So you’re thinking about testing your DNA or the DNA of an elderly relative. Whichever company you use and for whatever reason you want to test. You need to think carefully before you test.
As a researcher of my own tree, it’s great news that you’re thinking about testing. The more people who DNA test themselves and/or their relatives, the bigger the database and the more cousins we discover and connect with.
DNA testing is a great tool to help research your family tree. It helps connect you with cousins who are also passionate about researching their tree. Who might have knowledge that can help you break down your brick walls. As well as confirming your paper trail is correct.
But, before you take that step… are you prepared for what it might unveil?
You see, years ago, illegitimacy was a HUGE thing and having a child out of wedlock had a stigma attached to it. A stigma which would follow both mother and child. Marriage was also very important to our ancestors and anyone who didn’t marry or had a child out of wedlock faced a lot of condemnation from their parish. We believe our ancestors were all prim and proper and there were few illegitimate births, but it wasn’t like that. I was shocked at how many illegitimate children I have in my own tree.
The Law would sometimes punish unmarried mothers. Women were imprisoned, on average, to a year’s hard labour beating hemp for having children out of wedlock. Men, if they were found and punished, would only serve three months imprisonment for their part.
Even in the 1960s, the year of free love, it was a shame to be hidden. With families going to great lengths to hide illegitimacy. It was quite common for the grandmother to pretend that it was their child. Eastenders even got into the act with the Kat and Zoe bombshell.
Shockingly, contraceptives and the pill, have only been around since 1961. Until 1967, it was only available for married women.
My Story – Illegitimacy
I remember the day I found out my uncle was actually my half brother and the tears from my mum as she told me her deepest darkest secret. The one I guess that she hoped I would never know. Not because she didn’t want to acknowledge him as her son, far from it. Her biggest fear was that I would hate her and judge her for having a baby with someone else and out of wedlock.
I’ll admit I was confused. It was a lot to take in for a 16-year-old. To suddenly find your cool uncle, who was only 12 years older, was your brother. It was 1992 and illegitimacy was a lot more common and accepted than it was in 1966 when my brother was born.
Back then, my mum was looked down on and judged for being a teenage mum. She wasn’t even allowed to make decisions for herself, let alone her baby. She came out of the hospital to find my grandmother had named the baby and was treating him as though he was her son. She felt judged and hated, treated like she didn’t matter and that she was easy or a slut. People looked down on her and thought she was a bad person. She worried that I would feel the same way, that I would hate her and judge her. She didn’t want to lose my love, support and respect.
I remember her sobbing as she told me and I couldn’t understand why. To me, it was no big deal. I knew girls my age who had had babies, I’d even discussed with my mum what would happen if I fell pregnant as a teen. It didn’t bother me, it didn’t make me think less of my mum. In fact, it actually brought us closer as we had a heart to heart. She was able to tell me about her difficult and abusive childhood and relationship and why she had made the decisions she had. I became even more proud of her and how she had overcome all she did to become the loving mother I knew so well and it brought us a lot closer.
I’ll admit I found it hard at first, trying to understand why she didn’t raise him as her own. My generation was more open about illegitimacy and teenage pregnancy, in fact it’s become the norm nowadays and even my eldest was born before I married his father
Yet It took a lot of courage for my mum to tell me about those dark days, with an abusive boyfriend and abusive mother and step-father. It was in the 60s as well and I was shocked to learn that the contraceptive that we take for granted these days, wasn’t available and was illegal. Not to mention abortion was illegal as well with many women dying in back-alley clinics.
I look back and I’m glad my mum was able to open up honestly and tell me. I never judged her and I loved her even more, which I told her. In fact, my first words afterwards were… “Uncle S is my brother??? Does this mean he’ll beat up M (my full brother) for me???”
I was lucky. My mum was able to tell me herself. I cannot imagine how much harder it would have been had I discovered this secret via DNA testing. Especially if she was no longer here to tell me the whys that I desperately needed to know.
For a friend of mine, this is how she found out. She contacted me for advice with her Ancestry DNA results as she was confused by what they were telling her. Her results showed she had a half-brother, but his father was a name she didn’t recognise. My friend had never known her dad but had been given a name when she was younger that she believed to be her father.
When her DNA results gave her such unexpected results, she was in full denial that the results could be true. We spoke at length and I encouraged her to speak to her mother, who thankfully was still alive. At first, her mother repeated that this man couldn’t be her father but the man she had previously named was. Despite the shared matches, the DNA matches which matched her and her brother, she was still adamant that it couldn’t be true. That her mother wouldn’t lie to her about who her father was!
A few days later, my friend contacted me with “I guess DNA doesn’t lie!” Her mother had broken down in tears and confessed she had had a one night stand with both men and she hadn’t known which man was her father. She had been terrified to tell her daughter and feared her daughter would hate her. Just like my mum had been too scared to tell me! This was in the 1940s, so even more of a scandal and even harder for her mother to tell her daughter after so many years!
Now, she is slowly coming to terms with her results. Thankfully, her brother welcomed her with open arms and they are slowly developing a friendship and getting to know each other. Sadly, she will never meet her father but through her brother she will learn about him.
Not all discoveries end this way. Sometimes people are in denial and will delete their results rather than admit their relative might have an illegitimate child. It’s even harder for the older generation who were taught that illegitimacy was a shame and a stigma that never goes away.
This is why you need to think long and hard about whether you are prepared to face the answers that DNA might reveal, about yourself and your relatives. What would you do if you found out your father wasn’t the man you thought he was, that your siblings were only half-siblings and you had a different parent? Or that you were adopted and no one ever told you? Maybe your uncle/aunt or your grandparents had an illegitimate child, abandoned or gave a child up for adoption.
I remember back when I started sorting my dad’s DNA matches I had a panic. I didn’t seem to be getting any matches from his father’s side. All his matches were from his mother’s line. I wasn’t sure if it was because he had inherited more DNA from his mother, whether it just happened that more of his mother’s cousins had tested or that his father wasn’t his father.
This was my nightmare. My grandparents had adored each other. In fact, my granddad had passed just 16 months after my nan as he couldn’t bear living without her. I struggled with the possibility that, for whatever reason, my granddad wasn’t my granddad and how and if I would tell my dad.
Thankfully, I then found connections to my granddad which proved not only that my research was correct but that my granddad was my dad’s dad. But what if he hadn’t been. Would I have ever told my dad, or would I have kept quiet? How would he have dealt with the news?