The Need to Know Your Genetics

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader revives our adoption series by informing us that it’s National Adoption Month (the official day was Saturday). Her story “begins in January 1987, when I was adopted at three days old”:

It was a closed adoption through an attorney and my adoptive parents were much older than most couples who were having children during that time. Although my adoption was not during the 1960s, it was closed, and my adoptive parents did have a similar mindset of those in the 1960s-era adoptions.

My parents called my adoption the “A-Word” like it was some curse word that must never been spoken of.

They even said it in a whisper, like if it were to be said aloud, the universe would reverse the process and I would never have been their daughter. The transaction was finalized and I was officially their child and nobody, and I mean nobody, was going to take that away from them. They had “chosen” me and, of course, I had the classic book many adoptees were given as a child, The Chosen Baby.

Once I started grade school, I got berated with questions from classmates about my adoption. They would ask me why my “real” mom would want to give me away and what I thought she was like. And when my parents would pick me up from school and ask, “How was school today?,” I would tell them all about the questions that were asked of me. This line of questioning was frowned upon by my parents and I was quickly told by them and older people who were also adopted that if I loved my adoptive parents, I wouldn’t question my origins.

Did I love them? Of course I did! They were the only parents I had, but that didn’t stop them from having insecurities about my allegiances. So, the tape that now played in my young and impressionable mind was that if I loved my adoptive parents, I would never ever want to know anything about or have anything to do with my biological family. So when I was asked the question again by classmates, that’s what I told them.

This tape continued to play even as I got older and began to actually, genuinely have questions about my biological origins. I was conflicted because I wanted to know more about myself and wanted to put the pieces of my life puzzle together, but I also wanted to love my adoptive parents—and I did love them deeply. I struggled with how to both satisfy my innate need to learn about my genetics and continue to show my adoptive parents that I loved them unconditionally.

As an adult, I was certainly old enough to open the records of my adoption, but my parents’ insecurities made it difficult for me to explore that aspect of my life. Any mention of my origins would result in tears and I would have to apologize over and over again for my mistake.

It wasn’t until I found myself having an emergency appendectomy that I actually faced the harsh reality that not knowing about my biological family history could be detrimental to my health. In the pre-op room, the anesthesiologist came in to ask me a few questions and start the IV that would knock me out. He asked me if I had a family history of adverse reactions to anesthesia, to which my mother replied, “No, her father and I have never had any reactions to anesthesia.” I was already heavily drugged at this point, so I had no form of recourse but to let the doctor insert the IV and deliver the medicine that could quite possibly kill me.

After I recovered from the surgery and anesthesia—which, by the way, took a much longer time than it had ever taken either of my adoptive parents—I decided that I needed to find my biological family, not because I didn’t love my adoptive parents, but because I needed to know my genetic predispositions and family medical history. It was a mission of self-preservation.

It took me close to a year to gather the courage to ask my parents who the attorney was that handled the adoption, but in mid-2011, I was finally able to do it. The response, however, was not quite what I had expected. I was informed that the attorney who handled the adoption was none other than my godfather, a man I had known my entire life and one of my father’s closest friends. This made things a bit more complicated because I felt like the butt of a horrible joke.

On the day that I was moving out of the state to live with my now husband of three years, I decided to go talk to my godfather about my adoption records. I sat down in his office and approached the encounter like a business deal. I asked him frankly to disclose the names and information that he had pertaining to my biological family. After 30 minutes of reluctance, he finally pulled out a manila folder and told me that my father had called him a few weeks ago and warned him that they had finally told me he was the attorney and to be prepared if I were to come by.

So many things went through my head when he said this, but I was committed to getting my records at this point. I knew he was going to call my parents and tell them that I had been there as soon as I left. I knew it would cause a family crisis like it always did. I got what I wanted from my godfather and I left, moving four states away and holding information that could set off an atomic bomb in my adoptive family.

And, just as I suspected, it did. One weekend in May 2012, I called my biological mother. Like any other adoptee, I was terrified of the reaction I might get. Would she hang up on me? Would she want anything to do with me?

The reaction I received was amazing. When I told her who I was, she immediately started sobbing. Her tears were tears of joy and relief, not of anger or sorrow. She had lived for 25 years thinking that I would hate her for putting me up for adoption. I don’t hate her at all. In fact, I appreciate her sacrifice. To be able to carry me in her womb for nine months and give birth to me only to hold me once and never see me again is a truly courageous thing to do. She gave me a chance at a life that she believed she wouldn’t be able to give.

I thanked her over the phone that day and a few weeks later, I met her for the first time in person. A few months later, I received a call from my parents asking if I had gone to meet her. I told them I had and that I was happy I had done it. They said they had been informed by an unnamed individual who sent them an email with a picture of me and my biological mother together. It was as though I had committed a crime and someone had caught me on camera. They cried and accused me of hurting them so deeply they may never recover.

In the days following the “discovery,” friends of my parents’ called me and asked me how I could have done such a terrible thing to my wonderful adoptive parents who love me so much. I had, indeed, ruined everything by finding out about my adoption and my biological self. My right to know about the most basic feature of human beings, my DNA, was apparently not the same as it was for individuals born and raised by their biological families. I was expected to reject that desire, that deep-seated need, to know who I am at the most fundamental level of life or risk hurting the people I love the most.

It felt, and still feels, wrong to me, but it was, and still is, the case. It has taken years to put that behind us and move forward. We still do not speak much of the “A-Word” because it could cause a raucous. I haven’t seen my biological mother much since our first meeting—maybe once more. That doesn’t change the fact that having her in my life means that I can ask her if I have a medical issue that may or may not be genetic. I don’t have to put “I don’t know” on the medical forms anymore and explain to doctors that I just don’t know what my history is.

I also know where I got my physical appearance from. It’s good to know, or at least see, the physical reflection of your genetics in another person. It is something that I grew up never having, but now that I have experienced it, I would never trade it for the world. Those who are adopted can understand that moment when you first see someone other than yourself in a mirror that has your cheek bones, your eyes, your chin. It is something that someone who isn’t adopted probably can’t relate to or understand, but it changes the way you look at the world. Now there is someone else like me. Now I know who that person is. I know where I fit on this planet and I don’t feel so lost, so out-of-place anymore.

Update from our reader:

Thank you so much for posting my story. It really means a lot to me to see it out there, as I have never actually had the courage to tell my story in any official capacity. I went out on a limb with a submission to The Atlantic and I can’t even believe that my words are out there. As a woman who is trying to make her way in the world of communications as a professional, it does mean so much to see my story told in such a large, well-known, widely read publication like this. Thank you again for reading my story and for considering it worthy of publishing in your series.  

A big thank you back. And although we edit all emails for clarity and concision, this one was especially strong on its own.