Category Archives: For Late Discovery Adoptees only

My thoughts on being a late discovery adoptee

Adoptee’s Journey: Reuniting with Blood Relatives

As an adoptee, I’ve been on a journey to uncover the truth about my original family. As I look back on 2015, meeting my sister, Michelle, and niece, Chrissy, stand out as high points.

Adoptee reunites with biological family
The reunion came about after many phone calls. During those calls, Michelle spoke candidly about her childhood, revealing the unvarnished truth about growing up as the only girl, with three brothers, a beloved father, Dick, and Lillian, our hard drinking, hard living bipolar mother who struggled to keep everything together. They all lived in a modest house in Northbrook, a leafy suburb 35 miles north of the bungalow where I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago. Without going into all the details, Michelle survived a lot of hard knocks.

Planning the trip and traveling to my sister’s town, Galveston, Texas, felt exciting and unsettling, I was not the only nervous one. Michelle and Chrissy were as jittery about meeting me as I was about meeting them but as soon as they saw me, they welcomed me. Michelle was outside her house, smoking a cigarette, waiting for me as I drove up in my rental car. We looked each other up and down and then we hugged. Chrissy and I hugged. The three of us headed out for lunch at the Golden Corral.

Blood relatives: my sister, Michelle, center, and niece, Chrissy on the right
Blood relatives: I met my sister, Michelle, center, and niece, Chrissy, on the right, for the first time in 2015. For a late-discovery adoptee like me, it was very exciting.

Eating, shopping for trinkets, looking at family photos and gabbing, lots of gabbing, made the awkwardness go away. We had a good day together.

Michelle is the closest relative I’ve found since I started searching for family. Meeting her in person was cool. I wanted to have a face to connect with the friendly voice on the phone. Four and a half years older and several inches shorter than me, Michelle describes herself as a tomboy. People at the restaurant and gift shop came over to chat with my sister, who loves to talk.

Were we full or half sisters? During the visit, Michelle took a DNA test, which I had purchased for her. The test results established that we were half sisters with different fathers. That’s what Michelle had told me all along but I wanted proof.

It’s exciting to find a new sister. Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test and Ancestry’s DNA test have turned up hundreds of cousins who are somehow related to me and while it’s interesting to know I have so many relatives out there, it’s not nearly as thrilling as finding a sister.

Search angel helps adoptee find blood relatives
I found Michelle with the help of Marilyn Waugh, a wonderful search angel who tracked down family on my birth mother Lillian’s side. I also played detective. My husband, Tom, and I pored over records including obituaries which were available online. I made many phone calls and was able to track down Michelle’s stepmother, Jeannie, who put me in touch with Michelle.

Michelle called me first. “I’ve always known about you,” she said in her flat, Midwestern accent.

Finding a sister, hearing her voice on the phone and realizing she had known about me for most of her life while I was discovering her for the first time made my head spin. I don’t remember what I said – it was very awkward – but that’s how it all began.

You’re Adopted: The Moment of Truth

It hurts to find out, as an adult, that you were adopted.

Every late discovery adoptee’s moment of truth is delivered differently but there’s no way to sugarcoat it. The blow may come in a relatively gentle way as it did for me. Thirteen years ago, my sister, Melissa, called me one evening. “You and I were both adopted,” she said very matter-of-factly, with no tears or anger in her voice. (Melissa and I both hate drama.) MeIissa, who suspected we had been adopted, confirmed it with our cousin, Gina, who had been adopted by a couple who were close friends with our parents.

I was stunned. I felt betrayed by my parents who never so much as hinted at the possibility that I was not their biological daughter.

My parents, Claire and Bob, and me on my wedding day
My parents, Claire and Bob, and me on my wedding day

They fooled me and now I felt foolish. Here I was, married, a mother, 38 years old and finding out for the first time that I had been adopted. Mom and Dad were both in their 50s when I was born and baby Melissa arrived 14 months later so I should have figured it out on my own. I was no detective, despite having devoured Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries as a girl growing up the 1960s and ‘70s.

Mom and Dad were both deceased. I would never be able to ask them about my beginnings. I would never know how difficult it was to bring me into the world or whether I was born by C-section or the natural way. Did Mom and Dad meet my biological parents? I would never know the whole story. My genes, family history, ethnic identity and everything else I thought was mine was lost. All the interesting stories about my grandparents, aunts, uncle and the cousins on Mom’s side of the family didn’t belong to me anymore. Poof! Just like that, it was gone.

I’ve learned that my discovery, though painful, was far less dramatic than other adoptees’ stories.

At the age of 52, Darlene Coyne found out about her adoption in a brutal and unexpected encounter with her mother, a woman she loved dearly. Darlene’s 21-year-old daughter wanted to know about the family’s medical history. At a family gathering, the daughter, who has bipolar disorder, pushed her grandmother for information, knowing there was some history of mental illness on her side of the family. Darlene’s mother was tight-lipped, revealing nothing.

Grandmother and granddaughter had a rocky relationship. It wasn’t the first time Darlene’s daughter had bugged her grandmother with questions about mental illness and the older woman was fed up with the questions.

“I have something to tell you,” she told Darlene. “You should sit down.”

Darlene’s mother revealed that Darlene, like her siblings, was adopted. “I adopted you also—so she (Darlene’s daughter) can quit blaming my family for her mental illness,” she told Darlene.

What a way to find out you’re adopted. Darlene was shocked and deeply wounded. Her mother never apologized to Darlene for lying about the adoption or being so callous in revealing the truth. Though Darlene eventually forgave her mother, their relationship was never the same.

Every late discovery adoptee’s moment of truth is unique. I’d love to know how you found out you were adopted. Tell your stories in the comments.

Ethnic Identity: Part 2

Here it is St. Patrick’s Day. What an ironic time to learn I may not be all that Irish.

As I checked my email on the subway last week, I saw the message from Ancestry. “Your Ancestry DNA results are in!” Excited, I opened the message, and clicked on the analysis of my ethnic makeup. Much to my surprise, Ancestry estimates my Irish-ness to be merely 18 percent. About two-thirds of my ancestry can be traced back to England, Scotland and Wales.

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Ancestry’s ethnicity estimate

A while ago, I wrote about discovering and embracing my Irish roots after going through life assuming my ancestors came from Poland and Germany. This is a common phenomenon for late discovery adoptees. We grow up believing what our parents tell us and find out, as adults, that the truth is something entirely different.

My Polish-German identity started to crumble once I learned, at age 38, that I was adopted but I didn’t stop seeing myself as Polish and German until a DNA test made it official.

Family Tree DNA presents the information in a different format
Family Tree DNA’s ethnic breakdown

I also confirmed my heritage, or so I thought, with blood relatives. Chatting with my biological sister, Michelle, who told me our mother, Lillian was Irish, and talking to a family genealogist who suggested our family’s oldest known ancestor was an indentured servant from Ireland who immigrated to Maryland in the 1700s, left me convinced I was at least 50 percent Irish.

Of course, not knowing anything about my father and his relatives leaves a big hole in my story.

Also, the science of determining ethnic origins is evolving. DNA test companies can only provide estimates of ethnicity so I’m not going to read too much into those percentages from Ancestry. Besides, being English, Scottish and Welsh isn’t all that different from being Irish, right?

Have you heard conflicting things about your roots? I’d love to hear your stories.

Adoptees: Insiders or Outsiders?

I told you about my odd childhood, how I grew up feeling like an outsider  in my family. Well it turns out I’m in good company. Many adoptees feel the same way, based on the comments I heard from my Facebook friends who are adopted.

I guess I hit a nerve. Many readers said they also felt like they did not belong to their families, even when they were wanted, cared for, protected and loved, like I was, by their adoptive parents. Of course we also don’t belong to our original families.

The house where Lillian raised her family
I felt like an outsider gazing at the house in Northbrook, Illinois where my birth mother, Lillian,  lived with her husband and four children.

Each one of us has a unique story. Some adoptees grew up knowing they’re adopted and feeling second class compared to their parents’ biological children.

Some were told by their parents to never tell anyone they were adopted. In other words, being adopted is really bad and you better keep your mouth shut about it. What does that do for anybody’s self worth?

Like me, some people never knew as children that their parents adopted them. We grew up feeling different, not like our parents at all, and not knowing the truth, which could have explained the feeling of not fitting in.

While the comments from my fellow “outsiders” were plentiful, I also heard from a handful of people who completely disagreed. They said they never, ever felt like outsiders in the family. How is that possible? Since I can’t identify with the insiders, I can only speculate on how they and their parents pulled this feat off (and try very hard not to feel envious).

A few questions for those of you who don’t suffer from the outsider complex:

ŸŸ  Did your parents bend over backwards to make sure you felt at home in their home? How did they manage to do that?

ŸŸ  Did they tell you the truth about how you joined the family?

Ÿ  Did your aunts, uncles and cousins treat you like one of their own?

Ÿ Ÿ  What would you tell potential adoptive parents who want to make sure their adoptive child feels like a real member of the family?

I would love to hear your stories.

 

Adoptees as Outsiders

I’m an outsider.

I never felt like I belonged to my family. My adoptive parents, Claire and Bob, were old enough to be my grandparents, unusual for sure, and while they both came from big families, with lots of brothers and sisters, we rarely saw the extended family. I never knew my father’s family – they were from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I also didn’t feel very connected to my aunts, uncles and cousins on my mother’s side I only saw them at wakes, funerals, showers and weddings, never on holidays.

Claire and Bob loved me and I loved them, but they didn’t understand me. I spent too much time reading books in my bedroom. My parents wondered, what’s up with Lynne? All she does is read. They were not bookworms and I devoured books. I even read the dictionary for fun. I seemed a little strange to them and they seemed like fairly odd parents to me.

I knew there was something different about my family. A savvier girl would have done the math, figured out the truth and confronted her parents. “Am I adopted?” I never asked that question. My head was someplace else, probably in a book. As my second grade teacher noted,  “Lynne is in her own little world.”

My sister, Melissa, asked questions after Claire and Bob passed away and that’s how we found out we were adopted. What a strange thing for me to discover at the age of 38. I sat on the bombshell for years. Occasionally I wondered who my original parents were, if I had other brothers and sisters, but I wasn’t ready to dig deeper, and learn truths about my first family. About three years ago, I started poking around.

My birth mother, Lillian
My birth mother, Lillian
The house where Lillian raised her family
The house where Lillian raised her family in Northbrook

Recently I made a trip to Northbrook to see the house that would have been my childhood home if I had not been adopted.  Gazing at the gray and white house, on the grassy suburban lot, I wondered what it would have been like to grow up there. I can’t imagine my sister and three brothers, my birth mother, Lillian, and her husband, Dick, squeezed in that little house. How did they manage to live there and not explode? No, there wouldn’t have been space for me in that house.  I would have been child number 5.

I felt uncomfortable on Alice Drive, taking pictures of Lillian’s home. I don’t belong here, I thought, aiming my camera lens to capture a shot of the front door.

I can imagine all of my parents, Claire, Bob, Lillian and Bio Dad echoing my thoughts. “Get lost, you don’t belong here, you’re an outsider.”

Actually, feeling like I don’t belong is a running theme in my life. I’ve felt that way with my husband’s sisters. Listening as they recalled funny stories from their childhood, I smiled politely but could not share the memories that only siblings who grew up together have.

I also felt out of place in Virginia, where my husband an I lived for a few years in the 1990s. The natives would ask me where I was from and I’d tell them, Chicago. Oh no, a Yankee from the tough city of Chicago, no less. Seriously, that’s the reaction I got a couple of times. I almost felt like I needed to apologize for being from Chicago or at least stick up for my hometown.

I feel like an outsider when I’m with certain people who are not adopted. Adoptees know what I’m talking about.  Spend time with people who take their family history for granted. They have deep roots. They have big family get-togethers, even reunions. They know which countries their ancestors came from and have family trees fleshed out on both sides. They cannot imagine the oddness of having adoptive parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins – people with whom you have no biological ties — and a separate set of blood relatives, some of whom you discover for the first time as an adult.

Fortunately, there are places where I feel completely at home. I love living in New York City, the ultimate destination for outsiders. You can be from anywhere, you can have a weird story or a strange accent and nobody thinks anything of it.

I feel comfortable with my cousins who I’ve gotten to know better since beginning this adoption search. We see each other occasionally, talk on the phone and stay in touch on Facebook. We are making up for lost time.

Another place where I feel like I belong is inside Melissa’s warm, welcoming home in the suburbs south of Chicago. Melissa and I are not blood sisters but we grew up together, played, argued and bonded over Claire’s kielbasa and pot roast. We are closer than many biological sisters. Maybe it helps that we are not related.

 

Questions About Identity Never End for Adoptees

My friend, Mary, sent me a link to Laura Skandera Trombley’s wonderful article about the identity questions that adoptees wrestle with every day.

“I saw this story and immediately thought of you,” Mary wrote.

Skandera Trombley, who is a college president, talks about the questions adoptees have about their first families, the circumstances that led to adoption, biological ancestors, ethnic roots and medical histories.  Like me, Skandera Trombley was adopted in the 1960s.

“I was born during a cruel time for the adopted; the 1960s was an era when such transactions were considered “closed,” and basic information was routinely and legally withheld,” Skandera Trombley wrote. “And yet I cannot escape or pretend to ignore my past. It walks with me every day.”

Unlike me, Skandera Trombley knew early on that she was adopted. She also learned that being adopted was not something you dropped in casual conversations with people outside your immediate family. When people asked her where she got her pretty red hair, rather than saying “I’m adopted,” Skandera Trombley’s adoptive mom advised her to tell people that she had a red-haired aunt who lived in New York.

I can identify with Skandera Trombley’s fierce attachment to her name. Miller is my adopted father’s surname, the only name I’ve ever had and the name I intend to keep for the rest of my life. When I got married, there was never any question that I would continue being a Miller. I liked having a name that’s short, simple, easy to pronounce and spell. More important, my maiden name is part of my original identity, the name readers see when they read my articles. My name is my name. Like Skandera Trombley, I don’t want anyone messing with it.

I thought I knew who I was and where I came from until that day 11 years ago when I found out I was adopted. My identity suddenly felt like it was up for grabs. Some man other than Bob Miller actually fathered me? Claire Miller was not my real mother? Was I not really a Miller? Was I something other than Polish and German? Why didn’t my parents tell me I was adopted? How could I have been so stupid to have not figured this out years ago?

I’m still wrestling with some of those questions. Having searched for my blood relatives through DNA testing and old-fashioned record checking, I know who my biological mother was, why she gave me up for adoption and my ethnic heritage. I have filled in many names on my family tree but it’s still only half a tree. My mother and her relatives are represented but my father and his relatives are nowhere to be found.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard
Was Lillian part Cherokee?

These days I wonder what my last name would be if my biological father had raised me. Will I ever find out that name and other basic facts about the man who (perhaps unknowingly) brought me into the world?

“I learned a hard lesson: For the adopted, coming to terms with one’s identity is a lifelong struggle,” Skandera Trombley wrote.

That’s one way to look at it. It’s true that learning about my original family and their challenges has brought tears to my eyes. It’s been very sobering. Still, I don’t feel like I’m struggling, exactly. I am learning the truth about my origins and I’m taking the good with the bad. Truth is good. I can handle occasional jabs of painful truth. Just don’t lie to me, please.

Last week, I discovered two distant cousins who only recently found out they are related to one another as uncle and niece. Pat and Sheryl live in Oklahoma, a state I’ve never visited, one that’s known for its huge population of mixed-blood and full-blooded Native Americans. Pat has an Irish or Scottish surname but he is as he put it a “card-carrying Native American.” He and Sheryl have Native American roll numbers.

How intriguing! Now that I’ve found blood relatives with Indian ancestry, I’m wondering again about my heritage. My DNA test didn’t turn up any Indian blood. In fact, my ethnic background is more than 98 percent Western European, according to Family Tree DNA. I’m definitely Irish, possibly English and Scottish. But I’ve heard stories about my birth mother, Lillian, teaching her other children an Indian rain dance, according to my sister, Sissy. Rumor has it Lillian was part Cherokee. Could I have trace amounts of Native American blood from way back when?

These are the kinds of questions that I turn over in my head. I guess you could say my identity is a work in progress, a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces.

The Bombshell: How I Found Out I was Adopted

My parents were long gone when I found out, at age 38, that I was adopted.  My sister, Melissa, called and dropped the bombshell. I was stunned, saddened and basically dazed by this revelation. Of course it raised all sorts of questions. Who were my birth parents? Why did my birth mother give me up for adoption? Was she still alive? Were Melissa and I biological sisters? Did I have other brothers and sisters out there somewhere? What’s my ethnic background? What’s in my medical history? Things I had taken for granted about my identity were suddenly up for grabs.  My slender fingers, thin build, Roman nose – I thought I got those features from my father, who was small, thin as a rail with a nose that resembled a beak. Blue eyes, fair skin and curly hair of course came from my mother. “You look just like your mother,” my cousin told me at the lunch that followed Mom’s funeral.

Nobody likes being lied to. I wish my parents had told me the truth. If they couldn’t bear to talk about it, they could have at least left a letter or something for me to read upon their deaths. Not a word. No adoption paperwork. Nothing. They took the secret to their graves.

I am sure my mother and father had their reasons for not divulging the truth. I can’t entirely chalk up their secrecy to the different world of the 1960s, when Melissa and I were born. Gina, who is about the same age as my sister and me, was also adopted. Her parents, my godparents who were good friends with our parents,  told Gina the truth about her origins and also told her about Melissa and my adoptions.  The three of us were all adopted around the same time.

Bullies have been known to hurl “You’re adopted!” at other kids on the playground. Even today, some people think  adopted children are somehow not as “good” or authentic as biological offspring. I suspect my mom and dad kept quiet because they didn’t want my sister and me to feel any less loved than any child being raised by birth parents.

Personally I think it’s better for parents to be straight with their adopted children. My good friend, Lucia, told her boys they were adopted when they were 1 ½ and 3 ½ years old. “That’s what the experts advise, too,” Lucia says. “Then the kids accept it as normal.”

The American Adoption Congress  supports openness. This non-profit advocacy group has worked to change laws to make it easier for adoptees to get access to formerly sealed adoption records.  For moral support, there’s also a Facebook group for people who, like me, found out later in life they were adopted.

family tree for blog