You're kidding! I'm adopted?

After my father died, my aunt finally told me why I look a little different.

By Cary Tennis
April 3, 2006 1:19PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

A question that I was content to leave unanswered two years ago is slowly beginning to gnaw at me and I'm wondering if pursuing the answer would cause more harm than simply letting it go. Your sage advice would be most welcome.

When my father died two years ago, his two surviving elderly sisters accompanied me on the flight to attend his funeral. On our way to the airport, one of my dear aunties, who always jokes around with me, made a comment about me being adopted. She could tell by the look on my face that I didn't quite understand what she was talking about and she immediately qualified the statement as a joke. It had to be a joke, right?


After the funeral, I was driving back to the hotel alone with my second auntie, who was graciously answering the many questions I had about our family history ... all those questions that I somehow never got around to asking my dad. As we spoke, it became apparent that something was on her mind, and before I could ask what was troubling her, she dropped the bomb: "You are a grown man, almost 40 years old, and you deserve to know the truth ... your aunt wasn't kidding, you really were adopted at birth."


Sure, it was quite a shock, but I was surprisingly calm and accepting of this revelation. It certainly answered some of the questions I've always had, such as why I don't resemble anyone in my family and why I'm so different from all my relatives in so many ways. (My mother, who died 20 years earlier, used to often jest with me that the milkman was my father. I guess that was her way of sharing a kernel of truth with me.) What's even more amazing to me is how my entire family, on both my mother's and my father's side, managed to keep the secret for 40 years. When you consider the dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins who knew the truth, not to mention my parents and older sister, the fact that the secret remained intact for so long is pretty amazing. Not even the secrets of the Manhattan Project had that kind of longevity!


Why my parents wanted to keep me in the dark about my adoption I will never know. This revelation changes nothing about my feelings for them. In fact, it only makes me love and respect them even more, as they raised me with as much love and nurturing as any kid could hope to have. They did all the heavy lifting that comes with parenting and as far as I'm concerned, they will always be my mom and dad. Although I am curious about the circumstances of my adoption, I was content at the time to just let it go and take comfort in the knowledge that two very generous and loving strangers were willing to bring me into their home and give me the best life they could.

Now, two years later, I find that my curiosity is getting the best of me. Where do I come from? What is my ancestry? Do I have brothers and sisters? Are there a bunch of people running around that actually look like me? These questions and many more have prompted me to seriously consider tracking down my biological parents, which leads me to my question for you. Although I would love to learn about my biological family, I'm hesitant to pursue it, as I fear that my sudden appearance after 40 years would be too traumatic to my biological parents. The state I live in maintains the confidentiality of adoption records, but I can have a state-appointed intermediary contact my biological parents to see if they will agree to meet me. As much as I would love to meet my biological family, part of me feels that it would be selfish for me to suddenly thrust myself into the life of a woman who is likely approaching her 70s, perhaps opening old wounds she left behind 40 years ago and possibly traumatizing her family as well. Should I just be content with the family I've always known? What to do?

The 4O-Year-Old Orphan


Dear 40-Year-Old Orphan,

If I were a woman who gave up a child for adoption, I think I would be pleased to meet him one day. After all, it would be great to see that everything had turned out well in the end, that I had done the right thing. If he arrived without any cost or obligation, what could be the problem?


But that rarely is the case, is it?

There may be many reasons why your birth mother might prefer to let the past be. For instance, the adoption might be a secret in her family, as it was in yours. She might never have told anyone. She might have raised an entire family and none of them might know. She might have lied repeatedly about her youth to keep such an act secret. For such an act to become known might then cast her in a bad light.

Or suppose she has no way of knowing how the child turned out, and does not want to find out lest she see evidence that perhaps she had done the wrong thing, that she had given up a child who needed her.


Also, consider how the unearthing of this secret would affect you and her differently. You had no say in the matter; regardless of how it turned out, you are innocent. She, however, made a choice as an adult or at least a teenager.

And then there is the whole question of opening old wounds. Seen in the proper light, I would think seeing you would be redemptive: It would mean that she did the right thing, and could set her mind at ease. But not everyone thinks like that.

Some people's minds are like Edwardian flats, with lots of little rooms, and some of the rooms are closed up and they never go in there. So if she put this adoption into one of those rooms, she might want to just keep it there. Because there might be a lot of other things in that room too, and going there would expose them all.


But I really hope you contact the adoption agency and at least look into the possibility of meeting your birth mother. I would be fascinated to learn how I came to be raised by the people who raised me, to imagine myself in that precarious state, to ponder how much mercy and love was bestowed on me! And it might be a very interesting story, too; I figure you were born in 1965 or 1966. Those were very interesting years.

Assuming your mother is living, she will either consent or refuse. If she refuses, you can assume she has her reasons. If she consents, no matter who she is, no matter what she is like, it need not call into question who you are or what you are like. You are already formed. You are already who you are. It can only serve to solve some riddles.

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