It’s a Good Thing. Why do People Think It’s So Bad?

I’m tired.  Emotionally and physically.  I have a guest post today written by one of my best friends . . . she’s lived an exemplary life and want to be her when I grow up. A beautiful soul and a great writer.  We’ve been friends for a very long time.  We know each other’s stories.  She’s been following my blog.  Thank you, Catherine, for your kind and wise words.  

But first, as I usually like to do, I want to start with a quote:

“The baby explodes into an unknown world that is only knowable through some kind of a story – of course that is how we all live, it’s the narrative of our lives, but adoption drops you into the story after it has started. It’s like reading a book with the first few pages missing. It’s like arriving after curtain up. The feeling that something is missing never, ever leaves you – and it can’t, and it shouldn’t, because something IS missing. That isn’t of its nature negative. The missing part, the missing past, can be an opening, not a void. It can be an entry as well as an exit. It is the fossil record, the imprint of another life, and although you can never have that life, your fingers trace the space where it might have been, and your fingers learn a kind of Braille.”
― Jeanette WintersonWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Adoptive Moms Know

By: Catherine Wilkinson

I have a few things to say about adoption and Laureen’s emotional and frustrating journey toward honest answers about herself and her birth family. Answers she deserves.
I am an adoptive Mom to two “kids”, now 26 and 29 years old. I gained two more children, ages 28 and 30, through my husband, when they were very small. I also am a Grandmother to 8, soon to be 9, two of whom I “inherited” through my son-in-law, who brought his two little ones into our family. So, I am familiar with the idea that families come together in many ways. Through adoption, surrogacy, inheritance and sometimes we gain family members by surprise, after many years of not even knowing they were there.

I do know that if either one of my adoptive children chose to pursue finding their birth parents or decided to include them in their lives, I would be the first one in line to welcome them. I would get down ON MY KNEES and thank them for my two precious kids, regardless of how they arrived at the hard and painful decision to give them up for adoption. I would never look upon their decision as anything other than a GIFT TO ME. There is no room for shame, guilt, regret, or anger. How can that even be? My kids are extraordinary and they are loved and lovable. That’s my gift TO THE BIRTH PARENTS. In my mind, if I was a birth parent who gave the opportunity to raise my child to another, I would feel such peace and relief knowing I did the right thing.

I have encouraged my kids (at appropriate times) throughout their lives to pursue a birth family search. One is interested, one is not. It’s their choice and their journey….I’m just there to help. They were born in Taiwan, and there are adequate records and it would be a fairly easy search. I’m as curious as Laureen….I want to know more about my children’s’ birth parents. And I selfishly want the opportunity to thank them. To tell them how wonderful their birth children turned out to be and what joy they have brought me.

Laureen’s adoptive parents have both passed on. But I know in my heart that they too would feel as I do even though I never met them. How do I know? Because I know Laureen and what kind of woman she is and they are the ones who raised her – a strong, compassionate, funny, talented, generous, intelligent person. They would thank her birth parents for giving them the opportunity to raise such a wonderful daughter. I would hope that every adoptive parent wants that chance. Sometimes they get it, sometimes not. It’s up to their child. Laureen is searching alone (well, her husband, her two sons, and her many friends are with her on this journey!) and my heart breaks that her Mom and Dad can’t be here for her, because I know they loved her so much, they would want her to find the answers, the peace, and the acceptance from her birth family. I know it.

So this brings me to addressing her birth family directly: there is no downside to being honest and helpful. If you think you are “protecting” those who have no idea that Laureen even exists, you are just denying an absolute and wonderful truth. If you think you are “protecting” those who don’t know they have two great-grandsons, or nephews, or niece, or whatever the relationship is, you are perpetuating the idea that adoption is shameful and a legacy that needs to remain secret. If you are afraid, ashamed or embarrassed, let me tell you, unreservedly, those are fearful reactions to a miracle. If you think are “protecting” someone, have you considered you are robbing them of a wonderful opportunity to at least acknowledge that something quite extraordinary came out of a difficult situation?

truth (1)“The truth shall set you free”. Truth ALWAYS trumps secrets and fear. It’s time for truth for Laureen. Since I have a lot of experience with “blending” families and Laureen and I are so close, I feel comfortable appointing myself as Laureen’s surrogate Mom during her journey.  I’m standing in for her loving parents and waiting for the chance to thank the birth family for Laureen. It may sting a few fearful people at first, but I promise every single one of you, there will be no regrets.

I mean, have you tasted her cooking?

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.

Baby Girl ____________________

This is the beginning of my story.  The part where I enter the world.  It’s a condensed version–a quick introduction. I hope to share more details as my blog grows.  If you haven’t already, check out my “About Me” page to get an idea about what makes me tick and why I’ve decided to share my story.

I have changed some of the names in order to protect certain individuals who fear their privacy will be invaded by the telling of my story.  But seriously, I doubt that any lives will be torn apart by my mere existence in this world.

Baby picI was born on December 15, 1963. At the time of my birth, Margaret, my birth mother, was 18 years old and serving a 10-year sentence in the California Institution for Women (CIW), a female-only state prison located in the city of Chino in San Bernardino County, California. She was incarcerated on a felony drug conviction.  I was also led to believe that my birth father was also arrested.  According to the “story,” the two strung-out lovebirds were arrested together and both were convicted. At the time of Margaret’s arrest, she claims she was not certain that she was pregnant. She had not told any of her family members about her pregnancy. She did not tell my birth father that she was pregnant. It was her dark secret.  She was determined to keep it a secret during this tumultuous, uncertain time in her life.

I was identified as “Baby Girl Michaels” on my adoptive parents’ legal papers. Michaels is Margaret’s last name. When I started this journey, I had no identifying information about my birth father. My guess is that he was probably never told of Margaret’s pregnancy, my birth and subsequent relinquishment to the county adoption services.

Margaret served about 4 years of her sentence and was released. The adoption records were sealed—it was the law in California. Margaret was promised “privacy” (I have a real problem with that word in this context) and secrecy in exchange for choosing adoption. She was certain she was walking away from this dark time in her life and, if she tried real hard, she could all but forget the whole experience (the drugs, the arrest, the conviction, prison, birth of a baby . . .).  She was, in her mind, “reborn” as an adult and started a new life.

By this time I was a toddler, now named Laureen, running around barefoot in my cozy home in San Bernardino, California. Henry and Lilouise (known as Hank and Little by their friends and family) were doting parents. All was well in my world. I even had a big brother. Little could not bear any children of her own and so she and Hank had adopted a boy two years before I entered their lives. Tommy had red hair and freckles. I was a brunette with brown eyes, like Hank and Little. I was often told I looked like Little. I always thought that was funny, but it made me feel warm and fuzzy anyway.

By all accounts, I had a normal childhood.  Little was a stay-at-home mom and she tried her best to do what she was supposed to do–raise her kids.  Hank worked at the phone company.  My brother was in the Boy Scouts.  I tried to hang out with the Girl Scouts for a while, but I really didn’t fit in.  We went on family vacations, sometimes camping–The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Giant Sequoias up north. My brother and I fought all the time.  I had two best friends that I met in grade school.  We are still friends to this day.  Normal, normal, normal.  Right?Collage

When friends or acquaintances find out that I am adopted, their first question is usually some variation of, “When/How did you find out that you were adopted?”  I think they’re looking for some kind of drama  . . . but it wasn’t like that for my brother and me.  We just always knew. And we were fine with it. We were chosen. I remember my mother used to sing to my brother and me:

I see the moon, the moon sees me;

The moon sees the one I long to see.

God bless the moon and God bless me;

And God bless the one I long to see.

It seems to me that God above

Created you for me to love.

He picked you out from all the rest;

Because he knew I loved you the best.

[Lyrics adapted from Jim Brickman’s “I See the Moon.”]

For a child, this explained it all.  And it was all good.