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I Found Out I Had 17 Siblings When I Was 39. Here's What That's Really Like

February 20, 2018

The past year of my life has felt like some combination of an Oprah special and a binge-worthy Netflix series. I was born and raised as a (very proud) only child. My parents divorced when I was young, and although both remarried, neither ever had any other children of their own. My dad was married a total of five times, so I've had plenty of step-siblings—but not any blood relations as far as I knew.

Fast-forward to May of 2017, and in one click, my whole identity changed. After sending in DNA samples to learn more about my ancestry, I finally got results— and one click later I opened a Pandora’s box of siblings and went from an only child to a 39-year-old woman who had 17 siblings I didn't know about.

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Let me back up here, because I know I just plopped you into the season finale of Season 2 of my life, and you still need to catch up on Season 1, so allow me to give you some backstory.

Learning about my biological father at age 27.

When I was 27, my mom revealed to me that my dad was not actually my biological father. Minor detail. As it turns out, my paraplegic father could not have kids. I had never questioned it, because really—who wants to know how they were conceived? And it's even more of a "nope" when you don’t remember your parents being a couple.

As it turned out, I had been conceived via sperm donor. Learning that your dad is not your dad when you're 27 is overwhelming and weird—almost as weird as thinking about this mysterious, anonymous donor who helped give you life but is no longer in your life. I had to sit with that information for a while and let it slowly absorb into my reality. I never really thought about the fact that there could be others just like me out there in the world, let alone just a city or two away.

Every once in a while, I would try to imagine what this donor’s ethnicity was or what health issues might be in his history. It sounds morbid, but multiple degrees in public health created an increased curiosity and concern about my health history and thus the donor’s. I had also been dealing with some minor health issues, which was what had led me to ask my mom enough questions that she couldn’t keep the secret any longer.

It was this desire to know more about my health history that led me to 23andMe in October of 2013. While this was not really the "early days" of the company, it was definitely on the earlier end of it being commonplace. I don’t remember much about doing the test or getting the results; all I remember is that it wasn’t a huge reveal of information I didn’t already know. I could easily see where my mom’s Mexican ancestry showed up as a combination of southern European and Native American. The rest was Eastern European from what I remember, but I really didn’t pay much attention. I don’t remember any close relatives showing up at that point. The little bit of health information didn’t have any glaring issues or anything worth investigating further. I closed the site and don’t remember ever going back to it with the exception of participating in a few research studies (as a former academic, I can’t turn my back on research studies).

I remember getting emails that I just deleted along with every other email list and newsletter message I received with the exception of those research studies. But that is all I remember doing with 23andMe for the next four years. Even looking back in my inbox, I still have my initial emails about my test in 2013, an email about a research study in 2016 and nothing again until the email that I got after the infamous Pandora’s click.

It started with a random conversation with my stepdad.

It was Mother’s Day of 2017, and my stepdad mentioned 23andMe in a random conversation we were having. I remember saying, "Oh, I should go back and look at that now that they've gotten so much bigger." I didn’t know that my world had also gotten much bigger. I logged on that night and realized I was listed as anonymous. I changed my name to Shauna H, clicked "save," and closed the window. Anything I saw went right over my head. Call it denial, call it obliviousness, call it, "Who thinks to look for a litter of siblings?" I just didn’t think about it.

The next day, I received an email through the site from a man who, treading lightly so as not to frighten me, said the now infamous words: "It looks like we are related." Like a tiny unassuming thread that got pulled in the most perfectly troublesome way, everything unraveled into a big mess that no longer resembled anything I could recognize. I had at least seven donor siblings, with a few other potentials who were also listed as anonymous. Most of the donor siblings were in contact with one another via a secret Facebook group to protect privacy, and many had met in person.

That was back in May. As of today, there are 18 of us. I say "as of today" because it's always a question in my mind when the next sibling will appear. "Oh, by the way, I have a new sibling" is something I actually say regularly.

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Getting to know my siblings.

Our largest gathering to date included eight of us at my house just staring at each other, playing with Face Swap to see how much/which features were similar. This is one of the craziest parts to me: We look alike. I mean, of course we do! We share about one-fourth of our DNA. But imagine growing up and never really having people you look like other than your mom and mom's side of the family, and now there are all these people who look nothing like my mom’s side but very much like me. It’s mind-blowing.

By far the most amazing and yet inexplicable part of this is the instant connection that I feel to my siblings. As someone who has many friends who are essentially adopted siblings, I never felt like I missed out on this kind of interaction. But you never know what you don’t know. Clearly, I will never know what it is like to grow up with siblings in my household. Meeting a sibling for the first time as an adult yields an indescribable feeling of connection that not everyone gets to experience. Meeting siblings who have lived their own version of this donor-conceived life adds an extra layer of surprising comfort.

Although this series is already a few episodes into Season 3, this is what I can say that I have realized thus far about finding all these donor siblings: You have shared experiences even though you never actually shared them together. You have shared DNA even though you never shared a parent. You feel like you know them even though you don’t. You feel like you were meant to meet even though you likely weren’t.

You feel like you are family because you are.

Intrigued by Shauna's story? Read up on why movement is her cure-all.

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Shauna Harrison, Ph.D.
Shauna Harrison, Ph.D.

Shauna Harrison, Ph.D., is the creator of Muscle Flow, Adjunct Associate at Jonhs Hopkins, and fitness teacher. A graduate of Stanford, UCLA and Johns Hopkins, she simultaneously pursued academics and fitness obtaining her Ph.D. in Public Health and teaching fitness classes across the country. Through her unique style and authenticity that blends her love for hip hop, wellness, yoga and knowledge of public health, Harrison has created a brand of her own, making her one of the most influential fitness profiles on Instagram and sought after partner for leading brands.

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