I took a DNA test to find blood relatives on my father’s side. Ever since I got my DNA results a few months ago, I’ve been semi-obsessed with solving the puzzle of my past from the comfort of my home. It’s a work in progress (emphasis on “work”).
I know many of my fellow adoptees are in the same boat. Many of you are thinking about taking a DNA test, so I want you to know what I’ve learned about DNA over the last couple of months. Keep in mind I’m pretty green about the science of DNA, actually quite feeble with science in general. I’m still learning the terminology and the tools for understanding DNA results. These are just my impressions.
• DNA tests are easy. I ordered Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test online. A few days later, it arrived in the mail. Following the simple directions, I used the little brushes that came with the kit to scrape cells and saliva from inside my cheeks. I bundled up the results and sent them back to the test company. The process was quick, painless, easy and cheap. The test only cost $104.
• DNA test results are hard. When I got my results a few weeks later, I was stunned to see the names of more than 600 new cousins, none of whom are first cousins. What should I do with all these matches? I have not found an easy way to sort out the relatives from the two sides of the family especially since none of my matches are closer than second to fourth cousins. I’ve also learned DNA can be random in the way it’s passed down from one generation to the next so that complicates things.
It probably would be helpful for my half-sister, Sissy, to take A DNA test. A cousin who’s a genealogist also suggested I do mitochondrial DNA testing, which would trace my mother’s ancestry only. That would help determine whether I am related to various cousins via my biological mother or biological father.
Hmmm. I’m reluctant to shell out more money for DNA testing. Fortunately, there are smart people with a passion for DNA and genealogy who will answer our questions at no cost. Genetic genealogist Roberta J. Estes has a great website on DNA. Check it out. It is especially helpful if you’re curious about Native American ancestry. The DNAAdoption Group on Yahoo is also helpful and extremely active.
• DNA is time-consuming. Don’t take a DNA test thinking it’ll provide answers to all the burning questions you have about family. I’ve spent countless hours comparing matches in the chromosome browser, attempting to determine who’s related to who on which side of my family. Oh and did I mention the hours I’ve spent writing emails to matches?
• DNA cannot replace old-fashioned detective work. As an adoptee searching for blood relatives, my most significant discovery to date has been finding my half-sister, Sissy. DNA had nothing to do with that discovery. My wonderful search angel, Marilyn Waugh, pointed me in the direction of my mother’s family. Working with online records and old newspaper stories, my husband, Tom, found Sissy’s stepmother’s name. I gave her a call and she put me in touch with my sister.
• DNA is social. I’ve had many pleasant and interesting conversations online with my new DNA cousins. Many are genealogists with a passion for family history. Some are adoptees on a mission to fill in the blanks in their life stories. Whatever their goals are, I can tell they’re good people. I can picture myself having dinner or coffee with some of these folks. That’s how friendly the connections feel.
• DNA is tantalizing. The DNA game never gets old. Every week or so, new cousins are added to my ever-growing list of matches.
Are you sitting down? Here’s an amazing story. Just the other day, I heard about a woman whose birth mother turned up as a DNA match. How thrilling that must have been for her. She and her mother have talked on the phone. Maybe a face-to-face reunion is on the horizon.
Hearing that story sends chills down my spine and inspires me to stick with this project no matter how long it takes.
Christmas always conjures up memories of Christmases past. This year for the first time, I also wondered about the holiday scene in the home of my first family.
I never knew my biological family so I have no idea how they spent the holidays. Last year was the year I became an enlightened adoptee. I uncovered facts about my birth mother, Lillian, and her four other children, my three half brothers and half sister. I never knew they existed until a few months ago.
What a discovery! Each time I talked to a relative or friend of the family, I learned something new about my mother or siblings. Every time I turned up a new detail, no matter how small, I felt a sense of satisfaction. A picture of this family began to form in my mind.
Of course, some of the facts were painful. Only two of my siblings are still living and Lillian is also gone. Twice divorced, my mother was only 48 years old when she died of breast cancer 30 years ago.
As I’ve written before, we lived parallel lives 35 miles apart in the Chicago area. My adoptive family never crossed paths with my biological family.
I grew up with my parents, Claire and Bob, and sister, Melissa, in a working-class neighborhood of modest bungalows on Chicago’s southwest side. Melissa and I never knew we were not our parents’ biological daughters but we knew something was different. None of the other kids our age had parents old enough to be their grandparents.
I remember nice, quiet Christmases, just the four of us at home. We always had artificial trees. The one I remember the most was a silver tree, which we put up in the living room and covered with ornaments and garland. Claire painstakingly set up a Christmas village under the tree, with decorative villagers, ice skaters, animals and other characters on a bed of white tissue paper. Bob put colorful lights up in the front windows of our bungalow.
We opened our presents on Christmas Eve. Once in a while, we would attend midnight mass but more often, we went to church on Christmas morning. Christmas was one of the few times we ate dinner in the dining room, which was packed with formal dark mahogany furniture, with a chandelier over the table. Baked ham or kielbasa often appeared on the holiday table. It wasn’t fancy but it was always tasty. My parents were not drinkers but they made an exception on Christmas. They served Mogen David at the table in fancy crystal goblets.
Thirty-five miles away, my biological family celebrated Christmas in a modest house in Northbrook. I have faded photos of Lillian with her children standing in front of a green Christmas tree decorated with shiny ornaments and silver tinsel. How noisy must it have been on Christmas day in a house with four excited kids! I imagine it was a little rowdier in Northbrook than it was on the southwest side. All those boys! I never had brothers. What would it have been like to grow up with boys? They were a tight-knit bunch of hard-playing kids, according to my sister, Sissy, who was a tomboy back then.
What was it like in their house on Christmas? Was it chaotic? Fun? Messy? What did they fight about? What did they have for dinner? My imagination will have to make up for my not having been there.
I cherish what I have, the memories of Christmas in Chicago with Claire, Bob and my wonderful sister, Melissa. Blood and genes did not tie us together. The powerful and loving bonds were formed over years of living together and sharing good times, bad times and thousands of ordinary moments.
I cringe every time I hear about an adoptee who is rejected by her biological family.
For all the happy Hollywood-worthy reunions, there are many sad stories of adoptees who get the cold shoulder from their bio families. This comes after many spend months, even years, looking for relatives. I don’t know how frequently it happens but anecdotally, I hear the depressing stories on a fairly regular basis.
It’s a shame. How can people be so cavalier toward their own flesh and blood? We are not black sheep. Many adoptees just want to fill in the missing pieces in our history. We want names, faces and a few anecdotes. We are not looking to turn somebody else’s life upside down.
Fellow blogger Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy attempts to explain why birth mothers in particular turn away their long lost children. I imagine for a birth mother it must be like opening an old wound.
Adoptees are outsiders. We didn’t grow up with our biological families. Without that experience, we approach our kin as strangers. We are at a disadvantage. Relatives may associate us with a dirty secret from the past, the child who was given up for adoption, the child who was not supposed to re-appear ever again.
Of course, that’s baloney in the 21st century. Anyone with Internet access can dig up facts and faces from their past. It’s hard to hide in today’s world.
Personally, I don’t need a warm and fuzzy reunion filled with hugs, kisses and tears. My yet-to-be-found paternal relatives don’t have to welcome me with open arms or even send me a card at Christmas. Just answer my questions, please.
Adoptees go through life with questions about identity, relationships, family history, medical history….so many questions and so little information.
Being adopted can be a challenge. In families with biological and adopted children, the adoptees sometimes are treated like second-class citizens. Fortunately, my parents bent over backwards to treat Melissa and me, their adopted girls, the same.
Some adoptees struggle with depression and low self-esteem. Given all these challenges, adopted adults don’t need to be treated like garbage by their newly found blood relatives.
I am fortunate. Since I began searching for family this year, I have not encountered any jerks among my kin. I’ve had friendly phone conversations with my half sister, Sissy, and her daughter, my niece (or half-niece), Chrissy. They’ve answered my questions and shared stories about my birth mother, Lillian. They’ve welcomed me. We have even found things to laugh about, not easy to do considering all the pain in our family.
But knowing how common rejection is gives me pause. I hesitate to pursue my bio dad’s family too aggressively. I don’t want the door to be slammed in my face and I don’t want to go where I don’t belong. Now I understand why adoptees don’t bother to search for their kin.
I’ve made a promise. If some adoptee searching for family calls me out of the blue, I will take the call, be nice and answer questions as best as I can. After all, I’ve made those calls and know how difficult they are to make.
Who the hell needs rejection anyway? What purpose does it serve?
I took a DNA test to find blood relatives who might know my biological father’s identity.
I am an adoptee on a mission. I’ve written about the mystery man before, the father who really wasn’t a father to me. I don’t need (or want) to meet bio dad. In fact, the thought of meeting him actually scares me. But I would like some answers. What’s his name, what did he do for a living, does he have a family, do I have other brothers and sisters? How did he meet Lillian, my birth mother? I wonder if he and I look anything alike. Photos along withfacts would be great.
I’ve talked to a handful of people who were close to Lillian, hoping they would know who my father was but nobody knows (or they’re not saying). Finding my bio dad is like locating an available New York taxi in a downpour. Still, I am giving it my best shot.
Well, I got my DNA test results and I am a little disappointed. None of the more than 600 matches are close relatives. There are no siblings or half siblings. I have cousins, hundreds of cousins, but they’re not exactly kissing cousins if you know what I mean. There’s not a single first cousin on my list of matches. The closest relatives are second cousins and many are even more distant on the family tree.
I knew a DNA test was a long shot. Taking the test was quick and painless. Interpreting the results is time consuming and hard.
Using Family Tree DNA’s chromosome browser feature, I try to separate the cousins on my maternal side from those on my father’s side. I have emailed a few of my DNA matches to introduce myself and delicately inquire about the nature of our relationship. I don’t use the “A” word (adopted) unless I know I’m talking to another adoptee. As my fellow adoptees know, that word makes some people nervous.
Three of my cousins got back to me and wouldn’t you know? They’re all from Lillian’s side of the family. Two are genealogy buffs. Shannon and I have exchanged several friendly emails. She’s shared many interesting stories about how our Irish ancestors scraped by and filled me in on the diseases that run in our family. That’s valuable information. I like Shannon and hope we meet in person some day.
In a few hours, Sharon managed to put together a family tree for me. How did she do it so quickly? I was awed by her skill. Thanks to Shannon and Sharon, I know quite a bit about my ancestors on Lillian’s side of the family.
I shared the family tree with another cousin, Duane, who used it to create a tree of his own. Duane and I have gotten friendly. We’re both adopted, close in age and on similar missions. Duane and I are seeking answers to questions about our birth parents.
Two cousins never responded to my emails. I believe they are from my father’s side of the family. Wouldn’t you know?
I thought about calling one of them. He is a few years younger than me and looks friendly enough on his Facebook page. Most important, this guy is one of my closest DNA matches, and he has taken a Y-DNA test. Perhaps he knows who my father is. Maybe he is also adopted? Since he hasn’t responded to emails, would he be more receptive to a phone call?
For adoptees who have taken DNA tests, what would you do in my situation? Have you called any of your matches directly? Is it taboo to call a match who doesn’t respond to emails?
I feel discouraged. I am no closer to answering the big question hanging over me: Who is my father.
This is hard work. I need encouragement so I am re-reading Richard Hill’s excellent book, “Finding Family” for motivation and tips. An adoptee, Hill used DNA tests and old-fashioned detective work to learn the identity of his father.
I take comfort knowing it took Hill many years to dig up the truth. That could be my future, too. I have a lot of spade work ahead of me.
Learning about my birth mother makes me feel grateful for what I have.
I started writing about Lillian a few weeks ago. She was born into a large Indiana family in the 1930s. Her parents were overwhelmed by the baker’s dozen of children who filled their rural home. Amidst the stress of being unemployed while trying to support this growing brood during the Great Depression, Lillian’s father, George, left his family twice – the second time permanently.
The children were parceled off to different foster homes, where Lillian spent much of her childhood before attending Indiana University and moving to Northbrook, IIl., where she had me in the 1960s.
The stories I have heard rival how people live in Third World countries. People are not supposed to live like farm animals, right? Two relatives have told me that Lillian’s family was so poor – and perhaps had recently lost a home? – that they were forced to make their home in a chicken coop. The story sounded ridiculous the first time I heard it, but I believe it more after hearing it from another family member. I have no trouble believing another bit of family history – that Lillian’s brothers occasionally stole chickens to put food on the table.
Me? I’ve never had to steal my supper. I will serve roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry orange relish, braised red cabbage and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. At this moment, I have a refrigerator and pantry stuffed with food and I’m not even talking about the Thanksgiving goodies, which I have not bought yet. The abundance makes me feel guilty.
I didn’t know what I was going to find out when I embarked on this journey. Learning about Lillian’s childhood, her family and her problems with alcohol and mental illness has made me look at my life differently. I think about my childhood now and remember the times I enjoyed with my family rather than dwelling on what I never had, couldn’t do and didn’t like.
My adoptive parents, Claire and Bob, came from big families, too. They didn’t have a lot of money. They survived the Depression and knew how to stretch their dollars. Claire and Bob didn’t spoil my adopted sister, Melissa, and me but they loved us and protected us. They were grateful for their girls.
“Children are your millions,” Claire used to say.
Gratitude should not be something we feel only during Thanksgiving week or, in my case, after digging up hard truths about my birth mom and the rocky childhood I escaped.
Gratitude helps people feel happy, according to recent research. Instead of focusing on what I don’t have, I think about the great people, wonderful dogs and other good stuff in my life.
I am trying to make a habit out of feeling grateful. What about you?
My mother, Lillian, taught her children how to do an Indian rain dance when the family lived in Northbrook, Ill. She told my sister, Sissy, and other family members that she was part Cherokee.
Sissy and other relatives believe Lillian had some Native American heritage. Really, why would a mom who wasn’t Native American teach her kids an Indian rain dance?
Does Lillian look like she could be Native American in these photos? It’s hard for me to say. She had dark hair and dark eyes but not the angular features I associate with Indians.
I was intrigued by the idea of being related, even just a little bit, to Native Americans. How exciting! There is a mystique to being Native and I wanted to be part of it. It seems hip, something to be proud of.
Turns out I’m not alone. Roberta J. Estes, who writes theDNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy blog, hears from Indian wannabes every day. Some people mistakenly think they will qualify for free college tuition if they can establish Native heritage. Estes wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of DNA testing for those who want to use it to prove Native American heritage.
I’ve always thought of myself as a white woman with European ancestors. When I found out I was adopted 11 years ago, I figured I was still a white woman with European ancestors, perhaps from Poland as I wrote last week.
For adoptees, certain parts of identity can crumble just like that. Those people I always thought of as my parents? Well, Claire and Bob were my parents but they didn’t conceive me in the traditional sense. They didn’t pass their genes on to me. They adopted me.
Far from being set in stone, identity is something like a work in progress for adoptees trying to find their roots. As I’ve searched for the truth about my biological family, I’ve imagined other identities for myself. As I waited for my DNA test results, my imagination got a little carried away. Did my ancestors live on a reservation? Did Lillian learn the rain dance from her mother, brothers and sisters?
The test results threw cold water on my Indian fantasy. If I have Indian blood, it’s no more than a trickle. My ancestors came from Western Europe. One of my new cousins, who is a genealogy buff, told me there are no Native American ties on my maternal grandfather’s side of the family.
What about my maternal grandmother’s side of the family? That’s not entirely clear.
I took Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test, which uses autosomal DNA (a mix of genetic material from the mother’s and father’s sides). Autosomal DNA can trace back about four or five generations in terms of matching the test taker with “reference populations” from various parts of the world.
Lillian’s Native American ties, if they were real, would have had to have been further than five generations back in history.
According to my results, 98.23 percent of my DNA traces back to the Orcadians, meaning my ancestors were from the English Isles. If you inherited less than 3 percent of DNA matching a particular reference population, it will not show up on test results.
I could take the mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) test, which would trace my direct maternal line back to infinity. If this line is of Native American origin, it would show me as belonging to an mtDNA haplogroup known to exist in Native Americans.
But the test is not recommended for adoptees looking for close relatives, which was my original reason for doing DNA testing. Test takers can be an exact match with fairly distant relatives due to how slowly mtDNA mutates, Family Tree DNA told me in an email.
Ok, maybe I’ll take the mtDNA test after I exhaust my search for information about bio dad. In the meantime, I will have to hang my hat with the uncool, invading British settlers instead of the Indians who suffered at their hands.
My birth mother, Lillian, taught her children an Indian rain dance at the family home in Northbrook, Ill. That’s what my sister, Sissy, told me.
Lillian was part Native American, according to the stories I’ve heard from my sister and other family members. If that’s so, why did her Indian ancestry not show up on my DNA test results? I’ll tell you more on Monday.