Misattributed Parentage: Making Room for the 'Other'

Thoughts on why there can be room for everyone.

Posted Mar 05, 2021

Family relationships are complicated, particularly when a surprise DNA revelation is part of the narrative. As if getting along with people wasn't hard enough in the era of fake news and polarizing relationships, a cultural conflict is immediately noticeable in our contemporary life when allegiance to family systems is placed up against the ever-hardening American value of independence and self-love. How can we possibly achieve this conflictual standard of loving ourselves, accepting others for who they are, while inviting closeness and bonding? In a family system that built up its history on a lie, no less? That lie is the secrete conception that shrouds misattributed parentage (MPE), also known as non-paternal events (NPE), and threatens to estrange if not outright cut off families from one another.

The cultural and civic experiences of the last year have shown us what the divide looks like when there is no acceptance of “the other,” and difference is refocused into toxic relatedness. On a micro level, family systems experience the same toxicity when families persist in seeing members as different or “other.” Whether because of differing political opinions, or misattributed paternity, differences have always been part of the very fabric of families, even if from personality differences alone. When families allow members to be viewed as outsiders, it rips the fabric of family affiliation and often creates irreparable harm to the member who is deemed too different.

In the case of MPE, or non-paternal events, many of the “others” have felt different from the beginning, before knowing the DNA surprise. It might start out innocently, in the form of noticing they don’t resemble one side of the family in any way, or may be more overt in how they are treated differently than other siblings or cousins without cause. The discovery of misattributed paternity may very well provide some relief that there was a valid reason they felt these things. Yet, there is also the unwanted identity shift of knowing they no longer belong to the biological family they had an affiliation with.

The question I continually come back to is this: Why do we feel there needs to be an “other”? Perhaps it’s a software glitch rooted in the tribalism of our early hominid days, when the unknown was too scary to contemplate and was considered a threat to survival. We’ve come pretty far since those early days, so why can’t we evolve away from that glitch?

Dan Gribbin/Unsplash
Source: Dan Gribbin/Unsplash

What do we get from keeping people at a distance? What’s the benefit—and what’s the cost? Like many things, there’s no simple answer because there are many perspectives. One lesson from 2020 I observed both in my personal life and in that of my clients was the impact of separation. The pandemic has reinforced that we are indeed social beings (even the thriving introverts) in need of meaningful connection and hope, and MPEs may have been uniquely positioned to survive the pandemic because of the systemic experiences with otherness.

Knowing that we are social beings, why then do we persist in separating people from ourselves? It begins with criminalizing a different religion, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-cultural belief, and ends with dehumanizing them, the exact opposite of the bonding we need and seek out intuitively. Binary thinking has proven itself especially harmful when in service of the righteousness of right vs. wrong. Yet, sometimes it’s reasonable when the toxicity is abusive and warrants a cut-off for personal safety and well-being. Americans have increased their willingness to cut off family and friends from their lives due to differing views, by 17 percent in some studiesPolitics has become the most common reason to engender an us-vs.-them mindset, with close to 40 percent of either political party accusing the other of destroying the American way of life. 

I also see this playing out in the quietly growing population of DNA surprises that further rip the fabric of family unity by revealing closely guarded family secrets of parentage. Many of the MPE individuals discovering false parentage are then put in a position to choose between maintaining the status quo to continue family acceptance, or ex-communication. Mothers often viciously attack their adult children in a desperate effort to keep the secret they’ve guarded so closely, willing to cut off their children rather than repair the breach. At the time of the election in 2020, many clients were coming into session horrified at the beliefs and values family and friends were living by. I’d been seeing families cut off members for years using the same mechanism of “other” justification, it just hadn’t occurred in the same numbers as the election.

I ask the MPE clients (and their families) that come into session how they benefit from any of the choices they engage in about relationships—what do they get out of cutting someone off, or accepting a loved one for who they are? How does it serve them to keep a relationship divided because one doesn’t agree with the other’s beliefs? How does it benefit a family to sever family ties because a secret was discovered? To borrow a term from Harriet Lerner, it generally seems to come down to a fear of de-selfing—a belief that I cannot be myself if I accept that a loved one has a different feeling, need, or belief than I do.

The trend of cutting off relationships over differing beliefs and needs is growing, and where does that leave us? What has to happen for the mindset to shift that there’s room for everyone? I believe the answer lies in the willingness to hear the story that brought a person to where they are now—what led to their convictions and fears. It’s never been about agreeing, but making space. If parents and their adult MPE children could listen without an agenda and make room for those needs, then no one is the “other."