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.
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.
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 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?
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?
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.
At my age, I should be having an ordinary mid-life meltdown. I should be fretting over wrinkles and flab. Instead, I am having a weird ethnic identity crisis that only an adoptee can have.
I grew up eating kielbasa and sauerkraut in Chicago, a city known for its large Polish population. My Polish-American adoptive mother, Claire, used to talk about the Krasowskis, the Pinkowskis, the Wisniskis and other Poles in her circle of family and friends. Three good friends from Chicago, Cara from high school, Laura from work, and Debbie from college were all Polish. I thought I was Polish, too, at least on my mother’s side.
Secretly, though, I liked having Miller for a surname. It’s easy to say and spell and it’s all-American. Polish names can be hard for the average Joe to pronounce let alone spell correctly.
Though my adoptive father Bob, a German-American, gave me his surname, he didn’t have nearly as much influence over my sense of ethnic identity. Claire was the proud Pole. She passed that sense of ethnicity on to me and my sister, Melissa.
Even after I found out I was adopted 11 years ago, I continued to identify with the Poles. “You look Polish.” How many times have I heard that from relatives on my mother’s side. My (non-Polish) husband, Tom, friends and even people I didn’t know have told me I look like a Pole. I’ll never forget the time an elderly woman wearing an old-fashioned floral dress glommed on to me on a city bus in New York. She had that Eastern European look and saw a fellow Pole, or so she thought.
Hey, I own a copy of Marianna Olszewska Heberle’s “Polish Cooking” (The zupapieczarkowa – fresh mushroom soup -is excellent.) I own several cookbooks by Martha Stewart, one of our better-known Polish Americans. Bring on the kielbasa, pierogis and kapusta (sauerkraut).
Now it seems my Polish roots were a myth. My test results from Family Tree DNA show no Polish connections. Scrolling through pages and pages of results, I see the names of more than 600 men and women, identified as cousins. They are strangers to me and their surnames, Bennett, McDaniel, Johnson, Henderson, Nolen and Mahoney, leave me cold. Where are the “-skis”?
Good bye Poland. Hello Ireland. My ancestors came from Ireland and England with some Viking connections, according to the DNA results.
In the 21st century, does it mean anything to be an Anglo Saxon? That’s what I am, a born again Anglo Saxon. I’m still getting used to this identity. It feels weird. I suppose it goes with the territory of being adopted and not finding out about it until you’re grown up, which is what happened to me. It’s one more revelation.
The idea of making a profit from the adoption of babies turns my stomach but that’s how it works in many states. Illinois, my home state, deserves some credit for taking action to keep the profit out of the adoption process.
The state’s Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, has filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against the Adoption Network Law Center, a for-profit adoption provider that reaches families far beyond its home state of California. Prospective adopters in Illinois and elsewhere can find the Adoption Network Law Center quickly with a few clicks of the mouse. The company is not approved by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to place children, according to the lawsuit.
The Illinois case calls attention to the Internet’s vital role in the adoption process. It’s not an overstatement to say the Web has transformed just about all aspects of adoption including the way parents find babies to adopt.
It’s tempting for eager would-be parents to jump online to fast track their plans to build a family.
Adam Pertman advises parents to slow down.
“Educate yourself,” says Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. “Don’t just do it by clicking on a mouse. Go to an adoption agency for an educational session. Become a more informed person. Understand this is a big important life decision that requires a process. It’s a process rather than just a transaction.”
You can love the Internet or hate it but you can’t avoid it so learn how to use it intelligently. The Internet is teeming with adoption agencies and other adoption providers – good ones, bad ones and everything in between. Weeding out the bad guys is not always easy for parents. The Adoption Institute offers a list of questions for parents to ask to assess the integrity of the providers.
The Adoption Institute is also conducting research on the Internet’s role in adoption. Adopted adults, adoptive parents, birth parents and adoption professionals are sought for this project. Check out the surveys (online of course). Each one takes about 15 to 20 minutes.
As adopted adults, we all want to know about the diseases that run in our families. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about uncovering my medical history and learning about my family’s health problems.
Well, I’ve got to be honest. Digging up the truth about my mother, Lillian, has caused me pain. My heart sank when I first talked to my mother’s sister-in-law, Carolyn, a friendly woman who I called out of the blue over Labor Day weekend. Carolyn told me Lillian had a problem with alcohol and mental illness and she was not the only one in her large family to struggle with those demons.
Oh boy. Those are not the first things I wanted to hear about the woman who brought me into the world, a woman I never knew but my first mother all the same. I felt like a heavy weight had just fallen on me. It really hurt.
But, I reasoned, Carolyn didn’t know Lillian all that well and didn’t really like her. What she remembered about Lillian was not flattering. I didn’t want to take Carolyn’s word for it so I called other people who were close to Lillian. They confirmed what Carolyn told me.
Lillian may have suffered from bipolar disorder. My mother’s best friend, Nancy, recalled the time she and Lillian were at Nancy’s home and they were peeling potatoes. My mother told Nancy, “those voices in my head are telling me to kill you.” Nancy replied, “tell those things to go to hell.” She took the knife away from Lillian, sat her down and offered her beer. Before long, Lillian was fast asleep.
You can’t pass judgments on someone with breast cancer, which is what killed my mother, but you react differently to mental illness and alcoholism. They carry a stigma. It would have hurt me less if I had learned those truths after learning other things about my mother – her hobbies, family background, religion, politics, favorite books or movie stars. When you go on this type of journey, you swallow hard and take the discoveries as they come.
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness characterized by sweeping mood swings During manic periods, people can become extremely talkative and behave recklessly. It lowers inhibitions and causes people to make bad decisions. The high periods can morph into dark periods in which people feel irritated or angry. During depressed periods, people can experience a loss of energy, feel sad or worthless, and have trouble sleeping. Many people who are bipolar also suffer from alcoholism.
My mother ran around with guys. That’s how I came into the world, according to people I’ve talked to who were close to Lillian.
Lillian and her family lived modestly but one year, my mother spent an eye-popping $5,000 on Christmas. Lillian’s husband cut up the credit cards and Lillian proceeded to trash everything in the refrigerator.
If I didn’t know about her health problems, I would hold those shenanigans against her. What kind of wife and mother goes out with other men? Why wasn’t she home with her family? How does a mom with four kids (five if you count me, the secret child) have the time or energy to run around? How could a responsible woman blow that kind of cash on Christmas? That was an astronomical sum of money for her family, as it would be for many families, mine included.
Risky sex and spending sprees are not uncommon for people with bipolar disorder.
Learning about Lillian’s problems with booze and mental illness help me understand and excuse her behavior. I think the voices in her head, mixed with too much beer and whiskey, explain why she did the things she did.
Alcoholism and bipolar disorder run in families. Lillian and I share genes but we never shared our lives together. We had very different childhoods. Lillian grew up poor in Depression-era Indiana. She was a “welfare child,” as the U.S. Census described her, and she lived with at least two foster families. I grew up in Chicago in a comfortable, lower-middle class home with my adoptive parents and sister, Melissa. We lived in the same house throughout our childhood.
I am one of the calmer people I know. I hate drama and try to keep my life on an even keel as much as possible. I’m not bipolar. I’m also not an alcoholic though I enjoy wine.
I wonder if mental illness, alcoholism and other forms of addiction were common problems for birth moms who gave their babies up for adoption.