Texas Daughter, Darlene Coyne, learns at 52 that she’d been adopted as an infant.
Seven years ago, I was 52 years old, in the prime of my life, with a professional career, a stable marriage and three grown children. I was living outside Atlanta, GA and my brother and mother were living in Florida. My brother was headed out to Missouri to get his 5-year AA coin, so I asked him to bring my mother for a visit.
I loved my mother dearly and we had always been exceptionally close. I was born in Texas in 1954. After I was born, my parents adopted my Eskimo sister (Alice) and my American Indian brother (Steve) from Alaska. She had always told me that she’d spent eight years trying to have a baby, had several miscarriages and then finally had me, but she was never able to get pregnant again.
I was raised as the only “natural child.” My parents divorced when I was eight. We haven’t heard from my father since. I missed not having a father, yet we were better off without him. He was an alcoholic with an abusive nature.
My 21-year-old daughter was also home at the time of my mother’s visit. In the previous years, they had not gotten along well. My daughter had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and had been asking (justifiably) about our family’s mental illness history. My mother claimed that there was no possibility that the illness came from her side of the family.
That Friday night at the dinner table, my daughter kept needling my mother and my mother became nasty with her. We knew my uncle and maternal grandmother had a history of mental illness, so my mothers’ resistance to admit this was very frustrating. My daughter just wanted somebody to admit that her illness was inherited.
Their bickering got so intense that both my husband and daughter left the room. I followed my daughter upstairs. I wanted to comfort her, yet I also felt sorry for my mother. She was quite old by this time, and I repeatedly said, “She is my mother,” as if that fact would excuse her behavior. My daughter and I agreed that she had a right to know her medical history, and that my mother was wrong, but at this point in my mother’s life—I knew I couldn’t change her.
I returned to the kitchen. My mother was still sitting at the table looking dejected. “I have something to tell you,” she said. “You should sit down.” I sat.
At that moment, I worried that she was about to tell me her cancer had returned. Instead, my mother said: “I adopted you also—so she can quit blaming my family for her mental illness.”
I was stunned. Shocked. Speechless. I pulled away from the table. I just couldn’t believe her. Over the years my mother had lied about many things. Why would I believe her now when she had an ulterior motive to evade my daughter’s questioning?
I left to find my husband and started sobbing to the point that I could not even spit out the words to tell him what had transpired. Still sobbing, I returned to the kitchen and said to my mother: “How could you have done this to Alice and Steve? Pretending that I was yours all their lives.”
“Because I loved you so,” she said. My mind raced with thoughts of my childhood and how much we had all endured,
In addition to my two adopted siblings, I’d grown up knowing that my cousin Nancy was adopted. The only problem was, she didn’t know. I had always viewed adoption as a win-win situation, yet I’d been concerned that Nancy hadn’t known the truth. However, I wasn’t about to be the one to reveal the deep dark family secret. Nancy’s father (my mother’s brother) used to say he would “kill” anyone who told his daughter that she’d been adopted.
I cried so much that weekend that I lost a crown from my tooth. I initially cried for the utter sense of loss I felt. I suddenly had no family, no genealogy, no medical history, and possibly a different religion, since I was Jewish through my mother. I cried over the idea that I’d spent years missing a father and not understanding how he could have abandoned me, when really he wasn’t my birth father after all. I cried for the pain that Alice and Steve had suffered, all that time feeling so different from me. I cried for the fact that my mother was so callous, both in the delivery of her news and in her lack of understanding about why I’d be upset. She refused to apologize or accept any blame for keeping my story a secret.
On Sunday, when my brother returned to town, we told him nothing. When I was at the dentist Monday morning, my mother told him the truth. Steve was just as surprised as I was. Later that day, I sent an email to an older cousin asking if my mother’s story was true. Over the next two days, Mom kept telling me stories of how she got me, and the things she claimed to know about my birth mother. Apparently all of my adoption papers had been destroyed, and since it had been private, there was no agency to contact.
Over the course of the next several months, Amazon became my best friend. I ordered every adoption book I could get my hands on. They revealed aspects of adoption that I’d never considered before. The angst, anger, and feelings of loss, experienced by both the birthmothers and adoptees, were all new to me. During that year, I continued to cry, fueled by these many stories.
I cried for my birthmother. I cried for what I imagined she felt like being single (I assumed) and pregnant in 1954. I had worked with babies and mothers for years as a lactation consultant and cried as I imagined how my birth mother must have felt having to give her baby away. I cried for myself, and for the trauma I must have felt as an infant, when I was taken from my birth mother and handed to strangers. I cried for having been a fool when all of my cousins, aunts, and uncles knew the truth about me—but kept it secret.
I cried in frustration over the adoption and political systems that prevented me from accessing my birth records. I cried over the friends who couldn’t understand why I was sad and not able to “just get over it.”
I received a referral to a well-respected therapist. After we met, she admitted that she knew nothing about adoption, though she assumed it was like any other earth-shattering event. I did not return. I tried another respected therapist, but she was an adoptive mom and I was unable to get past that. I cried for a year—awake, asleep, in the gym, on walks—everywhere except at work. Most conversations with my mom ended with me angry and her so upset that she asked me not to call her.
I knew there had to be a name for people like me—people who learn they’re adopted as adults, but heaven help me, I couldn’t find it. Finally, about 10 months later, I came across the term “Late Discovery Adoptee” (LDA). There was little on the web, but at least now I could effectively label myself. I attended an intense adoption weekend in NY, but felt so different from the others. I had not grown up with the burden and angst of being adopted, yet suddenly I was in their world.
I accompanied my husband on his next business trip to Ft Worth, Texas, so that I could go through archived records. I found nothing. I must have called the Texas Department of Vital Statistics a dozen times that year, only to hear the same thing over and over: “You cannot have any information, unless you have your birthmother’s name.”
Later, I hired Bonnie, an intermediary from Texas, to help me with my search. She asked me to write a non-identifying letter, which she then forwarded to my potential birth mother. Apparently, another daughter intercepted the letter, and wrote to Bonnie that there’d been a mistake—that I could not be of any relation.
According to Texas law, that was the end of my case. Since then, I have petitioned the court, relaying the fact that I have a genetic disorder and need medical history for my three children. DENIED!
My adoption experience led to one positive outcome: I was convinced that my cousin Nancy deserved to know her truth. Nancy was an only child, and by that time her adoptive parents had died. Nancy was fortunate though in that her birth certificate had never been changed to reflect her adoptive mother’s place of birth. The document revealed her birth mother had been born in a small upstate New York town. When Nancy placed an ad in that town’s local paper, members of her birth family responded. Although all reunions can be fraught with issues, I was grateful Nancy had found this new family. Her birth parents had passed, but she discovered she had a full sister, a half-brother, nieces, nephews, cousins and aunts.
My adoptive mother died last year. We had made peace in the last two years of her life, but I never quite let myself love her as much as I had before. I forgave her because I knew that she truly loved me in her own way. While her love allowed me to become who I am today, I feel cheated from my genetic heritage, and denied the ability to fulfill my true potential. As Michael Crichton so eloquently once said, “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
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