The dictionary defines ‘family’’ with terms like parents, children, and common ancestors, but people define families in all kinds of ways, often ignoring bloodlines. Family is a flexible concept.
I used to think my family was unique, but now I see it’s more typical than I thought. I have two sisters, one mom, three dads, and according to Ancestry.com, quite a few half-siblings. There’s also a cast of characters I’ve collected along the way.
I throw all these people into one big melting pot and call it family.
My Traditional Family
Growing up in the ’80s, my family looked like the blueprint for a typical American family. My dad was an accountant in a suit and tie and my mom worked in retail. We had a pretty white dog and a well-groomed green lawn.
We lived in a brand new three-bedroom, two-bath house in a newly developed subdivision. I played soccer, football, and baseball and my sister took ballet classes. We had Walkmans and rode our bikes all over town as if we were characters in a nostalgic Netflix series.
We’d attend high school football games on Friday nights and church every Sunday morning. Reagan was president. Michael Jackson was king. And my family was All-American, until the fight.
Mom and Dad Are Fighting
Behind the scenes of our idyllic domestic facade, my parents didn’t get along. At all. During one particularly nasty fight, my mother screamed at my dad and found me in the garage.
I was about nine at the time. She squatted down in front of me and told me my dad wasn’t my actual dad. As best she could, given her emotional state and my nine-year-old brain, she explained they couldn’t conceive and used something called artificial insemination to get pregnant.
I was the son of another man, a donor. The man she was fighting, the man she was furious with was not my real dad.
Before you think too harshly of my mom, you should know my father can be a very difficult man, as I’ve previously described. There were better ways my mom, or my parents together, could have let me know, but sometimes people are careless when they’re upset.
Don the Donor
For some kids, this might have been overwhelming, and yet I rolled with it. I had zero doubts at the time my dad was my dad, a certainty that would become a bit wobbly later in life, but I was fascinated by the possibility of who my other dad might be. My sister and I have the same donor, and we refer to this enigmatic figure as Don the donor.
As a kid, I was obsessed with Greek mythology so my discovery of Don gibed well with the whole Heracles, Perseus, Theseus trope of young men discovering their dads were gods. I didn’t think I was a demi-god, but I thought Don could be anyone from Captain Kirk to Captain Kangaroo.
I was a bit much as a kid.
New Dad in Town
It’s no surprise, given how much my parents fought, they’d one day divorce. Their acrimonious divorce was finalized during my sophomore year of high school.
My mom met another man at church. He was the only man she dated after the divorce, and they were married the summer after my first year of college. He was Mike, then Mikey, then stepdad, and now dad. He has been the kindest and most loving father a young man and a grown man could ask for.
He is universally adored by everyone who meets him. He’s never described me or my sister as step-children. His car always had bumper stickers and license plate frames telling other drivers his kids were at this college or students at that school. We don’t share a drop of blood between us and yet he’s my dad.
He brought a young daughter to our family and she and I have become tight over the years. We’ve never considered each other step-siblings.
With Mikey and my sister, I realized family isn’t something you have. Family is something you make.
DNA Tests and New Siblings
When DNA tests began becoming a thing, Keri, my sister, was far more curious about them than I was. I was content with donor dad probably being Harrison Ford, but she wanted something less speculative.
She used a couple of different sites, Ancestry and 23andme.com. She would phone me up or text me from time to time, telling me some of our ancestors were Spanish or that we have lots of Irish heritage.
Then one day she called and said she’d found siblings. On what was clearly our donor dad’s side, there were very close matches, people with whom we shared half our genetic makeup. She was giddy and immediately reached out to all three unsuspecting siblings. I was a little worried about how prepared they were for us.
Turns out, none of them had any reason to believe they might have other brothers and sisters out there waiting for them. It wasn’t until they joined the site and saw these weird strangers, like my sister and eventually me, on their DNA matches they realized something was amiss. When Keri messaged them, two responded, and the third ignored her.
One man told her he was pleased to have a conversation on the phone, but he wasn’t sure about anything more. After the website let him know he had mystery siblings in the wings, he’d had the conversation with his parents that I’d had with mine in 1984. He was coming to grips with his donor dad in his 40s and wanted some time to get his head around it.
Our third sibling, Dave, seemed more open to his new extended family. He had also been surprised by what he discovered, but he took the news he had a donor dad in stride.
He and Keri arranged a meeting at my nephew’s little league game. Dave agreed to make the drive from Dallas to San Antonio and meet us. After years of wondering whether we were related to Keanu Reeves, we were finally going to meet an actual sibling.
Meet Your Half-Brother
In our first conversation, Dave and I were talking but we were mostly staring at one another’s faces. I’d look into his eyes for the green flecks sprinkled in mine.
I watched his lips move and noticed the flare of his nostrils as he spoke. He had a beard that looked a little less unruly than the ones I typically brandish, but it was closer to mine than to the manicured beards of baristas and craft beer brewers. It also bore the same silver streak across his chin.
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As I studied him, I noticed he was also studying me. We were like two mirrors facing one another and picking up every minute detail of the reflection in front of us. Was that his facial tick or mine? That arch in the eyebrow — is he mimicking me or is that always there?
It helped break the ice when my youngest nephew began calling Dave ‘uncle.’
Dave is funny and clever. He has intelligent and curious eyes and even in the first few awkward moments, I felt we both shared a wry amusement with the situation. He is a little shorter than I am and beyond our hair color and our beards, we don’t look much alike. Still, there’s something there.
Dave and I interact on Facebook. We have similar liberal ideas on politics and society. I find it interesting we were both raised in conservative environments but ended up with left-leaning ideals. He has strong ties to his family and we’re essentially friends with a curious interest in one another. I look forward to seeing him again later this year.
We Make and Break the Bonds
One of the wonderful things about life is you can choose your family. You can stay happily nestled in the one you’re born into or you can go about making a new one. You can do a little of both.
A family is love, support, and also some people you maybe don’t like or don’t really talk to. Family are the people you need when your life gets turned upside down and they are occasionally the people who did the turning. Sometimes they pop up out of nowhere, but you can choose who you let in and who gets to stay.
The family I have now is the best possible one I can make and I love them all.
However, we are taking new applications via Ancestry.com.
Brian Abbey writes about relationships, travel, society, and how people get lost in all three. His work has appeared in Vice, Salon, Points in Case, and the odd humor site.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.