Searching for Family, Searching for Peace
I couldn't have predicted the ways finding my birth family would change my life.
I have known I was adopted as far back as I could remember. My adoptive parents had always been honest with me about my adoption and assured me of how much I was wanted and loved. My mother would go on to say how my biological parents must have cared a great deal to want a better life for me. As a result, I never felt resentment toward my biological parents; I simply felt a desire to know more.
Growing up I only knew a handful of adopted children. Early on, I would notice resemblance in genetic families and feel both amazement and envy. I would daydream about who my biological family was and what they looked like. I would dream they were rich and successful. As I grew older my dreams became less precise, and deep down I had an intuitive feeling they were just ordinary, decent people. As most teenagers, I began trying to find my way in the world and discover who I was. I never felt consumed by a need to find my biological identity, yet curiosity, and perhaps adolescent insecurity, seemed to play a part in wanting to locate my biological parents. It would be another eight years before I would find them.
The first step I took as a part of my search was to write to the adoption agency where my adoption had been arranged. I was adopted in the state of California, which is a closed adoption state, meaning adoption information is confidential between all participating parties. The agency sent me a brief description of my biological parents and a form to fill out which would indicate my desire to find my biological family. Neither of my birth parents had sent in the form necessary to fulfill the requirement, but hoping for a future response, my mother and I turned in ours. The description sent to me of my biological parents included hair and eye color, religion, ages, basic health, and college plans. Although this was interesting, initially it contributed little to my search. At this point, I decided to put my research plans on hold.
I finished high school and then college. At age 24, I made the decision to search again. I had seen a television talk show about adoption that prompted me to write to a few of the daytime programs. To my surprise, four months later a woman from the Maury Povich Show called. She said they were eager to help me but needed to have the names of my biological parents. A twinge of frustration set in as I explained I did not know their names. The representative was very helpful when she said some people find it useful to look through yearbooks. This suggestion filled me with a new sense of encouragement.
Immediately I telephoned my mother to tell her what had happened and ask if she was willing to go with me to California. She was supportive and agreed to go. I had fervent hopes for finding my biological parents, yet maintained a guarded outlook. I thought with what little information we had to go on and only two and a half days to search, realistically, the chances of success were slim.
Once in California we started our search by locating the high schools and Catholic churches in town. Our first stop was Sunday Mass to see if any resemblances were apparent. It was a long shot to say the least. As we walked to our seats at the Sunday morning service, I knew instantly the answers I was looking for would not come here. The majority of the congregation was filled with an ethnicity other than my own. I could not help but feel disappointed.
The following day, we started to search through yearbooks at each of the local high schools. We were fortunate the same high schools which existed 24 years earlier were still in operation. We made our stop at the first school and began searching through yearbooks. We photocopied a handful of pictures that showed some resemblance to me. My adoptive mother had discovered one in particular she felt strongly about. “The shape of her eyes are the same as yours,” she said to me. I, on the other hand, was not convinced. But as fate would have it, the picture made our collection.
At the second high school, we found even fewer pictures, and I held out hope that our luck would instead come at the Catholic high school. At the Catholic high school, we were blessed to find a kind-hearted man in charge of public relations who had lived and worked in this particular town all his life. In fact, Tim* had attended the Catholic high school years earlier and was the same age as my biological mother. After listening to us describe what little we knew about my genetic parents, he said there was no one in his grade who fit the same set of circumstances. At this point, a wave of disappointment flooded over me.
Continuing to be helpful, Tim asked to see the photocopied pictures from the other schools. My mom, convinced she knew which picture I resembled most, showed him the picture from the first high school. He, too, saw the similarities and explained he knew this woman with eyes like mine. My excitement began to mount as Tim told us the woman in the picture lived in town. He went on to explain that 24 years earlier, the woman in the picture had been dating a man who had aspirations of becoming a dentist. This crucial piece of evidence coincided with the information given to me by the adoption agency. We explained to Tim that our next stop was the county courthouse. Tim graciously offered to contact her on our behalf, provided we found out from the courthouse that she was indeed my biological mother. I was amazed at his willingness to do this for complete strangers. After thanking him, my mom and I headed to the courthouse.
Before arriving in California, I had tried to prepare myself for the various repercussions of finding– or perhaps not finding– my genetic family. I would soon learn there is no way to completely prepare for the unknown. As we drove to the courthouse, I remember feeling an immense need to find my biological parents, yet fearing what I would find. We had come so far and had obtained a few leads; I felt I could not return home without knowing.
Still reeling from our visit with Tim, we reached the courthouse. My mom asked the county clerk for my adoption records. The clerk asked for the name given to me before the adoption took place. In a bold move, my mom used the last name of the young woman whom Tim agreed to contact. To our absolute astonishment, the clerk brought us all the documentation. Since this was a closed adoption, we were quite surprised. Amazingly enough, my mom had been correct. Listed on the paperwork was the same name as the one matching the picture we had photocopied. Clearly unprepared for this, I collapsed into a chair, on the verge of passing out. Everything was happening so quickly and a whole gamut of emotions swept over me.
With little time for reflection, we were back in Tim’s office. We had called him from the courthouse with our news, at which time he agreed to contact my biological mother. Once we reached his office, he had already spoken with her; Theresa was her name. She had been shocked by the news of my arrival. She acknowledged our genetic connection, yet had never told her husband or her son about my existence. Unsure how to handle the situation, Theresa’s first decision was to allow us to meet her mother. After thanking Tim again, we headed to the home of my biological grandmother. She, too, was surprised to see me yet said she had always expected me to come. She was very accommodating and we exchanged basic information about our lives.
Back at our motel we received a phone call from the grandmother we had just met. She called with the news that Theresa wanted to meet me and would bring her husband and teenage son along as well. As we walked up to the house, Theresa came out to meet us. At that point, I looked into the eyes of the woman who had given birth to me. My eyes were hers. As I met with Theresa and her family, I wondered what they were thinking as they studied me for the first time. Nervous, exhilarated, and awkward only begins to describe how I felt. So many strangers together in one room, and I was the star.
We visited for less than an hour. At one point in the conversation, Theresa’s husband explained to us how each year on June 3rd his wife would write a number on the calendar. He never asked what it meant. June 3rd is my birthday and the number indicated my age each year. Early the next morning, my biological father came to meet us at our motel. He wept openly as we looked at each other for the first time. I had his face shape, skin color, hands, legs, and some of the same mannerisms. He explained to me how he had always wanted to search for me. Again I felt awkward, but pleased to know he cared. He explained to us that he had only been living back in town for the past year. Previously he had lived out of the country for a number of years. He was not married, had no other children, and with the exception of his sister, had no close relationships with family members. A feeling of sadness crept over me, and I wondered about the possibility of filling a void in his life.
In just three short days so much had happened. It was as if I were living the life of someone else. The change was tremendous, and it became difficult to decipher my emotions. I would have to learn how to sort through what I was feeling and how I would handle each relationship– old and new. I returned to my home and my job, stunned by my encounter, unable to predict the aftermath of my experience.
My first week back at work, I received a telephone call from my husband’s grandmother. I had explained to her about finding my genetic family, unaware of what it would prompt her to reveal. She prefaced her conversation with a plea to not tell my husband what she was about say. I told her I could not keep information from my husband, yet she chose to tell me anyway. She explained to me that my husband’s father was not his biological father. This news took me completely by surprise. I was absolutely overwhelmed. Since his mother had died when he was fourteen, few of his family members knew the truth.
That evening I convinced my husband’s aunt to tell him as much as she knew. This information was very difficult for my husband, but he chose to handle it in his own way. To this day he has no interest in finding his biological father. Swept away by this whirlwind of events which had now become my life, I started experiencing extreme stomach pain. The doctor suggested I have an ultrasound. Little did I know how frightening this procedure would prove. During the ultrasound I began to shake, my heart raced, and I felt as though I were a completely different person. Right away my fight-or-flight response kicked in. Although feeling an immense adrenaline rush and an urge to run, I managed to stay calm enough to call my family doctor. He told me the experience I was enduring had a name: panic attacks.
For the next several months I took medication and saw a psychologist to try and calm my tumultuous world. Those months contained some of the most difficult times in my life. I found out from my biological father that panic attacks and anxiety were prevalent in his family. It was a relief to know the genetic component, yet I knew I would have to work hard to live with– and ideally overcome– my new-found condition.
Over the years I have kept in contact with my biological parents and their families. We talk by telephone and have made an effort to visit occasionally. I continue to struggle with knowing how to deal with four very separate relationships. I do know I am loved– and for that I am thankful. My intent for the future is to continue to build new relationships with my biological family, strengthen the ones I have with my adoptive family, and ultimately discover how to find peace within myself.
*Name has been changed.