On Mother’s Day last year, Robin Butler’s children gave her 23andMe as a gift, not knowing that it would change all their lives.
“I thought it would be fun to learn about my genome,” Robin said.
But testing ultimately revealed something no one knew – the man she thought was her biological father, wasn’t.
“I was in total shock for three days, and I am still dealing with the aftershocks,” Robin said. “My whole family was shocked. My mother was shocked, and so was the man we believed was my (biological) father for 49 years.”
23andMe allows people to explore what their genetics tell them about traits they might share with family, or about their health and ancestry. But doing the test can also reveal the unexpected. Sometimes those surprises can be fun, but, as in Robin’s case, they also have the potential to have profound implications.
For Robin, learning that her father wasn’t her biological father sent a shockwave through her family, but it didn’t tear them apart.
Robin had had a unique relationship with the man she had known as her father. He and her mother had lived apart almost all of Robin’s life. Robin herself had only lived with him briefly when she was 13. Although their relationship was distant, she embraced him as her father just as any daughter would. Robin’s own children also knew him as their grandfather.
When her kids gave Robin 23andMe for Mother’s Day, she turned around and got a kit for her own mother. When she got her results she saw her connection to her mother in the DNA Relative feature, but also to a third cousin whom she didn’t recognize. The two connected trying to figure out how they were related. The cousin didn’t show up in her mother’s results so Robin knew she had to be connected to the cousin on her father’s side, but she didn’t recognize any of the woman’s family names.
Robin had also gotten a kit for her dad for Father’s Day. When his results came back, they quickly figured out that he didn’t share any DNA with this third cousin or with Robin.
“I thought it was a mistake,” she said. “I even called 23andMe to confirm that the results were correct.”
But she also noticed that her father shared DNA with cousins who had names Robin knew.
“That’s when I knew that this was his DNA and he wasn’t my father,” she said. “That’s when I was thrown into shock.”
While the news was hard to accept, it didn’t devastate the family. Instead it triggered a lot of new questions for Robin, about her family and herself.
It also propelled her on a new search.
“I knew I had to find my biological father,” Robin said.
Robin talked to her dad about it.
It wasn’t easy, but his response wasn’t one of anger or sadness, but encouragement. He told her she needed answers that he didn’t have.
“I know you need to know,” he told her.
He understood how important it was to her.
“My dad helped in the search too,” Robin said.
Looking at her 23andMe results, Robin returned to the third cousin with whom she first connected, and noticed other second and third cousins. This prompted her to search on their surnames, which were unfamiliar to her. And she got additional information from her mother, who had the first name of a man that was the only other likely person who could be Robin’s father. Pooling all this information together helped narrow her search. When she connected again with her third cousin and shared some of this information they identified who they thought her father was. Her cousin even provided Robin with a picture, which Robin then showed to her parents. They recognized him immediately and said that was who they believed was her father.
“Remarkably, through my 23andme DNA relatives (and other information), I was able to find the man who I truly believe is my biological father, all within a matter of days,” Robin said.
But her cousin thought that Robin’s biological father had passed away. It wasn’t until Robin tracked down another cousin that she learned he was still alive. Using additional information she was able to find an address and took the next difficult step of sending him a carefully worded letter filled with details about her mother, and her own connections through 23andMe with several of his relatives.
“I mailed the letter off on August 31, 2015, (and) I prayed to Jesus,” she said.
A few days later Robin got an early morning phone call. It was him.
“Of course, this was a great shock to him and his family, but he called,” Robin said. “Thank God he called, and he remembered my mother. Like me, he just wanted to know the truth, and so did his wife of 47 years.”
He asked to do a DNA test and Robin sent him a 23andMe kit. A few weeks later the results came back confirming what Robin thought – she’d found her biological father.
“His response was brief and that’s the last I’ve heard from him,” Robin said. “I’m still waiting, but I have hope. I know I will have a relationship with my father.”
Robin is his only biological child. She doesn’t know how this news impacted him, but she said finding him was important in understanding herself.
It made her wonder what part of herself she inherited from her biological father and what was from her upbringing.
“I thought that knowing him would help me to better understand myself,” she said.
Making the connection gave her insight into where she came from.
“I not only found my biological father, but I was introduced to extended family and ancestors that I hadn’t known of before,” said Robin. “Finding him and knowing about his family tree through our cousins made me feel complete and whole.”