Tag Archives: Late Discovery Adoptees

Finding out you are adopted later in life

Finding Out You Are Adopted Late in Life

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!

 

 

 

I met Stephanie, my sister and a blood relative, for the first time in New York City.

Meeting My Blood Relatives For the First Time

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.

Continue reading Meeting My Blood Relatives For the First Time

Search Ends: I Found My Biological Father

My search is over. A DNA test has confirmed the identity of my biological father.

I was beyond thrilled when I got the email from a woman I suspected was a close relative based on countless hours of detective work. She had taken a DNA test at my request.

“Tom, I found my father,” I told my husband, who was under the covers at 6 a.m. “Congratulations,” he murmured.

Continue reading Search Ends: I Found My Biological Father

Adoptee’s Journey: Meeting Blood Relatives for the First Time

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.

Continue reading Adoptee’s Journey: Meeting Blood Relatives for the First Time

Advice for Adoptive Parents from an Adoptee

From my own adoption experience and as someone who hangs out with adoptees on Facebook, I know many of us have grievances with our adoptions.

Here’s mine. My parents, Claire and Bob, never told Melissa and me we were adopted. Claire and Bob were recovering from the death of their only child, Bobby, when they decided to adopt a baby girl – that would be me. A year later, Melissa joined our family.

claire, bob and bobby
Bob, Claire and their son, Bobby

Claire and Bob took these “secret” adoptions to their graves. I use the word “secret” ironically since everyone in my family except for Melissa and me knew about our adoptions. I didn’t find out until I was 38 years old. By that time, my parents were both gone so I could not ask them about the adoptions. When I asked my cousins for details, they knew very little so I was left with many unanswered questions.

I don’t like being a late discovery adoptee. Really, who would?

I’ve been thinking about what I would tell a couple planning to adopt a child. I’ve never done it but as a mother, I think I speak for many parents when I say parenthood is a job you can’t really prepare for. Doesn’t matter if you give birth or adopt. No parent knows what she’s getting into when she has a child.

Of course, adopting a child brings with it some special issues. I’ve put together a short list of suggestions for would-be adoptive parents. Call it the “do’s and don’ts” of adoption from the adoptee’s point of view.

• Be straight with your child. Tell her the truth about being adopted. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal every unpleasant detail about the circumstances behind your child’s birth especially if those details are painful. Tact is not a bad thing especially with a little one.

But you owe it to your child to be honest. Yes, adoption is complicated. It’s also one more way to create a family so why hide the truth?  Besides, isn’t it better that the truth comes from you rather than having your child discover the facts on her own? Believe me, if you choose not to tell her, she will find out anyway.

• Don’t play favorites. I cringe when I hear stories from adopted adults who are scarred, having been made to feel like second-class citizens compared to their parents’ biological siblings.

Note to parents: don’t bother adopting if you don’t have a big enough heart to love the child the same way you do your natural offspring. No one ever said blending a family would be easy but I assume as an adopter, you chose to bring a non-biological child into your home. Nobody forced you to do it.  So make the best of the situation, no matter how tough it is. Bend over backwards to make your adopted child feel loved and protected. Be sensitive to her feeling of being different. Whatever you do, don’t make her feel second-class by treating her differently than the other kids in the house.

• Don’t feel threatened. At some point, your adopted child will want to know about her origins. Don’t take it the wrong way when your child asks questions about her birth mother or father. Don’t be offended when she embarks on a search for facts about her biological family. Don’t be hurt when she wants to meet with her blood relatives in person. Understand that your child’s curiosity and need to know are natural.

If you are not adopted, you probably have known about your family since Day One. Your mom and dad filled you in on the story of your birth and the details about your first days of life on this planet. You’re not curious because you know your story. If anything, you take it for granted.

Put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you were adopted, wouldn’t you want to know about your first family? Be supportive of your child’s desire to learn about her kin. Oh, and if you happen to know things about your child’s other family, it’s time to come forward. Don’t be an obstacle in your child’s search for truth. She will appreciate your love and support.

• Educate yourself as much as you can. If you plan to adopt a child from overseas, go into it with your eyes open.  Ask questions. Do your homework. Many children from faraway countries have been hurt. They may have health and behavioral problems that you’ve never heard of. Can you make a lifelong commitment to loving and helping a troubled child? It won’t be easy.

Last year, Reuters exposed the underground practice of “rehoming,” where unhappy parents seek new homes for the kids they regret adopting with no official regulation or oversight. Vulnerable children, many from foreign countries, have ended up in the hands of unfit even dangerous people.

Until I read the articles by Reuters, I never knew giving up was an option for adopters. The idea of adopting a child and then changing your mind when the going gets tough makes me angry. When you adopt a kid, you make a commitment to loving and raising the child. It’s not a consumer purchase.

Before you adopt, ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a good mom or dad even when things become difficult. Maybe you’re up for the challenge. Or maybe not?

birth mother

Pictures of My Mother

Everything I knew about my birth mother’s life was based on what I had learned in a two-week whirlwind of document discoveries and long distance conversations with newly found relatives.

I was hungry to know what the woman, who died 30 years ago this month, looked like. For days I waited anxiously for the mail carrier to show up with a packet of vintage photographs.

“Your mother’s pictures are here,” my husband, Tom, announced after picking up the mail one day last week. I ran upstairs from my basement office.

Tom handed me a thick envelope. I started to cry.

Nobody’s life story is complete without photos. Inside the envelope, the faded pictures, dating back to the 1970s, show a woman with black hair and dark eyes. She’s rather slender for someone who had given birth to five children. Lillian alternately looks happy, haggard, tired and bored in photos showing her with her husband, surrounded by his family, with her sons and daughter.

The nicest photo, probably taken by a professional photographer, shows my mother looking attractive and chic in a sleeveless black and white dress, a curl of black hair on her pale forehead, standing near her husband who’s wearing a suit jacket and tie. Looks like they were at a party. Maybe their wedding day?

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My mother, Lillian, with husband, Howard

Another one of my favorites shows my mother standing alone in front of a lake, holding three large fish in both hands. She looks happy.

Lil Fishin' cropped

Back of Lil Fishing

Lillian did a lot of living in her 48 years. She even became a grandmother, which is mind-boggling to me. Her granddaughter told me about the happy times she had with my mother, who took her fishing. Lillian skinned and filleted their catch of the day.

The photos flesh out Lillian’s story for me. It wasn’t all tragic, which is the impression I came away with from early conversations with her family members. Looking at the photos, I can see she had some ordinary, even fun moments. I am relieved.

Wife, mother, awesome cook. Hard-working waitress, drinker, angler.  My mother wore a lot of hats. I will always treasure the photos that bring her to life in my imagination.

Hitting a Dead End

I hit a dead end in my search for bio dad. Ok, that’s a stretch. Finding my biological father seems next to impossible so I’ll be happy to get a few nuggets of information about the man, who’s a stranger to me.

Last week, I tried to reach a distant cousin. As an adult, she lived with her mother for a while and her mother was very close to my adoptive mom.  I have a hunch there could be a family tie linking my birth parents to my adoptive parents. My cousin might know something, I thought.

I left a couple of messages for people with my cousin’s last name in Green Bay, Wisconsin, her last known place of residence. The phone rang at 11:30 one night. I was in bed. My cousin’s son was on the phone. A little groggy, I explained what I was looking for. Sorry, he said, but my mother passed away a little over a year ago. She was about 65.

Damn! Why didn’t I reach out to my cousin sooner? I should have started this mission a long time ago.

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Courtesy of Flickr/Al-HikesAZ

Continue reading Hitting a Dead End

Questions for My Birth Mother

The story of my birth mother’s life is the saddest story I’ve ever heard.

I have pieced together a rough draft of Lillian’s life, based on documents and interviews with family members and a close friend. I only have bits and pieces, not the whole story. What I’ve woven together is far from complete but the more I learn about my mother, the more I want to know.

Born around 1934 in Daviess County in southern Indiana, my mother had enough brothers and sisters to fill a one-room schoolhouse. She was one of about 12 children. Feeding and sheltering that many kids proved impossible for her parents who struggled through the Depression. My mother and her siblings were separated, sent to live as foster children in the homes of strangers.  One of my mother’s foster moms was a woman with a “wicked tongue,” according to her daughter. My mother cleaned the family’s house and did other chores. She liked to draw and read fiction. She also looked after her foster mother’s children and grew especially close to Donna, who looked up to her. The girl wept when my mother left for Indiana University.

Married with Children

Lillian never earned a degree. My birth mother married young and had five children. They lived in a simple bungalow in Northbrook, a suburb north of Chicago. My mother was known for her great cooking and lively personality. People I talked to recalled how nice and sweet she was sober. After a few drinks, the attractive woman morphed into someone who could be belligerent and aggressive, a woman who talked a lot and would not let go of a grievance.

birth mother
My birth mother, Lillian, was a married mother of four when she had me

My mother already had four children when I came along. Her husband had every reason to believe I was another man’s child so after I was born, my mother gave me up to a couple in their 50s. Bob and Claire adopted me and never told me I was adopted.  My mother and her husband eventually divorced and she raised her four kids on her own for a while. She worked as a waitress.

Lillian married again. I’m told Howard was good to his stepchildren. My mother’s oldest, Michael, was born with developmental delays. Her second child was a girl named Michelle. Her third child, Joey, did well in school and helped keep the family together. Tragically, as a teenager, he took his own life after breaking up with a girl. The death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare and suicide adds another layer of pain. My mother was never the same after that.

She had breast cancer when her third son, Fritz, was seriously hurt in a motor vehicle accident. Divorced again, my mother took care of her injured son and herself at home.  I was told near the end of her life, she and Fritz lived in a rented cottage on a lake in northern Illinois, a place where my mother felt at peace. She was about 48 when she died. Left behind was her son, who eventually died from complications related to the accident.

What I would Ask my Birth Mother

My birth mother was gone before I even knew she had existed.  If I could talk to her, I would ask a lot of questions.

What would you do differently if you could re-live your life? How did you and my father meet? What did you see in him? What’s his name and what is he like? How did you feel about giving me up for adoption? How much time did we spend together? Did you hold me in your arms? Did you meet my adoptive parents?

I don’t resent her at all for giving me up. She did what she had to do and I’m sure it made perfect sense at the time. But I can’t help but think it hurt Lillian to bring me into the world only to give me up to strangers.

My one regret is never having had a chance to look into my birth mother’s dark eyes and talk to her.

The Search for Family

I started my search for biological relatives. I sent 25 messages to strangers on Facebook who share my birth mother’s maiden name – Arvin.

I am hoping one of these strangers will offer clues about my birth mother, a woman I’ve never met. I wrote a nice, polite letter of introduction with the few facts I have about this woman – her name, place of birth, age when she had me.  So far, I’ve only heard back from one Arvin. She said birth mom is not related to anyone in her family and hinted at a possible family tie in Kentucky.  I am pursuing people in that state along with Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

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Courtesy of Flickr/psycho_pixie
(Probably) not my family members

Continue reading The Search for Family