Meeting my new sibling....
April 3, 2017 5:41 AM   Subscribe

I have recently discovered I have an older half-sister, and would love advice on how to go about this.

So I did the DNA test last fall, simply because I've been working on my family trees for some years, and it seemed like one more tool to push things back. So far, so good, until Ancestry told me (last November) they found this woman who was a very close match to me. "How odd", I thought; "I haven't got a clue who this is, I don't recognize this name."

Then two of my nieces took the DNA test, and while they both show up in the proper relation to me, the stranger still showed as being a closer match to me than they were.... and I went into high-research mode.

Turns out dear old Dad, as a very young Navy sailor, had a one-night-stand (new sibling's birth-mother's words!) and, well, did what sailors have a reputation for doing. She seems to have had a good life with her adoptive family, but never knew a thing about her birth-father other than his being in the Navy: no name, no nothing, until now.

Which brings us to now. We have now confirmed that yes, between the DNA and photos and what history we could piece together, she is my older half-sister. My entire family is of course very surprised --- we never would have expected this! --- but everyone is taking it pretty well, possibly partly because it all happened before he was even dating my mother. He was young (age 20) and single and, well, he met a lady.

So far we've exchanged a few photos and phone calls and texts; we're sort of inching into this on both sides. With any luck a niece and I might be able to meet her and her daughter next month. So my question is this: how in the world do we do this? Any thoughts on how we build a lasting relationship? (My --- our! --- father died several years ago, so that's not going to be a problem.)
posted by easily confused to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have an answer or really anything to offer help-wise, but I *did* want to say that this sounds both exciting and fascinating, and I hope you'll post more about this as it develops, either here or elsewhere.
posted by uberchet at 6:29 AM on April 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

Along with any mementos of your dad, consider providing her the family medical history.
posted by girlmightlive at 6:30 AM on April 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

So my situation is similar, but more complicated in that my father is still alive and he knew about his daughter, and this all happened when I was 16 and pretty much incapable of being reasonable about any of it.

I give my sister so much credit for hanging in there and waiting out my stupid teenage years (luckily she actually was an adult and knew I would probably grow up sooner or later). We have a pretty good relationship now. She's never going to be as close to me as my very best friend since high school, and I know I will never take the place of her best friend, but we text and call and she's there for me and I'm there for her.

It was easier for us in many ways because we do have so much family still kicking and there are weddings and funerals and stuff where we see each other. We had planned on a weekend together last summer that had to be cancelled (illness in the family), and that was a first and we were really looking forward to it; we'll plan another one soon. But yeah, having an "excuse" to hang out together made it all easier.

I think if we hadn't gotten along so well as I entered adulthood, this might look very different for us. I think you need to be careful not to force a relationship if one doesn't happen sort of organically. If you have very little in common, the fact that you share DNA doesn't really get you very far if you don't have common experiences like growing up in the same family. My youngest half brother and I, for example, despite having those common growing up experiences...we just don't really get along. We are incredibly dissimilar and we just don't enjoy each other's company very much. But my sister and I are very similar personality wise, we share the same politics, we like the same tv and movies and stuff. So it makes it easier.

Good luck, and if you would like to talk more, please feel free to MeMail me.
posted by cooker girl at 6:31 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Inching is good. Remember that you are a mystery person (you could be a scammer, how does she know) so go slowly and follow "blind date advice". Be sure she is not feeling pressured. Family is a huge commitment, or can feel like it is, and can be scary on many levels.

Do have a reasonable third party eyeball your emails, it's too easy to be over excited or some element a smidge intense.

(in a similar situation and have seen other attempts at family contact get shut down when rushed or not entered carefully)
posted by sammyo at 6:38 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a situation sort of like this and the best advice I can give is to take it slow, try not to have assumptions, and be okay with awkwardness.

The thing is, you really are strangers. You're technically related but you don't share family culture, so you have to create your own family culture. But don't assume you should be able to feel/act like siblings: you have to get to know each other.

So you are strangers, but you'd like to get to know each other. So you could treat it a bit like any other situation in which you're trying to get to know a stranger--share some information about yourself, don't be forceful, be inquisitive. Take it slow. Nobody feels comfortable being rushed by a stranger. You're building something long-term here.

And it feels really awkward. Really, really awkward. But that's okay! So are first dates, informational interviews, and any other situation in which strangers are trying to get to know each other. Over time the awkwardness will dissipate, as you build a relationship.

Good luck!
posted by epanalepsis at 6:44 AM on April 3, 2017

I've seen two adoption reunifications and can share a bit that way but have not been through it myself.

Case #1: A mentor of mine learned on her mother's deathbed that she had been adopted. She conducted a long search for her birth family and finally found them. For her it was a very almost-magical experience; her (in this case full) siblings were into very similar activities and hobbies as she was whereas in her adoptive family she had felt herself as partly an outsider. I don't think it was all roses and unicorns but they ended up fairly close. (She died a few years later of an aggressive cancer.) The lesson here I think was that there can be a lot of joy in these connections.

Case #2: A close in-law of mine was found by his birth mother and they proceeded to have a very dramatic, intense reunion and she was very - set - on being a part of his and his children's lives. For a few years it was very close and then it kind of all fell apart and he ended up in a dark place, and his kids sort of lost a grandmother figure. Lesson here is I think: Go slow, set your expectations low.

It sounds like you are doing this sensibly!
posted by warriorqueen at 6:45 AM on April 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

From what I know and I have not been involved in this exact sort of situation, I think it will help if you both sort of agree on a goal of the meeting. Is it to just meet, to start a lifelong friendship, to simply learn about family history, etc? Expectations are critical and need to be managed so that you are both on or near the same page going into the meeting. Fwiw, if it were me, I would set the expectations low not because I think it is going to be a bust, but to take the pressure off the meeting. I might even set up a 2nd meeting for shortly after the first and make the 1st a short one like a half an hour just to get the awkwardness out of the way, but that would depend on logistics.
posted by AugustWest at 8:38 AM on April 3, 2017

You sound very sensible about the whole thing. Don't worry too much about building a lasting relationship, just get to know her more and proceed from there.

I have a 100% sister I've seen a couple of times in the last fifty years, she's kinda like a Buddhist nun, lives in other countries, we have little in common except genes. I have another sister I talk to on the phone every couple of months but haven't seen in years; we get along better and better as we head closer to oldladyhood. I have one first cousin I consider a brother and I communicate with him and his wife frequently, and visit them; and I have several other first cousins I haven't seen in decades. My point is that you cannot know how well you will get along, how easily you will accept each other's idiosyncrasies, tastes, politics, religions until you actually spend time together.

What gets hard is if one of you wants a stronger relationship than the other. I have an adopted son, a couple of years ago we found his half brother. My son is very lackadaisical about it, they've talked on the phone but haven't met. Meanwhile, the half brother, who spent a lot of his childhood in foster care, wants more of a connection, so he's getting some of it from me, I've told him to think of me as an auntie.

Good luck with all this.
posted by mareli at 10:24 AM on April 3, 2017

One of my friends had this long-lost family thing happen to her (her birth mother, actually), and it pretty quickly turned into guilt trips and requests for money. And when she tried to carefully navigate it in a way that was generous but had limits, the woman cut her off again, which was painful. Sorry to provide this sad example and the jaded advice that it leads to, which is that you might be careful about what signals you send related to money. And perhaps tread carefully around the messages you send related to your dad and his love / lack thereof for her. (Was he told about the pregnancy, do you know?)
posted by salvia at 2:00 PM on April 3, 2017

I listened to an interesting episode of This American Life recently about two women who were switched at birth and later reunited with their birth families. So that could be an interesting semi related account if you look it up. They interview the women and a number of their family members about the situation. They had different experiences meeting with their birth families the first time, FYI. Someone's account above made me think of it.
posted by knownfossils at 10:45 PM on April 3, 2017

You might want to google for "conversation starter questions for families" and see if any of them look like they might work. If you don't have a shared history, then things like "did you go to your senior prom?" "did you have a boyfriend in high school?" "what kind of teachers inspired you?" could be things to share.

Maybe do it on a later meeting, not the first, if it feels like it's too much. But it wouldn't hurt to have something like this in your bag just in case.
posted by CathyG at 12:14 PM on April 4, 2017

For those playing along at home: we now have a definite meeting set up for next month.

Many of the family (on both sides) have exchanged email addresses and phone numbers; nobody's out-and-out mentioned it, but no-one has yet passed along their street address: I'd say that's probably a good thing, and an indicator of a healthy caution all around.

This is not what I expected to find when I did that DNA test: it all feels like we're in a movie-of-the-week or something. But so far so good, and I'll continue to take things slow and easy. So far the hardest part --- not counting the sheer surprise of all this! --- has been language: when I refer to my sisters, am I talking about only the ones I grew up with or this half-sister too?!? When I write to her, I try to be inclusive: "our father", not "my father". But I guess that's part of wrapping my head around the whole deal.

Keep your fingers crossed for us!
posted by easily confused at 7:40 AM on April 7, 2017

Another update: turns out my new sister was adopted at birth by her birth mother's best friend; Sister has several younger (adoptive) siblings, and it sounds like they're being supportive. Sister knew her birth mother; the lady died when she was ten years old. Adoptive mother's own description of birth mother: "loose" .... apparently birth mother was, ahem, a semi-professional: she'd sell it, but also gave it away if a young fella didn't have any cash. Yikes. He was a 20-year-old sailor, she was a 32-year-old woman who already had three kids from a failed marriage she'd walked out on years earlier.

We are positive my/our father never even knew he got the woman pregnant; partly because birth mother described him to adoptive mother as simply "a one-night-stand with a Navy boy" and partly because there were apparently a LOT of possibilities; we deeply doubt the lady even remembered his name. Sister's birth certificate lists her father as someone who died five years earlier, so that's obviously untrue.

I've now met Sister and her daughter in person once; my niece has met that daughter, her cousin, and Cousin's family a couple more times. Plus of course there have been lots of texts and emails and phone calls all over the place. Everything is going well-enough that Sister and her family will be joining several of us for a week at the beach this summer. Fingers crossed!
posted by easily confused at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2017

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