Monday, July 24, 2017

DNA, Identity, Family

No surprises here
This is a personal/philosophical post, so if you're reading my blog for writing or publication information, that's not what you'll find today.

I've never made any secret of being an adoptee. It's not something I've ever been embarrassed or ashamed of, and for that, I credit my parents who were open about my birth story from my earliest memories.

A brief aside: My family is my family. My parents adopted me as a 5 day old infant. The people who created me are my genetic parents. I know other adoptees who use adoptive parents and birth parents, but that never felt right to me.

My father used to call me his "rice a roni" because I was the San Francisco treat. (That was the company's advertisement in the 1960s and 70s.) Dad was the one who flew out to California on his own to pick up his newborn daughter and bring her (me!) home.

In the 1960's, adoption was typically a hush-hush thing, burdened by a lot of shame, and the record keeping was scattershot at best. My adoption was facilitated by a San Francisco lawyer whose pro-bono work was to help young women find homes for the babies they couldn't care for. When I was in my early 20s, my father gave me the contact information for the lawyer. I was fortunate in that he did keep some records and was willing to send them to me at my request.

They are sparse: a physical description of my genetic mother and father, some basic ethnicity information, a little family history (emphasis on little). I know that at the time of my birth, my genetic parents and grandparents were alive and well. But that's about it.

I let the file sit in my office for years and never did more than glance at it from time to time. After my first child was born, I wanted to know more. And I wanted my genetic family to know that I was fine. More than fine. I had had a very good life and I was married, working as a physical therapist, and starting a family of my own.

So I steeled myself and called the phone number that was in the files from the lawyer on the long shot that 30 years later, the family would still be living there.

The people who picked up the phone that day in 1993 were my genetic mother's parents and my conversation with them explained a lot about why I was given up for adoption: they were hostile and suspicious and couldn't believe I didn't want to extort them for money.

(Second aside: seriously??? WTF??? That's the first thing you jump to when you get that call?)

After asking for contact information for my genetic mother, they threatened me and hung up on me. I believe they never even told her I had called, which makes me very sad. Over the years, I'd poke search engines and look for her name. I look through facebook every now and then, but I haven't found her.

Fast forward to 2017. I am in my 50s. My children are both adults. And I typically don't think about my being an adoptee except when I see a medical person. The question always comes up: What's your family medical history. And it hits me. I don't know.

I want to have the information. While I understand the privacy issues and the fact that my genetic parents have gone on to have their own lives and may never have revealed that they had had a child, (They are likely living separate lives. It's possible my genetic father didn't even know he'd fathered me.) I also believe that having medical information is in essence a literal birthright.

So I decided to do an Ancestry DNA test to see what my ethnic heritage was and if I had any relatives who had also registered with the site.

My results came in today.

There were no surprises. I knew my genetic mother was Jewish of Eastern European decent. I knew my genetic father was Scots/Irish.

I did have several pages of potential genetic matches with cousins and it felt very weird looking through their names, photos, and profiles. On the one hand, these are people who in a different life I might have played with as a child, attended family functions with. On the other hand, family is who raised you or who you choose to center your life around. These strangers are not family.

But they hold clues to my past.

I took a deep breath and sent an introductory email to several of them. I'm not sure what I dread most: that they answer me or that they don't.


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  1. My youngest (whom I gave birth to) said she'd like to do the DNA thing, and I agree. I am interested to know the results!

    My eldest (whom I did not give birth to) is also interested. She was with her birth family until age 5, and we endured the wait for the termination of their parental rights. There is no family history for us to reference for her birth family even though the people are known.

    My daughter has two full-blood genetic brothers. One endured 13 years of abuse and is disabled with many issues stemming from the abuse. However the other brother, only a year older than my daughter, was taken from the abusive parents as an infant and adopted to a good home.

    I wonder...did he inherit any disabilities? Or are all the disabilities a result of abuse and neglect?

  2. This post gave me goosebumps. I can't imagine life without you, my dear cousin, who is more like me than any other of our "blood" relatives! I send healing thoughts to your misguided genetic grandparents who clearly live in a world of shame and fear. So grateful you joined our clan instead. With all of our mishugas, there was/is a heck of a lot of love and laughter. xo