Finding Birth Family through Ancestry.com

DNA testing can open the door to meaningful connections with birth family members. Here's Christine's story.

Narda Emett February 01, 2016
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I first heard about ancestry.com through my daughter Maddie’s biological paternal grandmother, Pat. Pat had taken a DNA test out of curiosity and had sent one to each of her children as well. One day as Maddie and I were visiting Pat, she asked if Maddie would like to be tested. We knew from Pat that Maddie is nearly a quarter Polish, but since Maddie’s maternal grandmother was adopted, we didn’t know much about where that side of the family came from.

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Maddie’s Ethnicity Estimation section

In the DNA Match section, it listed Pat as Close family—1st cousins and her birth father as Parent, Child—immediate family member. It also listed a few other family members, mostly 4th cousins or Distant cousins. I realized as I was looking at her results that this could be a great tool for an adoptee searching for birth parents or birth parents searching for the child they placed for adoption.

A few months later, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was mailing in her ancestry.com DNA test to see if she could locate her biological family. It turned out, she was successful. Here is Christine’s story:

Christine saw a segment on a local news program featuring the story of a woman who used DNA testing to find her birth family. The news story also mentioned a Facebook group for other adoptees from Utah who were searching for their biological families.

As she pondered this option, she wondered, “What if I find nothing? What if I do find birth family? What if they don’t want to be found?” Deciding it would be the greatest adventure of her life, she went ahead. She felt that even if no matches were found, the ethnicity estimate alone would be good information to have.

As she waited for her results, she was extremely nervous. Then one day while sitting in a meeting, she got an email saying her results were in. She said,

“Just that simple email nearly brought me to tears and I had to walk out to compose myself. When I got home, I contacted the woman who had volunteered to help me with my DNA results and shared the information with her. I was one of the fortunate ones—I had a first/second cousin match, which is a close match. Using the DNA results, combined with the little bit of information I had from the adoption agency, my friend went to work combing through family trees on Ancestry. She and I messaged back and forth as she was searching so that she could clarify a couple of things, and then two hours later she sent me a link to my birth mother’s Facebook page.

“After looking at my mother’s Facebook page for a while and after a phone consultation with my ‘search angel’ to determine best practices in these kinds of situations, I decided to send my mother an introductory message letting her know that I believed she was the woman who had relinquished me for adoption 51 years earlier. When she did not reply right away, I knew I had probably found the right person and that she was taking some time to process this news. The next afternoon she sent me an email letting me know that she was, indeed, my birth mother.”

Christine soon learned that the circumstances of her birth had been kept a secret from nearly everyone in her birth mother’s life.

“My birth mother was a freshman in high school when she became pregnant, and she managed to hide the pregnancy for several months before telling her mother about her condition. At that point my mother was sent to Utah to live with a foster family and relinquish me for adoption. Not even her own father or siblings knew the real reason she had spent the summer in Utah. They had been told she had a “babysitting job.” She also never told her ex-boyfriend (my father) that he had fathered a child. When she returned home a few weeks after my birth, she started her sophomore year of high school. She never spoke to anyone about what had happened to her. So when I suddenly showed up in her life, it was quite a shock for her. She had been knocked unconscious at the moment of my birth in the hospital and never saw me. She was never even told whether she had given birth to a boy or a girl. Needless to say, she needed some time to get used to this news.”

Christine and her birth mother, Teresa, began exchanging emails nearly daily and gradually came to know each other.

Christine went on:

“Because of the deep sense of shame that had been instilled in her as a young, unmarried mother, it took some time for her to get to the point where she was comfortable enough to tell her husband, children, and siblings about me. After about six weeks of emailing, I happened to be visiting the city where she lives and asked her if she’d like to go out to lunch—just the two of us—so that we could meet face-to-face. After this lunch meeting, she felt that she could move forward with telling her secret to her family.

“Meeting her after a long correspondence was perfect. It felt like I was having lunch with a dear friend rather than a complete stranger who happened to have given birth to me. I joked during those six weeks of correspondence that it felt like I was ‘internet dating’ and falling in love with my mother. I know some others have much quicker face-to-face meetings when they discover biological relatives, but this pacing was ideal for our particular situation.”

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Christine with her birth mom, Teresa.

In the meantime, Christine carried on a separate, parallel search for her birth father. Unfortunately, she located him when he had only about ten more days to live.

“When I learned from his sister that he was dying of cancer and mostly incoherent, I made the decision not to make an appearance in his life, especially since he had never even known I existed. It seemed to me that his family didn’t need the added stress of a surprise daughter at that point in their lives. My paternal aunt was extremely gracious and welcoming to me. She was thrilled to learn about me and to let me know that I still had a grandpa and siblings! So even before I met my mother, (but after my father had died), I traveled to Idaho to meet my father’s father and my aunt. What a joyous occasion that was! It was, of course, bittersweet, as he had just lost his son, but what a thrill it was for me finally—and for the first time—to be in the room with someone to whom I was biologically related.”

A couple of days after Christine’s lunch date with her mother, Teresa told her family about Christine.

“Her children were so delighted to find out they had another sister, and her siblings were equally happy to hear her news. After 51 years, the burden of shame and secrecy she had been carrying was lifted. I have met my mother, two sisters, an aunt and uncle, cousins, nieces, nephews, and brothers-in-law. Because of the distances involved, I still have yet to meet two more siblings on my mother’s side and the siblings I have on my father’s side. Each meeting so far has been absolutely joyful, and I’m looking forward to more.”

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Christine (right) with her sisters Dana (left) and Cori (middle)

Christine says there is no other way she would have found her birth family because she had very little information from the adoption agency and the registries were not helpful because no one was looking for her. She said,

“If an adoptee has been searching and hitting dead ends, DNA testing could be just the thing that will yield results for them.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to have stumbled upon the Utah Adoptees Facebook Group. With the help of the volunteer searchers in that group, I had the name of my birth mother within two hours of the time I got my DNA results. I may have been able to figure it out on my own, but the search was so much faster with the help of professionals, especially since I had no prior experience with navigating the ancestry.com site.

“Even though my mother had never actively searched for me, and even though she was terrified about having to talk about what, for her, was a shameful situation, she was thrilled to have been found. Our reunification has been an amazing and rewarding experience for us. I am beyond thrilled to have more people in my life to love.”

If you are an adoptee or birth parent searching for reunification, ancestry.com could be another link in learning information. Keep in mind that in order to have a close match on ancestry.com, your relative has to have their DNA in the system. With more than 1.4 million people in their database, ancestry.com is the largest consumer DNA database at this time. Good luck with what could be “the greatest adventure in your life.”

If you’re ready to get started searching for your birth family, click here to connect with an Adoption Detective

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Narda Emett

Narda Emett is a mother of six, four of whom were adopted. She has been part of the adoption community for over 16 years, serving on local and national boards for Families Supporting Adoption. She has adopted both domestically and internationally and is happy to be part of a transracial adoptive family. In her free time (does a mother of six ever have free time?), she likes to read and make amazing wedding cakes.


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