Skeptical? DNA Doesn’t Lie.

So, what did it mean?

50.0% shared, 23 segments

23andMe tests autosomal DNA. To break it down as simply as possible (I’m not a scientist and most of what I’ve read about DNA and genetics goes right over my head, so it helps me to keep it simple), the majority of our DNA is autosomal DNA. An autosome refers to numbered chromosomes, as opposed to the sex chromosomes. We all have 22 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes (the X chromosome and the Y chromosome).

The examination of one’s autosomal DNA is highly useful for genealogical purposes. If you share identical segments of DNA with another person, you share a recent common ancestor. The length and number of these identical segments will predict how close the relationship is. The more autosomal DNA that you have in common with another person, the more closely related you are.

A child receives 47-50% of their autosomal DNA from each of their parents, and similarly on average a child receives about 25% of his autosomal DNA from each of his four grandparents. The chromosomes recombine, or mix, as they are passed down from parent to child, so the size of possible shared segments gets successively smaller with each generation.

So check this out:

50% Mother, father, siblings
25% Grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, half-siblings, double first cousins
12.5% Great-grandparents, first cousins, great-uncles, great-aunts, half-aunts/uncles, half-nephews/nieces
6.25% First cousins once removed, half first cousins
3.125% Second cousins, first cousins twice removed
1.563% Second cousins once removed
0.781% Third cousins, second cousins twice removed
0.391% Third cousins once removed
0.195% Fourth cousins
0.0977% Fourth cousins once removed
0.0488% Fifth cousins
0.0244 Fifth cousins once removed
0.0122% Sixth cousins
0.0061% Sixth cousins once removed
0.00305% Seventh cousins
0.001525% Seventh cousins once removed
0.000763% Eighth cousins

(Data from International Society of Genetic Genealogy.)

If you are wading through the vast sea of DNA testing to aid your search, I would recommend reading author and adoptee, Richard Hill‘s website, guide and book, Finding Family.  His story is nothing short of amazing.  He searched for decades and finally found answers through DNA testing.  His results were not at straightforward as mine in the beginning–an adventure for sure. He started his DNA search when the science was just starting to evolve and he followed it through its evolution, using all of the available testing sites and sorting through all of the available information.  Mr. Hill has generously compiled all of the useful and invaluable information and has made it available to anyone who is searching.  For free.

I spent an entire weekend researching and trying to figure out what “50%, 23 segments” meant (thank you technology and Richard Hill!).  I was convinced that the Father that 23andMe found was my biological father.  Was he convinced?  Not so much.

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.

Hope Springs Eternal

Hope itself is a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords; but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain.  -Samuel Johnson

So I had embraced the science–DNA genetic research and testing as a tool to reveal or predict health risks.  Everybody was doing it.  I jumped on the band wagon.  Why not?

I had also embraced the technology side of things.  The  world-wide interweb was my friend.  My silent partner.  My lifeline, if you will.

I was sure Margaret was relieved not to have heard from me for more than 2 decades and I wasn’t about to try to reach out to her again, but I still had questions.  What about my birth father?  I was pretty sure that Margaret was the only person who knew who he was.  But I knew Margaret wasn’t about to give up that information.  I knew Margaret had no other children, but what if I had siblings on my father’s side?  And what about Margaret’s siblings–my aunts and uncles–some of whom were closer to my age than Margaret’s?

Thanks to the internet–that wondrous gem of technology and my personal lifeline–I was able to keep track of Margaret’s whereabouts–not in a stalker kind of way–more like a “lets-see-what-she’s-up-to” once a year kind of way. I was keeping hope alive. The internet also made it easy to find Margaret’s siblings. She had 4 half-siblings–I knew this from the non-identifying information. Over the 2 decades since I had received the non-identifying puzzle pieces, I had been able to roughly put the pieces together.  Facebook made it even easier to find them. I found them easily, but I was actually terrified to reach out. I knew how Margaret felt and that scared me. I wondered how they felt, or if they even knew about me. How much did they know? How close were they to Margaret?  How would they react if I did reach out? Would they even believe such a story?

As I waited for the health results from 23andMe, I crafted a way to reach out to the siblings. It was also a rogue attempt to reach out to the world wide web to see if anyone would be able to help me find my birth father. A focused rogue attempt.  I got the idea from the internet, of course. There was a growing trend of using social media to find people. People were “advertising”  for all sorts of reasons: missing persons, locating people after natural disasters or after terror attacks, and there seemed to be a growing trend of adoptees and birth parents searching by posting pictures and pleas for assistance that pulled desperately on heartstrings.The power and reach of social media was undeniable. Like a cheesy 80’s shampoo commercial . . . I told two friends; and they told two friends, and so on, and so on . . . (okay, so I’m dating myself with that one).

As I said, my attempt was quite focused.  I figured if anyone knew anything about my birth father, it would be Margaret.  And perhaps her siblings. Margaret was not on Facebook, but most of her siblings were. With the mention of her name and circumstances of my birth right out there in Facebook, someone would have to connect.  Maybe they had information–maybe they knew things about Margaret and even my birth father!  Maybe the door would be opened so that Margaret and I could finally connect.  I had no delusions about a relationship, but I still had hope for answers.

So, I prepared my social media plea, which included the photos that appear in my header for this blog, along with a simple plea requesting help in finding my birthfather.  I disclosed my date of birth, location of birth (California Institute for Women in Chino), my birthmother’s name (that would get the attention of Margaret’s siblings, for sure) and some other incidentals that would pretty much leave no doubt in the siblings’ minds that I was legit.  I posted it in July.  I simultaneously sent friend requests to the siblings who were also on Facebook.  That way, they were sure to see my post.

It worked.  The siblings accepted my friend requests . . . and I started a meaningful conversation (via e-mail) with one of Margaret’s sisters.  I was hopeful.  They had known nothing about me (my post on Facebook was how they found out about me).  And Margaret’s sister made it perfectly clear that Margaret was still not open to contact and really had no interest in discussing the “situation” (past or present) with them (or me!).  I wasn’t surprised.  But I was still hopeful.

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. -Albert Einstein

Quiet, But Too Well Poised to Be Shy

I understand the secrecy. I understand the shame.  But when a woman keeps a secret such as giving birth and giving away a baby, the secret, continued lies and shame should not follow her or her child for life.

Let’s clear up this secrecy and betrayal stuff once and for all.  A birthmother may be told that the birth records are “sealed,” but in reality, privacy cannot be promised or guaranteed, nor should it be expected. We’re talking about another human being’s identity and existence in this world!  Putting emotions aside, in fact, privacy and anonymity  is not  promised to a birthmother. Research has shown that the true intent of sealing the original birth certificate (and concocting a new one) was never meant to protect birthparents.  The two primary reasons for sealing original birth records back when the practice began (likely sometime before 1940)  were 1) to keep birthparents from interfering with adoptive families, and 2) to protect adopted children from the stigma of “illegitimacy.” Birthparents were never guaranteed anonymity under state law or in any adoption/relinquishment documents they may have signed. (Donaldson, Evan B., www.adoptioninstitute.org)

I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong, unlawful, illegal, prohibited, criminal or even irregular. So why did I feel so bad?  Guilty, even. Many adoptees dive into the unknown with their desire to search for their biological family, even if they’ve had a positive experience with their adoptive families. It’s normal.  It’s even expected.  You can’t deny it–even for individuals raised with their biological families, questions about relatives (what’s up with that “crazy” uncle?), ancestors (maybe you’re related to Annie Oakley, or you share a common ancestor with Frank Sinatra) and family history abound.  Genealogy is big business.

As for birthparents, existing studies indicate the overwhelming majority are not opposed to being “found” by their adult children. Some even seek out their children after years of longing and regret. But always lurking in the back of an adoptee’s mind is the question, “What if my birthmother doesn’t want to be found?” Research shows that the likelihood of a birth mother rejecting contact is extremely small (1%-5%) (www.adoptionbirthmothers.org), but of course, there is still that possibility. Hell, I’m living proof!  But, why?  How can facing the truth be that terrible?   I started out by just rationalizing that she may just be the sort of person I wouldn’t want to have contact with, anyway.  Besides, I knew plenty of people who grew up with their biological parents and who were  trying to create serious distance from them for whatever reasons. I just chalked it up to not understanding “people.”

So let’s move on. My birthmother is one of the 1%-5% who didn’t want to be found.  Or maybe she just needed time to get acquainted with the idea of my presence in her world (a girl could still dream, can’t she?).  So the lie continued.  I moved on.  I graduated from college, got a great job, started paying off student loans, met a decent guy, fell in love, and got married.  We had a child.  I was pretty proud of myself, too.  I did it all in the right order.  Like it mattered.

A bouncing baby boy!  I was 27 when Zachary was born.  He looked just like his father.  Aside from the dark brown eyes and dark brown hair, both of which his father also had, we had no similar features.  Everyone commented on how he looked so much like his father, but not me. The question often asked was, “Does he look like anyone on your side of the family?” 

At this point in my life my adoption “story” became more like a punch line.  If adoption ever came up in conversation for any reason, I would laugh it off and almost always make a joke of it.  I could always “one-up” anyone’s tragic family story, whether it be about adoption or something else.  What?  Your dad left your mom and your 12 brothers and sisters when you were just 5 years old?  Well, I was born in prison!  A prison baby!  Right?  Imagine that!  One month premature–born to a drug addicted, beatnik convict mother!  Given up for adoption . . . [snort, snort] . . . and then, guess what?  I found her just a few years ago–rejected again!  Laughter all around. Hilarious.

Rejected again.  So why would I go back for more?  I could not accept that she didn’t want to know me.  I could not accept that she could not (or would not) acknowledge my existence and my value.  I read and re-read her letter–it was all about Margaret–clearly, she felt like she needed to defend herself (and her decision to relinquish) and do her best to let me know it was “the right thing to do.”  Not only was it the right thing to do, but her life was fantastic because of it!  Super fantastic and full of travel and exotic stuff and a dream job and no time to remember my name.  So super wonderful that she doesn’t even think about me.

It was Zachary that made me think about it again.  Did he look like my family?  Surely, she would want to know about a grandson.  Her only child (me) has now given her a grandchild.  Yuck.  Just typing that felt weird.  I didn’t “give” her anything.  Zachary was mine.  Not hers. But there was something that made me want to give her one more chance.  And seriously, I still believed (and still believe to this day!) that I am entitled to know about my origins, my history, my ancestry, medical information, etc.  I’ll assume that if you’re still reading this, you understand the concept of the search from the eyes and mind of an adoptee.  I had to do it.

I wrote another letter.  I was more careful with my words.  I already knew she’d be a bitch about it resistant to any kind of contact or any kind of exchange of information.  I sent a picture of me holding Zach.  I think he was about 6 months old.  This was 1991.  My hair was big. I think I may have suggested to her that she was insecure–not able to deal with her past in a manner that would allow her to recognize other people’s feelings.  Her lie could not make me disappear.  I told her about Zach–I told her I wondered where he got his nose and other features.

I know Margaret didn’t want a relationship.  I didn’t need (or want) one.  I agree that every human being has the right to decline a relationship with another individual.  A birthmother most certainly has the right to say “no thank-you” to her birthdaughter’s request for a meeting or an ongoing relationship.  Likewise, an adoptee has the right to decline a request from a birth parent.  It’s no different for biological families–relatives are “cut off” all the time (well, it’s different because most biological families already have a solid identity “base” and knowledge of family history–family history is usually what causes the riff in the first place). In any event, relationships between family members (biological or not) cannot be legislated.  So just answer the questions.  Meaningful communication is all I ask for.  The more honest and open you can be (I’ll be patient), the sooner I will feel comfortable leaving you alone.

Whoa.  I received another letter from Margaret.  It was the last contact I have had with her.  Her tone was somewhat softer less agitated but her message was the same.  Her opening tore the scab right off.

Dear Laureen,

Each contact from you (or contact from others on your behalf) has so far been such a negative experience that I was made to feel that no good could come from further contact.

What?  She was made to feel that further contact would be bad?  I don’t get it.  It was my fault?  Wow!  About her “lie,” as I called it:

I find no conflict between the fact that I value my privacy and the fact that I very much like who I am.  One thing that I especially like about me is the fact that I had the common sense at a very early age to make the difficult decision to put a child up for adoption.  And I hope that you can accept that valuing privacy is not synonymous with being insecure!

Well, I especially like that about you, too.  Sheesh–I can’t imagine Margaret as a nurturing mother.  And I find it a little weird that she refers to her “common sense” and the fact that she made a “difficult decision” to “put a child up for adoption” (hello–I’m right here!). Did she have a choice?  Unwed mothers who were not even in prison have spoken out about how they felt that they didn’t have a choice about keeping a child.  They were coerced or made to believe that there were no other options.  And she was in federal prison in 1963 (there were no prison nurseries back then) and she believes she actually made a thoughtful choice?

Margaret went on to lecture me again on what I “needed to accept” (accidents happen sometimes) and what I “needed to understand” (what it was like to be pregnant and unmarried in the 1960’s).  How her decision in the middle of this “bad situation” was “exactly the correct action under the circumstances.”

Margaret–please hear me now: Of course you made the right decision to put your daughter up for adoption.  No one is arguing that you did something wrong in that regard.  Not only did it “salvage” your life (your words), but it obviously salvaged mine, too!

Margaret rehashed the whole private investigator incident (callous and without a “shred of human decency”), as well as the communication with the wonderful Mr. Witt (“a man who worked for the county who violated the court order”) (an untrue statement). Basically, she’s still trying to get me to believe that everyone is against her and out to harm her, or disrupt her wonderful  lie life.

She did address my question about Zach’s features.  She wrote about her nose:

My nose is my most distinctive feature, and I’m not fond of it! I’ve enclosed 2 pictures of me so you can see if in fact that is  where your son got his nose.  There [sic] not very good pictures, but you see, I always try to pose for pictures in a manner that does not show my nose very well, with the result that I had to search extensively to find any that shows it at all, and these were the best angles I could come up with.

Dark hair and dark eyes.  Zach doesn’t have her nose.  Neither do I.  Finally, one last hurrah for how fabulous her life is:

Now I have to ask you a favor.  If you really feel you ever have to contact me again, please write to me at work instead of at home.  If you mark the envelope “Personal & Confidential,” no one will open it.  I’ve enclosed a card so you will have the address.  I’ve been there for 22 years, so you’re more likely to find me there in the future than in the same home address.

What in the hell does that mean?  I wasn’t expecting warm and fuzzy.  I wasn’t expecting hearts and flowers.  But maybe a question or two (or, God forbid, a compliment) about Zach?  How about asking me how I have been?  How am I doing?  How do I feel?  What do I want to know?

I never wrote to her again.  I have no need for her language of self-defense and verbal fortification.  I will let her continue to hide and evade and avoid and disguise in her own world.

A Fabulous Life!

I have read stories of adoptees just showing up at a birth family member’s home: “Surprise! I’m your long lost son/daughter!” {Hugs all around . . . happily ever after . . . blah, blah, blah . . . }  That’s not me.

I had her address.  I looked it up (using the old “Thomas Guide,” if any of you can remember that!).  She lived only 30 minutes away from me.  All this time . . . so close, and yet so far.  I mapped out the directions–wrote it down, even.  But I never made the trip to her house.  Looking back, I guess I was scared.  I figured I already knew what to expect–she could have reached out to me, but she didn’t.  She could have sent a message through Mr. Witt, but she didn’t.  This much was clear: she didn’t want contact with me.

I also knew from the information that I received from Mr. Witt and from the investigator that Margaret had never gotten married and she had never had any other children.

Well, it’s weird to try to explain how that made me feel.  Yes, there was sadness and anger . . . but that passed.  I consider myself a pretty strong person and a pretty good judge of character.  I can process other people’s actions and emotions, as well as my own, and figure out how to fit in.  I feel like I’ve lived most of my life that way: watching and listening to people and trying to figure out how to fit into their world.  So I processed the situation at hand.  My conclusion: Margaret was angry because I had nearly upset her entire world.  I had almost exposed her secret!  Of course, that was devastating to her.  So she lashed out in anger. But here was my problem: her “world” was built around a lie. I am an adult person that exists in this world.  She’s basically denying my existence.  On the one hand, I wanted to respect her privacy.  But on the other hand, I wanted answers.  I was entitled to information.  Was she obligated to give me the information?  Legally, no.

But wait . . . we’re all human beings.  We all have the same basic needs and wants, beginning with our identity.  Most adoptees believe that a moral obligation exists:  a birth mother who chooses adoption should take responsibility for the decision to relinquish a child because the decision changed the identity of another human being. I don’t need ongoing contact–what I need is meaningful communication and information.  Then we can be done.  If that’s the way you want it.

I wrote a letter to Margaret.  I didn’t keep a copy of the letter and it was more than 25 years ago, so I don’t remember exactly what I wrote.  I’m sure I tried to explain my disappointment.  I’m pretty sure I defended my actions (seeking her out).  I’m pretty sure I told her I was “okay” and just wanted to ask some questions.

Margaret responded.  Once again, I was cut to the core.  Shut down.

Her letter came to me, handwritten, on letterhead from The Omni Hotel in South Carolina.  She was traveling.  She got right down to it.

Laureen,

I was surprised to receive your letter–and disappointed.  You need to understand that I strongly feel it was wrong for any records to be opened to you.  To me, it’s more than an invasion of privacy.  I actually feel that by such a disclosure on the part of authorities I trusted, I have been betrayed and violated!

I can’t believe that any good can come from any further contact, and I don’t want to meet or talk, nor to continue a correspondence.  But since you are interested, I will take the time to comment on a couple of things.

Margaret went on to tell me about herself–how she is “strong” and “self-sufficient” and could never be influenced by others.  She has no regrets in life and has lived her life exactly the way she wanted.

Never have I ever done anything that I either felt to be wrong, or later regretted.  As a result, I am well-pleased with my life.  I have a good education and the kind of job most people can only dream of.  So, you see, I have never wondered about you, nor did I expect that you would wonder about me.  I hope that I have now told you enough that you can comfortably let go of your desire for further contact.

Well, that told me nothing.  To be honest, her letter came off to me as defensive and condescending. As if she were defending her actions in life (one of which was giving me up for adoption) and telling me how wonderful her life has been because of it.  She doesn’t need me.  She doesn’t need to know about me.  The closing of her letter said it all.

Got to run.  I’ve got a plane to catch.

Margaret

P.S. Sorry to have left the last name off the address on the envelope, but I tossed your envelope before realizing that your last name was not on the letter.

Wow.  Lucky me.  At least she was able to scratch out a letter to me in between traveling the world for her totally fabulous and fantastic job.  And what great information she provided!  She’s educated, successful, quite pleased with herself, and . . . well, quite pleased with herself.

Not only am I dealing with adoption issues, I am now dealing with narcissism.  Okay, I’m not a psychologist, but really . . . . what would you call it?  Seriously, I am reaching out to this stranger for answers about my identity.  I got nothing useful.  I was even more confused now!  I didn’t write back . . . right away.

The narcissist is governed by his or her feelings, the decent person is governed by his or her obligations” – Dennis Prager

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.

My [Non-Identifying] Story

I think Bill Witt went way above and beyond the call of duty in providing the following information to me.  I am grateful that somehow I found him when I did.  I am curious to know about other adoptees (in California or across the country) who have been provided their “non-identifying” information.  Did you receive a story?  Did you receive vivid detail about skin tone, personality, quirks, family members?  Or did you receive some sort of factual outline or listing of non-identifying data? Thank you, Bill Witt, for putting together my story.

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Good read, right? The information in my non-identifying story provided many more pieces to the puzzle that I was putting together. And there was someone else on the job, as well. In addition to contacting the County Social Services after I got home, I had also contacted the private investigator. She had also begun her search.

Family Ties?

I look back on my childhood with fondness.  I was happy.  My brother and I spent loads of time outdoors during the warm summer months and after school running up and down the block with neighborhood friends.  Middle school (“junior high” back then) was without trauma and actually pretty uneventful.  I muddled through with my two besties.  High school was actually a blast.  I kept my grades up (graduated salutatorian), participated in ASB and student council (senior class president!), and found myself in the middle of normal teenage mischief (ditching class to grab breakfast with friends, vandalizing the rival school’s property before the big game, sneaking out my bedroom window in the middle of the night to hang out with friends . . . wait, that’s not normal?).

I hardly ever thought about being adopted.  It was a non-issue.  So what?  I never “felt” anything but normal.  I can look back now and can clearly see the dysfunction of my family, however.  But it had nothing to do with my brother and me being adopted.  We were no different than most other families.

College was a struggle.  I was the first person in my family to go to college.  My parents were unprepared monetarily to pay for an education or to take on any debt on my behalf.  So I lived at home and enrolled at the local state college, working 30 hours a week to put myself through school. My parents helped out with books and gas money on occasion–they were proud of me, but more than a little perplexed by my ambition.   So, my mother’s reaction to my idea of spending my senior year abroad was no surprise: “Why?”

The California State University system had (and still has) an International Program that affords students the opportunity to study abroad. I have to be honest.  I was thinking less about the academic opportunity and cultural experience, and more about the opportunity for me to finally get out of the house and have the “college experience” that my friends that had gone to a four-year college away from home were already having.  I was ready.

Even though I had 4 years of French under my belt (2 in high school and 2 in college), I decided to make it easier on myself by applying for a program in the United Kingdom. No language barrier would make the studying part that much easier. There were several universities in England that offered  programs in political studies (I was majoring in political science), so I filled out the application and crossed my fingers. There was a selection process–you had to have a high GPA and be able to write an essay about why you wanted to study abroad (I’m fairly certain I didn’t disclose my desire to party in a foreign country and meet guys with hot British accents)–and only a few slots to fill from the entire Cal State system, so I waited on pins and needles to hear the news.

Beautiful Yorkshire

Beautiful Yorkshire

Haworth, West Yorkshire

Haworth, West Yorkshire

I was over the moon when I got the news.  I was headed to the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire!  I had no idea where that was, but it didn’t matter, really.  I had never even gotten on a plane until I was 18 years old–now I was barely 20 years old and leaving the country to live in a foreign land (and go to school) for nearly an entire year!  Turns out that Yorkshire is one of the most beautiful places I would ever ever see.  I was unprepared for the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales and the history surrounding me.  Haworth, the home of the Bronte sisters, is  just north of Bradford–and it’s rich with history and beauty.

A Varley in Bradford

A Varley in Bradford

Imagine my mom’s surprise when I told her the news.  She actually wasn’t at all surprised that I had been chosen; she was surprised that I was headed to Bradford, England.  She couldn’t believe it.  You see, my adoptive mother’s mother’s side of the family is actually from Bradford.  I didn’t know that. Now I did.  That was all my mother could talk about.  She was so excited for me to go over and find some of  “our” family members.  She started pulling out old photos and documents . . . “You must find the Varleys!”

Bell Ringers in Bradford - I assume there's a Varley in there!

Bell Ringers in Bradford – I assume there’s a Varley in there!

I was really quite impressed with the photos, old documents and postcards she had from back in the day in Bradford.  Even a handwritten record of birth for Samuel Varley born in 1859! Impressive! Even though I didn’t know who Samuel Varley was (nor did I care).

Town Hall, Bradford

Town Hall, Bradford

Seriously, I did not care about the Varleys.  Hello . . . I am 20 years old and I’m heading to a new, foreign land to have the adventure of a lifetime!  And besides, the Varleys aren’t my relatives.  They were her relatives.  I think this was the first time in a long time that I had thought about being adopted.  Was it because I was adopted that I just didn’t care about these Varley people?  Or was it because I was a 20-year-old, self-absorbed young woman who couldn’t wait to flaunt her new found independence (and try some well-hopped pale ale in a real British pub)?

Anyway, once situated in Jolly Ol’ England, I got acquainted with the local pubs, met some fine proper Brits, drank tea with milk, ate some formidable curries, and did a little studying and traveling, of course.

I hiked here!

I hiked here!

It took me a while to work up the enthusiasm to do it, but I did at one point venture to the local post office in Bradford and look up the name Varley in the post and phone directory. Bloody hell!  I was overwhelmed to find pages and pages and pages of Varleys!  What in the world was I supposed to do with this information?  There were no computers to search and narrow down results.  I spoke to my mother over the phone and told her the news.  There were literally hundreds of Varleys in Bradford.  Now what?  That was the end of that.  Even when my parents came to Bradford to visit, the Varley situation didn’t come up.  I think she was just as overwhelmed as I was.

As I said, when my mother started pushing the Varley stuff on me in early 1985, it was the first time in a long time that I thought about being adopted.   And I kept thinking about it even when I was in Bradford.  I wrote to my parents at some point expressing my desire to find my birth parents.  They were supportive.  I even wrote to a private investigator that specialized in adoption cases while I was out of the country. They responded.

We would be thrilled to find your birth parents for you when you get back to the U.S.  We WILL find them.

It was going to be a priority when I returned home.  I will find my birth parents.