I met my biological parents, my Ukrainian birth family, for the first time this summer.
When I decided to look for them, I knew the search would inevitably change the relationships I had with my adoptive family. I also knew it might uncover some ugly information about my origins. My greatest fear was that, upon hearing from me after twenty-five years, my birth parents might reject me once again. That rejection could have ravaged my sense of worth forever.
The need to know began when I completed a DNA test last year. When my results were in, I was matched with a handful of distant biological relatives. One cousin messaged me and asked how we were related. “Well . . . I don’t actually know.”
My answer stung. After years of denying that I cared about being adopted, I was finally being honest with myself. The truth was that I did care. I hated not knowing whom I was related to and I hated whoever had done this to me. My predicament felt hopeless. How did adopted people even find their birth families? And how much would it cost?
After several sleepless nights, I asked my parents if I could have any paperwork leftover from my adoption. I winced when I first laid eyes on the Statement of Abandonment signed by my birth mother. But it had crucial information: her name, her birthdate, and the city she was from. I probed Facebook and the Russian site VKontakte for weeks. I plugged in dozens of different keywords. There is nothing like spending your nights scanning dozens of women online and wondering if they could be your mother. Hundreds of women had her name but none of the results could have been right, although there was a handful of false-positives along the way.
Hiring an agency to help seemed quite costly so, around my birthday, a friend suggested that I launch a GoFundMe page. I had felt so isolated by my search that I was afraid to open up to others about it. But, to my surprise, I received far more support than expected. I also received a flood of messages from friends and coworkers wishing me the best of luck with the search.
In preparing to introduce myself to my mother, I wrote a one-page letter and chose ten photographs to include. But just days after I paid a deposit to one agency, I received an email from my biological cousin: “Why aren’t you answering my texts? I found your mom.”
I was so excited I almost passed out at the gym when I read his note. The painstaking search had reached its pinnacle. My cousin, whom I had never met before, had found her.
Suddenly my biological mother’s photographs were staring back at me from her online profile. Never in my life had I seen my own features mirrored on someone else’s face. She had the same blue eyes, dimpled smile, and, oddly enough, the same hairstyle as me. Beside her was a cute adolescent girl. My sister was being raised as an only child. There was no way she could know that her older brother was marveling at her from 5,000 miles away. I made a profile on the site and sent her a friend request.
It’s difficult to prepare yourself for this. The initial dialogue with her was somewhat underwhelming. Her messages were polite and brief. Mine was, too. I didn’t know how to recapitulate the past twenty-five years and I worried about telling her I’m gay. It had taken my adoptive father more than 10 years to accept. How long would it take her? Did I even owe her the truth? After all, she had forfeited her opportunity to know about me long ago.
“Also, do you know who my father is?”
It turns out she did. And within moments, I was fixated on my birth father’s profile. The internet has truly revolutionized our world. There were my broad shoulders, small ears, and impossible hairline. I studied his wife and two children, who looked almost my age. He embraced them with the same gushing affection that I shared with loved ones.
I was overcome by relief and sorrow. He probably didn’t want his family disturbed by news of a bastard child. But still, I wrote to him in hopes that I was wrong.
The next day, my stomach dropped when he replied to my message. The message read:
“Hi, Stephan! Life is amazing and a vivid confirmation of this – your appearance in my life. This was God’s blessing. You are a respectable person and my family already accepts you. I have two children – Nastia, 23, and Igor, 20. Nastia speaks English a little and wants to communicate with you on Skype. Write more about yourself: study, work, plans for the future. Thank God we were found . . . ”
I felt exuberant. I couldn’t believe how unabashedly welcoming he was. He must have known that he might have another son. Deluged in solace, I inquired about both sides of my family and told stories about my life in America. I wrote to my newfound siblings almost every day. Hearing from my sisters became my main reason for waking up in the morning. After two or three months of conversing, I felt ready to meet them.
The first stop in my pilgrimage was with my father and his family. When he picked me up at the Russian border, my nerves paralyzed me. I didn’t know what to say to him now that we’d finally met. I was operating on autopilot. I felt naive and began questioning my visit. How could I possibly have expected to find answers in this stranger’s home?
Fortunately, we slowly eased into familiarity. The visit actually went very well. The entire family was eager to meet me, annulling my worries that maybe they’d be happier if I disappeared once more. It helped that my father was forthcoming about the past. He told me that he had been misdiagnosed as impotent before meeting my mother and vehemently denied that I was his child when she told him she was pregnant. Most importantly, he told me how happy he was to have me in his life now. By the time my visit was over, I had already grown attached.
After I left Russia, I paid a visit to an orphanage in Kyiv. I hoped to learn more about the lives of orphans in Ukraine because this could have been my reality if I had not been adopted. I met with several life-long orphans and, although it was a harrowing visit, I was inspired by their perseverance. How was it possible to be so strong with so little support? The director of the orphanage told me that the main reason so many mothers abandoned their children in Ukraine was alcoholism. He told me that the pattern of alcoholism and abandonment worsens as you travel east toward the Russian border and that this epidemic persists today.
Later that week, I traveled to my birth mother and her family. My first day with them felt surreal. I had traveled across the world to meet my mother, face-to-face, for the first time. I thought about how I might have been raised in her small city and on her property. But things were more difficult meeting her. While I immediately bonded with the rest of the family, it was difficult for her and me to speak directly to one another. While I masked my discomfort, I could see that she was grappling with enormous guilt from the past.
While it hurts to know that I never had the chance to grow up with my birth parents the way that most people do, I knew the answer was forgiveness. On the last evening of my visit, I confronted the tension. If we were going to remediate the past, we needed to speak honestly about it. She finally told me about how my father had declined to marry her and how she could not support me on her own. She tried to watch me for five months and, after being paid almost exclusively in sugar and vodka by her job, she felt I may be better off with another family. I told her that there was nothing to gain from regret. There was nothing anyone could do to change what had happened. We very quickly burst into tears and embraced. I felt a connection at that moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
The next morning, tears glistened as we idled on the airport security line. Everyone encouraged me to return for a longer visit next time. Feeling more or less uncertain than I had when I first arrived, I boarded the plane. I wanted to take them home with me. Although I spent the next few hours sobbing uncontrollably, I knew I had traded my old quandary for a better one: I knew who my parents were now, I just wasn’t yet sure how to integrate them into my growing, new and unconventional family.