By Jodee Prouse
I believe nothing is more important than family. But what do I mean when I say family? For me, it’s about more than the DNA we share. A surprise in my 23andMe report only made that belief stronger.
What all this means for me is complicated by the fact that I’m estranged from members of my own immediate family. My relationships with my dad, my mom, and my sister broke down due to alcoholism and continued unhealthy family patterns.
Our problems with alcohol were deep, starting with my dad’s drinking, which led to my parent’s divorce when I was eight. And it was alcohol addiction and mental illness that took my brother Brett —who also happened to be my greatest friend— when he took his own life in 2012.
For many reasons, including my own happiness and well-being and that of my husband and our own two sons, I made the painful decision to continue to love my father, mother, and sister from afar. I ceased all contact with them more than ten years ago.
Looking at Family Connections
So why did I decide to use 23andMe and peer into the genetics that our family shares?
In part, it’s because I’m drawn to the idea of understanding more about my connections to generations past. I have always known about my dad’s side and their roots in England. But I knew little about my mother’s side of the family. Growing up, I only met my mom’s parents, her sister, and that sister’s children, my two cousins. I never met, nor did my mother mention any of her aunts, uncles, cousins, or even grandparents. They were a mystery to me.
After sending in my sample to 23andMe late last year, I was so eager to get the reports I felt like a kid waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. When I finally opened my reports, I was actually a little letdown. The results confirmed that my ancestry on both sides of the family was mostly British. I opted in and looked over my health reports, too, which were interesting, but the unexpected information didn’t come until later.
A Shocking Discovery
Just a few weeks after those initial results, I got an email alerting me to a message. I had opted in to participate in DNA Relatives and someone with whom I shared DNA had sent me a message. I logged in to read it.
“Hey Jodee, My name’s James Dodds and 23andMe says that we may be half-siblings,” the message began. “My dad, Jim Dodds, was from Ponoka, Canada, so I am wondering if that’s the connection. He was born in 1946.”
I’d never heard the name “Dodds” before, but Ponoka is near where I live now, in Alberta, and near where my mother was born and grew up. I was in complete shock. I responded within ten minutes. When I shared it with my husband that evening and with my two adult sons, now 29 and 31, they didn’t quite comprehend what it meant. I knew instantly. DNA doesn’t lie. I didn’t know how this happened, but I was confident that this man who messaged me, James Dodds, was my half-brother.
Coming to Terms
After the initial shock wore off, the emotions flooded in. I was inundated with random memories, like my dad saving me from drowning when, as a five-year-old, I had walked off the edge of a pier during summer vacation. And I remembered his family, my grandma’s loving face, and the big Christmas get-togethers with everyone at my house. My earliest memory is of looking inside eggs using a red light with his dad, my grandfather, when I was three or four. I remembered being the oldest grandchild among all my cousins. And I remembered my dad’s siblings—Uncle Les, Auntie Myrna, and Auntie Mary—all of whom have stood by me and supported me through my life’s journey, never judging or condemning me or taking sides when it came to my complicated relationship with my father. They have loved me unconditionally while loving their brother, too. I LOVE my family. They are my family.
My heart shattered thinking that might not be true anymore. I also wondered, how did this happen?
I knew my mother was pregnant when she married my father, and their marriage wasn’t blissful, but I wanted to know more. Though it had been a long time since we’d spoken, I sent her an email asking about her connection and relationship with Jim Dodds.
I knew my email would come as a shock to her. So I waited for her response.The next morning she replied:
“I dated someone with that name when I was 18.”
This confirmed my initial instinct: Jim Dodds was my biological father.
I don’t think anyone would ever blame me if I was angry at my mother, but that’s not what I felt. Instead, I reached out to her to talk and we decided to meet face to face for the first time in almost a decade.
My mother explained she had fallen in love with a bull rider, Jim Dodds. But she was so young and had already experienced trauma in her life. And she had a past relationship with my father. They had a daughter together four years before I was born, in 1964, and my mom had to give her up for adoption. When she got pregnant at 19, she broke things off with Jim and told him she was getting married without ever mentioning her pregnancy. She believed my dad was my biological father.
The Meaning of Family
I was devastated when I learned that my dad wasn’t my birth father. But I realized that family is so much more than being related by blood or sharing DNA. It is about being there for each other through the good times, and especially the bad. It is the relationships in our lives that provide a sense of security and belonging. It is the people that hold your heart gently in their hands. It is about feeling that you are in a safe space, no matter what you share. Family is about feeling valued, respected, and understood. It is being able to say you are sorry when someone says you hurt them.
I am incredibly blessed to have so many relationships like this in my life. And I’m not alone in that feeling. We live in a world where the definition of family has expanded. Children continue to be adopted, people get divorced and then remarried with blended families, foster parents care for children, and individuals pursue parenthood and family through routes like surrogacy and IVF. There are so many scenarios, and all of those people are no less loved, no less connected, and no less family than those that share DNA. The one crucial ingredient is love. I always knew this; it just took a few days to catch my breath and realize it.
Today, I am still processing this news.
As much as my dad and I had our own challenges throughout the course of our lives, I loved him very much. I never wished for a different father.
I also regret that my biological father Jim passed away in 2021 before we could meet. He will never know that I was born. He will never know his amazing grandsons.
Yet I’ve realized that if this hadn’t been kept a secret, my life wouldn’t have been enriched by the people I love most. So, as hard as it has been to work through all of my emotions about this revelation, I feel my life is as it should be.
I would never want to alter the course of fate. I love my family and was always meant to be Brett’s sister.