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‘I’ve discovered through DNA testing my father isn’t my biological dad’

Tell Me About It: ‘I don’t want to rip my family apart to get answers that won’t be enough’

Question: I just found out through DNA testing that my father isn't my biological dad, and my real father died many years ago. No one else knows this except my husband and presumably my mother. She most likely had an affair – they were in the same social club.

Only my mother knows the truth, but I don’t want to rip my family apart and wreck my elderly parents’ marriage just to get some answers that I know won’t be enough.

Answer: Did you try DNA testing out of curiosity or because you had some niggle or unanswered questions? Usually, before seeking or waiting for a DNA result, we go through "what if" scenarios in our heads and this may have prepared you somewhat for the situation you are now in. You have discovered some key information: your birth father is dead and your mother and he were in the same social club. Maybe you have half siblings that don't know of your existence or your children (if you have any) may be likely to engage with people in their lives who are actually their relatives – this becomes difficult when the next generation starts dating.

This may be an unlikely scenario if you live in a city, but it becomes a genuine possibility if you are living in a smaller community. Inherited medical conditions may also be important to either you or your (future) children and we have not even broached the topics of identity and belonging.

Would you like it if your children did not tell you what was going on in their lives for fear of upsetting you?

All this leads to the reality that you now have knowledge that you cannot unknow, so the question is what do you do with it?

One of the common misconceptions regarding elderly people is that they need protection from life’s difficulties, but the reality is that they are likely to have much more experience at facing setbacks and losses – health concerns, friends dying, losing their youth and vitality, accepting financial ceilings etc – than younger people. You may be operating under an assumption that your parents are less capable than they are, that their relationship is fragile and that their capacity to love and support you is limited. Do they not have the right to decide for themselves what their response is?

The alternative is that you are creating a model of family that uses protection and silence as love instead of a presumption of resilience and capacity. This is a moment where you chose the model for your own family’s future. Would you like it if your children did not tell you what was going on in their lives for fear of upsetting you? They would miss out on your support through their tough times and preclude the opportunity of the closeness that adversity can bring to a family.

Would it not be really interesting to discover that there is more to your mother than you ever knew and, while you may have intense feelings around her silence, you may find that this news could offer you both a closer and more honest relationship. She would need to be consulted around telling your father. He may already know, or she may have a very strong reaction to the possibility of him discovering this deception. It would be important that you can tell her of your own journey with this knowledge. How it affects your sense of who you are and perhaps your sense that the rug has been pulled from under your identity.

Remember that when you sought the DNA test some part of you may have had unanswered questions so now accept the responsibility that comes with the answers and take the next step

Shock is a normal response to such momentous news, but this is often followed by everything from anger and resentment to hope and excitement. If you are in turmoil emotionally around this revelation, you might consider contacting a psychotherapist/psychologist so that you have some clarity for yourself and also so that you might be able to direct your mother/parents towards getting their own support while dealing with their responses.

After sorting out the basics of life (shelter/food/safety), “belonging” is the next most important cornerstone of our resilience and motivation – see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs (look it up on the internet if you have not come across it already). The theory is that we can only advance to achieving self-esteem and our full potential when the base needs are met. Therefore, your engagement with your sense of belonging and gaining a strong sense of identity is crucial to your future psychological security.

Of course, this does not mean riding roughshod over others’ sensibilities, but it does mean that you take this knowledge seriously and proceed to untangle the truth with caution and determination.

Remember that when you sought the DNA test some part of you may have had unanswered questions so now accept the responsibility that comes with the answers and take the next step.

Click here to send your question to Trish or email tellmeaboutit@irishtimes.com