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How families are made

It’s a common problem posed to anyone who works with DNA.

A test result arrives and the results are a surprise.

It turns out that the surname we treasure and are so proud of was very different back just a few generations.

Or a man we knew as a beloved grandfather turns out not to share any DNA with us.

Or even that the man who raised us and who we called Dad isn’t biologically related at all.

And the questions flow.

“Does that mean I’m not really a Smith?”

“Does that mean he’s not my grandfather any more?”

“Then he’s not my Dad?”

The sense of loss is palpable.


Back up here.

The Legal Genealogist suggests that we put this whole DNA thing into perspective.


In genealogical research, DNA has one purpose and one purpose only: it helps give us evidence we can use to establish biological relationships.

It doesn’t — can’t — won’t ever — tell us one single thing about something that’s a whole lot more important.

It doesn’t tell us about families. Or about how families are and have been made for generations.

Consider for example that surname. Maybe YDNA tells us that even though we call ourselves Smith, some generations back the surname was Jones.

That’s the biology, sure. But how did we become Smith? Was it because, some generations back, a child’s parents died and the child was taken in by the Smiths, raised as a Smith and never knew anything else but being a Smith? Or perhaps because the child’s father died, the mother remarried to a Smith, and the child took the surname of the stepfather who raised the child and gave the child the Smith family traditions to carry on as his own?

Are we really any less Smiths than those who carry the bloodline, but moved away, forgot the family traditions, maybe even fell out with their kin and rejected everything and anything to do with being Smiths?

In the more recent generations, I submit that how a man came to be known as a grandfather or a father matters even less than how our surname was changed. What matters much more than what genes we do or don’t share is whether that grandfather took our hands and walked with us, taught us to fish, shared his sense of humor, told us he was proud of us, told us he loved us. Whether the man we called Dad really was a Dad: who changed our diapers, taught us to walk and ride a bicycle, sat with us when we were fevered, attended school plays and graduations, walked us down the aisle.

Are those men really any less treasured members of our family? If they truly acted as father and grandfather, does a DNA test force us to give them up?


When DNA tells us there’s someone else to whom we have a genetic relationship, it only gives us a new set of biological relatives. It doesn’t take away the families we have now.

Because DNA can’t ever tell us how families are made.

Families are so much more than inherited blood.

Families are constructs of the heart.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “What DNA can’t tell us,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 16 Feb 2020).

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