' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Finding Your Roots could be the conversation starter you need to talk about adoption

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Finding Your Roots could be the conversation starter you need to talk about adoption

Jacket photo on Birthmark, 1979
Last night I watched as rapper LL Cool J dealt with discovering that his mother was adopted, that the grandfather who lovingly raised him was not his biological grandfather.

He was shocked and surprised because of the love and caring he felt from the grandfather, and stunned about his mother because she herself did not know she was adopted. Later, LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) and his mother were invited into her and his biological clan, one where they found people who they looked like, and also shared a love of boxing. Both his biological grandfather and grand uncle were successful boxers. His uncle was a champion who held a title for four years. Together this newly reunited family watched an old film of his uncle and grandfather boxing, and shared photos of the boxing gym where this grandfather (or his uncle, there was a lot of information to take down) trained both white and black boxers. Apparently on the back cover of one of his albums, LL Cool J is in a boxing stance with a punch. When
the photograph of his actual grandfather emerged, he immediately said, I can see the resemblance there. (Google LL Cool Jay; the boxing photos will show up.*)

All this was revealed on one of the most important shows for the cause of unsealing birth records of the adopted, Finding Your Roots on PBS. In its sixth season, black historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., traces the lineage of well-known people back as far as they can find it, always several generations.

Why is this show--just an hour six or eight times a season--such an important piece of unlocking sealed birth records of the adopted, or really anyone? Because it's a high-toned intellectual endeavor focusing on the absolute importance of knowing your roots. It is the kind of show that can reach lawyers, legislators, judges, governors, adoption workers, and their spouses, as well as adoptive parents. My husband Tony and I have been watching it for years, and I doubt we ever get through an episode without at least glassy eyes, if not downright tears. I can imagine the spouse of a judge or a legislator watching and telling the lawmaker about it, and maybe moving the emotional needle towards openness, old strictures be damned!

Richard Hill's convoluted
search and ultimate reunion. 
Last night when Cool J said something--I don't remember the exact words--but it touched a nerve:  Well, that did it! I said to Tony, somewhere between tears and laughter, for we are amused ourselves at how easily we are brought to tears.

The other rapper featured last night--the show groups together people who have something in common--was P Diddy or Sean Combs, who sychonistically was also in yesterday's New York Times crossword puzzle. (Clue: Rapper who would make a good barber.) Combs's father died when he was two, but he was not told the truth of how he died. He discovered it in an old newspaper clipping when he was in college. His father was a drug dealer and died during a shootout. Upon learning  his father was a drug dealer, Combs said: he was an entrepreneur--I kinda always wondered where I got that from. Drug-dealing is not the ideal entrepreneurship, of course, but blacks had limited opportunity, and Combs saw the connection with the way he lives his life, and how he built his business.

Now Sean Combs knew where he "got that from." Now more of his life made sense. I don't recall the show ever doing an adoptee search--as in someone comes in who is adopted themselves--it's usually a parent who is adopted. Tia Leoni's mother was adopted. When that happens, the guest and child of the adoptee, usually says something like, "she always wondered but there was no way she could find out.... " Gates and his team of genealogists and DNA sleuths find the ancestor and move on from that, as he did last night.

The point about the show is, the guests unfailingly say something about the meaning and importance of knowing their roots. How it fills in a hole. How they always wondered. How they feel more connected than they did before. The comments are unscripted, usually short, but touch upon the heart of the matter. To see ancestral names written down in a marriage ledger, or a slave record, or a census report of a century ago is incredibly powerful and emotional. The guests speak of always wondering where they got this or that trait from, of now having the gaps in their story filled in. Similar or related occupations show up frequently from long lost forebears. In photographs they see traces of themselves. Just like I do. Just like we all do who are able to.

The first memoir from a
first/birth mother, 1979. 
I can't help but see that the public who watches this show cannot be moved to not only think about their own roots, as I do, but to reflect upon the adopted people they know. The obvious hole in their identity must come to mind. Do adoptive parents watch? Or do they turn away? That's a unknown, but fathoming a guess, I'd say that many of them don't want to watch. Don't want to deal with the question of their children's identities. Don't want to be reminded. My daughter's adoptive mother, an inveterate reader, was told about my memoir Birthmark by a relative--in 1979, the first of its kind--but she didn't bother to track it down. She could have gotten it through the library in Madison, Wisconsin, she could have found it at a bookstore. But she did not want to know more about that other side of her childrens' adoptions.

Today, what a good tool Finding Your Roots could be for adoptive parents of children of any age to use as a conversation starter about their adoption, even if their children have never, ever mentioned they were interested in their origins.

I've told this story before, but it's worth repeating: One of my husband's best friends from college, we'll call him Bert, was adopted. His adoptive mother, from what Bert's told me, never knew he was curious about his roots. He learned he was adopted at 12 from a cousin, and when he asked, his mother confirmed it. His adoption was never brought up again at home. On his father's death bed, he asked Bert not to search "because it would kill your mother." So the searching Bert did--unsuccessfully--was done without her knowing. When she died, Bert asked an aunt--by now, our friend was in his seventies--and Presto! The aunt knew who his mother and father were. The maid of someone in the family, who though married, had an affair. Unfortunately, she was deceased.

My point is, any show that demonstrates the utter importance and deep emotion involved in knowing your roots, is a plus for us. It's why each show like This is Us with its initial adoption theme, or Bull where a casual comment about the need to know makes it into the script, or a reunion on the Today show, is another nail in the coffin of sealed records.

TLC's three-night program about baby selling, Taken At Birth, is another that is as nearly as much a police procedural (okay, I'm stretching that somewhat) as one about roots. The stuff that comes from the mouth of the first sold baby--who is now 70 something--is forceful, honest, poignant, and so amply demonstrates the need to know where one fits into the tree of life. Though I initially shied away from Taken at Birth--thinking I'd be crying all the way through--it isn't like that, and is so worth watching. The main person talking is one of the children who were sold, and who has devoted her life to tracking down the parents of the "Hicks Babies." You can watch all episodes on the computer or On Demand.

Adoptees who can't bring up the subject itself might ask their parents--yes, it will be edgy if adoption has never been talked about--if they watch Finding Your Roots, and suggest that they might, er, find it interesting. If nothing else, it will be a big clue that this subject has been eating at you. You never know, they might know more about your biological family than they have let on--because you never asked. And because you never asked, they never knew you were curious.--lorraine
*Copyright prevents us from showing here.

Link to the trailer to Taken at Birth here,

Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA
I loved this book. Unlike the author who was adopted, I just found out that my mother lied to me all my life about who my father was. I'm 66 yrs old! So needless to say, finding out this late in life was a mind blower. His story has inspired me simply because he was so tenacious about finding out who his birth parents were. The ebook also includes an addendum which explains all about DNA tests, how they work, and which one to use. ...I have been able to figure out which family I came from, but like the author, I'm still trying to figure out which of the three brothers was the culprit! It's been a very valuable tool.... Well written and a great drama.

Finding Your Roots: Bastards show up in all family trees


  1. People are amazingly good at cognitive dissonance. I have brought up to people who are into ancestry the need of us who are adopted is no different and they still don't get it. It is often with a patronizing and inantalizing attitude. We the adopted had choices made for us and are bound (by love? honor? loyalty?) to not go against them by seeking our roots.

  2. So weird, Kate, you would think such ancestry buffs would immediately understand. I guess they've drunk the adoptive kool-aid by the jugful. I know that bringing up what has been a verboten subject at home is difficult, but it's got to be done!

    I was rereading parts of Birthmark today and came across the section where I describe a business lunch with a man at the time I was writing Birthmark. Obviously I shared my story. He goes on to tell me that he and his wife were contacted by the adoption agency where they got their "lovely" daughter, and her natural parents, now married, now successful and wealthy, with three other children (full siblings!), had come back to New York for a vacation and they wanted to meet their daughter, now 20. BECAUSE SHE HAD NEVER TOLD HER ADOPTIVE PARENTS SHE WAS INTERESTED IN HER ROOTS, they said: No to such a meeting. They didn't give her a choice; they didn't even tell her.

    I can remember this guy's face to this day. What do you say to that? I was sick. The year would have been 1976 or 77. Did the woman ever meet their natural mother and father, I wonder. If only...she had spoken up....

    1. There's a good chance a child growing up in that situation back then, might not think to ask. Just as children do know that something is wrong with their family situation, it can take a long time to sink in, or perhaps never does - however a child is raised, it can seem fairly normal, since that's all they know; especially if they were raised to believe that their birth mother simply "didn't want them," or reached that conclusion on their own, since she wasn't there.

      Having said that though, what he and his wife did was manipulative, wrongheaded and cruel. No matter what, their daughter was an adult and had a right to make her own decision. This man may have been a good person in other respects, but for this particular test of character and judgment, he failed big-time.

  3. I recall a tv show about 20 years ago about "mother loss" and its affect on infants and children. The show did a good job describing how children can feel abandoned, when their mothers die, or leave them, or are imprisoned and also feel a sense of disconnected-ness, and that there is life-long pain and loss.
    After the panelists finished their presentations, they opened up the rest of the hour to questions from the audience.
    One person asked if the same issues would apply to children, including infants, who were adopted. Immediately, the group presenter changed her stance and said," oh nooooo, adoption is totally different!!! Adopted children don't lose their mothers. They gain!!! They have mothers!! Adoption does not cause problems for children...adoption solves problems for children!!!"
    Of course, the audience cheered.
    I was shocked..the woman was either clueless or part of the child placement industry, or trying to justify something?
    But I have seen this denial many times. It is always the same old thing: adoption is wonderful, adoption never hurts anyone (especially the child) and no one should EVER say anything bad about adoption!!!!Because there is no loss!!

    1. So if that was person who studied loss, one can imagine parents thinking, no problem, the individual (now 20 or whatever...) has never asked.

    2. Exactly, and even when someone like the person in the audience does ask a question about adoption loss, they are quickly shot down....

    3. This makes me angry. As a Brit, the whole subject is somewhat different over here, but adoption loss is a real thing. I have the blessing of an extremely open adoption, my kids see me often and know exactly who I am and have done since birth. But that hasn't stopped their feelings. Both of them have struggled with abandonment issues (made worse during the divorce of their a-parents) especially towards their absent birth father. Despite contact with me and his parents, they still feel the loss of him.
      Those whose adoption was closed have no information at all, I can't even begin to imagine how difficult that must be. Kids need to know who they are and where they came from, even my seven year old has taken in interest in her family history and I am so happy that I am there to share it with her, that she knows exactly who she is.

  4. I love the show "Finding Your Roots"! Fortunately here in Europe my bro can download them for me.
    And have I told you all - my daughter (& her a-mom) are coming to visit in May!!! First time I will get to see her again after 50 years!!! I'm thrilled.

    1. Lee2,
      hope you have a wonderful visit! I imagine you are already planning now. Hope it all goes well for you.
      best wishes,

    2. Thanks kitta! Yes, planning already & getting a little anxious... :) My sister is planning on joining us too! Thank goodness!

  5. seeking and now foundNovember 12, 2019 at 10:47 AM

    Hoping any of the birth mothers can help me..after finding my birth mother and a happy reunion where she told me that she always loved me and never forgot me and phone calls everyday, she now doesn`t return any of my calls? I for my part have not been rude or asked too many questions re my birth (I was emotional and cried but apologized afterwards) and have spoken to her husband and they both said that they were glad that I found them.I also stated that I wasn`t worried if she decided not to tell her other children,I helped her (after her asking me to) with looking up some information that she needed and now nothing,not sure what I have done wrong? is this a common thing to happen? sorry to ask but I`m very much in the dark here.

    1. Of course I can't speak for your mother but here are some thoughts based on my own experience and that of first mothers I've known or read about. Reunions are a life-altering event for mothers and it's hard for them to get a handle on their emotions. Reunions often start with a honeymoon period where mothers can think of nothing else but their found child. They may get to a point where they feel they are neglecting their other children and other parts of their lives. They feel the need to stand back.

      Another thing that happens in some reunions is that the adoptee says things with the best of intentions that may trigger anger in the mother. Things like "You made the right decision. I'm glad I was adopted." The adoptee may indirectly send a message that the first mother is really not that important. "I only wanted medical information; I just wanted to know my roots." The first mother feels that her value is only as a source of information; she's not important as a person. She may also feel that you are comparing her to your adoptive mother and she doesn't measure up.

      The first mother spent years grieving over her lost child; then she put all her emotions into the new relationship, only to feel that she is being used and disrespected.

      I'd suggest maintaining contact but not demanding responses. Let your mother know you value her in her own right. Even something as simple as "It's so great to know someone who likes this (type of music, author, brand of beer) as much as I do. Little gestures help. Send her a note on the anniversary of your meeting.

    2. seeking and now foundNovember 12, 2019 at 9:33 PM

      Thanks Jane my adoptive mother was abusive to me,and i never forgot my birth mother searching for her for 35 years i said in my first letter that i would like to know her as a person and took guidance from your things not to say to a birth mother i have already told my mother just how much i love and value her i said to her that i had always considered her my mother and always will after i sent the first letter she phoned me the very next day,i was careful not to go into to much detail about my adopted mother i didn`t ask for any info re medical or roots just that i would love to know her and would she perhaps like to know me, we even made plans to meet in a few weeks time maybe she feels overwhelmed?

    3. Yes, she may well feel overwhelmed. First mother may feel a great sense of responsibility. How do I deal with this new and most important person in my life while continuing my life -- work, other children, family members, friends. Her husband may be supportive or at least doesn't oppose your relationship but other family members may be resentful or simply can't understand what all the fuss is about. Why she may seem distracted or moody.

      Let me assure you that while you haven't heard from your mother is a while, she still thinks of you.

    4. Seeking and now found,

      I’m an adoptive mom (I always like to just let people know that here as a preface) but I wanted to let you know about a great podcast that might help you as you navigate reunion. It’s called Adoptees On, and Haley (the podcaster) is an adoptee. She has such an amazing range of people on, and there have been dozens of adoptees sharing their reunion experiences, and also experts (many of them adoptees themselves) on how to navigate it. I highly recommend it and hope it helps. It’s one of the best podcasts I’ve ever listened to.

      Sending you positive vibes.

  6. seeking and now foundNovember 13, 2019 at 1:11 AM

    Thank you Jane and thank you for sharing all your advice on the website I have relied on it so much whilst deciding how to approach my mother i would have been lost without all of the advice

    1. And thank you. It’s rewarding to know we can make a difference.



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