I thought parents no longer hid adoption from their sons and daughters. Moms and dads broach the topic with their children at a young age, explaining what adoption means in simple terms and letting the little ones ask questions. At least that’s how my friends and acquaintances handled it with their kids.
Unfortunately, though, some adoptive parents never tell their children. For whatever reason, they feel compelled to hide the adoption from the adoptee, who grows up believing lies about her family.
If you don’t think telling your child the truth is the right thing to do, then consider how difficult or impossible it will be to hide the adoption forever. In spite of your best efforts to conceal the adoption, it will come to light eventually and you will have to face your son or daughter and deal with a damaged relationship.
Cousins Talk, Adoption Revealed
Here’s a recent example. In a support group, a man revealed that his cousin, a woman in her 30s, did not know she was adopted. Everyone in her extended family knew, everyone except for her. The guy felt burdened by the knowledge. He thinks his cousin should know. He tried to persuade his aunt, the woman’s adoptive mother, to tell her daughter but the aunt refused. She told him to butt out.
The discussion generated dozens of comments, with most commenters in favor of telling the woman but recognizing the truth, especially coming at this late date, would cause inevitable pain. One commenter noted it would be better for the woman to hear it from her mother rather than through a DNA test.
Ultimately, the man bravely told his cousin about her adoption. This guy had the guts to do the right thing, knowing it would turn her life upside down and possibly cause family trouble.
I think his conscious and thoughtful decision to tell his cousin the truth signals how times have changed. I was born in the 1960s and never knew I was adopted. Everyone in my extended family knew but nobody breathed a word. Adoption was the elephant in the room. My sister, Melissa, confirmed everything with one phone call to a cousin. We were in our 30s when we learned about our adoptions.
When to Tell Your Child She’s Adopted
For adoptive parents, the question should not be “do I tell my daughter she’s adopted,” but “when do I tell her?”
Experts encourage adoptive parents to explain adoption to kids at a young age, though exactly when is open to debate. Some experts think it’s best to tell the child when he is between the ages of 6 and 8, while others believe children may benefit from knowing about their adoption at an earlier age. While talking about adoption can be a nerve-wracking experience, adoptive parents should realize telling the child is their obligation.
The adoption talk doesn’t get easier with the passage of time. Putting off the discussion only makes it harder for the adoptee to process the truth. And there’s always a chance the adoptee will find out from someone else.
These days, it’s not realistic to expect an adoption to stay hidden. Anyone who thinks she’s adopted can confirm her suspicions with a DNA test or just by calling the right cousin.
It’s disrespectful for parents to not tell their sons and daughters the truth. Adopted people deserve to know about their biological origins just like everyone else in the family. If parents could trade places with their child, they’d understand why this basic knowledge about one’s identity is so important.
The renowned author Alex Haley eloquently summed up this need:
“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage- to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.”
When I set out to discover the families I was related to by blood, more than anything I wanted to learn my family history. As an adult adoptee, I needed to find my roots. I wanted to meet my birth parents and other blood relatives if they were open to it.
But I didn’t yearn for new parents. After all, it wasn’t as though I grew up without a mother and father. Claire and Bob, my adoptive parents, raised me from infancy. They showed up and did the things parents are supposed to do. Dad chased down Maureen Murphy after she jumped me on the stairs outside of our elementary school. My father taught me how to drive. When I was about 17, Mom and Dad lined up an entry-level job for me at Talman Home, a savings and loan in our neighborhood.
My parents lost sleep when I ran around on Friday and Saturday nights with friends. (This was before young people used cell phones to ignore text messages from their parents.) Mom, Dad and I argued over my running around, smoking, friends, boyfriends and spending habits.
Bob and Claire never wanted their young single daughters to move out but I flew the coop when I was in my early 20s. Once they calmed down, my parents helped me settle into my single girl apartments. Our relationship improved.
My Adoptive Parents, Warts and All
Like all parents, my mother and father were flawed. They fought constantly. At least that’s how it seemed. Their bickering sounded like nails against chalkboard, an unpleasant, unrelenting racket that filled our home with ugliness. If only their fights had been a TV show, I would have switched channels after the first 30 seconds.
Living with old-fashioned parents, I felt oppressed. Traveling with friends to Cancun for spring break, going away to college, working as the editor of the college newspaper, my parents put the kibosh on everything I wanted to do.
More importantly, though, I wish my adoptive parents had been honest with me. I grew up unaware that I was not related by blood to any members of my immediate or extended families. Everyone in my mother’s extended family knew I was adopted except for Melissa and me. I’ll bet the neighbors, my teachers, even the mailman probably knew. When I found out, I felt like a fool. It’s taken me years to process and come to terms with the big lie upon which my childhood was built.
My Birth Parents — the Mom and Dad I Never Knew
While I never wanted new parents, I regret not getting to know Lillian and Steve, my birth parents. I will never know the sound of their voices, the things that made them laugh or how they sounded when they laughed.
In a different reality, I imagine the three of us sitting down and talking over coffee at a restaurant. I would have asked a million questions, taken notes, looked into their eyes, studied their faces and features, checked out their clothes, taken note of how they took their coffee. Maybe they didn’t drink coffee.
Lillian and Steve, their gestures, mannerisms, personalities, habits, opinions and interests, all buried along with them.
Sometimes adoptees connect with their birth parents in ways that were never possible with their adoptive folks. Who knows what would have happened if I had gotten to know Lillian and Steve? Maybe we would have hit it off.
Even so, I cannot imagine thinking of my birth parents as Mom and Dad. Claire and Bob will always be Mom and Dad.
I’d love to hear from other adoptees who’ve gotten to know their bio parents. Feel free to share your stories in the comments.
It feels like a cruel joke. Finding out you are adopted late in life destroys part of your identity and turns your life upside down.
I found out I was adopted at age 38. My sister, Melissa, called me one evening and dropped the bombshell.
“You and I were both adopted,” Melissa said matter-of-factly.
I couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d informed me that zombies had invaded her home in the south suburbs of Chicago. Stunned silence. Words were not available to me. I sat there holding the receiver, trying to make sense of this news.
MeIissa suspected we had been adopted. One phone call to Gina confirmed it. Gina is like our cousin. Her parents, Virg and Mitch, were close friends with my parents, Claire and Bob. Aunt Virg and Uncle Mitch, as I called them, and Gina came to our home for dinner and we visited them occasionally.
Gina told Melissa that she had known for some time about her adoption and our adoptions.
It took 38 years for the truth to show up like an uninvited guest for dinner, an unwelcome stranger who had no intention of leaving.
Emotional Impact of Finding Out You Are Adopted
I felt stunned. Claire and Bob never so much as hinted at the possibility that I was not their biological daughter. In hindsight, I realized how obvious it was that I was adopted. How stupid was I for not having put two and two together. After all, Claire who was in her 50s when Melissa and I were born. She was too old to have biological children. Well, duh!
Of course I thought it was strange to have parents who were old enough to be my grandparents but I didn’t take that thought to its logical conclusion. It was odd that I had been born in Skokie, way north of Gage Park, but I never asked Bob and Claire why they had me at a hospital that was 26 miles away from home.
I wasn’t stupid, just trusting. Naïve. Without knowing it, I belonged to a secret club of secret adoptees, people born in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, during the era of closed adoptions. Surely other adopted kids attended classes with me at Tonti Elementary and Curie High schools in Chicago but we didn’t know we were adopted. Our adoptive parents upheld the unspoken, unwritten rule: “Whatever you do, don’t tell the kids they’re adopted.”
While 38 seemed embarrassingly old to learn I was adopted, other adoptees discovered their truth even later in life. Joanne Currao was 48 when she found out she was adopted. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Joanne’s brother, had known about their adoptions and never told her.
Finding out you are adopted late in life is unsettling. Author Mirah Riben contacted several late discovery adoptees who talked about the impact discovery had on their lives. Riben wrote an excellent article based on the comments from late discovery adoptees.
Being Adopted, an Uncomfortable Label for Me
Finding out you are adopted is weird. I didn’t want to dwell on what it meant to be adopted, to accept the reality that two other people were my parents. Claire and Bob were still my parents. I put my adoption in a box and shoved it aside.
Nothing changed in my life, the life that others could see. I took the subway to my editing job in Manhattan, arranged play dates for Jake, cooked meals for the three of us, walked the dog, cleaned the house and did all the other ordinary things that were part of my routine. Even if I had wanted to dwell on being adopted, my busy schedule would not have allowed it.
When I was a kid, I never felt like I had much in common with my parents. I loved Claire and Bob and they loved me but we didn’t think the same way. We didn’t share the same interests or talents. As far as personality, my mother and I could not have been more different. Claire thrived on drama. She often cried and bickered with Bob about stupid stuff. One time she poured dry cereal over Bob’s head, not to be funny, but to express her frustration. I wanted parents who were more like Mike and Carol Brady. Loud emotional displays made me uncomfortable. I retreated to my room.
Finding out I was adopted helped me make sense of the differences between us.
Adoptee Curiosity Builds
Years passed. On the outside, I looked like me, an older version, but inside, something had changed. Curiosity about my adoption grew. Questions about my biological parents and the circumstances surrounding my adoption sprang up but there was no one I could ask. Claire died in 1998, Bob passed away the following year. Gina knew nothing about my birth mother or father.
I called cousins on Claire’s side of the family. Of course they had known all along that I was adopted. My cousin Gloria could not believe that my parents had never told me. She and my cousin, Collette, had no idea who my natural parents were. Claire and Bob never revealed the details to their extended family.
After the state of Illinois unsealed birth certificates for adopted children, my husband, Tom, urged me to request a copy of my original birth certificate. Tom got the ball rolling. He handed me a check he had filled out for $15 to the Department of Public Health. Somewhat reluctantly, I mailed in the request. I felt apprehensive.
Discovering my Birth Parents’ Identities
My birth certificate revealed my birth mother was a 28-year-old married woman I didn’t know named Lillian, a Northbrook resident. My biological father’s name was missing. A search angel, Marilyn Waugh, helped me locate my half-sister, Michelle, my mother’s oldest daughter. Open and friendly, Michelle told me lots of stories about our family, including some horror stories. Unlike me, Michelle and her siblings grew up with a lot of freedom.
I wanted to know my biological father’s identity. Wanting to help me solve the mystery, Michelle tossed out the name of a guy with a common Irish surname, a man my mother had been friendly with. Michelle thought he could be the right guy but it was just a guess.
Determined to find out my biological father’s identity, I took two DNA tests. I found Stephanie, a woman who turned out to be my half-sister, my biological father’s oldest child. My natural parents, Lillian and Steve, were married but not to one another. They had an affair and created me. I’m sorry I never got to meet them before they passed away.
Adoptee Regrets, I’ve Had a Few
I regret not having learned the truth about my adoption sooner. Had I known before my parents had died, I could have approached Claire and Bob. I know my questions would have caused an epic shit storm, but I would have learned a few details about the first chapter of my life. Bob and Claire had their reasons for not disclosing my adoption. Perhaps they wanted to protect me from the stigma of adoption. Maybe they feared I would search for my bio parents. Perhaps the doctor who connected my parents to a newborn baby girl (me) at Skokie Valley Community Hospital advised them to keep mum about my adoption.
At first I blamed myself for being dumb. But with the passage of time, I have stopped blaming myself. Claire and Bob should have told me the truth.
The truth about my adoption felt unwelcome when it landed at my door so many years ago. I kicked the truth aside, unwilling to explore it but it sat there and waited for me. Once I opened my adoption box, I learned the facts about my original parents and their families. The truth didn’t come gift wrapped with a pretty bow on top, but it’s all I’ve got. I feel better, having found the missing pieces of my life.
I’d love to hear from other adoptees who stumbled onto their adoptions. Tell me your stories!
Reading my birth mother Lillian’s letter is like looking inside a window to Lillian’s soul.
Eight months before she died in 1983, my birth mother wrote a six-page letter to her beloved sister, Donna. Lillian and Donna were not biological sisters but the absence of blood didn’t make their emotional connection anything less than strong.
Donna was one of the first people I called five or six years ago after I’d learned my birth mother’s identity. Donna spoke kindly of Lillian. After we talked, Donna sent me a big brown envelope containing photos of Lillian taken at different periods in her life.
Last month, Donna, her husband and I got together on my last night in Indiana, where I had traveled for a family reunion. As we sat and talked in the lobby of my hotel near the Indianapolis airport, Donna offered me Lillian’s original letter, which she had saved and photocopied. I took the copy, thinking Donna should keep the original since it was her letter and she had saved it all these years. I showed Donna photos of my biological father, Steve, thinking she might have met him on one of her visits to see Lillian in Northbrook. Donna didn’t recognize my biological father in the pictures.
We talked about Lillian’s difficult life in Indiana and unhappy years as a wife and mother in the suburbs of Chicago. I thanked Donna and her husband for meeting me and walked them to the door. We hugged. “I’ll call you next week,” I said, thinking I would have questions about Lillian’s letter.
Back in my hotel room, I read and re-read the letter. What the letter said and what it didn’t say intrigued me in equal parts.
Reading my Birth Mother’s letter
In neat handwriting that slanted to the right, Lillian gave Donna a glimpse into her world at the beginning of 1983.
She wrote about the horrible car accident that had left her youngest son, my brother, Fritz, with brain damage.
After being struck and dragged 75 feet by a car in July 1981, Fritz slipped into a coma that lasted for three weeks, Lillian wrote. When he came to, doctors discovered he had brain damage on the left side of his brain. Fritz spent five months in a hospital.
“He had to learn to walk, talk and eat again,” my birth mother wrote. “He’s doing pretty good now (but) his coordination on (his) left side (is) not too good. I’m trying to get him into a rehabilitation training center so he can learn to do things for himself. All in all it has been pretty rocky…”
Lillian wanted to visit Donna in Indiana but she felt like she couldn’t leave Fritz.
“I’d love to visit you all but I can’t leave Fritz alone and he has a tendency to get on people’s nerves, that aren’t used to him,” she wrote. “I was never too strong on patience but I’m sure learning all about it now.”
They had moved out of their longtime home on Alice Drive in Northbrook to escape “all the trouble,” Lillian wrote. The trouble included a fatal shooting in their old neighborhood followed by a robbery of the victim’s home. Lillian desperately wanted to get Fritz away from his old friends and drugs.
My Birth Mother’s new home
Lillian and Fritz had moved to a home in a wooded area, with a big lake across the street. I think it was Slocum Lake in Island Lake, Illinois. Lillian, who grew up in rural Indiana, probably felt safer in a smaller town and maybe the lake appealed to her. After all, my birth mother fished occasionally.
Twice divorced, Lillian worried about money. She didn’t have a phone. While Fritz was hospitalized, she racked up a huge phone bill that took a while to pay off.
“I was doubtful I’d ever get the thing paid,” Lillian wrote. “I just got the last payment made on the house in Northbrook so that is done so now maybe I can get to other things that I couldn’t afford before such as a phone.”
Lillian offered newsy updates on Mike and Michelle, her other children, her granddaughter Chris, her friends and ex-husband, Howard. She asked about Donna’s family. My birth mother expressed awe that Donna’s daughter, Kim, was old enough to drive.
“She was a tiny little girl when last I saw her,” Lillian wrote.
My Birth Mother, the Indiana farm girl
As girls, Lillian and Donna lived together on a farm near Odon, Indiana. Lillian was a foster child. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Lillian’s struggling parents were too poor to take care of their big brood – around 12 children. Authorities placed Lillian and her siblings in the homes of foster parents in southern Indiana.
During her teen years, the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Lillian lived with Donna’s family. Donna’s stern mother, Ruth, made it clear she expected Lillian to do housework and look after Donna, who was 13 or 14 years younger than Lillian. Ruth had her hands full with two other children and relied on Lillian to help out. My birthmother stepped up to the plate. Lillian took care of Donna like a mother and they formed a deep bond. After Lillian moved to Northbrook, she and Donna visited one another, usually with their families along.
Lillian confided in Donna when she learned she had breast cancer. The cancer was in an advanced state when Lillian was diagnosed a couple of years or so before she died. A surgeon removed a large tumor in my birth mother’s right breast along with lymph nodes in her arm. After surgery, my birth mother was unable to use her right arm normally.
Metastatic breast cancer had been eating away at my birth mother, causing discomfort, fatigue, depression and who knows what other symptoms. Lillian never mentioned her health in the letter. Maybe Lillian had accepted the prospect of dying with stoicism and was steeling herself for death and didn’t want to talk about it in the letter.
“I have thought of all of you so often and do love you all (but) just hate to write when there are problems and I usually have a one-track mind when there’s trouble,” she wrote. I “can’t think of anything else until I get that solved and don’t like to lay it on anyone else.”
Feeling connected to my Birth Mother
I knew my birth mother’s childhood had been difficult. Now in Lillian’s own words, in her own handwriting, I saw how difficult the end of her life had been. In 1983, I didn’t know I had another mother. My adoptive parents kept the truth about my adoption and my biological family hidden from me. I never had a chance to meet or get to know my birth mother. That’s why I find every detail about her life so fascinating. I feel connected to my birth mother.
Reading the letter, I felt sympathy for my birth mother’s situation. Sitting alone at my desk with the letter in front of me, I blinked my eyes and tears rolled down my cheeks. Several days later as I wrote this piece at my desk, I had to stop writing to take a walk across the hallway. Tears flowed.
Perhaps my birth mother would have told Donna more if they had talked on the phone. I think my birth mother wanted to talk. Lillian gave Donna an unlisted phone number for her friend, Nancy, in case Donna needed to reach her.
“I expect to get a phone in the next month but if for any reason before you would want to reach me, call Nancy,” she wrote.
My birth mother had given me up for adoption almost 20 years earlier. I don’t know if she ever thought about me over the years or in the final months of her life. She never mentioned me in the letter.
Donna wrote back to Lillian but the letter was returned. My birth mother was just 48 when she died at Lutheran General Hospital in November 1983. Fritz passed away in a nursing home in January 1985. He was 23.
Adoption search journeys are not for the faint of heart. Recently, I traveled to southern Indiana for a big family reunion of cousins on my birth mother’s side. Though the cousins are my blood relatives, they were strangers to me.
I’d never been this far south in the Hoosier state. Daviess County, Indiana looked and sounded nothing like the concrete jungles where I’ve lived most of my life. Cornfields, critters, big open skies, winding roads and Amish buggies – that’s what you find in Daviess County. Sirens, car alarms, honking horns, endless construction and millions of vehicles and people rushing around – that’s what I’m used to in Brooklyn.
My birth mother, Lillian, would have felt right at home in this little farm town, just seven miles east of her birthplace.
Far from feeling at home, I felt anxious as I parked the rental car at the Amish hotel in the town of Montgomery. In a few minutes, I would meet blood relatives on Lillian’s side.
I didn’t know what to expect at this family reunion. Growing up with my adoptive parents and sister, Melissa (also adopted), I saw my extended family at weddings, showers, wakes or funerals in the suburbs of Chicago. I loved spending time with my cousins and aunts and craved more time with them. Most of my childhood unfolded at a painfully slow and boring pace – or so it felt – in our bungalow in Gage Park, just Mom, Dad, Melissa and me. I felt isolated and different from my parents.
A Chance to Learn About Family History
As an adoptee wanting to learn about my roots, I was intrigued by the prospect of meeting new blood relatives. I knew the Arvin-Armstrong reunion would be different from anything I’d ever experienced. (In case you’re wondering, the Arvins and Armstrongs are linked by marriage. Somewhere back in time, two Arvin siblings married two Armstrong siblings, blending the families and creating double first cousins along the way. I’m related by blood to the Arvins.)
I had no idea what the vibe would feel like or whether I’d hit it off with my cousins. I wondered if I would feel like an outsider in someone else’s family. Throughout my childhood, I felt like an outsider, which is common for adoptees.
My cousins probably would be curious about me, the adoptee who didn’t find out I was adopted until age 38. People find my story interesting even though they cannot relate to it.
After six years of learning about my biological family and getting acquainted with a few relatives, you’d think I would be an old hand at first meetings with new blood relatives. In 2015, I met my half-sister, Michelle, and her daughter, Chrissy, in Galveston, Texas. In 2017, I bonded with another new half-sister, Stephanie, and niece Rachel, on my home turf in Brooklyn. Earlier this year, I spent a week hanging out with Stephanie in our home state of Illinois. All of those experiences were rewarding (and none of us ran out of things to talk about!)
But unlike a family reunion, those first meetings were small in size. The Arvin-Armstrong family reunion brings dozens of siblings and first cousins together for three days of conversation and meals. The siblings and first cousins have a lifetime of shared history and memories that makes the reunion easy and comfortable. As the newcomer, I would not be so comfortable.
My cousin, Shannon, who invited me to the reunion, put me in contact with Helen, my cousin Jim’s wife. Helen assured me the relatives are friendly and that I’d learn a lot more about my bio family if I made the trip. I could hang out with her and Jim. Ok, that did it. I booked a trip to Indiana.
At the hotel, I spotted a group of people talking outside of the hotel entrance. Are those people my cousins, I wondered as I wheeled my carry-on to the inn’s front door. Helen saw me approach.
Meeting My Blood Relatives, Learning About Ancestors
“Lynne, you made it,” she said, smiling broadly as she reached out to shake my hand. Helen introduced me to Jim, Rod and Lynn and their spouses. Jim, Rod and Lynn are first cousins to one another and second cousins to me. Like me, they traveled from other states for this reunion.
That was the beginning of many more introductions I’d make over three days. The Arvins and Armstrongs welcomed me with warmth and kindness and regaled me with tidbits and stories about our ancestors.
My cousin, Afra, who I met at one of the dinners, knew I wanted to learn more about my maternal family history. An avid genealogist, Afra brought heavy binders containing photos, obituaries and other historical documents. She offered to make copies of any photos I wanted.
Flipping through the pages of a binder, I felt a thrill when we reached the George Arvin section. For years, I’d wondered what my grandfather looked like and now, for the first time, I gazed at photos of George, taken when he was a young man
In the 1920s and ‘30s, George and his wife, Susan Melissa, were a young married couple with lots of kids, a dozen or more. Raising a big family during the Depression must have been difficult for many people. George struggled to hold down a job. Though he made a little money doing various jobs, even raising raccoons for their pelts, George was not a good provider. I’ve heard that he got arrested for stealing a loaf of bread just likeJean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”
My Grandfather: A Black Sheep?
George wasn’t around much. He deserted the family a couple of times, eventually settling in Minnesota where he died. His family in Indiana struggled. Social workers found foster homes for the children. George and Susan divorced.
In the photos, George has a long face and serious expression. In one photo, an adorable baby is perched on a table next to her daddy, George, who wore suspenders and a brimmed hat that covered most of his hair. The little girl was Mary Arvin, who was only 11 when she died.
Afra’s binders contained a slew of photos I’d never seen before. Pictures of my grandmother, Susan, George and Susan’s sons and daughters, George’s siblings, Susan’s sisters, George’s parents, Susan’s parents, all preserved for posterity. These are my ancestors, I thought as I studied the black-and-white images of mostly unsmiling men, women and children.
I felt like I had just hit a genealogical jackpot.
From talking to my cousins, I learned a lot about more distant ancestors. One of my late cousins, Charles, better known by his middle name, Bob, spent three years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II. Another cousin named Bob ran unsuccessfully for Indiana Attorney General in 1980. One ancestor sired 19 children with two wives. Some Arvins were Catholic, some were Protestant.
Listening to all the stories and connecting the names with the faces made my head spin. I felt stimulated by the openness.
Daviess and Martin counties are full of graveyards. With my cousin Jim and Helen, I visited Oak Grove Cemetery in Washington, the town where Lillian was born. It was exciting to find Susan Melissa Arvin’s headstone in section D.
In Loogootee, we visited Truelove Cemetery, the final resting place for many of my ancestors including my aunt, Mary C. Arvin, who died at age 11.
Making Memories with My Blood Relatives
The fun started at my cousin Jason’s place near Loogootee. He lives on a big parcel of farmland with persimmon trees, horses, cows and at least one friendly dog. Jason and his family live in the same modest home where his mother, Frannie, and her four siblings grew up. They maintain an equestrian center where local kids come for riding lessons. Jason keep bees and makes and decorates fancy cakes. His two younger children have amassed a huge collection of 4-H trophies, which are on display In the house.
Jason drove us around the property on a golf cart. Riding on the open seat in back, I tightened my grip after we hit a couple of spots hard on the way to see the steers. What if I tumble off this golf cart, I thought, not wanting to make a fool out of myself or mess up my clothes.
Helen sensed my anxiety. “Jim, let Lynne sit in the front with Jason,” Helen told her husband. We switched seats. In the front seat, I could see what was coming along the path.
Some of my cousins traveled from Florida, California, Illinois and Michigan for this reunion, which has been an annual event since the 1960s. On each of the three days, there had to be 35 to 40 or more people who gathered for meals and conversations about family, houses, jobs, pets, genealogy and travel. Politics never came up.
Several times I found myself repeating the story of learning that I was adopted as an adult and searching for my biological parents. My cousins seemed to sympathize and understand my need to uncover the family history that had been hidden from me for most of my life.
I liked the friendly, relaxed vibe. On the last day of the reunion, I hugged and shook hands with my cousins at Whitfield Hall, where we gathered for salads, fried chicken and lots of desserts. Whitfield is in Martin County, next to the St. Martin Catholic Cemetery, where more than 100 Arvins are buried.
I felt satisfied as I traveled back to New York with copies of family photos and historical records packed in my carry-on.
This must be how you make family history, I thought, when you find your blood relatives later in life. I felt closer to my biological roots.
The next time I go to the reunion, I’ll leave the anxiety at home.
I was a bundle of nerves as I drove to JFK to meet my sister, Stephanie, and niece, Rachel, for the first time. We made plans to spend three days together several months ago and while I felt good about these people, they nevertheless were strangers, unknown blood relatives that I found through DNA testing.
As an adoptee, I’ve been on a journey to uncover the truth about my original family. As I look back on 2015, meeting my sister, Michelle, and niece, Chrissy, stand out as high points.
Meeting a Newly-Discovered Half Sister
The reunion came about after many phone calls. During those calls, Michelle spoke candidly about her childhood, revealing the unvarnished truth about growing up as the only girl, with three brothers, a beloved father, Dick, and Lillian, our hard drinking, hard living bipolar mother who struggled to keep everything together. They all lived in a modest house in Northbrook, a leafy suburb 35 miles north of the bungalow where I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago. Without going into all the details, Michelle survived a lot of hard knocks.
It hurts to find out, as an adult, that you were adopted.
Every late discovery adoptee’s moment of truth is delivered differently but there’s no way to sugarcoat it. The blow may come in a relatively gentle way as it did for me.
Thirteen years ago, my sister, Melissa, called me one evening. “You and I were both adopted,” she said very matter-of-factly, with no tears or anger in her voice. (Melissa and I both hate drama.) MeIissa, who suspected we had been adopted, confirmed it with a call to our cousin, Gina. Gina had been adopted by a couple who were close friends with our parents. She knew about our adoptions.
I felt stunned and betrayed by my parents. They never so much as hinted at the possibility that I was not their biological daughter.
They fooled me and now I felt like an idiot for not having figured it out. Here I was, married, a mother, 38 years old and finding out for the first time that I had been adopted. It must have been obvious to everyone else. Mom and Dad were both in their 50s when Melissa and I were born. Women in their 50s don’t have babies. I should have put two and two together but I didn’t.
Ethnic identity is complicated if you are adopted.
As a late discovery adoptee, I thought for most of my life that I was a mix of Polish and German ancestry. After I found out I was adopted, I learned my biological ancestors were primarily Irish. Then on St. Patrick’s Day, I discovered I may not be all that Irish after all.
As I checked my email on the subway last week, I saw the message from Ancestry. “Your Ancestry DNA results are in!” Excited, I opened the message, and clicked on the analysis of my ethnic makeup. Much to my surprise, Ancestry estimates my Irish-ness to be merely 18 percent. About two-thirds of my ancestry can be traced back to England, Scotland and Wales.
Ethnic Origins Can be Misleading for Adoptees
A while ago, I wrote about discovering and embracing my Irish roots. Discovering you have a different ethnic identity is a common phenomenon for late discovery adoptees. We grow up believing what our parents tell us and find out, as adults, that the truth is something entirely different.
My Polish-German identity started to crumble once I learned, at age 38, that I was adopted. Still, I didn’t abandon the Polish and German identity until a DNA test made it official.
I also confirmed my heritage, or so I thought, with blood relatives. My biological sister, Michelle, told me our mother, Lillian was Irish. A cousin who is a genealogist suggested our family’s oldest known ancestor was an indentured servant from Ireland who immigrated to Maryland in the 1700s. I had to be at least 50 percent Irish.
Of course, not knowing anything about my father and his relatives leaves a big hole in my story.
Also, the science of determining ethnic origins is evolving. DNA test companies only provide estimates of ethnicity. I can’t take those percentages too seriously. Besides, being English, Scottish and Welsh isn’t all that different from being Irish, right?
Have you heard conflicting things about your roots? I’d love to hear your stories.
I told you about my odd childhood, how I grew up feeling like an outsider in my family. Well it turns out I’m in good company. Many adoptees feel the same way, based on the comments I heard from my Facebook friends who are adopted.
I guess I hit a nerve. Many readers said they also felt like they did not belong to their families, even when they were wanted, cared for, protected and loved, like I was, by their adoptive parents. Of course we also don’t belong to our original families.
Each one of us has a unique story. Some adoptees grew up knowing they’re adopted and feeling second class compared to their parents’ biological children.
Some were told by their parents to never tell anyone they were adopted. In other words, being adopted is really bad and you better keep your mouth shut about it. What does that do for anybody’s self worth?
Like me, some people never knew as children that their parents adopted them. We grew up feeling different, not like our parents at all, and not knowing the truth, which could have explained the feeling of not fitting in.
While the comments from my fellow “outsiders” were plentiful, I also heard from a handful of people who completely disagreed. They said they never, ever felt like outsiders in the family. How is that possible? Since I can’t identify with the insiders, I can only speculate on how they and their parents pulled this feat off (and try very hard not to feel envious).
A few questions for those of you who don’t suffer from the outsider complex:
Did your parents bend over backwards to make sure you felt at home in their home? How did they manage to do that?
Did they tell you the truth about how you joined the family?
Did your aunts, uncles and cousins treat you like one of their own?
What would you tell potential adoptive parents who want to make sure their adoptive child feels like a real member of the family?