TENACIOUS. LOVING. COMMITTED.
MPE is an acronym from the field of psychology that stands for misattributed parentage experience. This occurs due to an undisclosed adoption, conception through assisted reproduction, or when there’s a non-paternal event or NPE (sometimes called Not Parent Expected) when someone is the result of an extra-marital affair, one-night stand, or a rape or assault. NPE was used by genealogists when they were not sure who the biological father was.
Many of us with an MPE feel a sense of bewilderment, betrayal, hurt, and anger. We generally have been lied to by our own parents. Our mothers often initially deny the scientific evidence and may or may not relent after being pressed to be more forthcoming. Most mothers intend to take that information to the grave, as my mother did. But my case was atypical — my birth certificate father (BCF) was also thirty years older than my mother. There was always something different (oddly dysfunctional) about my family of origin.
I became a mental health professional long before I realized my MPE status. Since then, I learned that many people with an MPE find careers in mental health, social work, or medicine long before they discovered they had an MPEs. In my case, I became a practicing psychotherapist. I felt a sense of relief and validation at my more recent discovery because I had decades of my own therapy for a deep sense of insecurity and self-doubt throughout childhood that I first thought was rooted solely in my mother’s alcohol misuse. Some of it was. Alcohol was only part of the problem. I also thought that I was born with a neurotic temperament, that something physiological must have gone wrong, with little scientific evidence for my conviction. My DNA test proved otherwise, beyond a doubt.
I suspect those of us with an MPE find ourselves in these fields because such a discovery is best understood as a kind of trauma on a spectrum — reactions can range from mild discomfort to a full-blown trauma response. The entire way of looking at yourself can change in an instant, and it takes time to adjust to that new identity. It’s different for everybody. It is not unlike people who find out that they’re secretly adopted and never told. I suspect that this kind of personal challenge is on a trauma spectrum akin to personal gender and sexual identity discoveries. How we deal with that experience matters.
How I dealt with it was through the science of genetic genealogy and historical family research. These tools are having a greater impact today since consumer DNA testing became more widely available about 10 years ago. Few in the mental health field fully understand MPEs let alone have the proper training to address related issues in therapy. The DNA tests are irrefutable scientific evidence and can’t be easily dismissed as misattributed parentage had been in the past. Then, we could still hide behind the shield of uncertainty. No longer.
Now that we know with more scientific certainty, the general public needs to know that such a discovery is earth-shattering for most people who make it. It’s a traumatic experience. That means it’s important not to minimize or discount the feelings —validation of the emotional impact is key. It is a lot like any other major traumatic event or loss. Grief and loss are common themes as well the betrayal of trust. These are not superficial psychological wounds. Don’t expect to quickly “snap out of it” if you or a loved one make such a discovery.
I am a bit of an exception. I have thirty years of preparation in the mental health field and at age sixty worked through much of my own childhood issues over my lifetime. I had experienced an amorphous sense of emotional abandonment and disconnection since childhood and spent years in therapy exploring, examining, and coming to terms with those feelings. They were not something from “out of the blue” or generated by some kind of Freudian complex, but based on a kernel of truth. I didn’t realize that my MPE status was a key component of that experience. That vital information was missing from my early psychotherapy.
In retrospect, with good intentions, my therapist tried her best in the 1990s to encourage me to express anger toward my mother. I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t know why, then. My therapist didn’t know either. I know now. There was a good reason. Because I somehow knew on a visceral level that Mom had suffered something far deeper and more profound than I could imagine. I had judged myself mercilessly as failing to assert my own needs. I didn’t know the proper terms then, but she also had an MPE, was informally adopted and raised by her grandmother, and didn’t know her own mother or father. She likely suffered from severe attachment issues and hid them well. She took her secrets to the grave. I spent a lifetime untangling these issues for my own sense of coherence.
If someone has never had therapy or counseling before, an MPE discovery is likely to raise childhood issues that have been unaddressed and dormant for years. That’s part of the misattributed parentage experience—opening a can of worms that you can’t stuff back. Once they’re out, they can be overwhelming, especially for someone who’s never had psychotherapy. It’s very much like dealing with a death in the family, though nobody necessarily has died. Confusing. In a sense, something else has died—who you think you are, or thought you were. That’s what many people with an MPE describe, like others who’ve experienced a trauma. There’s a loss that comes with it, a sense of trust is shattered, and then an adjustment period. The new information often raises deeper identity and/or trust issues related to early childhood attachment.
It’s important that people with an MPE take the time to process all of the new information. There’s no one right way to do this work. It’s a grief response we each do in our own way and eventually find meaning in that process.
If you discover you have an MPE, give yourself time—get your sleep, eat well, exercise, try to stick with regular routines as much as possible. Give it time to settle in. Untrained therapists, friends and other well-meaning family may minimize the impact of the new information. After all, it’s just information, right? This can often feel dismissive, like rubbing salt into a wound. As if to say “but you haven’t changed” or “everything is the same.” The intentions are good, but without validating the feelings, a painful reality is ignored. People with an MPE will tell you that you just don’t get it. An MPE discovery is like suddenly understanding that the Earth is no longer the center of the universe. Such an awareness doesn’t change the Earth at all. It “only” changes how we see ourselves as human beings, and how we act. Identity is like that.
What is helpful is to encourage people with an MPE to own their feelings and to trust their experience. Do not dismiss the pain and loss as superficial. Their wounds may be deeper than you imagine. Validate their feelings and encourage them to process the information in their own time. Be as patient as you are with other trauma survivors.
My experience gave me a fresh perspective and helped me to understand my mother and her mother and her mother before her. This dovetails well with the concept of intergenerational and collective trauma—trauma that gets passed down historically through family tragedy in ways that we don’t fully understand. This broader definition of trauma is currently being mapped out by the science of epigenetics or how behavior and environment affect the way genes express themselves. I personally have a better understanding of myself through researching my mother’s family history, documented through records like birth and death certificates, obituaries, and census data widely available to the general public on the internet. Studying these records places all of my experience into a larger historical context, validating that it’s not just about me and that it didn’t start with me but is something several generations old that is part of who I am. It is something much larger than myself. It is like placing the Sun at the center of our planetary system, rather than the Earth. Does this shift in perspective matter? For many of us, how we view ourselves changes everything.
John is a licensed therapist in the state of Pennsylvania