Could you secretly be adopted? Red flags that could point to adoption

In September 2017, at age 40, I accidentally discovered that I am adopted after getting a DNA match on Ancestry to one of my three full biological sisters. It was a life-changing experience that redefined my entire existence. (Related: read our amazing story here)

Before this discovery, my adoptive parents never told me that I was adopted. For forty years, they made it their mission to make sure I never discovered the truth about my own origins. Their decades of lies ultimately led to me walking away from them in early 2018–just a few months after my initial discovery.  It hasn’t been easy, but I made the right decision for my unique  circumstances and have zero regrets.

Michelle Riess Reiss Ries Reis Michele
The moment I met my parents & sisters for the first time in 2017

I am a late discovery adoptee. Late discovery adoptees are adults who are adopted but whose adoptive parents did not disclose their adoption status to them at an appropriate age. Any adoption disclosure beyond the earliest years of life is universally considered to be too late. (Related: How to talk to your child about their adoption)

It’s a complicated and traumatic situation to find yourself in suddenly. No adoptee should ever accidentally discover something like this about themselves at any age. There were darker reasons why I never questioned my genetic origins, but looking back, there was an abundance of red flags throughout my life.

COULD YOU BE ADOPTED AND NOT KNOW? 
With so many people taking DNA tests to trace their family’s history, more people will unexpectedly find themselves in similar situations–though hopefully not as extreme as mine! If you are questioning your own genetic origins, I hope my experiences can help you find answers because everyone deserves access to the truth about their own genetics–it is a human right. 

Here are some 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 recited some variation of the same excuse: she didn’t want to be photographed appearing “fat.” My adoptive mother was extremely narcissistic, so this explanation was believable. However, even as a child, something about it didn’t feel right and reinforced my feelings that my adoptive mother didn’t love me the way most mothers love their children. In reality, most women from the past fifty years or so probably have at least one photograph of themselves pregnant, especially with their first baby. If there are no photos of your mother obviously pregnant, this could be a red flag. If there are photographs of your mother pregnant (or in which you’ve been told she is pregnant) but you still have doubts–look on the back of the photo for a date stamp or handwritten notes. Photographs can often hold more clues than we think and these little bits of information can be helpful to establish (or disprove) a pregnancy timeline. (ex. the date on the back of the photo is too early for your timeline, clothing she is wearing is the wrong season to fit into your pregnancy timeline, etc.)

• NO BABY SHOWER / PHOTOS •
Not every pregnant woman has a baby shower, especially if they have more than one child. In the case of my adoptive mother, she absolutely would have had a baby shower if she had actually been pregnant. She had a traditional bridal shower, a large wedding, and even a big Christening party for me when I was a few months old. My adoptive parents also enjoyed entertaining, hosting lavish holiday dinners, having their friends over for big parties and other events–all of which were heavily photographed. So it was very unusual that there were no baby shower photographs, especially since I was their first (and only) child. If it appears your mother did not have a baby shower and that seems inconsistent with other life events and celebrations, this could be a red flag.

• NO NEWBORN OR HOSPITAL PHOTOS •
I think most non-adopted people born over the past five decades probably have at least one or two photographs of themselves in the hospital, coming home from the hospital and from the first few days of their life. I was born in late 1976, and my adoptive parents had albums filled with photographs from the years before my birth and after my birth. Yet there are no photographs or other keepsakes from my birth or from the hospital. This seems very inconsistent with the way they photographed life prior to my birth and after my birth. The first photograph of me is at five days old and was taken at my adoptive parent’s home. There are also no hospital keepsakes, no hospital baby portraits, no footprint certificate, no hospital wristbands, no papers–absolutely nothing. However, they did have mementos from vacations, events, favorite restaurants they ate at, shows they saw, etc., yet nothing from the birth of their child. That seems very questionable. I remember being young and noticing the lack of photographs of me as a newborn and being told that they weren’t “allowed” to take photographs of me in the hospital. Obviously, that was not really the case. 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 hours or days (or even weeks) following your birth, this could be a red flag. This is especially true if your parents took lots of photographs in the time before your birth and following your birth, but there’s an obvious gap from the time of your birth.

Adoption fraud, wrongful adoption, late discovery adoptee, illegal adoption
Michelle Riess in December 1976

• THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN •
I know what my adoptive mother looked like for most of the 1970s from the hundreds of photographs in their albums. As I mentioned above, there were no photographs of her pregnant because she supposedly didn’t want to be photographed appearing “fat.” Yet in photographs taken in the days following my placement with them, her body appears suspiciously normal. I can’t believe I never noticed this detail prior to my 2017 discovery! She was obviously wearing regular clothing, neatly styled hair, and her regular assortment of rings & jewelry. When you’re a first-time mom with a newborn and recovering from delivery, you will be exhausted and have other priorities. Most notably, women’s bodies do not shrink back to their pre-pregnancy size in five days–sometimes they never do. Due to the process of breast engorgement following birth, most women would not be able to wear a slim, non-stretchy button-down shirt like my adoptive mother is wearing in photographs from when I was about one week old. It’s all so obvious now! 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 add to the big picture if other red flags are present.

• NO FAMILY RESEMBLANCE •
I never thought I looked like or acted like my adoptive parents. This discrepancy was something my friends would notice over the years, especially in my teens and twenties. More recently, I couldn’t figure out the origin of some of my children’s features and traits. Obviously, there was a very good reason for this! Throughout my life, my adoptive parents always filled in these types of gaps with fabricated evidence to cover other lies they had told me. In this case, they always told me I didn’t look like them because I got all of my traits from my adoptive maternal grandmother’s family–the ones we conveniently didn’t know much about and had minimal contact with. In reality, I didn’t look like her or her family, but I absolutely grew to believe it. It was one of those situations that if you’re told something enough times from a very young age you will believe it without question (i.e. brainwashing.) 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. (on a side note–my sister Jenni has always been asked this question too!) As a result, when I was around eleven years old, my adoptive mother helped me bleach then dye my naturally black hair a shade of red very similar to hers. Prior to this, she had convinced me that I didn’t look good with dark hair which was why my hair color “had to” be changed. It’s obvious now that these were her attempts to try to make me look more like her. I mean really, who bleaches and dyes an eleven-year-old child’s hair? It’s insane! In reality, sometimes genetic children don’t look exactly like their siblings or parents, but they usually have some obvious resemblance to each other. If you truly do not physically resemble anyone in your immediate family, this could be a red flag. 

Michelle, age 11, after her black hair was bleached & dyed to match the adoptive mother's hair (pictured)
Michelle, age 11, after her black hair was bleached & dyed to match the adoptive mother’s hair (pictured)

• INHERITED MEDICAL CONDITIONS •
If you are diagnosed with a medical condition that typically runs in families, but nobody in your immediate or extended family has it (and there are no known carriers) this could be a red flag. I actually experienced the opposite of this but felt it could be a helpful clue for some people. When I was in my 30s, my adoptive father was diagnosed with a medical condition with a very strong genetic component. After his diagnosis, I was thoroughly tested but thankfully everything was normal (obviously this was prior to my adoption discovery.) Rather than using his diagnosis as an opportunity to finally be honest with me, he allowed me to go through with all of the medical tests, expenses, and emotional stress with full knowledge that there was no reason for any of it. Even my children’s pediatrician was notified of the findings and was keeping an eye on things since it is a genetic condition. There is no excuse for placing another person’s physical and mental health in jeopardy–especially your own family. For forty years, each time I walked into a doctor’s office I was being treated based upon a completely falsified family medical history–so did my children for the first few years of their lives. The reality is it was more important to my adoptive parents to maintain their secrets than to ensure my long-term health and the health of my children. It’s absolutely inexcusable. Even if a reunion with the biological family isn’t possible or isn’t desired, all adoptees need access to and knowledge of their biological family’s medical history

• APPEARANCE DOESN’T MATCH ANCESTRY •
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 doesn’t match how they see themselves or how they feel inside. My adoptive parent’s ethnic backgrounds didn’t correspond to my appearance at all. My adoptive mother was Greek with olive-toned skin and larger features. My adoptive father is Italian, also with olive skin and larger features. Despite having naturally dark hair, I never felt that I looked like someone whose very recent ancestors came from the Mediterranean, especially since I have very pale skin and smaller features. I began to recognize these inconsistencies during my youth when I was unable to see myself in any of my family members–especially my adoptive mother’s closest family members who are all still living in Greece (see photo below of me with two of them.) I remember my friends often being surprised to learn I was Greek and Italian because they assumed I was Irish or German (which I actually am!) Even other Greek people that I met over the years in the US were surprised to learn I was Greek. Obviously they were right! I think this lack of family resemblance, not quite feeling like I fit in with my adoptive family, and not feeling fully connected to my heritage is what really drove me to begin researching my family’s history in my late 20s. I was genuinely seeking the people who looked like me, acted like me, and felt like me–I think this is a natural biological need regardless if you are adopted or not. So look at your family and think about the people you physically resemble–if any. Think about your ethnic backgrounds and if they make sense in the context of you. If some of these areas don’t add up, you may want to do further research or even take a DNA test.

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One of these people is not related to the other two. Can you guess who? (Hint: it’s me on the left!) 1990

• MEMORIES OF WHISPERS & HUSHED CONVERSATIONS •
Do you recall whispers or hushed conversations happening around you as a child? Did you ever get the feeling that some of those conversations were about you? I definitely did. Over the years there were many conversations, some quite heated, between my adoptive mother and her mother (she lived with us.) I don’t know what their conversations were about, but I suspect at least some of them were about the adoption and their dishonesty. 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 too. One of his younger cousins communicated something to me indicating 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 immediately told me not to listen to him and scolded him for lying (of course, he wasn’t!) His parents began signing to him (he is deaf) and they looked a bit distressed. Later, my adoptive mother told me this particular cousin didn’t know what he was talking about because he was “not all there” and other harsh criticisms. Rather than be honest, she went on to grossly exaggerate his intellectual abilities as an excuse for why he made those statements. Sadly, I was trained to believe her lies without question and to completely disregard the honesty of others. Following that incident, there was a sharp decline in the amount of time we spent with my adoptive father’s family–there was only a very small group of his relatives that we ever really associated with after that. My adoptive mother always stated his family was “trashy” and “beneath us” as the reason we didn’t socialize with them any longer, but now I know the real reason. They all knew the truth about my adoption, and my adoptive parents wouldn’t risk someone slipping up and telling me. It’s disgusting. Not only was I denied knowledge of my own biological family and the opportunity to grow up knowing my sisters, I was also denied of the opportunity to potentially create bonds with my adoptive father’s family. They isolated me from virtually everyone who they couldn’t trust to adhere to their rules just so I wouldn’t find out the truth. This isolation has had a major impact on how I form and maintain friendships and relationships–even to this day it’s difficult for me. 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 could be a clue that you need to investigate.

• NOT FEELING CONNECTED TO YOUR PARENTS 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 untreated mental health issues. I always felt out of place, in the way, and not completely comfortable within my own family. I often wondered why they even had a child in the first place and felt more like an accessory they could show off to the outside world. At one point in my mid-teens, she even told me that I was a mistake due to a condom breaking. It was this constant sense that I didn’t feel the same way about my adoptive parents as my friends felt about their own parents, and that my adoptive parents didn’t feel the same way about me as my friend’s parents felt about their own children. By the time I was around ten years old, I recognized several major differences between my family’s interactions with each other and the interactions between the families of my friends. This became especially evident by the time I was twelve when my adoptive mother’s drinking escalated and her behaviors became more problematic. During that period, there was daily emotional abuse from my adoptive mother, and even occasional physical abuse–mostly in the form of cigarette burns–I still have some of the burn scars. One time in eleventh grade she hit me so hard that she gave me a black eye and the school and my friends questioned me about it. To cover for her, which was expected, I came up with some ridiculous story about accidentally bumping my eye on the bathroom counter when I was drying my hair. Another time, just before my birthday, she became enraged and choked me in front of my boyfriend which left a bruise around my neck. Despite all of these incidents, my adoptive father perpetually did nothing to protect me, did nothing to stop her, or to get her the help she clearly needed. Standing by silent and blind is almost as bad as being the person responsible for the abuse. Even the relationship between my adoptive parents was extraordinarily dysfunctional and just a façade. When she died somewhat suddenly in 2010, I did not feel sad. In fact, I felt an enormous sense of relief and like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Clearly that is not the result of a normal, healthy, secure parent and child relationship. If you have these types of feelings, similar experiences, or have also had suspicions that you could be adopted, it may be something that calls for further investigation–especially if there are other red flags present.

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Michelle “celebrating” her birthday at home just days after her adoptive mother strangled her (note neck bruising) 

• DOCUMENTS OR LETTERS MENTIONING AN ADOPTION •
After my adoptive grandmother died in 1999, I was looking through one of her old books. Inside, I found a handwritten note that talked about the adoption of a baby girl and a date of birth in 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. She would have been 47 years old at that time and I thought maybe she just couldn’t handle another child at that point in her life. I gave the note to my adoptive mother expecting her to be shocked, but instead, she brushed it off as though it was no big deal. I never saw the note again, but I have no doubt my adoptive mother promptly threw it 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 it was actually 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 seemed entirely possible. Over the years, I spoke about the letter with my adoptive father and the possibility that she had placed a child for adoption when she was around 15 years old in 1960. He repeatedly denied any knowledge of this, but also fully entertained and participated in these conversations with the knowledge that the note was actually about me. Again, multiple missed opportunities for the truth to come out. I am positive the note had something to do with my adoption. My biological mother was born in 1960, the same year mentioned on the note. I believe the date was simply my adoptive grandmother’s note about my biological mother’s age. It’s positively maddening to know 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 also found strange documents, notes, or other items that suggest someone in your family was adopted, or there are papers from an attorney, a child protection agency, etc. this could be a red flag.

• STRANGERS ASKING IF YOU HAVE A TWIN, SIBLING, ETC. •
Several times in my life, I recall strangers approaching me to ask if I have a sister or a cousin because I look ‘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 in my mid-20s, a woman approached me in a store asking if I have a sister or a cousin named Jamie and also asked if I was adopted. I remember the name she said because I had a friend named Jamie so it stood out to me somehow. Another 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 into the city which I would use on a fairly regular basis. My sister no longer has the message, but there is a good chance it could have been me. 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. (Related: Three Identical Strangers)

Michelle Riess Jamie Christina Gellura
Photos of Michelle & Jamie at around the same age

• SUSPICIOUS BIRTH LOCATION •
Before my adoption discovery in 2017, I never really thought about the location of the hospital where I was born. I now realize how strange it is that I was born 40 minutes away from my adoptive parent’s home. 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 very young, so it never really felt “far away” to me. In reality, unless there are unusual circumstances, I don’t believe most pregnant women (especially in the era before cell phones) would willingly drive to a hospital 40 minutes away while in active labor. In my case, 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 think about your parent’s 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 led 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.)

• AN AMENDED BIRTH CERTIFICATE •  (major red flag!)
In 2004, I was renewing my passport and needed my birth certificate. I asked my adoptive parents for it but they told me it had been lost. I found it very strange that they would misplace something as important as my birth certificate. After my discovery in September 2017, I learned that my adoptive mother purposely 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, but it must have disappeared at some point in my early twenties. When I obtained 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.)

amended

At the time this didn’t seem strange to me, though I do recall the Vital Records clerk asking me something about my adoption status (which of course I would have denied at that time!) I assumed 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 discovered I was adopted and learned the true significance of an amended birth certificate. The bottom line is if your birth certificate is amended, this should be an automatic red flag.

YOU’VE READ MY LIST. WHAT NOW???
If you’ve read this list and 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 or not, they are all pieces of the puzzle to be evaluated. I suggest that you take some time to reflect on areas that seem questionable to you and search for evidence to either prove or disprove them. I only suggest beginning this type of investigation if you are prepared for the emotional fallout that will likely follow if you do make any unexpected discoveries. In those situations, I recommend seeking the support of a licensed therapist and the support of other late discovery adoptees. (Related: Support for LDAs)

If you are ready to proceed, this is what I suggest:

1) ASK DIRECT QUESTIONS As someone who is adopted and was denied the truth for forty years, I can tell you firsthand that some people will feel entitled to hold onto vital information about your origins. Ask direct questions, but I would also caution you that not everyone will provide you with honest answers or complete information. 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.

2) DNA TESTING People lie, but DNA does not. Probably the easiest way to get definitive answers about your genetic origins is by taking a DNA test such as Ancestry or 23andme. There are many services available, but I recommend Ancestry because their database is enormous, which increases your chances of being matched with someone who 1) you are genetically related to, and 2) knows information about your true origins. Not everyone is comfortable with DNA testing, mostly due to privacy concerns. Still, it is a straightforward way to get definitive answers even if your parents or other family members are deceased or not willing to provide you with information. In my opinion, I would rather know the ugly truth than believe a beautiful lie, but not everyone feels that way. You really need to think about this and only do it if you are emotionally prepared to deal with any surprises that may come your way. I wish I had known the truth decades ago, but everyone is different. There aren’t words that can adequately describe the turmoil and heartbreak created by my adoptive parent’s decades of lies, but I am just thankful to be reunited with my biological family. I’ve found so much peace knowing that nobody will ever have the power to separate us again or to shame us into silence. Still, with all of the happiness and success in my life, it’s been a difficult journey moving forward past this trauma. Every day I live with the realization that my entire life, until age forty, was built upon a foundation of lies and fraud. It has affected every part of my life–my work, my children, my physical health, my mental health, my relationships, my trust, my goals–everything. This is something I will have to work on for the rest of my life, but the bottom line is I am relieved to simply have the truth. Do what feels right for you when it feels right for you.

3) ADOPTION CONFIRMATION If you have confirmed that you are indeed 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 usually mean well and can offer you some level of support, there are complex issues related to late discovery that others will not fully understand unless they’ve been through it themselves or have studied adoption-related issues extensively (i.e. a therapist.) While it’s normal to want to talk about your feelings with family, it’s very important to also talk with people not connected to them because you may unintentionally censor yourself from expressing your true feelings and thoughts which you need to do. 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 other helpful online resources for LDAs.

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