The Next Generations of Families after Shattered Secrets

Almost three years ago, I discovered at age 56, that my deceased dad was not my biological father.  Try to imagine how you would feel if you discovered after living out most of your life, that one – or both – of your parents really was not the biological parent.  Try to imagine this while looking at your face in a mirror.  In my case, the reflection looking back at me was a ghost.  I didn’t know where those features came from anymore.

It was in my state of feeling isolated and lost, that I created a private Facebook group where others like me could gather to receive emotional support for their similar DNA discoveries.  I originally hoped to find four or five others like me among the many genealogical research groups online, so we could talk to each other and help each other reestablish our individual foundations based on facts.  I even set a lofty goal… “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find as many as twelve!”  I grossly underestimated the need for this group.  DNA NPE Friends will be three years old in June, 2020.  As of today, we have over 7,000 members in the NPE group and another approximately 2,000 members in support groups designed for anyone impacted by an NPE discovery, to include the parents, grandparents, children, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, friends and business colleagues of an NPE.  We have over 100 Facebook groups that provide support to our NPE sisters and brothers and their family and friends.  Our community has been featured in the media, to include four major networks in the United States, and countless major publications and TV outlets worldwide, including New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Moscow, Sydney, and others.  We represent 44 countries on six continents.  Our NPE group alone is growing by about 200 per month.  Due to the need for more support, a non-profit organization was born, NPE Friends Fellowship.

NPE stands for Not Parent Expected.  In the genealogical community, NPE was originally a designation on a family tree that flagged the location of a “Non-Paternal Event” and later referred to as a “Non-Parental Event” to include the newly discovered adoptions and donor-conceptions.  I assumed my group would be people like me, who discovered their dad wasn’t their “real” dad.  But, I learned fast that this dynamic impacts those who never knew they were adopted and those who were donor-conceived, those who discovered their “sister” was actually really their biological mother, and they were raised believing their grandparents were really their parents, and even those who were adopted by a step-mother, only to discover in adulthood that their biological mother had died, dad had remarried, and they decided to allow the baby to assume the new wife was their mother.  This discovery is traumatic under any scenario imaginable.  We have members who were products of illegal adoptions, products of rape or incest, stolen at birth… we even have someone who discovered they were the result of an egg-donor and carried by a surrogate, yet their birth certificate mother still insists she conceived them and carried them naturally, and will not admit this to be true, despite the production of documentation to prove it.  We have many who were donor-conceived and some who their mother never authorized donor sperm to be used, while others did, but discovered the selected donor was not used, instead, the doctor himself was the donor.

The DNA era is shattering damaging secrets.  And, the common denominator in all of these scenarios is that there was a child that was the result of these secrets…. A child who was never allowed to exercise the RIGHT to know their own origins.  If anything good should come from light being shone on this unacceptable cultural practice, it should be that humanity respects the fact that all humans should have the right to know their origins from the time of their birth.

Each person should be able to exercise the option of knowing, not only their origins, but to participate in the traditions of their ethnicities.  Imagine being raised in a Catholic household and discovering in adulthood that they are actually 50% Jewish, yet they never were exposed to the traditions of the Jewish community.  Imagine being raised in an Italian culture, yet discovering that half of who they were was actually from Mexico.  Or growing up in the African American community, believing 50% of your origins was African American, and discovering that you actually had 0% and was in fact 50% Jewish.

Having accurate medical history is important.  These family secrets have caused unnecessary suffering for so many members of our community.  I have heard countless stories of parents watching their child suffer and die from genetic diseases passed to them through the unknown biological father, only to discover later, that their mother knew his family carried those genes, but remained silent.  Not only did innocent babies suffer and die, the relationship between the NPE and their mother is permanently damaged.  

Secrets hurt.  These family secrets are being shattered to the point that families are being forced to reexamine how they communicate with each other and find healthier ways to relate.  

In my own NPE discovery, my initial reaction was to retreat into myself to try to rebuild my own foundation.  It felt like it crumbled from underneath my feet.  I had to rebuild it so I could feel steady again.  It took time for me to look up from my own grief to see that this revelation had also impacted the relationships of others.  This kind of discovery causes everyone affected to second-guess what they’ve been told about their family history.  A cloud of suspicion was now hovering over relationships of innocent people who had nothing to do with any of my NPE story.  Conversations between parents and children now included, “If you have any secrets you are keeping from me, you need to tell me now.  If I find out after you are dead that you withheld something like this from me, I will never forgive you.”  When I heard this, my heart ached for these innocent parents.  They had NOTHING to do with my revelation at all.  The damage caused by the discovery of a family secret has a ripple effect that is felt by the generations that follow.  This is yet another reason why it is important that these secrets be obliterated.

That brings me to another point.  Honor.  My parents were honorable people.  And, this discovery – in my view – does not diminish that honor.  It simply makes them more human.  We tend to put our parents and our grandparents and all our other ancestors on pedestals and look up to them as examples we want to follow.  That’s because we were taught that way.  In my generation, parents were horrified if their kids found out they had smoked or drank while in high school or had premarital sex or experimented with illegal drugs or had an abortion or gave a baby up for adoption or had been to jail or prison or were victims in a past physically or psychologically abusive relationship.  They feared that if their secret was revealed, their child would rationalize that it was okay to participate in these behaviors since Mom or Dad (or both) did it.  Over the past couple of decades, I’ve begun to see a change in this cultural practice.  Parents are starting to realize that it is okay to let their child know they made decisions in their past that came with consequences, too.  It is okay to admit to their child that they aren’t perfect and never were.  It is okay to use these examples as teaching moments about consequences of actions and the suffering they endured and how to avoid making the same mistakes.  I don’t like watching movies about World War II or the Vietnam War, etc.  I don’t consider it entertainment, so I avoid those movies.  I even said I didn’t understand why movies were made with all that suffering exhibited.  But, I was told it is important to document what happened so that we have something to look at and see WHY we must never do it again.  I think it’s the same with raising children.  If we don’t admit to them that we make mistakes and have a history of making bad judgment calls, how can we teach them to avoid repeating them?  I am very proud to be the daughter of my parents who raised me.  They were good and kind and honorable people.  They were also human.  And, my discovery only gave me more compassion for them.

So many times in our NPE community, we see mothers who didn’t want to reveal who the real father was for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it was because the child was the product of a rape.  Sometimes they were the product of an affair with a married man.  Sometimes, the mother views the father as someone who would be a damaging influence in the child’s life.  Sometimes, he opted to walk away.  And, sometimes, it was simply a matter of embarrassment for her and her need to protect her reputation.  So, the mother orchestrated a plan to have another man assume the role of father, with or without his knowledge, and at that time, they THOUGHT they were doing their child a kindness.  They were unable to see into the future of a time when their child would discover the truth.  Trust would be broken.  Relationships would be damaged.  And the adult children would spend the rest of their lives grieving over lost opportunities to know their family of origin and to have a lifetime of memories with them.  They would grieve at the grave of a father they never had a chance to even meet one time.  They would be viewed as an inconvenience and an embarrassment to a family who saw them as a reminder that the dad THEY knew was knocked off that pedestal. 

I cannot speak to every scenario in which a child is not allowed to have a relationship with their biological parent(s) or their own families.  There are many reasons why a child should NOT be exposed to their influences.  I can only speak to the scenario in which the families of origin are reasonably functional (there’s no such thing as a “fully functional” family).  Life is messy.  Humans are imperfect.  But, I would like to believe, for the most part, families are based in love and support of each other.  It is these scenarios I base my following statements on.

I hope we learn that a child should have the right to know their family of origin from the start.  Every person who is an influence in that child’s life should be encouraging the child to have a healthy relationship with all of their family of origin.  The child should be given the opportunity to nurture a relationship with both parents, and their grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.  They should be given the chance to embrace multiple ethnicities and the traditions and practices that go with them.  They should be offered diverse religious teachings, based on their family of origins beliefs and those diverse teachings should be respected by both parents, even if they don’t embrace them personally.  Most importantly, we should learn to respect each other’s right to know who we are and where we came from.  And, we should honor each person’s right to love other family members without feeling shame or embarrassment… guilt or disapproval.

We have members in our NPE community who have discovered their biological father died, but they still have living grandparents.  This poses the question of this scenario for minor children now.  These children should be awarded the opportunity to have a loving grandparent/grandchild relationship during childhood just as much as they would have with their parent, if they were living.  I know many states have family laws in place that protect the rights of grandparents to have visitation with their grandchildren, especially during a time of disillusionment between the grandparent and parent.  I would hope that someday families will not need courts to intervene.  I hope that someday, families will learn to accept and respect the needs of the child to have loving relationships without friction, guilt, anger, hostility.  Until then, I hope that courts will honor the relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren.  No one should look back on their childhood and grieve a relationship they were never given the option of exploring.  

Every human being should be afforded the right to know the origins of what is in their own blood and to know their origins as early in their lives as possible.

I think a lot about my biological grandparents I never met.  I wonder what my bond would have been like with them.  I wonder about aunts, uncles, cousins… I have a new relationship with two sisters, but would have loved to have known them when we were all still young.  To never be given the chance to know my family all my life and to have lifelong memories with them leaves me feeling hollow.  I never want another child to feel this feeling.

DNA is shattering family secrets, and while it may seem messy and ugly and embarrassing now, the fact is, growth is painful.  This is growth.  This is evolution of cultural views that have come to the end of their usefulness.  Let’s all grow and learn to embrace that we have family everywhere and this only means we have the opportunity to love more and to be loved more.

Blog Entry by Catherine St Clair, Founder of NPE Friends Fellowship