' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: You can't deny DNA--it shapes who we are today

Monday, October 20, 2014

You can't deny DNA--it shapes who we are today

"It's easier to embrace a thief than a phantom." That's sentence that stopped me cold today as I read yesterday's New York Times review of a new book, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape our Identities and Our Futures.

Biology and culture, nature versus nurture. We know both are important, we really do, but with the adoption-is-the-cure-for-so-damn-much culture that we are in today, that sentence: It's easier to embrace a thief than a phantom stopped me cold. Americans like to pretend that DNA and ancestry do not matter; we can make ourselves up new here in America. But. Biology matters. DNA is the raw material out of which we came.

To back up a bit: Author and linguist, Christine Kenneally's, search for her grandfather, a man who did the deed necessary for procreation and then promptly disappeared, led her to inquire what DNA contributes to who we become. According to the review by David Dobbs, she fully accepts that one's genetic message is in cahoots with culture to produce who we are, but is amazed that so many people actually fine genealogy silly, as if a past had nothing to do with one's identity. "Really?...If a person's genealogy is the series of individuals whose coupling eventually produced that person, then it's hard to see how that assertion is possible," she writes.

Now I'm only taking off from Dobbs's excellent review--I hope to do a full review and essay later
when I get the book--but the current craze for genealogy as evidenced by the spate of television shows in the past few years has been gnawing at me, gnawing at me because it exists at the same time that legislatures are beginning to open records a crack, at the same time always thinking about CYA loopholes that allow first mothers to hide in the woodwork.

Dear Reader, I am frustrated. New Jersey, Ohio, Montana, Washington--these four states recently passed legislation that allow the vast majority of adoptees to obtain their true and original birth certificates (OBCs), yet all have that damn caveat that gives a mother the right to deny information not only to her direct progeny, but to all generations going forward after that.* Think about it. Someone is doing a family history, and suddenly, they come up with a blank wall. Unless they are able to crack the code, or be featured in Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s PBS program, Finding Your Roots, since the TV shows have found ways to go around sealed records, one single person, in a long line of ancestors, can block tracing one's genealogy.

Grrrreat cover art...
Yet Wikipedia tells us that genealogy ranks as the second most popular hobby in America today, and modern technology, such as data bases like Ancentry.com and inexpensive DNA testing, enables it.

In the end, Kenneally was not able to locate her grandfather, but--because adoption was not involved--did discover further up the family tree a convict--one Michael Deegan, her great-great grandfather, who was put on a boat from Ireland and sent to Australia in the mid-1800s for stealing a handkerchief. Dobb's writes:
"Her father absorbed this news far better than he did his father's haunting absence, confirming Kenneally's belief that people who excavate their pasts are almost always glad they did. It's easier to embrace a thief than a phantom." 
Me and my girl. 1983
I'm not adopted. I'm the other side of the coin. I gave up a child in the awful days of sealed records and spent 15 years looking for her one way or another until I found her with the help of a searcher I paid. For me, it was as horrifying not to know where my DNA was going as it is for many adoptees not to know where theirs came from. Though it may be difficult for some women to 'fess up and release the secret child that has bound them emotionally like a tight bustier wrapped around their souls, surely the time has come to let go. One's secret is only as much as a prison as you let it be.

If any first mothers are reading here and would like to communicate with us, please email us through forumfirstmother@gmail.com. We'll be glad to talk to you or communicate by email. Both fellow blogger Jane and I remember how scary and awful it was the first time we said to anyone: I gave up a child for adoption.--lorraine

*Washington does allow adoptees to access records after their mothers die and to make periodic inquiries to the Washington Vital Stats as to the state of her mortality. If she dies in a state other than Washington, there may be no record of her death in Washington and the adoptee will continue to be denied access.
Sunday Book Review: ‘The Invisible History of the Human Race’ by Christine Kenneally

Finding Your Roots: Bastards show up in all family trees
How much do genes count in who we become?
At the hospital: The innate need to know who you are, the desire to return 'home'
Family Reunions: Missing the one lost to adoption
Irrational fear drives adoption laws in Washington State

The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
"The word ‘brilliant’ gets thrown around a lot, but it should be saved for Christine Kenneally and her book The Invisible History of the Human Race. Transcending the nature-nurture dichotomy, Kenneally shows us how our societies and our selves got to be the way they are. Don’t read this book looking for neat answers—gaze instead through a glorious kaleidoscope of science, psychology, history, and first-class storytelling.”
—Susan Cain, New York Times (must be from the daily paper) I can't wait to get this book. 

Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA
by Richard Hill
"Hill's memoir is well-written, easy to read, a can't-put-down tale. It's a warm story of a man who finds family as well as roots. It's more than that, though, as Hill reveals himself in the process of discovering his roots. I was pleased that Hill resisted compartmentalizing his natural and adoptive families."'I'm a lucky man,'" he told his wife. "'Most people are only blessed with two parents. I had four. Two of them created me from the DNA of my biological ancestors. And the other two molded me into the person I am today.'"--from Jane Edwards' review on FMF

Using DNA to Find Family: You Can't Have Too Much Family


  1. I read somewhere that your DNA (genetics) is 80% of who you are and your environment (nurture) is only 20 %. I felt like an "outsider" in my reunion with my son until I learned that. The outsiders were the adoptive parents who had no clue about who he is. Thank you God, for giving my son back to me and giving him back his identiy.

  2. I just added this book to my reading list. I've got part of my DNA pinned down, now, and it explains so much more than I thought it would.

  3. I bristle at the 'nature/nurture' label. I know for me and my also-adopted bestie, we both auto-correct that assumption by others with 'genes/environment.'

    My adoptive home was *not* nurturing.

  4. Thank you, Lorraine, for bringing attention to this again. I'm a "birth" mother, and I know what it's like to keep a soul-destroying secret for over forty years. I know the incredible relief and release it has been to find my son. Not easy, not trouble-free, but reunion is the only way to live the truth of your own life. If anyone (family, husband, other children) wants a "birth" mother to continue to swallow her grief and her loss for THEIR SAKE, then they don't deserve her consideration. I know of "birth" mothers who continue to cower in the shadows, and I pity them, but I pity their children more. It was unnatural to give our children away, but I'm a BSE mom and I know only too well the pressures put on young, unmarried women to give up their children. But the past is done. If the people in your life can't accept your past and your child, then you have your priorities completely backwards. Fear ruled us in the past. I want to say to all "closeted" "birth" mothers, step out of the shadows, show the courage you lacked earlier, and embrace your children. In a hundred years, in twenty years, no one will care about the scandal you caused. Before it's too late, embrace your children and put an end to this abominable practice of taking babies away from their mothers.

    1. Pam, If I could hit "like" I would.

    2. Well said, Pam! And let's encourage all those birth fathers to man up and claim their children as well. Every child deserves his her/heritage as a birthright.

    3. My son was 40 when we connected. I and my family embraced him without qualification. It was hard. We both had to overcome the grief and loss, but we are together now. No one gives a damn about what happened 15-years ago. Mothers shouldn't either.

  5. *Washington does allow adoptees to access records after their mothers die and to make periodic inquiries to the Washington Vital Stats as to the state of her morality. If she dies in a state other than Washington, there may be no record of her death in Washington and the adoptee will continue to be denied access.

    Lorraine, I believe there's an unfortunate typo in that paragraph: "morality" should likely read "mortality."

  6. It seems to me from reading at this forum that many many people give up their children because of their own biological parents who do not support them and make it very hard for them to keep their children. I don't understand this at all. How can grandparents give away their grandchildren? Another thing that I don't understand is why in so many of the posts that I have read here, first mothers write about the total lack of help and support from their own birth families but seem to put all their anger and rage at the adoption agency and the adoptive parents. Maybe it is too scary to have anger against their own biological parents? It is much easier to hate strangers I guess. But they mostly come into the story after the seeds of relinquishment have been sown at home.

    1. anon @8:43
      You have fallen into the assumption pit and falsely assume that mothers have lost their children to adoption because of lack of support from their own birth families who could have provided support. Mine couldn't due to severe illness and near death. So no, I have zero anger toward my biological parents. My anger was directed at the social worker because i was deliberately lied to so that my child could go to an older, more deserving couple who was deemed much more capable of raising a child than i was. Essentially, my baby was legally kidnapped. So yes, many mothers like myself (I lost in 1969) had to deal with tremendous grief and then anger when we discovered we had been duped!

    2. Anon, It was the adoption industry and its hand maiden the clergy that convinced many parents that their grandchildren would be better off with strangers and that, in giving up her baby, their daughter could resume her life as if nothing happened. The parents believed that helping their daughter keep the baby was absolutely the worse thing they could do.

      My niece forced her daughter to give up her baby 11 years ago because my niece was firmly convince that was the best for all concerned. When I tried to tell her how much pain losing the baby would cause the whole family, she insisted that she had never heard this before. Now I hear from family members about how often they think about the baby and wonder how he is doing.

      Adoption is promoted in the media, in TV stories, on Dr. Phil, everywhere. It';s hard to fault the parents for believing the adoption myth.

      I have met grandparents at first family support groups who are beside themselves with grief because they caused the adoption. They say over and over "if we had only known."

    3. "Another thing that I don't understand is why in so many of the posts that I have read here, first mothers write about the total lack of help and support from their own birth families but seem to put all their anger and rage at the adoption agency and the adoptive parents."

      I know what you mean, Anon 8:43 PM. You are right that many, many surrenders were orchestrated (some still are) by the mother's parents. It was true in my case. Yes, I still feel resentment towards them even, though I understand from firsthand experience the societal pressures of the world of the mid last century. The fact that they chose "reputation" over me and their grandchild continues to irk after all these years. It makes me sad. Parents are the first bastion of support for young, "inconveniently" pregnant unmarried mothers. Without it there is no ground beneath their feet.

      My personal feeling is that many first mothers who conceal their pregnancies from their parents do so because 1) they feel that they have failed to live up to their parents' expectations and do not want to disappointment them and 2) in their hearts they know their parents would expect them to relinquish anyway, so why cause more anguish and trouble? That way at least, if never put to the test, the faith they have that their parents would have supported them can remain unsullied.

    4. Jane: It was the girl's parents who did not want to ruin the family reputation by everyone knowing their child had a baby out of wedlock. Back in the day, it was one of the most shameful things that could happen to a family.


    5. True, middle class white parents thought it shameful that their daughter became pregnant out of wedlock and thought it best to keep the pregnancy a secret. The adoption industry played into this shame, convincing the girl's parents that adoption would be a win/win/win solution. The industry did not tell the girl or her parents the negatives of adoption even though by 1966 when I surrendered my daughter, these were well-known by social service professionals.

  7. Remember, also, that if mother was unwed in the Baby Scoop Era (1945-1973) it was a disgrace on the girl and her family to have a child out of wedlock. Parents thought they were "protecting" their daughters by encouraging or even forcing her to surrender the baby for adoption.

    1. It's not just the Baby Scoop; Era in which an unwed pregnancy was a disaster. Before--and after too, but at least after, women had the right to have an abortion.

      Interestingly enough, even the Catholic church was not steadfastly against abortion until after the Civil War period. Before that...you could have an abortion--before the quickening, a theory that goes back to Thomas Aquinas. One supposes the quickening was at first movement?

  8. Please read Ann Fessler's "The Girls Who Went Away." Yes, many girls were forced to give up their babies, especially during the BSE. It is heartbreaking to read these stories today, because the thinking back then was so ridiculous, and many thousands of adoptions took place because of it. But, in those days it was such a disgrace to have a baby out of wedlock, that babies were just given away. I am convinced my first mother was forced to do this, like thousands of other women during that time.

  9. Often the rift between the child (mother) and her parents who insisted on the adoption is never truly healed, but life does go on. Teenage girls do need the support of their families. Outside aid was not readily available then, and still is difficult today. If you are underage and should be under the care of your parents, how much is even available unless you go to court and are declared legally independent of your parents?

    Remember that Bette Midler movie--Then She Found Me? Did Helen Hunt the daughter ever truly forgive her mother, portrayed by Midler? Questionable, and that movie ends with a Chinese adoption. I don't even remember the father part of the story.

    But the parents who forced the adoption on the teen birth mother are "family" for better or worse, and so a relationship continues. Lots of adoptees have anger and frustration towards their adoptive parents but do not focus all their anger on them, or totally cut off contact with them. People find the scapegoats they need to survive and continue to maintain the life they know. A lot of adoptee anger that might best be directed towards grandparents, adoption agencies, social workers, adoption attorneys...gets totally directed to the first mother, because she is after all...the mother. And the fathers typically get off scot-free.

    I had never seen the word "scot-free" before in print and so I looked it up. It comes from Old English, originally "scotfreo"--or free from royal tax or penalties. Sounds about right.

  10. Lorraine: also remember that adoptive parents often bad-mouth the first mother. They don't do this when speaking about the adoption agency, or the grandparents and they never mention the first father, at least not in my era. The they brainwash the adoptee into believing the first mother was bad or worthless or whatever. After decades of hearing this, I suppose many adoptees believe it.

    1. Oh yeah. We are always the bad guys--loose morals, was foolish, and got pregnant, and then to top it off, we didn't keep the baby!

      Of course, women in our era who did keep the baby--whisper, whisper, Loose Morals! Once again. Of course the people who dump on us because we gave the babies up for adoption would have been the first to criticize and shame our pregnancy.

      We can't win.

  11. Great post. I think of my raised daughter and all her inherited traits. My raised daughter has the genetic tendencies to be outgoing, anxious, kind, and curious. As she grew I encouraged sports, charity, education, and an open mind. So many times she would ask me "Why do I feel or think this way?" and I would respond with examples from members of our family or myself. She grew up to be educated, respected and well loved. If she had been "different" from us she may have grew up feeling like an outsider or that something was wrong with her, especially when dealing with her anxiety or "worry wart" traits. Understanding genetic tendencies in families allow us to help our children play on their strengths and see their weaknesses as "family" weaknesses, and not their own personal failings. It is great to say "there is nothing wrong with you, you are just like your mother, father or aunt. It can become a source of pride instead of a source of concern.

    1. All advantages your "kept daughter" had. But your other daughter?

    2. This was such a wonderful comment. It brought me to tears. There is also a dark side to this lack of knowledge about where various personality/behavioral traits come from. Some adoptive parents, my own included, end up not liking the child because s/he is so different. APs, especially those from the BSE, were told that the child was a blank slate and were expecting the child to turn out to be like them and similar to any bio-kids they might have. I am sure my APs would be mind boggled if they were to ever meet some of my blood relatives. The similarities between us, the way we speak, our intonation, they way we raise and lower our voices, our sense of humor, I could go on and on, would have my a-families' eyes popping out of their heads. That would forever dismiss any notion that human beings are mostly nurture and very little nature.

      How wonderful it must be to grow up in your own family where you share these things and where you hear all the time about your likenesses with other family members. It is so much more genuine when the comparisons are made with blood relatives than when APs say things like how much their adopted child looks like them. Adopted children may share eye or hair color or have a similar skin tone with their APs but saying they look alike is in most cases wishful thinking.

    3. Not always so wonderful when your mother says you must be a changeling because you don't fit the mould. Or when you are told you take after your father's side, and that is not meant kindly. It happens, you know.

    4. I heard that my daughter's adoptive mother was blown away by our similarities when she met me. Same size as her daughter, same mannerisms, same hair, same coloring...I guess she wasn't expecting that our daughter would be like her actual mother.

  12. Jane, many years after Joni Mitchell's grown daughter found her, Joni's mother Myrtle Anderson hedged with, "We would have been very supportive had we only known."

    Evidently Myrtle's only daughter didn't see it that was, or she would not have gone it alone in the Yorkville section of Toronto in 1965.

    Around the same time she made this comment, Mrs. Anderson complained about Joni and a visiting boyfriend... sharing a hotel room.

    "I'm middle-aged, Mama! Why is this joy not allowed?" protested Joni.

    So yeah, I'll just bet the (since-deceased) Mrs. Anderson would have been "supportive" enough to find her daughter a maternity home and give away the only grandchild she'd ever have. Kilauren Gibb since has given birth to Joni's two grandchildren as well.

    Just a thought on how widely differing the definition of "supportive" can be...

    1. Be fair, merely being a tyrannical control freak does not implicate one would not support keeping an illegitimate grandchild in the family and thus under one's control.

  13. Robin, off the top of my head, two famous amoms who said widely and often that their adopted sons (two each) looked "just like them" were Sharon Stone and Sheryl Crow.

    Also, it wasn't so wonderful to grow up in a bfamily in which I bore notable resemblance to both parents, only to be booted out of said family half a lifetime ago for reasons too numerous and dreary to go into again.

    However, it has been wonderfully healing to discuss and hear others say how they think my now-grown sons resemble Mr. B, me, or other Biscuitbarrel relatives (since few people know or have met my bfamily).

    For example, my middle son is the only one to have inherited his paternal grandfather's long, graceful fingers. It might be a passing remark to other people, but since half of their DNA predating me is a tetchy if not taboo subject, it's nice when something CAN come up.

    And I maintain forever that Jane might have been cloned off stray DNA clinging to Lorraine's fedora! Who could look at those photos of the two long-legged blondes pressed close together and not shout, "Mother and daughter"???!?

    1. Thank you, Mrs. TQB! I loved it that Jane resembled me so much, and my granddaughter to. We were shopping last time she visited and the clerk asked: Grandmother and granddaughter?

      I was bursting with pride.

  14. My daughter has a lot of my mannerisms, she is the dark version of me (speaking of coloring, not personality), and I see much of her father in her.... unfortunately, I also see a great number of very poor habits and beliefs that are learned behaviors. Since she could not have learned it from me, well, it had to come from somewhere. Sadly, she has so much hate in her for me, we will never truly be reconciled. Her belief is that "things" or "money" are love..... mine are completely different! I love to give a gift, but only because I want to share my love, not my things or my cash. Sigh, adoption .... frakking nightmare that never ends.

  15. DNA is extremely important, and amazing. The only person in the world (that I know of) who looks like me is my older daughter. Hair, freckles, skin, you name it. My younger girl looks exactly like my husband, and has all his personality traits, yet she is the one who inherited my artistic abilities. And she draws and paints exactly as I do. If I watch her as she is sketching or drawing, I know exactly what she is going to do next. Each girl has a trait of synesthesia. My synesthesia is full-blown...but they each have inherited some aspect of it. I would have loved to know if my first mother had synesthesia. It is an amazing thing to have, and it is something my AP's never understood. When I was trying to explain as a child how colorful my world was, they would tell me to stop pretending. I could not learn how to read a clock because the numbers in my head were/are very colorful and unusual, and my AP's could not understand it. When learning to read I would open a book and tell A-mom to look at all the colors on the page. She would tell me to stop it....there were clearly no colors on the page. I was obviously having trouble....I was not doing this to annoy them. But I guess that is what they thought.

    I believe they wanted the blank slate theory to be true. After all, didn't A-mom say I got my blond hair because A-dad was blond as a boy? A ridiculous thing to say, as all his boyhood photos show him with dark hair. She still says I got my sewing ability from her. Nothing could be further from the truth. She did not even teach me how to sew....I taught myself. But, she wants it to be an inherited trait, so I guess it will be so.

    As my search seems to have fizzled, I guess I won't ever know if anyone in my first family shares any of my physical or personality traits. But I tell myself that these things had to come from somewhere....they certainly were not bestowed upon me because I was a blank slate!

  16. Okay - I need to ask something of all the adoptees that respond on here..... Lorraine, please, help me phrase this correctly..... Why would an adoptee lie to, borrow money they had no intention of paying back, stalk and harass a first mother that they claim to want nothing to do with - in a cycle that is actually visible? I don't understand the need to come back over and over again if you really don't like someone, stop bothering with them. ????? why? Who does this heal or help?

  17. Yes DNA matters! If you are searching for family and need help getting started using DNA, go to www.DNAAdoption.com. It is run by some very wonderful helpful volunteers - including the professional genetic genealogist CeCe Moore who is the consultant for this season of Finding Your Roots on PBS. I have been a member of the affiliated yahoo group for about a year and have seen people find their birth parents (usually it's the adoptees looking) nearly every week... I would say a couple or more every month. It seems impossible but it is not. When I first read about people doing this type of search it seemed really unlikely but I have seen results time and time again. We are very fortunate to live in an era when so many records are available online. With the records easily available, and the DNA info, it is possible many times, to figure out one's origins! If you come over to the site you won't see my name as I'm using a pseudonym here... but I will be one of the first to cheer you on. Good luck to all who are searching!



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