by Michelle Lyn Riess
“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”
In September 2017, at age 40, I accidentally discovered that I am adopted after getting a DNA match on Ancestry.com to one of my three full biological sisters (you can read that story here.) I know it’s difficult to understand how someone could be 40 years old and not know they are adopted, or more specifically, never told they are adopted. Unfortunately, I am living proof that it absolutely can happen to anyone at any point in their adult life (thankfully, it is rare!)
Today, with so many people taking DNA tests to trace their family’s history (ex. Ancestry.com, 23andme.com) more people might unexpectedly find themselves in similar situations. Could you be the next late discovery adoptee?
LATE DISCOVERY ADOPTEES
I am what is often referred to as a Late Discovery Adoptee (LDA). Late discovery adoptees are adults who are adopted, but were never told by their adoptive parents at an appropriate age (i.e. early childhood.) As a result, LDAs do not learn they are adopted until adulthood–often making the shocking discovery by accident, or when another relative mentions it because they wrongly assumed the adoptee was told years ago (as they should have been!) Some LDAs make this discovery in their early 20’s (which is still much too late) and some, like me, don’t learn until much later in life–sometimes after there is any hope of finding their biological parents alive. It’s a complicated, unfair and extremely traumatic situation to suddenly find yourself in. No adoptee should ever accidentally discover something like this about themselves due to the poor choices of their adoptive parents. All adoptive parents have a moral obligation to be open and honest with the child they adopt about their own genetic origins. To intentionally withhold this information from an adoptee of any age is selfish and unethical. If you are not able to follow through with these moral obligations, you are not ready to adopt. (read more)
COULD YOU BE A LATE DISCOVERY ADOPTEE?
Prior to my adoption discovery in 2017, I had never been told that I was adopted and did not suspect that I was adopted. There were other reasons why I never questioned my genetic origins, but looking back there was an abundance of red flags.
If you’re an adult questioning your own adoption status, I hope that my experiences can help you find answers because everyone has the right to know the truth about their own genetic origins. (ex. Who are my genetic parents? What is my race? What is my ethnic background? Do I have genetic siblings? What is my family’s medical history? Am I becoming romantically involved with someone I could be related to? etc.)
Here are a few of the red flags that were present before my adoption discovery:
* NO PREGNANCY PHOTOS *
There were no photographs of my [adoptive] mother pregnant. I always thought this was very strange, even as a child. Whenever the subject came up, my [adoptive] parents always offered some variation of the same excuse: she didn’t want to be photographed appearing fat… My [adoptive] mother was quite vain regarding her appearance, so this explanation was totally believable. Still, even as a child, something about it didn’t feel right to me since I think most women (especially pregnant with their first child) have at least one photograph from the pregnancy. Depending on when you were born, if you have never seen a photograph of your mother obviously pregnant, and nobody is able to produce one, this could be a red flag. Similarly, if there are no photos of your mother or of you in the hospital, this could be another red flag depending on when you born.
* NO BABY SHOWER *
Not everyone has a baby shower, especially if they have more than one child (showers are common for first babies, but not as common for second or subsequent births.) In the case of my [adoptive] mother, she would have had a baby shower if she had actually been pregnant. She had a bridal shower, a large wedding, and even an elaborate Christening party for me when I was a few months old. All of these events were heavily photographed, so if a baby shower had taken place there should have been some photographs. My [adoptive] parents enjoyed entertaining, hosting lavish holiday dinners, having their friends over for big parties, and other events (most of which were heavily photographed) so it is very strange that there was no baby shower. If your mother did not have a baby shower and that seems inconsistent with other celebrations in her life, this could be a red flag.
* NO NEWBORN HOSPITAL PHOTOS OR KEEPSAKES *
I think many people born in the United States from the late 1960’s on probably have at least one or two photographs of themselves from the hospital, coming home from the hospital, and/or from the first few days of their life. If you were born earlier, this may not apply to you. In my case, I was born in 1976 and my [adoptive] parents took lots of photographs, yet there are no photos or other keepsakes from my birth. The first photograph I have of myself is at five days old at my [adoptive] parent’s home. There are no hospital keepsakes, no hospital baby portraits, no footprint certificate, no hospital wristbands, no papers–nothing. If there are no photographs of you and/or your mother in the hospital, no hospital mementos, or no photographs of you at all in the days or weeks following your birth, this could be a red flag.
* THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN *
I know what my [adoptive] mother looked like for most of the 1970’s from photographs. As I mentioned in #1 above , there are no photos of her pregnant because she supposedly didn’t want to be photographed “looking fat.” Yet in photographs taken in the days following my placement with them (at approx. 5 days old) her body appears suspiciously normal–I can’t believe I never noticed this prior to my discovery! She was obviously wearing regular clothing (not maternity clothing), neatly styled hair, makeup, and her regular rings & jewelry. If you’ve ever given birth, you probably understand why this could be a red flag. When you’re a first-time mom with a newborn and recovering from delivery, you have other priorities. Most notably, women’s bodies do not shrink back to their pre-pregnancy size five days following delivery (sometimes they never do!) Due to the process of breast engorgement following birth there is just no way most women can wear a slim, fitted, button-down shirt like my [adoptive] mother is wearing in photographs from when I was five days old. Take a look at your newborn photos, if you have any, and look for these types of details. While these clues alone do not mean you were adopted, they certainly add to the big picture if other red flags are present.
* SUSPICIOUS BIRTH LOCATION *
Before my adoption discovery in 2017, I never thought about the location of the hospital I was born in. In hindsight, I realize how suspicious it is that I was born 40 minutes away from my [adoptive] parents’ home at the time. This never seemed odd to me before; I think it was because we moved to a town very close to this hospital when I was three so it never felt “far away” to me. In reality, unless there are special circumstances, I don’t believe most pregnant women (especially in the era before cell phones) would have willingly driven to a hospital that was 40 minutes away while they were in labor. It doesn’t seem logical considering there were other hospitals much closer to them with arguably better medical reputations. If you’re questioning your own origins, check the location of the hospital where you were born, and then think about your parents’ residence at the time of your birth. If you have any siblings, find out where they were born as well. If the locations don’t make sense, find out what circumstances lead to you being born there. (ex. you were born on a military base but your parents have never been in the military, or you were born in a different state far from your parent’s residence, etc.)
* NO FAMILY RESEMBLANCE *
I never thought like I looked like my [adoptive] parents or anyone in my [adoptive] family. This was something my friends and especially boyfriends would tell me. More recently, I couldn’t figure out where some of my children’s facial features came from. Obviously, there was a very good reason for this! Throughout my childhood, I was always told by my [adoptive] parents that I looked like my [adoptive] maternal grandmother and her family (the ones we conveniently didn’t know much about and had very little contact with.) In reality, I didn’t look like her, but I absolutely grew to believe it. It was one of those situations that if you’re told something enough times from a young age you will believe it without question. As I got older, I recall people sometimes asking if I am “part Asian” which probably made my [adoptive] parents nervous because it brought my origins directly into question. As a result, when I was around eleven, my [adoptive] mother began to help me dye my naturally very dark hair a shade of reddish brown very similar to hers. She told me I didn’t look right with dark hair, which, unfortunately, I began to believe. She even took me to her own stylist to have my hair cut similar to hers. It’s obvious now that these were attempts to make me look more like her so that nobody (including me) would bring my origins into question. In reality, sometimes genetic children don’t look exactly like their siblings or parents, but they usually have some resemblance to each other, or to other close relatives (ex. grandparent, aunt, uncle, first cousin.) However, if you’re the only person with black hair in a family of blondes, or everyone else is very tall and you’re extremely short–perhaps there is more to the story. If you genuinely don’t look like anyone in your family, this could be a red flag, especially if other red flags are present.
* APPEARANCE DOESN’T MATCH RACE OR ETHNIC ORIGINS *
There is no standard appearance for any race or ethnicity. However, in some cases people who could be adopted may feel like the race or ethnicity they’ve been told they are doesn’t match how they see themselves or how they feel. My [adoptive] parents’ ethnic backgrounds didn’t correspond with my appearance at all. My [adoptive] mother was Greek and Ukrainian. My [adoptive] father is Italian. Despite having naturally dark hair, I never felt like I looked Greek or Italian. Also, my skin is naturally quite pale–not exactly a Mediterranean trait. I began to recognize these inconsistencies during my youth when I was unable to see myself in my “cousins” and other family members. As a result, I was always very curious to know what my friends thought my heritage might be (I was usually told French, German or Irish.) As it turns out, I am predominantly English and Scandinavian/Northern European, which makes much more sense (plus it explains my mild obsession with British comedy!) I think this lack of family resemblance, not quite feeling like I ‘fit in’ with my adoptive family, and not feeling totally connected to my heritage is what really drove me to search for my family history about 15 years ago. I was genuinely seeking “my people.” I wanted to find someone who looked like me, acted like me and felt like me–I think this is a natural biological need. So look at your family and think about the people you physically resemble–if any. Think about your ethnic background(s) and if they make sense. If some of these areas don’t add up, you may want to do some further research.
* INHERITED MEDICAL CONDITIONS *
If you have been diagnosed with a medical condition that usually runs in families or is inherited, but nobody else in your family has it, and there are no carriers, this could be a red flag. This wasn’t something I personally experienced with my adoption discovery, however, I felt it could be a helpful clue to some people. I actually experienced the opposite of this. My adoptive father had a genetic condition which can potentially be fatal, so I was thoroughly tested (obviously, this was prior to my adoption discovery!) Rather than using that as an opportunity to be truthful with me, he allowed me to go through expensive and completely unnecessary medical tests with full knowledge that there was no reason for it. Even my children’s pediatrician was notified and was keeping an eye on things. There is just no reasonable excuse for this behavior.
* MEMORIES OF WHISPERS & HUSHED CONVERSATIONS *
While you were growing up, do you recall whispers and hushed conversations happening around you? Did you ever get the feeling that some of those conversations were about you? I definitely did. Over the years, there were a number of conversations, some quite heated, between my [adoptive] mother and her mother (she lived with us.) Those discussions always went silent as soon as I appeared. I don’t know what those conversations were about, but I suspect that at least some of them could have been about the adoption, and/or their dishonesty to me. I find it difficult to believe that my [adoptive] grandmother, who I felt close to, would have been okay with them keeping that information from me. I also remember one incident from my youth that I now know was directly related to the adoption. We were at my [adoptive] father’s brother’s house. Some of my [adoptive] father’s cousins were there with their families as well. One of his cousins communicated something to me about my [adoptive] parents and somehow indicated they weren’t my real parents. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I absolutely remember everyone’s reaction to it. My [adoptive] mother was immediately on top of me telling me not to listen to him and scolding him for lying (of course, he wasn’t!) His parents began signing to him (he is deaf) and they looked very upset, too. I remember my [adoptive] mother telling me later how this particular cousin was “special” and that he didn’t know what he was talking about because he was “not all there.” Rather than be truthful with me, she went on to grossly exaggerate his intellectual abilities as an excuse for why he would say something like that. The worst part is I was trained to believe her lies but not his honesty… That is messed up. If you think others in your family have been whispering about you behind your back since your childhood, or remember someone saying something strange about your origins, it might be a clue that you need to investigate.
* DOCUMENTS OR LETTERS MENTIONING AN ADOPTION *
In 1999, after my [adoptive] grandmother died (she lived with us) I was looking through one of her old books. Inside, I found a note in her handwriting that talked about the adoption of a baby girl. It also mentioned a date of birth of approximately 1960. At the time, I thought the note was very strange and wondered if my [adoptive] grandmother secretly had another child that she placed for adoption. I gave the note to my [adoptive] mother, expecting her to be shocked, but instead she just brushed it off as though it was no big deal. I never saw the note again; I have no doubt it was thrown in the trash. I never spoke to her about it again, but I also never forgot about it. After my [adoptive] mother’s death in 2010, the subject re-emerged. I began to wonder if maybe it was my [adoptive] mother who had a child in approximately 1960 (she would have been 15 years old) and that child, a girl, was placed for adoption. It made sense. Over the years, I spoke about the letter with my [adoptive] father and the possibility of her placing a child for adoption when she was around 15. Again, more missed opportunities for the truth to come out. Anyway–I am now positive the letter had something to do with my own adoption. My biological mother, Hollie, was born in 1960. I believe the date was simply my [adoptive] grandmother’s note about my biological mother’s age. It’s positively maddening to know that as far back as 1999 I literally held a vital clue in my hands, but wasn’t able to see it. I can’t help but wonder if my [adoptive] grandmother purposely left that note in that book because she wanted me to find it someday… If you’ve found strange documents, notes or other items that suggest someone was adopted, or there are papers from an attorney, etc. this calls for further investigation. You are absolutely entitled to an explanation.
* NOT FEELING CONNECTED TO YOUR FAMILY ON A DEEPER LEVEL *
For most of my life, I didn’t feel especially close or connected to either of my [adoptive] parents, particularly my [adoptive] mother, who was an alcoholic and had some mental health issues. I always felt out of place and in the way, not completely comfortable within my own family. I often wondered to myself why they even had children in the first place (my [adoptive] mother mostly.) I can’t really explain it, but it was this sense that I didn’t feel the same way about my [adoptive] parents as my friends felt about their own parents (and vice versa.) From the time I was around 11 years old, I recognized a number of major differences between my family’s interactions with each other, and the interactions between the families of my friends. This became especially evident by my early teens when my [adoptive] mother’s drinking escalated and her behaviors became more problematic. If you have these types of feelings or have even had some suspicions that you could be adopted, it may be something that calls for further investigation–especially if there are other red flags present.
* STRANGERS ASKING IF YOU HAVE A TWIN, SIBLING, ETC. *
A number of times in my life, I can recall strangers asking if I have a sister or an aunt because I looked a lot like a person they know. Usually, these people were very enthusiastic about how much I looked like the person they know. One time when I was in my mid-20’s, a woman approached me in a store asking if I have a sister or a cousin named Jamie. I remembered the name she said because I had a friend named Jamie so it stood out to be somehow. Of course now I know I do have a sister named Jamie and that was likely someone who knew her! One time, a friend of my sister’s sent her a text message with a photo of a woman she saw on the train that looked a lot like her. Around that same time, I was living in a town that had a train station into the city which I would use to attend dance classes and other events on a fairly regular basis. My sister no longer has the text message or the photograph, but there is definitely a chance it could have been me. We’ve also discovered that Michelle and some members of our family had mutual acquaintances over the years. It’s kind of mind blowing how our paths kept intersecting over the years, but we couldn’t see it (or were prevented from seeing it.) I think this type of thing probably happens to everyone from time to time, but if you notice patterns or someone is adamant that you look ‘exactly’ like someone they know, perhaps it is something worth investigating.
* AN AMENDED BIRTH CERTIFICATE * [ this is a major red flag! ]
In 2004, I had to renew my passport and needed my birth certificate to do so. I asked my [adoptive] parents for my birth certificate, but they told me they lost it. I found it very strange that they would misplace my birth certificate. After my discovery in September 2017, I found out that my [adoptive] mom destroyed all records pertaining to my adoption when I was very young–I’m assuming one of them did the same with my birth certificate. I do remember seeing it over the years, even into my teens. When I received the new copy of my birth certificate in 2004, it was a computer-generated form and looked nothing like the older one. One of the lines said “Date Amended (if applicable)” with the date of January 13, 1977 (44 days after my birth.)
At the time, this didn’t seem strange to me, though I do vaguely recall the Vital Records clerk asking me something about my adoption status (which of course, I would have denied!) I rationalized that in the 1970’s things probably took longer to process (no computers) and this was just the date my birth certificate was officially filed. I honestly didn’t question it further until after I had already confirmed my adoption with my [adoptive] father and learned the true significance of an amended birth certificate. * * If your birth certificate is amended, this should be an automatic red flag! * *
Evaluating the Puzzle Pieces If you’ve read my list and you have similar experiences, you may want to consider looking deeper into your own origins. While none of these red flags, individually, can determine if you are adopted, they are all pieces of the puzzle to be considered. I suggest that you really take time to reflect on the areas that seem questionable to you, and look for evidence to either prove or disprove them. More than anything, keep an open mind. I also suggest that you only begin this type of investigation if you are fully prepared for the emotional fallout that will likely follow this type of discovery. I definitely recommend seeking the support of a licensed therapist and the support of other late discovery adoptees.
Ask Questions It is important to ask direct questions because everyone deserves to have the truth about their own origins. As someone who is adopted and was never told the truth, I can tell you firsthand that some people will feel entitled to hold onto vital information about your origins to keep themselves comfortable for as long as possible. I will never understand this way of thinking, but it’s important not to allow anyone to withhold information from you if they have it. If you think someone knows something–ask them. I would also caution you to be aware that not everyone may provide you with honest answers or complete information in order to maintain their own comfort. Do not let anyone else’s discomfort about the truth prevent you from exploring it. Everyone is entitled to the truth about their own history and origins.
DNA Testing Beyond asking your family members direct questions about your parentage, probably the easiest way to get definitive answers about your genetic origins is by taking a consumer DNA test, such as Ancestry.com or 23andme.com. There are many services available, but I recommend Ancestry for adoptees (or those who believe they could be adopted) because their member database is enormous which increases your chances of being matched with someone who 1) you are genetically related to, and 2) knows some information about your origins. Not everyone is comfortable with DNA testing, mostly due to privacy concerns, but it is a very simple way to get definitive answers–even if your parents or other family members (who might have had information about your origins) are now deceased.
Adoption Confirmation If you have confirmed that you are adopted, it is a good idea to seek the support of other late discovery adoptees, and even a licensed therapist well versed in adoption-related issues. While family and friends mean well and can offer you some support, there are complex issues related to this late discovery that others will not understand unless they’ve been through it themselves. If you are interested in searching for your biological family, I recommend visiting SearchAngels for assistance. You can also register with online adoption reunion boards. Click here to view some helpful resources.
I hope this helps you find answers and peace!