CREATIVE. RESILIENT. MUM.
Out of place. It’s a feeling I have experienced my entire life. At family gatherings. At school. Even as a grown adult I can be in a room full of people I know, and suddenly be overcome with an intense feeling that I’m not supposed to be there. It’s a suffocating emotion. One that I could never explain. I have always felt like I was struggling to understand who I was at my core. I even did counselling to try and figure out the source of my anxiety. Searching for unresolved childhood trauma, but still unable to place it.
I grew up near a small town of about 500 people in regional NSW, Australia. I lived with my mum and stepdad and was 7 years old when my first sibling came along. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, reading and exploring what Aussies call the “bush”, that being the forest next to my home. My family home was a happy place especially on special occasions. We delighted in giving each other thoughtful (often handmade) gifts. There was always laughter, debate, and music. Until 2006, when my stepdad was suddenly killed in a tragic motorcycle accident. It tore the heart out of my family. We were all so overcome with grief that we often found (and still do in some instances), that it was hard to enjoy each other’s company anymore.
My parents had married when my mum was 18 years old. I came along when she was 20 and I always assumed their relationship had been rocky as they divorced before I was 2 years old. My dad was largely absent. We kept in contact a few times a year but had seen more of each other in recent times as I had had my first child and he was endeavouring to be a part of her life.
In 2018 I did a 23 and Me DNA test to learn about my risk of genetic diseases. I didn’t realise until I received the results that I could also learn about my ethnicity and had the option to connect with “family” who had also tested. There were no close DNA matches. Everyone was more distant than a third cousin, so I looked at it briefly and then paid no more attention to it. The ethnicity section however, said I was 10% Ashkenazi Jewish, which was unexpected.
The ethnicity anomaly played on my mind for a few months before I tried to figure out which of my ancestors were Jewish. I had previously worked on my family tree, so I had an idea of who my ancestors were up to my great grandparents, on both sides. I joined genealogy groups and uploaded my DNA to other websites where I found a second cousin match who made no sense to me. She had no Jewish DNA, but due to the logistics around who immigrated to Australia in her family and mine, it meant she could not be related to me unless one of us had our family tree wrong.
Of course, at first, I assumed it was her tree that was wrong. Then eventually after months of research, I asked my mum outright if there was any chance my dad was not my dad. I had been keeping her up to date with all my DNA discoveries and she was as fascinated and puzzled by it all as I was.
My mum told me she had been intimate with a married man before she fell pregnant with me, but that she had never considered he might be my father. She told me his name and I discovered my strange DNA match was closely connected to his mother’s family, plus there were other DNA matches on my list that shared his paternal family name. So, there it was in black and white, my dad was not my dad. Suddenly I understood why I had always felt so out of place and why I had such a poor connection with my dad. I was both relieved to finally understand, and simultaneously devastated.
They say that understanding how you fit in with your family as a child, is the foundation that you gradually build your identity upon throughout life. I witnessed it with my own daughter. On an almost daily basis at the age of 2 and 3 she would need to list each person in her family and their connection to her, her dad, and me. It was like understanding this information was crucial for her in knowing who she was.
So, when I found out I wasn’t genetically related to my dad, or my dad’s daughters, or his siblings, or nieces and nephews, it was like part of the foundation on which I had built my entire identity was smashed to pieces. I struggled to comprehend what I was supposed to do with this information. Who needed to know? Who didn’t need to know? Was it even my place to tell? These questions ate away at me to the point where I felt physically ill with anxiety, and I knew that I couldn’t keep it a secret. I couldn’t live a life that I now knew to be untrue.
I reached out to both my dad and biological father (BF) and told them the truth of my existence. It was an incredibly harrowing process and difficult for all parties. I don’t feel comfortable sharing details of their reaction to this information as that falls into the scope of their stories, and not mine. But I don’t think it would be overly dramatic of me to say I was left traumatized by the experiences. That I experienced a lot of rejection, and that a lot of healing is still required on my part.
I thought that once I had told these men the truth, I’d be able to move on with my life. But then I found myself curious about my “new” siblings and cousins. They all had families visible on social media. They had kids that looked like mine. That looked like I did when I was younger. They had features like my own and I found myself staring at photos of people I didn’t know, desperate to see a resemblance. I also became obsessive about my family tree, trying to figure out who all my DNA matches were and how I connected to them. Like if I understood all this information, then that would make up for a lifetime of not knowing half of my family.
I joined a support group and met thousands of other people in the same situation as me. People who understood how anxiety inducing it was to have to have to tell your doctor you suddenly know your medical history to be incorrect. Or who know how awkward it is when you meet someone new and they ask if you have any siblings, knowing you can’t answer “well I had 4 half-siblings but now I know 2 of them aren’t actually my siblings at all, and I’ve gained another 2 siblings, but they likely don’t even know I exist…” It was in this group I met a woman who despite being in another country to me, has been an almost daily presence in my life for over 3 years now. She’s been a sounding board and an empathetic ear for every conceivable feeling raised because of this rollercoaster I never wanted to hop on. I owe her every conceivable gratitude I can muster for supporting me through this.
Eventually, I reached out to my BF and indicated that I was considering contacting other family members. He replied saying that people who “threaten” him get cut from his life very quickly and that if I wanted to maintain any contact with him, I’d reconsider. This response felt like a slap in the face to me. I wasn’t intending to threaten him at all, I simply wanted to know my own family. I soon realised that the way this man felt about this situation was nothing to do with who I was as a person, and that I wasn’t willing to compromise myself with some vague hope that one day he might accept me. That I was worth more than that. So, I made a choice to move on, and this choice eventually came with the decision to physically move from Australia to my husband’s country of origin, Ireland.
On the surface it may appear that I am happy and that I have recovered from the trauma of my discovery, 3.5 years later. That I have taken control of the things I have control over and that I have made the most of it. But when I look deep down, at what I have examined many times but continue to push down daily, I see feelings of resentment and shame that don’t simply disappear the more time passes.
I am resentful that this private moment between my mum and BF is suddenly my business. I have no intention of sitting down with my children and discussing times when I was intimate with people who weren’t their father. It’s not their business. Yet this somehow is my business. I feel resentful that when I try and explain my experience to others, they feel they too are entitled to the details of this private moment between a 19-year-old girl and a 30-year-old man. They want to know, but how? How is it you exist if your dad isn’t your dad? Even though explaining this simple fact requires me to discuss a moment of intimacy that I wasn’t even a part of. That is not my business.
I feel shame, and that makes me feel angry because I have literally done nothing that I should be ashamed of. Yet it’s there. I feel shame for my dad who has to bear the brunt of this discovery despite also not being a party to the moment that created it. I believe my mum and dad’s relationship was pretty awful at that time. That no one is guilt free, and I resent that I even have to explain that fact. I don’t see my mum as a woman who was in a happy relationship who set out to ruin everything. I see someone who was in a miserable situation, trying to take a moment of happiness for herself without fully evaluating the consequences.
I also feel shame on behalf of my BF, but that feeling is also complicated. Because the fact that I feel shame for him also makes me feel angry. I don’t know anything about his relationship. Whether he was separated at the time or not, but I know that he is still married to the same woman, and that she seems like a truly lovely woman who deserves better than what she got. I feel shame because he clearly feels shame. My very existence is embarrassing for him, so embarrassing that he’s not even willing to stand up and acknowledge who I am. Maybe he’s just a man who made a mistake when he was younger that he has made a lifetime of trying to atone for. I don’t know.
I am a real person, not an abstract moment in the past and I shouldn’t have to be ashamed of my existence because he chose to be unfaithful. I don’t know if his wife knows whether I even exist, I assume she doesn’t and that if she ever found out I would be the one who would be blamed for creating a mess in their marriage. Despite the fact that I WASN’T EVEN THERE when he decided to do what he did with my mum. I was not a party to that decision and yet I know the blame will be placed upon me. I feel shame because I am a dirty secret. A secret to hide away and pretend doesn’t exist in order to make it appear that he didn’t make a poor choice in that moment over 40 years ago.
I feel anger because discovering misattributed parentage has historically been treated in two ways in the media. It’s a scandal that’s like a car crash that people can’t look away from on shows like Jerry Springer. A joke almost, that is so undeniably messy that the viewer feels relief for the fact that their lives might comparably be more “normal”. Or it’s treated like this romantic plot line in movies where the protagonist overcomes a difficult situation but in the end is welcomed with open arms into a new family where they automatically “belong” and live happily ever after. An option that is most definitely not available to me. So where does that leave me? Is my existence a joke? A punchline? Salacious gossip?
I feel guilt for moving away from my maternal family. For putting my own needs above theirs. I also feel sadness because I know it’s almost impossible for them to comprehend that my feelings toward this situation in no way reflects how I feel about what my life was like growing up with them. That my relationship with the siblings I grew up with doesn’t mean less to me because of the feelings I have about these other people I don’t even know.
Lastly, I feel this undefinable sense of loss for the family that I will never know. The siblings, nieces, nephews, aunt and uncle. These people who all have this life that continues on each day like I don’t even exist. Yet I can acknowledge that if I were to meet them, I might tangibly have nothing in common with them at all. Knowing that doesn’t make it hurt any less. So, I do what I can. I log on most days to my DNA platforms hoping a close family has finally tested and will “find” me. Then I get on with my day and try to make the most of what’s real.