Missing Fathers

I grew up with a father who read me stories at night, played tennis with me, drove me to piano lessons, taught me to drive and did all the other things good fathers do for their children. Still, Bob Miller wasn’t my biological dad. As an adoptee, I wonder who that man is and what I inherited from him.

question marks photo

Kara Sundlun’s amazing story of connecting with her bio dad stirred me up. Though she didn’t have the benefit of having him in her life as a child, Kara always knew his name. When Kara actually met her father, he didn’t exactly welcome her with open arms but he did not reject her either. It took a paternity suit to get Bruce Sundlun, the governor of Rhode Island, to acknowledge Kara’s place in his life. As a young adult, Kara moved into her dad’s home, bonded with her half-brothers and ultimately grew to love and forgive the man who was absent during her childhood.

I never had a chance to know Lillian, my birth mother, and it seems likely I’ll never know my bio father either. In my heart, I believe he’s dead. If my father was anything like Lillian, he burned the candle at both ends and died many years ago.

I envy Kara Sundlun. How fortunate Kara was to know her father’s name and to have a father who did the right thing in the end by welcoming her into his life. Kara got the answers to her questions and enjoyed a good relationship with her dad. It doesn’t get much better than that.

You can read more in Kara’s memoir, “Finding Dad: From ‘Love Child’ to Daughter.”

What’s in a Name?

I am preoccupied with names. As an adoptee of course, I wonder what my name would have been if I had been raised by both of my natural parents.

I could have been a Winter had I grown up with Lillian and her husband as parents. Winter sounds kind of elegant, less common than Miller and not a name you associate with beer. (My high school geometry teacher used to greet me by saying “It’s Miller time.” That’s all I remember about geometry.)

Winter wasn’t my natural father. I think bio dad was some other guy, a nameless, faceless fellow who may remain a mystery to me forever.

Every time I log into my Family Tree DNA account, I look for new names among my living cousins and their ancestors. My bio father’s surname is in here somewhere but how to find it? Could he be a Smith, a Jones or a Wilson? Those are the top three surnames among my DNA matches.

Is my bio dad's name here?
Is my bio dad’s name here?

One of my new cousins contacted me recently. She comes from a family with many Millers and wanted to know about me. Bob Miller was my father but he adopted me so we don’t have any biological connection, at least not one I know about.

I have at least eight Millers among my DNA matches. If everyone explored their ancestry long enough, wouldn’t we all find at least a handful of Millers in the family? Seems likely. But wouldn’t it be funny if I found out there actually was a bio connection between me and Bob?

Either way, I like having a name that’s easy to say and spell. Miller reminds me of my wonderful father, the dad who drove me to school, played tennis with me and helped me learn to drive. Miller sounds friendlier and more approachable than Winter, don’t you think? Winter reminds me of Rebecca de Winter from the 1940 Hitchcock movie, Rebecca. The late Mrs. de Winter was beautiful and glamorous but more than a touch cold.

Myths and Truths About Birth Mothers

Elle Cuardaigh’s thought-provoking piece about birth mothers and stereotypes reminded me of the day I found out who my birth mother was.

Before I knew the facts, I assumed my mother had been really young and naïve when she got pregnant with me. Not true. Lillian was a 28-year-old married woman when she gave birth to me in Skokie, Illinois in the 1960s.

Married? If she had been married, why would she have given me up for adoption? Married women don’t do that. My husband, Tom, and I figured she must have been lying about her marital status to make herself seem more respectable.

We were dead wrong. Turns out Lillian was indeed married, the mother of four young children. Her husband was convinced I was not his child so he ordered Lillian to give me up which she did. Not long after that, Lillian and Dick split up and she remarried a few years later.

My birth mother, Lillian, was a married mother of four when she had me
My birth mother, Lillian, was a married mother of four when she had me

I found out more surprising things about Lillian’s life including the fact that she had attended college, something my parents had never achieved. Birth moms are asking, “why is that surprising?”  Forgive me for making assumptions.

Searching for the truth about my birth parents has opened my eyes to so many truths, myths and lies about adoption. It would be an understatement to call adoption complicated. Every adoptee, birth mom and adoptive parent has a unique story.

Way back when I was a journalism student, I learned the folly of making assumptions. “If you a-s-s-u-m-e, you make an ass of you and me.”

I no longer make assumptions about the parents who brought me into the world or for that matter, the parents who raised me. That would be stupid.  I think it’s safe to assume the longer I pursue the truth about my roots, the more surprises I’ll turn up.

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.


Sisterly Love

Feeling like an outsider is par for the course if you’re adopted. At least that’s what I heard from many other adoptees who like me never felt like they belonged in their families.

I grew up with parents who never understood me and vice versa. We had nothing in common or at least that’s how it seemed. That’s not to say I didn’t love Bob and Claire – my dad’s upbeat personality and my mother’s potato salad made a lasting impression. I knew they loved me even when I smashed up the car, dated guys they didn’t like or stayed out too late. Still, I never had a heart-to-heart conversation with my mother or father. They never tried to get too deeply inside my head and I kept my feelings to myself.

While I didn’t feel I fit in as their daughter, I never doubted my relationship with my sister, Melissa.

Even though we were both adopted (and didn’t know it), we were like flesh and blood sisters. We had our special code – knock three times to summon your sister to your room for a gripe session. We rode bikes together, played ring-and-run on Chicago’s southwest side and made prank phone calls. We got into fights that sometimes involved scratching and played a memorable game of tag that resulted in Melissa needing to have her eyelid stitched up. We watched our parents bicker.

Over more than 20 years of living under the same roof, we shared the good, the bad and everything in between.

Melissa was my maid of honor
Melissa was my maid of honor

We went our separate ways as adults but we’re still close. Melissa and I live in different states, live very different lives but talk on the phone or text several times a week. I know what Melissa and I have is as good as it gets with brothers and sisters.

When I visit Melissa and her family, I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel at home.

My first mother, Lillian, was also close to her non-biological sister. When Lillian was a girl living in rural Indiana, the social service authorities split up her large (that’s 12 kids) and impoverished family. Lillian was sent to live with a new family and Donna became her little sister. Actually, Donna was several years younger than Lillian so Lillian took care of her much like a mother would take care of her child.

When I talked to Donna last year, she spoke gently and lovingly about Lillian, her sister in every way but for blood.

They say blood is thicker than water but I don’t know if that’s true. Sisterly love doesn’t require a blood connection. At least not for me.

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.


My Birth Mother’s House

What would it have been like to grow up in my birth mother’s home? I will never really know, but perhaps I can get an inkling by seeing it. On a trip to Chicago, I take a swing through the northern suburbs to get a taste of what could have been.

I feel anxious, uneasy on the Metra train to Northbrook. My son, Jake, and I are going to see Lillian’s home — the house where I would have lived if Lillian had not given me up for adoption.

At the Northbrook train station, we jump in a cab. Our driver takes us to Alice Drive, a nice, quiet, leafy road with an odd mix of newish McMansions and small older homes. Lillian’s old house is a modest but tidy two-story gray and white home with dormered windows upstairs. The mature trees and shrubs in the front yard make the house look tiny. Behind the house, there’s a big backyard with a well-tended lawn. A mansion across the street and another large, imposing home to the immediate left make Lillian’s home look dinky.


Lillian’s old home where she lived with my four brothers and sister. Alice Drive  is quiet.


I start taking photos. There’s an attached garage and a central air-conditioning unit on the side of the house. I’ll bet Lillian and her family didn’t have central air conditioning in the 1960s. I can picture my brothers and sister having a blast climbing that tree.  I can see my brothers sneaking out those windows upstairs. Did Lillian or her husband, Dick, ever slam that front door after an argument? My imagination takes over.

I fantasize about the present owner of the house or an elderly neighbor approaching me.

After I explain what I’m doing, they tell me about Lillian, the lively waitress, the great cook, the unhappily married woman who was overwhelmed by the job of raising three boys and a girl.

Your mother was a lovely woman” or “what a tough chick,” or “I’ll never forget your mother’s beef stew” or “Lillian sure liked to drink”…or some new bit of information that surprises me.

Well, nothing like that happens. Perhaps the house is vacant or the owners are on vacation or sleeping. Nobody opens the blinds or the front door. I see no sign of life in the house or on the property. You could have heard a pin drop on Alice Drive. The whole block feels dead. I don’t see a soul.

Is this how it is in the suburbs? I grew up in a brick bungalow 35 miles away on the southwest side of Chicago. Neighbors hung out on their front porches. After dinner on summer evenings, my parents used to sit on the front steps and watch life go by on Sacramento Avenue. Kids played in the street. In Brooklyn, where I live now, I can look out the window at any time of day and see someone walking along my block or lingering to chat with a friend or neighbor. Brooklyn is a 24/7 kind of place, full energy. Chicago is lively too. Northbrook has a nice train station with paperback books for riders to enjoy, lovely homes on grassy lots, good public schools. But it’s too damn quiet.

I decide to trespass. What the hell, who’s going to stop me? I step on the lush lawn to take closer shots of Lillian’s old house.

This feels strange. I don’t belong here. I never lived here and I never knew the family who lived here. Many people might wonder why I’m curious about this house.

Well, I’m an adoptee on a mission of discovery. I don’t know my biological family’s complete story, only bits and pieces.  My blood relatives were like candles that burned at both ends. Two of my brothers, boys who used to play outside this house, are long gone. One committed suicide as a teenager, the other one died at 23 following an accident. Lillian was only 48 when she died in 1983. I am related by blood to the people who used to live in this house but I will always be the outsider.  That will never change.

I’ve got all the photos I need. The patient cab driver drives Jake and me back to the Metra station where we wait for the next train to downtown Chicago. My anxiety fades. I can’t wait to see my sister and fellow adoptee, Melissa, who grew up with me in that bungalow on the southwest side.

Unlike Northbrook, I will get a warm welcome when I walk in the door of Melissa’s home in the suburbs of Will County. I always feel at home in their house, which is something I never had with my biological family.

When DNA cousins play musical chairs

I check my account on Family Tree DNA  every week to see if I have a new daddy, brother, sister or first cousin. I never know who will pop up on my DNA lineup.

A couple weeks ago, I sat up straighter when I saw a new dark-haired fellow at the top of my list of matches. He is a “second to fourth generation” cousin and he occupies the No. 1 spot on my list, meaning he’s the closest relative among all my matches. Whoa! Brandon bumped cousin Susan out of the top spot. Susan had been perched at the top for months. Susan and Brandon both live in California but they don’t appear to be related to one another.

Of course, this new match intrigues me. For what it’s worth, Brandon matches me for a solid stretch of 41 pieces (cm) of chromosome 12. I Googled Brandon. I checked him out on Facebook and LinkedIn. I viewed a cute dog video he uploaded on YouTube. We exchanged friendly emails. Like many of the other cousins I’ve contacted, Brandon has no idea how we are related. Sigh.

If I were to guess, I would say Brandon and I are related on my mother, Lillian’s side.

He is related to another cousin, a distant cousin who’s a genealogist. Sharon put together a family tree for me based on what she knows about Lillian’s side of the family. But I can’t rule out the possibility that Brandon and I are linked on my dad’s side. After all, my father and mother could be distantly related to one another, which would not be as odd as it sounds.

Brandon appears to be in his 30s or 40s, an approachable-looking guy and apparently a dog lover. His approval rating went up in my book when I saw his video, featuring a sweet little dog fetching a tennis ball in a stream.

Our predicted relationship is third cousin, according to Family Tree’s chromosome browser, but I think Brandon is probably a second cousin once removed. That could mean one of his parents’ grandparents could be a sibling to one of my grandparents. But which grandparent and from which side of the family?

I took a DNA test to find family on my bio dad’s side of the family. So far, the mystery remains just that. I have no idea who he is (or was), whether he had other children, whether he even knows I exist.

That's me checking the latest DNA matches
That’s me checking the latest DNA matches

And the truth is I have done next to nothing lately to uncover my father’s identity. Adoption searches are exhausting and they suck up time. I work, I’m raising a teenager and I have two dogs who need me for daily walks and affection. I’m married, too. I don’t want the search for lost family to come at the expense of the people and critters who love me.

Still, my imagination goes into overdrive every time I open my Family Tree account. What’s tantalizing and frustrating is seeing the names and photos of matches on my screen and knowing that some of those people knew my father.

Of course, they don’t think of him as “Lynne’s father.” (I am sure my dad does not know about me or if he does, he’s pushed my existence out of his mind. I’ll bet he never told his wife/wives about me.) Maybe my DNA cousins know him as goofy Uncle Jim, the one who drank too much and told off-color jokes at family parties. Sorry, dad, I can’t picture you being a model citizen. You’ll always be a rogue in my imagination.

Every time my DNA cousins change places on my match list, I think of musical chairs. It’s not a breakthrough for an adoptee looking for bio dad and family but it keeps the DNA game interesting.

Let’s Give Adoptees Their Original Birth Certificates

If you are not adopted, you take your birth certificate for granted. It’s a piece of paper you’ve had forever, with facts about your parents and your birth that you’ve known about all your life.

But if you’re adopted, the original birth certificate is like a piece of gold. I just got mine two years ago and feel lucky to have it. Without it, I would be completely in the dark about my birth mother Lillian’s identity, which is part of my identity, too.

me and the BC best
That’s my original birth certificate

Many adopted adults can’t get their original birth certificates because of old-fashioned state laws that keep those records sealed. That’s not fair. I think other adoptees should be able to learn about their origins without having to jump through a million hoops or spend gobs of money.

I signed Sandy Musser’s petition, which would restore original birth certificates to adult adoptees. Sandy, an adoption reform activist, wants to take her petition straight to the White House. She hopes to convince President Obama to enact an executive order, which would restore the OBCs to every adult adoptee in America “in one fell swoop because it is a civil and constitutional right.” I’m with you, Sandy.

If you’re reading this, take a moment to add your name to Sandy’s petition. The more signatures, the more likely this drive will make a difference.

Advice for Adoptive Parents from an Adoptee

From my own adoption experience and as someone who hangs out with adoptees on Facebook, I know many of us have grievances with our adoptions.

Here’s mine. My parents, Claire and Bob, never told Melissa and me we were adopted. Claire and Bob were recovering from the death of their only child, Bobby, when they decided to adopt a baby girl – that would be me. A year later, Melissa joined our family.

claire, bob and bobby
Bob, Claire and their son, Bobby

Claire and Bob took these “secret” adoptions to their graves. I use the word “secret” ironically since everyone in my family except for Melissa and me knew about our adoptions. I didn’t find out until I was 38 years old. By that time, my parents were both gone so I could not ask them about the adoptions. When I asked my cousins for details, they knew very little so I was left with many unanswered questions.

I don’t like being a late discovery adoptee. Really, who would?

I’ve been thinking about what I would tell a couple planning to adopt a child. I’ve never done it but as a mother, I think I speak for many parents when I say parenthood is a job you can’t really prepare for. Doesn’t matter if you give birth or adopt. No parent knows what she’s getting into when she has a child.

Of course, adopting a child brings with it some special issues. I’ve put together a short list of suggestions for would-be adoptive parents. Call it the “do’s and don’ts” of adoption from the adoptee’s point of view.

• Be straight with your child. Tell her the truth about being adopted. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal every unpleasant detail about the circumstances behind your child’s birth especially if those details are painful. Tact is not a bad thing especially with a little one.

But you owe it to your child to be honest. Yes, adoption is complicated. It’s also one more way to create a family so why hide the truth?  Besides, isn’t it better that the truth comes from you rather than having your child discover the facts on her own? Believe me, if you choose not to tell her, she will find out anyway.

• Don’t play favorites. I cringe when I hear stories from adopted adults who are scarred, having been made to feel like second-class citizens compared to their parents’ biological siblings.

Note to parents: don’t bother adopting if you don’t have a big enough heart to love the child the same way you do your natural offspring. No one ever said blending a family would be easy but I assume as an adopter, you chose to bring a non-biological child into your home. Nobody forced you to do it.  So make the best of the situation, no matter how tough it is. Bend over backwards to make your adopted child feel loved and protected. Be sensitive to her feeling of being different. Whatever you do, don’t make her feel second-class by treating her differently than the other kids in the house.

• Don’t feel threatened. At some point, your adopted child will want to know about her origins. Don’t take it the wrong way when your child asks questions about her birth mother or father. Don’t be offended when she embarks on a search for facts about her biological family. Don’t be hurt when she wants to meet with her blood relatives in person. Understand that your child’s curiosity and need to know are natural.

If you are not adopted, you probably have known about your family since Day One. Your mom and dad filled you in on the story of your birth and the details about your first days of life on this planet. You’re not curious because you know your story. If anything, you take it for granted.

Put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you were adopted, wouldn’t you want to know about your first family? Be supportive of your child’s desire to learn about her kin. Oh, and if you happen to know things about your child’s other family, it’s time to come forward. Don’t be an obstacle in your child’s search for truth. She will appreciate your love and support.

• Educate yourself as much as you can. If you plan to adopt a child from overseas, go into it with your eyes open.  Ask questions. Do your homework. Many children from faraway countries have been hurt. They may have health and behavioral problems that you’ve never heard of. Can you make a lifelong commitment to loving and helping a troubled child? It won’t be easy.

Last year, Reuters exposed the underground practice of “rehoming,” where unhappy parents seek new homes for the kids they regret adopting with no official regulation or oversight. Vulnerable children, many from foreign countries, have ended up in the hands of unfit even dangerous people.

Until I read the articles by Reuters, I never knew giving up was an option for adopters. The idea of adopting a child and then changing your mind when the going gets tough makes me angry. When you adopt a kid, you make a commitment to loving and raising the child. It’s not a consumer purchase.

Before you adopt, ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a good mom or dad even when things become difficult. Maybe you’re up for the challenge. Or maybe not?