‘I Began To Question Everything About Myself.’: An Interview With Now 71-Year-Old Adopted By Air Force Parents

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At what age did you learn and really come to understand you were adopted? What thoughts and feelings did this provoke? How did your parents address this with you?

“I was six, and it was bedtime. I might have been somewhat embarrassed, so I didn’t face my father while he spoke and busied myself with a baby doll on my bed. My father rarely came into my bedroom, now here he was, standing at the top of my bed; my mother stood at the foot. There was no bedtime story ritual, so this felt odd. My father started to talk about their love for each other, and me. ‘We couldn’t have children of our own,’ he said. So they saved me from an accident. No one else survived.

He may not have used the words, ‘mother,’ ‘siblings,’ or ‘family.’ It was just a story, a fable about me. I would much later come to understand that it was the Catholic adoption agency’s narrative of loss and acquisition–chosen and saved. Rescued by a deserving couple from an uncertain fate. I wasn’t ready for the full meaning of this deficit, but internally, I began to question everything about myself.”

adopted toddler wears air force shirt
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti
adoptee as a young girl
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti

How did knowing you were adopted affect your identity growing up?

“From an early age, the word ‘adoption’ seemed to afford me a special status among my adoptive extended family. I might have wondered if they loved me although, or because, I was different. Perhaps one of the biggest losses adoptees face growing up is our lack of genetic mirrors. I realized those closest to me bore no resemblance to me. I began to ruminate about my adoption and identity, and I dwelt on our differences. Who am I like? Where are the others?

I was anxious and highly sensitive. An only child until age eight, my parents adopted a blue-eyed blonde infant girl–the first fair-haired child in the extended family–also through Catholic Charities. I loved her like a dear baby doll.”

adoptive sisters wear matching dresses
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti

What was your experience as an Air Force daughter? Did this affect your identity development and adjustment as an adoptee?

“My father’s career allowed him little time for relaxation–we didn’t take family vacations. He lectured me about my cooperation and the effect my behavior had on his career. My parents were disconnected from my learning experience, although they were both fairly well-educated. All our moves and my school changes interrupted my education, especially the focus that math required.

air force dad holds adopted baby girl
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti

In retrospect, they were anxious, too. They were afraid to fail, and wanted the best for me, but they could ‘only do so much.’ In time I would realize they felt helpless to correct the flaws I’d inherited from my birth mother. This had a deep effect on my self-worth, and I struggled to please and be accepted wherever I was.

Loss of friends, attachment, separations, and a sense of being out of place were heightened by our Air Force family’s transient lifestyle, my officer father’s authoritarian style, his physical and emotional punishment, and his frequent absences. Life was, for the most part, disrupted and confusing.

The best part of my childhood was the home he bought in New Jersey with my mother’s parents; my Nana meant the world to me. It was our permanent home between transfers, from where I went to kindergarten, half of the 4th grade, and 8th through 12th grades. I write about this in great detail in my book, ‘I Must Have Wandered: An Adopted Air Force Daughter Recalls.’

air force dad holds adopted daughter
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti

Did you have much of a desire to know about your biological family growing up?

“My family never talked about my genetic identity. When I was in crisis at 16, they brought me to a psychologist for a few sessions, but we didn’t discuss my adoption. When anyone would ask, I would shake my head and say, ‘No, I only have these parents. I don’t want to know about anyone else.’ Even though our relationship was troubled, I said it as if I believed it. I now know this denial is referred to as the ‘Fog of Adoption.’ I had a vague pull toward my birth mother but never talked about it. I thought I might encounter look-alike siblings. These were strange, powerful, and troubling feelings. So, it wasn’t a fully-formed desire to find biological relatives.

I married at 19 and was 20 when my daughter was born. This epiphany of biological connection with the firstborn is shared by many adoptees. Yet, I sensed it was a forbidden topic. As a young mother, my adoptee status was again on my mind–the realization that she was of me; the first human person genetically related to me. Looking at her, I was elated but more confused than ever. I still didn’t have the wherewithal to ask for more.”

At what point did you start to piece together your biological family history and adoption story? What was this process like for you? What kind of barriers have you faced throughout this process?

“I wasn’t aware it is a human right to know my origins. I didn’t know the record I had used for a marriage certificate, my Certificate of Baptism and Birth, showed a falsified birthplace. Now, I think of that record as an award to my parents who blessed and legitimized an illegitimate child.

air force family with adopted little girl
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti

When I tried to get a passport in 1990, I learned the record that sufficed for overseas travel while I was a military dependent, would not continue to serve me as an adult. I didn’t know until I was 40 that my original birth certificate was sealed by the State of South Carolina, and I needed to get an amended–falsified–birth record that certified my adoptive parents as my birth parents. This is when I pursued my quest for my true identity and my birth mother. I learned the injustice of denying adoptees our original birth certificates and persisted to get my non-identifying information from Catholic Charities.

Adoptee advocates assisted me in my journey and I was able to meet my birth mother in South Carolina in 1993. Sealed, falsified, lost, or destroyed records are all barriers to the truth of our identity. Through the activism of adoptees and advocates, states are loosening these bonds against us. DNA testing wasn’t available for my maternal search, yet I got help and found her and two half-sisters. Now this powerful tool is widely available, and adoptees and birth parents can find our genetic families. I was fortunate to find my biological paternity and half-siblings.”

adult adoptee puts arms around half sisters
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti

Would you say you experienced adoption trauma? How would you explain that to someone who can’t understand how a person adopted as a baby or young child would experience trauma?

“While I worked on my search for my biological mother, I read books about the harms caused by infant relinquishment and closed adoption. I found out about the time of my adoption, which is known as the Baby Scoop Era. (wiki: ‘From 1945 to 1973, it is estimated that up to 4 million parents in the United States had children placed for adoption, with 2 million during the 1960s alone. [2 )

I read ‘The Journey of the Adopted Self’ and ‘Lost and Found’ by Betty Jean Lifton. When I read Nancy Verrier’s ‘The Primal Wound,’ I recognized symptoms of anxiety, depression, panic, feelings of abandonment, and loss. Newborn relinquishment is believed to cause sensory and psychological trauma, and studies back up this theory. I realized frightening sensory moments since early childhood; the panic that came out of nowhere is evidence of the primal wound. The connection between newborn and mother is severed, and new caretakers, strangers however well-intentioned, cannot replace the biological mother. Feelings of loss, anxiety, emotional problems, and issues of self-worth can be present throughout an adoptee’s life.”

adoptive mom stands next to young daughter
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti

What advice would you give to adoptive parents about helping their children with their adoption identity and story? What advice would you give to adoptees struggling with this?

“I’m not an expert, but as a 71-year-old adoptee, I suggest if you plan to adopt, learn about the flawed history of adoption. Your child deserves empathy, openness, honesty, transparency, and unconditional love. Children suffer from assertions they were saved, or demands of gratefulness, even that they were a ‘gift.’ We aren’t second-class citizens, or subservient. When doubts or questions arise, seek help from adoption-competent mental health therapists. Be aware of mood swings that result from adoption trauma. Help is vital. Know that adoptees have a high risk of suicide. Encourage your child to ask questions, and offer help. Be present–a friend as well as an informed guide.

Adoptees, please seek help for depression and anxiety from adoptee-informed therapists. Talk about your concerns. Don’t tolerate physical or emotional abuse. Understand you have a right to your genetic identity and heritage. If you are inclined, advocate for open records. Be curious about your origins. It’s not easy, but know you are not alone.”

adoptive mom stands by little girl
Courtesy of Mary Ellen Gambutti

This story was submitted to Love What Matters  by Mary Ellen Gambutti of Lewes, DE. You can follow her journey here and purchase her memoir here. Submit your own story hereand be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more from other adoptees:

‘I felt like I was holding a familiar hand. I’d been waiting for this moment my entire life.’: Adoptee shares meeting biological dad, processing adoption trauma

‘I’ve been putting the pieces together. Of our adoptions, our lives, and your death.’: Adoptee reflects on trauma of adoption in open letter to late sister

‘The evaluation read, ‘Keri’s past can best be characterized as chaotic, emotionally inadequate, and abusive.’: Woman details traumatic foster care and adoption, shares healing journey

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