All my life, I couldn’t stand not knowing why I had been adopted. I didn’t know my background, my medical history, or if my birth mom ever thought about me. I didn’t know if she was alive or if we looked alike. I just knew I wanted answers.
I had tried searching for her in my early twenties, but I was scared to put full effort into it and fail. When I was 26, living in Ohio and working as an executive assistant to a CEO, I got uneasy with the years passing. I finally got determined to really search.
It took me four months to find her. Mine had been a closed adoption through Catholic Charities, an adoption agency. Legally, the nuns could only release non-identifying information to me.
I received five pages of information that didn't tell me the name or location of my birth mom, but they did disclose physical descriptions and ages of everyone, with details like, “she was 5’2, blonde and blue-eyed.” And: “Her mom’s sister was a nun at a Catholic college” and “Her grandparents owned a hardware store.”
I read those five pages over and over, combing them for information that would help my search. I knew I had been born in Syracuse, New York, but I didn’t know if my birth mom still lived nearby.
Where to start?
All of a sudden, a sentence jumped out at me: “Her mom was employed as a town clerk.”
I couldn’t believe it! Town clerks are public information.
So I took the year I was born (1970) and began making a spreadsheet of all town clerks at that time, starting in the county Syracuse is in, and including all neighboring counties.
I was going to try to find her through the process of elimination and a lot of phone calls. I eliminated all the male town clerks and the ones who were the wrong age. (The non-identifying information gave my grandmother’s age at the time I was born.)
One day after work, I called a town historian to check on a name. As I asked her each of my questions, she kept saying yes. Yes, that’s her age. Yes, she has a sister who is a nun at a Catholic college. Yes, she had eight children. My heart started beating a little faster.
She said, “I think you found the right person. I just don’t know which of her daughters is your birth mom.” She offered to let my birth grandmother know about me because she knew her ... it was a small town.
Believe it or not, I told her I had to think about it. I didn’t want to come blazing onto the scene, nor did I want to be intrusive. I know sometimes adoptions are secrets and it was not my intent to disrupt lives. I thought about it overnight, talked about it with my roommate, and gave the town historian my yes in the morning.
A day later, the town historian called me back and asked if I was sitting down.
“Your grandmother jumped up and down when I told her," she said. "But that’s not all … Your birth mom is married to your birth father and you have a full sister and brother.”
What?! I have no idea what I said next. I hope I thanked her.
I got off the phone and went for a walk with my roommate. At first I was elated. But the more I talked and processed my feelings, the more I didn’t understand why I had an intact family, but they didn’t have me. My friend, who is an even- keeled person, told me not to rush to judgment.
A day or so later, my birth mom called me at work. Many of my co-workers knew of my search and were supportive. I remember grabbing a piece of paper and a pen because I wanted to write down what she said in case I was too nervous to remember.
My boss gave me an empty office with glass walls to take her call. Several of my coworkers looked at me through the window and I could hear someone say, “She’s talking to her mom for the first time.”
Before we got into a real conversation, she wanted to make sure I wasn’t only contacting her for medical history information. She was protecting herself. I told her I always dreamed of meeting her. We both cried happy tears and talked for a long time.
My birth mom was a teenager, just 17 when she got pregnant with me, and my birth dad was in his 30s. My birth mom was sent away to a home for unwed, pregnant teenage mothers in Syracuse until she had me and put me up for adoption. She didn’t want to, but she was too young to care for me.
Three years later, when I was long gone, my birth dad married my birth mom. She wanted to find me, but didn’t feel she had a right to at that point. By then I was living in Cazenovia, New York (about 45 minutes away from Syracuse) with my adoptive parents and my older, adopted sister.
Soon after we connected by phone, my birth mom flew to meet me in Athens, Ohio. It was before 9/11 so I waited for her at the gate with roses.
As soon as she came down the jetway, we kept staring at each other. I always thought my birth mom would have red hair, freckles and pale skin like me, but she didn’t. She has blond hair and blue eyes. She said I had the same face as my brother and red hair like my dad.
We spent the weekend talking. She stayed in a hotel and not with me because the situation was so intense. I think we both felt like we needed time by ourselves to decompress after spending the days talking about the 26 years we missed.
It felt strange to know she had given birth to me, but to not know her. She’s a nurse and a quieter person than I am, but it was easy talking. She never spoke about my adoption prior to my finding her, because it was too painful. Since she had been a teenager at the time, she felt like the decision was taken out of her hands. My brother and sister didn’t even know I existed. She told me it might take her time when she returned home to tell them.
There was so much to take in — it felt surreal, yet I also felt this incredible warmth to have a mom I could talk to. My adoptive parents were more formal, and the conversations didn’t go deep. I used to watch mothers and daughters who seemed like best friends, but I never experienced what that was like until I met my birth mom.
It didn’t take her long to tell my siblings about me. In fact, she told them the day she landed back in Syracuse. My brother found out on the way home from the airport and my sister found out soon after. Spirited, talkative (like me) and another redhead, my sister was shocked and asked if we were going to be on Oprah.
Soon, I flew back to Syracuse, New York to meet my entire birth family in a small town about 40 minutes North called Sandy Creek. (Turns out my birth family lived only 90 minutes from where I'd grown up.) I was so nervous. What do you do if your family doesn’t like you?
My birth dad walked up to me and hugged me, and I felt like we'd always known each other. My sister had her baby son in her arms as she hugged me. We looked alike with our curly red hair and freckles. Then I met my brother, who did indeed look like me. He gave me a big hug.
After 26 years of not knowing a blood relative, it was overwhelming to see all of these people who looked just like me.
That night turned into a weekend of meeting relatives, especially at a family cookout my birth mom and dad hosted for me. There was a massive table of food and people one-by-one came up to me and introduced themselves: “Hi, I’m your Aunt.” “Hi, I’m your first cousin.” From a grandmother, I even heard, “You were the family secret. I’m so happy to meet you, now I can die in peace.”
It’s a huge family whereas my adoptive family was so small. As a kid, I had always wondered what it would be like to be part of a family that hosted parties with cars lined down the street, and that day I experienced it for the first time.
I have a picture from that day of me sitting on a bed in the room I was staying in at my birth mom’s house. I am holding flowers my birth parents gave me that day of the cookout, with sunlight around me. That entire day — one of the best in my life — felt like I was immersed in pure joy.
That was almost 20 years ago. Today I have more memories with my birth family than I can count. It took me eight years to tell my adoptive parents of my search, because they couldn’t speak openly about my adoption to me.
It was difficult to tell them, but eventually my birth mom and adoptive mom spoke on the phone. My mom even thanked my birth mom for me. They never met. In 2008, I lost my birth father and my adoptive mother on the opposite ends of the same year. Ultimately, I felt blessed to have known my birth father for 11 years.
When my husband and I got married in 2011, the rows of our guests included a mixture of my birth family and my adoptive family. I finally felt whole.
Photo Credit: Getty Images