A father reflects on an experience that is becoming more common. As DNA-testing companies sell millions of kits, they’ve started to rearrange families. The tests have reunited long-lost cousins and helped adoptees find their birth parents, donor-conceived kids their sperm donors. They have also, in some cases, uncovered difficult family secrets.
Earlier this year, I heard from dozens of people who took a DNA test only to discover their fathers were not their biological fathers. Many of them belonged to a private Facebook support group called DNA NPE Friends—where NPE stands for “not parent expected”—that sprang up to connect the thousands of people who’ve had their identities altered by a DNA test.
There are other sides to the story, too. The creator of DNA NPE Friends, Catherine St Clair, recently created a group for the fathers. One such father is Christopher, whose real name we are withholding at his request. Earlier this year, after buying his now-15-year-old daughter an AncestryDNA test, Christopher found out that he is not her biological father. His wife had an affair. (They also have a 13-year-old son, who is his biological child.)
Two and a half weeks after the discovery, he filed for divorce. We spoke about how revelation has changed his family, what it’s like to parent a teen going through this, and the particular difficulties of talking about this as a man.
Chris: Yes. I’m into genealogy, and so myself, my ex-wife, and the grandparents are all taking the DNA tests. They had a Black Friday/Cyber Monday sale back last year, and my daughter was curious about her ethnicity and so she asked us for a test. My ex said, “No, you already know who you are because everybody’s tested.” I knew she was lying, so I said, “Okay, I’ll buy you a test.”
Zhang: So you had already suspected something.
Chris: I knew my ex-wife was having affairs back then, and I couldn’t catch her. When I bought the test, my daughter went and told her mom, and then an hour and a half, two hours later, in the middle of the night, my ex gets up and she says, “I need to talk to you ’cause I had an affair. I think it was a two-year-long affair.”
The worst was to see the reaction of my daughter. She just cried and cried. It was like a nuclear bomb going off. It changed the dynamic for a long time between my son and her.
Zhang: How so?
Chris: My son said, “You’re the reason why our family is breaking up. You’re the reason Dad’s divorcing my mom.” I put a stop to that. I said, “No, I don’t want to ever hear that. She’s an innocent person in this.” That NPE stuff ripples throughout families. It’s pretty devastating. But my family treats her just like she’s a biological child. They consider her my daughter, their granddaughter, their niece.
Zhang: Did finding out change your relationship with your daughter, even if just at first?
Chris: On the day that I found out, I was like, I wanted to reject her, because I said my boundary was I will not raise another man’s child from an affair. My mom put me straight. She was like, “She’s innocent in this. Don’t blame her.” So I consider her my daughter. I just say she’s my daughter. I even tease her a little bit, saying, “Oh, you got this trait from me,” which she chuckled at. Sometimes it’s hard, ’cause she reminds me of what my ex did.
Zhang: Being a parent—it’s like this is incredibly upsetting for you, but you also have to be a parent and protect your child and think about her feelings.
Chris: Yes, you do. She was worried … this is a conversation we had. She goes, “Dad, I’m worried you’re going to reject me.” I said, “I’ll never reject you. I’ll always be your father.” I just consider her my daughter, and I love her just the same—the love hasn’t changed at all.
She has zero interest in meeting her biological father. She still comes over with my biological son. She calls me Dad. We were talking about I got diagnosed with rosacea. It runs in my family, and she was saying, “Oh, I have a good complexion.” And I said, “Oh, you probably got it from your dad.” And she goes, “Dad, you can say biological father. He just created me, but you’re my dad.” [Pause] Made me cry in the restaurant.
Chris: I was in a Facebook group for healing from infidelity. I was talking about my story with somebody in the infidelity group, and one of the ladies, she told me about it.
Zhang: The group was mostly children, right, people who found out about an unexpected parent. Were there other fathers in your situation?
Chris: I think I was one of the only fathers. Maybe one or two. I’ve been able to help some of the NPEs with their perspective from the birth-certificate father. I’ve answered their questions.
Zhang: What did the NPEs want to ask you?
Chris: One of them was getting married, and she wanted to invite her biological father to the wedding. She was worried about what her birth-certificate father would think. And another, she was worried about telling her birth-certificate father that he wasn’t her biological father. And I told her, “If he loves you, that won’t change. You love who you love.” There aren’t too many men in the father’s group yet.
Zhang: Yeah, I was really struck by the gender divide when interviewing NPEs for my story. There are so many more women who wanted to talk about this than men.
Chris: Oh, yes.
Zhang: It’s harder for men to talk about.
Chris: I know, and even in infidelity-support groups and domestic-dispute support groups, it’s a ton of women talking and only a few men. I think it’s shameful for a man to be open about it. It’s really hard on a man’s self-esteem and ego knowing that their wife or girlfriend got pregnant by another man. Men are more quiet about it.
Zhang: One of my colleagues wrote about sperm donation recently—not a case where there was even an affair—but she spoke to a family therapist, who talked about how men who are infertile sometimes find themselves getting jealous of their sperm donor. And the phrase he used, kind of burned into my memory, was primordial jealousy. Which I think really gets at how deep our ideas of fatherhood and masculinity are.
Chris: Yes, very much so. And I hear women, like my friends, say, “Oh, my husband cheated with another man, got another woman pregnant.” I have friends that’s happened to. But none of my male friends whose wife has cheated on them has ever mentioned anything about their kids not being theirs and stuff. I have one friend who did do a paternity test on his kids. But his attitude was, “If they weren’t mine, I would have walked. I wouldn’t have had anything to do with them.”
Zhang: Has it helped you to hear from people in your daughter’s position?
Chris: It helps me understand what my daughter’s going through. It has given me more patience with her when she gets all prickly with me or defends her mom. Seeing how hurt they were by their mom’s deceptions, how they couldn’t imagine their mom having affairs, and how, even though they know how dishonest their moms were, they still love their moms, and they still want their moms’ affection and affirmation—I see that with my daughter. Seeing others go through that, and dealing with those emotions, and they’re adults and they’re struggling with it, and here I have a teenager. It’s helped me understand my daughter and what she’s going through. That’s the main reason why I joined.
Zhang: Do you wish you had found out earlier about your daughter’s paternity, even if it meant losing the relationship you now have with your daughter?
Chris: I told my ex-wife, “If you had told me back then, we would have had a greater chance of saving the marriage.” I would have maybe worked with her, so there’s that. I might not have divorced her 15 years ago if she had come clean. Lying to me for that long—to me, that was worse. But yeah, if I would have divorced her back then, I probably wouldn’t have had a relationship with my daughter.
Zhang: Yeah. Do you think about that?
Chris: Or more likely, I don’t know—I mean, that’s all a bunch of what-ifs …
Zhang: That’s very true.
Chris: Roads not taken.
Zhang: It’s been almost a year since you first found out. Do you feel like you’re emotionally in a different place now?
Chris: Yes. I can say she’s my daughter without feeling that pain anymore. Used to be, I’d say, “Oh, you’re my daughter,” and my heart would just hurt, and now I just say, “You’re my daughter,” and I’m fine.