Tag Archives: birth parents

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.

 

 

Original Birth Certificates: A Basic Right for Adoptees

Maybe I hit a nerve. After posting an article on the importance of original birth certificates, I heard from many adoptees who are fed up with birth certificate laws that keep them from learning basic truths about their origins.

“At 47, doesn’t the Legislature think I am old enough to know where I come from?” one reader wrote. “It’s crazy! I was born in North Dakota. Getting information from them is worse than pulling teeth.

“Over the 30 years I’ve been searching, I have learned I have a sister who’s a year older than me who was also given up. You’d think maybe they would offer up a little information about her, but no such luck. I wasn’t even given a birth month, just a year. North Dakota is as old fashioned as they get. I doubt they will ever give up the information. At my age, medical information is almost a must.”

These restrictive laws are on the books in many states. (If you wonder whether you can get your original birth certificate, here is a state-by-state summary from the American Adoption Congress.)

As if it’s not bad enough that adoptees can’t get their hands on these documents, many have resorted to expensive alternate routes to obtain a few facts about their births. It’s not unusual at all for adoptees to shell out several hundreds of dollars for court fees and confidential intermediaries. Responsible adults who have jobs, families and homes of their own have to spend big bucks just to get a few tidbits of information about their births and birth parents. Of course, those who don’t have the money are completely out of luck. This is not right.

me and the BC bestI am one of the lucky adoptees. I was born in Illinois, which recently unsealed original birth certificates for adopted people. A couple of years ago, I sent the Illinois Department of Public Health a check for $15 or $20. Months later, I had a non-certified copy of my birth certificate.  That document revealed my birth mother’s maiden name, married name, age, address and her place of birth. With that information, I began my search for more facts about blood relatives. Thanks to that piece of paper and a wonderful search angel, I have been able to learn many important things about medical and family history.

As far as birth certificate access goes, Illinois was ahead of New York, the state where I currently live. I am glad to see the Empire State moving in the right direction. Here’s a great 20-minute video on the New York state adoptee bill of rights featuring comments from birth parents and adoptees.

Medical History Part 1

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.

Lillian and Howard, wedding day
Lillian with her husband, Howard, in 1971

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.

jake on clinton rd
My son, Jake, in 2013. Below, little Jake and me in 2003

me and Jake at beach in 2003

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.

 

 

 

 

Adoptees Sought for Research

Researchers at Montclair State University are looking for adults who were adopted for a research project. They’re especially interested in hearing from people like me who found out they were adopted late in life.

If you are a late-discovery adoptee and have 25 minutes to spare, check out their online survey. The researchers are trying  to get a handle on the emotional impact of adoption discovery on adults. How did finding out you were adopted affect your sense of well being? Were you hurt by the news? How did you deal with it?

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The survey is interesting. It made me think back on the time 11 years ago when I got the call from my sister, Melissa. Turns out we both had been adopted. What a bombshell! I was dazed by the news.  Our adoptive parents were deceased so we couldn’t confront them.

While learning this shocking truth left me feeling unsettled, the information didn’t damage me. I was (and still am) happily married, with a little boy, dog and a career. Life was good (and it still is.) That’s not to say the news had no impact. The revelation punched holes in my life story. I question where I came from, and wonder what my birth mom’s situation was when she brought me into the world.

If you want to find out more about this project, call Amanda Baden, the lead researcher at Montclair State University, at 973-655-7336. You can also email her at badena@mail.montclair.edu.

Open Records Help Adoptees Fill in Blanks

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).

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My original birth certificate
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My original birth certificate with the first birth certificate listing my adoptive parents

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.