A year ago, I wrote “Finally Finding Family.” I’d always wanted to know the true story of my birth and why I was given up for adoption. With DNA testing, many adoptees like me, who had give up hope of finding their birth families, are now able to do it.
It’s been a wild, emotional, roller-coaster ride. What I learned has upended my concept of who I am, over and over, in waves of absolute joy, happiness, anxiety, fear, and depression. It’s as if the Earth has moved under me, over and over, with every big revelation. It’s been far more disconcerting and disturbing than I imagined.
Yes, there have been some highs, and there are things I’m immensely grateful and relieved to know. I found the birth family I’d always wanted to know, but there is a lot more to it than just finding them. There is so much sadness in the heartbreaking story I discovered. I’ve also made rookie mistakes that either have or will hurt other people.
For ease of navigation, I’ve divided this post into sections.
- Decoding My DNA and the Challenges Within
- First Contact: Joy and Heartbreak
- Nature Trumps Nurture
- Trials and Tribulations
- And then Summer Happened
- A Cautionary Tale
- My Brother’s Much Shorter Adoption Story
First, a couple articles that help explain the process. Feel free to skip this section.
Some general information on DNA searching:
The Guardian newspaper recently published two articles about using DNA to find family, as well as doing DNA tests, with the option to find DNA matches turned on, and how disconcerting those results can be. The first is:
This article explains the basics of how family is identified, using a method called triangulation. I had no idea what I was doing at first, but the Facebook group that is mentioned in the article, DNA Detectives, was recommended to me, and it’s great.
It’s a good article, but they mention adoptees who contact all their closer DNA matches, which is really one of the worst things you can do, and was my biggest mistake. You need to figure out who your birth parents are before you contact anyone, and yes, you can usually do that without making contact. You should always contact your birth parents first, if they are around.
They also write about being able to find your family in 24 to 48 hours, but it very rarely happens that quick. Sometimes, there are close enough matches that you can find a parent or sibling quickly, but, more often, it takes days, weeks, or even months, to figure it out. Ancestry.com has genealogical records such as birth, marriage, death, and census records, that makes it easy to find relationships, marriages, and more information on people than you think is available.
I found my own birth family in 2 months, but it was complicated and I was learning. I then found my brother’s birth family. I found his father in 2 days, but it took 3 weeks to figure his mother out.
In “‘Your father’s not your father’: when DNA tests reveal more than you bargained for,” they point out that “genetic tests are seen as harmless fun. But the secrets they can reveal can split families and leave users traumatized.” That’s important reading for anyone who takes a DNA test.
Decoding My DNA Matches, and the Challenges Within
When I received my 23andMe results, it was immediately clear that it would be much easier to have results from all the DNA sites, and I ordered an Ancestry DNA test. I also uploaded my DNA file from 23andMe to FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage, and have matches from both of those, too.
So, this is basically how you do it: take all your DNA matches that are fairly close, and start a giant multi-family tree, putting in all their ancestors.
A relative, whether a cousin, aunt, uncle, niece, sibling, etc, is a relative because you share ancestors. 1st cousins share grandparents, for instance. The possible amount of DNA shared varies by the closeness of the relationship, but these ranges are known. If you know the generation that someone is – your parent’s generation, yours, etc, you input the amount of DNA into DNAPainter, and it shows you what relationship someone could be. The closer they are, and the more DNA you share, the fewer options you have. If you want to do this, read the articles above, and join DNA Detectives on Facebook.
On 23andMe, I had a bunch of matches that didn’t make sense at the time (half great nephews), and what they called a 2nd cousin match, plus another 900 matches that were labeled by them as 3rd to 5th cousins, or distant cousins. Know that these estimates of the relationships are only estimates – a half-first-cousin was integral in figuring out my brother’s birth mom, but had been labeled as 3rd – 5th.
Thankfully, my new-found cousin, Katherine, contacted me, and taught me the intensive process. Katherine is one of the really good things to come out of my search – we would have been friends just based on shared interests, and have become very close. Her guidance, both in the logistics of the search and the emotional roller-coaster, were essential. Later, a cousin on the other side, Tamara, also joined in to help.
Ancestry has a much larger DNA database, and I finally had one really solid match, on what turned out to be my mother’s side – my uncle, Patrick.
But it took 2 months of learning, searching, exploring, researching, and triangulating the cousin DNA matches I had from all these sites in order for me to come to a definite conclusion as to who my birth parents were.
My case was particularly challenging, as I had a whole bunch of half-great-niece/nephew matches, and a couple half-nephew matches, but I could find no connection between them and the 1st cousin matches to me that they are also related to. A half-nephew (child of a half-sibling) was the only result possible for 2 people, based on the amount of shared DNA and the generation.
DNA doesn’t lie. This is hard science. Triangulate enough cousins – find their path to a mutual ancestor – and do enough research, and it becomes very clear as to who your great grandparents are, then your grandparents, and finally, your parents. In the end, I triangulated nearly 100 cousins, and my family tree now has 7500 people in it, although a lot of that was me tracing my history back to Europe and deep history.
But there was no path for several half-nephews and half-great-nephews, if I go with the names on their birth records. Their parents are half-siblings who likely don’t know their father is someone other than the person on their birth certificates. Here’s where I went wrong – writing to two people who were the parents of half-nephews. One never answered, but he recently took an Ancestry DNA test himself, and he is, indeed, my half brother, on my male biological parent’s side. But I don’t think he knew that… I basically just destroyed his concept of who is father was, for which I’m intensely sorry.
The mystery of my many half-great-nephews was solved when the mother of one told me that one of my half-nephews had been a sperm donor in college!
In the end, the DNA and my research proved that my birth mother was my Uncle Patrick’s sister, and I identified who my male biological parent was. He had 3 children in his marriage, and at least 3 of us who he likely didn’t even know about. Cousin Katherine and I had a lot of discussion about that, since it was very strange. None of the options as to why that would be were good ones, and I knew there could be hard revelations to come. But knowing something is possible and learning the truth are two very different things…
First Contact: Joy and Heartbreak
I was terrified when I reached out to my birth mother. She was about to turn 76, and it had been 55 years since she placed me for adoption. Would she even want to hear from me? I knew she had 2 other children, one being the half brother who was mentioned in the story the adoption agency told, and the other being my younger half sister.
I sent my birth-mom an explanatory letter and some pictures. I tracked the envelope in a state of extreme anxiety. My uncle Patrick, my birth mom’s brother, finally saw the messages I had sent through Ancestry, on the day the letter was being delivered. He was able to alert my half-sister, Nikki, and she and my birth-mom opened and explored the info I’d sent together.
Later that evening, we had a Facebook chat, and I was able to communicate with my birth-mom and half-sister for the very first time. I was over the moon. I was thrilled when my birth-mom said she’d always thought we’d connect, and amazed and relieved that my sister, Nikki, had always known of me – often, a child born out of wedlock, especially in the ’60’s, is seen as a source of shame, and never spoken about.
The story of my birth-mom’s life and my conception and birth was heartbreaking.
I had already found the obituary for my maternal grandfather, who died in 1957, when my mom was only 15. He was a flight instructor in the Air Force. He was killed in a horrible jet crash. My maternal grandmother, my mom’s mom, remarried less than 6 months later, and her new husband was an abusive alcoholic.
Still reeling from her father’s death, my mom left home, and wound up married at 17. Her new husband was also abusive, though, and she filed for divorce on her 18th birthday. My half-brother, Terance, had been born just a month before.
She was tiny, but she was fierce, and she managed to get an apartment, a job, and childcare for Terance, and set about creating her life. By the time she was 20, she had settled in as a divorced, single, mom – a brave thing in 1962.
And then the life she’d built was destroyed.
My mom was active in her church, and met a man who seemed kind and gentle. He said he had a PhD and he was supportive of her as a single mom. They had 3 dates, with 2 year old Terance going along. After the 3rd one, this man date raped her, and then proceeded to apologize and told her that he already had a wife and 3 children!
Just like that, she found herself pregnant again. She never saw him again, and didn’t even remember his name when I asked.
But I knew who he was, this 34 year old man who targeted my vulnerable, 20 year old mom. DNA doesn’t lie.
My male biological parent was telling the truth when he finally said he already had a wife and 3 children. He did, indeed, have a PhD. He died in 2004, and his obituary and memorial pages are filled with praise for him. He was a respected educator and school administrator through his long career, which I find disturbing, given his predatory behavior around my much-younger birth mom, and the other children he left scattered around.
And there were pictures. I look like him, my male biological parent. He isn’t my birth father – that’s not a term I can use with him. He had no idea I was conceived when he raped my mom. She bravely asked to see the pictures, to be sure. She remembered and identified him. I know this was extremely painful for her, and the whole thing has brought up terrible memories.
And there are those other 2 or more half-siblings I have, who were born to mothers who were already married to someone else. They are also the children of my male biological parent. I can’t know whether those other children were conceived through rape or consensual sex. I also can’t know how many others there are that haven’t been tested.
It’s been almost a year, and I still can’t look at his pictures, seeing my features so clearly reflected in his face.
I don’t feel shame that I was conceived through rape. Some people do.
I feel rage. Rage at what was done to my mom, and the fallout from it.
My mom’s life, that she’d tried so hard to build, on her own, was abruptly turned upside down. She couldn’t continue to care for Terance and work while being pregnant. She was forced to move back home, to her abusive step-father. He and her mother said they would not support her if she wanted to keep me – and, despite the circumstances, she did want to.
I don’t know how a woman loves a child who is conceived by rape. But she did. So much so that she apologized for having cried so much during my pregnancy. That apology broke my Heart.
I was wanted. I was loved. I wasn’t rejected, as I’d always thought. I was loved. And that is the most profound gift that this ordeal has given me.
Nature Trumps Nurture
We’ve all heard the arguments for whether Nature or Nurture has the biggest influence on a person’s personality. I was shocked to discover that, in one regard, Nature beats Nurture almost every time, and this is something I think other adoptees should know.
I immediately felt great grief and compassion for my birth mom when she apologized for having cried so much when she was pregnant with me. I can’t imagine the depths of the desperation she felt, having to move back home, with me growing in her womb, the product of a rape.
But she loved me. She wanted me anyway. And she was forced to give me away by her mom and abusive step-father. She cried out of deep grief, as she knew I was going to be ripped away from her, and it was unlikely she would ever know what happened to me.
I have 2 daughters of my own, and I just can’t imagine how awful that would be, when every instinct is telling you to protect and nurture the babe growing inside you.
I was shocked, then, to learn that scientists say that all emotion is chemical in origin, and that a baby in the womb feels all the emotions the mother does. They have no context, of course, to put the feelings into, but the pain, grief, fear and desperation of a mother are all things the baby feels, too.
This can have lasting consequences. Babies whose mother has these types of deep emotions often have more colic and are fussier than other babies. They are also prone to lifelong depression, and often don’t know why.
That describes me, from the start. I had a great, loving adoptive family. I was nurtured, and never wanted for anything.
And yet. I was a sad child. My adoptive mom told me she didn’t know why I was so sad or what she could do about it, or why I wouldn’t talk to her about it.
When I figured out that I have Asperger’s, I thought that maybe that was why. But now, I don’t know. This sadness and grief has followed me all my life. How much was because of what was done to my birth mom and what she was forced to do? I don’t know.
I do know that when I read that, the Earth moved under my feet, and once again I had to reevaluate how this search was rewriting what I knew of myself. It distresses me to think of being a babe awash in emotions I couldn’t understand, and the grief my birth mom felt, the tears she shed. I don’t blame her in any way. None of this is her fault. But the emotional fallout continues.
Who would I have been if that hadn’t happened?
The Primal Wound Adoptees Carry
There is another aspect of adoption and the lifelong impact it has on the child, and I believe all adoptees as well as adoptive parents should know about it.
Human babies, like all mammals, are born knowing their mother’s voice, scent, and heartbeat. If you’ve never seen a litter of newborn puppies or other animals making a beeline for their mama’s nipples right after birth, get yourself to YouTube and watch some.
Babies know their birth mom. And yet, babies being given up for adoption are taken from those moms, and placed in the care of someone else, who they can’t identify.
The primal wound theory holds that “severing the connection between the infant and biological mother [through adoption] causes a primal wound which often manifests in a sense of loss (depression), basic mistrust (anxiety), emotional and/or behavioral problems and difficulties in relationships with significant others… affecting the adoptee’s sense of self, self-esteem and self-worth throughout life.”
I didn’t bond with my adoptive parents correctly because of the circumstances of my birth. I wish I had known that while they were still alive.
Trials and Tribulations
The day I read the message explaining my conception, in late June, 2018, I was told that what I thought was a cyst was probably a tumor. I was referred to a gynecological cancer specialist at the medical school hours away. Everything else got put on the back burner while I dealt with infection, biopsies, more infection, long drives to see the doctors, surgery, even more infection, but finally, the all clear. It wasn’t cancer. But it took a huge toll on my body, and it took forever to heal. July, August and September were a nightmare.
In the middle of August, my birth-mom had a heart attack. She had turned 76 in July. She was scheduled for quadruple bypass surgery, and I thought I was going to lose her, when I’d just found her. I was panicked and so upset. But she’s tough. She got through heart surgery, had a difficult recovery, and then, blinded by cataracts, went through cataract surgery.
I am unbelievably thankful to my sister, Nikki, who took care of our mom through all that. Nikki has 2 boys, and is an occupational therapist, and very busy. My uncle, Patrick, moved to Arkansas to be near my mom, rekindle family ties, and support her.
And Then, Summer the Rescue Dog Happened…
Just when I thought I was getting all settled in with my new family, building ties, this happened…
In November, a dear friend in the UAE, Charlotte, who had rescued my Akeelah, contacted me, in need of a home for a horribly abused dog named Summer. I posted it on Facebook, and my Uncle Patrick saw the pics and read her story. I already knew that a love of canines is apparently hereditary, having seen his many dog pictures and heard about her love of dogs from my birth-mom.
Patrick called me, my very first phone call with my biological family, and after hours of discussion and long Facebook conversations with Charlotte, he decided he wanted to adopt Summer. To get a dog from the UAE to Arkansas is no small feat, but I was determined to make it happen.
Summer arrived here just before Christmas, and I picked her up from the airport. It didn’t go well. When Akeelah came from the UAE, she came out of the crate happy and tail wagging, seemingly knowing she was now home with her people. But Summer wouldn’t come out of the crate. She was absolutely terrified, and actually snapped at me.
Summer was here with me for less than 24 hours. That didn’t go well, either. When I broke a glass, I put her back in the crate, and she went from being okay to again being triggered into fight or flight, and there was terrified snapping and a refusal to come out. Canine PTSD.
I explained the situation to Patrick as it evolved, and told him that I was afraid to put her back in the crate the next morning for her ride from Virginia to Arkansas with a dog rescue. I did not want to trigger her PTSD any more. He agreed.
Summer made it there, and for a few days we were all encouraged. Then first I, and then Charlotte, got messages that we had lied about her, that she was deaf – even though there were 2 videos he had seen of her howling to the sound of the mosque call. He also was furious I had kept the crate, even though I had discussed it with him both online and on the phone.
A couple days before Christmas, Patrick wrote us on Messenger, said terrible things to me, and to my utter shock, called Charlotte, who had poured her heart and soul as well as a lot of money into Summer, a lot a nasty names. He then blocked the both of us so we couldn’t reply. Charlotte spent the Christmas holidays crying, and not a few tears were shed here, too.
I was able to send some messages to Patrick from another Facebook account, and I know that Summer is being well cared for. They are adjusting to each other. He eventually unblocked Charlotte, and has had some conversations with her. She feels better about it.
I’m still blocked. It’s a really strange thing to me. A few days before, he had listed me as his niece on Facebook and we were having long talks on the phone. Then he shut me out.
A Cautionary Tale
I have spent the months since wondering what on earth Patrick told my mom and Nikki. We haven’t had very much communication since, but I know that reliving that time in her life was very painful for my mom, and her health has been her priority. Nikki is very busy with work and her boys. Still, I am a little sad that I haven’t even talked on the phone to them.
Now there’s the ongoing trepidation I feel for my male biological parent’s three legitimate children, and for my other two half-siblings. There may be more than that. I don’t want to hurt anyone. But, while I could make my info private so no one would see it, I just can’t do that.
I’m an Aspie. Person with Asperger’s Syndrome. A reverence for the complete and total truth is part of my being, part of who I am.
I also don’t think I should “hide” out of fear that someone in my male biological parent’s close family would find out about me, and there’s still my half-siblings, and all the half-nephews out there on Ancestry, too.
The man who brought us into existence is dead. I would not share the story of my conception with the children he had in his marriage, or even return a message. I don’t want to ruin their memories, which appear to be good ones. But one day my half-siblings and the others may want to know what I spent months learning, and I want to be here for them.
I learned what I set out to learn, and discovered I was wanted and loved. That means more than words can say, and if I never have a close relationship with my birth mom and sister, Nikki, that’s okay. I’d like to be a little closer, but am grateful for the courage and strength that it took for them just to tell me what they did.
My Brother’s Story Was Very Different – and Short
There’s plenty of other ways that the birth family search can go.
My brother, Clay, was privately adopted at birth. He is 61 years old, and had never had the same driving need to find his birth family as I did. I was surprised, then, when he found my success to have sparked his interest.
I had a bit more background on his birth parents than I did on mine. The adoption story we had gotten from our (adoptive) mom was that the birth father was in school to study law, and the mother was in school to study music or opera. They had decided together that they couldn’t take care of a child, and had gone together to the doctor who arranged the adoption.
When his DNA results came in, it took me only a couple days to confirm his birth father’s identity, without a doubt, even though he didn’t have any very close matches. He is 83 years old, and the owner of a law firm in Las Vegas – so I guess they weren’t kidding when they said he was studying law! Clay is his only son, but he does have daughters, at least 2 of which are also in law.
Clay’s birth mother was a much harder one to figure out. As I described above, you start with finding mutual ancestors among your DNA matching cousins’ family trees, and slowly narrowing it in. I was not getting hits on cousins from his biological grandmother or great-grandmother, and it was very confusing. No matter how I tried to fit him in to the great puzzle that is DNA family, for the longest time it just didn’t make any sense to me.
Eventually, I learned that the reason they had no descendants in the Ancestry database was because his maternal grandmother and all her ancestors were from Switzerland and Germany. His grandmother immigrated to the US in 1923. His birth mother passed away in 2017, so we missed her by just a year.
I found a half-first cousin in Ancestry, and this cousin’s father had been married to Clay’s aunt. That finally confirmed his birth mom’s identity. I think it took about 2 weeks to get to that point.
Clay was not really interested in contact with his biological family. We did have a few messages with his half-first-cousin and the husband of his deceased aunt, and they were absolutely shocked to find out that Clay’s birth mom had even had a child. Apparently they had been very close, but she had never told anyone, and must have actively tried to hide her pregnancy. Clay was her only child.
I’ve encouraged Clay to explore his birth father’s law firm website, and there are pictures and other info I’ve passed on to him. But he really isn’t sure he wants to contact his birth father, given his advanced age. I imagine if one of his half-siblings on his father’s side were to DNA test that he would connect with them.
At least Clay knows his heritage, and some background on his ancestors.
That’s all he needed, and that is perfectly okay.