Scars and Chain Link Fences

Scars fade with time. And the ones that never go away, well, they build character, maturity, caution. — Erin McCarthy

Relationships develop slowly.  Because they have to.  Adults, with their character, reasoning, actions and reactions having been molded by a lifetime of individual (and sometimes solitary) experience, are often cautious.  Sometimes the lifetime of experience builds walls, causing unintended isolation and a kind of numbness to what’s real and what matters. The walls can not only separate you from other people, they can separate you from your true self–making relationships difficult, or even impossible.fence flowers 1

I like to think that I have no walls.  But I know that is not entirely true.  I would characterize them more as fences, rather than walls. Something like a chain-link fence that I can see through and past. It’s easy for me to let people in . . . most of the time.  It’s super easy for me to go outside of my fence and do whatever it is I need to do. But there are times when I don’t let anyone in. And there are times I just hang out . . . alone. But doesn’t everyone have walls or fences?

Writing this blog is a big deal for me.  I’ve let all of you in.  You know my reality–I’ve told it exactly like it is.  The truth–except for changing some of the names.  My reality.  As much as I know.  As much as I allow myself to feel.

I know that my reality, or my adoption truth, is different from anyone else’s.  It’s even different for those who are directly involved in my story.  A person’s reality, whether or not adoption is part of the picture, is a obviously a product of many subjective perceptions, filtered through a personal and unique emotional, psychological and sometimes spiritual lens. But without the truth, reality is skewed.  It’s wrong.

Everyone is entitled to know the facts or learn their own truth. If an individual does not know his or her truth, the lies become the story.  The lies become the history.  The lies become the untruth. It’s unfair.

Why can’t we all be on the right side of history?  The correct and only reality: the truth . An adoptee’s experience as he or she grows should be affirmed with the truth–the story of what really happened.  It’s understood that as a child she is told only small parts of the truth.  As much as a child’s brain can handle and still allow love and trust to enter the picture.  But as an adult, she should be given the opportunity to hear the truths from those that lived it, and to be offered context in order to process and to own that truth. With that truth, an adoptee can build a sense of trust and openness, as well as a willingness to share. Intimacy.

I am thankful that Jackson is open and honest.  He and I are learning about each other.  I am happy that he is open to learning more about himself by letting me be a part of his truth. It’s amazing, really. He’s still grappling with the idea of having a “new” 50-year-old daughter and he has many questions himself.  Questions that I can’t answer.  His truth, like mine, depends on context and answers that can be provided by only one person: Margaret.

Talk about walls. As you know, I was not able to break down Margaret’s walls.  I believe she’s happy content oblivious numb living inside those walls. She feels protected–from what, I do not know. Jackson still toys with the idea of writing to Margaret.  He’s even mentioned wanting to “see” her.

He asked me recently about how I felt about Margaret today. My response:

I want to be as clear as possible about how I feel about Margaret. I know enough about her (her situation 50 years ago, as well as her life as an adult, which includes a successful career and fierce independence as a woman), and while I would have loved to have had some sort of open communication with her over the years, I understand that I won’t. Frankly, the person that I am today doesn’t want to meet her. In my heart I believe that she would disappoint me if I ever did meet her in person–she was not meant to be a mother and she absolutely did the right thing in relinquishing me for adoption. That being said, I am not angry or resentful. Disappointed–yes. But not angry. And definitely not longing for some motherly relationship I never had.

I loved his response.

Laureen, I like you very much…. you are honest and straight forward. I am more and more inclined to write your mom and tell her exactly what has happened here. She needs to understand that whatever has happened is old business. Life is what it is about right now. Making things better on this planet is what it is about. I just don’t want to cause her trouble.

Warm Fuzzy

Warm Fuzzy

I especially liked the “I like you very much” part. [warm fuzzies]

Who’s Your Daddy?

Thank you, Science and Technology. 23andMe gave me a genetically “clean” bill of health. Information presented included risk for certain diseases, carrier status, drug response, genetic traits and “health labs.”  23andMe detected a couple of genes that indicated an elevated risk for non-life threatening conditions (psoriasis, restless leg syndrome).  As for the possibility of inherited conditions, my test results detected no mutations or gene variants  that might indicate any of the serious inherited conditions screened by 23andMe. Of course, this was before 23andMe suspended their health-related genetic testing to comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s directive. Lucky me.

After I received the health results, I played around with the ancestry section of the site. I was fascinated to find out that I was British and Irish.  I didn’t figure that!  Given my propensity for arguing, raising my voice in exciting situations, and talking with my hands (flailing uncontrollably while talking, actually), I figured there would be a bit of Italian in me. But no.  Oh well . . . I was enchanted with being British and Irish.  Turns out I was visiting my ancestors’ homeland when I spent that year abroad in college.  Cheers!  My adoptive mother would have loved to have known that.  And with the Irish bit, I secretly imagine that I am related to Bono. Don’t laugh! My past, including my heritage and ancestry, had always been something I could play with in my imagination.  Adoptees do that a lot.

I don’t know why I never thought to look at the DNA Relatives section of the site.  I knew who my biological mother was.  I knew that she didn’t have any other children.  What were the odds that I’d find anything or anyone meaningful through a DNA match?  First, I didn’t imagine that my birthfather was actually looking for me (most likely he was not aware of my existence).  And given his age (early 70’s), I didn’t think he’d be spitting  into a tube getting in touch with his genes. I didn’t venture to the DNA Relatives section.

A few weeks after analyzing the health data, I received an e-mail from 23andMe.  It was a conduit e-mail, from a “potential relative.”

Hi,

Through our shared DNA, 23andMe has identified us as relatives. Our predicted relationship is 4th Cousin, with a likely range of 3rd to 6th Cousin. Would you like to explore our relationship?

4th cousin (maybe even 6th)?  Whoop de doo.  I guess because of the fact that I had no blood relatives that I actually knew, except for my own boys, a 4th cousin did not rouse any sort of curiosity in me.  Even if he was related to me on my paternal side, how would I know?  A potential match would request lineage information via a list of surnames. A potential match with a common surname could help someone putting together a family tree fill in the blanks.  I’m afraid my blanks go much deeper than that. I could not help anyone. I don’t have any surnames.

I ignored the message.  But then I got a few more.  They were all pretty much the same . . . . 3rd to 6th Cousin, 4th to Distant Cousin, etc.  I finally decided to go online at 23andMe and check out the DNA Relatives. I knew that I could “shut off” the notifications if I wanted to, but I have to admit I was a little curious to see what kind of matches I had and how 23andMe presented the information.

Just as I expected, it was a little weird . . . and a lot overwhelming.  The information link to the data looked like this:

Potential "Relatives"

Potential “Relatives”

762 potential relatives?  Sheesh!  What does one even do with this kind of information.  Distant cousins?  Who even cares?  Okay, maybe a lot of people do care about distant cousins–it’s a way to find common ancestors and build your family tree.  But I don’t have a family tree.  Or even a bush.  Or a weed.  

Then I saw it.  1 CLOSE FAMILY.  What?  Who?  I clicked on it. Before 23andMe would reveal any details, a warning popped up.  I had to confirm that I really, really wanted the information.  This was not a game. 

23andMe asks for two layers of consent before it shows family relationships. First, users are given the chance to turn off the “relative finder” function, which shows relations as close as second cousins. Once you’ve opted in, if 23andMe has found any close relatives (closer than a second cousin), a warning is presented to the user via popup that explains how this “new” evidence of a close family relationship can be unexpected and even upsetting in some cases.  Upsetting?  Been there.  Done that (with Margaret).

You may learn information about yourself that you do not anticipate.  Such information may provoke strong emotion.

Thanks, 23andMe.  Now I’m scared.  But I clicked “proceedanyway.  

Father!

Father!

What the hell?  My biological father?  23andMe found my biological father when no one else in the entire world (except for Margaret) knew who he was?  Boy, howdy, this is not a game.  Or is it?  I felt like I had won the lottery.  I just needed someone to confirm the ticket.

I didn’t even know what the information meant:

50.0% shared, 23 segments

But I sure as hell knew what “Father” meant.  I would do the research later on the science and technical stuff.  I had to contact this guy!  Initial contact had to be made through 23andMe.  I could hardly think straight as I wrote the message:

Hi,

I am contacting you because 23andMe has identified you as a relative of mine because of our shared DNA. 23andMe has predicted, through our DNA “match,” that you are my biological father. You won’t recognize my name, because I was adopted and bear the name of my adoptive parents. However, my birth mother’s name is Margaret Michaels. I hope that the name Margaret Michaels is familiar to you, although it was 50 years ago and I understand that it was a difficult time for both of you. I hope that you will respond to my message and that you are interested in exploring our relationship. I look forward to hearing from you! Laureen Pittman (original birth certificate reads: “Baby Girl Michaels”).

Crazy, right?  But it can happen. 23andMe even said so.

You can be confident that the matches listed in DNA Relatives are your relatives, even though they may be quite distantly related to you. The vast majority of relatives found by DNA Relatives share a common ancestor within the last five to ten generations. A few may be more distantly related. There is, however, the possibility of finding a much closer relative — including a parent or sibling. (23andMe Customer Care: What Can 23andMe Do For Me If I Am Adopted?)

It has happened before. The stories I found amazed me. Some scared me. Some were happy endings, or new beginnings.  Sometimes the results were, indeed, unexpected. This story is one of my favorites: Whoops. How DNA Site 23andMe Outed Parents Who Gave Their Baby Up For Adoption. And this one: When Family Ties Turn Into Knots. I guess I liked the stories that tore open the carefully crafted lies revealed life changing information and brought enlightenment to people seeking information.

Science and technology have this incredible way of uncovering secrets.

I waited for my secrets to be revealed.

You Can Lie, But You Can’t Hide

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.
― Herman Melville.

Our lives in this world are defined by our relationships with other people.  Connections we have with family, friends, acquaintances, and even people we don’t know (yet), are what makes us who we are. We are known to others by the way we treat other people, our capacity for empathy and compassion, or lack thereof.

Most people will agree that their relationships with family members are the most important bonds of all.  I agree.  I define family to include not only people related to us by marriage and blood, but also those people in our lives who appreciate having us in theirs. Friends who encourage us to pursue what makes us happy, what is healthy, and what makes us feel whole.  Friends who embrace not only who and what we  are, but also what we strive to be.

I remember my Dad telling me that if I paid attention, I could learn something from every single person I met in life. People can and will teach you life lessons–you just need to be open.  You need to be open to the good and the bad.  You need to be open to the unknown. Sometimes it takes extra effort or courage to allow life’s opportunities and adventures to hit you head on without allowing the fear of the unknown or what you think you know about a particular situation shut you down.

It never occurred to me that my bio mom (I’m more comfortable referring to this way, rather than referring to her as “birthmother”) might not be open to contact with me.  Although I did not expect a “happily ever after” type reunion–she had been through a pretty dark time in her life when I was born, after all. I did hope that there had been enough healing in her life that she would be able to accept me. Or at least acknowledge me,  I mistakenly thought that she’d at least want to hear that I turned out okay–that the family that adopted me loved me and provided a home and environment where I could grow and flourish,

So I waited.  I had given the private investigator a copy of my non-identifying story.  It was pretty easy for the investigator to positively identify and find her. With her last name, my date of birth, and the fact that she had given birth while serving a sentence in federal prison, all the investigator had to do was spend some time at the prison going  through the records around the time of my birth.

Margaret Sue Michaels. Born 12 April 1945 in Chicago.  Arrested August 1963.  Inmate number 0738.  In hospital Dec 15 thru 19th–no reason given.  Arrested at the school she was attending, turned in by her step-father.  Sentenced to 10 years.

Wow.  Turned in by her stepfather.  I remembered the details from Mr. Witt’s non-identifying  report. Margaret didn’t remember much about her “real” father.  According to the story I had, Margaret was very happy with her stepfather.  She felt that “he was all things a father should be.”

So what happened to Margaret after she was released from prison?  The investigator hit a lot of dead ends trying to track her down (it will become apparent a little later why ), so the investigator turned to the information I had provided about Margaret’s half-siblings and other family members to try to make some connections. Those individuals were not so hard to find.

The written report I have from the private investigator chronicles the search, her contact with other family members in an attempt to locate Margaret, and finally, her initial contact with Margaret. Some of the other family members that were contacted were helpful, providing information that would lead to Margaret’s whereabouts.  Some of the family members were not helpful, but not because they didn’t want to help, but because they thought the investigator was on the trail of the wrong person.  The Margaret Michaels they knew didn’t have any children.

It was actually Margaret that contacted the investigator, after receiving a message from a family member that she was looking for her.

Report on phone call from Margaret Michaels, natural mother of Laureen Hubachek: Collect call about 10 am, very angry: “Do not tell me about my daughter, l know all that.  I want to tell you how totally insensitive and unethical it was of you to contact so many people–how many have you contacted?  Tell me, how many!”  I told her I had only spoken to 2 individuals.  One was her mother Eve.  She demanded: “Don’t contact anyone else! I had to do something very terrible!  I had to lie to my mother!”

The investigator reminded her that she had only used public information and records and that if she hadn’t kept her whereabouts unlisted and hidden, she could have found her without contacting anyone else.  That didn’t sit well.  Margaret lashed out: “Maybe that should tell you something!  I didn’t want to be found!”

Margaret went on to explain to the investigator that the social worker, the good and great Mr. Witt, had already contacted her.  Wow!  Impressive!  But Mr. Witt  had to seek her out through other family members, as well as, just like the investigator.  Mr Witt had also contacted Eve.  Eve told Mr. Witt the same thing she told the investigator: “Margaret never had a child.”

Margaret went on to tell off the investigator–lots of colorful words were used. In the report I have, the conversation is described by the investigator as “hostile.”  She indicated that she was considering signing the Waiver of Confidentiality (wait, I thought that was against the rules . . .) and if she decided to contact me, she would do it through the social worker.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fantastic that Mr. Witt went to the trouble to find Margaret, tell her that I was looking for her and that I had signed the Waiver, and  solicit a signed waiver from her.  Honestly, if I had thought that the county social services would provide me with search services for free, I would have never paid money to an investigator to do the job. Remember, the Waiver I signed even says: “I understand that the law prohibits the Department or licensed adoption agency from soliciting, directly or indirectly the execution of such a waiver.”  In fact, I had read plenty of stories about waivers actually being ignored.  Unfortunately, having a “Waiver of Confidentiality” on file is no guarantee that a social worker or clerk won’t ignore it (or be just too lazy to even look at the file to see whether there is a signed waiver in place)  if a birth relative comes looking. There have even been cases where an agency  has had contact from both parties (adoptee and adoptive parent), where the worker or workers at the agency never let either of the parties know they were being sought! The waivers were just sitting in a file!  That wasn’t going to happen to me. I hired the investigator because I wanted to move forward, not just sit and wait.

Well, the investigator called me on the phone to relay all of this information to me initially.  I remember where I was.  I was at work–in an office at my university.  I cried.  I was so frustrated that she was so angry.  How could she be angry?  It was her lie.  Not mine.  What did I do?  Well, I took a step back and waited for a while.  In the back of my mind I thought for sure she’d make contact through Mr. Witt.  She’d cool off and figure out what to tell her family, then sign the waiver.  We’d get to meet (or at least talk on the phone) and I’d apologize for upsetting her.  It wasn’t my intent to be an intrusion or to burst into her life and claim her as my long lost mother.  I had a mother and a father and a whole family that were perfectly fine–great actually.  She had to want to meet me, right?

Wrong.  I never heard again from Mr. Witt.  Or Margaret.  A few weeks after the phone call from the investigator, I received the complete report on the search in the mail, along with a short letter:

Dear Laureen,

At the request of our Director, I am enclosing your birthmother’s address.  The telephone is not available, but we could get it with some expense.

The investigator provided Margaret’s address and confirmed through public records that she was the owner of the home.  Case closed.

How did I feel?  Well, let’s get the obvious out of the way.  Hurt.  Rejected.  But I also felt compassion.  At first I really wanted to apologize to her, if you can believe that!  I wanted to apologize for disrupting her world.  She was angry.  It was my fault.

After a week or so though, I, too, became angry.  I was obviously still hurt, but I came to realize that I did nothing wrong.  It was Margaret that lied (or hid the truth–however she wants to define it).  I realize with Margaret, there was a double whammy of shame and guilt going on back in 1963–not only was she 18 and pregnant, but she was also serving a prison term.  But it had been over 20 years!  There had to have been some soul-searching and healing going on.  You’d think.  Anyway, whether or not she had healed or buried her guilt and shame, lied, was successful in her life, or whether she was living in a garbage bin behind the grocery store–it wasn’t my fault. I still believed that I had a right to information.  Information about my birth, about my ancestry, my heritage, my birthfather and other family members. Medical information, My needs are real  and valid.  I need to know my story.

Well Adjusted? How Do You Really Feel?

I was over the moon with this new information. So many possibilities! I had this entire extended family of aunts and uncles and a maternal grandmother. And I felt that I was getting so close to finding my bio mom. Remember, I had already hired a private investigator who was off and running with my bio mom’s name. I couldn’t wait to get this treasure trove of new “non-identifying” information to the investigator. . . .

Whoa . . . maybe I should slow down here. I’m thinking that before I go any further with my story, I should at least acknowledge all of the different attitudes, emotions and opinions surrounding adoption. This story is filled with emotional roller-coaster inducing twists and turns. Frankly, at times, even I don’t know how to feel. I’ll give it a try. So here’s my basic primer on adoption.

First, there are laws (and they differ from state to state!). Legally, adoption is a statutory process that terminates a parent’s legal rights and duties towards her biological child and substituting similar rights and responsibilities with the child’s adoptive parents. Most states have laws that mandate that the original birth records be made confidential (“sealed”). Confidentiality and sealed records were promoted by authorities as a way to decrease the stigma associated with illegitimacy and to make child welfare the governing rule in placement decisions.

During the 1950’s and continuing through the early 1970’s, there were (and still are to a certain degree) social pressures and growing trends, such as the stigmas on unwed mothers and “illegitimate” children and maternity homes as “warehouses” for unwed mothers, where social workers may have practiced manipulating coercion tactics aimed at convincing young mothers to give up their newborn babies (there was even a name given to this period of adoption prior to Roe v. Wade: The Baby Scoop Era). Finally, there were medical advances (such as “the pill”) and the landmark legal decision of Roe v. Wade, which sparked a national debate on abortion rights that continues today. All of these things can affect in an individual’s attitude about adoption. And there is much more.

I know that when I began my search some 25 plus years ago, I thought I had educated myself pretty thoroughly about the sociology, legalities, and psychology of adoption and I knew exactly what I was feeling. Moreover, I [thought I] knew my rights as an individual. There was a growing movement in many states towards opening adoption records (making available to adult adoptees the original unamended birth certificate). It just made sense–of course a human being is entitled to know his or her birth origins, ethnicity, heritage, biological roots or whatever you want to call it. It is one’s basic identity. And it would be great to have some basic medical history–it gets old writing “NOT APPLICABLE–ADOPTED” on pages and pages of medical history forms year after year.

Another big draw for a lot of adoptees, as simple as it sounds, is the desire to find someone “who looks like me.” Seems kind of trivial, really, given everything my adoptive family gave me. But every single adopted person I have ever spoken to talks about the longing to find out where they got their blue eyes, or their thick hair, or their long legs, or their need to flail their hands wildly when they talk (yes, I wonder where I got it). It’s called biological or genetic mirroring. I didn’t know it had a name until just a few years ago, but it makes complete sense. People who are not adopted may find it difficult to understand, but genetic mirroring is easily understood by an adopted child. In a natural biological family, a child experiences mirroring every day from members of his or her genetic family. It’s almost subliminal how it works. Similarities silently confirm belonging. Everything from physical resemblances to how a parent raises an eyebrow, walks, her tone of voice, his metabolism, his athletic ability, musical talent, artistic ability, physical strength, etc. These genetic markers are fundamental to who we are, providing building blocks for one’s personality to bloom naturally. This all takes place at a subconscious level and is pretty much taken for granted by biological families.

I’m jumping forward a little here, but after the birth of my first child, the genetic mirroring thing became apparent. It was so obvious that my son looked like his father’s side of the family–everyone could see it. And they mentioned it, too. “He looks just like his dad!” It was obvious to me, as well–but what hurt was that he didn’t look a thing like me. Everyone mentioned that, too. I remember staring into his little face for hours trying to compare our noses, the shape of our eyes, chin . . . I got nothin’. As he got older (he’s now 22), his features matured and I can definitely see similarities between us, as well as similar personality traits–just like a “regular” biological family.

Back to adoptees. Generally, adoptees are conditioned from the beginning (assuming they know they are adopted) to be grateful–they were chosen by their adoptive parents. There is usually a story ingrained in them about how their biological parent or parents either were not able or did not want to take care of them. They were saved by their adoptive parents from a life as an orphan. The story is usually meant to comfort the child. But really, it’s kind of scary. On the flip side, as a child gets older and understands a little more about being adopted, it becomes clear that even though they were chosen by one family, they were “unchosen,” or rejected by another. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but in the mind of a child, it’s pretty simple. One result is that the adoptee can be overly focused on the needs of others–adoptees tend to be “people pleasers,” always trying to please other people, especially their parents. After all, the reason we were placed with adoptive parents in the first place was to fulfill their desire to have a child; to make them happy or “whole.” In addition, an adoptee may be fearful (consciously or unconsciously) of being rejected (again). Always walking on eggshells. Always trying to figure out how to fit in.

There are so many theories about what an adoptee should feel: abandonment, rejection, isolation, low self-esteem, grief and trust issues–and that’s just for starters. Some psychologists or adoption “experts” also believe that all adoptees experience a deep physiological and psychological trauma due to the unnatural severing of the tie between the biological mother and child. According to these “experts,” the trauma will stay with the adoptee for the duration of his or her life, together with a deep sense of loss and grief that they are not allowed to mourn. Whoa, that sounds serious. The fact is, being adopted and living a “normal” life as a “well-adjusted” adoptee is much more complicated than one would imagine. And each adoptee feels different.

The truth is, some adoptees will identify readily with some or all of these feelings; others will not. Some adoptees will feel the need to search for their biological family; some will not. There isn’t any one right or wrong way for an adopted individual to feel. Those that do choose to search will have their own reasons. I do believe, however, that any individual, adopted or not, is entitled to know his or her own identity, obtain and possess any legal or government documents that pertain to historical, genetic, and legal identification, including legal name(s) before adoption, place and date of birth; and the identities of biological parents.

Okay. So now you’ve been inside the head of an adult adoptee. Sort of. But to understand the whole picture, you also have to understand the mind of a mother who relinquishes her child to adoption. Well, good luck with that. Just like adoptees, birthmothers come in all shapes and sizes. There are birthmothers out there who believe they made the right decision in giving up their child. There are birthmothers out there who regret their decision. There are birthmothers who claim that they were coerced or shamed into relinquishing their child. Some will even claim that their babies were forcibly taken from them. Some search for their “lost” children and yearn for a reunion. Some do not.

Now you know. Or you don’t. The truth is, you know about as much as I did when I started my search. I promise I’ll be honest about and explain as much as possible my own feelings as I move ahead with my story. Be warned, though, on occasion my own feelings were unexpected. Sometimes I would feel different from one hour to the next. Or one year to the next. As I said before, it’s a journey. I’m still trying to find my way.