Tag Archives: Birth mothers

When DNA Results Are Disappointing

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.

Lillian when she graduated bigger
Lillian in 1953
nice photo of Lillian and Howard
Lillian probably in the 1970s

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 the DNAeXplained – 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.

On Monday – Native American Ancestry?

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.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard
Lillian

 

Medical History Part II

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.

whiskey photo in a glass
Image courtesy of
Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of
David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

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.

On Monday: Medical History Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about uncovering my medical history and the relief it gives me as an adoptee to know about the diseases that run in my family.

To be honest, though, it has not been easy to learn the truth about my mother, Lillian. My heart sank when I found out about her struggles with  alcohol and mental illness. She was not the only one in the family to fight those demons.

I’ll tell you more on Monday.

whiskey photo in a glass
Image courtesy of
Suat Eman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

Coming Monday: Uncovering Medical History

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.”

This is a common frustration for adoptees.

Fortunately, I’m no longer completely in the dark about the medical problems that run in my family.

If I learn nothing more about my biological kin, I will be grateful for the information I have about my birth mother’s health. Stay tuned. I’ll have more to say about medical history on Monday.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard
My birth mother, Lillian

Here’s to Adoptee Rights

A birth mother’s right to privacy should not trump an adoptee’s right to know where she came from, writes Natalie Turko-Norton in a letter published in the Montreal Gazette.

Turko-Norton eloquently argues that adoptees should not have to settle for incomplete information (or no information) about their origins.

full disclosure

“Their right should not be trumped by the birth mother’s right to anonymity,” writes Turko-Norton. “Her background is not a mystery. It is the child, now an adult, given up for adoption, whose life is a mystery. What gives society the right to condemn such a person to a life of ‘not-knowing’ because the birth mother wants to preserve her intact life and new family? This is not a level playing field by any means.”

Parallel Lives

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.

good photo of Claire + her sisters
My adoptive mother, Claire, center, with her sisters, El, left, and Marie

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 when she graduated bigger
My birth mother, Lillian, in 1953

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.

 

My birth mother, Lillian, was a married mother of four when she had me

Pictures of My Mother

Everything I knew about my birth mother’s life was based on what I had learned in a two-week whirlwind of document discoveries and long distance conversations with newly found relatives.

I was hungry to know what the woman, who died 30 years ago this month, looked like. For days I waited anxiously for the mail carrier to show up with a packet of vintage photographs.

“Your mother’s pictures are here,” my husband, Tom, announced after picking up the mail one day last week. I ran upstairs from my basement office.

Tom handed me a thick envelope. I started to cry.

Nobody’s life story is complete without photos. Inside the envelope, the faded pictures, dating back to the 1970s, show a woman with black hair and dark eyes. She’s rather slender for someone who had given birth to five children. Lillian alternately looks happy, haggard, tired and bored in photos showing her with her husband, surrounded by his family, with her sons and daughter.

The nicest photo, probably taken by a professional photographer, shows my mother looking attractive and chic in a sleeveless black and white dress, a curl of black hair on her pale forehead, standing near her husband who’s wearing a suit jacket and tie. Looks like they were at a party. Maybe their wedding day?

Image
My mother, Lillian, with husband, Howard

Another one of my favorites shows my mother standing alone in front of a lake, holding three large fish in both hands. She looks happy.

Lil Fishin' cropped

Back of Lil Fishing

Lillian did a lot of living in her 48 years. She even became a grandmother, which is mind-boggling to me. Her granddaughter told me about the happy times she had with my mother, who took her fishing. Lillian skinned and filleted their catch of the day.

The photos flesh out Lillian’s story for me. It wasn’t all tragic, which is the impression I came away with from early conversations with her family members. Looking at the photos, I can see she had some ordinary, even fun moments. I am relieved.

Wife, mother, awesome cook. Hard-working waitress, drinker, angler.  My mother wore a lot of hats. I will always treasure the photos that bring her to life in my imagination.

The Decline of Foreign Adoptions

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.

Image
Courtesy of Flickr/t3mplar

Continue reading The Decline of Foreign Adoptions

Hitting a Dead End

I hit a dead end in my search for bio dad. Ok, that’s a stretch. Finding my biological father seems next to impossible so I’ll be happy to get a few nuggets of information about the man, who’s a stranger to me.

Last week, I tried to reach a distant cousin. As an adult, she lived with her mother for a while and her mother was very close to my adoptive mom.  I have a hunch there could be a family tie linking my birth parents to my adoptive parents. My cousin might know something, I thought.

I left a couple of messages for people with my cousin’s last name in Green Bay, Wisconsin, her last known place of residence. The phone rang at 11:30 one night. I was in bed. My cousin’s son was on the phone. A little groggy, I explained what I was looking for. Sorry, he said, but my mother passed away a little over a year ago. She was about 65.

Damn! Why didn’t I reach out to my cousin sooner? I should have started this mission a long time ago.

Image
Courtesy of Flickr/Al-HikesAZ

Continue reading Hitting a Dead End