He did not pass his genes on to me but so what? Bob Miller did all the things good fathers are supposed to do. I will always think of him as my real dad. More about Bob on Monday.
Every time I go to the doctor’s office, the doctor asks me about my medical history. My answer is always the same: “I’m adopted. I don’t know anything about my medical history.”
Fortunately, that’s no longer true. I’m not completely in the dark about the medical issues that run in my family.
If I learn nothing more about my biological relatives, I will be grateful for the information I have about my birth mother’s health.
Lillian died of breast cancer at the age of 48. That’s what several family members told me and I confirmed it by obtaining a copy of Lillian’s death certificate from the state of Illinois.
Not knowing anything about our medical history is a common frustration among adoptees. Even those of us who are healthy want to know which diseases run in the family. Everyone should know their medical history, particularly information on their closest relatives. Having the knowledge means we can ask better questions of our doctors. The knowledge also gives us the power to make lifestyle changes or ask our doctors for specific screenings – whatever steps we can take to counter our genetic heritage.
I have a 13-year-old son, Jake, so my medical history could mean something to him.
It’s impossible to prepare for inherited risks you don’t know about. During an online search, I found these comments, written by an adoptee on Adoption.com:
“My brother…he was also adopted (we had different birth parents). His medical past was littered with mental and physical illness that our parents knew nothing about. It was only when he became a teenager that they could tell something was not right with him. They had his records unsealed by the court system and were shocked to see everything that had not been disclosed. They got him help but he is disabled to the point that he lives in an assisted living facility for the mentally disabled. Had they known earlier, maybe it could have helped, maybe not, but at least knowing about it could have made the situation different.
Although I knew that I was generally healthy, there are lots of things out there that can be carried, or can skip generations. I love the fact that my history is no longer unknown.”
Exactly. It is strangely comforting for me to have a name for the disease that killed my mother.
This week I called my gynecologist. In addition to an annual mammogram, should I do anything more as far as screenings for breast cancer? I asked. Should I be tested for the BRCA genes? (Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancers. Angelina Jolie, after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, opted to have a double mastectomy.)
The office worker put me on hold to consult the staff. Minutes later, she returned to the phone. As long as you don’t notice any changes in your breasts, she said, you can wait until your annual exam, which is coming up in a couple of months, to discuss the options with your doctor. Ok, that settles that, I thought.
Thinking of Jake, I went online to find out about the risk factors for breast cancer in men. Male breast cancer is rare but, according to the Mayo Clinic, having a family history of breast cancer can increase a guy’s chance of developing the disease. I’m not going to lose sleep over this but it is something to keep in mind.
What have you done differently since you learned about your medical history or your child’s history? I’d love to hear from adoptees and adoptive parents.
For adoptees, it’s hard to resist family comparisons. I can’t help but compare my sheltered childhood on the southwest side of Chicago to what I know of my biological family’s life in the suburbs north of the city.
My family’s bungalow on South Sacramento Avenue and my birth mother Lillian’s home on Alice Drive are only 35 miles apart, but the two families might as well have lived on separate planets. That’s how different they were.
My mother, Claire, and father, Bob, didn’t work outside the home. Dad was a retired linotype operator and Mom was a homemaker. They were in their 50s when they adopted me days after I was born. A year later, they adopted my newborn sister, Melissa. This was in the 1960s. Mom and Dad were unlikely parents to two little school girls who never knew they were adopted. Were they our grandparents? Claire and Bob bristled every time they heard that question.
They had plenty of time to supervise Melissa and me. They were helicopter parents before anyone used that expression to describe annoying moms and dads who hover constantly over their kids. Claire and Bob were ahead of their time.
We didn’t get away with anything because our parents watched us like hawks. Dad drove us to and from school every day. We were not allowed to play with the kids across the street because Claire thought they were too “street-y.” Melissa and I were goody-goodies not because we wanted to be but because we didn’t have a choice. I read a lot of books because there was nothing better to do. In the summers, I rode my bike around Marquette Park over and over again. I went to the library for more books. I counted the days until school started. Time passed very slowly on South Sacramento. I dreamed about moving out of that boring prison and getting a taste of the real world.
On Alice Drive, my sister and her three brothers had fun and freedom. They went on family outings and played with little supervision. Their parents, Lillian and Dick, both worked and were not around enough to watch the kids closely. Sometimes my siblings got into mischief.
Lillian’s pregnancy with me may have been the last straw for the marriage. I was not Dick’s child. She and Dick divorced not long after I was born. Their breakup hurt the family. My sister’s grades dropped. There was more pain for the children when Lillian got angry and lashed out at them. As teenagers, my brothers and sister got into drugs and sex and no doubt rock and roll. One of my brothers, a brainy boy who got good grades, took his life. Lillian was never the same after her boy died.
That’s one thing Lillian and Claire had in common. My adoptive parents had a biological son, Bobby, who also died young – of a kidney ailment. Claire and Bob were devastated. They withdrew from their family and the world. They never left the house, not even to buy food. They had somebody deliver the groceries. Adopting me and Melissa brought my parents back to diapers, baby food and the real world. It helped them heal.
I resented having parents who smothered me but maybe having a child die is what made Mom and Dad so protective of their daughters.
I didn’t have any boyfriends in high school and didn’t have a drink until my senior year. Melissa and I graduated and went to college. We never got to go away to school – Mom and Dad wouldn’t allow that – but we graduated from college, something neither of our parents had done. Claire and Bob were proud.
My life never intersected with Lillian’s. She was only 48 when she died in 1983. Not long after her death, another one of her sons died after a long struggle with injuries he suffered in an auto accident.
I wonder how different my life would have been if I had grown up with Lillian and her family. Would I be the person I am today with different parents and siblings?
All I know for sure is I am grateful to Lillian for giving me life and extremely grateful to Claire and Bob for adopting me. Maybe their overly protective but loving style of parenting was just what I needed.
I grew up in a modest bungalow on the Southwest Side of Chicago. My biological family lived in an unassuming home in the suburbs north of Chicago. The houses are only 35 miles apart, but the two families might as well have lived on separate planets. That’s how different they were.
Read more about our parallel lives on Monday.
The tide is turning against international adoptions. In South Korea, activists are trying to end or at least cut down on adoptions by foreigners. Up until recently, South Korea was one of the leading providers of children for American families, according to CNN, which is running a series on international adoption.
I read a shocking report by Reuters about adoptive parents who use the Internet to find new homes for children they no longer want.
The article is the first in a five-part series by Reuters that examines America’s underground market for adopted children. According to the report, parents are so eager to unload their kids that they hand them off to people they barely know. No screenings required. How horrible and dangerous for the children.
Children adopted from overseas are especially vulnerable to these unauthorized exchanges. As the article points out, Americans often don’t know what they’re getting into when they adopt children from other countries. They don’t know the child’s complete history. When problems arise at home, parents don’t have a support system in place. Bailing out seems like the best option for some desperate parents.
Adopting a child is not like purchasing a big-screen TV. You can’t take your baby back to the store if you’re unhappy. Once you adopt a child, you make it work no matter how difficult things get.
Clearly we need to do more in this country to support adoptive families and make it hard for parents to abandon their kids like unwanted possessions.
The story of my mother’s life is the saddest story I’ve ever heard.
I have pieced together a rough draft of her life, based on documents and interviews with family members and a close friend. I only have bits and pieces, not the whole story. What I’ve woven together is far from complete but the more I learn about my mother, the more I want to know.
Born around 1934 in rural Indiana, my mother had enough brothers and sisters to fill a classroom. She was one of about 14 or 15 children. Feeding and sheltering that many kids proved impossible for her parents who struggled through the Depression. My mother and her siblings were separated, sent to live as foster children in the homes of strangers. One of my mother’s foster moms was a woman with a “wicked tongue,” according to her daughter. My mother cleaned the family’s house and did other chores. She liked to draw and read fiction. She also looked after her foster mother’s children and grew especially close to one of her foster sisters, who looked up to her. The girl wept when my mother left for Indiana University.
She never earned a degree. My mother married young and had several children. They all lived in a simple bungalow in a suburb north of Chicago. My mother was known for her great cooking and lively personality. People I talked to recalled how nice and sweet she was sober. After a few drinks, the sweet attractive woman morphed into someone who could be belligerent and aggressive, a woman who talked a lot and would not let go of a grievance.
My mother already had four children when I came along. Her husband had every reason to believe I was another man’s child so after I was born, my mother gave me up to a couple in their 50s. They adopted me and never told me I was adopted. My mother and her husband eventually divorced and she raised her four kids on her own for a while. She worked as a waitress.
She married again and her second husband was said to be good to his stepchildren. My mother’s oldest, a boy, was born with developmental delays. Her second child was a girl. Her third child, a boy who did very well in school, helped keep the family together. Tragically, as a teenager, he took his own life after breaking up with a girl. The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare and suicide adds another layer of pain. My mother was never the same after that.
She was coping with breast cancer when her third son, a troubled young man, was seriously hurt in a motor vehicle accident. Divorced again, my mother took care of her injured son and herself at home. I was told near the end of her life, she and her son lived in a rented cottage on a lake in northern Illinois, a place where my mother felt at peace. She was about 48 when she died. Left behind was her son, who eventually died from complications related to the accident.
My mother was gone before I even knew she had existed. If I could talk to her, I would ask a lot of questions.
What would you do differently if you could re-live your life? How did you and my father meet? What did you see in him? What’s his name and what is he like? How did you feel about giving me up for adoption? Did you meet my adoptive parents?
I don’t resent her at all for giving me up. She did what she had to do and I’m sure it made perfect sense at the time. It makes perfect sense to me now. In that situation, I probably would have done the same thing.
My one regret is never having had a chance to look into my mother’s dark eyes and talk to her.
On a spring day in 2012, my original birth certificate arrived in the mail. What am I going to find out, I wondered nervously. Taking a deep breath, I opened the envelope from the state of Illinois. Inside, a non-certified copy of my original birth certificate gave me my mother’s married and maiden names (her first name is Lillian), her age (28), address at the time of my birth (Northbrook, a suburb of Chicago) and her birthplace (Washington, Indiana).
Up until then, I had figured my mother was probably a teenager when she got pregnant with me so I was surprised to learn she was 28 years old. My husband, Tom, and I question whether she really was married. That seems fishy.
Of course, this document does not come close to answering all my questions, including one very big one: “Who was my birth daddy?” (He was “not legally known,” according to the birth certificate.) Still, it was thrilling for me to get answers to these very basic questions about my life, questions non-adopted adults never have.
Illinois is one of the latest states to unseal birth records, the Associated Press reported. Some 350,000- adoption records were sealed in Illinois beginning in 1946 and, since 2010, close to 9,000 people have claimed their birth certificates from the state.
The Associated Press interviewed adoptees from Illinois who got in touch with their birth mothers. I haven’t done that. Other than visiting Ancestry.com and similar sites to learn more about my birth mother, I have not made any real attempt to find her. She could be dead for all I know.
I can only imagine how tough it must be to meet the woman who gave you life and then gave you to another family. If you have made contact with your birth mother, I would love to hear your story.