My siblings learnt I existed from an online DNA test

As Mother’s Day approaches, I remember the anxiety I felt 30 years ago, having decided to call my birth mother for the first time. Now, decades later, I feel some anxiety again but also excitement and anticipation. I have just connected with my biological half-sister. Up until seven weeks ago, she did not know I existed.

I grew up in Houston, Texas, the daughter of loving parents. They had been unable to conceive and were thrilled when their doctor told them about a woman who was seeking a family to adopt her unborn child. They collected me from the hospital when I was three days old.

From infancy, I was told stories about being adopted, about the depth of my parents’ love for me and about how they had chosen me. I never doubted their love nor felt I was any less loved or cherished by them than my younger brother, my parents’ biological son, who was born less than 15 months after my adoption.

Being adopted made me feel special. I was chosen; my parents had gone to great lengths for me to be their daughter.

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Leah as a 5-year-old. She grew up knowing she was adopted, chosen, and loved.

My story of finding my biological roots began in 1988. I was 22 years old and in my last year of a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas in Austin.

I was taking a public speaking class and had decided to give a speech on adoption. My research led me to speak with a woman who worked with birth mothers at Lutheran Social Services. (A year later, I discovered she was my sister-in-law, married to my birth father’s eldest son.)

My research also led me to an Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (Alma) meeting. This group, which worked with birth parents, adoptees and adoptive parents, primarily focused on helping anyone in the adoption triangle search for connections. I wrote my speech and moved on.

A few months later, it was exam time. I needed a break from my studies and decided, on a whim, to go to the Texas capitol building to see if I could find my name in the state birth records. This was the “first step” in the search process, as described by Alma, but for me, a diversion. Three hours later, I was stunned to have found not only the name I was registered under but also what appeared to be the names of two of my siblings.

The next day, I had the birth certificates of two of my half-sisters and, therefore, the name of my birth mother, as well as her address and phone number. She lived close to where I had lived since childhood and where my parents, the mother and father I grew up with, still lived. Later I found out that my birth family regularly came into the bakery I worked at as a teenager. At the time, I didn’t know what to do next.

Leah aged 2, with her younger brother who was born 15 months after her parents adopted her,

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Leah aged 2, with her younger brother who was born 15 months after her parents adopted her,

I decided to tell my parents, who were distressed by my discovery. My adoption had been a private, closed one, meaning there is no interaction of any kind between the birth mother and the prospective adoptive family and no identifying information exchanged. The record of the biological parent is kept sealed, and often the biological father is not recorded, even on the original birth certificate. My parents believed my detective work and findings had breached an agreement they made with my birth mother. They agreed, however, to contact the lawyer who handled the adoption so we could meet with him. The lawyer said he would give my birth mother my contact information so she could call or write to me if she wanted to. I never heard from her.

One year later, as Mother’s Day approached, I heard Paul Simon’s Mother and Child Reunion, dedicated to a young woman about my age by her birth mother, who was trying to find her. The song moved me and I decided to reach out to my birth mother myself.

I wrote a script designed to keep her from hanging up on me, and, after rehearsing it, I called her. It was early May 1989 when I heard my birth mother’s voice for the first time. She asked how I had come by her phone number. I think she was reassured that I had had it for a year without making contact, and we spoke for 45 minutes, but it quickly became evident that I was unlikely to ever speak with her again. She had kept my birth secret for 23 years and had no intention of revealing it to anyone now. She also considered that it would be deceitful to be in contact with me without disclosing my existence to her children.

I learned that the one person she had told about her pregnancy was my birth father, who she was in a relationship with at the time. I later learned that she had concealed her pregnancy from the four children she already had, and also from my birth father’s four children, aged 6 to 18 at the time of her pregnancy, despite her children living full time with her and my birth father’s children often visiting.

It occurred to me that this was probably my only opportunity to find out who my birth father was. I hadn’t really considered his significance until now.

Leah in 1990 with Papa John, her birth father, who had thought about her every day since the day she was born.

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Leah in 1990 with Papa John, her birth father, who had thought about her every day since the day she was born.

I didn’t want to ask her directly for his name for fear she would refuse to tell me. She had been referring to him as Gregg, so I innocently asked: “So my father’s name was Gregg?” Without a pause, she said: “His name was John Gregg. Everyone called him Gregg.” I had his name. She said he had been in insurance when I was born, so I had one other piece of information to help me make contact.

During the conversation, my birth mother had been matter of fact, neither warm nor cold. She answered the questions I asked but did not ask me anything about my life. She told me she had moved on, and her tone of voice and lack of apparent emotion seemed to confirm this. The conversation ended slightly awkwardly. I shifted my attention to my birth father.

I looked in the Houston phone book (where we all had lived when I was born) to see if there were any John Greggs. There were only two, and one week later, with the help of a member of Alma, I heard my birth father’s voice as I listened in on a three-way call. When he told the Alma representative he would like to speak to me, she said I was on the line. I felt a flutter of excitement and anticipation.

Papa John, as I later called him, was elated I had called. He said not a day had passed since my birth that he hadn’t thought of me. He had kept his promise to my birth mother and never told a soul about me and now was excited about meeting me and introducing me to not only my siblings, but also everyone else in his family – even my siblings’ mother and family.

We arranged to meet the following month when I was visiting my parents in Houston. I was still studying in Austin but would visit my parents over summer break. He wrote me letters. He described feeling “about as unnerved as a kid pacing back and forth, across the street from the home of the classroom ‘belle extraordinaire’, trying to summon the courage to cross the street and ring the doorbell”. The day before we were to meet, he asked if we could postpone the visit another few days because he hadn’t finished preparing something. When we met, he presented me with an album/scrapbook he had made for me, detailing my family tree with photos, including his own baby photos and other memorabilia from his life. Everything was captioned in beautiful calligraphy.

Leah's birth father delayed their first visit so he could finish preparing an album for her, packed with memorabilia from his own life.

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF

Leah’s birth father delayed their first visit so he could finish preparing an album for her, packed with memorabilia from his own life.

One of my first impressions was that I probably inherited my calm temperament from him. This aspect of my personality had been the only reminder to me during childhood that I had been adopted. Friends of my brother’s and mine thought we looked very similar, and although both my parents were much shorter than I am, my brother was a similar height to me so the difference in heights didn’t seem strange.

That Christmas I met all the family members connected with my birth father – my four half-siblings, their spouses, their ex-spouses, all their children, their exes’ new children and partners. I met my half-siblings’ mother and her mother. They all considered me family. I was overwhelmed, how I imagined a newborn baby would feel with all the attention. But I still hadn’t met my birth mother or the four half-siblings who are her children.

Meeting the Greggs also strongly reinforced my bond with the parents who had raised me. They were my “real” parents, the ones who I identified with. Although I felt welcomed by the Gregg clan and grew to love them, I felt so different from them. It seemed certain that I was mostly who I was because of my upbringing; I was so much the product of nurturing. My parents were highly educated, valuing an intellectual life, and this became a priority for me. They loved music, especially classical, and shared this love with me. My mother was particularly charity-minded and compassionate, seeking to serve the most disadvantaged in society. I have made an effort to do this in my own life, volunteering in the Dominican Republic as a teenager one summer, and for the last five years, gathering with some of Christchurch’s lonely and hungry on Friday evenings and helping serve a meal. My parents also love to travel and discover new cultures, another legacy that has passed from them to me and my children.

As I developed relationships with some of the Greggs, I occasionally thought of my birth mother and my other four half-siblings. I knew their names and had seen photos of them in high school yearbooks. Unbeknown to me, I had even watched my half-brother play baseball in front of an elderly neighbour’s home on multiple occasions when I was a child. I learned this when I told my neighbour the story of how I had discovered my birth mother and half-siblings’ identities. Hearing their names, my neighbour said her grown twin sons had been close friends with my half-brother.

Leah with her half-brother John, in 1989.

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Leah with her half-brother John, in 1989.

In 1990, I moved to New Zealand, engaged to a Kiwi. Over the next 20 years, I worked as a management consultant for KPMG, resigned to become a full-time parent, completed a Master of Education degree and a Diploma in Publishing, home schooled two children and became a registered teacher and freelance editor.

In 2011, following the Christchurch earthquakes, I began to suffer severe anxiety, culminating in panic attacks. Eventually, I discovered that my extreme symptoms were brought on by early menopause. I needed to decide on a treatment and was told that family history was necessary to determine the approach. I didn’t have that information.

I woke at 3am that night and decided I would call my birth mother right away, reasoning that I had nothing to lose: the worst that could happen would be for her to hang up on me. Twenty-two years after our first conversation, she was pleased to hear from me. We spoke for three hours. She still didn’t want to meet me or for her family to know about me, but was happy to speak on the phone. She said she loved me and that giving me up was the hardest thing she had ever done.

I spoke with her a few more times over the next year and then lost contact. I went overseas for nine months and when I returned home, her phone had been disconnected. I attempted to locate her but eventually accepted I wouldn’t find her. I checked the internet now and then for an obituary. In September 2017, I discovered she had died. On the website where her death was announced were 104 pictures. I saw her face for the first time.

Before her death, I had decided that out of respect for her wishes, I would never contact my half-siblings. After her death, I resolved that I wouldn’t want revelation of my existence to cause my siblings pain or a sense of unfinished business with their mother. I was at peace with coming to the end of the line.

Many of Leah's character traits - including her love of classical music - she attributes to the parents who adopted her.

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF

Many of Leah’s character traits – including her love of classical music – she attributes to the parents who adopted her.

In 2014, my best friend introduced me to the Ancestry.com genealogy website, which allows members to search historical records and set up family trees. AncestryDNA is part of Ancestry.com and offers DNA testing to determine ethnicity and DNA matches. My friend helped me set up family trees for both my adoptive and biological families and taught me how to search for records. I could access information from other Ancestry.com members’ trees who shared common family members and contact them to get further information or clarification. I discovered information about my parents’ families that they didn’t even know. For Christmas last year, the same friend bought me a DNA kit. I never imagined what would happen next.

I posted my saliva sample (I had to spit into a plastic vial) to the company in January. In March, two weeks after receiving my results, I received notification of a match. It was my eldest half-sister. Ancestry’s algorithm determined we were “closely related”.

I felt distressed that I had inadvertently revealed my existence to her, and conflicted about what to say if she chose to contact me, which I thought was fairly likely. The message came a week later. She said it looked like we were related and she would love to find out how by comparing the names and locations that appear in both our family trees. She asked me whether I recognised anyone from a list of names.

I crafted my response carefully. I said we are closely related and explained that I live in New Zealand but was born and grew up in Houston and was an adoptee. I said I was happy to share more if she would like me to. Her reply began: “Please share…” I told her and prayed the revelation would not be painful for her. Her response was overwhelming. She said she was in tears, that it was a miracle that we found each other, that she couldn’t imagine not being in contact on a regular basis. She said it took less than a minute after reading my email to feel love for me, her baby sister. She also said my birth father was the only person her mother dated that she liked/loved. Soon after, she revealed my existence to her three siblings.

I lost my beloved brother (the only sibling I grew up with) to suicide in 2014. My half-brothers by my birth father died before that, and my half-sisters on his side hadn’t seemed interested in a relationship with me. Both my birth parents have died. Now I have the possibility of four more siblings in my life. In July, I wil meet my eldest half-sister and possibly my other three siblings.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I am grateful for the woman who gave me life and even more grateful for the one who loved me as if she had carried me herself. She and my dad both turn 90 this year. I will celebrate them. I am so much of who I am because of their love and guidance. From my birth until now, my parents have spent their lives trying to ensure I have the best life possible. I am thankful that my birth mother put me up for adoption. However, I am eternally grateful that my parents chose me.

(Excerpt) Read more Here | 2019-05-10 17:00:00
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