Tag Archives: Birth mother

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Why Adoptees Need Their Birth Certificates

I take my original birth certificate for granted. I don’t give it a second thought, even though it was less than two years ago that I got my hands on this document, which revealed my birth mother’s name.

my BC and thumb #4

But as an adoptee, I am one of the lucky ones. The only reason I have my original birth certificate is because I come from Illinois, one of the states that has unsealed birth certificates for adopted people. Many adoptees are not so fortunate. They can’t get their original birth documents because of old-fashioned state laws that keep those papers locked up like cold hard cash in a bank vault.

If you are adopted, the original birth certificate is a key to your origins. It reveals the name or names of your original parents, their hometowns, their ages, where they were living at the time of your birth, even whether or not you have a twin brother or sister. These are basic facts that non-adopted people know from day one. Why should adoptees in the 21st century be kept in the dark? It’s just wrong.

Without my original birth certificate, I never would have been able to find out anything about my mother, Lillian, her children, her husbands or other details about her life and death. My quest to learn about my original family and medical history never would have gone anywhere without that piece of paper. My birth certificate unlocked doors.

Adopted people are not the only ones who want these vital documents unsealed. Lorraine Dusky, a birth mother, makes a compelling case for opening the record vault. “Adopted people are not children all their lives,” she writes. “They grow up and need not only updated family medical information, but they need and desire to be whole and integrated individuals.”

I am glad to see a number of states are starting to recognize the rights of adoptees. In Ohio, adult adoptees will be able to get their original birth certificates under a recent change in state law. Lawmakers in New York and Georgia are considering similar actions. (Here’s an overview of birth certificate access state by state, courtesy of the American Adoption Congress.)

Writing about this has brought back a memory. In 2012, it came in the mail, many weeks after I had requested my birth certificate from the state of Illinois. Until that day, I didn’t have a single document related to my adoption, a secret affair that didn’t involve an adoption agency.

My hands shook a bit as I ripped open the envelope. Inside was a non-certified birth certificate containing an honest answer to that basic question I had wondered about for years: Who is my birth mother?

me and the BC best

The birth certificate dispelled a couple of myths. Contrary to what I had thought, my birth mother was not a member of my adoptive family, nor was she a teenager who got in trouble. Lillian was a married woman of 28 with four children when she brought me into the world. Of course, my birth certificate did not fill in all the blanks, especially the one for my father, who is listed as “not legally known.”

Still, it was thrilling to see the facts for the first time. I was no longer the “undocumented” adoptee. Those kernels of truth got me going on a mission to dig up more truths about my family history.

No adoptee should be denied this experience.

On Monday: Original Birth Certificates

I take my birth certificate for granted but I shouldn’t. As an adoptee, I am fortunate to come from Illinois, one of the states that has unsealed original birth certificates for adopted adults.

Many adoptees from states that still keep the records sealed are stuck. Without that piece of paper, adoptees can’t  get very far in their search for biological family.

I’ll have more on Monday.

my BC and thumb #4

Coming on Monday: “Parallel Lives”

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.

good photo of Claire + her sisters
My mother, Claire, center, with her sisters, El, left, and Marie
Lillian when she graduated bigger
My first mother, Lillian