or beginning of a much longer journey. As a counselor and NPE my first thought was, are there any others like me out there who I can relate to? The answer was and still is yes and the number is growing! There are numerous Facebook groups filled with information and experiences about others and their NPE journeys. It’s also important to note that these groups abide by confidentiality (as is reasonable) and most have a brief interview process, similar to what someone would experience in being screened for group therapy.
In my first month as a new NPE, I found these groups to be critical in my healing as they contained considerable amounts of useful information, most of which already spoke on feelings or similar thoughts that were running through my head. I also found that when I posed a question on the group page, it was instantly answered by multitudes who could relate or had already gone through what I was experiencing. These groups are amazingly helpful and encouraging through the ups and downs, and for this, many thanks can be given to online support systems for NPE’s. These interactions in community helped me to cautiously develop a plan for how I would contact my new biological father (more on this in the next post) as well as other planned out steps that I took. I found that because of the experiences of others, I was able to understand the best to worse possible outcome. It was then that I had time to think, consider, and pray before going in. Also, I feel that the information from others helps to take some of the shock away, seeing you know what you can possibly expect.
A unique aspect of such a large online group, concerns the array of generations that are accounted for. I’ve noticed that the range varies but you will mostly see Millennials through Baby Boomers. These different generations add insight to the group from their own timely perspective and experience. I believe that this allows for a richer accumulation or body of knowledge. However, I also found it helpful that there exists sub groups such as a Millennials only page. In the sub groups you can find those who might be more similar in experience due to their life stage development. There’s a lot to be said for going through something like this together and with others in your generational realm. But too, there is much to be gained in experiencing this alongside everyone as well. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!
So, why community? In community we find common ground and when working properly, safety and support. Support is crucial in navigating through the unknown and knowing that someone is there to listen, celebrate, encourage, and mourn with you. These aspects can help when grief and depression try to set in. One example I had through a group was that I posted a picture of my bf and siblings who I had just found. Next to their pictures was a picture of me and I asked the group if they could see similarities. I had tons of replies as did others, and these replies where others could see similarities in our appearance, greatly encouraged me to seek out my new family and see if I could be welcomed! This was just one of many instances where the group helped me in my experience. Overall, concerning this specified community, I have found my experience to be beneficial. I’ve had others bear the burdens of my sadness, encourage me when I wanted to give up on the next step, and even more rewardingly, ask me for my help as others came into their own DNA surprise discovery. The process of seeking out and becoming a part of the NPE community brings healing and in time, brings greater satisfaction as we are able to contribute toward helping others. You aren’t alone, even if you feel like the odd one at the moment. There are others out there and all you have to do is send a flare.
Here are two group resources for those searching for other NPE’s to connect with.
It seemed like I had tucked the thought away two months ago. The thought that, I’m going to spit in this tube and get back some results that tell me what my ethnicity is. I’m an anxious person and waiting for results to anything doesn’t necessarily come easy, so I try hard to forget about things that may take awhile. Things such as, making it till Christmas, going on vacation, buying that latest gadget I’ve saved for, getting my yearly physical report back (I might be a hypochondriac), and so on. In this case, it was receiving DNA results. On the day that I received a text message from Ancestry.com saying my testing was complete, I became so excited that I stopped what I was doing to check the results. Finally, I would know the truth about whether or not I had Viking blood or that 16th Cherokee I’ve always been told about!
Now, I’m a white guy. Like get a sun burn in the shade during the middle of winter white guy. So, I wasn’t too surprised to find out my ethnicity was estimated at 87% England, Wales and Northwestern Europe and 13% Ireland and Scotland. Sure I was a little let down that I wasn’t Cherokee after growing up in Oklahoma and telling everyone I had some native ethnicity. No, instead I was plain vanilla without any sprinkles and at least now I could see it for myself. It then dawned on me that I didn’t have a trace of Italian or Greek in my results. This was weird because my dad’s side of the family were all darker complected. My little sister (on dad’s side) had also completed an Ancestry.com DNA kit. In fact she showed me her results and there it was, she was Italian and Greek! Looking back, it’s a little odd to me that neither my sister or I contemplated why we hadn’t been matched together once I received my results. Instead, we both just thought, “hm, that’s weird”!
On the next day I woke up from a long night of contemplating possibilities. These were possibilities as to why I hadn’t received any data on my account for being Italian or Greek. As I went to check my Ancestry account I noticed that there was a person I shared more centimorgans with than all the family I recognized. I had absolutely no idea who this person was but she shared enough cm’s with me to be either a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or half sibling. So, out of confusion and curiosity I began to call my mom and dad (divorced) and start asking a few questions. My mother didn’t know who the person was and was confused as well. My father didn’t say he knew who the person was, but I could tell in his voice that something was wrong. Something I said had made his words clumsy and hesitant. I think it was at that moment I knew a bomb was about to drop, but once again, I went to sleep without any answers to my numerous questions.
The next morning started like most days. I was some what disoriented from the restless night while trying my best to get my kids ready for the morning. Diapers needed to be changed. I couldn’t match a sock to save my life. My toddler was yelling at me for something or other while watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and my 6 month old was chugging a bottle. All the while my coffee sat cold and forgotten where I left it. Yep, pretty normal morning. My wife was at work but all of sudden I heard the door unlock. There appeared my wife, hours before she was suppose to be home. I was confused, she looked confused and startled and right about that time I thought, “here’s the bomb”. Early in the morning my dad had called my wife to explain that he was not my biological father. He explained that during the divorce process there were arguments as to me having another father and therefore, on his own, he and my stepmother performed a cheek swab DNA test on me in the mid 1990s. I was young enough that I couldn’t remember this being done. My dad said that he had told my grandparents who later went on to adopt me, but that he didn’t believe it was “his secret to tell”. My grandparents passed away in 2015, never telling me this information and so here it was, 31 years later the truth had arrived at my doorstep. A truth I never knew or expected, but none the less still reality and very much true for me.
After my wife gave me an overview of my dad’s call to her, the doorbell rang. It was dad, here to tell me the story in person. He gave me a name of the man he believed to be my biological father, and that matched the alleged man as being a sibling to the woman I shared such a large amount of centimorgans with. As he shed many tears, I sat there in shock as I found out that big chunks of my life were a lie. My father’s side of the family had known all along that I wasn’t his biologically, starting around the age of 8. I am on the Truman Show… (is that too old of a reference for most?). There was good to this however. My dad, though late, made the effort to drive all the way to where I now live and explain to me everything and he was very sincere. I believe this was the turning point in our relationship and for that I’m thankful. A lot was done wrong by many parties, but some good shined through.
Initial Processing of Thoughts
To discover a reality that you didn’t know existed can and most likely will require some time for rest and contemplation. Be gracious with yourself and give yourself compassion. You are not at fault. Try to accept compassion as others give it, but don’t expect it. Expecting others to understand could possibly set you up for more hurt and we cannot expect those who haven’t experienced such a situation to truly understand the sheer amount of differing emotions. These emotions came at me like a flood for the first week before they steadily began to subside. Existentially, I faced questions like who am I and who could I have been? Another question I struggled with was how do I make sense and meaning out of others choosing not to tell me about this? Could I trust those who were closest to me?
During this time of contemplation try to see all sides. You don’t have to agree with the sides, but try to understand the time and circumstances for better context. If your family is alive still (some do not have this opportunity), ask questions. But expect the questions to not always be truthfully or even lovingly given. Sometimes they can be received negatively as pride and shame collide with the parent you might be questioning. How is it you wade through this if there are no living parents to ask questions? The initial DNA surprise discovery is only the beginning to the journey. It’s a marathon so pace yourself. And maybe…. just maybe it doesn’t have to be an identity crisis of asking, “who am I?” in the sense of living a lie but rather, “who am I now that I’ve added this information”?
An NPE stands for a Non-Parental Event, in which someone discovers that they are a part of a misattributed parentage, themselves being the unknowing child. To be more blunt, the believed parent isn’t actually related to the child biologically. In this growing community it is more commonly observed that the misattributed parentage involves the father. Though, this is not always so, for instance when dealing with those who discover they were adopted later in life, donor conceived, a result of hidden sexual assault, affairs, etc.
In recent, NPE has become the acronym adopted for those making this new life discovery. I think that Non-Parental Event doesn’t necessarily do full justice as it seems to insinuate that a parent must be biological. It would be good to identify and define what is considered a parent (i.e. that being the person who raised and supports you, etc), and in the future perhaps change to a more suitable acronym would be preferred. However, currently this s the label that’s sticking and it’s sufficient for identifying this group and its experience for the time being. Perhaps a better acronym in the future might be NBPE, Non Biological Parent Event.
The most common discovery method as to one’s NPE status is through technological advancements in DNA testing offered by such companies as Ancestry.com and 23andMe. Again, though I say that DNA is the latest and most growing trend in NPE discovery, some discover through other means such as a relative or parent delivering the news that was kept secret for so long. Though this might be the case, it is DNA testing that takes this news from assumption/hear-say to a confirmed reality.
There are various means as to how someone discovers their NPE status, but the more fascinating part are the commonly shared emotions, experiences, encouragement, and understanding that bring NPE’s together into a community in which they identify.