As a little girl, my parents did an amazing job of consistently telling me I was adopted. When my little sister came along a few years later, they did the same with her. This consistency kept us from having some life-altering secret shatter all she and I knew to be true. But regardless of knowing my story, I grew up in a closed adoption, so all I knew was that I was placed by a woman who was 17 when she had me and that was it. Therefore, I ended up having a lot of questions about my identity and story as I grew up. I remember making up stories about who my birth parents could be such as famous singers, parents to children who would have been my siblings, an artist, a lawyer, someone kind, someone bold and courageous; I had many different scenarios played out in my mind for a potentially difficult reunion.
I knew that due to my closed adoption, I could not find out anything about my biological parents until I was at least 18 (according to Texas law). I would not say that this law upset me as an adolescent, but as an adult it annoys me that I believed that I could so easily show up to a booth and get my records when I was finally of age. Side note, this was also what the agency had told my biological grandparents as far as what would happen when I wanted to know about my family someday. They basically said that they would just tell me everything. This was far from the reality when I was finally old enough to pursue the investigation into my biological roots. When I turned 18, I got a cheap version of my records that had all the identifying information redacted by whiteout lines. I got first names, a few letters that my birth mother had written me, and information about medical and physical history. Nothing was there that could lead me to find them, however. While I wanted to know more, I did not have the money to pursue the far more expensive option of getting my unsealed record from the agency I was placed with. I ended up carrying on with life and put the questions on the back burner again. I know now, looking back, that this was best in my situation because I was not emotionally capable of processing some of the things I have learned in the past 14 years as I have searched more for information.
When I was 22, I was faced with an unplanned pregnancy and I chose to place my child for adoption. During that time, I was able to get some counseling done before unsealing my records and starting the process of a difficult reunion. The caseworker and I talked through some rare, but unusual responses that my family members could have. The discussion of the possible outcomes prepared me for hard-to-digest information that could come to light and we talked over my expectations and desires in this hunt for truth. I am so thankful that I went through even the brief therapy to equip me for the difficult things I later encountered. I chose to look for a loophole regarding the overpriced route with the agency simply because I was living on a budget. But my desire was to find out everything.
Nothing was going to stop me from finding a way around that price tag. After researching, I found out that a court order to unseal my records was the best route. I had to pull together my birth certificate and a few other details, but once I had everything I drove up to a local courthouse and turned in my paperwork. I waited, at the most, thirty minutes before I had the approved court order signed by a judge in my hands. I was overjoyed to throw that in the agency’s face a short drive later. They let me know that it would be a few days, but that they would pull everything together for me and call when it was ready. I was annoyed that the administrative turnaround would take time, but I felt victorious with my loophole. So, I left and waited for the call.
At that time, I was in college and I remember getting a voicemail from the agency to call them back to discuss something before getting my records. I immediately knew something was up. When I was 18, the half-unsealed record my mom got me for my birthday revealed that my birth mother had been struggling with addiction my entire life. When the social worker called, she let me know that my birth mother was sick due to her lifestyle of addiction. I had already put the pieces together before she ever got to her point, but I was able to process that information and move forward. I was sad to hear that she had, in my opinion, wasted her life after having an opportunity to thrive. After all, without the challenges teen motherhood can entail, she could have started fresh and chosen to pursue or create goals. However, she chose to continue to struggle and chase poor decisions. When I was done chatting with the social worker, she said that I could come pick up my records now that we had talked over the harder information to digest. I quickly drove out to Dallas and got the envelope full of leads to pursue.
My mom was very supportive during this time, which I am grateful for, and helped me look through the clues to help formulate a plan. We had bits and pieces along with names, so we of course took to the vast space of the internet. Within a few hours of digging, my mom had found a Myspace for my birth mom, a Facebook for my middle half-sister, and some other information about my birth mother’s unsavory history on the streets. In my adoption record, I had a phone number that was listed for my biological maternal grandparents. I decided to start there and see who answered. I sat on the edge of my bed and clung onto each ring. A voicemail machine picked up and a friendly voice shared that they were not home, but to leave a message. I stumbled through a message stating that I was adopted in 1988 from my agency and that my birth mother’s name is Cheryl, which is hopefully their daughter. I don’t know that I had any expectations of getting a call back, or even if they were the right people at the end of that nearly 22-year-old phone number.
Some time passed, but my phone eventually rang. The number on the screen was that random number listed in my paperwork. I answered the phone and quickly was met with an hour-long phone call with my grandmother, Lynn. She told me about everyone from Cheryl, my half-sisters, my uncle, and 4 cousins; she even told me about a great-grandmother. I learned that Cheryl, at that time, was in jail, and we talked a bit about her addiction and life on the streets. It was disheartening to hear that someone who gave me life was living such a hard life. I made plans to drive to the Dallas area later that week so I could meet everyone. My entire life they were only a little over an hour away from me. I asked my mom to go with me to the jail where my birth mother was being held so that I could meet her. The situation was less-than-ideal and, of course, added to the already heavy situation of a difficult reunion.
She mostly cried when I met her and told me a bit about why she ended up placing me for adoption, even though she did not really want to. It was a difficult reunion. It was a lot to take in, and I still don’t have a very healthy relationship with her as someone struggling with addiction. When I met everyone else, I spent the entire day laughing, crying, and soaking in the answers to decades of wonder. I always wondered why I had auburn hair, why I loved music and art so much, why I had a sassy wit, why I looked how I did, or even why I had brown eyes. Everything seemed to have reasoning after my time with them. I have spent a decade getting to know them, making memories, and loving being a part of their lives.
Fast forward to this year, I found out that the man who was listed as my birth father had passed after getting an Ancestry DNA kit and digging around for more answers on my paternal side. In 2011, I met him very briefly, but he did not want anything to do with me and quickly asked me to leave his doorstep. Yes, I tracked him down and knocked on his front door so I could get my closure. It was a bit bold, but he had stood me up when I asked to meet up. I am not one to give up easily, so I took control of the reigns (Which I prefer anyway. Enneagram 8 over here) and was met with disappointment. But, I decided in that moment that I was worth knowing and if he missed out on that, it was on him. However, I always hoped as he got older that he’d change his mind about it. That hope died the day I read his obituary. I ended up crying on the way home (which was a surprise to me). It took me a few months before I was ready to dig more into his family line to see if I could find any living relatives to connect with. I ended up finding people who had been associated with him at his address and found one of them on Facebook. Social media is seriously your best tool for research as an adoptee. Once I connected with him, I found out that there were not any living relatives for my biological father that they could connect me to. I had a few names, but nothing that I could get anywhere with. I exhausted all my resources and clues. Since I hit a dead end, I asked a few adoptees that I know what I should do next. One suggested messaging all my Ancestry DNA matches with a template message stating that I am adopted, these are my biological parents, and that I would love any information that they may have on how we are all connected. So, I did and a good handful answered me back. I found several people who also had an adoption story in their families and that a few of them were willing to help dig and see what they could find out for me. I did not get far, but one of my matches said that I should contact Search Angels, a non-profit that helps adoptees build their family trees through DNA matches. I contacted them and began working with a genealogy investigator to figure out my paternal side.
This is where my earlier therapy came in handy. As if I had not already had quite a lot to unpack from my birth mother. I was told that my biological father was not connecting the gap between me and my closest DNA matches. They asked if there were any other prospective birth fathers that I knew of. Hope wiggled its way back into the picture. I told them that I did not know of anyone else and my birth mother was adamant that the man I met was my birth father. However, she was very promiscuous, so anything was possible. I began processing that possibility and while I was sad to move on from my birth father, who I had already grieved over, I knew this could lead to the possibility of a living birth father and/or living relatives to connect with. (Looking back, it was very curious that when investigating my birth father, no one could find birth certificates for him or his siblings. There was almost no information on the entire immediate family. A mystery for another day, I suppose.)
After a few weeks of digging into my DNA matches and going off the information I already had pieced together in my tree, I was led to two brothers. One of them is most likely my birth father, but unfortunately, they are even less upstanding than Cheryl. So, I have decided to take another breather and process this new information that is extremely heavy, to decide what I want to do next.
All of this to say, if you are looking for your biological family, I have several pieces of advice for a potentially difficult reunion:
- Make sure to get some therapy before and during the search because, as most adoptees know, there are horror stories out there. Even if it ends up being wonderful, it is a lot to process alone. You need a sounding board to bounce thoughts off.
- Make sure you have a support system. My mom has always been supportive of my searching and even helps when she can. My friends have been a huge support, especially during this year. I have a very understanding family, but it’s hard to talk about all this stuff with my parents because I want to be mindful of their feelings, too. It is nice to be able to come to my friends unfiltered and raw for support and encouragement.
- Do a DNA kit of some kind to help fill in some of the gaps so you have something to work off. If you need help deciphering all the genealogy jargon (I found it to be a twisty confusing web), contact Search Angels or another non-profit like it.
- If you find out some hard stuff to process, know that you have the control to either stop and process, stop altogether, or keep moving forward. Make sure that you are talking to someone you trust about all of it and know that good things can still come from it whether that is closure, another family to connect to, or memories shared. I was overwhelmed with disappointment when I found out about my birth mother, but I was sharing with my grandfather the other day that I would never take back the difficult moments because it gave me them and I cannot imagine not having them in my life today.
- You do not have to want to find out about your biological roots just because you are an adoptee. If you have no desire, then nothing is wrong with you. You do you!
Katie is an adoptee and birth mom who is passionate about adoption advocacy and breaking stigmas around birth parents. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and hanging out with her dog, Chloe.