Posts Tagged ‘adoption’

Secrets in Review, Issue 3

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Since Secret Sons & Daughters launched two months ago, we have enjoyed connecting with adoptees through their powerful stories, comments and through our social media.

It’s exciting to watch the voices of the adoptee community grow more candid and outspoken.

We are honored to have shared adoptees’ tales about searching, reunion, and what it was like for those in their 40’s or 50’s to discover that they’d been adopted. We’d also love to hear stories about what it was like to reunite with your biological father. Have you experienced rejection from your families, and if so, how have you dealt with this hardship? Are you an adoption rights advocate? What event inspired you to work for open access in your state? Maybe you’re an adoptee who’d prefer no contact at all— we’d like to share those stories, too.

We’re happy to offer you writing ideas and editorial assistance. To learn more—read our submission guidelines.

At Secret Sons & Daughters, we are passionate about helping adoptees connect, and hopeful that through our stories, we will create a groundswell of people to support original birth certificate access across the United States. Today, only eleven states (see Discover Your Rights) allow adoptees to have that access.

As noted in a New Era for Ohio Adoptees Began Today, Ohio is soon to be the most recent state to join that short list to provide original birth certificate access to all adult adoptees.

The adoptive story collective holds power. We’re seeing that stories beget more stories, from a writer who shared his search angel information to help another writer, to these comments that speak to what it’s like to share an experience—

Amy, and adoptee, enthusiastically related to Scott Baker’s inspirational reunion story when she said, “I am in tears! I have looked for years on and off, but have recently started searching with all my heart. I have an emptiness inside that I can’t explain compounded by the recent death of my adopted father. Please continue to share your story with as many groups as you can as it gives such extreme hope! I am in NY, and it seems when search angels hear that they seem to shy away a bit. Thank you so much for the wonderful story, you are very blessed!”

Another reader and adoptee, Mary, summarized the potential healing effect of writing her story after reading Paige Strickland’s interview on self-publishing a memoir: “I like what Paige said about ‘writing got a lot of “garbage” out of my system.’ That’s what is happening with me now as I just started my search at age 65. I didn’t realize how much I had suppressed, and how it has affected my life…I didn’t realize how many adoptees are out there, as I have never personally known anyone who admitted to being adopted…I felt odd about wanting to know who my family was, especially after the things I was told—like there was something wrong with me for being inquisitive. Thank you Paige, and all the [adoptees] and search angels out there— for freeing me and giving me the opportunity to know the real me.”

Many others supportively connected with our contributing authors. Here are the highlights from the past month:

An Adoptee Comes Full Circle When He Finds His Birth MotherAdoptee, Scott Baker

An Irish Adoptee Talks Adoption over Tea with Philomena LeeAdoptee, and Journalist with The Irish Independent, Catriona Palmer

An Ohio Adoptee Finds Her Way Home to HerselfAdoptee, Molly Murphy

An Iowa Adoptee’s Thoughts the Night Before He Meets His Birth MotherAdoptee, Dan Koerselman

Paige Strickland, Author of “Akin to the Truth: A Memoir of Adoption and Identity,” Speaks About Self-Publishing Her BookCofounder of Secret Sons & Daughters, Heather Katz, interviewed adoptee, Paige Strickland.

New York’s Spence-Chapin’s New Modern Family Center Offers Support for Adult AdopteesCofounder of Secret Sons & Daughters, Christine Koubek, spoke with adoptee, Misha Conaway, Outreach Manager, and Dana Stallard, the center’s Adoptee Services Coordinator about the center’s opening.

New Era for Ohio Adoptees Began TodayChristine also spoke with Ms. Betsie Norris, the executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland, and an adoptee whose father was partially responsible not only for Ohio’s sealed records practice, but also for its reversal many years later.

Coming up next are new late-discovery adoptee tales, and stories of secret daughters finding their strength through difficult reunions. In addition, Christine will share the highlights of her recent trip to San Francisco where she met a few adoptee tale writers and many others who are making a difference in the lives of adoptees at the American Adoption Congress Conference.

We’ve also reorganized our “News” section, which is now “Secret Talk.” Within it, you’ll find posts grouped under: Words of Wisdom, Legislation News, Secrets in Review, and Blog posts (which are our thoughts on various adoption related topics).

Please be sure to subscribe (here on our sidebar) to receive the latest Adoptee Tales and updates. And like us on Facebook to connect with other adoptees— help us reach 600 “likes” this week.

Thank you for spreading the word about Secret Sons & Daughters. We hit over 20,000 views yesterday!

Best wishes,

Heather & Christine
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An Iowa Adoptee’s Thoughts the Night Before He Meets His Birth Mother

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

I was adopted as an infant in Webster City, Iowa in 1959, and told from a young age that I’d been adopted. It wasn’t a big deal for me. I had great parents that loved me very much and gave me a great life.

When I was two, we moved to Carmel, Indiana, where I grew up with my sister, who was also adopted. Neither of us ever thought much of looking for our birth parents. The few times we did, we agreed not to search until our parents passed, out of respect for them. Our father passed in 1984, our mother in 2010.

A few months ago, I submitted paperwork and a check to the Iowa Department of Human Services to request background and medical information on my birth parents. According to the state’s law, adoptees and their birth parents can find each other through their “Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry.” Information is only revealed if both parties have registered and there’s a match.

A package arrived in the mail a couple weeks later. It included basic information, my birth parents’ ages, nationality, height, weight, eye color, education level and religion— and my given first and middle name:  Jeffrey Todd.

The medical history portion on my birth father stated that he had died at age 40, and in parenthesis said: “birth father’s brother wrote us of his passing.” The paperwork did not provide either of their names, only that he was 21-years-old at the time of my birth, 5’10”, brown hair, blue eyes, and 160 lbs.—the same as me at that age. Those words made me weep for the man I never knew, and for the brother’s act of kindness.

And I wondered if my birth mother was still alive, and worried—more like panicked—that I’d waited too long.

My wife, Robyn, helped me immensely through the roller coaster of emotions. Knowing that the state of Iowa could help me no further, I reached out to a good friend of ours, Aly, who knows many people in the adoption industry. She put me in touch with a search angel. Search angels, I learned, are often adopted people and have a network that works together to help people like me. I was very lucky in that I had three “angels” help me in my quest— Cheryl, Denise, and Julie. There are no words to express how grateful I am for these three ladies.

On my youngest son’s birthday, Cheryl called and said, “I’m sure we found your mother. We have a phone number too. . . and guess what? She lives in Florida.”

My birth mother was living in Naples, FL, just 50 miles south of me. I was astonished. I moved to Sanibel, Florida two years ago. They discovered that my birth parents were from Kokomo, Indiana, just 30 miles north of my childhood hometown. There was an uncle and cousins in Kokomo and Michigan, too.

After a pep talk from Robyn, I called the number and hoped for the best, or at least not to be hung up on. Her husband, Jim, answered the phone. I explained that I was doing genealogy research on her first married name and asked if I could speak with Nancy to ask her a few questions.

When she came to the phone I introduced myself, and asked her to verify her maiden name so that I’d know that I was speaking to the right person. Once I was sure that she was Nancy, I asked if she recognized my father’s name. She did. Then I told her where and when I had been born.

I think she knew who I was from the first moment. She seemed so calm while I was an emotional mess. She asked, “Do you know who you’re talking to?”

“My mother”

“Yes, yes— you are,” she said.

She had thought that I was still living in Iowa and that she’d probably never hear from me. We exchanged basic information and decided to let things sink in and talk again in a couple weeks. Before we hung up, she asked me to forgive her.

Forgive her?

My throat tightened. I held back my emotions, and said, “Nancy, I have had a great life and great adoptive parents and family. I understand the circumstances you must have faced back then, being unwed and from a religious family background. You don’t need me to forgive you. I understand.”

And I did. I knew she did what was best for me. Nancy told me that I have never been a secret from any of her family, including her two children. She has a 49-year-old daughter and 45-year-old son.

I told her I have three sons, two beautiful step-daughters, nieces, and a precious 1-year-old granddaughter.

Beyond the normal exchange of who, what, where, when, I learned that Nancy had been divorced prior to marrying Jim 24 years ago. It turns out that Jim was from Indianapolis and was my adopted mother’s boss for 12 years. What a small world.

We’ve talked a few times over the last few weeks. I’m going to meet her—my mother Nancy—for the first time this week. Fifty-four years is a long time, to say the least. I’m very nervous. I’m still thinking of questions I might ask, but then again, those questions will probably come naturally when we start to talk. I’m excited to see her, hug her, and let her know how happy I am to finally meet her— to fill this empty part of me.

I’m bringing my childhood pictures on through my college years to show her. Wish me luck!

Editor’s Note: For more information on Iowa’s access laws visit the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Image of Dan as a child: provided by author. 

Thanks for visiting our online community. In addition to stories like this one, you can find valuable resources, discover your rights to your original birth certificate, meet other adoptees, and join the discussion by commenting (below) or on our Facebook page.

Subscribe to our blog to receive more adoptee tales, and consider adding your voice to our Secret Sons & Daughters collection. 

An Ohio Adoptee Finds Her Way Home to Herself

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Nine months before I was born, my parents had a son who only lived for one day. They had had another son four years prior. My mother had a RH—negative blood factor. Back in the early 1960s, that usually meant that a woman couldn’t have any more “natural” children. My parents desperately wanted a second child, so they turned to adoption, and took me home when I was three-months-old.

From a young age, I knew I was adopted. My parents told me I was “special.” For a long while, I thought that was true.

I’m not sure when I began to feel differently—maybe it was when I saw my pregnant relatives, or when I had to listen to my other well-meaning ones say, “You weren’t in your mommy’s tummy like that baby is.” Maybe I felt differently when I wrote about my family tree in elementary school, or brought baby pictures to share with my classmates. Maybe it was all of the above.

I often wondered, Why was I given away? Yet, I never spoke of my adoption to anyone. I wanted to be like everyone else. I felt like I didn’t belong. Sometimes, that feeling was even reinforced. At a family reunion, one of my cousins told me that I didn’t belong in their family tree, and that they weren’t sure where they were going to “put me.” I felt like telling her to go to hell.

It didn’t help that my brother never liked me. Almost weekly he told me to go back to where I had come from. I don’t think he ever got over the death of his baby brother, and he blamed me. He was further challenged, and angry, after a severe case of measles left him mildly brain damaged.

My adoptive parents didn’t know how to effectively deal with the situation and sought counseling to help us both. As he grew older, my brother became an alcoholic and was in and out a jail several times. We reconciled shortly before he passed away in 1996.

After he died, I decided to search for my birth parents. I had had my own children by that time and was curious. My original birth certificate was inaccessible because I was born in Ohio in 1964. Nonetheless, I posted what little information I had on an adoption search website. A month after I posted, a woman contacted me by email and offered help. She charged $25 to search for records and mail them to me.

She found three possible birth mothers and I researched each one. After I ruled out the first two, I knew the third had to be connected to me. The woman who originally helped me indicated that this third woman had since had other children.

I didn’t live far from the county where I was born, so I traveled there and went to the Hall of Records where I was able to find birth certificates for two of her children. After that, I had enough information to go to the courthouse and search for information that might confirm my own identity.

The courthouse was full of temporary walls and half-constructed hallways. It felt like I was in a maze. I asked a female employee where to find marriage records. She asked if I was doing “genealogy research” and pointed me in the right direction. We joked about how long the construction might take, and I shared that my own office was going through the same process.

Using the information from the birth certificates that I’d just bought, I was delighted to find a marriage record for one of the (now grown) babies. I returned home, looked up the phone number, and chickened out when I tried to call.

My husband called instead, after I left for work, and contacted me several hours later to say he had talked to the woman, Melissa. Melissa said she didn’t think that I could be her sister, but agreed to talk to me if I called.

When we spoke, she said that my voice sounded just like her aunt. Sadly, the other baby whose certificate I had found, Melissa’s sister Melinda, had passed away when she was a child.

Before we hung up, Melissa promised to ask her mom for information and call back. The next 24 hours were agonizing. The next night she called and said: “YOU ARE MY SISTER!”

I asked Melissa to have my birth mother contact me when she was ready. I didn’t want to pressure her. Several days later, my birth mother, Janet, called. We talked, we cried, and then we agreed to meet.

I learned that she was a widow with six children at the time she met my birth father. Her first husband had died tragically in a car accident the year before. My birth father had been separated from his wife when they began their relationship, and he ended it when he learned of my birth mother’s pregnancy. He reconciled with his wife and moved to another state.

She had nowhere else to turn. Janet explained that her mother had said, “You have six kids, for heaven’s sake—you don’t need another one.” And that was that. She had given me an “M” name too: Michelle Ann.

Not long after this conversation, I was on my way to meet her and realized that I had passed her house many times before. My heart was pounding. I got out of the car and walked up the sidewalk to the front porch. Janet had been watching out the window and quickly opened the door. She took me into her arms, hugged me tightly and said, “You look just like the rest of us!” I was 39-years-old and felt like I had finally come home.

Her home was a century-old farmhouse that had been lovingly restored. I stepped inside to find the wallpaper in her front room was the same as I’d used in my foyer. I followed her into the kitchen and there at the table sat the courthouse employee, who had giving me directions a week before.

Did I break the law? What was she doing here? I thought. She looked up and said, “When I saw you at the courthouse, I thought you looked familiar.” Days later, she told Janet about “the woman who had come in to do family research.”

Life is funny— it turns out that that this woman is my birth brother’s wife.

That summer was a blur of familial meetings—I met brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. I was my mother’s seventh child. She had three more children after me, and she had lost three husbands and two children. I was the only child she had placed for adoption.

Relinquishing a child for adoption doesn’t just hurt the child. I learned that a birth mother carries that pain with her for the rest of her life. I had been born exactly one year after my cousin, and every year on my birthday, Janet painfully remembered that I was celebrating my birthday with another family.

When I first met her, she gave me all the information needed to find my birth father. I contacted him a year later by phone. Five years after that initial contact, I received a phone call from a woman named Candi. She said that her father had told her about me, but her mother would not allow him to remain in contact. Candi and I corresponded often and she eventually helped me meet him, albeit it was only once. He looked at me and said, “Not too shabby.”

He passed away two years ago. Candi and I have kept in touch ever since. Another sister never wanted anything to do with me.

Before I began this journey, I was angry for many years. I was angry at my birth parents for giving me away. I was angry with my adoptive parents for adopting me; and I was angry with people who grew up in “normal” families.

Once I found my birth family, I moved past the anger, and am now a much happier person. I have wonderful relationships with my birth mother and siblings, albeit I think adopted children never quite fully fit into either family. I didn’t grow up with them, so we don’t share the same memories, and they can’t identify with the life that I had, since I grew up in the suburbs and they grew up on a farm.

My adoptive parents met my birth mother, too, and welcomed her into our family. In 2003, four years after my reunion, my father passed away. My mother passed in 2009.

From where I stand today, only one remaining thing angers me about my adoption—when I first searched for my birth family, I had to petition the courts to get my original birth record and I was denied.

I’m not the only one who has suffered. There are millions of us in the United States who have no access to this most basic of possessions —a birth certificate. I’m very thankful that Ohio has moved forward and will soon allow adoptees access to their pasts.

Image credit: Molly as a child with her family.

Thanks for visiting our online community. In addition to stories like this one, you can find valuable resources, discover your rights to your original birth certificate, meet other adoptees, and join the discussion by commenting (below) or on our Facebook page.

Subscribe to our blog to receive more adoptee tales, and consider adding your voice to our Secret Sons & Daughters collection. 

Spence-Chapin’s New Modern Family Center Offers Support for Adult Adoptees

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Today we are introducing what will be the first in a series of Q&As that highlight organizations making a difference in the lives of adoptees. First up is Spence-Chapin’s new support resource, the Modern Family Center, which opened at the end of 2013. I had an opportunity to connect with Misha Conaway, Outreach Manager, who is an adoptee herself, and Dana Stallard, the center’s Adoptee Services Coordinator. Dana recently gave a moving testimony in support of New York open access legislation that eloquently captured the issues at hand for adult adoptees (video included below). Here Misha and Dana fill us in on their new center’s services:

Secret Sons & Daughters: What prompted Spence-Chapin to create the Modern Family Center and when did it open?

Misha: We understand the changing landscape of adoption. There is no typical make up of a modern family but there are common threads that run through all of the unique families we support. Spence-Chapin has provided services to families for over 100 years. Within the last year, the Modern Family Center was created to provide more comprehensive services to all types of families, including families formed through adoption.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What type of services does the new center offer adoptees?

Misha: We tailor many of our services to meet the needs of adoptees, including providing personal adoption histories, search and reunion guidance and counseling, mentorship programs for tween and teen adoptees, discussion panels, groups, and more.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What geographic areas does the Modern Family Center @ Spence Chapin serve and where are your offices located?

Misha: We provide services to individuals and families who live in the five boroughs of New York City, Long Island, Westchester County, southern Connecticut, and northern New Jersey. We are currently in the process of expanding our services to reach those living in southern New Jersey as well. We have two offices, one located in the upper east side of Manhattan and one in Park Slope in Brooklyn. We also offer consultations over the phone or via Skype when in-person meetings are not possible.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What have adult adoptees typically contacted Spence-Chapin for initially?

Dana: Many are hoping to be connected to an adoption community and to meet others that share their experiences or identities. Others are hoping to reconnect with their birth families and are hoping to learn more information about their birth histories and where they come from.  All adoptees want to be supported throughout their adoption journey and we are able to provide guidance, empathy, and understanding to this community.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What type of details does a personal adoption history include?

Dana: A Personal Adoption History provides adult adoptees, birth parents, and the appropriate relatives with non-identifying information provided in the adoption record at the time of finalization. New York State law prevents Spence-Chapin from providing original birth certificates, the adoptee’s original name, identifying information for the birth parents or adoptive family members, including first or last names, birth years, or specific locations. Spence-Chapin is able to provide personal adoption history information for adoptions facilitated by Spence-Chapin, Louise Wise (non-foster care), and Talbot Perkins prior to 1959.

For an adopted person: a written narrative called the Biological Background Narrative is prepared. This contains non-identifying information about birth parents at the time that they were making an adoption plan. This may include medical or health information about the biological family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, hobbies and interests and why the decision for adoption was made.

For a birth parent: a written narrative called the Adoptive Family Profile is prepared. This contains information about the child’s birth and early development as well as non-identifying information about the adoptive parents until the time the adoption was finalized.

At this time, there is a bill in the New York State legislature that would allow adult adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates. I recently spoke on behalf of Spence Chapin at City Hall and advocated for this bill because we believe that it is a fundamental right of adoptees to know their original identities as well as the identities of their birth parents.

DANA’S TESTIMONY HERE:

[embedvideo id=”3cUbMcIGPiQ” website=”youtube”]

Secret Sons & Daughters: Can you tell us more about the type of support you offer adult adoptees?

Dana: One of our social workers provides individualized support to each client seeking personal adoption history, from the initial clinical intake to sharing the information prepared, either by phone or in-person consultation. Additional counseling services are also available to further discuss related adoption issues, search and reunion, as well as to process the information received.  We also offer therapeutic support groups for adult adoptees where they can share their experiences and work through any issues they may be struggling with.

Secret Sons & Daughters: Those sound like excellent resources, I wish more states had them. What types of training have your counselors received?

Misha: One of the most frequent complaints we hear from adoptees that come to us is that many mental health professionals simply do not understand the experience of growing up adopted, resulting in either minimizing their experiences or pathologizing them.  Our clinicians are all trained and licensed social workers or are in a related mental health field, with an expertise in adoption and family systems. MFC’s Training Department provides regular professional group and individual education throughout the year, and we frequently attend relevant conferences, trainings, and presentations.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What has the initial response from adult adoptees been thus far?

Dana: Adoptees find great comfort in connecting with others through mentorship, peer support groups, or workshops. They are able to strengthen their own identities through meeting others and forming an adoption community.

Adoptees often do not know that they’re able to receive a personal adoption history. It can be very helpful to find out more about birth parents and family of origin. Many adoptees are pleasantly surprised that they are able to talk to someone who provides individualized, caring support and they feel they are able to move forward in a different way after receiving that information.

One adult adoptee who received personal adoption history had this to say about the experience:  “. . .it was a very illuminating day for me. What you were able to convey to me has answered so many questions about who I am. I want to thank you for your time. This is a normal practice for you, but it was a very special day for me.”

In general, the initial response has been wonderful and we are encouraged to try new things and develop new programs for the adoptee community.  If any of your readers have ideas for us, we would love to hear from them!

Thank you for visiting Secret Sons & Daughters. In addition to stories, you can find valuable resourcesdiscover your rights to your original birth certificate, meet other adoptees, and join the discussion by commenting (below) or on our Facebook page. Comments are always welcome. And we’d love to hear your story. Please subscribe and join our growing community.

Paige Strickland, Author of “Akin to the Truth: A Memoir of Adoption and Identity,” Speaks About Self-Publishing Her Book

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Author, Paige Strickland, answers questions from the co-founders of Secret Sons and Daughters on how to self-publish an adoption memoir.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What prompted you to write a memoir about your adoption? 

Paige: When my kids and I visited my mom’s house during the summer of 2002, they grew curious about my complex family history after they viewed some of our old slides. For the first time, my kids wanted to hear all the details of my youth, including the “bad” fashion tastes of the ‘70’s.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, but it wasn’t until that same summer when I enrolled my kids in a daily, three-hour summer course that I found the time to write more seriously. My project began as a document of family trees and stories for my kids, but over time, it grew into much more.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What part of your adoption experience did you choose to focus on most?

Paige: My story reflects how it felt to be raised as an adopted kid in the 1960’s through the 1980’s, a time when adoption was more shameful. I also cover my search experience and what it was like to finally find my biological family members in 1987 and 1988.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What was the easiest part of your writing process?

Paige: I was truly motivated to write, and as an adoptee, I have the firsthand knowledge and expertise to convey how it feels to be adopted.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What was the most difficult part? 

Paige: Dealing with the daily distractions of life. When I started to write this book, my kids were in school. Although they were old enough to entertain themselves, I was also working at a time consuming job. It was hard to find the energy to teach to the best of my ability and give my children the attention they deserved.

Secret Sons & Daughters:  Who encouraged and supported you the most during the writing process?

Paige: My husband, our kids, my sisters and friends all helped in various ways, including serving as first readers. I also hired a professional editor and joined a local writing group called Writing Workshop-Workshop, which is a spin-off of the Cincinnati Tri-State Writers Group. I highly recommend joining a writing group. They provide invaluable feedback.

Secret Sons & Daughters: Through the process of writing your memoir, did you discover something about yourself, or about the relationships you shared through the years with your families?

Paige: As I wrote my memoir, I began to realize just how dominant my adoptive dad really was. He had always been that way, but through the process of writing, I was able to see it much more clearly.

Writing got a lot of “garbage” out of my system. I wrote for me. However, I had to really soul search during the editing process.  For example, writing about my father was tricky, but in the end I wanted my story to be honest, so he had to be in there. There were other things too that I had to decide if I should mention and consider what sort of impression I wanted to leave on my readers. That thinking ties very closely to the typical adoptee mentality of, ‘I don’t want to offend anyone, lest they reject me.’ I hope I struck a happy medium.

Secret Sons & Daughters: What authors inspired you?

Paige: I’ve been most inspired recently by other memoirists. Right before I began writing my book, I had read Angela’s Ashes by the late Frank McCourt. I loved his style of writing about the past in the present tense. I think he was brave to disclose so much about himself and his family. He was also a teacher, so I thought if this guy could do it, so could I!

I enjoy books by Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle in particular. I like how she presented her father-daughter relationship. That meant a lot to me because I also have a similar theme. Jennifer Lauck’s books, Lost and Blackbird were great ones as well. I read a lot of other adoption-themed memoirs as I continued to write. Though I read these books and many others for my professional growth as a writer, they also entertained me.

Secret Sons & Daughters: How long did it take you to complete your memoir? 

Paige: I began the project in the summer of 2002, and I wrote during every school vacation through June 2008. I edited until May of 2012, let my editor have her turn with it, and then I did a few more pass-throughs before going live. I  released my memoir on the Kindle and iPad on September 15, 2013. The printed version was released one week later on September 23.

Secret Sons & Daughters: Why did you choose to self-publish your memoir? 

Paige: For about 18 months, I queried over 100 agents through Querytracker.net. A few agents/agencies requested sample chapters, but beyond that, I had no further luck. I attempted this query during the downturn of our economy, and quite a few of my rejection messages stated that the agents could not afford to take on additional clients at the time. I am not famous, nor do I have special connections, so I figured my chances of being published with a traditional publishing house were pretty slim. When I had exhausted this route, I decided to take the independent one instead.

Secret Sons & Daughters: How do you self-publish a memoir—what are the steps?

Paige: I don’t know if there is more than one way, but I do know the answer to this is based on your goals. If your goal is to write a family history document alone, you can use a “vanity press” or small local publisher and have print copies made for your relatives. It typically costs between $100 and $1,000, depending on how many copies you order.

If you have enough of a story from which you can create a plot, conflict, and interesting characters to read more like literature, then you may be able to query traditional publishers, or try your hand at independent publishing.

If an agent or traditional publisher accepts your work, you sign over many of your decisions for the sake of getting published. The publisher and editors take over from there, often changing a title, selecting a cover image, and other potential changes. You may lose much of your creative control in the process.

I used 99 Designs to create my book cover. Nelly was my talented cover designer. Design costs run between $100-$600.

Next, I secured a Bowker—ISBN numbers for my iPad, Kindle and print editions of the book for $250. I also created accounts at Amazon Kindle, CreateSpace, and Apple.

Secret Sons & Daughters: Where can your memoir be purchased?

Paige: At this current time, it is available through the Apple iBooks store and on Amazon.com. Two local stores in my hometown of Cincinnati carry it as well: The Bookshelf in Madeira and The Booksellers on Fountain Square. I’m in the process of having printed editions available in retail stores like Barnes and Noble. For now, my memoir in print can be ordered online via BarnesandNoble.com, but not for Nooks.

Secret Sons & Daughters:  Paige, thanks so much for taking the time to share what it was like to write and self-publish your memoir.

 

 

An Irish Adoptee Talks Adoption over Tea with Philomena Lee

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

An Irish adoptee who has had a secret relationship with her birth mother, finds hope through a conversation with Philomena Lee.

For the past 14 years I have been having a secret relationship with my birth mother. We meet in hotel bars across Dublin, preferring darkened corners where we can catch up in peace, avoiding conversations with strangers, and evading any questions about our physical similarities with a polite smile.

The relationship feels clandestine, almost like an affair. Our rendezvous are arranged by text message – we never speak on the phone – and I have long stopped bringing her bouquets of flowers, knowing well that she cannot explain their heady extravagance back home.

This is the story that I told Philomena Lee while we sipped tea in the fancy bar of the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. Philomena is in town with her daughter, Jane, as part of a publicity tour for the Oscar-nominated movie about the son she bore in a convent in Roscrea in 1952 and whom she lost to forced adoption when he was three-and-a-half-years old.

I was meant to be interviewing Philomena but before long she had turned the tables on me. My journalist’s notebook sat empty as I found myself opening up, telling Philomena the story about the woman who gave me up for adoption 41 years ago in Dublin and who every day since has lived with the festering secret of my existence, a ballast around her heart.

Philomena knows all about secrets. For 50 years she told no one about her little boy Anthony, who won over even the sternest of nuns with his dazzling smile and gentle kisses.

Having given birth to Anthony in the mother-and-baby home in Roscrea, Philomena was forced to work in the convent laundry, the price of admission for “one night of romance” with a handsome lad whom she met at a carnival in Newcastle West and never saw again.

For one hour of the day, over three and a half years, Philomena was allowed to play with Anthony and, despite this depravation, they formed an unbreakable bond. But because Philomena was a “sinner,” her child could never belong to her.

The week before Christmas 1955, Anthony was dispatched to America, Philomena unaware of his departure until she saw his tiny face searching for hers in the back window of the car that was taking him away.

My own mother – let’s call her Sarah, not her real name – made the mistake of falling in love with a swaggering man-about-town in a rural Irish outpost in 1971. The day she told him she was pregnant he pretended not to hear. That day was the last she would ever lay eyes on him.

“You just believed everything that they told you,” Philomena says when I tell her about Sarah’s pain. “I carried my secret all though my life, and even when I left Roscrea, it never left me because I thought, ‘I can’t tell this to anybody. It’s too serious. I’ve committed a grave sin.'”

“We were so ostracized and so browbeaten into thinking that we had committed a sin, a mortal sin,” she says.

Now as unofficial ambassador for the shamed women of Ireland’s past, Philomena is using her new-found celebrity to usher those such as Sarah out of the closet, urging them to liberate themselves from the time machine that has left them stuck in the backward Ireland of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

“I was in the same situation. I was so afraid to tell. I was afraid that my children would reject me,” she says. “But they are the most wonderful daughter and son. I should have known better.”

“Please, please, women my age, will you please come forward and tell your story like I did?” Philomena says in reference to the older Irish women, like her, for whom time is running out. “For my age group you need them to tell your story because for a lot of this group, it’s the siblings that are looking for them.”

Philomena’s argument is a compelling one but the plucky 80-year-old has her work cut out for her. Despite all the economic and social progress that Ireland has made in recent decades, the shame and stigma – enforced by the unhealthy relationship between church and state – still has a vice-like grip on the minds of these women.

The Irish Government last year had to be dragged kicking and screaming into an apology for the forgotten Magdalene women who washed the dirty laundry of the Irish public in penance for their “crimes.”

Philomena, as head of the newly created Philomena Project, is now advocating changes in Ireland’s arcane adoption laws to allow adoptees like me access to our original records. (Despite permission from both Sarah and my adoptive parents, I am still denied access to my records.)

The Irish State – which stood by, and in many cases profited from the imprisonment of unmarried mothers in religious institutions – has a lot for which to answer.

Sitting next to Philomena and her daughter Jane during our tea in Washington is Mari Steed, another “forgotten” Irish child born in a baby home and sent to America when she was 18-months-old. Mari, in a cruel twist, became pregnant as a teenager and was forced to relinquish her own child for adoption.

It struck me that the Ritz Carlton in downtown Washington had never had a tea party quite like it before – four Irish women, some holding hands and shedding tears, each of our lives irrevocably altered by Ireland’s messy relationship with the Catholic Church.

Back at home that night, I felt somehow altered. The interview with Philomena had felt like a benediction, her grace and forgiveness in the face of the terrible injustice she had suffered like a healing balm. I poured myself a glass of wine and paused in the kitchen to send Sarah a quick text message. It was nearly midnight in Dublin but I guessed that she would be awake.

“Just met Philomena and told her about you,” I typed in a hurry. “She had such empathy for you. Said you are not alone.”

Sarah’s reply was instantaneous: “I think it took her 50 years to open up,” she wrote. “I’m praying for a miracle for myself.”

Caitriona Palmer, Christine Koubek, and Heather Katz at a Donaldson Adoption Institute event in support of birth mothers

Caitriona Palmer, Christine Koubek, and Heather Katz at a Donaldson Adoption Institute event in support of birth mothers

Note: This piece originally appeared in the Irish Independent and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Image: with Philomena Lee provided by Caitriona Palmer.

Thanks for visiting our online community. In addition to stories like this one, you can find valuable resources, discover your rights to your original birth certificate, meet other adoptees, and join the discussion by commenting (below) or on Facebook.

Subscribe to our blog to receive more adoptee tales, and consider adding your voice to our Secret Sons & Daughters collection. 

Secrets in Review, Issue 2

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

Secret Sons & Daughters launched one month ago, and we’ve been deeply moved to see so many people connecting through stories.

Over the past few weeks, friends, family, and even a few reporters, have asked us: “Why? Why create something like Secret Sons & Daughters?” Usually we answer that (as we do on our “About” page) by talking about the estimated four million adoptees who have restricted access to their origins, ancestry, and in many cases, important medical histories that could help adoptees and their children; and we mention how we hope Secret Sons & Daughters’ stories can help shine a light on that fact, and put a human face on those numbers.

But it’s more than that, the reason why is something comments like these show best:

“You put into words what I have experienced my entire life. I was always afraid to tell people that I was adopted. I am going to write something to add here…but I wanted to thank you for creating a site where adult adoptees can go to see that we’re not alone!” —Molly

“I did learn one thing in life though, family does not have to be blood because my mom and dad loved my sister and I enough to take us in and raise us as their own with unconditional love. I feel if they told us [about our adoptions] from the start they may have thought we would not love them the same. Oh how wrong they were.” David

“. . . a website where adopted people can share their stories of searching – or not searching – for their first families. Honest, untidy, raw, moving, the pieces I’ve read so far give me – a parent by adoption – more insight into the complex feelings of birth parents and of adoptees.” —Amy, an adoptive mom who shared our link on Facebook.

Several stories are responsible for that feedback. The Adoption Domino Effect, by Joanne Currao, was our second Late Discovery Tale, and it poignantly shows the impact secrecy in adoption can have on an adoptee and her children.

More than a thousand people read Joanne’s story within its first 24 hours on our site. It stirred quite a response in the comments section that follows it. Many people wrote to say how much they related to her story and shared details of their own tales, whether they learned they were adopted at age 2, 17, 36, or older.

Joanne responded to each person and one response in particular beautifully captures what is was like for her to share her story: “The more we speak up about it, the better it will be for all who come after us. I am glad that this story validated you. It is good for me to see that and to feel validated by all of you who read this as well. We are a soothing salve to each other.”

Singing to Christine, An Adoptee’s Song, written by Amy Christine Lukas, an adoptee/singer-songwriter, shows how her curiosity about whether her birth parents are “Somewhere out There,” grew after the births of her children.

Thanksgiving Day Reunion ’95, was inspired by Daryn Watson’s reunion with his birth mother.

An Adult Adoptee’s Dilemma: To Search or Not to Search, is my co-founder, Heather Katz’s reflection on a question many adoptees face.

In addition, a few therapists weighed in on 10 Questions to Ask When Searching for an Adoption Competent Therapist with opinions regarding open adoption.  The questions were provided by adoption therapist, Leslie Pate Mackinnon, who recently appeared on Katie Couric’s show as the “American Philomena.” Leslie weighed in in the comments section as well, saying in part:

A child needs their story, in as much living color as possible, the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the best cases, the child actually feels love emanating, is not merely told ‘she loved you so much she gave you up.’ The statement that adult adoptees often loathe. In the worst cases, the child can see for themselves why adoption was necessary and may be lucky enough to recognize at least a few good attributes of the person whose DNA they carry.

I encourage you to read her full comment at the end of that post. I wholeheartedly agree that adoptees should be entitled to their stories, especially as adults, and in whatever detail is possible.

Many thanks to four organizations for helping us spread the word about Secret Sons & Daughters. Each of them make a big difference in the lives of adoptees: Donaldson Adoption InstituteAdoption Network Cleveland,  C.A.S.E.—the Center for Adoption Support and Education, and St. Catherine’s Center for Children in Albany, New York.

I spent my first Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s in St. Catherine’s care and I’m very touched and grateful for their wonderful mention of SS&D and our support and advocacy for open records, as well as for the work they do to help sustain families. Any other St. Catherine’s adoptees out there?

We look forward to sharing three new Secret Son stories in the coming weeks and an Irish adoptee tale too. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to subscribe (here on the sidebar) to receive the latest Tales and News, and please “Like” us on Facebook. Many thanks for reading our tales. We hope to hear yours too!

All my best,

Christine

ck@secretsonsanddaughters.org

 

The Adoption Domino Effect

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Joanne Currao, A Late Discovery Adoptee, Discovers a Secret that Affects Her and Her Children

About a year and a half ago, at the age of 48, I found out that I’d been adopted as a baby in New York. My life derailed right then and there. My adoptive father died when I was 17. My mom had passed away two years prior to this discovery. All I had left was my older brother.

At the time, I’d been married for 26 years and had three beautiful children who ranged in age from 9 to 22-years-old. I had been a stay-at-home mom since my second child was born and enjoyed every moment of my family. Life was beautiful. . . or so I thought.

I was on the phone with a cousin talking about antiques that had been my mother’s, explaining that my brother had most of my mom’s things in his house, and that we needed to discuss them, but there never seemed to be a convenient time. She said, “Oh. I thought that the fact that you did not have more of her things might be because of the adoption!”

I was confused. “What? Do you mean our grandmother?” I knew my grandmother’s first born child had been born out of wedlock.

She went on to explain that my brother and I had been adopted, and that my mother was unable to bear children after her third miscarriage. “I thought you knew,” she said.

My mouth dropped open. Did I just hear that correctly—Adopted? How could that be? Sure my mom had had three miscarriages, but she had always told me that I was hers. I sat in stunned silence as the word ‘adoption’ washed over me.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I hadn’t realized that you didn’t know. I feel bad.”

“How did you find out? Who knows this? How long have you known?” I asked.

“My mother told me when I was young, maybe 12. Everyone knows, our cousins, their spouses, everyone.”

I thanked her for telling me. I told her not to feel badly because it was vital that I know. I told her I’d be okay and got off the phone. The room was silent, but the sound of a train crash rang through my ears.

That word “EVERYONE” rang in my ears. Even people who married into this family knew? But I didn’t. I felt ashamed, like I was the butt of a huge inside joke. Everyone knew, and probably talked about it in hushed whispers. I imagined that—“See that kid over there? She was adopted, but nobody is supposed to tell her that so shhhh.” My mind raced reimagining the family functions of my life.

“Honey?” I called to my husband in the other room. “You’re not going to believe this—my cousin just told me I was adopted!” He was as stunned as I was. He looked at me with an odd look on his face and asked about my brother. He told me he would have thought my brother was a natural child, because my mother had always seemed to favor him.

“Nope. He’s adopted too.” I decided right then that despite how horrible it would be for him to hear, I needed to call my brother and tell him what I’d just found out, make sure he heard it from me.

I composed myself as best I could, picked up the phone, and dialed his number. I whispered a quick prayer for God to give me strength while I waited for him to answer. It was going to hurt him.

After we exchanged hellos, I said, “I don’t know how to say this, so I’m just going to say it. I’m sorry to shock you with this. I just talked to Donna and she dropped a bomb—she said we were both adopted.”

Nothing. Nothing on the other end of the line, but a long silence followed by a heavy sigh. Did he already know? Could he have already known and not told me? In that moment, I felt certain that he knew the truth. “Wait—you know this?” I asked.

“Yes. I know. I came across our Adoption Decrees in Mom’s papers a few years before she died,” he said. “I really wanted to tell you, but the time never seemed right, and as time went on, it got harder and harder to tell you. Mom was sick and you were going through so much at the time.”

Now I was the silent one.

He apologized. He told me his name at birth, and that he had found his biological mother. I was stunned!

Not only had he not told me, he had gone on to find his mom and hadn’t thought it was important to tell me the truth. I was at a complete loss for words. He, too, was “in” on the family joke. That’s what it felt like. I imagined my brother talking in hushed whispers with his own family about me. I had never felt more shame and anger than I did on that day. My mind raced away with imagined scenarios of the people that I’d loved laughing at me behind my back for being too stupid to know this fact about myself.

I learned two things that day: nothing in my life was what it had seemed, and that betrayal runs deep.

In the months that followed, I cried so many tears I should have washed away. I had a horrible crushing chest pain and became severely depressed. I was also worried. All my life I had given my physician an incorrect health history for myself and my children.

At a routine screening during my second pregnancy, my doctor discovered I carried the genetic defect for Cystic Fibrosis, a potentially fatal disease affecting the lungs and other organs. At the time, the news had shocked me. Supposedly, that trait is rarely found in Italians.

My husband had to be screened too. We both needed to have the gene in order for it to effect our offspring. I asked my mother if anyone in our family had had Cystic Fibrosis or been tested for it. If ever there had been a perfect time for her to tell me about my adoption, that would have been it.

She simply said that there was no family history and told me to disregard the results because they were probably wrong. I wondered if it might be on my father’s side, but because he had passed away years earlier I couldn’t ask, so I reasoned that since my husband is a full-blooded Italian, and he did not carry the trait, all would be okay.

Once my adoption was revealed, my fears returned in full force and kept me awake many nights. What genes or other horrible defects might I carry that could hurt me or my children?

I contacted Catholic Charities, the organization I learned from my brother had handled our adoptions. They said our records were destroyed in a fire. I googled the said fire and learned that there had indeed been one at the Iron Mountain Storage facility in NJ. The fire destroyed Catholic Charities’ adoption records in New York City from the late fifties to the mid seventies, mine included. I contacted the church that I was baptized at. They said they had no record of me under either my first name or my adopted name.

More pain in my chest, only now it felt like an elephant was standing on me. Within a few weeks, I was at the doctor’s office for the pain, and explaining to him that I had no health history. Fifteen minutes or so later he asked: “Any family history of anything like this?” I looked at him in disbelief.

“Oh! I’m sorry.” He went on with the exam, deemed my chest pain stress related, and gave me a prescription for a sedative and antidepressants, then sent me on my way.

The last year and a half has been a roller coaster of emotions. I paid a large sum of money to find my mother, only for her to tell me that after all this time, she does not know if she can have a relationship with me. She never told anyone about me, and her shame and guilt are unbearable.

Despite a few exchanged letters, I still know very little about her, only that she is Scottish and Polish and she told me that my father was Jewish. I was raised Italian. I know Italian! I don’t know Scottish. I don’t know Jewish. How can I even begin to identify with who I really am?

My name at birth was Tracey. That is not an Italian name. What does a Tracey look like? Act like? My entire foundation, everything I’d thought I was, had fallen out from under me.

One afternoon, during all this, my oldest daughter, Veronica, sat next to me at the kitchen table with a sad look on her face. “Mom, I know you’re sad and angry. I just want you to know that I’m sad and angry too. I feel like Grandma not telling you, is the same as not telling us. I feel like I am adopted too. Like I am feeling everything you feel. All the lies. Grandma’s family history is not my history anymore. All those stories that I loved to hear were all untrue for me. I thought she loved me. I’m mad because she lied not just to you, but she lied to US.”

I hugged Veronica. It hurt to think that my adoption had to affect her too. She and my mother were very close. My adoption was like dominoes, impacting my children and perhaps their children one day too.

I still don’t even know what my birth mother looks like or the sound of her voice. Thankfully, though, I found my birth father’s family. He passed in 2002. I keep in touch with his sister, and she is wonderful. She has shared stories and photos of him. I look like him. It is surreal to see a face that really looks like you when you have never had that experience (aside from my kids).

I remember a time when I was about seven and asked my mother if I was adopted because of a feeling I had. She got angry and denied it, said I was crazy for thinking such a thing. So many memories come flooding back, and so many lies.

I have had weeks where I couldn’t even leave the house. After reading books about adoption loss, I realize that all the same feelings of loss and trauma that adoptees who knew they were adopted described, were feelings I could relate to also, even though I was not consciously aware of my adoption. Somewhere in there is knowing.

I am slowly getting my life back through individual and group therapy and building a new foundation. I am not going to allow myself to be a victim of decisions that were made for me without my knowledge, consent, or approval. I owe this to myself, my husband, and my children. I’m healing my hurts, facing my trauma, and learning about who I really am inside, the culmination of all my experiences.

I am fighting for open records for others like me, in New York, and in any state I see that needs letters and support. Most U.S. States do not allow adoptees the right to our original birth records and identities.

I need my original birth certificate. It is a need that is beyond the obvious. I already know my name, and the name of my first parents. I already have my medical history. This is something different. Sometimes it feels as if I wasn’t born at all, like I just sort of popped into existence—a daughter without a country. I want to see with my own eyes that I was born and connect my face to my past.

Thanks for visiting our online community. In addition to stories like this one, you can find valuable resources, discover your rights to your original birth certificate, meet other adoptees, and join the discussion by commenting (below) or on our Facebook page.

Subscribe to our blog to receive more adoptee tales, and consider adding your voice to our Secret Sons & Daughters collection. 

An Adult Adoptee’s Dilemma: To Search or Not to Search

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Imagine you are at your favorite Chinese restaurant. A bill tray and three fortune cookies are slipped on the table in front of you. Before you dig into your wallet or purse, you grab the first cookie, crack it open and read the enclosed message, “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to it.” Amen, you might think, it must be a sign. I should just go for it.

You crush the next cookie. “I think you ate your fortune, while you were eating your cookie.”

Now, you stare at that last cookie. This one will to be the fortune that yields all the answers. You inhale deeply, break the cookie in half and pull out the white narrow strip—“Next time you have the opportunity, go on a rollercoaster.”

When I seriously considered whether I should or should not search for my birth family, I might as well have turned to fortune cookies to guide me in the right direction. At the time, I did not know of any other adoptees wanting to make a search.

Adoption forum boards, private Facebook discussion groups, and fellow adoptee Twitter feeds did not exist. Research on the subject of searching was scarce and adoptees were expected to just be grateful that they were adopted. Although my adoptive parents were responsive to my questions—not even knowing if I should crack open the proverbial cookie in the first place, hurled me straight aboard the search and reunion roller coaster.

I was under ten-years-old, when I absorbed the meaning of being adopted from an era where adoptions were closed. I felt an internal dilemma riddled with ongoing debate and mystery.

Even though I was being raised in a loving and supportive adoptive family, I still yearned to fill the holes drilled into my being.

By the time I was a young teenager, my craving for answers grew. I would frequently ask myself: “Where did I come from; why was I given up for adoption; what is my birth story; what does my birth family look like; do I have biological brothers and sisters; and what is my ancestral and medical background?

I would often seek signs from the universe to tell me if I should actually proceed with a search, and longingly look up at the stars on my birthday wishing that my birth relatives might be doing the same. When I was sixteen-years-old, I even attempted to will the name of my birth mother and father right off the page of the non-identifying information that accompanied my altered birth certificate!

It wasn’t until I reached my late teens, that I asked my parents for their help to search. I felt a thrilling sense of excitement and overwhelming spell of fear. The thought of slashing into the now archaic principle—a birth mother has the right to privacy—caused me alarm. If my search were successful, I would have to be prepared to deal with any and all possibilities.

Even though I strongly desired to capture my missing information, I made it clear to my parents that I was not looking to replace any of my adoptive family. In fact, it was because I felt loved and secure in my adoptive family that I felt confident enough to search. I hoped to eventually meet and love my birth relatives, but I was painfully aware that I might not find a fairytale ending.

With the aide of my parents, a dedicated adoption search angel, and a few clues, I was fortunate to find my birth mother at the age of twenty-one—in the state of Texas— where birth records remain sealed today. Our reunion did not fill in every one of my missing holes, but I have no regrets. I accept what I’m able to know, and I’m grateful to know it.

Like many adoptees, my longing to potentially search occurred as a child, but according to 2007 statistics from the American Adoption Congress, some adoptees are motivated only after a triggering event—which could be a marriage, the birth of a baby, or following the passing of a loved one.

Still, I have other adopted friends who have never felt the same need to seek out their pasts. Some prefer to leave well enough alone. They are either quite content to leave the past in the past, are afraid of finding something negative, fear rejection, or dread the idea of potentially hurting their adoptive families.

The adult adoptee’s dilemma of whether to make that search or not, is a deeply complicated and personal preference. And thankfully, today, an adoptee does not have to make the search decision—alone. Adoption research abounds, and books, adoptee memoirs and adoptee essays are plentiful, including several that are on Secret Sons & Daughters’ Adoptee Tales “Searching” page.

Sometimes just reading the stories of others can help provide a sense of a future direction that might be right for you, which can make that fortune telling scenario a thing of the past.

Stay tuned for my upcoming post on resources and tips for searching for your birth family…

How did you feel when you decided to search for your birth family? What was your experience? Would you like your medical history without an ongoing relationship?

An Adoptee’s Portrait in Nature and Nurture

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Ann Mary Roberts was an uptown girl in the ’60s, a pretty, 16-year-old pianist attending an all-girls Catholic school in upstate New York. Her parents had seven children and her father had Hodgkin’s disease. They caught her sitting on a bench one day in a shaded park with the boy they had just learned got her pregnant. She was on a bus the next day, destined for her older sister’s house in Maryland, with a phony wedding ring and an alibi—“tell anyone who asks that your husband is in Vietnam.”

Her last trimester was spent at a home for unwed mothers in Massachusetts. She was eating a forbidden stash of chocolate on Halloween when the stomach pains struck. She thought it was indigestion. I was born the next day.

I knew none of this, not even the correct state of my birth, until the letter arrived.

“Honey, a young man dropped this off for you,” my mother said, handing me a sealed brown-linen envelope labeled “Christine.” It was Mother’s Day, 1987. I had just transferred to a college in upstate New York, and was living at home in Albany until I found campus housing.

I took the letter and headed for the family room couch, thinking it was from a friend until the pictures started falling out: a cute little girl with painted fingernails, a dark-eyed woman feeding wedding cake to a man who looked like a mob boss and that same woman with an older lady who looked just like her, both smartly dressed in crisp black-and-white suits, sipping drinks on a balcony. I was breathless as I stared at the photos of a girl, and a woman, with my own dark brown eyes and auburn-streaked hair.

Dear Christine,

The time has finally arrived. I don’t know if you even know you are adopted. I was 17 when you were born. I remember holding you on my lap; your eyes seemed to look right into my soul. I knew I couldn’t keep you and my heart was broken and still is. Words cannot express how I have felt for 19½ years, not knowing anything about you. I visited you at the infant home but I couldn’t hold you or kiss you because you were behind a glass window. You are a five to ten minute drive from my house. I named you Ann Marie. We are good people, nothing to be afraid of.

Love, Ann

While I knew I was adopted, I also understood that adoption agencies brokered two things in the sixties—babies and secrecy, but somehow she had found me.

Photos from the letter, including Ann and her mother Ann Sr.

Photos from the letter, including Ann and her mother Ann Sr.

“Honey, who’s that letter from?” Mom asked from the kitchen.

My cheeks flushed, as if I’d been caught reading someone’s diary. My mother had suffered enough, miscarriages; the deaths of a baby, her father and brother; and my father’s affair—the affair that left her with three young children to raise, with me the oldest at 7. If there was one thing I vowed as a girl, it was to make my mother’s life easier in whatever way I could. She had devoted her life to us, and unlike other adoptees I’ve known, I never felt loved any less than my younger brother and sister whom she’d given birth to.

*   *   *

I was 13 and playing the board game Sorry with a girl down the street when she got mad and spat: “I don’t care if you win, YOU’RE adopted!”

I ran home in tears to our babysitter, Vivian, who put her claw-like nails to work dialing my mother at the restaurant as I cried at the kitchen table. I was overwhelmed to think that this woman who had always been my mom might not fully belong to me.

She rushed home from the double-shift she was waitressing. We went to her room. I sat on the edge of her waterbed, across from a photo of us kids dressed in matching green-and-beige plaid. Our clothes matched, but in my family of lights, I looked darker than ever. My mother had always said I looked like my grandmother, her mom, and that I took after her too because I loved music and making things.

“Honey, I’ve got something to show you,” she said. “Wait here a minute.” I listened to her rummage through the deep part of her closet, behind her clothes, where the ceiling sloped down. My sister once told me our mother hid our Christmas presents back there, but I never peeked—I always wanted to be surprised.

My mother emerged from the closet, her hair a little askew. She held a large beige envelope and opened the tiny metal prongs that had clamped the envelope shut. I’m not sure how I knew, or what I knew, but when she pried those prongs apart, something clicked in my head, that noise, the way a padlock clicks before it opens.

She pulled out notes from my first visits to the pediatrician, and a letter, typed on white parchment paper from a caseworker at Catholic Family Services.

We sat together on the bed’s black cushioned edge. My arms goose-pimpled as I read the letter. It told me I was Irish, German and Welsh, that my birth mother was 5 feet 5, intelligent and sensitive, had taken piano lessons for years and hoped to major in music; and that my birth father was 17 when I was born, athletic and enjoyed team sports and the drums.

I’m no longer French or Dutch, I thought, as I looked at the framed picture of me and my grandmother atop the lace on my mother’s dresser. My grandma, with her chestnut hair and large brown eyes, had always been the person I thought I looked like in a family of blue-eyed blonds. In a single afternoon I had traded one ancestry for another. I felt betrayed; yet I couldn’t be mad at my mother. My father had been gone for over four years and she was the only parent I had.

“Chrissie,” my mother said, “when you’re older, I’ll help you search for your birth parents if you want to find them.” I tucked that offer away, thinking I might dig it out sometime after college.

*   *   *

“Who’s the letter from, Honey?” she asked again from the kitchen.

I walked into the room, eyes cast down at our red and cream linoleum floor, and said, “It’s from my birth mother.”

“What! Who the hell does that woman think she is sending you a letter? What if you hadn’t known you were adopted? I can’t believe she didn’t contact me first!” my mother ranted. I didn’t disagree, but I didn’t know what to say. It was a shock to me too.

My mother didn’t bring the letter up the next day, or the next, and I took that to mean she didn’t want to talk about it, or maybe I didn’t want to either. Adoption had always seemed like something you don’t discuss.

Yet a craving for answers got the better of me a few weeks later after I finished my last final exam. I called the number Ann had written down and arranged with her husband to meet the following night after I got off work from the local department store.

I scanned faces that entire evening wondering if one might be hers. I straightened and re-straightened the tie displays and paid frequent visits to the ladies’ room.

After work, I stood outside on the moonlit sidewalk in front of the store, waiting for a woman as foreign to me as the person who had just sauntered past on her way to her car. Yet the stranger I was about to meet shared a shrouded part of me. I pulled my cardigan closer to fight the spring night’s chill.

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair walked toward me. She was dressed in navy linen pants and a beautiful white blouse that was billowing in the breeze. She looked like the woman in the pictures, and she was studying me.

When she was only a few feet away, I whispered, “Ann?”

Before I could say anything more, she wrapped her arms around me and cried, “Oh, my baby.”

I put my hands lightly on her back. I felt cold. I’m hugging a stranger. I have a mother; I’m her baby, I thought.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said and pulled back. I don’t recall tearing up, or saying anything more in that moment. I felt as if someone had shot me with Novocain—nothing but numb.

She introduced me to her husband and then I followed them to an Italian restaurant down the street, where Ann and I filled each other in on 19 years of personal history. It was the first time I’d heard a true story about the night I was born. If an adoptee grows up believing one history to be true, what happens when you learn part of it was fiction? Does it change who you are? Should it change who you are? I didn’t know it that night, but it would take more than a decade to answer those questions.

What I remember most from that night were her arms. She had the exact same lightly freckled skin tone as me. And she kept saying, “I always thought you would have blue eyes, like your father.”

Ann and Christine

Ann and I

A few weeks later, I met my birth father, Gregg. Ann had contacted him in a neighboring town to tell him she’d found me. My initial lunches with Ann and evening get-togethers with Gregg were electrically charged; we had an instant rapport. I learned that Ann had a master’s in music, taught piano and was trying to have a baby after almost dying during a recent tubal pregnancy. And that Gregg was an English teacher, a poet, a music aficionado and father of a 13-year-old boy.

As the months passed, though, that initial excitement ebbed as we each struggled with the fact that I was not Ann Marie. I was Christine, a complicated composite of everyone involved. And it seemed like our reunion made them mourn the loss of Ann Marie again, or at least the Ann Marie they’d imagined all those years.

Gregg put it into words in a letter a few months after our first meeting: “I think there is such a gap between reality and the dream in this situation. Do you know what I mean? I guess I’m trying to say that I want to be everything you want me to be, but, realistically, I’m not sure I have the foggiest idea what that is—do you? I say to myself I hope we can get close—but how close?”

I didn’t have any idea. But those words and a mailbag’s worth of beautiful letters those first few years fostered a kinship and a second chance to have a father. We’d meet for coffee, go to concerts and talk frequently on the phone. But I felt guilty every time I did the same with Ann.

Though our reunion certainly answered those central questions—“Where did I come from?” for me, and “Whatever happened to Ann Marie?” for them—for every detail, every question answered, more unanswerable questions arose, such as: How do I introduce these people whose genetic makeup I share? How often should I see Ann or Gregg? Do I invite them to my graduation? Will knowing them jeopardize my relationship with my mother? My siblings? My cousins?

*   *   *

At the time I met Ann, adoptions were still whispered about, and reunions like ours occurred mostly as a result of a private investigator. It was seen as disloyal and ungrateful for an adoptee to want to know his or her birth parents. Somehow a primal desire for ancestry had been construed as a statement about adoptive parenting.

For all those reasons, I grappled with my need to know Ann and Gregg. And I found it easiest to offer people a practical excuse, such as: I’d like to know what medical conditions I could inherit. 

But the truth is, knowing them made it profoundly easier for me to feel at home in my own skin. I discovered Gregg and I both tried to figure out life through writing, and that Ann and I shared many of the same spiritual philosophies. And I realized why I was so damned introspective and curious: I got a double dose from them.

Gregg and Christine at a concert in Albany, 2013.

At a concert with Gregg in Albany, 2013.

Given all that, I didn’t want to say: Thanks for answering my questions, for letting me know where I came from. Now can you please go away and we’ll catch up again in another 19 years.

So I fumbled on, even as it became complicated having them in my life, especially around the holidays. “I haven’t seen you in a long while,” Gregg’s mother would say. Or Ann would ask, “A bunch of us will be at my brother’s house on Christmas Eve. Would you like to come?” Though it was wonderful to be included, I was trying not to lose my place in my own family gatherings.

One weekend visit home, a few years after I had moved to Boston, I divided 48 hours among my mother and beloved grandmother (my mom’s mother), who had just suffered a stroke; my brother and his new baby; my sister, who was enduring a trial; Ann, who was going through a divorce; and high school friends who just wanted to catch up over a beer.

No matter how I allocated my time, there was never enough. I was always letting someone down, and always struggling with this sense that I was being ungrateful to my mother.

Through all of this, my mother remained fairly silent, which I interpreted to mean she was stepping back to let me figure it all out. I was immensely thankful for that on my wedding day. My mother looked beautiful in her floral-pink dress as we rode in the limousine to the church. She sat in her place of honor, the front row of the church, like all mothers of the bride. Except this mom shared the day with her daughter’s birth parents as Ann played Christine’s songs from Phantom of the Opera on the piano and Gregg waited at the church entrance to escort me down the aisle.

I know my mother’s stomach was in knots that day as she endured endless questions from relatives who hadn’t met Ann and Gregg, but she handled it with grace. She gave me a gift perhaps not many parents could: She let go and loved me unconditionally, wanting nothing more than for me to be happy. And that is what makes her my mother in every sense of that word.

Me and my mom

Me and my mom.

*   *   *

For that brief time surrounding my wedding, all my relationships converged, but it didn’t last. I could quietly be a part of each individual family, but not one whole. A few months later, Gregg and I hit a reunion rough patch and took a break from one another. After that, I wasn’t sure I was capable of traversing this rocky terrain anymore, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother and Ann might have felt the same.

A few years later, when my son was born, something shifted. I now understood the anticipation my mother must have felt before picking me up from the infant home. And I began to realize the despair Ann spoke of as I breast-fed my newborn son and stroked his pudgy legs in the middle of the night. I couldn’t imagine having to relinquish him, never to touch his baby-soft skin again, or know the person he would become.

As my son grew, Gregg and I grew close, and Ann and I settled into a sisterly relationship of sorts supporting one another through the ups and downs of our lives: for me, the birth of my second son, and postpartum depression; for her, artistic endeavors as a painter, and a first bout with breast cancer. We’d meet for lunch, then stroll a park when my first son was young. She called him “a wise old soul.” He called her “Grannie Annie.”

Christine Koubek's birth mother, Ann, whom her grandson called "Grannie Annie."

*   *   *

A week before Mother’s Day in 2009, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee before crossing the boulevard to the card store. I had learned that this annual greeting card ritual could take a while, and I needed cards for my mother, mother-in-law, a couple of grandmothers and, toughest of all, for Ann.

That particular Mother’s Day marked our 22nd anniversary. More than two decades of knowing each other, after a childhood apart. It also marked the year Ann’s cancer had spread.

I opened the door and meandered down the card aisle, hands warmed by the cardboard cup as I perused the racks of cards for mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, godmothers and women who were “like a mother to me.”

I stopped at “grandmothers” and selected a few, then moved on to “mothers” for my husband’s mom and my own. I found one for my mom that thanked her for always being there, for teaching me to take care of myself, to persevere and be strong.

Every year I tried to find a card for Ann, but they invariably said: “the one constant in my life,” “being there when no one else could,” or “since I was a child”—none of which applied. There was no card that said: “I’m sorry for all you went through back then.” “I can’t thank you enough for giving me life and for the gift of my family and for the opportunity to know you, as well as that part of me that is Ann Marie.” Or “in a world where we all could use a parent who truly knows and loves each of us—thank you for being one of mine.”

I tossed the cards aside, and rounded the corner to the blank card aisle. I figured I’d just keep writing it myself.

*   *   *

Four months after that Mother’s Day, Ann lost her battle with cancer.

A few days before her death, Ann’s younger sister, Lisa, asked how to refer to me in the obituary. “I don’t want to offend your mother by calling you Ann’s daughter,” she said.

I thought: God, how that question sums up our 22-year journey. I told Lisa I needed to think about it. I asked my mother, who said, “Whatever you want to do is fine with me. I know you’re my daughter.”

And then I had an idea. I wrote to Lisa:

After all these years with Ann (and Gregg), one thing I’ve learned is that none of the labels (nor their associated roles and obligations) have been sufficient, and I am so happy that Ann and I were able to create our own meaningful relationship despite them. But an obituary needs a label, and you’re right: “Daughter” is true but confusing in the sense that I’m my mother’s daughter. And yet, I’m not a stepdaughter nor a goddaughter, and “birth daughter” sounds ridiculous…. I think using the name she gave me at my birth is the truest way for me to honor her and our relationship. Therefore, please use:

“Survived by a daughter, Ann Marie Roberts.”

Note: An earlier version of this essay was first published as “Finding Ann Marie” in Bethesda magazine, and “Portrait in Nature and Nurture” recently appeared on BrainChild.com.
Image: painting “Childlike Spirit” by Ann Roberts.

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