*GUEST BLOG FEATURE* "My journey to becoming whole..."
October 30, 2017. I remember the date well. It was the day I met my birth mother again after 52 years of separation. There were tears and hugs, there was family and medical history, there were questions answered about how they met and why I was put up for adoption. There was healing. Partial healing. I’m still waiting for whole healing. My birth parents stayed together and ended up getting married 25 years after my birth. They live 6.5 miles from the loving home I grew up in. I have a full brother 13 years younger than I, born in the same Sacramento suburb I lived in until I went away to college. He knows nothing about me. For some reason my birth father (whom I have not met yet) doesn’t want my brother to know about me. I get all sorts of advice to just go ahead and contact my brother on my own (or do a DNA test at the company he tested at), but I don’t want to break the newly formed connection with my birth mother or ruin a yet-to-be connection with my birth father. So I wait…mostly patiently…and I pray. I realize I may very well have to wait to meet my brother after my father passes, which may come sooner than later, but for now I remain a secret to all but my birth parents.
So let me tell you how I came to be a volunteer search angel. (And if you’re bored, scroll down to the DNA tips in capitalized and bold letters - I won’t be offended!)
Let’s go way back… to my childhood. I have known as long as I can remember that I am adopted (at just under 3 months old). But I always felt I was an important part of the family I was in, I belonged with them. They weren’t perfect, but they are my family and I love my parents, older brother and younger sister more than I can describe. I had a happy childhood for the most part, and never had the desire to search for my birth parents. I did have a half sheet of typed information from what was then called the Department of Social Welfare which served as my non-identifying information. Every few years I’d come across it and read it then put it away again. It wasn’t until I suffered a miscarriage in 1996 that I thought about looking for my birth parents. I filled out paperwork that went into my adoption file with Sacramento County that would allow the County to release my contact info to my birth parents should they inquire about me. I got pregnant again a few months later, and the desire to actively look for them was gone.
I started doing genealogy in 1993 in Japan. Our little family was living there for 2 years and my mom who raised me had given me the names, dates and places of my ancestors. At that time, genealogy for me was inputting that information into a database to make a pedigree/tree. Upon returning to the U.S. we lived with my husband’s parents while he interviewed for jobs. I had just had our second child, and I made a deal with him. For every hour he golfed, I got to go to the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) to do genealogy (looking at microfilms and microfiche). I got quite a bit done! Then we moved and I had 2 more children and genealogy went on the back burner.
Forward to about 2010 – I discovered doing genealogy on the Internet, from home!! In my pajamas! Boy, it had come a long way. I have been doing traditional genealogy for some time now. I just love being able to use my brain to figure out puzzles and be an investigator.
I attended RootsTech in February 2017 with a good friend who had done DNA testing. Of course DNA kits were on sale at the conference and she piqued my interest enough that I bought 3 kits – one for me, one for my sister (who is also adopted but we’re not biologically related), and one for my husband. My primary interest was the ethnicity estimate (or so I told myself). My husband didn’t feel he needed to test since he knew his ancestry, but he humored me anyway. Now his parents and most of his siblings have tested!
TIP #1 – Ethnicity estimates are just estimates! Segments of your DNA are compared by computers to reference populations of different geographic areas in the world and an estimate is made based on which populations those segments most closely match. I used one raw DNA data file (downloaded from Ancestry – subject of a future blog post) and uploaded it to FamilyTree DNA and MyHeritage (for free - another part of that future blog post) and got 3 different ethnicity estimates!! So, take the percentages with a grain of salt! What you can rely on is the different regions (Scandinavia, Europe East, Iberian Peninsula, etc.) your DNA matches. The technology is not good enough yet to tell you specific countries or accurate percentages.
TIP #2 – Shared DNA is not an estimate! Each segment of DNA you share/match with someone has a measurement, called centiMorgans (cM), and each of those segments over your 23 chromosomes is added up to be your total shared DNA. The more centiMorgans you share with someone the closer your relationship to them. My favorite chart that shows possible relationships based on shared DNA is the DNA Detectives Autosomal Statistics Chart.
You also get probability statistics on each of those relationships at https://dnapainter.com/tools/sharedcmv4 (thanks to Jonny Perl and Blaine Bettinger). Note: on the link you can use the % that some DNA companies give you and it converts it to the total number of cMs.
TIP #3 – A company’s estimation of your relationship to a DNA match is not always accurate! Ancestry underestimates relationships (you are usually closer than what it says) while others overestimate. Use the tools in TIP #2 to determine the possible relationship based on the amount of cMs you share.
Back to my story – Remember, I told myself I was only interested in the ethnicity estimate, but when those DNA matches come up you can’t help but be curious. The closest match I had was a 3rd cousin, and I just wasn’t ready to do that much research yet. However, I did join some Facebook groups, and learned that for free I could upload my raw data to other DNA testing companies (mentioned previously) and a third-party site called GEDmatch to find more matches. So I did that and waited…mostly patiently…and I prayed.
TIP #4 – Join these Facebook groups to ask questions and learn more about how to use your DNA data more effectively: https://www.facebook.com/groups/DNADetectives/ (created by Genetic Genealogist CeCe Moore) https://www.facebook.com/groups/geneticgenealogytipsandtechniques/ (created by Genetic Genealogist Blaine Bettinger)
Three months after my raw DNA data file was loaded to FamilyTreeDNA I got a half-sibling/uncle/nephew/grandparent match on that site – now that was something I could work with! I started building a research tree (some call it a mirror tree – see the great instructions under Search Tips > DNA at the top of this website) based on the name of the match. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of attaching sources to each of the people you add to the tree and making your tree private AND unsearchable!
From this DNA match I built a tree back about 2 generations, then came forward to the present looking for descendants that matched what I knew about my birth parents. I specifically focused on the family of the person whose name I had – and that family’s dynamics fit perfectly with my non-identifying birth background information! Census info confirmed ages, educational levels and occupations that matched what I had for my biological grandparents.
TIP #5 – Get a copy of your non-identifying birth background information. You have a right to it! Some agencies do charge a fee, but it is totally worth it and will help to identify the right family in your tree. Contact the agency to find out what you need to do to get this valuable information. In June I wrote Sacramento County Department of Health & Human Services requesting my non-id info (remember I had ½ page from my childhood), and I received 3 PAGES from them, including info on my birth mother’s visits to Social Services, my birth, and my first weeks of life with a foster family – goldmine!! I got very emotional reading these previously unknown parts of my life. When contacting the agency also ask for and complete the Consent for Contract Rights to Confidentiality for Siblings form (this is what they are called in California) which will go into your file and allow the agency to release your information to your birth family if they contact the agency trying to find you.
Turns out my full brother has a public tree on Ancestry. It listed his paternal line, and lo and behold my DNA matches matched me on his paternal line as well, so I was able to build my tree with both lines.
So, using the free site www.truepeoplesearch.com and the subscription site www.beenverified.com I was able to get addresses and phone numbers for my birth parents. Now the soul searching began. Was just knowing their names and some details about where they lived, who their parents and siblings were, what they looked like (thanks to Facebook) enough for me? I sat on the info for a few weeks and decided I wanted more. What if they wanted to have a relationship with me? That unknown was something I could not live with, I had to know one way or the other. Then I had to spend time becoming okay with either possibility – them wanting to connect with me or them not wanting to have anything to do with me. Again, I spent a few weeks preparing myself emotionally for either scenario. I had to be okay with either outcome before reaching out to them. It was now the end of August 2017 and I chose to handwrite them a letter introducing myself, what I had found through DNA testing, asking for contact if they were comfortable, and I put some photos in with it.
If you would like to see a typed copy of my letter as a sample for what you could write, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I sent the letter registered AND restricted delivery to my birth mother, ensuring that it got into her hands only. I also registered to get a text when it had been delivered. I was on pins and needles for a few days after getting that text.
Six weeks went by with no contact. And I was okay. My world did not fall apart. I still felt loved and accepted. I had prepared myself for rejection. My best advice when making first contact is to have no expectations for a relationship. If they do want a relationship that it is a bonus.
While finding my own birth family, I also found my sister’s birth parents, and the birth fathers of her half-brother and first cousin (both adopted) whom we found through DNA matching. In September my youngest headed off to college and I was now an empty nester. I asked myself and God what my purpose in life was now that raising young children was over (now I’m raising older children!) I realized that my love for genealogy and the soft spot in my heart for adoptees could be combined into one wonderful work – helping adoptees find birth families! It is my passion and people can see and hear that when I tell them what I do.
Now to finish my story. I was heading from Arizona where I currently live to Sacramento to visit my mom who raised me the end of October. I had the passing thought/inspiration to just let my birth parents know I would be in town, so I sent a postcard that said I would be in town visiting my mom on these dates and if they’d like to meet me to please call or text me at this number. Ten days later my birth mother called and said she would love to meet me (I will forever have the memory of being in the aisle between hair products and household items at Walmart when she called, aware that no one around me realized the magnitude of that moment.) She said she would love to meet me and we both got emotional. She said my birth father wanted to wait until a later time to meet me as he was having some health problems. I was just happy she wanted to meet. She chose a day and time and public place to meet. I hurriedly made and printed a digital scrapbook for her of my life and my family now – with my husband and my four children, her only grandchildren.
My first question upon seeing her was, “Do you have any doubts?” and she said no. We had a wonderful visit in a private corner booth at a restaurant – a visit I couldn’t have imagined even 8 months before when I started this journey by taking a DNA test. When I asked the waitress to take our photo as we finished our visit I thanked her for not bothering us for an order after she brought us water (we were there over 2 hours and never did order food, but we left a tip!) She said we looked like we were having an important conversation, and she didn’t want to interrupt but had been keeping her eye on us in case we wanted something. I turned to my birth mother and said, “Can I tell her?” and she said yes so I told the waitress, “This is my birth mother and we are meeting each other for the first time.” The waitress started crying and said, “I thought it was something like that” and hugged us both before taking this photo:
My birth mother and I communicate 1-2 times a month. When we talked on Mother’s Day I told her I feel I have one foot in and one foot out, and that I felt she and I would be able to connect better once I’m not a secret to my brother or anyone else. She understood but does not want to go against her husband’s decision. She is waiting until his health is better to discuss it with him, but I’m not sure his health will get any better. She told me to call her anytime, and that my birth father “said to tell you he hasn’t forgotten you.” I’m not sure what to do with that. For now I just wait…mostly patiently…and I pray. And I’m okay.