Tag Archives: Biological father

Search Ends: I Found My Biological Father

My search is over. A DNA test has confirmed the identity of my biological father.

I was beyond thrilled when I got the email from a woman I suspected was a close relative based on countless hours of detective work. She had taken a DNA test at my request.

“Tom, I found my father,” I told my husband, who was under the covers at 6 a.m. “Congratulations,” he murmured.

The 1960s: Secret Era of Adoption

I was adopted in the 1960s when adoptions were deep secrets. As a late discovery adoptee, I did not discover the truth until I was 38. Without going through an adoption agency, my parents, both in their 50s, worked quietly with a doctor from Chicago’s northern suburbs who may have been a baby broker.

A door to my secret past opened in 2011, when Illinois unsealed original birth certificates. Up until then, I didn’t have any documentation related to the adoption. Once I got my birth record, I had to dig around to find out who my father was. My mother was listed, of course, along with an address in Northbrook, Illinois, but my father was “not legally known.”

After spending four years on and off combing genealogical records and comparing snips of chromosomes from distant DNA matches, I felt proud and satisfied to get the truth. To finally have a name, photos and some details about my dad and his family made the tedious, often frustrating effort worthwhile. I felt relieved, having unraveled a mystery that’s burdened me for years. I felt complete. I had roots like everyone else. My family history is coming together on both sides.

I was on top of the world but the high didn’t last. I crashed quickly.

Learning About My Biological Father

My father, Stephen, a skilled auto mechanic and co-owner of a gas station, was living on King Court in Wheeling, Illinois with his wife and two daughters when he got to know my troubled mother, Lillian, who lived a few miles away on Alice Drive in Northbrook with her husband and four young children. Lillian was an alcoholic who suffered from bipolar disorder. Her children, my half-siblings, often had to fend for themselves since Lillian wasn’t there when they needed her. Like my mother, Stephen was a drinker and carouser. Did Lillian and Stephen meet at some suburban watering hole? Maybe it all began when Lillian brought Stephen a menu at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress or at the service station when she brought the car in for a tune-up. Did they have a fling or was it something deeper? Did they share a bond over their rural roots?

My biological father, Stephen, in 1954
My biological father, Stephen, in 1954
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 have a million questions. What brought my father, the son of Arkansas farmers, to the northwest suburbs of Chicago? I know he served in the Navy. In 1950, at the age of 22, Stephen married a young woman from Arkansas. They tied the knot in Cook County, Illinois.

My biological father served in the Navy
My biological father served in the Navy

I never met Lillian, who died of breast cancer at the very young age of 48, long before I even knew I was adopted. Sadly, I will never have a chance to meet my father either. During my search, I thought it was possible my father never knew I existed and once I found him, he would welcome me into his life and it would be like a fairy tale ending. No such luck. I’m sure Stephen knew about me and never attempted to find me. That hurts. We will never have a chance to get to know one another. At the age of 75, Stephen died of lung cancer in 2003 in Scranton, Arkansas, about 20 minutes from the tiny town of Paris, where he was born. He was a recluse living in a one-room tin shack at the time of his death. Writing about this brings tears to my eyes.

At the kitchen table, I spent a couple of hours perusing family trees on Ancestry.com. I think Stephen was the youngest of eight or nine children. I felt sad seeing the names of his brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles who are all deceased. I’ll never have the opportunity to get to know them, to learn what it was like to grow up in a big farm family in the early 20th century in rural Arkansas, so different from my childhood in Chicago.

Spending too much time on genealogy can be dreary. I had to get away from my dead relatives so I shut down the computer and went downstairs to fold laundry. In the kitchen, I ran vinegar through the coffee maker. I worked up a sweat vacuuming the living room rug. I walked to the farmers market, the hardware store and the bodega to stock up on groceries and household stuff. I needed distractions.

Connecting with my biological family

But the dark truths I uncovered are lightened by other discoveries. I am overjoyed to have found Stephanie, Stephen’s oldest daughter, who understands and respects my need to know where I came from. In my first email to Stephanie, I introduced myself as a “new family member,” possibly a cousin. I didn’t mention the possibility we could be half-sisters. I explained my search, shared the date and year when I was conceived and where my mother had been living at the time. I told Stephanie my father might have been a golfer, of Irish or English ancestry, a man with blue eyes like mine. I attached a recent photo of myself, noting the strong resemblance between the two of us. Stephanie and I both have thick, coarse hair, fair skin and big, light-colored eyes.

The next morning, Stephanie’s email left me stunned. The year when I was conceived coincided with the break-up of her parents’ marriage, said Stephanie, who was in first grade at the time. After separating, her parents got back together but ultimately divorced. Stephen, who never remarried, moved back to the same rural area of Arkansas where he and his brothers and sisters had grown up.

Years later, when Stephanie was a teenager, she would learn from her mother that Stephen had fathered another child, a boy, with another woman. So Stephanie knew she had another sibling, a half-brother. Except for the baby’s gender, all the other facts seemed to point in one direction.

On the phone that night, we made a connection. Stephanie is a lovely and thoughtful person. We talked for nearly an hour. She agreed to take a DNA test. Wouldn’t it be great to have Stephanie as my new sister, I thought after hanging up.

I was very happy when the Family Tree DNA Family Finder test confirmed it. Stephanie and I spent more than 90 minutes talking on the phone. Stephanie, her daughter, a college student, and I want to meet in person either in the Big Apple or near St. Louis, where Stephanie lives. It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities.

 

 

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?

Medical History: Adoptees Fill in the Blanks

Every time we turn around, we hear about the importance of family medical history. Yet for adoptees, these facts are missing or at best incomplete.

A couple of recent  situations reminded me how little I know about my family medical history.

Leafing through Better Homes and Gardens on the subway, an article about heart disease caught my eye.

“When it comes to heart disease, what runs in your family matters—a lot,” the article began. “Studies show that if one of your parents had a heart attack or stroke, your own risk for these conditions can double, and having a brother or sister with the disease ups your chances of having a heart attack, too.”

I turned the page. Another article suggested talking to relatives about diseases that run in the family and then telling your doctor, who can use the information to recommend lifestyle  changes or screenings. “So grab a pen and paper and start interviewing Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and everyone in between,” the article said.

Yeah, right. Like I can pick up the phone and get the scoop on family health conditions just like that. The writer is obviously not adopted.

On another day, sitting in an office in Manhattan, my doctor and I tried to calculate my lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Lillian, my mother, died of breast cancer at the age of 48 and that’s why I made this appointment. I have no idea how old Lillian was when she was first diagnosed with the disease so I couldn’t answer my doctor’s question about age of onset. Hell, I didn’t know about my adoption until 11 years ago and didn’t know Lillian’s name until 2012. By the time I found out about her, Lillian had been gone for nearly 30 years.

I recalled hearing from a relative that Lillian had battled cancer for quite a while.  How long is quite a while? Let’s say my mother had the disease for seven years, I told my doctor.  She knew I was guessing and she wasn’t pleased. My doctor quizzed me about the other members of my family who had the disease. I don’t know, I don’t know, I said. My blood relatives are strangers to me.

I knew what my doctor was thinking: you should know your family history! I am adopted, I said, feeling compelled to defend my ignorance.

pic for medical history article
Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/Grant Cochrane

As we wrapped up our meeting, my doctor commented on how frustrating this lack of history must be for adopted people.

Yup, adoptees from the sealed records era run into these situations all the time. We don’t have family gossip stored in our memories because we never had a chance to talk with our biological kin. We can’t answer doctors’ questions with actual knowledge. We are clueless about our family histories.

In recent months, I’ve learned a few things about the health issues that run on my mother’s side of the family.  Lillian, in addition to breast cancer, struggled with alcohol and probably bipolar disorder. At least one of her brothers struggled with bipolar disorder, too. Lillian’s father, George, also had a drinking problem. My half-sister has diabetes and suffered a mild stroke some years ago.

What little I know about my mother and her relatives seems like a treasure chest of facts compared to what I have on my father and his family – absolutely nothing.

This problem is finally getting attention from the outside world. New Jersey lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow adoptees to gain access to their medical histories along with their original birth certificates.  I say it’s about time.

In the absence of information, I will do what I can to keep heart attacks, strokes and other bad stuff away.  Healthy genes, heart attack genes, mystery genes – whatever I inherited doesn’t have to dictate what’s going to strike me five, 10 or 20 years from now.

I try to take care of myself by making (mostly) healthy choices. Today I have a head cold. Part of me wants to take a nap, the other part of me thinks it’s time to get up, stretch my legs and have a glass of water with another shot of cold medicine.  It’s snowing and 27 degrees outside but a walk might do me good and get my mind off the things over which I have no control.

What I’ve Learned About DNA Testing

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.

Ÿ• 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?

me looking at DNA matches
How am I related to these people?

Ÿ• 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.

Ÿ• 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.

New Cousins

I took a DNA test to find blood relatives who might know my biological father’s identity.

me and my DNA
Me and my DNA

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.

Who’s Your Daddy?

I will always think of Bob Miller as my real dad.

He did not pass his genes on to me but so what? Bob did all the things good fathers are supposed to do. He read stories to me before bedtime. He played tennis with me. He drove me and my sister, Melissa, to the piano teacher’s house for lessons. (He never covered his ears when we practiced.)

Me and Dad in Virginia Beach 1998
That’s me with Dad in Virginia Beach in 1998

When the fourth grade bully jumped on my back and knocked me down, Dad chased Maureen, grabbed her by the collar and hauled her into the principal’s office.

When I was in eighth grade, my parents wanted to get me into a high school in a better neighborhood. Dad talked to the principal. Tell the school your daughter wants to study cosmetology, the principal advised. Well what do you know? My make-believe interest in hair styling got me into a newer high school in a safer neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side. Way to go, Bob, and good tip from Mr. Mulcahey.

Born in 1910, Bob Miller grew up in a big family – he had something like 10 brothers and sisters. They lived in Menominee, a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “God’s country,” was how he described the area.

Bob moved south, lived in a boardinghouse when he was young and single and worked as a linotype operator. My mother, Claire, accused him of having that “boardinghouse reach” whenever he helped himself to seconds at dinner. Dad could really eat, especially dessert. For a man with a hearty appetite, Bob was always slender, skinny actually. I used to think I inherited his appetite and metabolism. When I was a girl, I could pack the food away and never gain an ounce. I also have slender fingers which I used to think I got from my father.

claire, bob and bobby
My parents, Bob and Claire, with their son, Bobby, in the 1940s

Bob was an unrefined gentleman. He cursed freely but the words didn’t mean much. He would have been a better dad if he had stood up to Claire occasionally. He always deferred to our high-strung, self-centered mother.

The last time I saw my father, he was flat on his back on a hospital bed. Even though he was dying, Bob gave me a smile when I said good-bye.

Bob Miller was not my biological father but I didn’t know that when he passed away in 1999, less than a year after Claire died. My loving but secretive parents never told Melissa and me we were adopted. We never found a single document related to our adoptions.  One of our cousins told us the truth in 2002.

My biological dad is “not legally known,” as the birth certificate puts it. That makes me some man’s love child. He’s a mystery to me whoever he is. As I wrote earlier, my bio dad liked to play golf but that’s all I know about him. He may know even less about me.

Do you know who your dad is? What do you think of him?