Adoption is Everywhere – It Cannot Hide (Or Can It?)

I have a friend. She is older than me. Old enough to be my mother, in fact. She knows my story. She knows that I was adopted, that I was born in prison, that I struggled with my identity in my youth, and that I was cruelly rejected by my biological mother when I searched and found her over thirty years ago. She knew I continued to struggle over the years with feelings of anguish and inadequacy after the rejection from my birthmother, and that I wondered constantly about my biological origins. She listened sympathetically and supported me fully (or so I thought) as the story of finding my biological father unfolded.

After over twenty years of friendship, and me spilling my guts about my crazy adoptee-centric issues (closed records, lies, shame, rejection, fantasies, social media, stalking family members, DNA, family trees, etc.), my friend dropped a bombshell. A big one. One night, after a couple glasses of wine and talking about everything and nothing at all, she confessed: “I gave a child up for adoption the same year you were born. My daughter would be just a few months older than you.”

Uh . . . what!? I was dumbfounded. After picking my jaw up off the table and consciously unknitting my brow, I took a big gulp of wine.

At first, I was sympathetic. She told me she was shunned by her own mother and father and sent away to live with a relative during her pregnancy. She described being shamed by her family for being pregnant at eighteen and how she was coerced into relinquishing her daughter.

I think at this point I was uncorking another bottle of wine.

I asked her if she had ever heard from her daughter or from anyone on her behalf. She said no. I asked her if she had ever tried looking for her daughter. She said no. She went on to explain that through the years she “made sure” that if her daughter was looking for her, she had done everything she could to make herself “easy to find.” It sounded like she was simply waiting to be found.

I asked her if she wanted help finding her now. She said, “If my daughter wanted to find me, she could have. And she hasn’t.”

There were tears and more drunken talk . . . and when my friend left that night, I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry for her daughter out there somewhere. I wanted to do something about it, but it wasn’t my thing to do anything about.

That was nearly five years ago. Over time, I’ve given my friend’s situation a lot of thought. We’ve had a few discussions about it . . . but each time I bring it up, I get hit with, “You just don’t understand!” Really? Or, “Quit trying to push your agenda on me.” We end up frustrated and upset with each other. Now we don’t talk about it. It’s like this awful, sad, secret, adopted elephant in the room. Our friendship has suffered.

I don’t get it. She’s successful, retired, single, and has a grown son. Now that she’s retired she throws herself into volunteer work, which includes helping orphans in Mexico and mentoring foster children in her own community. As for the mentoring, she’s actually been mentoring foster kids for years—even before she was retired. I had always admired that she gave so much of herself to these motherless kids, but now I’m seeing it in a different light. In my mind, it’s like she’s trying to make up for orphaning her daughter. Of course, I shouldn’t assume this.

And about her being always “out there” to find . . . I’m not so sure she’s been truthful about “not hiding.” When she finally joined Facebook, she used a fake name. That’s kind of a big deal. Social media is one of the easiest ways for adoptees to track people down these days.

Of course, my assumption of her reluctance to be found makes me think of my own biological mother. She absolutely didn’t want to be found. That hurt. Now I have this friend who is behaving in a way that I believe is hurtful. I don’t think she’s dealing with her own emotions about relinquishing her child so many years ago. Maybe I’m wrong.

Anyway, it’s not my thing. It’s hers. I’ll continue to advocate—adoptees need to be heard. Birthmothers, too. Some just aren’t ready.

My birthmother didn’t want to be found, either, but I found her anyway. Read my story, The Lies That Bind, An Adoptee’s Journey of Rejection, Redirection, DNA, and Discovery

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Release Your Truth . . . Find Your Strength

If you follow my blog (or any other adoption-centric blog or group), you already know it’s National Adoption Awareness Month (#NAAM). And you probably know that adoptees are making a concerted effort to switch the focus of the awareness to the people involved in adoption that matter the most: THE ADOPTEE.

It’s complicated. Most adoptees, at one point or another, deal with one or more of the following confounding issues:

  • loss of family (even if he or she gained a “good one” through adoption)
  • unknown or confused heritage
  • unknown health history
  • sealed records
  • family secrets
  • lies (sometimes)

And these issues often lead to anxiety, identity confusion, depression, low self-esteem, and more.

It helps to know and talk with other adoptees experiencing the same issues. It helps to bring your fears out into the open and deal with them. Release your truth and you will find your strength.

Last March, I attended the Indiana Adoptee Network‘s Annual Conference . What an eye-opener. It was fantastic to be with such a large group of people who just “get it.” While I was there, I was lucky enough to meet a woman who truly understands the power of opening up. She wrote a book about it. And guess what? She’s not an adoptee. She’s a birth mother (or “first mother,” if you prefer). I love what she’s done–for birth mothers and adoptees. And for anyone else holding in the pain of a traumatic event.

Shoebox Cover

In her book, The Shoebox Effect, Marcie Keithley tells the heart-wrenching story of relinquishing a child for adoption and how it affected her life and the lives of her family. As an adoptee, Marcie’s story helped me to understand the heart of a young mother suffering through her quiet desperation during a difficult time.

But, Marcie goes beyond just story-telling in her book. Marcie wants us all to open our hearts—and our shoeboxes—to let out the secrets and explore the truths within. There is healing in sharing. There is freedom and peace in understanding why we pack away and hide what hurts us. Marcie’s book offers a guide of sorts at the end of each chapter, to help us coax out our own secrets and unpack the shame, guilt, and unresolved grief. I wish my own birth mother would read this book . . .

Too often, we go through life as intimate strangers with the people we love. We avoid certain topics in fear they might open up a Pandora’s Box, so we take an opposing approach. Many of us stuff reminders of those topics inside shoeboxes or other containers, in hopes we can hide the situation away. But this is a mistake. –Marcie Keithley, The Shoebox Effect

This book is not just for birth mothers and adoptees. It’s for anyone who is hiding away bits and pieces (or big ol’ chunks) of his or her life in the hopes of avoiding difficult feelings. I highly recommend actively reading this book!

Marcie’s book, The Shoebox Effect, Transforming Pain Into Fortitude and Purpose, will be released November 12. You can pre-order it now on Amazon.

Click on the links here if you’re interested in learning more about the Indiana Adoptee Network and the Indiana Adoptee Network 4th Annual Conference.

Toot, Toot!

I’ve never been very good at tooting my own horn. I’ve always shrugged off compliments, whether it be about what I’m wearing, my hair, my cooking, or my writing. At my age (50-something!), you’d think I’d be more comfortable with compliments from others and more confident and about my own successes. I’m learning. And I’m starting to feel the power of my words. It’s cool and empowering.

Book signingMy book is doing pretty well. I’m limping along (there I go again), trying to figure out how to “market” it without the backing and support of an agent and a big (or even small) publishing house. Self-publishing is definitely not for sissies.

I even took the bold step of making a book trailer. That was fun (and intimidating!)  Watch Now! THE LIES THAT BIND Book Trailer.

I also had a local book signing with a great turnout (mostly friends and family–thank you to all who came!). And I’ve been pimping the book as much as I can on social media–I’m pretty sure my friends and family are getting a little tired of hearing about the book.

Targeting the marketing is tricky. Obviously, adoptees and members of the adoption triad are my main audience, but I really believe so many more would embrace, enjoy, and even benefit from the story. Let’s face it: the subject of adoption and the real stories behind who adopts are inherently connected to people dealing with complex and sensitive personal family issues like infertility, surrogacy, illegitimacy, mixed race families, and families with same-sex parents. Adoption, like the family issues mentioned above, often contributes to a distinctive and often challenging form of family. The Lies That Bind is a relevant and inspiring read for individuals dealing with many of the complicated and emotional family issues that we face today.

The feedback I have received so far is telling me that my story is resonating with the world. I’ve got some great 5-star reviews and I’m thankful for that, but even more touching than the reviews have been the personal notes I’ve received from readers.

Just a few weeks ago, I received a new friend request on Facebook from a total stranger living in another state. I accepted her request and then, just minutes later, I received a private message from her. It brought me to tears:

facebook message

Then, just a few days ago, I received a hand-written note from another woman. Again, I’d never met her. She told me that she was raised by her biological parents, but they had also adopted a son before she was born. She explained that, even as a child, she always knew and felt that her brother was “just different” and it was clear that he felt like an outsider, as well, even though he had a stable, loving, adoptive family. This lovely woman told me that after reading my book, she was able to “understand a little more how he must have felt.” She also shared that “he died last year never having any knowledge of his birth family.” He never searched because he thought it would be “disloyal” to his adoptive parents and family. She closed with, “How I wish he could have found the connection you found with Jonathan!” Again, tears.

I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who has read the THE LIES THAT BIND. I hope it’s inspiring those who are questioning whether they should find their truth. I also hope it’s spreading enlightenment about the heart and soul of an adoptee.

If you’ve read THE LIES THAT BIND, please review it on Amazon! And if you haven’t yet read it, please do! You can buy it here (paperback or ebook or read for free if you have Kindle Unlimited).

And if you feel so compelled, please spread the word! Thank you. And, TOOT TOOT!

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Available at Amazon.

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.

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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

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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.