The year was 1981. Ronald Reagan had just been sworn in as the 40th President of the United States, Prince Charles announced his engagement to Lady Diana, and Paul McCartney partnered with Stevie Wonder to release their classic hit Ebony & Ivory. But for Janeen, 1981 will always be remembered as the year she discovered she was pregnant. It came as a shock. Even when the nausea and vomiting started, she assumed that she had an extended illness. Medical tests were conducted and finally her doctor announced that the mystery had been solved; nineteen-year-old Janeen was going to have a baby.
Janeen knew she needed to contact the baby’s father. She had dated the same guy all through high school, though they had recently broken up. When she called to tell him the news, he was also in a state of disbelief. After some back and forth on the issue, they decided to get married and Janeen went to live with her boyfriend and his family while they planned their wedding. Things were going well until out of the blue, Janeen’s fiancé decided to call everything off. Once again, Janeen’s world came crashing down around her and she was forced to find a new home as well as a new plan.
One night, as Janeen sat contemplating her life and the life of her unborn child, she began to think about the possibility of placing her child for adoption. As she thought about adoption, the most calm, peaceful feeling enveloped her and she knew that adoption was the right choice. She soon connected with an adoption counselor at an agency and an adoption plan was made. From that point on, Janeen was confident in her decision and she never wavered.
The time soon arrived and in August, Janeen delivered a beautiful, dark haired baby girl by C-section. She named her Sarah Marie. Janeen chose names that were special to her–Sarah was after her beloved great grandmother, Hazel Sarah, and Marie was both Janeen’s middle name as well as Janeen’s mother’s middle name. As uncommon as it was during that time, Janeen was able to keep Sarah Marie in the hospital with her for five days while she recovered from her C-section. She spent those sacred days as Sarah Marie’s mother, holding her close and talking to her while memorizing every detail of her tiny face.
Saying goodbye was agonizing. Janeen wrapped Sarah Marie in a blanket she had made and sent her on her way, while she went home with empty arms and an even emptier heart. As was the norm during that period, Janeen was expected to move on with her life and never speak of her pregnancy or her child again. Though Janeen tried to move forward, a piece of her heart had gone away, wrapped in a yellow, eyelet-trimmed baby blanket.
Erin Nichole, or “Nikki” as she was called, grew up knowing she had been adopted. In fact, Nikki’s older brother and younger sister had joined the family through adoption as well. Nikki’s mother, Norma, was a social worker who spent her career working with women who had placed their children for adoption, and over the years she gained a love and respect for such women. Norma was not afraid to talk openly with her children about adoption and share what she knew about their biological families. Every year on her birthday Nikki held her special yellow baby blanket (the only connection she had to her past) and wondered if her birth mother was thinking of her. Norma would always reply, “Of course she is thinking about you today! She loves you!” Norma framed Nikki’s adoption story with love and though Nikki knew nothing about her biological family, she grew up loving them. Norma taught Nikki to pray for her biological family, and even during Nikki’s rebellious teenage years, any angry threats of, “I’m going to find my birth mother and go live with her!” were met with Norma’s calm, disarming reply of, “That’s okay. You can find her.” If Norma ever felt a hint of inadequacy or jealousy towards Nikki’s biological mother, she never showed it. Instead, she only expressed love and gratitude for the woman who gave Nikki life. As a result, Nikki never felt angry about her adoption story, she simply felt loved by two families.
However, Nikki had questions. Her dark hair, brown eyes, and olive complexion often drew questions about her genetic makeup and Nikki didn’t have any answers. Not even knowing what nationality she should claim was very difficult. Who was she? At the age of eighteen, Nikki and Norma requested a meeting with the agency through which Nikki had been placed to see if they could obtain any information about Nikki’s biological family. They were disappointed to find that Nikki’s file was still sealed and that only a few pieces of non-identifying information could be shared. All Nikki knew was that her birth mother was twenty years old at the time of her birth, she had been born in California, that her birth father wanted zero contact, and that her birth mother had named her Sarah Marie. The agency also shared that Nikki’s birth mother had listed some Native American ancestry on her birth father’s side. Though the information was small, Nikki clung to it knowing that she finally had the beginnings of her story. Now when people asked Nikki “what she was,” she could at least reply, “possibly Native American?”
The tears began to flow as Nikki and Norma realized they were on their way to discovering who Nikki truly was.
For a few years, Nikki put her questions on the back burner. She married her husband Joe, a Black Hawk pilot in the military, and began a family of her own, supporting Joe through two deployments to the Middle East. However, questions began to creep back in with the birth of her first son. He was blond and blue-eyed. Neither Nikki nor her husband Joe, who is Native American, could figure out where their son’s fair features originated from. They decided that Nikki’s birth mother must have been blond and blue-eyed, and suddenly Nikki’s desire to find her birth family returned in full force. When Nikki gave birth to a daughter a few years later, she chose to name her Layla Marie, in honor of her birth mother who had given Nikki the middle name of Marie so many years earlier.
Nikki’s desire to find her family grew, but without any information to go on, she had no place to start. Then in 2017, Joe gave Nikki a DNA test kit from Ancestry.com. At the very least, he hoped Nikki could solve the mystery of her ethnic origins. Nikki excitedly took the test and waited ten agonizing weeks for the results to arrive. When the results of her DNA test finally popped up in her email, Nikki excitedly opened them to see that she was mostly of European descent, and that the test showed zero Native American ancestry. That discovery threw Nikki into a total identity crisis. The ONE thing she thought she knew about herself had been proven false. She wanted to scream, “Who am I?” But as Nikki scrolled farther down through her results she saw that a genetic match had been made. A man in California, who had also taken the test, was linked to her as a possible 1st cousin or closer. Nikki’s heart began to race. Could this be the link to her biological family? She sent the man a message with her name and adoption information, asking if he knew who her birth family could be. And then she waited. And waited. And WAITED. No response ever came, and so Nikki and Norma put on their detective hats and went to work. From the DNA match, they had a possible last name and one night as Nikki lamented over the phone to Norma, they typed Nikki’s original name, Sarah Marie, along with the last name of the man from the DNA match into a Google search. They couldn’t believe their eyes when up popped Nikki’s original birth certificate with her name, birth date, and hospital information. But even more important was the fact that the birth certificate listed Nikki’s birth mother as Janeen. The tears began to flow as Nikki and Norma realized they were on their way to discovering who Nikki truly was.
Nikki spent a few days on Facebook, looking at Janeen’s profile. There was no doubt that Janeen was Nikki’s birth mother. She was a blond version of Nikki. Finally, Nikki got up the courage to send Janeen a message through Facebook. But again, Nikki’s hopes were dashed when after a few days, no response came. From there, Nikki figured out who Janeen’s mother and brother were and sent messages to them as well. Again, no answer. Nikki felt like her little son, who would see helicopters flying overhead while Joe was on deployment, and would yell up at the sky, “Daddy! I’m right here!” She was so close, and yet she couldn’t quite get there.
As a last resort, Nikki bought a subscription to what she calls a “stalker website” where people’s personal information was available. This website contained two possible emails for Janeen. This felt discouraging since Nikki’s other attempts to email people had gone unnoticed, but it was her last choice. She composed an email with details only Janeen would know and sent it to both email addresses. She titled the subject line “Sarah Marie… Birth Mom???” and once again she was left to wait.
On May 7, 2017, Janeen was on her way home from a fantastic Mexican vacation. As she sat in the airport in Cabo, she decided to check her email. One email stood out among the rest. The subject line said, “Sarah Marie… Birth Mom??” Janeen’s heart skipped a beat. Was this real or was someone playing a cruel joke? As she read over the email, details emerged that only she and her daughter could have known, and she decided to do a little more research. Upon returning home that night, she climbed into bed and began a little Facebook stalking of her own. She looked up Nikki’s husband Joe and saw that he was the same man in the pictures Nikki had sent with her email. At that point, she believed this was truly the daughter she had placed for adoption 35 years earlier. She responded to Nikki’s email the next day.
Nikki was overjoyed to finally make contact with the woman who had only been a figment of her imagination. She never believed this day would come, and yet, it had. After a lifetime of wondering who she was and where she had come from, Nikki was talking with the woman who had given her life. Their communication began through email, led to texting, and finally phone calls. (Janeen still has the first voicemail message from Nikki saved on her phone.) Eventually Nikki and Janeen set up a weekend meeting in Las Vegas, a place halfway from each of their homes.
To say Nikki was nervous to meet Janeen would be a gross understatement. She was excited and terrified, and as she walked down the staircase at the hotel she stopped. “I can’t do this,” she said to Joe. “Yes you can!” he exclaimed as he coaxed her down the rest of the way. Janeen had also brought a friend along for support, and they had hidden themselves around a corner. Janeen wanted a moment where she could simply watch Nikki walking down the stairs.
The reunion was beautiful, full of emotion, and etched in tears. The moment Nikki embraced Janeen she had the most vivid sense of recollection. She immediately knew Janeen’s voice, her touch, and her smell. These were things that Nikki’s subconscious had tucked away in her infancy, and she was shocked to discover that they were still there. They spent a wonderful weekend sharing pictures, stories, and simply catching up on the last 35 years of life. Nikki even brought along the treasured, yellow, eyelet blanket that Janeen had sent her home in. Janeen could not believe that Nikki still had it, and was overwhelmed to know that Norma had raised Nikki to love and honor her birth family, despite the lack of information they had about them. Janeen looks forward to the day when she can meet Norma, hug her, and thank her for raising Nikki to love her birth mother.
Nikki and Janeen both used the same word when describing this reunion: Healing. For Nikki, she finally knows “Her Story” as she calls it. She knows names, dates, details, emotions, and the “why’s” that all adoptees ask. She knows who she is and where she came from. She knows that her olive skin and dark eyes and hair DO come from her birth father, and that her oldest son’s fair features DO come from Janeen. Knowing these things about herself has made her feel complete in a way she has never experienced.
For Janeen, she finally knows where her daughter ended up after she left her arms. She knows she had loving parents who taught her well, and spoke of Janeen with reverence and respect. She knows Nikki harbors no hard feelings towards her or her adoption. She knows that Nikki loves her, and she has been able to restore the piece of her heart that was lost.
They have both been amazed at the strength of genetics; they have the same shape feet, they both love to wear tennis shoes and hats, they share the love of cooking, dancing, and especially gardening. They share these traits even though they never knew one another during Nikki’s formative years. It certainly makes a case for nature over nurture in some aspects.
Nikki now firmly believes in the importance of open adoption. Though she was happy and loved, Nikki spent her entire life wondering who she was. She never felt complete. She hopes to share this story to encourage adoptive parents not to fear the idea of their children knowing their birth parents. In describing her experience with adoption, she uses one word over and over again: LOVE. Her adoptive mother, Norma, taught her to love her birth family and her story. She was not afraid to encourage Nikki to love, and later search for, her biological family. And once that biological family was found, the love only grew. Nikki’s heart was healed, she could finally express her love to her birth mother in person, and in return, Janeen could express her love for Nikki.
Nikki finally KNOWS what Norma had told her from the beginning, she was loved! Loved by two families who worked hard to give Nikki all the tools to succeed in life. She is a beautiful culmination of biology and environment. Janeen gave her life and Norma shaped that life into something beautiful. For these things, and these two mothers, Nikki will be forever grateful.