Tag Archives: Late Discovery Adoptees

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.

 

 

Adoptee’s Journey: Reuniting with Blood Relatives

As an adoptee, I’ve been on a journey to uncover the truth about my original family. As I look back on 2015, meeting my sister, Michelle, and niece, Chrissy, stand out as high points.

Adoptee reunites with biological family
The reunion came about after many phone calls. During those calls, Michelle spoke candidly about her childhood, revealing the unvarnished truth about growing up as the only girl, with three brothers, a beloved father, Dick, and Lillian, our hard drinking, hard living bipolar mother who struggled to keep everything together. They all lived in a modest house in Northbrook, a leafy suburb 35 miles north of the bungalow where I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago. Without going into all the details, Michelle survived a lot of hard knocks.

Planning the trip and traveling to my sister’s town, Galveston, Texas, felt exciting and unsettling, I was not the only nervous one. Michelle and Chrissy were as jittery about meeting me as I was about meeting them but as soon as they saw me, they welcomed me. Michelle was outside her house, smoking a cigarette, waiting for me as I drove up in my rental car. We looked each other up and down and then we hugged. Chrissy and I hugged. The three of us headed out for lunch at the Golden Corral.

Blood relatives: my sister, Michelle, center, and niece, Chrissy on the right
Blood relatives: I met my sister, Michelle, center, and niece, Chrissy, on the right, for the first time in 2015. For a late-discovery adoptee like me, it was very exciting.

Eating, shopping for trinkets, looking at family photos and gabbing, lots of gabbing, made the awkwardness go away. We had a good day together.

Michelle is the closest relative I’ve found since I started searching for family. Meeting her in person was cool. I wanted to have a face to connect with the friendly voice on the phone. Four and a half years older and several inches shorter than me, Michelle describes herself as a tomboy. People at the restaurant and gift shop came over to chat with my sister, who loves to talk.

Were we full or half sisters? During the visit, Michelle took a DNA test, which I had purchased for her. The test results established that we were half sisters with different fathers. That’s what Michelle had told me all along but I wanted proof.

It’s exciting to find a new sister. Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test and Ancestry’s DNA test have turned up hundreds of cousins who are somehow related to me and while it’s interesting to know I have so many relatives out there, it’s not nearly as thrilling as finding a sister.

Search angel helps adoptee find blood relatives
I found Michelle with the help of Marilyn Waugh, a wonderful search angel who tracked down family on my birth mother Lillian’s side. I also played detective. My husband, Tom, and I pored over records including obituaries which were available online. I made many phone calls and was able to track down Michelle’s stepmother, Jeannie, who put me in touch with Michelle.

Michelle called me first. “I’ve always known about you,” she said in her flat, Midwestern accent.

Finding a sister, hearing her voice on the phone and realizing she had known about me for most of her life while I was discovering her for the first time made my head spin. I don’t remember what I said – it was very awkward – but that’s how it all began.

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?

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?

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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.

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.

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Courtesy of Flickr/Al-HikesAZ

Continue reading Hitting a Dead End

Questions for My Mother

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.

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Courtesy of Flickr/Carrie Ann Images

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.

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Courtesy of Flickr/Mikecogh

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.

The Search for Family

I started my search for biological relatives. I sent 25 messages to strangers on Facebook who share my birth mother’s maiden name – Arvin.

I am hoping one of these strangers will offer clues about my birth mother, a woman I’ve never met. I wrote a nice, polite letter of introduction with the few facts I have about this woman – her name, place of birth, age when she had me.  So far, I’ve only heard back from one Arvin. She said birth mom is not related to anyone in her family and hinted at a possible family tie in Kentucky.  I am pursuing people in that state along with Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

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Courtesy of Flickr/psycho_pixie
(Probably) not my family members

Continue reading The Search for Family

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.