As toddlers, my big sister and I were like peas and carrots. She was my pal, and I hers. The older we got, though, the more we fought. Once, in a fit of meanness, she told me our parents had adopted me. For a second, my sense of belonging teetered.
It was the scariest thing I’d ever heard. If the blood running through my veins didn’t come from the people raising me, who was I?
If you know her, me, and our younger sister and brother, no one will ever dispute our membership in the same tribe. We sound the same. Look the same. We share many of the same attitudes. We are family.
The memory got me thinking about our innate need for belonging. Despite discovering as a kid that a beloved grandfather was a step-grandfather and hadn’t contributed to my gene pool, I’d always defined family in terms of lineage. Somehow, it seemed less sloppy, more understandable, safer.
But what if I’d been adopted? What if other brothers and sisters existed? How would I react? Would it challenge my sense of belonging? The questions are far from unusual. Check online adoption chat groups. It’s an emotional topic.
I decided to pose my questions to people who were either adopted or had firsthand experience finding unknown blood relatives.
Who Am I?
I thought immediately of Ann, who asked that I hide her identity. The man she thought to be her father wasn’t her birth father, after all.
She discovered the truth by accident, at age 40. She and her dad, Jim, were sitting in a boat checking crab pots when he revealed he’d purchased her childhood home in 1956, one year before her birth and three years before he’d met Ann’s mother.
The years, obviously, didn’t add up. Had he made a mistake?
Being a go-getter, confident and savvy, Ann discovered in court documents he hadn’t erred. After four decades of life thinking she favored Jim’s mother in temperament and abilities, Ann’s sense of belonging turned upside-down. “I think I was in shock. I didn’t really know who I was.”
If Jim wasn’t her father, who was?
She asked her mother.
“She was pissed—mad at (Jim) and me. I wasn’t angry, curious more than anything else. I just wanted to know the truth.” In anger, her mother revealed her birth father’s name, the fact he had died three years earlier, and that she’d never know “anything until I’m dead.”
Her mother’s best friend filled in some of the unknowns, including the fact her biological father had left when Ann was only three months old. “I was sad for my mother. She was abandoned and my heart broke for her. She couldn’t talk about it at all. I never wanted to hurt her, and never brought it up again.”
And to this day, Ann doesn’t have all the answers, including one she may never learn: “Did her birth father ever want to know about me, or what I had become?”
Chicago native, Tony Saddy, knows about family secrets.
He was either nine or 10 when his father off-handedly told him he had an older sister living in Indiana. “I looked at him and asked why he didn’t talk to her and why I didn’t know her. He told me it was best he wasn’t involved in her life.”
Although he tried finding her more than a decade later, it proved too difficult given her relatively common first and last names. He let it go…until late last year when he got an unexpected Facebook message from his sister’s daughter, his niece, Amanda.
“I read the message and my heart stopped. I don’t know if I was in shock, but I couldn’t believe this was happening right now.” He didn’t question the truthfulness of what Amanda said. How could he? From Amanda’s Facebook photos, no one could deny her Saddy bloodline.
That night he emailed his long-lost sister, Kim, who, until her daughter’s sleuthing, never knew he existed. They met for the first time in West Memphis, Arkansas, just a few months ago.
Now 40 years later, Tony questions his father’s judgment.
“Secrets can tear people apart. All these years, I could have known her,” Tony tells me over coffee. “I could have had a relationship with her. I felt like I’d been cheated.” But what is done is done. “It won’t be the last time we’ll see each other.”
Never Lost, Suddenly Found
Kathy Bailey always knew she and her younger brother, David, had been adopted. Nothing challenged her sense of belonging. Her desire to find her birth mother came about because of curiosity and the desire to know medical history.
With her adoptive mother at her side, she attended an adoption support group in the early 1990s—an experience she described in an account called Never Lost, Suddenly Found:
“We sat silently listening to their wrenching stories, one by one, of bitterness and abandonment. We quickly understood that we were the group’s anomalies. In our minds, adoption was no big deal, other than it was a good thing.”
Feeling abandoned was alien to Kathy, even more so when she got a surprise call from a representative with the International Soundex Reunion Registry in 1999. “We’ve found your birth mother! Would it be okay if she called?”
And the journey began.
From Kathy’s written account:
“My underlying fear of finding an uncaring, emotionally unstable, or even deceased birth mother was unfounded. Instead, I found a woman who made mistakes…. It was obvious though that she had always loved all of her children, even the one she couldn’t hold….”
Kathy went from being an only child—a sad occurrence after the sudden death of her adopted brother in 1979—to one of 11, between her “incredibly fertile” birthparents who never married.
“My story is heartwarming,” she says. If anything, she considers herself doubly blessed, spared from the trauma some adoptees experience. “So many people don’t get this good an outcome.”
Who’s Your Daddy?
Tony and Kathy have clearly benefited from their experiences finding previously unknown blood relatives, cementing their sense of family and belonging. If Ann decides to find her birth father’s family, will she be so lucky? Will she feel the love, or will the discovery only cause turmoil?
And does it even matter? A friend reminded me of a simple truth: “The enemy keeps it complicated. We’re all created in God’s image. We already have a loving father.”