by Michelle Riess
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 (and simultaneously shattered) my entire existence. (Related: read our amazing adoption reunion story here)
Before this discovery, my adoptive parents never told me that I was adopted. For forty years, they made it their mission to ensure I would never discover the truth about my own origins. Their decades of lies ultimately led to me walking away from them just a few months after my initial discovery. It hasn’t been easy, but I absolutely made the right decision for my unique set of circumstances.
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–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.
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. Even as a child I always thought this was strange. Whenever the subject came up, my adoptive parents recited some variation of the same excuse: she didn’t want to be photographed appearing “fat.” My adoptive mother was very narcissistic, so this explanation was totally believable. Still, something about that explanation didn’t feel right to me and reinforced my deep-seeded feelings that my adoptive mother didn’t love me the way other 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.
NO BABY SHOWER / PHOTOS
Not everyone 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 been pregnant. She had a traditional bridal shower, a large wedding, and even a big Christening party when I was a few months old. My adoptive parents 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 there was no baby shower for you, 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. This is very inconsistent with the way they photographed life prior to and after my birth. The first photograph of me is at about one week old and was taken at my adoptive parent’s home. There are no hospital keepsakes, hospital baby portraits, footprint certificate, hospital wristbands, papers–absolutely nothing. However, they did have an abundance of mementos from vacations, special 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 or as a newborn because the flash could have made me sick. Obviously, that was not really the case and just another lie they created to maintain their story. 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 or months) 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.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN
I know what my adoptive mother looked like for most of the 1970s from the hundreds of photographs in their photo albums. As I mentioned before, 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 within a week of birth–sometimes they never do. Due to the process of breast engorgement following birth, most women would probably not be able to wear a slim, non-stretchy button-down shirt like my adoptive mother is wearing in photographs one week after my birth. It’s all so obvious now! Look at your newborn photos, if you have any, and check 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 / ATTEMPTS TO ALTER APPEARANCE
I never thought I looked much 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 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 absolutely did not look like her or her family, but I wholeheartedly believed 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, gaslighting, programming, etc.) When I was around ten years old, my adoptive mother convinced me that I didn’t look good with dark hair and as a result, my hair color “had to” be changed. She helped me bleach then dye my naturally black hair a shade of red very similar to hers. My hair remained a shade of red well into my 20s. It’s obvious now that this was her attempt to try to make me look more like her. I mean really, who bleaches and dyes a 10-year-old’s hair? (BTW–I know this is more common now, but in the late 80s it wasn’t, especially when done with the intention of altering the appearance of a child.) Sometimes genetic children don’t look exactly like their siblings or parents, but they usually have some obvious resemblances to each other. If you truly do not physically resemble anyone in your immediate family, this could be a red flag.
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 felt out of place, in the way, and not completely comfortable within my own family. I often found myself wondering why they even wanted a child in the first place. I often felt more like an accessory they could show off or brag about (often with grossly exaggerated or even completely fabricated accomplishments she would embarrassingly tell anyone who would listen!) At one point in my mid-teens, my adoptive mother was lecturing me about the ‘dangers’ of premarital sex and told me that I was the result of a condom breaking. Of course, not knowing I was adopted at the time, I assumed this meant I was unplanned and unwanted by them. It was this constant sense that my adoptive parents didn’t feel the same way about me as my friend’s parents felt about their own children, and that I didn’t feel the same way about my adoptive parents as my friends felt about their own parents. 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 eleven when my adoptive mother’s drinking escalated, and her behaviors became much more problematic. During that period, there was frequent emotional abuse from my adoptive mother, and even occasional physical abuse–mostly in the form of cigarette burns and random punches. One time in eleventh grade she hit me so hard that she gave me a black eye. Despite my best efforts with the makeup she gave me to cover it, the next day a teacher at school (and my friends) asked me what happened. I was programmed to lie about the realities of what went on at home, so I instinctively came up with some ridiculous story about accidentally bumping my face. Another time, just before my birthday, she became enraged and briefly tried to strangle me which left an obvious bruise around my neck. Despite 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 is just 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. I never found myself missing her, wishing she were still alive, or that my children could have known her. It’s not that I don’t experience these kinds of emotions for other people–just not for her. Clearly that is not the result of a normal, healthy, secure parent/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.
INHERITED MEDICAL CONDITIONS (PRESENCE OR ABSENCE)
If you are diagnosed with a medical condition that typically runs in families, but nobody else in your family has it (and there are no known carriers) this could be a red flag. When I was in my 30s, my adoptive father was diagnosed with a medical condition with a strong genetic component. After his diagnosis I was thoroughly tested but thankfully everything was normal on my end. Rather than using his diagnosis as an opportunity to finally be honest with me, he allowed me to go through with 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. A few months prior to my adoption discovery, I had a breast cancer misdiagnosis. It was a scary and emotional week, but thankfully it was a medical error in my favor. Even under those extreme circumstances, he chose not to disclose my adoption status to me when there is a very well known genetic component to some types of breast cancer and the knowledge that I am adopted could have been important to my medical care. It’s infuriating and hurtful to think about. 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 inexcusable. Even if a reunion with the biological family isn’t possible or isn’t desired, 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 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 believed I looked like someone whose very recent ancestors came from the Mediterranean. 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) These were my closest living relatives on the planet and I couldn’t see even the slightest resemblance between us. I remember friends often being surprised to learn I was Greek and Italian because they assumed I was English or German. (which I actually am!) Even Greek people that I met over the years in the US were surprised to learn I was half 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 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.
STRANGERS ASKING IF YOU HAVE A TWIN, SIBLING, ETC.
Several times in my life, I recall strangers approaching me in public to ask if I have a sister or a cousin because I looked a lot like a person they knew. Usually, these people were very enthusiastic about how much I looked like the person they knew. 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 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—I never forgot that encounter for some reason. 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 regular basis. My sister no longer has the message, but there is a 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)
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? Over the years there were many such conversations between my adoptive mother and her mother (she lived with us) some quite heated. I don’t know what their conversations were about, but I suspect at least some of them were about the adoption and their dishonesty towards me. I also remember one incident from my youth that I now realize was directly related to my 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. His parents began signing to him (he is deaf) and they all looked a bit distressed. Later, my adoptive mother told me this cousin didn’t know what he was talking about because he was “not all there” and other heartless criticisms of this young man. 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 programmed 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, but now I know the real reason: they all knew the truth about my adoption, and my adoptive parents wouldn’t risk someone telling me. 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 fantasy world 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.
DOCUMENTS OR LETTERS MENTIONING AN ADOPTION
After my adoptive grandmother died in 1999, I was looking through one of her old books and found a handwritten note. She had lived with my adoptive parents for a few years before I was born and continued to live with us until she died. I was closest to her and felt, what I imagine was, the closest thing to an actual family connection with her (especially after being assigned as her personal nurse from the age of 16 until her death when my adoptive mother refused to do anything regarding her care—including toileting and diapering.) The note spoke 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 in 1960 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 destroyed it. 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 1960 (she would have been 15 years old in 1960) 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 a teenager. He repeatedly and wholeheartedly denied any knowledge of this, but also fully entertained and participated in these conversations with full 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, Hollie, was born in 1960–the same year mentioned in 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 held a vital clue in my hands but wasn’t able to see it through all the lies. I can’t help but wonder if my adoptive grandmother intentionally 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.
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 almost an hour 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 an hour 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.)
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.)
At the time this didn’t seem unusual 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 in my life.) I assumed that in the 1970’s things just took longer to process (no computers) and this was 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—more so than anything else on this list.
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 origins. While none of these red flags, individually, can determine if you are adopted, 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 there are 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 of the truth for forty years, I can tell you firsthand that some people will feel entitled to hold onto vital information about your origins and family history even though it’s not theirs to keep. 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 family history, medical history, and genetic origins if they desire such information.
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, and 3.) is willing to share it with you. Not everyone is comfortable with DNA testing, mostly due to privacy concerns, but it is the most straightforward way to get a definitive answer (am I adopted?) even if your parents or other family members are deceased or not willing to provide you with this information openly. Personally, I would rather know the horrible truth than believe a beautiful lie, but not everyone feels that way. You need to take some time to think about this and only proceed if you are emotionally prepared to deal with any surprises (good and bad) or even major disappointments that may come your way during this process. I wish I had known the truth decades ago, but everyone is different. Even if I had known I was adopted since childhood, I still would have wanted to search for my biological family–even in the face of possible rejection—because that is just my personality. There aren’t words that can adequately describe the turmoil and heartbreak created by my adoptive parent’s decades of lies and manipulation, but I am thankful to be reunited with my biological family and to finally be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Even with my beautiful and fairy tale-like adoption reunion, it’s been a difficult journey moving past this trauma—and I have just about as perfect of a reunion as there could possibly be. 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. I encourage anyone suspecting they could be adopted to take your time and do what feels right for you.
3) 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 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 extensively studied adoption-related issues (i.e., a therapist.) While it’s normal to want to talk about your feelings with family, it’s very important to also communicate with people not connected to them because you may unintentionally censor yourself from expressing your true feelings and thoughts. It’s important to remind yourself that they are also the ones who have knowingly lied to you and withheld vital information from you until this point. You need to think about yourself right now and what your needs are–take care of yourself at this difficult and confusing time. If you’re angry or upset, that is completely justified. If you’re feeling numb and confused that is also completely justified. Do not let anyone else tell you how you ‘should’ be feeling right now or how you ‘should’ be handling this mind-blowing discovery.