When I first found out at age 19 that I was adopted, my life turned into a telenovela. I was no longer my parents’ perfect little Italian daughter but a Colombian adoptee, raised to know nothing about her birth culture. All I knew was my birth mother’s name from my adoption paperwork, that I was a lighter-medium skinned Colombian and that the orphanage said I was likely a mestiza (mixed race).
In 2017, about four years after I found out that I was an international adoptee, I decided to do a 23andMe DNA test. I was tired of not knowing any answers about who I was at my very core. I had no idea how to go from being a proud Italian woman to a Latina who didn’t know the first thing about Colombian culture. All I knew was that I felt somehow less than.
I didn’t belong to my family anymore. How could I when they lied to me for so long? When they often made fun of Latinos like me?
After I knew about my adoption, my family would tell me that I was white like them, so I had no right to complain. When strangers told me to get out of their country, I “must have misunderstood.” They didn’t believe that racism existed. For most of my life, I was forced to study the Italian language in school, work at my dad’s Italian restaurant and eat pasta more days than I could count.
It had been all I’d known of my culture growing up, but it always felt wrong. Like there was more to me. And just four years after discovering my adoption, I could finally say that I was a woman of color. A Latina with Indigenous, Eastern Asian and some African roots. That less than half of my genetic makeup was Italian or even European.
Finally, I had some answers. Finally, I felt like I could really make connections with other adoptees of color through online groups on Facebook and Twitter. Finally, I knew why I felt different from my entirely European family that was straight off the boat from Italy and Portugal.
“Finally, I knew why I felt different from my entirely European family that was straight off the boat from Italy and Portugal.”
Before I knew I was adopted I had grown up on stories of my father tending goats in Italy and my mother washing clothes in a stream in Portugal. It was always instilled into me to have pride in our culture ... just not my birth culture.
Looking back at their decision, and now knowing I am adopted, it hurts more knowing that they also spoke Spanish and could have taught me my birth language. The frustration over the way I was raised built up until I went into therapy while I was in college. Eventually, I was able to come to terms with some things, while pushing others aside since it was easier.
It took a long time for me to come to peace with the fact that not everything is black and white. Now I’m 26 and being a parent of two sons is more than enough for me to feel like I have a connection with my biological family. I am starting to heal.
Then in 2019, just two years after my DNA test and because of it, I received an email. “Hi, this may be weird and I don’t mean to bother you but I’m your half-sibling.” In a matter of seconds, I went from having zero biological relatives other than my children, to having a sibling only a few years older than me.
Finally, there was someone else out there like me. After years of feeling like the broken, weird, outsider in my adoptive family, there was someone else.
“In a matter of seconds, I went from having zero biological relatives other than my children, to having a sibling that was only a few years older than me.”
Initially, I was overwhelmed with joy, but I soon realized that it went hand in hand with grief. How was it fair that I had no idea of this? That we, two siblings, were separated and yet adopted to the same country? Why did the world think that that was okay? Why did my parents act threatened when they found out about my sibling?
I exchanged emails back and forth throughout that first day with my half-sibling, Sam (whose name has been changed), and discovered that we had so many things in common. It was the first time in my life that I actually experienced similarities with a relative. All of my life, I had very little in common with my cousins and even my (adoptive) brother ― which made more than a little sense when I found out that I was adopted.
I really tried to not get my hopes up, but I had started to think about the possibility of visiting my sibling once we got to know each other better. And I had hope of finally having someone in my family that I could get along with.
I was entirely too eager, and not thinking things through. All I had known about adoption reunions came from television shows and news reports showing happy biological family members hugging and crying in each other’s arms. I had jumped into these conversations over email with such trust, joy, and excitement because I expected the same response.
“All I had known about adoption reunions came from television shows and news reports showing happy biological family members hugging and crying in each other’s arms.”
In the brief exchanges over a couple of days, I told Sam about finding out at 19 that I was adopted, how I loved to read and that I had two children ― his nephews! I could tell we both were eager to have a birth sibling to talk to since we were both adopted.
I told practically everyone in my life about the exchange. My husband, parents, friends and my group of mom friends online. I was that excited. The only one who had a hard time with it was my mother. She grew quiet the first time I mentioned it to her over the kitchen table at her house, as my dad urged me to visit this sibling I had just “met” online.
I felt like my head was going to explode when I received another message from the DNA site, that I had yet another half-sibling.
I should have realized that this was more than a coincidence, but I naively asked Sam if he knew anything about the other sibling, with whom we shared a biological mother. He did — because they were both adopted and raised by the same adoptive family.
Due to my past with my parents lying about my adoption, I couldn’t handle such a simple lie of omission, so things escalated quickly.
I accused them both of lying, writing a scathing email about how I felt wronged. How could he expect to start a relationship with me after leaving out the truth about our family? How did he expect me to trust them, when they lied by omission about the existence of another sibling? How did they think I would feel after finding out that they had looked me up online and decided together that it would be best to lie to me?
We argued back and forth trying to explain our sides, but the damage had already been done in just a few days. I was distraught. Angry. Frustrated. Heartbroken. Once again, my family thought that it would be best to lie to me. But this time was worse, in a way.
They had both known about me for months, looked up my blog, and social media, and they had both decided that it would be easier to just not tell me about the eldest of the two, Jamie (her name has also been changed). Sam wanted to try for a relationship with me, and Jamie wanted no part of it. For them it was the best solution to pretend Jamie didn’t exist.
“As adoptees I would have thought they would understand how any information about my birth family was vital to me. That hiding any part of our family would hurt me, or any other adoptee.”
As adoptees I would have thought they would understand how any information about my birth family was vital to me. That hiding any part of our family would hurt me, or any other adoptee. But since they had grown up together and knew about their adoptions since they were small, it didn’t really process for them why it felt like such a betrayal to me
The anger was all-consuming. It was a tidal wave I couldn’t control, and I sent very angry emails asking for an apology for the lie. We fought. They refused to see it as a lie. It was one sibling protecting the other because Jamie wasn’t ready for a relationship with me. Their bond, from growing up together, and being biologically related, is something I could never have. And I realized that that was why I was so hurt. I felt rejected and alone. Adoption removed me from a life in an orphanage … but it also took my first family away.
When it comes to reunions of birth families, they are often not like the movies. There’s heartbreak, anger, numbness and general confusion. People often expect an instant connection with their biological relatives because they share blood, but that can take some time or often never fully develops.
I was never really interested in finding my birth family until the opportunity presented itself. International adoptions are often chosen because the process can be easier, and adoptive parents don’t have to worry about the birth family becoming involved. Which meant that I really didn’t expect to find my birth family unless I spent a lot of money on a private investigator in Colombia.
“People often expect an instant connection with their biological relatives because they share blood, but it can take some time or often never even fully develop.”
Adoption has left some deep scars. Scars that I know that others share. Scars that don’t just go away when we finally get to connect with a person who shares the same genes. Adoption is more complicated than the movies make it out to be, and reunions with your birth families are even more so.
My biological siblings and I may have come from the same mother, but we don’t share the same experiences. Society has pressured us to immediately connect upon meeting one another when we barely could pick the other out from a crowd of strangers. It’s okay for reunions to be imperfect and painful because not all things in life are meant to be the way the movies portray.
Over the last year, I didn’t have any regret about learning about them, and I held out hope that we could heal and connect further down the road. But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has given us an additional push to work on our relationship. Our adoptions have left trauma for all of us in entirely different ways, but we have moved past what happened, as much as we can, since we do not want to lose the chance to get to know one another. There’s nothing like a pandemic to show how important family is, and having a relationship with both siblings during this time has filled some of the holes in my heart that adoption left. I’m beyond glad to have them in my life, and only hope that one day soon the world is a little less dangerous so we can all meet in person.
Ultimately, it took longer than I thought it would for our relationship to prosper, as well as many, many, hours of therapy to get to a stable place. Reunions with biological relatives can be beautiful but there are so many layers to everything — which made me determined to share my story and help protect adoptees from rushing into things without the proper support.
We may never be what we were supposed to be. But we are still family ― flaws and all.
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