“Nature versus nurture?” That’s the age-old question of what shapes us into the person we are today. For an adoptee, this question causes us to pause and think much more intently than most, especially if you grew up with a closed adoption plan.
As a child, I remember boasting with pride that I was loved by two families, and I was so special because I was adopted. I never questioned it, but instead assumed that the family I knew nothing about loved me. I always believed that it was gospel truth.
Growing up I always knew about my adoption, and I did not struggle with that part of my identity. My parents have always been open about my story, and a few years later, they were transparent as they began the process to adopt my younger sister, Hannah. They did a great job normalizing adoption so that we never had an “a-ha moment” or surprise about how our story began.
As an adolescent, I had a hard time fitting in. Friendships were not easy for me to come by, and as much as I tried to be like everyone else, kids found me different. As a teenager, I began finding my way into the wrong crowds. It was easy for me to flock towards the outcasts because I thought that I was one too. I rebelled a lot, and in hindsight, I realized that I struggled with my worth. I heard an adoptee say it best, “I felt like I had to beg everyone to choose me.”
I had no idea that this was a symptom of the trauma I experienced as an adoptee. However, as an adult, it now makes so much more sense about why I was always trying so hard to fit in or to be a desirable friend. I just wanted to be chosen. Accepted. Not given up. Now stay with me, I loathe the term “given up,” and I do not view my adoption story as a sad thing. Rather, I truly am thankful that my birth mother placed me for adoption, and I had the life I did. However, because I lost a mother when I was placed for adoption, I experienced trauma, and even at that young of an age, I was impacted. It began to shape certain quirks about me, symptoms of trauma that I was completely unaware of until adulthood.
I mentioned before that I never questioned whether I was loved by my biological family, nor did I struggle with my identity as an adopted child. However, I did struggle with identity as a whole, and I did have to decide that I was loved by my birth family without actually having that confirmed. I just did not realize all of this until I was in my 30s.
A lot of questions filled my teenage years as it is already a time of self-discovery. I wondered who I looked like, what my birth parents must be like, did I have biological siblings, where are they all now, and what do they think of me? So, when I turned 18, it seemed like a good time to get my adoption records opened. However, coming from an agency and closed adoption, it was not that simple. It was over $300 to get my unsealed adoption records from the agency I was placed through. Let me stop here for a moment and point out that it is extremely common for adoptees to have a hard time obtaining their records—which in my opinion are rightfully theirs to have without payment or issues when they are mature enough to process the information healthily. But that is not the law. There are a lot of people fighting for the rights of adoptees regarding their records because most of the closed adoption children are now adults, and they have to really work to learn more about their biological roots.
Because it was so expensive to get my records unsealed, I chose to give up on it for a while. Looking back, this was really a blessing in disguise as I was not in a stable place emotionally to process all the information I would uncover. I was still wild and going through a lot of self-discovery and making a lot of impulsive decisions in life. Eventually, my life decisions led me back to the curiosity of my biological roots again because I too placed children for adoption.
When I was 22, I was determined enough to find a loophole. Before I got my records unsealed, I went through a standard counseling session where we discussed possible outcomes that could be faced in confronting my adoption story. I was able to get the shocking, most common, and the less desirable possibilities out on the table before facing the next steps. I think that was beneficial for me to not be shaken easily at whatever I uncovered moving forward.
I had found an option to get a court order to unseal records as an adoptee, and it was only $10. It was granted, and I quickly took the court order to the agency to get the ball rolling. It took a few days for them to gather my records, but once they did, I had a lot of clues to begin my investigation. My mom was very supportive during this time, and she even helped me search online for the names in my records. I quickly found out that I had two half-sisters, and we tracked down one sister’s social media profile. Then, we found my birth mother’s MySpace. I know, throwback on that one!
There was also a phone number for my grandparents in the record from the 1980s, but I decided to give it a try. I sat there on the edge of my seat with every ring, but no one was home, so I reached a voicemail machine. I left a very random message summarizing that I was an adopted child whose birth mother’s name was Cheryl and that I believed they could be her parents. I did not know what I expected, but to my surprise, I got a callback, and miraculously, the number was still theirs! I ended up talking to my grandmother for about an hour and learned a lot, including that my birth mother has struggled with addiction for the 22 years that I had been alive.
I learned that my grandparents raised my youngest sister and that my other sister lived with her parents in a town south of Dallas. My whole life, they were less than two hours away. I arranged a time to come and meet everyone for the first time. That day was full of excitement that honestly was too much for my brain to process. I remember when she opened the door my grandmother said, “When you turned 18, we waited for this day, but you never contacted us. With each year, I was worried we’d never get to see you again.” To an adoptee’s ears, all I heard was that all these years they’ve loved and wanted me in their lives again someday.
I spent the rest of the day soaking up stories, pictures, and abundant love from a great grandmother, grandparents, an uncle, sister, and many cousins. Meeting my birth mother, however, was far heavier. Unfortunately, she was in jail at the time that I found everyone. I took a trip up there with my mom supporting me in the waiting area and met her through glass for the first time. She cried a lot and kept telling me how beautiful and grown-up I was. She expressed that she did not want to place me for adoption but that she did not have any other options in her situation.
Honestly, it was all difficult for me to process. It was an uncommon situation, and I did not know how to feel. Fast forward to life today, a decade later, I am still processing my relationship with my struggling birth mother. I also drove out to my other sister’s house to meet her, and we ended up hitting it off right away. Fun fact: my middle sister Emmy’s birthday is two weeks after my sister Hannah’s. So I have two sisters that are three years younger than I am, and then my youngest sister, Emilia, is almost 10 years younger.
Over this past decade, I have experienced many memories with all my biological maternal side. I am so thankful that I have a close relationship with them all, outside of my birth mom who I talk to occasionally. While I love my birth mother unconditionally for the life that she gave me and for the strength that she had in placing me for adoption, she is still making a lot of poor decisions with her life, so our communication is limited.
This year, I took the identity quest to a deeper level when I took an Ancestry DNA kit around Christmas time. It led me back to my questions about my birth father. Back in 2011, I met him very briefly when I tracked him down based on information in my records. He was not interested in having any connection with me at that time, so I stopped trying. I always hoped as we got older that he’d have a change of heart.
This year when I got my Ancestry results back, I began wondering about him again. I took my search to Google, hoping to find him again, but I was not prepared to find an obituary. The obituary was a sentence long, only expressing that he had passed. My heart sank, and I mourned him at that moment, which really took me by surprise that I was even struck with such grief. I realized that the hope I had been holding on to, of having a connection to him, was gone. I processed his passing and my feelings regarding it for the next six months.
I finally decided that I was not going to give up hope. I needed to see if there were other connections from his side of my biological family to pursue. I found the names of people who were connected to him through Internet searches and finally found one of those people on Facebook. I messaged him, and sure enough, it was my biological father’s stepson. I got confirmation that my biological father had passed in 2014 from cancer, and I heard everything my biological father’s stepson knew. He was so gracious and accepting of me when I turned to him for answers. He could have decided not to help.
His answers helped me get a little further in my search as an adoptee for relatives of Tom, but eventually, I hit a dead end. I also began messaging my Ancestry DNA matches asking for any information they had on how we are connected as I am adopted, so I gained more information there as well. An adoptee I follow on social media suggested that I inquire with an organization that helps adoptees fill their family trees from their Ancestry DNA matches, Discoverfamily.net. I reached out to them, and they are currently helping me build my family tree based on my matches. There’s still a lot left to uncover, but there is also a lot of hope and validation of self.
The searching I have been doing for the past decade has really opened my eyes to how important connection is to me as an adoptee. While I may not have gotten all the answers I wanted or things played out differently than I expected, I would not take any of it back. The “nurture” from my environment and how my family shaped me growing up has made me as much of who I am today as the “nature” of my biological roots. With each memory made or story shared, I gain another little piece of the puzzle that is my identity. I begin to feel as though the big picture of who I am is coming into focus.
I also realized through the knowledge I have as a birth mother who has an open adoption with my children and as an adoptee from a closed adoption, that open adoption truly benefits the adoptee more than we realize. My children get to see my love for them in action as I visit them and interact with them throughout life. They can come to me with questions they may have about their adoption story, my heritage, or their identity, and I think that is half of the battle of self-discovery.
Whether it comes before adulthood or after, connection for an adoptee is truly the blueprint to self-discovery. If you are an adoptee thinking about discovering your biological roots, know that (1) you don’t have to search for your biological family if you don’t want to or are not ready; (2) the road to discovering your biological roots will be an emotional journey, so make sure you have the support and can work through any feelings or triggers you may face; and (3) go in without expectations to help you navigate this season. No matter where you are at, give yourself grace and time to process if the connection to your biological roots is important to you.