' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Contacting siblings when a woman denies she is 'the' first mother

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Contacting siblings when a woman denies she is 'the' first mother

Diving in the unknown....                      photo by Ken Robbins
What do you do when a first mother denies she is your mother, but the proof that she is seems irrefutable? What do you do about siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, other family members? Do you contact them?

The question comes up often because it happens all too often. Recently I met a woman in her sixties who believes she found her natural mother, but the woman, now quite elderly, wrote back that she was not the person being sought. However, if the woman is the birth mother--as the records obtained by the adoptee indicate--the adoptee may have full siblings. And she would love to know them.

The other day Ask Amy, a syndicated columnist, responded to a writer who asked about contacting her siblings after finding her birth father, who told her who her mother was. The woman denied she ever had a baby she gave up--or that she even knew the father!

While advice columnists have been known to give terrible advice to adoptees and birth parents in the past, Amy gave the same advice we do: Yes, do contact your siblings if you are strong enough. If you think they are your blood relatives, you have every right to do so. However, go about it gently and sensitively, and do not do it out of a sense of vindication and punishment for the woman or man who denies she or he is your mother or father, but--and this is a big but--be prepared for rejection.

As long as the woman or man is denying that she or he is your parent, it's almost a hundred percent likely that the other children have never been told of your existence. The first parent's spouse may not know. So your appearance and claim is dropping a mental bombshell on anyone who doesn't know about your existence--and that may include everyone! Except your first mother. And possibly father.

You might want to use a counselor to help you through the emotional terrain, and help you write the script for how you will begin the conversation with unsuspecting relatives, but do find one that has a sympathetic understanding of your point of view, that of the adoptee and/or natural family. Too often therapists say, yes, they are familiar with adoption, but it turns out that their familiarity is totally with the adoptive family side--not questioning adoptees, or families of origin. You might also find great support and a sounding board if you can connect with an adoptee/birth mother group in your area, or find a list serve that will allow you to pour out your heart.

Our script would go like this (after you have made clear who you are in relation to them): I don't want to interfere or cause any problems, but I'm here if you want to know me. I have life with partner, husband, family members or friends. I work as a doctor, lawyer, candlestick maker. If you know anything about them, and share an interest or career, do mention that. For instance, my brothers and I all share an interest in physical fitness; he cycles long distances, I used to run competitively, a nephew was an aerobics instructor, a niece is a yoga teacher, et cetera. Or maybe you are a lawyer and you are calling a lawyer or a para-legal. Or your hobby is painting and you're calling an art teacher. A telling detail like that subtly pointing out a shared interest or characteristic could make all the difference.

If you begin this conversation via a letter, include a photograph. Others may find the relative on Facebook, and that of course means that most likely pictures are already available for both sides to see. Everyone will be looking for a resemblance.

And of course, say: I'd love to meet you and learn more about you, would that be possible? If the person hesitates, don't push, simply add that you understand their reluctance--especially if they didn't know about you--but say that you're there whenever they might want to meet, and give them your contact information. You might suggest that you too would like to make sure you have the right person, and ask if they would like to take a DNA test, that you offer to pay for. To simply determine biological connection, the cost ranges between $80 to $100.

Whatever you do, don't be aggressive and pushy. That is likely to turn the person off. You may have desired knowing them for a long time, but you are upsetting their world by coming along now. No matter how gently you approach any siblings without your first mother's or father's agreement, you must be prepared for them to circle the wagons around the family they know, not invite in the family they don't. If there are sisters, contact them first because in general women are more receptive than men, and more understanding about issues of kin and connection.

Whether to write or phone is your decision. I'd probably go with writing and then say, I hope you don't mind if I call you in a week or so. An adoptee who did find and contact siblings and cousins was Richard Hill, who wrote an engaging and informative book about how he went about it--with a few clues and some wrong turns, he ended up finding and being welcomed, into his father's family especially.

Yes, contacting siblings without a birth parent's agreement--or their actual disapproval--is fraught, but it is your right. They are your relatives Never forget that, but try a little tenderness when you exert that right.--lorraine

Ask Amy: My birth mother denied everything, but I want to meet my half-siblings

Using DNA to Find Family: You Can't Have Too Much Family (Jane's review of Hill's book)
Should adoptees contact their siblings when first parents are reluctant?
Finding Your Roots: Bastards show up in all family trees


From Jane's review: Hill's memoir is well-written, easy to read, a can't-put-down tale. It's more than that, though, as Hill reveals himself in the process of discovering his roots. When he obtains a picture of his birth mother, he writes of the "delayed grief over my birth mother's death and our lost relationship."

It's a warm story of a man who finds family as well as roots. "Looking back, I do not regret a minute of it. While frustrating at times, my search proved to be a rich and rewarding experience. I uncovered the truth about my birth parents, acquired wonderful new siblings and cousins, and built a family tree for my descendants."  



  1. I am glad to see this approached with some sensitivity and understanding. 21 years ago, we all just sort of rushed into things, helter-skelter, with all sorts of expectations. I also tell everyone I know to be prepared for what you might find. While most searches end in finding normal, fallible human beings, there are the few exceptions. Not all adoptees or mothers find nice people at the end of their search.

  2. Our son Lenny, adopted from foster care, has two older half-siblings who also are in adoptive homes (two separate adoptive placements because, while they each are Lenny's sibling, they are not siblings of each other and ended up in foster care at different times and places from different homes).

    When Lenny was born, his siblings had already been adopted (i.e., they were not with the first parents). The adoptive families of his siblings, who have closed adoptions, were contacted to ask if they would like to adopt Lenny (so he could grow up with a sibling). Both families said No.

    When my husband and I adopted Lenny, we asked (through CPS) whether the adoptive families of his half-siblings would like to establish contact with us (Lenny), so he could have a relationship with them. Both adoptive families declined.

    CPS cannot provide us with the contact details of the two other adoptive families because that would be an invasion of their privacy. However, I am fairly certain I understood from CPS that when Lenny or any of his siblings turn 18, they have the right to access the contact information for their siblings. I hope Lenny will reunite with each of his two siblings one day, and that the reunion will be good. He thinks it is the coolest thing that he has a big brother and big sister and, especially this past holiday season, talked a lot about wanting to meet them.

  3. i have been that mother in denial and i am telling you - do it. if you are positive and dna "proves" your genetic relationship, try and find some connection. you wlll need support from other adoptees, lost daughters blog is enlightening and wise, correspond with them first. it must be a slow process, initially for you but also for your mother and extended family - be aware the outcome might not be happy for any or all of you but rest assured you have the support and encouragement of thousands of mothers who wish their children would contact them, who keep hoping it might happen, one day.

    it will be hard, it may take years - my daughter was nearly 40 when i found her. but you are entitled to do it. it may cause pain but it is hard fact - she is your mother and no matter how much it hurts her or you family (and i trust such hurt would be unintentional on your part) to undo the deception it must be done. believe me, i've been there and we are all glad the pretense is over. true, it is causing some difficulties of acceptance for some but now, together we are heading in the right direction and there is hope that we may all find healing.

    sounds melodramatic? too bad, these are the facts of life - yours, mine everyone's; we all have mothers and that can't be denied. you are brave and you should "go for it" - the truth will set you (all) free.

  4. Of course, the suspected person might be right as well, and only be the perfect match to your information because some of that information is incorrect/falsified, or be one of those poor mothers whose fight for their child was prevented by telling her that you died. That said, people who seriously think that you are mistaken would more often be prepared to prove they are not your kin, by way of a DNA test to put your mind at rest, or suggest other possibilities. Like the Ethiopian foundling who was told once that they were absolutely not her first maternal family, but might be her paternal one, (DNA testing showed they were neither).

  5. The advice here is solid. My birth parents were already deceased when I identified the families. But I still had to tread lightly when I contacted my half siblings. Fortunately, I found good people who accepted me. On my father's side, I used a mix of phone calls and letters to position my interest as justified but non-threatening. I even included several photos of myself so they could see the family resemblance. If you have not yet read my book, "Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA," buy it through Lorraine's link so the First Mother Forum can earn a small commission from Amazon.

  6. Even though I was raised as an only child, I never desired siblings. I would never reach out to siblings if my first mother did not want contact. I can't navigate something so complicated, and I have seen it blow up in several adoptee's faces. If my first mother wanted contact and siblings were part of the package, fine.

  7. Keep in mind, one sibling might reject, another might welcome. In my experience, it is the child who thought they were the oldest in the family who often has the most trouble getting their head around the appearance of another sibling.

  8. I am not sure I even agree. While I agree with the right to know, honestly, I really don't want my daughter messing with my family. The issues are too raw and far to complex. First, in spite of our distances and differences, my siblings and I are close and would find it horrifying to invade each other's privacy that way.... since I have no other children, my nieces and nephews are, for the most part, not really interested in knowing someone that could upset me as much as she does. This would be hurtful to her, which I don't want, but I can't change.

    This entire situation is not unique. Most people do not realize how interconnected families are and how much damage you can do by simple "talking" to a family member. I have found that I approach anything about my daughter with my grandsons like walking on broken glass... very careful and if too much pressure or perceived pressure, I back off and let it die. In other words, we don't talk about her much at all. Because I know, from being told by the boys, that it is not a subject they wish to know about, discuss or be part of. I respect that.

    If my siblings or nieces and nephews wish to know my daughter, I would have no issues about it. As long as I was not discussed at all, particularly in light of the issues between her and I. My family is aware of this and respect my feelings.

    1. Lori and all: I think a lot of mothers would be totally against an adoptee contacting their siblings wtihout their knowledge or approval. But it does happen, and an adoptee has the right to contact those they are related to. I heard of a story out of Tennessee where an adoptee was rejected by her mother; contacted a sister, and while the mother at first wanted to call out of National Guard or bring charges, the sibling (a woman, thus a sister) did effect a reunion and all ended well.

      It may be a powder keg to contact siblings without the permission of the mother, but it will happen. This is designed for those who are faced with this dilemma. My own daughter never contacted the other children of her father. "I don't need more rejection" is what she said. I respected that and did nothing. It was up to her.

    2. Lorraine, I am not disagreeing that it will happen, I am simply stating that it is, in my case, a very volatile situation that would not end well for her... and that this is true of many of these situations. Some may end well, but I know my family and it would not be pretty.

  9. My own personal experience is that many siblings and half-siblings reject the adoptee. I have seen it happen time and again. So I feel, if the first mother is on board, she can speak to the siblings and explain the situation. Without the first mother I would never contact siblings. The only exception being dire medical circumstances, such as that of Susan Perry. Otherwise, it is just a set up for more heartache. You have to understand that, at this point, I have decided to stop searching. The emotional toll is too great. Whatever I have learned about my first mother will have to suffice because I don't have the strength to look any further.

    1. Hi Julia Emily. I just came across this comment and wanted to respond, since Susan Perry was my mom (and I'm here today reading trying to make sense of her, and our, story). I understand completely why you would need to suspend your search and protect yourself. I think that was a big reason why my mom didn't send the letter to her older sister earlier (as well as trying to respect her original mother's wishes). In fact, when I asked her if I could please send the letter (and a letter of mine) for her, she said ok, but that if it was more rejection, to please not tell her. It is just too hard. And I know (especially from reading these comments) that sometimes adoptees are just faced with rejection after rejection (or in some cases some kind of gray middle ground). That said, my moms sisters and I often talk of how sad we are that they didn't have more time together ... that their mom didn't tell them about her 16 years before, when my mom originally reached out, or that my mom just didn't send the letter as soon as she found her older sister's identity (2 or 3 years before her diagnosis). We all got together over the holidays, and it was lovely to be together but so bittersweet, because I just kept thinking about how much my mom would have loved to be there, and how much she would have loved to have shared so much of her life with her sisters. My mom also has a brother, who I don't talk about as much in posts for privacy reasons, and he was able to connect with her as well, and I know that also meant a great deal to her, even though they weren't able to have a relationship the way she and her sisters did. All in all, I just wanted to say that while I understand why you might not search anymore, in my mom's case we all wish she had reached out to her sister sooner. I'm sending you strength.

  10. my experience has been the opposite to julia emmery's - siblings and half silings welcome new members into the family...siblings are closer to us han our parents as e share more genetic material. any opportunity to share medical history needs to be grasped - there is no telling what the future holds in store for all of us. as adults we have the right to decide with whom we associate - no one else can make those decisions on our behalf.

  11. I've been sitting on this one for half a year now, as my natural father seems to be in denial that I could be his offspring. I say "seems" since all communication is filtered through his spouse. She offered to do DNA testing, but I think I saw that as an offer and she was hoping it was a threat that would make me run away -- because I agreed, and she ceased communications.

    I do have two half-siblings. We are very close in age, but yes, I'm the eldest, and the family resemblance is pretty amazing (to me, as I look nothing like my first mother or her family), but I have not reached out there yet. One rejection at a time.

    1. Do you even know if your father is aware that you have contacted--or tried to contact--him? Or has the spouse been the gate-keeper of all information and communication? I'm sorry. Some people are really --bad. That's not the original word that came to mind, you can fill it in.

  12. My experience with adoptees who have contacted siblings is that it can go either way, and you do not know until you try. Same as with parents, there are no guarantees, but every adoptee has to decide for themselves how much it means to them and how much they are willing to risk. If your birthmother has repeatedly denied you, in a sense you have nothing to lose by contacting siblings because there is no relationship with the parent anyhow. BJ Lifton finally contacted her brother after many years of respecting her mother's wishes, but found they had nothing in common and did not really like him. But she was able to move on and form a distant relationship with him. You never know.

    My own situation is that all my kids have known about each other forever, and I keep updating Mike and my raised kids about each other, but nobody has made a move to contact. I feel strongly it is up to them, I have done my part, but would love to see them connect as they have a lot in common. I am encouraged that Mike and his father finally connected after many years of silence, and his father even thanked me for the pics of our recent visit I sent him. Sometimes people do change. But in adoption, nothing is either all bleak or all roses. Every situation is individual and the people involved have to live with the consequences of contact.

  13. Great blog post and very good advice: tread lightly and respectfully. That is true in any relationship and even more so when you are the "SURPRISE!" to family members. I have had mixed reviews with my maternal siblings. My sister seemed to embrace me however kept me at arm's length as she is an AP and we have different political leanings and opinions about this very topic (she adopted internationally so her kids would never seek out their birth parents). Oh, the irony in that!

    My brother acted as though I didn't exist even though his mother embraced me. Since he knew about me, I figured if he wanted to get to know me, he would contact me. He never has and I have no plans to contact him.

    I am still looking for my father, but when I discover who he is, I will be interested in knowing about my siblings -- and that is key for me -- knowing about versus knowing them personally. I have a strong interest in genetic genealogy and enjoy documenting my relatives and ancestors.

    With genetic DNA testing becoming more popular, sometimes the DNA connection is THE door which can be opened or slammed shut. If you are an unsuspecting sibling and have your DNA in Ancestry and Ancestry tells you, you have a sibling match, that would be quite shocking; however, once the shock wears off, the shared interest in common interests (as you mention), genealogy and history and being accepting that you now have a new family member could be the opening into a relationship rather than a random surprise letter or phone call. I have met some serious die-hard genealogy lovers and there is usually at least one or two in every family.

    Since I met my mother late (age 40), I have no real interest in making a huge amount of effort to get to know my siblings -- partly because of the potential landmines and dynamics that were already in place before my appearance on the scene.(my mother kept me secret from my siblings but not her husband).

    However, I have met some amazing cousins via DNA and my tree. So for me, having a full tree is more important to me that becoming best-friends with a sibling. I'm not ruling it out, but it's not really the end goal for me.

    1. Thanks for your interesting perspective. Finding a relative simply via DNA in the family who is interested in genealogy would seem to be a great starting point, and something more adoptees (and first mothers searching) ought to consider.

      As for your adoptive-parent sister who went overseas to avoid those pesky non-dead birth mothers, more people do that then they like to admit. I think it is one reason international adoption has been such a big hit.

  14. Thanks for broaching yet another sensitive topic with depth and thoughtfulness. My husband's birth mother hasn't denied the truth ...but she declines to have any contact. He has not even heard her voice. So yes he did reach out to his sibling. She turned out to be a full sibling and paved the way to connecting with his bio father. We have met them and it was incredible.
    His letter to his sister was very brief and drama free. IMO No need to mention DNA testing right off the bat (although ultimately that is what they did).
    He didn't include a lot of details about his life nor a photo, knowing she was Internet savvy (was on facebook and other sites) and would surely "Google" him. Also didn't ask to meet her.. that's kind of rushing things. Just said it would mean a lot to hear from her.She called within five minutes.
    In school our daughter was asked to write an essay about an event that changed her life. She wrote about meeting her "new" Grandpa.
    No regrets here.

  15. Great advice, especially in the Internet age. However, not everyone is Googleable. Or on Facebook, though that does make it easier to look someone up. Happy to hear of a good outcome and of your daughter's paper--she's educating her friends at school. Good job! and tell her we said so!

  16. PS In case Richard Hill circles back here, just wanted to say thank you for your writings on the topic of DNA and adoption. Without your blog I wouldn't have known it was possible.
    And unrelated .. saddened to see so many fearful and negative experiences re contacting siblings. Our experience had been amazing and positive and I'm so glad we didn't wait, in fear of offending husband's birth mother. family dynamics differ wildly of course but it does not have to be a disaster!

  17. I guess some reunions work and some just can't. I have never known an adoptee who reached out to siblings and received a warm response. All the reunions I know of personally have imploded.

    By way of an update.....my own searching has started to go backward. Apparently search angels found information that was either wrong or fake, so now I am back to just knowing my mother's name and when and where I was born. That is all I know.

    I am so discouraged by all of this that I deleted my Facebook account, so no other search angels could contact me. At this point I am so saddened and upset.....if any siblings came out of the woodwork looking for me I would not have the strength to contact them. Not now.

    That is what this damn institution is doing to me. But I am happy for those who had good results.

  18. Julie Emily: that is precisely why DNA testing is so powerful. DNA won't lie. If you are serious about finding your origins I recommend Richard Hill's book listed in his comments and committing to testing with the three main companies, and learning the methodology outlined by Mr Hill or you can read up at DNAAdoption.com. maybe you already have but if not, it is a very possible avenue for finding the truth.//
    Lorraine thank you. And yes of course not everyone is searchable online but we knew my husband was including bios and photos and articles; and we knew she had online profiles at several social media sites do was clearly web savvy. "your results may vary" Cheers & wishing all searchers and triad members strength.

  19. My husband was adopted and my grown daughter and I took it upon ourselves to search for his first parents. Through diligent and careful research we found them. The mother and her husband had already passed but she left 4 grown children, half-siblings to my husband. From Facebook photos and old school yearbooks I can see they clearly resemble my husband. We tried gentle letters at first, including more specific information in subsequent letters. None of them believed their mother could have a child out of wedlock. One son even called; he was very skeptical and cold. We have not heard from them sinse but we have continued to write to them and even offered to pay for a DNA test to rule in/rule out the biological connection but we only get silence. We are sad that they have chosen to deny his existence but will never fully give up.

    1. That is sad, that your husband's siblings are so cold, and won't even agree to a DNA test. From my own experience, it is possible that one sibling is so dead set against learning that his mother may have another child that he or she is influencing the others. My daughter actually had four half siblings from her father, but he died without ever meeting OUR daughter. And I know that his eldest daughter was furious with the whole situation--years later long after my daughter was given up, I married someone else--he and his wife divorced and he remarried and had another daughter. Eldest daughter was barely civil to her half sister, and did not even attend her father's funeral and from what I know, also got her younger brothers not to attend. The likelihood of any of them having a relationship with my daughter was extremely low, and our attempts at contacting the daughter from the second marriage ended in nothing too. I gave up because I felt the oppressive NO after sending Christmas cards and leaving a message on the phone, and sending wedding pictures when my daughter married. My daughter said she also wrote or phoned--I honestly don't remember which because I want not party to this--but got no response. My daughter resembled my mother as a young woman, but I could see how much she looked like Patrick's second daughter from pictures I found on the internet. Yes, it was sad.

      For any biological siblings of people who might read this, please consider meeting any surprise kin and how much it will mean to them. You have always known your family (but not all of it) but the adoptee has probably never had a cup of coffee with anyone who looks like him. They do not want your pity or sympathy, but meeting you would mean the world to him or her. What have you got to lose? And a DNA test can determine if the person really is your brother. Or sister.

  20. Lorraine, in a way I pity my daughter. She has rejected me or hurt me repeatedly and I don't think she realizes this yet but she has no siblings of any kind. Her biological father was an adoptee whose biological family is not open to contact of any kind. My family is unwilling to extend a hand because of the wake of destruction she left in my life. Her own children are estranged from her and unlikely to be open to contact. She is, essentially, alone in life except for those relatives of her husband's that wish to be friends with her.

    She made these choices. I feel sorry for her in many ways. But I grew up and realized that I am not responsible for a 36 yr old woman's choices.

  21. i can cope with my eldest daughter not wanting or needing to communicate with me, i've had nearly 40 years of silence and secrecy already and i know others have suffered longer but not given up hope. what i find most sad is that she (38) has 3 half sisters (23,19,17) who are baffled that she can't seem to make time for them - they would love to help and support her and her girls (5 and7) - her darling husbands replies to my fb messages are the only way i know that she too busy to afford the emotional effort to connect with us. so i send cards, the girls drop things off (serendipidously she live less than 10 minutes from Hem and half an hour from me) and i wonder how long it might take for her to call, write or visit. them, not me, all 4 sisters would benefit so much from dialog. apparently she wa going to look for me "when she was ready" - i waited 36 years and found her. she and her adopters are all well educated, priveledged, articulate...i wonder if they ever broached the subject of reunion and its benefits? i have heard that adoptees may put off searching until their adoptive mother dies...if that is another 10 years off these sisters will have missed out on so many sisterly benefits. she did have 2 older brothers in her adoptive family but a tragic accident in their late teens took one and the other is estranged, possibly as a consequence. the adoptive mothe is now single again and comes from interstate for school holidays, christmas etc.

    it is hard having no communication, there are so many questions i would lke to ask. and she is intelligent, surely curious about her family history? i do not want to pressure her into responding,even if only by inet or letter. i know she is naturally (genetically?) an anxious, overachieving woman with a lot of demands on her. so, i have left the initiative up to her and i will go back into suspended animation whilst trying to solve the attachment issues i have with he younher sisters. i am so grateful (simultaneously sad) that there are others on-line that do understand the ghenna of adoption.

  22. Hyacinth writes that many adoptees wait until their a-mother is gone before they search.

    Many adoptees have no choice. The backlash and fighting, etc that would take place if my AP's ever knew me to search would be unbearable. Yes, I'm an adult and I am losing precious time. And yes, they are wrong in their thinking. But I could not have such circumstances and see and care for them on a daily basis while it was going on. I would explode.

    Did I decide any of this? No. Adoption decided it for me. And it stinks. But for many adoptees there is no way to navigate these waters and remain sane



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