I was adopted as an infant and even some 60 years later, never knew who my biological parents were. I never knew if heart disease, cancer or dementia ran in my family; or whether I was 50% Irish, German, British or what. I had never seen someone who looked like me, or even a little like me.
I had been adopted by two wonderful parents, so throughout my life I never really cared too much about “who” I was from a genetic sense. I truly didn’t think about it very much except when new doctors asked me the inevitable questions relating to, “What health issues run in your family?” I always just drew big lines through the pages of questions relating to medical history while shrugging my shoulders. I just didn’t know anything relating to my biological roots.
Recently, however, my world has changed.
I, along with my husband and adult sons, did 23andMe DNA tests. I had thought it would be interesting, especially for my sons (who have already started getting those questions about medical history from their docs). While they had some ancestry insights on my husband’s side, my family history had of course been a blank slate. I had hoped that the 23andMe tests would offer at least some helpful info on my side of things, and I was excited for us to get our results.
The test results finally came back and I suddenly had new-found insights into my heritage.
52.4% British and Irish; 22.8% French and German; and 2% Italian. Ah, perhaps an explanation for my pale complexion and why I get so easily sunburned!
My sons also received their own set of percentages that at least began to fill-in some info on their unique genetic blueprints.
But another revelation was also presented to me. I had DNA matches to several second and third cousins. Even more unexpectedly, I had DNA matches who had my birth mother’s maiden name listed in their profile as a family name in their ancestral tree. That meant something! I had found biological kin.
With the names of several newfound cousins in hand I began a free trial on Ancestry.com. Using the info I now had, along with the info from adoption paperwork, it wasn’t hard to identify my probable birth mom. Remember I hadn’t had her first name initially.
While I hadn’t really ever thought much about my biological birth parents, having a possible identification of my birth mom seemed to open up an opportunity to learn more about “me.” So with growing excitement I decided I’d build my family tree on the site and see what I could uncover.
If you have never seen Ancestry.com the outcome you are looking for when building your family tree is a large number of linked boxes. Parents linked to their kids; grandparents and those before them, all linked to each other. Linked means family. Generations of links mean a view into your ancestry in terms of people and potentially even relating to the health of your genes.
The first decision I had to make was what name to put in my box, “Diane Marie Doran” or “Theresa Gale Diedrich”; adopted name I’d had all my life, or my biological birth name I’d had for weeks.
The question seemed simple enough. “Who am I?”
I started with my biological birth name as I thought that made the most sense in finding all the linkages to my new found “biological family”.
Initially the box labeled with my birth name (a somewhat foreign name I had never used) sat there seemingly unconnected to anyone but the maiden name of a woman I didn’t even know. It was kind of a lonely feeling. But I kept trying to form other connections around me.
On Ancestry.com there is this concept of getting a leaf (a hint to moving forward on building your tree)…but no matter what I did or what I searched on, I just couldn’t get any clues. No leaf, no info.
My box just sat there with the one connection to my birth mom’s maiden name. At one point I even deleted my tiny two-box family tree completely, it just seemed so futile.
But the next day I started over with some snippets of info that I had found with some online searching (it is amazing what you can learn on the internet; almost scary, actually). I found an article on what I surmised was my biological grand-dad along with mention of his three children. With a little more sleuthing I was confidant that I had found my birth mom.
With the grand-dad’s name I found the correct Diedrich family tree (which thankfully was not set up as private so I could take more than a peek).
I got a leaf, and then another.
Soon it was raining leaves.
From there I quickly developed many generations of connected boxes (only on my biological mom’s side as I didn’t know my biological dad’s name as yet). I was amazed at the ability to pull up photos of biological relatives’ weddings, their high school yearbook photos, newspaper clippings, military paperwork, immigration documents and so much more. I felt like I was learning so much about my biological roots; when my family migrated from Germany and more. It was fascinating, especially the historical records one could pull up and see.
It was so fun that I wanted to add my “real” family to see all of their historical info as well. I was so excited to see the entire “me” unfolding in the myriad of interconnected boxes. I thought I’d add my husband, sons, adopted brother and my adoptive parents. I was eager to see some familiar names and start seeing those connections take shape as well.
But that is when I was told that I had to choose. I had to “set a preference” in my ancestral tree: Biological parents (and family) or adoptive; one or the other.
I tried to over-ride this default, adding my adopted brother as a sibling under my biological family tree; but then he showed up under my birth mother versus our adoptive mom! I tried to trick the app, but to no avail. I thought it wasn’t very kind of the app to make me have to choose.
Perhaps this requirement for me to choose, to set a preference, was just a design decision that some engineer thought made complete sense. Clearly that individual didn’t have to involve two sets of families to answer the question, “Who am I?”
All of this irritated me, confused me…and frankly, made me just a bit emotional. I had to decide. Which “representation” of me was more important? Which set of roots (DNA or a lifetime of living) was more important?
That’s when it really hit me.
I had thought the genetics of my ancestry was so important, but staring at the interconnected boxes of strangers made me feel like an outsider. Worse, staring at my adoptive family now made me feel just a bit like a traitor. Weren’t they my real family? But I started wondering…I wondered how my adopted relatives depicted me on their own family trees. Was I there in a connected box? Or perhaps I was a box floating out in the cosmos, with a dotted line saying, “adopted.” Now my brain really began to spin.
Should my family tree be the parents who chose me, loved me and cared for me? Should it be the cousins I have known over the course of my life? By this time I had found many scans of documents and bits and pieces of my adoptive ancestors’ lives. Here were all the people I had actually known and cared about, many of who were no longer living, like grandparents, aunts and uncles. None of these people shared my DNA; they had just shared my life. I looked at these boxes (with my preference set to adoptive family) with great fondness. I remembered these people. They were biologically linked to my parents, just not to me.
Then I clicked over to my biological tree. These boxes and linkages contained no real emotional ties; the people were foreign to me. The linkages might have appeared connected to me on the screen, but I felt no connection. I was fascinated by the linkage, but emotionally ill-at-ease. To some extent I felt like I was eavesdropping on another family, clicking on their photos and moments; trying desperately to feel some connection and sense of inclusiveness.
I know that the whole point of the site is biological kin. But at that moment I couldn’t think why I cared beyond the statistics of 52.4% British and Irish; 22.8% French and German; and 2% Italian. Except maybe to know more about health history…so is the benefit of my entire ancestral search really about how my biological family tree members have died?
I think about what is more important, the “who” I could have been versus the “who” that I am.
The adopted me is who I am, why I am not a fashionista, why I love gardening, my sense of ethics, why kindness is paramount to me, and maybe even why I became a writer. My adoptive dad’s love for developing an amazing vocabulary, my adoptive mom’s insistent voice to be kind, open-minded and caring. That is all what made me, me.
I finally decided, after making a few notes on my biological roots for my children, that I will set my preference for the adopted me. That is really the “me” and the family I know. I feel it somehow honors my adoptive parents, who were the best parents in the world. And it leaves me in a comfortable familiar space, with comfortable familiar names, in comfortable familiar boxes.
The linkages may not be based on DNA, but the linkages are real. The linkages are based on a lifetime of shared moments and connections (still ongoing today).
And as for finding my birth mom?
Yes I found her. That’s another story for another time.
Let’s just say I couldn’t have had better parents than the ones who raised me.
Mom and Dad…missing you even more today and wish you could see your wonderful grandsons as the bright and loving young men they are.
That’s what true family is all about after all…who you have loved…who you have lost… who remains in your heart…and who you will always remember.