At different points in my life, I have felt different ways about my adoption, each building on top of the other. When I was little, I felt thankful that my parents chose to adopt me. Then later in life, I felt like I had been slighted. It’s hard to describe, but it’s similar to the feeling one has about a road not taken or a path not traveled, except in my case, I didn’t choose another road or path, it was chosen for me. While still being thankful, I was also sad for the relationships I didn’t get to have and the life that I had missed. At this point in my journey, I am still thankful and sad, but now, I am also at a place of understanding—a place I want to share with you.

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I was an infant when I was adopted. My parents brought me home from the hospital a few days after I was born. I was the younger sibling of a sister who had also been adopted. I really could not have asked for a better childhood. I felt loved and supported. Our dad ran a business, so he worked more than most, but our mom stayed home with us. I played with neighborhood kids every day after school. I spent lots of weekends in a nearby country town with extended family. My cousin and I played by cornfields and blew up G.I. Joes with firecrackers. We had the best time.

Mom was involved in PTA. I sang in the chorus at church and at school. I was in Girl Scouts and did a small stint as a cheerleader. My dad was the narrator for all the plays at our church, and my mom was a soloist in the choir. I appeared on several episodes of a local TV show and had gymnastics practice once a week. My dad used to take me on a dinner date with him once a month just to check in with me and talk. He frequently woke me up at 4 a.m. on Saturday to go fishing with him. I loved helping him work on things around the house.

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I’ve known I was adopted since before I can remember. There was never a “sit down” conversation. It was part of my story, and it was discussed openly and often. My adoption was closed, meaning everyone’s personal information was kept confidential. There were some open adoptions back then, meaning all the parties know each other and have agreed to varying degrees of communication. They were few and far between though. My parents did tell me that my birth parents were a young couple, and they were not ready to start a family. My parents always spoke about the adoption and my birth parents in a positive way. I could tell though, even at a young age, there was another emotion just below the surface when my parents spoke about the adoption. Later I came to recognize it as fear.

Now before you run away with your thoughts, let me set the tone for that period in time. It was the 1980s, and while most adoptions were legally ironclad, there were often stories in the news of children being returned to birth parents. Maybe the father that signed the papers was not the actual biological father, or infants were switched at birth. Whatever the case, fear of losing a child that was not biologically yours was not completely irrational.

I never talked about wanting to find my birth parents. People would ask me sometimes if I was interested, and I would always say no. Not only did I not feel the need to, but anytime it came up, I could see the fear behind my mother’s eyes. She was terrified that our birth parents would somehow take us away from them. As a parent myself now, I can sympathize with how that must have felt.

Not only did I not have a desire to find my biological family, I flat out thought it was a bad idea. Of course I was aware of how it would feel to my parents if I went looking for my birth family, but more so the thought of a reunion horrified me. I had watched tons of reunions on TV where the parties first meet, and there’s lots of hugging and tears. I was convinced that if they did want to be found they would have more of an attachment to me than I had to them. I would be the long lost child, and they would just be strangers to me. The only things I was genuinely curious about were what they looked like and my medical history.

When I was 11 years old, my parents adopted another child. I was thrilled to have a baby sister. Several months later, my parents went through a terribly messy divorce. My mom, little sister, and I moved around a lot after that, and I pretty much ended up raising my little sister. I won’t lie, things were tough for several years. I went from high school straight to work in the afternoons and then home to do homework and take care of my sister. My relationship with my mom was pretty rocky at that point. I moved out on my own for a while until I was in a terrible car accident. I moved to my hometown with my mom and sister to recover.

Fast forward to the month of my younger sister’s 18th birthday. My dad told her at dinner that the adoption agency had reached out to him. Her birth mom wanted contact with her. It was not the first time the woman had reached out, but being as it was close to her birthday, he decided to share that with her. She emphatically told our dad no; she was not interested in contact. Days later, she came to me and asked for help finding her biological family. She wanted to proceed without our dad’s knowledge or involvement. I get it. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but it was about more than that. She didn’t want him to make the arrangements. She wanted things to be on her terms in her own time. No one can fault her for that.

Thanks to a nurse’s error at the hospital the day she was born and some outstanding Internet detective work (if I do say so myself), I found her birth family in no time. She communicated with them for a while before deciding to meet in person. The reunion was very calm and collected with smiles and occasional laughter. It wasn’t at all like what I had seen on TV. The thing that stuck with me the most about their reunion was the striking resemblance between her and her sister. I had wanted my whole life to see someone who really looked like me. I mean, my mom has blonde hair and blue eyes like I do. People used to say we looked alike all the time. It’s different when you are looking for someone who has matching eyes or a similar smile. My first son was born and came out looking exactly like his dad. Go figure.

Having children only fueled my desire to know more about my roots. I decided after that to start poking around in my own past. The doctor who arranged my adoption had moved away and wasn’t returning my messages. The records were all sealed. The only hope I had of gaining any information was through online adoption registries. The registries were set up as a way for adoptees and birth families to communicate when there is mutual consent. You go to a website and enter whatever info you have (birth date, hospital name, sex, etc.) and leave a message or contact information for the other party. After that, I joined all the Facebook groups dedicated to helping adoptees find their birth families. Some time later, I settled on the notion that no one was looking for me.

Then, one day I was chatting with a coworker who had also been adopted. She said she had found her birth family using DNA testing. The reunion was not all warm and fuzzy. I asked if she regretted her decision to find them. She said absolutely not. Not only was she able to get info on a minor medical issue she had been having, but she was done wondering. She didn’t have to spend any more time wondering where she came from, why she was adopted, or who her birth parents were. I put a lot of thought into what my friend had said, and I decided I was ready to actively search.

The only wall I was hitting at that point was funding. DNA kits were expensive, and I couldn’t afford one. The following Christmas, one of my adoptee groups made a post that set everything in motion. They were having a contest to give away DNA tests. I didn’t win one, but an admin contacted me about a different group. She said they often get donors for DNA kits, so I did what she said, and a few months later, I had a kit. Using DNA to find biological relatives is not always as easy as it sounds. It can be a lot of work and take several weeks or months to do. Sometimes, it’s best to reach out to others for help. Search angels are usually people who have completed their own searches, then they volunteer to help others with the skills they have learned.

I had an amazing search angel who helped me use my results to find my birth family. The timing was awful though. My biological dad had passed away just a few days before. I struggle to put into words what that felt like. I was devastated and confused. How could I love this man I had never seen or met before? How could this stranger affect me so deeply? I could not stop crying. I also discovered a birth mom and four siblings. I have two full sisters and two half sisters. It turns out that after my adoption, my parents went on to get married and have kids. This is the part of the story that strikes me with sadness.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not minimizing the childhood I had, and I’m not saying I would trade the two. It’s just hard to look at photos of my sisters growing up and know that I could have, maybe should have, been there. That sadness hasn’t gone away. I’m not sure it ever will, but it’s easily pushed aside whenever I talk to my sisters. I’ll make the most of the life we have left and be grateful for it.

There are so many things I have thought or felt about my adoptive family vs birth family. When I was younger, I thought it had to be either/or. I felt like if I found my birth family I would in some way be betraying my adoptive parents. I think a lot of our society still thinks of it that way. It took me more than 30 years to realize that love can be all-inclusive. Much in the way that a parent can love more than one child equally, so can a child love more than one set of parents.

One set gave me memories, traditions, and a home. Another gave me life, opportunity, and my smile. No one is more or less, first or second. Both families intertwined to make up the whole of me. They both have an importance and a purpose. I’m excited that open adoptions are becoming more prevalent in this country. I wish more people would come to the understanding that denying adoptees parts of themselves is not the way. It is possible to give them truth and access without betrayal and heartache. When we can learn to set aside our preconceived notions and accept this understanding, we all win.