‘I wanted to find my biological parents. My mom told me ‘no.’ It was a closed adoption. Soon after, a mail order DNA test caught my eye.’: Woman ‘stuck between 2 worlds’ embarks on search for family names

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“I am adopted. I was born with 2 birth certificates. One for me and one for the state of Michigan. One with my biological parents’ names to be locked away, and one with my adoptive parents’ names for the rest of us. I was placed into foster care for the first 5 weeks of my life while paperwork was prepared.

The move to my new home was all set, except of course one last check from the adoption agency. They had reported to my parents the presence of a ‘defect’ which could be cause for concern. The issue was two bright red birthmarks on my knees, to which my parents laughed and confirmed true. They would laugh when they later shared this story with me. Those birthmarks spontaneously disappeared, for the record.

Adoption stories are captivating. The long-lost child, now an adult, searching forever and finally being reunited with his or her birthparents after a lifetime of not knowing where they came from. A mother in search of her child. The child she so selflessly gave away so they could have a better life. They find each other, questions are answered, stories are shared, and peace of mind is finally theirs. These are the stories dreams are made of. Then there are those horrifying stories.

Adoptions gone terribly wrong. Court battles, children ripped away from the only parents they know, because a birthparent changed his or her mind. A child who blames her biological parents for giving them up. A biological parent who rejects an adult child’s search for answers. These are the stories nightmares are made of. Most of us remain in limbo, caught between the dreams and the nightmares. But my story is not yet over. My life long struggle has recently continued into a new chapter.

My parents tried and failed to have their own child. Adoption was a viable alternative for them. But open adoptions weren’t a thing back then. So mine was closed. Identities never revealed. A legal process in place to keep everything a secret. On file with the state are the wishes of my biological mother. Contact or no contact. If I decide I want to know more, that can only happen if she is on record saying yes. If she says no, then that’s the end of the road for me. That’s the way closed adoption works in most states, including Michigan.

Baby lays on stomach looking at herself in mirror
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

Parents are not perfect, including mine. But if there is one thing they handled with perfection, it would be telling me about being adopted as soon as they thought I could comprehend it. They bought me books. They were open and encouraged me to ask questions. They made it about love and the incredibly unselfish act of giving a child away so that she could have a better life.  I honestly don’t remember not knowing.

Adopted baby girl sits on dad's lap who sits on couch in home beside wife
Courtesy of Allison Giffin
Man holds up announcement for baby girl beside adopted daughter who lays in cradle
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

Three years after I came home, they unexpectedly got pregnant with my sister. They could have children after all. And like being adopted, I don’t remember my life without my sister.

I do, however, remember my parents getting divorced a year after my sister was born. It was ugly. My mom was devastated. A newly single mother with a 4 and 1-year-old. I cannot imagine. My dad was around, but not often.

He was still fairly young, temperamental and kind of a jerk, if I’m being honest. We would see him for dinner and maybe a weekend at the lake, but his second wife barely tolerated us. My sister was the main recipient of her wrath because she looked so much like my mom. I did not, so I escaped much of that particular trauma. Luckily this marriage wouldn’t last long.

Adopted little girl sits in chair smiling with baby sister in her lap
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

I was quiet from a very young age. I didn’t talk a lot. Kept everything close to my chest. My mom would later tell me I wasn’t terribly cuddly either. I’ve always wondered if this was just my personality. Is it genetic? Or could it be those first five weeks of my life in foster care? Was I not held very much in those first weeks of my life? These are questions with no answers.

I remember seeing stories at a young age about kids being taken away from their adoptive parents. It was terrifying. As a child, I didn’t know about legal documents and the protection they provided for my family. I thought maybe this could happen to me. I was always watching my back. I checked my closet before I went to bed every night to make sure nobody was hiding in there, waiting to take me away. I worried all the time but I never talked about it. I thought something was wrong with me. Later I would realize it was anxiety. But as a child? I had no idea. And because I didn’t share my feelings, neither did anyone else.

Little girl lays in grass beside her adopted mother
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

On top of being adopted and feeling different, I WAS different. My sister and parents look strikingly similar. Blond hair, blue eyes, very tall. Not me. With my dark hair, green eyes, and short stature, I stood out. And I hated standing out.

The differences didn’t stop there. My mom and sister were extremely outgoing and expressive. I was an introvert in a family of talkers. They had so much in common that did not interest me. With the exception of my father, my family was…and still is…very religious. I grew up in church but always had a lot of questions and reservations. My family is conservative. I am liberal. Rule followers vs. screw the rules. You can see where this is going.

These issues would all come to a boiling point during my teenage years. I did not like my father very much. I was angry at my mom, the woman who was there for us every single day. I think we’re always the hardest on the people we’re the most comfortable with. Still…I tested her. I tested her will.

I dared her to give up on me. Every day for a solid year. I missed much of my sophomore year, refusing to go to school most days. I hung out with the wrong people. I was in an abusive relationship with a boy who was much like my own father. I was no doubt looking for the attention I felt I never received from him. A lot of people gave up on setting me straight. She never gave up, though. I do not think I would be writing this today if it wasn’t for her unconditional love.

Mother sits on couch with her adopted daughter and biological daughter
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

There was a brief time during these volatile years that I expressed interest in finding out more about my biological parents. I was angry that they gave me away, only for me to be put in a situation that included divorce, an angry and detached father, abusive relationships, and the pain of feeling like an outsider. My mom wisely told me no. She knew about the closed adoption rules. She knew that hearing a ‘no’ from my biological mother, another rejection, a door slammed in my face never to be opened again, would take me down a dark path even she may not be able to save me from.

She promised that if I expressed interest at a later time, she would do everything in her power to help me. As angry as I was at the time, I believed her. We wouldn’t talk about it again for years.

Time went on and I pulled myself together. I went on to college, struggled with what to do with my life for a couple years, until I settled on pharmacy. My relationship with my father would continue to improve, especially as I matured and got my sh*t together. I believe he matured as well during this time. He remarried for a third time and I inherited a step sister and brother. Funny enough, this helped me feel a little less out of place. There were now other nonbiological kids in the picture. I liked that. And I liked my stepmom. She had a profoundly positive effect on my relationship with my father and I will forever be grateful for that.

People would ask me from time to time whether I ever wanted to find my biological parents. I never had a hard time talking about it, but my answer was always the same. Probably not. What would it accomplish? I am who I am. My family is my family. Those other people just gave me life. Period. End of story.

Still…that feeling of not fitting in never went away. I remember being at my Aunt and Uncle’s house for Thanksgiving one year. They were looking at old pictures. Pictures of cousins and grandparents and great grandparents. They were all laughing about how their noses all matched. How their facial expressions were similar. It was an extremely painful moment for me. I couldn’t participate in the conversation. I felt like I shouldn’t be there. My family never made me feel like I didn’t belong. They loved me just like everyone else. But in that moment, I felt completely alone. Like an outsider.

I tried to talk to my mom about it, but I don’t think she fully understood where I was coming from. In her mind, it wasn’t a big deal because our family never even thought about me being adopted. She was right. But I thought about it. Still, I really didn’t bring it up much after that.

I went on to be a successful, contributing member of society. But those feelings were never gone. They just came out in different ways. When you’ve spent your life feeling like you don’t belong, you do your best to try and fit in. When you spend your life telling yourself and other people that you don’t need to know where you came from, that denial will eventually come out in non-productive ways. Like saying no…it’s okay…to just about everything. No…I’m easygoing. It’s okay. Boundaries? No…it’s okay, I don’t need those. Healthy relationships? No…it’s okay. I probably brought this on myself. I just wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be loved for exactly who I was.  But I never felt worthy. Not as a child. And certainly not as an adult.

Woman who was adopted at birth and wants to find birth parents takes selfie with straight face
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

So what happened? Well, mostly I found ways to prove myself right until I became a mom to three beautiful, strong-willed daughters. Having my own children is an experience I don’t have the words to describe. After a lifetime of having no biology, of looking and being so different, I have these little versions of myself running around. Their facial expressions, their stubbornness, the baby pictures that are almost identical to my own. They are my greatest story to date.

But now there was an even bigger reason to find out more about my genetic history. What if I’m a carrier of some horrible disease? What if there is a history of cancer or heart disease or psychological disorders? My husband already has a grandmother with schizophrenia. What if they get it on my side, too? Whether the motivation is genetics, health history, or a desire to meet a biological parent, the rules are the rules. She’s on record saying no? Sorry about your luck.

Mother smiles in selfie with three daughters who are all wearing unicorn onesies
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

I remembered my dad saying he had papers he kept from when they brought me home. One contained my birth record, height, weight, measurements, etc. The other was a summary of my basic ethnicity and a couple sentences about my biological parents. I thought maybe I could get some clues from that. My dad was happy to hand over those records for me to keep and I have since memorized that summary.

My biological father was 22. Dark hair and hazel eyes. Short and stocky. He graduated from high school and worked in a factory. He was outgoing, fun loving, and musical. English and German descent. No family history.

My biological mother was 19. She was in college. Short stature, dark hair, hazel eyes. Irish, Scottish, French, and Dutch. She was bright and introspective, able to look at herself and her behaviors. Areas with which she needed help? Conflict between her parents and especially herself and her father. This reminded me of myself and I have often wondered what else we may have in common. One grandparent died of cancer, another of a heart problem. My father would also tell me he got the impression that my biological mother felt some pressure from her own father to make the decision to give away her child. A lack of support seemed to be the issue. My mom recently corroborated this statement.

I lost my father a couple years ago. It was very sudden. He went to bed one night and never woke up. It was devastating. But I’m grateful we resolved most of our differences before he died. And that we had the chance to exchange this information.

Baby sits in baby swing looking at adoptive father in home
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

Shortly after my father’s passing, a mail order DNA test caught my eye. A pretty inexpensive test can tell you your ethnicity, certain traits you’re likely to have, and even carrier status and your risk of getting certain diseases. The dreaded breast cancer gene was included, and for a mom of 3 girls, it was reason enough for me to seriously consider doing the test.

A year ago, I decided to do it. I chose 23andMe for the health data they provided. But before I took the test, a family friend who is also adopted shared his experience with DNA testing. He found his half brother. His daughter actually contacted them first through Facebook. They later met and exchanged stories and pictures. His father was no longer living, but he saw a picture and heard his story. This stopped me in my tracks. I can’t explain why I didn’t think about this outcome for myself, but there it was. Was I ready for something like that? I didn’t know. I sat on the test for a year.

I don’t know what changed. I think maybe the shelf life of the test was about to expire! My husband asked me if I was ever going to take it and I decided it was time. I sent it off and it came back pretty quickly. There weren’t any major surprises. Irish, Scottish, French, Norwegian. I am not a carrier of any major diseases. No breast cancer gene. I’m not at increased risk for late onset Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases. I have a slightly higher risk of Celiac disease. I guess my stomach issues are genetic.

A few weeks later, I decided to do a second DNA test. Being in a field that involves science, I know its always good to have a comparison. And I’ve heard so many stories about one test saying something and another having completely different results. So, I ordered a test from Ancestry.com. They don’t do the genetic testing for diseases, but I could still compare my ethnicity. And I was a pro now! I received the test and sent it back the next day. No worries this time. It’s just for comparison, right?

Not quite. I got the results back within a few weeks. My ethnicity was confirmed a second time. The percentages were a little different, but my background was closely matched between the two tests. No surprises there.

But there was more to this site. Ancestry has been around a little longer. They have a larger database. People build their family trees on this site. When I went to my DNA matches, I would find not one, but two first cousins. A bunch of second cousins. Full names. And one of my first cousins had a family tree. A lot of those names are private. But not all of them. And the last names? They all matched my ethnicity. And the ethnicity of my biological mother. Irish, Scottish, Dutch. Holy crap. I am looking at my biological family tree. There were pictures. Old pictures of relatives and beautiful pictures of Dutch farms on mountain sides. Right out of The Sound of Music. And the names I could see…I’m convinced I was looking at the names of a set of grandparents. Are these the people my biological mother was referring to? The conflict she had that seemed so similar to my conflicts with my own father?

In a matter of a few weeks, I went from knowing next to nothing about my biology, to not only confirming my ethnicity, but staring obsessively at these names. Actual names on my family tree.

At first it was fascinating. Even a little exciting. Like I uncovered a huge mystery. I never imagined I would ever see names. I never imagined I would see pictures. It was never this real for me.

But as I was staring at these names, other thoughts started to creep into my head.

Who on this tree even knows about a child who was given up for adoption all those years ago? What are the odds this first cousin, who is probably close to my age, knows? If I contact him, am I exposing a family secret?

Am I opening up a massive wound for someone who gave up her child? A wound she likely spent years trying to close. Or worse…and maybe what scares me the most if I’m being honest with myself…what if there are no feelings?

What if I’m just a horrible mistake two people made and then forgot about?

As all of these questions flooded my brain, old feelings came back with a vengeance and I feel like that scared little girl and angry teenager all wrapped into one giant ball of anxiety. Massive anxiety. Feeling stuck between two worlds. That familiar feeling of being different. Unworthy. On the outside looking in. These people don’t know me. Why would they even care? Who am I to them?

And now we’re back to the beginning. Back to those adoption stories. The heartwarming stories. Long lost souls who find each other after a lifetime of questions and searching and wondering. Peace at last. Closure. Knowing your story. That you were loved so much, you were given the chance to have a better life.

And then there’s the other scenario. Anger and rejection. Except not the perceived rejection you made up in your head as a child. Real rejection. A biological parent who has closed the door on that chapter in her life and wants no part of it. A family in turmoil over a secret revealed. A secret YOU revealed.

The dreams and the nightmares I had as a child have come full circle. I have a decision to make. Do nothing and remain satisfied with what I’ve learned. Or move forward with absolutely no idea which scenario will play out in real life.

I am fortunate to know this: Blood is NOT thicker than water. My family consists of the people who raised me. The people who had the courage to tell me my story as soon as I was old enough to understand. The people who continue to support me in my life long struggle to come to terms with it.

Woman who doesn't know her birth parents smiles in selfie outside in workout clothes
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

When you’ve had something your entire life, like a genetic identity, it’s easy to think it shouldn’t be a big deal. For me, it IS a big deal. It just is. I have been doing myself and the people I love a disservice by pretending that it’s not. If nothing else comes from this experience, it has at least forced me to come to terms with that reality. Right now, I wish it didn’t matter to me. I wish I could stop staring at those names. I wish I could stop wondering what’s on the other side of the message I’m afraid to send. I wish I was strong enough to just send the message. I wish I was more like the amazing people I read about in those heartwarming stories. The ones who continuously searched and tirelessly contacted whoever it took to find the information they’ve been missing their entire lives. That information is literally at my fingertips. I’m just not there right now.

Science is amazing. It is not lost on me that the area of interest I chose as my career is now opening doors into my past. It has allowed more of these stories to come to the surface. It has opened up doors for families searching for each other. Like any technology though, it has a dark side. It can rip families apart, expose secrets, open wounds, and cause devastation. Like anything else, it’s risk versus benefit.

I’m sharing this with you, not because it’s easy. It’s one of the hardest things for me to share. But I believe it can help foster understanding. I have felt misunderstood most of my life. Some of that is the result of my own insecurities. And some of it is hearing over and over that my family is my family and it shouldn’t matter where I came from. I have spent a lifetime trying to convince myself that I agree with this well-meaning advice. I’m sharing this so that if you come across someone with a story similar to my own, you might have a better understanding of their internal struggle.

I’m sharing this mostly for the people out there who can relate. Who feel those feelings I’ve felt. I want you to know you are not alone. You are worthy. You deserve to know your story, whether or not you ever receive answers does not make you any less deserving of them. When you feel misunderstood, know that there are so many of us who understand and struggle right along with you.

My story will have an ending, one way or another. All of our stories eventually end. This chapter, however, is yet to be written.”

Woman who doesn't know who her birth parents are smile in selfie
Courtesy of Allison Giffin

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Allison Giffin of Canton, Michigan. You can follow her journey hereDo you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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