Heather Roan Robbins


I got the shock right before I turned 65 last summer. It started with a dream, an ordinary wafting story suddenly sharpened focus and someone handed me a special delivery letter. As I took it, I recognized handwriting from my dearly beloved dad, dead since 2002. I was so excited I woke up out of the dream, sat up, I tried to go back to sleep but the letter was lost, though I knew to stay alert for incoming information.

I’ve been on various genetic sites for years because I felt something was missing. Our family had disconnected from most extended family; my mother’s mother died when mom was born, the rest of the grandparents were recent immigrants, we had little contact with other relatives. I felt like there were shadows, missing people in the corners. I loved my dad Walter dearly though he was an introverted and distracted math professor, he was solid; our quiet, caring, rock of Gibraltar. My mother probably would be nowadays diagnosed as bipolar two, loving if erratic. She’d had a son in another marriage, 9 years earlier, then went into such a deep postpartum depression she was hospitalized and her child adopted out. She lost three other children to miscarriages, I’m the only one that stayed with her. Were these my ghosts?

A week after that dream letter, I noticed on Ancestry a new person listed as a genetic half-sister, a woman who lived in Philadelphia, where I was born. I emailed her and asked if she knew how we were related, but it was a complete mystery to her also. She’s 10 years younger than me, – did my father have an affair with her mother (ok dad! – He’d been so lonely, I thought it might’ve been good for him) or did her father have an affair with my mother though he was 10 years younger? What happened? I was looking forward to telling her all about my dad- who I thought was our dad.

My daughter is a relentless researcher, she went through the deep dive into our DNA and realized this new half-sister was not related to Walter, but was related to some of the mysterious questions in our DNA relative lists, so it looked like her father was my father. I asked a cousin from my father’s side to open up their DNA files to us, and he, very lovingly, saying it made no difference to him, revealed we were not biologically related (a surprise to him too – we look so similar). My daughter and I loved Walter deeply and were both shocked. We also figured out that my biological dad, now 87, was a young osteopathic medicine student when I was conceived, and med students were, at the time, encouraged to donate at a fertility clinic.

Then I began to put this new information together with that sense of loneliness in my childhood, of missing family members and missing siblings, of the ghosts in the corners. Mom had mentioned how hard a time they had getting and staying pregnant, which is why they adopted my younger brother. I remember odd moments when my dad, though he loved me, just didn’t get me, though I figured that was normal.

My new half-sibling finally asked her dad, and yes, he had donated while in school, he said to the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, connected to the University of Pennsylvania where my social father was a math professor, though I can find no evidence that the Wistar Institute was ever involved in fertility research. Both of my parents greatly revered science and would have looked to a research Institute for help.

I had a brief zoom call with my bio dad and his two daughters, he seemed like a nice old man who was terribly embarrassed about discussing the act of having donated sperm in front of three daughters. It was pretty clear he was not interested in any ongoing relationship, he was not particularly curious about me, but was happy to tell me about the health history of his side of the family, which was remarkably robust, a lot healthier than Walter’s, which offered me a more robust self-concept. I might get a chance to know my bio sisters, good souls, though I am probably more curious about them than they are about me.

I’ve been through just about every emotion on this, had to cry and grieve the loss of that bit of my identity, snap the cord to that side of the family. One branch of Walter’s family managed one mine in Germany, father-to-son, for 800 years, and I thought that’s why I had good night vision. I am an astrologer- an odd occupation, but when you think of putting a mathematician and a psychiatric nurse into a blender, an astrologer made perfect sense. And yes, my chart did talk about family secrets and how my dad couldn’t show me the world, but I thought that was just because he was so incredibly private.

My identity has had an earthquake, some illusions shattered, but also many perceptions finally make sense. When I think back on my childhood it’s like that scene at the end of the movie the sixth sense where you see clues of the dénouement that were out in the open all along, but you couldn’t see them if you had a preconception that all was as it seems. Now I see so many clues, understand my odd haunted, disconnected feelings, my search for family. But I no longer feel guilty that I never made it to professorship myself nor that I am math dyslexic, things I beat myself up when I thought I was my dad’s sole genetic descendent. Now I think he did his best to love me even if he was not biologically related, rather than wonder why he was stand-offish and thought it was my fault. But that change also points to the problem of misassigned parentage-, that gap between the conscious spoken reality of the family, and the signals and perceptions the child receives. We make up stories to explain the difference and usually take on responsibility for the disconnect.

I did go back into counseling for a few months to deal with the dysphoria, disorientation and grief. But this news is settling into a good place. Although I had all those odd feelings in childhood, in some ways I’m glad that I didn’t know in the middle years- until my sense of self had been pretty well-formed. I feel like my tree has been shaken, the roots are cracked and pulled up on one side from where they were, but the taproot still runs true. I am who I am- and once I got over the shock of disorientation- not that much has changed.

I look at all the ancestors listed on my ancestry websites and know that I can’t contact most of these people. Unless I can trace them back to my mother’s side, they don’t know that I could be related to them. Maybe when my bio dad dies I might, but at the moment it doesn’t feel like my story to share. Though I would love someone to be curious about me. I continue to research my ancestors, because even more than people in the family, I want to know the lands I come from. I just found out I have a dash of Latvian, Welsh, Irish, Scottish that I didn’t know I had.

There is an old Celtic tradition to honor, or at least identify with, both the bloodline who birthed you, and the milk line that fostered you, which helps me settle this new information.