Dad's not biological dad and my mother might not know, how to proceed?
October 29, 2017 11:31 PM   Subscribe

I took a DNA test with various different sites for fun, and for extra fun I found out not only is my recently-deceased father not my biological father but that I have at least 3 half-siblings. The initial shock for me has worn off, but I haven't told my mother yet - and I'm convinced that she has no idea I'm not biologically my father's child. Am I deluding myself? Is this a thing that could have happened in the early 80s? Should I tell her or will it make the sadness of recently losing her husband worse? Long complicated story within.

I grew up an only child knowing I was a "miracle child" - that it took many years and many miscarriages for my parents to get pregnant. They used fertility treatment, but as far as I was ever told it was mom's eggs, dad's sperm. My parents had always been very up-front about everything. I even joked when I was a kid that I was adopted because I didn't think I looked like either of them and they were very much "nope, kiddo, we worked really hard for you, you're ours."

I took a DNA test last winter just for fun and my parents didn't bat an eye - mom even took one after dad passed, when my results came in. I'm definitely her daughter according to the DNA site, the only fishy business was that I was less of a certain heritage (dad's) than I thought I should have been, knowing dad's family came directly over from eastern Europe in the early 1900s. Later in the year I got a message from a stranger who showed as a "first cousin" on DNA site trying to find out how we were related. At the time, I asked my mother if any siblings on her side of the family could have been a sperm donor, since my father had no siblings. She said she wouldn't doubt it but her mind started spinning and I remember her getting panicky and saying something to the effect of "wait, what if something went wrong at the fertility clinic? What if the sperm got swapped?" to which I replied it couldn't be because then this mystery cousin would show up as a sibling. Or so I thought. Come to find out that 1) you can filter results to show who is and isn't related to each other on your DNA results page and mom and mystery cousin are not related, and 2) that DNA website doesn't have a category for half-sibling. When mystery cousin and I transferred our DNA results to another site, not only did we discover we were half siblings, but there were also two other half-sibs on that site. My world went sideways for a while but now that I can think straight, I have questions:

1) Would contacting the original fertility doctor for information get me anywhere? Assume the doctor is still alive (he is) and working in the field (he is) and has records going back 30+ years (no idea). If I were to contact him, would I be able to get any information regarding my parents' treatment without their consent/knowledge or would that just be a waste of time? Not looking for info on sperm donor necessarily, but info on what kind of treatment they used to help me decide whether to proceed to question 2.

2) Do I tell/ask my mother? I have always been extraordinarily close with my parents, and based on a lifetime of knowing my mother, my gut tells me she doesn't know that I'm not biologically my father's. Assume I was conceived in 1980, does anyone here have knowledge of the state of fertility treatment in the New England area during that time? I've read about IUI and AIH (artificial insemination with husband's sperm) and AID (artificial insemination with donor sperm) and also AIM (artificial insemination with mixed husband and donor sperm). If I find out that parents used AIM, is it possible that doctor's didn't fully explain that it could result in offspring not being the husband's? Some older articles I read seemed to suggest that donor sperm just "helped the husband's sperm be more viable," is that really what was believed back then? Would a doctor have used AIM without the parents' consent if they were having an unusually difficult time conceiving?

I have an amazing support system, my partner and a few close friends are helping me process all of this, and half-sibs and I communicating and working through the idea of gaining adult siblings together and they seem pretty great. I'm not interested in finding bio-dad, my dad I grew up with was my dad and that's all that matters. This AskMe is not about any of that. I'm afraid of hurting my mother by deciding to tell her or not tell her, knowing that she might find out eventually if I start to build a relationship with half-sibs. Telling her seems to have one of two results: she knew all along and this is a huge burden lifted, or she had no idea and it sends the last 30+ years of her life into a tailspin and now she's not only lost her husband but lost the biological link she had to him in me. Not telling her could result in not hurting anyone, she never finds out and I shoulder the knowledge myself; or she finds out eventually and is hurt I didn't tell her sooner, go to results from Telling Her above.

Acknowledging that of course none of you know my mother so this is an impossible question to answer definitively, any help in figuring out what to do is greatly appreciated. Throw-away email
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is an extremely difficult choice and my heart goes out to you. Not the same thing at all but when I faced the choice of whether or not to tell my mother something I knew would hurt her (that a long-term ex-boyfriend who I knew she still loved had died), I asked her as part of a somewhat related conversation, "if an ex-boyfriend of yours had died would you want to know?". She thought about it and said she didn't think she would. So I didn't tell her. Perhaps you could engineer a conversation like that? She may then "know" on some level or at least have her suspicions, but it would give her the choice whether to confront them and when.
posted by hazyjane at 11:51 PM on October 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is very complex. I'm so glad you have good support going through this. In terms of medical records, most places will destroy records older than 10-20 years, so I would be surprised if the office still had your records, but of course it doesn't hurt to ask.

I'm not sure how long you've known about this, but when I have difficult decisions like this, I find it never hurts to give it a bit more time to contemplate. Discussing with a therapist might also help to clarify some of the questions and feelings you're having.

Finally, and I mean this respectfully and you may have already considered this, but I believe the only way to establish paternity is to compare DNA from both child and father (usually this is done via a cheek swab), so I would do a bit more research on the reliability and accuracy of the test you have done. It is entirely possible that your father was adopted and didn't know (or himself was the product of different lineage that wasn't disclosed) and you therefore are, in fact, his child but the DNA report can't account for things like that. I don't bring this up to cast doubt (or disrespect) on your story, but just to ask another question that I'm not sure you have considered.
posted by stillmoving at 12:14 AM on October 30, 2017 [21 favorites]

If I were your mom I would want to know that my kid was biologically fathered by someone else, 1) because I like to know the truth, 2) I don't like being left out, 3) I would TOTALLY want to get to know my kid's half-siblings and 4) I would probably find out later and then have my feelings hurt on top of everything else.

You and she are still just as connected to your dad. He is your family.

(Caveat: What do the other half-siblings know about their parentage? Do they know their fathers? Do they know what fertility clinic their parents used? I am assuming that you and your half-sibs are all children of a sperm donor, rather than something more complex going on here.)
posted by hungrytiger at 12:15 AM on October 30, 2017 [11 favorites]

Isn't it just as possible, given what you know, that your dad's sperm was used (either by mistake or with his permission) as a donation to other couples and that these half-siblings result from that? It's possible your mother wouldn't know even if he did give permission, but it's also possible it was an error, or small print that he didn't read, or something.

If I understand correctly, the only reason you are assuming someone else is the biological father of both you and these other people is that you have less Eastern European genetic material than you would have expected. I think it's very common for people to be surprised by that sort of thing in these DNA results and it doesn't necessarily mean you aren't related to your parents - just that their own ancestry is less clear cut than they believed.
posted by lollusc at 1:05 AM on October 30, 2017 [54 favorites]

I've done a sideways dance of the same kind in the wake of my mother's death. My advice is to go with honesty at each stage of your discovery process if you want to keep trust with others, like your mother in particular, long term.

It seems in your nature to consider others' feelings and that is a kind manner of being. Bear in mind that this is a huge discovery for you, and bound to cause the same questions and reality tilts that your mother is feeling. It's great that you have good support from your peers. I think you and your mother could work together in the discovery process. She seems willing to do this.

Like, one thing that helped me and my close family member deal with this destabilising news was an ongoing 'sidebar' to our other relationship behaviour and conversations. We got on with doing our things, but returned to the sidebar mystery we both worked on solving. Sometimes we found out sad and terrible things, but with both of us working on it, it felt like there was solidarity and sharing of emotions without the difficulty of one person dispensing new knowledge. My family member had insights from her place in the wings of my parents' marriage, and I had jigsaw pieces from my place as daughter.

The honesty thing emerged as the most compelling part of the process for me. One thing I see in common with others in similar mysteries is that the mystery is usually based on a secret. Or a lie. Finding this out, even if the lie was unintentional, really causes you to spin and feel anger about all the interpersonal things you thought you knew, and now realise you did not know. It feels even more important to know you can be honest, ask honest questions that garner honest, seeking answers. I think in your case, I'd say something about your growing attachment to half siblings. I think that could hurt your mother to discover this later. Again, being honest and trustworthy means long term you heal something, rather than create secrecy. Secrecy or subterfuge of some kind caused the issue, this spirals out through a generation. I think working from that premise of healing an unintentional lie or secret together could inform the way you interact with your mother.
posted by honey-barbara at 1:22 AM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

or she had no idea and it sends the last 30+ years of her life into a tailspin and now she's not only lost her husband but lost the biological link she had to him in me

Considering this possibility, do not tell her now. Give her time to adjust to the loss of her husband/your father. Decide how to proceed after life settles down and you have had time to assess what this might mean for your life (e.g., in terms of relationships with half-sibs) as well as suss out how your mom is likely to react to the news.

Side note: if I were in your place I would first verify that your interpretation of the info is correct. Then I would check to see if there have been any relevant lawsuits filed against that clinic/doctor.
posted by she's not there at 2:43 AM on October 30, 2017 [10 favorites]

When mystery cousin and I transferred our DNA results to another site, not only did we discover we were half siblings, but there were also two other half-sibs on that site.

As I understand it, all of these sites rely on predicted relationships from a range of matching DNA percentages, and the ranges for half sibling and first cousin and niece/nephew overlap. So, one site might predict half sibling while the other predicts first cousin. Without more confirmation, I don't know that I'd approach your mom with it yet (or at least w/ any kind of certainty). Do all of the other half siblings also have unconfirmed paternity? Or do any have a confirmed DNA match to a father? (I assume your father's parents are deceased or otherwise unavailable for a DNA test.) The matches could also be due to unknown events in your dad's genetic history - maybe he had a genetic sibling (or even a twin) who was adopted or maybe he was not your grandparents biological kid (but possibly some other genetic relative like the kid of an unmarried underage first cousin; these kinds of arrangements/placements were common). If you have any Ashkenazi DNA, the percentages are not a good predictor of relationship in my experience. Ditto if your family history has any recent cousin-marrying etc.

Basically, my understanding is that without confirming a shared ancestor, you can't say for sure what relationship the DNA match implies (other than a parent/child match).
posted by melissasaurus at 4:27 AM on October 30, 2017 [7 favorites]

I don't know how you can be so sure that your father is not your biological father unless his DNA got tested. Just because your DNA doesn't show the ethnicity you think it should show is not enough reason to assume he was not your biological father. Do you have any relatives on your dad's side? You said he didn't have any siblings but did he have any cousins? If so, maybe you should get one or more of them to get their DNA tested.
posted by mareli at 5:35 AM on October 30, 2017 [9 favorites]

There are a couple of possibilities you are overlooking here. I present the few I can think of without judgment.

1. Maybe your dad fathered children with other women. Maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t.
2. Maybe your dad does have half siblings that his mother never knew about. Or a full sibling that was given up for adoption at birth.
3. Maybe your mother slept with someone who want your father. (Given the timing and complexity of fertility treatment, this seems least likely to me, but not impossible.)

While I’m certainly not ruling out medical error/sperm switching, I think it’s important to note that social monogamy (as opposed to actual monogamy) and cheating do happen in relationships.

There is not enough information here for me to say that this must be the case, of course. If all these other siblings were the result of fertility treatments that would lean me one way. But you are also unclear if they’re cousins, which makes me wonder if they might be having these very tough conversations with/thoughts about their parentage as well.

Take your time. Talk to a qualified, impartial third party. Maybe talk to a genetics counselor or a family therapist. They’ll likely have some ideas about resources.

I’m so sorry for for the loss of your father, and for the extra stress that this is adding, given that loss.
posted by bilabial at 5:38 AM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

From the OP:
Thank you to everyone for your kind and compassionate and helpful responses. I really appreciate the energy put towards helping me.

I've known about this for a few months now, not a ton of time to process but I've done lots of research and keep coming around to the same conclusion. I've definitely considered dad actually being my Dad but most evidence points to no, despite my hopes. Dad has one living cousin (by blood) who I was able to find on one of the DNA sites and we do not list as any kind of match. That plus not one Italian-sounding name popping up on any non-mom-related relations made me suspicious. Dad was dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. Hard to deny Italian heritage for him but I guess it's not out of the question? He also had long term illness that caused his swimmers to not swim and have a very low count, makes me think he's less likely he is the donor here.

Half-sibs all now know they were conceived from donor sperm, some knew already, some asked parents and it was confirmed this past month. We all know what fertility clinics our parents used and they're all different but local to a small area (within 5miles of each other), all different doctors.

Mom being unfaithful I guess is a possibility but knowing what I know of my mother I highly doubt it.

Again thank you all for the responses.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:21 AM on October 30, 2017

I think it would help me if i we're brought into it as someone helping to solve a mystery, rather than having the answers handed to me leaving me struggling to catch up.
posted by salvia at 6:38 AM on October 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

He also had long term illness that caused his swimmers to not swim and have a very low count

I've known 2 couples who had trouble getting pregnant due to this issue. Both used donor sperm and then had sex shortly after the doctor appointment, so—in theory—the husband could be the biological father of any resulting child. For a number of reasons, including not wanting to deal with likely family reactions, neither couple planned to tell the child the details re their conception, i.e., they didn't want to put a child in the position of keeping secrets from extended family.

I lost touch with both families years ago, so I don't know how things played out in the long run (the children are now adults). When the children were preschoolers, one family occasionally remarked (out of the kid's earshot) about features and behaviors that they guessed might have been inherited from the donor. The other family, however, never mentioned this possibility and, in fact, frequently referred to how much the little girl resembled her father.

Perhaps your folks adopted a similar attitude?

Btw, I'm also seconding the issues melissasaurus raises about conclusions based on the data from the website.
posted by she's not there at 7:05 AM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

My brother is adopted. I have always, always, known that he was adopted. It's a fact of life. You being the child of a sperm donor is also a fact of life. It just seems surprising because you're just now finding out (but you already had suspicions, didn't you?).

I would tell your mother your suspicions. What she says may surprise you -- she may deny it, or she may say, yes, I always thought that was a possibility/the case. You really can't predict what she'll do. But you can act for yourself, and ask yourself, is it worth it to me to deny this truth? Just because your bio father is someone else doesn't deny that your dad was your dad. It just means you have those half-siblings, who are there if you want to develop those relationships.

Also, something you may want to consider are the health implications of this. You now don't know the health history of one bio parent, so I would investigate that if you can. Work with your half-siblings to figure out what you may be predisposed to.
posted by tooloudinhere at 7:11 AM on October 30, 2017

Wow, I can only imagine how disorienting this all is.

One story that has come out a few different times now, about different fertility doctors in the US and Canada, are stories of people discovering their parents' doctors' secretly and deceitfully used their own sperm. There have been several cases uncovered and this seems to be a specific thing among a small subset of doctors. I think googling around for these specific scenarios will provide examples. So one possibility is definitely that your parents never knew this.
posted by latkes at 7:29 AM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Here are a couple of the doctors I'm talking about.

It would also be possible that the doctor would be deceptive about using donor sperm, even if he didn't use his own, as you suggest in your question, or that your parents chose not to hear when the doctor explained it was donor sperm - if the doctor was vague.

There's no reason not to contact the doctor/clinic and ask. I do think that's a fine next step. I would also continue talking to the half siblings and hear more specifics about their stories.
posted by latkes at 7:41 AM on October 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

My hunch is that donor sperm was used, maybe accidentally or maybe on purpose. And in 1980 they were far less strict about frequency of donation. Maybe one college kid was going to all the banks in town?

Nowadays they are far stricter about this. Imagine if half siblings that didn't know they were half siblings had children together?

Your next steps are not only about telling your mother but what you (and the half siblings) want to do about this. What were the contracts with the banks? Were there donor mixups? If there were contact violations do you want to pursue a legal path?
posted by k8t at 8:46 AM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

We did IVF. I'm trying to put myself in your mother's shoes, 30 years hence.

If my husband had just died, this is not information that I would want. Not now. Once I'd had some distance from the situation, once I'd made some peace with the passing of my partner, once I was somewhat used to the new normal, I might be ready for this. But so close to his passing, when I would be clinging to whatever security and stability I had left, this would be too much of a 1-2 punch. I would be worried about losing you too, to your newly-found family.

I have to tell you though, it's entirely possible that if your dad isn't biological, that your mom knows. In the 80's the idea of "test-tube" babies was controversial enough. There were religious concerns. There's a stigma to not being able to have children on your own, even today. And, still today, when people have somewhat accepted the idea of IVF, there's still a huge stigma around using a donor. A lot of our friends had some kind of donor (egg, sperm, or embryo) and not one of them has told their families about it. They don't want their kids to be stigmatized by others as "not real family". And they don't want their kids to have any doubts about how their parents feel about them. Our kids are still elementary school aged. A couple of them have already decided that they will tell their kids some version of, for lack of a better term, an adoption story, emphasizing how wanted they were and how loved they are. The rest of them believe that ethically they should disclose this information to their children, but they have no idea yet how they will do it.

As for you and your mom, I agree that there's no harm in sitting on this information, for a little while anyway. It might be easier for her to swallow the whole thing if you can find other support while you continue to discover your ties to your half-siblings, and while you possibly develop some relationship with them. If you end up talking to your mom later you can say " I've developed a friendship with these individuals over the last year or two" (whatever your timeline ends up being) and with you being past the newness and excitement of it by then, it might ease her mind that she won't lose you, but rather that your family will grow.
posted by vignettist at 3:30 PM on October 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've heard that fertility doctors sometimes mingled donor and "husband" sperm in an insemination attempt, to give credulity to the notion that the husband, with a low sperm count, could claim paternity. It was possible that he was the father. This practice was apparently fairly common in the years before common DNA testing, the 50's through the late 70's or early 80's. Is it possible this practice might have been used by your parents' doctor? I have no documented sources to confirm this practice, but it makes sense that a fertility doctor wanted to have a pregnancy occur, at the same time preserving the husband's belief that he could be the father. My understanding is that this was typically done with the couple's consent. It would also make sense that your parents knew this, but chose to believe your dad was your bio-dad.
posted by citygirl at 4:44 PM on October 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would make sure your mother never finds out. I'd tell the half siblings that relationship has to go on indefinite hold and I'd forget all about this whole thing to be honest. It makes no difference anyway, you know who raised you, and I think you should give your mother this and honor her over these new family-in-dna-only.
posted by fshgrl at 7:18 PM on October 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would wait. Get some counseling in the immediate term, while your mom is in the early throes of grief and you are, too, really, as well as likely feeling unmoored and shaken. This isn't the time I would pick to shake things up, when things are already feeling fragile.

Then you can drop a 'my genetic testing results sure are turning up a bunch of cousins I never knew about!' conversation later - maybe in a year? - and see if she seems to know something or base your proceeding on her reaction there. But my mom and I have always communicated ~20% by hints (none of which are very subtle to the outward observer, but it lets us keep our plausible deniability), so that's really just painting my own relationship over yours.

Meanwhile, stay close and show her love and support. It's a hard time.
posted by Lady Li at 10:21 PM on October 30, 2017

Based on my close relationship with my mother (when she was living), I would share. You say you have a close relationship with your mom. I'm not sure what that means to you. To me it means this is something very important in your life and she'd want to be with you in it, share it, and support you. Her husband/your father is gone, and it's outside of anyone's power to do anything about it. But you are still alive. It seems to me that actually the near aftermath of her partner's death is a terrible time to purposely cut her off/create the distance that important secrets inevitably create, from her only child. You aren't only her connection to him because of presumed shared genetics, but because of shared memories and formative experiences. He is dead and lost to you both, but you are still alive. I do not understand the thinking that claims it is kind to purposely cut off the intimacy and connection of sharing your life and experiences with her, when I assume that now is likely to be a time of greater loneliness and missing close connections for her.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:32 AM on November 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

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