Returning . . .

I haven’t had the time to plan returning to the scene because I haven’t left it.

–Mick Jagger

I’ve left you all alone for so long. Please understand that despite my absence from the blog, I appreciate you all so much! I have heard from so many of you while I’ve been in this “retreat” phase. I’ve been happy to help some of you with the CABI, and answer your questions about search, reunion, rejection, contact and more.  I’m glad you’ve found my blog and you’ve been able to find some hope and connection with my story. And you all must know–I want to hear your story, as well. Every adoption story, whether it ends in a successful reunion or not–remember, I understand it all. And I want to hear it.

family-027_origAs for me, I’ve been busy meeting more family members–wonderful aunts on my maternal side, and more cousins on my paternal side–who have all been so wonderful in opening their hearts and sharing stories.  There is so much rich history that I am still learning. And I am thankful. It’s been a journey with surprises that I never expected. I’m loving it.

The book is coming. Jackson, my bio-Dad, has been reading my memoir and his approval of the story and the details makes me happy. I’ll finally be able to reveal his true identity and his awesome accomplishments. I am so proud of him and can’t wait to share my pride and his awesomeness.

editing-ratesI’m still editing and rewriting. It’s a big job. It will never be perfect, or just right. I am thankful for my editor, who has been guiding me and punishing me (just kidding), so that I know where to go with my story. Thank you for hanging in there with me.

It’s all about the positive.

Beating the Odds – And Keeping the Dream Alive [And How to Write A Letter to Your Biological Father Who Doesn’t Know You Exist]

road-to-the-beach-sunrise-facebook-coverI apologize in advance. This is a long post. Since it’s been awhile since I’ve updated my blog and my journey in earnest, I wanted to summarize my story and let readers know where I am on this crazy journey. I also wanted to answer a question that I’m asked often: “What did you say to your biological father when you introduced yourself?” Every journey is different and complicated in its own way (although I’m not sure any journey is more complicated than mine!), but I want to encourage everyone who is curious or is being held back by his or her own fears to move forward. And remember, happy endings are not the goal–the goal is wholeness.  

My entire life has been about beating the odds. Don’t get me wrong—I never felt like an underdog. But given my circumstances, at least with respect to my birth and the inexorable journey I would take, I was more likely to be on the side of defeat than of victory.

I was born in 1963 in a prison. A prison baby. At the time of my birth, my mother was eighteen years old and serving a ten-year prison sentence for drug-related charges. She gave birth to me just four months into her stay at the California Institute for Women.

Given that rough start in life, what were the odds that I’d have an opportunity to live a full life with a loving family in a happy home? Thanks to adoption, I did. I was raised by two loving parents and I even had a big brother, also adopted.

My brother and I don’t remember ever being told that we were adopted—we just always knew. As children, it was a non-issue—something that just wasn’t talked about. We were chosen. Loved. We were taught and conditioned to believe that being adopted didn’t matter. So it didn’t. Until it did.

question-mark-faceI was twenty years old when curiosity got the best of me. Of course, adoptees understand that it is much more complicated than just simple curiosity. It’s a need to understand and know one’s true identity. Identity that includes a sense of belonging and a knowledge and familiarity with family history, heritage and ethnicity. A yearning to find someone who looks who looks like me.

Like most adoptees, as I got older, I understood my adoption circumstances a little better. I may have been chosen, raised and loved by one family, but I was given away, relinquished, abandoned, probably even unwanted, by another. I wanted to know more about that. Wouldn’t you?

When my journey of discovery started, I was living and going to school abroad. It was the first time I had lived away from home and away from my adoptive family. I missed them a lot. I wrote letters and telephoned them every other week. They were the only family I knew. During this time, I even wrote and talked to my parents about my curiosity and my desire to search for my biological family. Luckily for me, they understood that my desire to search and learn more about my origins did not mean I no longer wanted to be a part of my adoptive family. I had their support and their understanding.

After graduating from college and returning home, I started to search in earnest. I got in touch with the county adoption services where my adoption was facilitated. They gave me my non-identifying information. What a revelation! I really didn’t think I would learn anything of great value from my non-identifying information, but I was blown away to find that it was packed full of stories and physical descriptions of my biological parents and grandparents and first names of their siblings and their parents (aunts and uncles and grandparents!). I already had my birth mother’s last name from the adoption papers that my parents kept, so I was on my way! I was eager and excited to discover my story.

It was 1986. I hired a private investigator to help me. She started at the prison. She knew my biological mother’s last name and my birthdate, so she checked the records to find an inmate who was in the hospital on or around my birthdate. The names matched up. BINGO! Found.

The finding part was easy. But much to my chagrin, my birth mother was not happy about being found. She cursed the county social worker for giving out the non-identifying information. She cursed the investigator for contacting family members in an attempt to reach her (she had an unlisted number and was difficult to find). She cursed me for . . . well, just being me, I guess. She had no desire for contact. I wrote to her anyway. In the end, we exchanged letters twice, but she was firm in her position that she did not want any kind of ongoing relationship or any continuing communication. She hadn’t told anyone about her pregnancy and my birth and she wasn’t about to do it now. I didn’t even have an opportunity to ask any meaningful questions. I know from the private investigator that she’d never been married and had had no other children. I was confused. And hurt.

rejected

An Exclusive Group!

I tried to look on the bright side. In a weird, twisted way, I had beaten the odds—again. Most birth mothers actually welcome contact from their adult biological children. In fact, research has shown that fewer than five percent (< 5%) of birth mothers who give up a child for adoption reject contact from their adult adoptee child. Despite my disappointment with being a member of this exclusive group, I was able to carry on and live a pretty normal life. I had a great job as a paralegal and was considering going law school. I eventually met a great guy, got married, and we started a family. Everything was normal. Everything was great! Except for one small thing. The questions were still lingering. Who am I? Who do my kids look like?

When I was rejected by my bio mom for the second time, I was devastated. Not so much because I’d never get to know her (I’ve come to realize that I don’t think she is the sort of person I would like anyway), but because she shut down any chance of me getting to know any other family members and finding out who my biological father is. She was the only one who knew and she wasn’t about to give me any answers. I thought I would never learn my truth.

dna_trailLuckily for me (and other adoptees from the closed records era), the evolution of science and technology over the years helped keep the dream of finding answers alive. For adoptees, a DNA test can provide the first ever connection with a biological relative. You may only get distant relative matches at first, but by contacting those relatives and exploring family connections and sharing stories, many adoptees are able to identify close family members and even birth parents. And today’s internet-strong social media makes it easier than ever to connect and make contact. It’s tricky and can even feel like trying to find a needle in a haystack at times, but DNA testing can reveal so much. Even when it feels like you’re fighting against all odds.

Sure, maybe you won’t get that one-in-a-million DNA family match, but there is much to gain from a DNA test. Most adoptees I know, myself included, don’t (or didn’t) know their true ancestry or ethnicity. With the results from a DNA test, we may be able to discover where our ancestors came from. I found out that I am German, French and English. Mind blown.

Some DNA testing services also provide health related information. For adoptees who keep having to fill out medical forms for family medical history with the words “UNKNOWN/ADOPTED,” even a small amount of health related information can be gold. Science is awesome. So do it, even if you think the odds are against you. You may be surprised at what you find.

Back to the relative finding thing. Adoptees have two issues when it comes to finding relatives: (1) we want to identify family members — if not immediate family, then those closely enough related so that they might be able to help identify immediate family; and (2) we’re racing the clock because we want to identify family while they — and we — are still living. Again, we’re trying to beat the odds.

adoption-treeUnfortunately, a large percentage of the distant relative matches will not respond to requests for contact. But because the databases are so large and growing daily, you are still likely to make many important contacts. And here’s the key: you have to be consistent. You have to be willing to tell your story over and over again. You have to talk about your adoption and provide every bit of information you know. Names, places, even stories that may or may not be true. Share and share again. Someone out there knows your truth. Or, someone out there knows just enough of your truth so that you can put the puzzle pieces together. And you never know—you may beat the odds—like I did.

I never imagined that spitting into a plastic tube could reveal the answer to the burning question: “Who’s your daddy?” But that’s exactly what happened. I beat the odds again. My biological father didn’t even know I existed. He doesn’t even remember my biological mother, or the encounter that resulted in my coming into this world (we blame those crazy free-lovin’, drug fueled, beatnik 60s).

When I logged on to 23andMe to check out the DNA Relatives section, I was initially stunned and overwhelmed. 23andMe had matched me with 762 distant relatives (3rd to distant cousins). I had no idea what I was supposed to do with this information. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.

Then I saw it: 1 CLOSE FAMILY. What? Who?

I clicked on the link, but 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 actually asked for two layers of consent before it would reveal my close family relationship. First, a warning was presented 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 my bio mom). Of course I wanted to know.

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

Thanks, 23andMe. I was nervous, but I clicked “proceed” anyway.

Father?! My biological father?! 23andMe found my biological father when no one else (except for my bio mom) knew who he was?

I could hardly think straight as I typed out a message to Father.

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 this name 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”).

 

That was over three years ago. My biological father and I first got to know each other via email, then a few Skype conversations. He lives over 1,200 miles from me, so the slow start to our “reunion” was necessary, and good. We needed that time to get to know one another and for him to feel comfortable that I wasn’t some crazy stalker up to no good. We finally met in 2015. I flew up to his home in Washington State and was welcomed with open arms by him, my half-sister, and my sweet little niece.

As with all adoption stories and reunions, it’s complicated. We’re still getting to know each other and we’re helping one another to understand how we fit into each other’s lives and families. Together, we’ve uncovered a rich family history and an understanding of life, love, struggle and the evolution of a complicated, but strong family. My life is definitely much richer for knowing him (and other biological family members I’ve met on this journey) and I’ve learned so much about myself. I believe he feels the same way. Beating the odds has its perks.

My memoir, The Lies That Bind, will be published in 2017.

Adoptee and Adoption Stories Matter

story

I heard this morning that the movie Lion was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture, Drama. That made me happy. It’s based on the memoir written by Saroo Brierley (A Long Way Home, G.P. Putnam’s Sons; Reprint edition (June 12, 2014)), an Indian-born Australian businessman who was separated from his family as a small boy and adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years (and one incredible journey) later, he reunites with his biological mother. Dev Patel plays Saroo (he’s nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, as well) and Nicole Kidman plays Saroo’s adoptive mom. You can watch the trailer here. It’s pretty powerful.

I love to hear other people’s stories. I especially like to hear stories from other adoptees. Every story–every journey–is different, yet similar in many ways. The same threads are woven into nearly every adoptee story: feelings of rejection, wanting to belong, the questioning of one’s identity, and questioning the very stories that have been told to us by those who lovingly (hopefully) raise us. We also often wonder whether anyone is thinking about or looking for us.stone-symbol-question-mark-5282223

Adoptees and their stories seem to be coming out of the woodwork. The subject of adoption–once a subject shrouded in secrecy–is becoming a big part of the public interest. Adoptees are actively searching for answers to the most basic questions we all take for granted: Who am I? Where did I come from? Who do I look like?

Birth parents are searching, too. Shame is no longer an issue. It’s all about healing. You can even see the healing on television (shows like Who Do You Think You Are?, Long Lost Family, and Geneaology Roadshow), in books, and on the big screen (Lion, Philomena). Genealogy has become its own genre. It’s clear that the interest in family history is not just a phase.

Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against most adoptees and others who want to know their stories. Thirty out of our fifty states still have sealed records laws on the books that deny adult adoptees the right to know their origins. California is one of those states living in the past. Seems so archaic, really, with all of the other ways to get to the truth: from good ol’ gumshoe detective work to social media, registries, even DNA testing and forensic genealogy. And what about international adoptions? Getting to the truth in those stories can be even more complicated. In the story behind the movie Lion, the main character uses Google Earth to search for his childhood neighborhood, using  his fuzzy childhood memories as his only guide. Google Earth! Amazing! Technology is so powerful!

storiesStories are powerful, too. Stories communicate, connect and strengthen. Even in everyday conversation, when people tell others about themselves, they to do it in a narrative way—that’s just how humans communicate. People story their worlds. And it’s not just about the adoptees. The subject of adoption and the real stories behind who adopts are inherently connected to people dealing with complex and sensitive personal issues like infertility, surrogacy, illegitimacy, mixed race families, and families with same-sex parents. Adoption, like the family issues mentioned above, contributes to a distinctive and often challenging form of family. These stories are for everyone.

My memoir about my adoption journey, titled The Lies That Bind, is nearly complete. It will be published in 2017.

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]

Invisible

All living souls welcome whatever they are ready to cope with; all else they ignore, or pronounce to be monstrous and wrong, or deny to be possible. –George Santayana

I am used to being on the outside looking in.  It’s not a new feeling.  What was new to me was the openness of a complete stranger that happened to share enough mitochondrial autosomal DNA with me to be my biological father.

When I received the results from 23andMe indicating that my biological father was a fellow client, I was stunned.  I knew that it was likely that my biological father didn’t even know I existed.  I also knew nothing about him.  I didn’t know if he had a family–whether or not I had siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces or nephews.  I didn’t know how I would be received. Would he ignore me?  Would he even respond to my message?  Would he deny our relationship (unlikely, I thought, with the DNA being what it was).

I was surprised at his initial response.  He was certainly open and willing to communicate via e-mail.  He eventually even suggested several times that we try to Skype so that we could talk “in person.”  We exchanged photos.  We “friended” each other on Facebook, allowing each other an insight into each other’s “virtual” lives and photos of family and friends.  He was eager to “show me” his art studio and the museum via video.  I was so happy to be allowed into his world.

He was confused about the DNA match, however, and wondered whether there could be a mistake.  He had (and still has) no memory of Margaret.  In his mind, he had never met her, let alone had sex with her.  I gave him every spec of information I had– all the details about my “story.” I even gave him copies of the photos I had of Margaret, hoping that the images would help him remember.

He talked to old friends and looked at old yearbooks and photos . . . still nothing in his memory connected him to Margaret.  In the meanwhile we exchanged e-mails.  We talked about everything–cooking (he loves to experiment with exotic ingredients), his art (handmade gold and silver jewelry and masks, etc.), his daughter and grand daughter, my boys and husband and his love and fascination with antique radios.  I was excited about his jewelry and told him about Etsy and suggested he could try to sell some of his jewelry and art on-line.  Guess what?  He now has an Etsy store!

I think he knows in his heart that I am his daughter. So I’m sure you can understand my confusion now. Our communication has stopped. Completely.  For some reason, I’ve been shut down.  The last meaningful message I received from him was before Thanksgiving.  I told him of my plans to travel to Texas to visit a nephew and his family.  I wished him a Happy Thanksgiving and asked whether he had any big plans with family.  I didn’t hear from him before Thanksgiving, but I assumed that he was busy with work and getting ready for the holiday.  I e-mailed when I returned from Texas.  No response. Finally, before Christmas, I sent a simple message telling him I was worried (he’s 70 years old and although his health is good, I could not fathom why I wasn’t hearing from him) and to please just let me know he’s well.  I also apologized for feeling a little paranoid about our “relationship,” I was worried that I had somehow offended him or scared him off.  I didn’t want to be an intrusion.

I got a short e-mail from him with no real explanation–just that he’s been busy and that all is well.  That’s it.  Nothing else.  I e-mailed him before the New Year and told him I hoped he had a nice Christmas and Happy New Year.  No response.

I have a hunch that maybe he saw his daughter, who is 37, over the holidays and perhaps he shared our correspondence with her.  I don’t know–maybe she was shocked at his openness with me.  She got protective.  Maybe jealous.  She has no idea who I am.  Who is this person claiming to be a daughter–just appearing out of thin air?  She could be scamming you! What does she want from you?  He had written to me about some pretty intimate details about his past.  Perhaps his daughter felt violated somehow.

I’m disappointed.  And sad.  Really sad.  Don’t get me wrong . . . I know I have many wonderful friends and family in my life that know me and love me.  I appreciate all of you! It’s difficult to explain.  It’s a familiar feeling, but I honestly did not think I would feel this way again.

I am not sure of my next move.  I never made it to the library in Santa Barbara.  They never responded to my e-mail, but I still plan on trying to get information and details about Margaret’s arrest when I can get up there again.  But I think my next move will be to send a letter to my sister–Jackson’s daughter.  I should introduce myself.