‘Your mom left you with me to babysit and never returned.’ He was a young Marine, just back from the Vietnan war. He made the ultimate sacrifice.’: Adoptee shares journey to self-acceptance, motherhood

More Stories like:

“Love is a gift, not a given. As an adoptee, I have learned this lesson, firsthand. Love is a choice, whether people are connected by blood or not. My mother abandoned me when I was 3 years old, and her absence in my life left an empty space in my heart and my identity. I believe this early loss that I have lived with my entire life has given me a unique perspective about the power of love in my own healing journey.

I was told my adoption story at a young age and always knew I was adopted. ‘Your mother left you with me to babysit and never returned,’ my adoptive father explained. He was a young Marine, just back from serving in the Vietnam war, where he nearly made the ultimate sacrifice – more than once.

little girl on her Communion day
Courtesy of Nicole Koharik

He earned 10 medals for his acts of valor, which I now have proudly assembled in a display case. Among them are a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross, the second highest military decoration for distinguished heroism in combat. I like to describe my father as a humble hero and man of service. He taught me the value of humility through his example. In fact, he rarely spoke of his military experience. It was his older sister who told me about the traumatic experiences that sent him to the hospital.

medals in a glass case
Courtesy of Nicole Koharik

His story continues, ‘Initially I found a babysitter for you, but I realized you needed stability, so I brought you home – and filed for adoption,’ he said. In June 1978 I legally became his daughter. The more I reflect on the fact that I was adopted by a single male veteran in the 1970’s, the more I realize how miraculous my life is. My adoptive father was my first love, teacher, and protector. I see him as a model adoptive parent who really got it right. He instilled strong family values, called to kiss and hug me over the phone and told me to have a good day every morning before I caught the school bus. He told me the best stories, worked hard to send me to private school, helped me study for tests, inspired my passion for the written word, encouraged me to believe in myself and aim high, made time to bond with me through participation in adventures with a father-daughter organization, and planned fun vacations and sporting events of every kind. After I became an adult, he continued to show me how much he cared through insightful words of wisdom, healthy doses of encouragement and unconditional love. In the late 90’s, when his job was done and I was in college, he left his corporate job and entered the seminary to become a priest.

My father is the greatest man I have ever known, and I never doubted his intentions or his love for me. My mother’s disappearance from my life, however, haunted my youth and left me with pain I didn’t understand. That is where my story and all adoptees’ stories begin – with loss.

I internalized being abandoned by the one person who every television show in the 80s told me was supposed to love me the most. ‘Something must be wrong with me,’ I often thought. I had questions, confusion and feelings of unworthiness. I felt like an alien because I didn’t look like anyone in my family. I didn’t even look like any of my classmates in school. My olive skin and thick, dark puffy hair made me feel like I didn’t belong. What I did feel was very uncomfortable in my own skin. In social settings, I was often asked the question, ‘What are you?’ This question further reinforced the differences that made me feel like a misfit. Worse yet, a painful reminder that I couldn’t even answer the question if I wanted to because I had no information about where I came from.

My family life and childhood experiences were nothing like any of my classmates’. I didn’t have a mom. I never saw my own baby photo. I had no siblings. I never saw my own reflection in another person. I didn’t know my medical history. All the differences added up to an immense feeling of uncertainty about myself and my place in the world. Despite the love of my amazing father and the many family members in my life, I felt lost in the quiet moments. When I was alone in my room as a child, my mind would race. I felt fundamentally flawed and broken. Worse yet, I couldn’t bear to share these feelings with my father because I feared he might leave me like my mother did.

My teenage years were challenging, and I never felt like I fit in at my high school either. I always tried my best, but my lack of confidence held me back. The most memorable experience of this was sophomore year speech class. I loved writing creative speeches, but when it came time to present to the class, I was terrified! It was time to give my first speech and I stepped up onto the mini stage, cleared my throat, muttered the first few lines which I had proudly memorized. I felt my voice and body shake, as I looked out at my classmates staring at me. I became so overwhelmed with fear that I ran down the mini stage steps and out the door in tears of shame. I was my own worst critic. My family valued me, made me a priority and told me I was special. ‘If I really was special, my mother would have kept me,’ I thought.

I eventually learned love from others was not enough to shake my lack of confidence. I had to believe in myself, but I just didn’t. This is an important concept for adoptive parents to better understand and connect with their children. Knowing the person who gave you life left you is a devastating reality that permeates all aspects of an adoptee’s life, even if they do not speak about it. While every adoptee’s experience is different, the impacts on identity, self-perception and relationships are well documented. Being loved as part of a family can make a difference, however, no amount of love can erase the loss of natural family. Adopted people need time and space to grieve this often-confusing loss.

There are a few life experiences I can point to that served as turning points in my healing process. The first was when I moved out to attend college at the age of 17. I entered college without a major because I didn’t know who I was outside of my family relationships, let alone what I wanted to do with my life. Thanks to a brilliant, kind professor, I found my future career path – and core aspect of my identity. Dr. Plude started as my Mass Communications instructor and became my advisor and mentor. Upon meeting her, I was blown away by her impressive Harvard PhD and warm, caring ways. We had a special connection from the beginning, and she sensed my need for direction. I told her I didn’t know what I wanted to study and she gave me some homework. She told me to forget about having a major and to identify the classes that were most interesting to me in the course catalog. When I shared my selections with her, she said, ‘Nicole, you selected the courses included in our newest major – applied communications.’ In that moment, I finally had a clear path forward for my life.

When I graduated with honors four years later, I had found my niche, gained practical work experience as the college’s public relations intern, served as editor-in-chief of the college literary magazine and won graphic design and photography awards in the college art show. College was a truly transformative experience for me. One that provided a much-needed understanding of who I was, the skills I had to contribute to a future career and what I was capable of accomplishing.

woman graduating college wearing cap and gown
Courtesy of Nicole Koharik

My journey of self-discovery continued early in my marketing career when I became a volunteer on the special events committee of a Cleveland-based non-profit organization that supports everyone touched by adoption. Despite my missing pieces, I tried my best to live the values of service my father had instilled in me and felt motivated to give back to my community. When I first reached out to the organization, I left a voice mail stating, ‘I am an adoptee with skills in marketing and I am interested in volunteering with your organization.’ What I didn’t know at the time was the profound impact this special organization and its staff would have on my life.

woman speaking at organization
Courtesy of Nicole Koharik

The lesson that impacted me most is a reality I wish all adoptees and adoptive parents understood. It was the epiphany that changed everything and helped me see myself differently. Through my volunteer work I learned to understand a new way to think about adoption: ‘a complex, lifelong, and intergenerational journey with ongoing impact for all those whose lives are touched by it.’

Once I realized my feelings were a natural part of the lifelong adoption journey, I was able to dive into the work of healing. The dark cloud of confusion and doubt slowly cleared away as I learned more about adoption as a journey and connected with other adoptees who experienced feelings like mine. I was so relieved to know ‘my feelings are normal, and I am not alone.’ I came to accept myself as an adoptee experiencing natural reactions to very unnatural circumstances. I was in fact, traumatized from being abandoned by my mother, as are all adoptees, whether they have awareness of it. Once I learned more about the psychology of adoption and the lifelong impacts of maternal separation, I began to understand the source of my feelings and spent time processing them by talking to other adoptees, journaling and eventually sharing my experiences to help other adoptees. Through an intentional process of self-reflection and connection, I BEGAN TO LOVE MYSELF.

On March 8, 2000, I experienced a new love that changed me forever – the birth of my son, Brayden. During my pregnancy, self-doubt creeped back into my thoughts. ‘How could I possibly be a good mother when mine left me without an example?’ Was I up for the most significant responsibility a human being could experience, or would I want to run away like my mother did?

After 27 hours of labor, a few pushes, and seeing my son’s beautiful little face for the first time, all my doubts and concerns quickly disappeared. The mixed emotions and worry were replaced with the deepest combination of joy, pride and love I had ever felt. Holding my son for the first time filled me with a sense of purpose and wholeness I never thought possible for someone like me to experience. When I held my baby boy for the first time, it occurred to me that I was seeing my own reflection in another person for the first time in my life! My mind was blown and my heart was full. I will never forget the doctor’s words immediately after successfully delivering my son. ‘He looks like mom!’ A huge piece of my heart that had been missing, was now filled by the tiny little life I brought into this world.

mom holding her newborn son
Courtesy of Nicole Koharik

The experience of becoming a mother, after growing up without one reinforced what I had learned about adoption as a lifelong journey with ongoing impact. I now knew where my feelings of self-doubt came from and realized that I had the power to turn my perceived weaknesses into strengths. I was not doomed to repeat history. Instead, I committed to being the mother I never had to my son because I never wanted him to doubt my love for him.

My newfound confidence drove me to succeed and challenge myself to overcome the obstacles holding me back. Upon learning that I was expected to give a presentation to the sales team at my then employer’s national sales meeting, I immediately had flashbacks to sophomore year speech class. I took speech in college and overcame my fear of presenting to my own class, but I had never made a presentation in a large group setting. I decided to join a work friend to attend regular meetings with a local public speaking group during our lunch breaks. The meetings provided a safe place to learn about and practice effective speaking practices as well as constructive feedback from others to continuously improve. I enjoyed the experience so much that I was eventually chosen to be the chapter president.

After conquering my fear of public speaking, I decided to continue to better myself through the pursuit of higher education. In 2003, I created an outline to capture why I wanted to pursue a master’s degree and how I would use my education to benefit my employer. I scheduled a meeting to request the support of the president of the company I was employed by in achieving my educational goals. To my surprise, he agreed to fund 100% of my graduate school education. I went on to earn my MA in communications management and continued to progress in my career.

Just when I thought I had life figured out, the lifelong impacts of adoption struck again. In June 2018, my son graduated from high school and left home just one month later to begin his career with the U.S. Navy. The thought of him leaving home and living in another state made me extremely anxious. Two weeks before the date of his departure, I began to feel extremely depressed. Just minutes after his graduation and send off party, I had a panic attack while putting the leftover food and decorations in my car. Watching him walk away to board the bus for boot camp was devastating. The eight weeks of bootcamp felt like a year that wouldn’t end. Having our communication limited to handwritten letters and just three phone calls completely broke my heart. I was suffering separation anxiety. I knew this transition would be challenging for both of us, but I did not know it would destroy me. While my conscious mind knew he was taking an important step in building a life as an independent adult, I mourned him as if he had died, and there were times when I thought I might.

man walking onto the bus
Courtesy of Nicole Koharik

Of course, I was extremely proud of my son’s choice to serve, but I was not prepared. In my mind, a part of myself that helped me feel whole for the past 18 years was gone. I realized that seeing my reflection in my son’s face on a regular basis was a significant contributor to my overall happiness. He was my first and only genetic mirror, the love that made me whole.

Several months later, with the support from my fiancé (now husband) family and friends, I recovered and began feeling like myself again. Today, my son is serving in California and I am in Ohio. While I deeply miss his presence, I have found the strength to adapt.

The original loss of our natural parents stays with adoptees for a lifetime. In my case, knowing my mother had left me with a babysitter and never returned left me wondering if it would happen again.  Adoptees may face separation anxiety and amplified feelings of loss throughout their entire lifetime and these feelings are normal. Similar dynamics can resurface in adult relationships with significant others, children, and those we care for. Adoptees need loved ones to understand this, practice patience and provide reassurance. Adoptive parents, please consider what may appear to be irrational reactions or behaviors to you, can be very real to your adoptee.

The most recent milestone on my healing journey is my mid-life love story and marriage to Brad. After postponing our June 2020 wedding due to the pandemic, we rushed to plan a micro-wedding while my son was home on leave from the Navy. On March 13, 2021 my father performed the ceremony, with my son by our side.

couple on their wedding day
Glassburn Photography

After multiple failed relationships, including a divorce, I have finally found a partner who adds tremendous value to my life and makes me incredibly happy. As I reflect on the insights from my adoption journey, I realized my thought patterns prevented me from setting necessary boundaries and fear of abandonment kept me in unhealthy relationships too long. When we first connected in 2016, I was impressed with his big heart and use of proper grammar. As we spent time together over the next few years, I knew he was the elusive ‘one’ I had dreamed about since I was young.

My new husband and my son are very close, and I am so thankful that they had the opportunity to get to know each other before my son left to begin his military career. I am also touched to know my husband asked my son for his blessing to propose. Rather than ignoring my adoption-related feelings and experiences, Brad asks thoughtful questions and truly listens to understand my feelings. He nurtures the adoptee in me in ways that I didn’t know I needed and never expected to experience. My amazing husband serves as an example for how loved ones can support adoptees in healthy ways that facilitate trust and inspire commitment. I often refer to him as ‘my happy place’ and over time he has also become ‘my safe place.’

couple with bride's son on their wedding day
Glassburn Photography

I recently began a new chapter in my healing journey. On my last birthday, I decided I did not want to leave this earth without knowing my truth. I also felt it was time to search for answers to my unknown medical history, so I ordered a 23 and me DNA kit and mailed my sample. The moment I received my results, my body began tingling and I became sick to my stomach. After a lifetime of never knowing a blood relative until giving birth to my son, I now receive notifications about new relatives and have a list of over 1,000 distant relatives from all over the world. I have not yet found the answers I am seeking, nor had an in-depth conversation with close relatives. I do feel better about having a few fewer missing pieces regarding my health and heritage and remain hopeful to discover more in time.

What do I want you to take away from my story? Hope for your own (or your loved one’s) healing journey.

Adoptees’ lives begin with loss and include lifelong impacts. Learning to love myself gave me the confidence to take risks, aim high and become a better version of myself. I have overcome many obstacles adoptees face, from understanding my own identity, to defeating self-doubt, to healing from separation anxiety, and finding love after divorce. I can honestly say, I am the happiest I have ever been, in every aspect of my life. I have experienced the power of love to heal the wounds of abandonment and I want the same for others with similar challenges.

Never forget, you do not have to be a victim of circumstances out of your control. We all have a purpose and enormous potential to love, be loved and lead fulfilling lives. It takes work, but the rewards are worth it – you are worth it.”

bride and her father on her wedding day
Glassburn Photography
 Share  Tweet