No-one really likes to think about their parents having sex, but you figure they did and here you are. As disturbing as that thought might be, the idea that they didn't and you're actually someone else's kid—and were never told—is much worse.
Genetic mix-ups (where your dad's not your genetic dad) can be very messy, and are probably a lot more common than you think. For years there had been speculation that Prince Harry's dad was a fellow ginger and secret lover of his late mum, Princess Diana. Khloe Kardashian has also been plagued with rumours for years that her father is OJ Simpson.
Gossip columns aside—and we couldn't possibly comment on these two cases—how often do parental snafus actually happen? The rate of genetic mix-ups has been fiercely debated with some men's rights groups arguing that the rate could be as high as 10 percent. The New Zealand Law Commission has done the research and estimates the rate is likely to be around 1.8 percent.
The rate may seem pretty tiny, but apply it to the population of New Zealand and the number of people whose dad isn't who they think works out to be around 80,000. That's the population of Palmerston North.
So logistically speaking how does the wrong dad end up on the 80,000 birth certificates? Maybe mum had sex with two guys around the same time, got pregnant, and wasn't too sure who the father is so she takes a guess but gets it wrong. Or maybe she had an affair with a guy from work/former flame/one night stand and told her current partner he's the father, but turns out he ain't.
Women are under no clear legal obligation to tell their child or the men involved the truth.
The truth (or at least doubts) about who's the "real" dad may come up in various ways. As the kid grows up and increasingly bears no resemblance to him, questions might be asked. Another family member who's in on the secret might spill the beans or the mum might fess up. On the flipside, the truth may never come out—women are under no clear legal obligation to tell their child or the men involved the truth or even raise doubts. There's also no way to tell what percentage of kids actually find out and at what stage in their lives.
24-year-old Georgina Lawton (no relation) has written about her experience of discovering that her father wasn't her genetic father shortly after he died in 2015. "My mother admitted it was an entirely selfish act not to tell me I was born of a one night stand; she didn't want my non-genetic dad to leave her. But admittedly, he must have known something was up because I didn't look like anyone in my family—and he still didn't walk out."
Georgina recently saw a therapist to help her come to terms with her paternity revelation, which she says really helped. "He told me he was surprised I wasn't battling any addictions as an adult as I'd grown up without a really solid identity. He said that showed him my family upbringing was probably pretty loving and supportive other than the weight of the lie I'd had to bear for 23 years. So, I guess in a way I was lucky that my parents were great other than that colossal fuck-up."
If you have suspicions you are part of the 80,000 strong cohort, modern science can offer some answers. DIY DNA tests you can do at home and mail in to a lab start at about $345 but if you want verified results from New Zealand's only accredited lab you're looking at around $1125.
Once you know where you stand genetics wise, there may be some legal consequences depending on how your non-genetic father takes the news.
Rachael Dewar, a family lawyer for almost 30 years has seen men react in a variety of ways after finding out the truth. "Some men are upset or angry and want nothing to do with the child or the child's mother," says Dewar. "Men in this situation also have the option of applying for a declaration from the Family Court which means they are no longer legally the child's father and liable to pay child support."
A spokesperson from IRD told VICE that men are also able to apply for a refund of child support they have previously paid.
At the other end of the spectrum, men who have formed a strong bond with the kid can react very differently, particularly if the child is older. "These men are usually also very upset over what's happened but they want to stay the father's child in a legal sense", says Dewar. "This means have shared care of the child, provide financial support, leave them an inheritance in their will, the whole lot. Some are also terrified that the mother will try to cut them out of the child's life if their relationship with her has broken down."
"Despite the lies, secrecy, shame or guilt that you may have uncovered, you are still the same person."
Now living in New York to have a fresh start and process this life changing discovery, I asked Georgina what advice she has for others in similar situations. "I would say it's important to stay grounded and remember that despite the lies, secrecy, shame or guilt that you may have uncovered, you are still the same person. Talking about the issue is key, whether it's with friends or the family member who betrayed you, because there aren't many resources out there for helping people come to terms with misattributed paternity."
"You'll feel as if you've been robbed of experiences, and certain relationships, and your identity, which of course you have been in one way or another. But you also have to look at the strength of those relationships that you still have. Take time to be furious, to get the answers you want, to work out how you feel. Then ask yourself; is this forgivable? Can I move past this? Am I going to let it change the course of my life from here onwards? If your relationships were solid enough before or during the lie, you can and will endure it. If you decide no, you're not going to get over this, find someone to talk about it with anyway."
And what advice does she have for mothers who have doubts? "I would say that mothers should remember that the actions they take on this issue will have lasting consequences for the relationship with their child and other relatives in their life. If you lie and it comes out later on years down the line, there's every chance that relationship with your kid and other family members will never get over it. Is it really worth that? If you're going to lie about paternity, you better make sure you are the best damn parent in every other way because it will deeply affect the child in one way or another, no matter how you try to convince yourself otherwise."
Zoë Lawton is a family law researcher. Follow her on Facebook or Instagram .
Author's note: Have you discovered that your father wasn't who you thought? Or your kid wasn't genetically yours? Or you're a mum with regrets? Please get in touch if you'd like to share your story anonymously for a book on misattributed paternity aimed at helping others affected by this issue.