I 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.
I 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.
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.
Luckily 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.
Unfortunately, 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.
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.