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Are You, You? – The MPE Experience

Are You, You?

The Complexity of Discovering Your Biological Parents

By John Moyer, LPC

mpe - parenting new directions counselingWhat if you found out you weren’t really you?

What happens when someone discovers their parents aren’t who they thought they were? Because of the rise in consumer DNA testing, this has become a more common experience. Many news articles, books and podcasts are now available on the subject. The term used now is MPE (Misattributed Parentage Experience).  This can occur due to an undisclosed adoption, donor conceived child, or when the father of a child isn’t who he was assumed to be. The term nonpaternal event or NPE has been used in the field of genetic genealogy interchangeably, meaning Not the Parent Expected.

What’s it like to have an MPE?

Have you ever imagined what it might be like for an adult to suddenly find out they were adopted or conceived by a donor and never told? Or that their father was not who they were led to believe? Common emotional themes with the experience are a sense of bewilderment, betrayal, hurt, and anger. They generally feel lied to by their own parents. The mothers of those with MPEs tend to initially deny the scientific evidence and may or may not relent after being pressed to be more forthcoming. If mothers know, most intend to take that information to the grave as a private secret.1,3 But their child also has a right to know. There may be painful ethical questions to explore. Some mothers may be totally oblivious and are just as shocked as their child.

An MPE discovery is best understood as a kind of trauma on a spectrum — reactions can range from mild discomfort to full-blown trauma response. The entire way of looking at yourself can change in an instant, and it takes time to adjust to a new identity. It’s different for everybody. It is not unlike people who find out that they’re secretly adopted and never told. Some have likened it to a trauma spectrum akin to personal gender and sexual identity discoveries. How we deal with that experience matters.

Five Quick Tips if You Have MPE

  1. Use Genetic Genealogy Testing – this historical family research will provide another accurate tool to produce evidence
  2. Validation – the emotional impact can be overwhelming. Let it be okay to be upset.
  3. Natural Grief Reaction – treat it like a death or loss of someone close. Your grief response would be a natural reaction.
  4. Stay the Course – stick with your routine, eat well, sleep well, and exercise if possible.
  5. Find a Professional – you may not find a MPE expert, but a counseling professional can guide you through the confusion, grief, anger, and acceptance work.

How to Cope and Address MPE

One way to deal with an MPE discovery is through the science of genetic genealogy and historical family research.  These tools are having a greater impact today since consumer DNA testing became more widely available ten years ago. Few in the mental health field fully understand the MPE let alone have proper training to address related issues in therapy. The DNA tests are irrefutable scientific evidence, and can’t be easily dismissed as misattributed parentage had been in the past. The shield of uncertainty is no longer an option.

Now that we know with more scientific certainty, the general public needs to know that such a discovery can be earth shattering for most experiencing misattributed parentage. It’s a traumatic experience that includes loss. Therefore, it’s important not to minimize or discount the feelings —validation of the emotional impact is key. It is a lot like any other major traumatic event or loss. Grief and loss are common themes as well the betrayal of trust. These are not superficial psychological wounds. Don’t expect to quickly “snap out of it” if you or a loved one make such a discovery.

Childhood Memories Left Dormant

If you or someone you know has had such a discovery and has never had therapy or counseling before, it is likely to raise childhood issues that have been unaddressed and dormant for years. That’s part of having a MPE  —  opening a can of worms you can’t stuff back. Once they’re out, they can be overwhelming, especially for someone who’s never had professional support. It’s very much like dealing with a death in the family, though nobody necessarily has died: confusing. In a sense, something else has died— who you think you are, or thought you were. That’s what many who have a MPE describe, like others who’ve experienced the unthinkable. There’s a loss that comes with it, a sense of trust is shattered, and then an adjustment period. The new information often raises deeper identity and/or trust issues related to early childhood attachment.

It’s important that those who have a MPE take the time to process all of the new information. There’s no one right way to do this work.  It’s a grief response we each do in our own ways, and eventually find meaning in that process.

Stay the Course

If you or someone you know has had such an experience — try to get your sleep, eat well, exercise, stick with regular routines as much as possible. Give yourself time to let the new information settle in. Untrained therapists, friends and other well-meaning family may minimize the impact of the new information. After all, it’s just information, right? This can often feel dismissive, like rubbing salt into a wound. As if to say “but you haven’t changed” or “everything is the same.”  The intentions are good, but without validating the feelings, a painful reality is ignored. MPEs will tell you that you just don’t get it. An MPE discovery is like suddenly understanding that the Earth is no longer the center of the universe. Such an awareness doesn’t change the Earth at all. It “only” changes how we see ourselves as human beings, and how we act. Identity is like that.

What is helpful is to encourage those with a MPE to own their feelings and to trust their experience. Do not dismiss the pain and loss as superficial. Their wounds may be deeper than you imagine. Validate their feelings, and encourage them to process the information in their own time. Be as patient as you are with other trauma survivors.

Intergenerational and Collective Trauma

The trauma of misattributed parentage dovetails well with the concept of intergenerational and collective trauma —trauma that gets passed down historically through family tragedy in ways that we don’t fully understand. This broader definition of trauma is currently being mapped out by the science of epigenetics or how behavior and environment affect the way genes express themselves.2 You can get a better understanding of yourself by researching family history, documented through records like birth and death certificates, obituaries and census data widely available on the internet. Studying these records places all of your experience into a larger historical context, validating that your experience is not only about you but may be something several generations old that is a part of who you are.  It is like placing the Sun at the center of our planetary system, rather than the Earth. Does this shift in perspective matter? For many of us, how we view ourselves changes everything.


1 The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are, by Libby Copland


2 It Didn’t Start With You: How Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, by Mark Wolynn


3 Inheritance: A Memoir of Geanology, Paternity and Love, by Dani Shapiro