Kathleen grew up with five siblings, and they were all biologically related to her parents–she was the only adoptee! As a child she was told that she was adopted, but it didn’t quite sink in until the topic of adoption came up in conversation and her mother reminded her, “you’re adopted too.” But what blew my mind was how the search for her first family wasn’t originated by her, her family found her and knew exactly where to look
Kathleen: 00:00 You meet people your whole life. You meet friends, you meet new family members, people are born, people die, but meeting someone who is your actual biological parent after you’re already, you know, at this point I was 18 years old is a very, very strange thing.
Damon: 00:30 This is “Who Am I, Really” a podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. Hey, it’s Damon on today’s show. I’m joined by Kathleen. Her journey as an adoptee is amazing because while she wanted to search for her family of origin, the search actually came to her at a very young age. You’re not going to believe how Kathleen’s story unfolded and you’ll hear just how fortunate she feels for how things turned out.
Damon: 01:09 I appreciate you taking time to do the show. Take me back to the beginning. I know you and I talked a little bit before, but take me back to the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your background, about growing up, where you were and what your community was like, what your family was like and your, your family structure.
Kathleen: 01:47 I was raised in a very, you know, culturally Irish family I would say. And what I always thought, looking back, what was so interesting about is the fact that I never, until I really knew that I was adopted, recognized the difference in our appearance, which to me today is very obvious. I mean, I, I have darker skin and darker complexion and they all look very, very Irish and have the, you know, the reddish hair and the freckles and green eyes. And I didn’t have that at all. And when I was growing up, I just didn’t notice it, which really says a lot about what children do and do not see as they’re, as they’re young.
Damon: 02:21 Absolutely. Yeah, I totally understand that. We just are kind of blinded to the differences between us because we’re all kids and it’s only when we get to be adults and we’re taught what our differences might be that we really start to recognize them. So true. So now tell me a little bit about when you discovered you were adopted or when you were told, how did that go down in your family?
Kathleen: 02:41 So I talked to my mom about this not long ago and I asked her when she told me I was adopted because I remember her telling me when I was nine years old. And she very, very much remembers telling me earlier. But I think the way that she told me was not very direct, it was sort of in a story type way, not the, you know, Kathleen, I’m sitting you down today to tell you you’re adopted, but you know, making references to adoption or making references to things that I guess as a kid I just didn’t pick up on. And so when I, when I was nine years old, I remember having a conversation with my older brother and we were talking about someone else who was adopted and my mom threw out, you’re adopted. And I was absolutely stunned.
Kathleen: 03:28 Yeah, I started looking at things differently. I wanted to get as much information as possible. At the same time, I really didn’t want to hurt my mom’s feelings. So my first reaction was I didn’t want to ask her many questions because I just felt that it might hurt her feelings. And so I did whatever I could back in the day to get information about, you know, being adopted and how I could get information about my biological parents. And really there, there just wasn’t much out there in terms of avenues to get that information
Kathleen: 04:05 I would have to say that I started searching in the early eighties but it wasn’t quite so earnest and what really happened was that my birth mother found me. And so that piece of course a lot easier and, and I was in high school at the time, so fortunately she found me. And you know, it’s interesting, the way that she found me is because it was a, I was a private adoption apparently. And when she was signing the adoption papers she was able to see the names of my adoptive parents. And so she always sort of had that information and was waiting for the right time to seek out.
Damon: 04:40 That’s incredible. So she is sitting there at the table, she’s made your adoption plan. She’s presumably signing the forms that are going to turn the rest of your caregiving and life over to another set of parents. And she’s able to see on the form who you’re going to and sat on the secret.
Kathleen: 04:59 Yeah. It’s funny because I’m actually a lawyer now, so I look back at that and think about, that’s kind of a malpractice situation, but I’m really happy about because it really worked out well for me.
Damon: 05:08 Yeah. Right. As a lawyer, the last thing that she wants someone to do, but I could see how it worked out very well for you. So how did that go? You said you were in high school and she reached out to you. How did it go?
Kathleen: 05:19 So, um, I, I think my family situation made it a little bit easier on everyone involved. So when I was in fourth grade, my adoptive parents divorced, which wasn’t easy at all, but, um, by the time my birth mother reached out to me, I was living with my mom and two of my brothers and she always sort of instilled a great amount of independence in all of us. You know, we did our own laundry, you know, we made our own lunches for school and so I was, I was very independent and I don’t think that, um, when she was first contacted by my birth mother that it was so much of a threat to her as it may be to other adoptive parents. And, and also, I mean, remember I’m the youngest of six, so I wasn’t the only child that may have impacted things as well. So, um, she, she got the letter and I know she waited on in a little bit and then she talked to me about it and I was just thrilled because I always knew that I wanted to meet my birth mother.
Kathleen: 06:21 Yeah. You know, I do. The interesting thing is, is that I happen to get the mail that day and when I looked at the letter, I just really thought there was something interesting about it that the handwriting on it was perfect. It, it almost looked a little bit like mine, which is crazy. And it was from Iowa and I thought, you know, what is that? And I knew there was something coming, so I was waiting for it and I knew my mom was going to tell me. And so, you know, when we sat down and talked about it, the letter really just asked my mom’s permission to kind of open the lines of communication between myself and my birth mother. and fortunately, she helped facilitate that. And so the first thing that happened afterwards was a phone call between myself and my birth mother, which was just unbelievable. It was such an interesting thing talking to someone for the first time and hearing the voice over the phone of a person that you know, you’ve always wondered about it for as long as you knew about that person.
Kathleen: 07:22 No, I, I, what I meant by that is I knew that my mom looked at the letter. I think I saw her crying, which is, you know, kind of sad and she, she was okay after it, but at the time I think she was just kind of shocked. And so when I noticed that she was upset by the letter, I thought, you know, that has to be my birth mother. It just has to be, and I knew in my heart that it was so, I let her wait on it for a little bit and I waited for her to tell me about it and she did just a couple of days later.
Kathleen: 07:51 Maybe two days or something like that? I’m sure it seemed like an eternity to me at the time. Um, but I was 16 years old and you know, very emotional about it. So it seemed much longer. But I think it was actually about two days.
Damon: 08:04 Yeah. She had to gather her own thoughts and emotions in order to really broach this topic with you. I’m sure that must’ve been crazy for you, both for you to sit there waiting and for her to finally find a strength and courage to bring this news to you. So what happened next? She’s got the letter, she says that your biological mother’s looking for you. What happened?
Kathleen: 08:24 She let me read the letter and it was, my birth mother is an excellent writer. Of course I uh, I was so impressed by the letter and it was just a wonderful thing to read. And you know, I talked to my mom about it and my mom asked me whether I’d be interested in meeting my birth mother and you know, I said, of course. And so she was the one who really has set up that first phone call and I spoke to her over the phone I think a couple of times. And I believe it was just a couple of months later that we set up a meeting. You know, I, I don’t that anyone had wanted it to happen too quickly because you know, I was a teenager. I mean, certainly I would’ve moved it along more quickly because I was impatient about pulsing. But my mom and my, uh, birth mother sort of worked it out so that we would meet a couple of months later and we had lunch.
Kathleen: 09:15 I was living in Racine, Wisconsin and that’s in southeast Wisconsin. And if you were to draw a line directly west, it goes straight to Dubuque, Iowa and it’s three hours west. So my birth mother was actually raised in the suburbs of Chicago in Glen View and then went to to Buke for college, which is when she got pregnant with me and she ended up staying there. She married and had actually four more children, which is a whole other story. But uh, she, she ended up staying in Dubuque and then, you know, my family was in Racine, Wisconsin.
Damon: 09:48 Wow. So you have four half siblings. Let’s come back to them in a minute. I want to know more about the first meeting. So you’ve taken your time, you’ve gotten to know each other by phone, and now it’s time to meet. What did you guys decide to do and how did you do it?
Kathleen: 10:02 So we met at, uh, it’s like a hotel restaurant, you know, it was just the two of us. My, my dad had actually dropped me off to meet her and you know, she was there and she was waiting for me and I’ll never forget seeing her. I was just so overwhelmed and so thrilled and happy and just, it was incredibly emotional. And we sat and had a wonderful lunch just catching up on things and she gave me a nice gift, which I still have. And it just was a wonderful, amazing thing to be able to sit down with her and meet her and talk to her for the first time.
Kathleen: 10:37 Yeah. You know, she showed me pictures of her family, which was really thoughtful of her. And of course I probably didn’t bring anything with me. I probably didn’t think about that, but I just sort of know, let her know everything that had been happening in my life.
Damon: 11:00 So that must’ve been amazing. I remember when I first sat with my biological mother, I was just looking at her and I was going, oh my God, I look just like you. And you’ve already said, you know, you didn’t necessarily look like your adopted family. What was it like to sit before her?
Kathleen: 11:13 Yeah, it was really surreal. I remember, um, you know, after I found out I was adopted thinking, well, you know, I looked this way so I must be Italian or Greek or Spanish or something like that. And she, you know, certainly I have a lot of her features and yeah, I was really surprised to find out that she was German of all things. But I was, I was obsessed with like kind of memorizing her face and thinking, oh my gosh, this is, you know, my birth mother is amazing. And you know, after lunch, I remember it was later in the afternoon and I think I slept from three or four o’clock in the afternoon until the next day. I was completely emotionally exhausted. I’ve never really had that happen, but uh, that, that’s exactly what happened. And now I know what it means to be emotionally exhausted because I just slept all the way through and I was crying and crying and crying but crying because it was just so emotional. I was so happy.
Damon: 12:01 Oh Man. I can only imagine. That must’ve been just incredible. So you’ve gotten some clues as to your own culture. I presume at some point you must’ve met your half siblings. How did that go? You’re this long lost sibling of theirs that has never been sort of discovered before. And did she tell you a little bit about how she shared it with them?
Kathleen: 12:21 You know, I remember a little bit about how she shared with them, but they were much younger at the time, so it would have been in, you know, in a very different way to explain it to them versus you know, them being grown up. But she had actually just had a baby and when I talked to her for the first time, so the time that I met her, she had just had a baby girl who she gave her my middle name, which was awesome. And so that was her youngest. She’s got girl, boy, girl, Girl. So I went to out to Dubuque a few months after our meeting for my youngest sister’s baptism and I was her godmother. So that was my kind of like my first visit out there and I got to see everyone. It was, it was just wonderful. And, and see the kids then they were just so stinking cute, adorable. All of them were fair. They all have like blonde hair and were fairer than I, but they’re just adorable. And I was just so thrilled to meet them and I’m still very close with them today. They’re really, really great people.
Kathleen: 13:24 I was actually, so I have another half sibling, younger brother from my birth father’s side. So there’s no shortage of siblings in my family. I’m incredibly blessed and I think that’s part of the reason why Facebook is so important in my life because I have to keep track of people somehow. So my birth parents were in college and she was at Clark, which is all girls, and he was at Laura, so he was was all boys and you know, they were dating I don’t think for all that long. But um, yeah, I certainly was a surprise. And my birth mother’s parents, I think primarily, you know, really weren’t prepared to deal with a child. And so my birth mother went to live with family friends down state in downstate Illinois and then had me. So that is how that happened. Very hard for her. Yeah.
Damon: 14:12 I’m sure it was. And so fast forward. Were you able to then, did she connect you, did she tell you much about your father? Did you decide to reach out for him too? What was next for you on the, on the paternal side?
Kathleen: 14:24 Yeah, so she had given me his information and I had his name and I believe the only information she had about him was that he lived in Naperville, Illinois, or at least was from that area. His family was from Naperville. So I had somehow come up with a way to find him and maybe it was through a phone book or something along those lines, but I had his name, I had the city where he lived and I knew, you know his address. I found that out and I sent him a letter then so and then he responded and we wrote back and forth a few times and then you know, a few months later I think we met. That was right before, I think I was going into college. So I didn’t meet him until a full year after I’d already known my birth mother. I wanted to wait on that too because there was obviously a lot going on.
Kathleen: 15:15 Yeah. You know that’s exactly right. And so it was, you know, I’m sure I didn’t really understand how sensitive it was at the time being a teenager and I, you know, I appreciate it more now. But yeah, it had to be difficult for her. I thought it was very generous of her to share his information because he really didn’t do anything to be involved in, you know, obviously my being born or what happened to me. You never really inquired and you know, people have different reasons for what they do and have different ways of coping and dealing with things. So it’s not a judgemental thing. But I know that she wanted to meet me for, you know, my whole life and she always wanted to and so it was, I again, I think it was just a very, very generous thing of her to give me his information and allow me to, then open the lines of communications with him and which I did. And that was another emotional meeting. Another really odd thing. It’s so hard to explain to people because you know, you meet people your whole life, you meet friends, you meet new family members, people are born, people die. But meeting someone who is your actual biological parent after you’re already, you know, at this point I was 18 years old is a very, very strange thing.
Kathleen: 16:23 It was great. I mean we, you know, we got along well and he’s, he’s a nice guy. I just, I didn’t have the same connection to him that I had with my birth mother. And I guess that happens in families in general. So maybe he had a different expectation than I did as to who should be trying more to stay in touch. It’s really hard to say now. He actually passed away in 2013 but it’s just hard. I had a very strong relationship and I always have with my birth mother and her family ever since I met her and I know that she always wanted that relationship so it would’ve been very difficult to balance both of those over the years. So I did lose touch with him and then at some point I attempted to reestablish a connection with him and I’ll say, I can keep on going back and forth on the timeline here.
Kathleen: 17:04 But when I did meet him back when I was 18 he introduced me to his whole family and they were just wonderful. They were so welcoming and very, very kind people. And so that was just thrilling for me too. He came from, he came from a family of six as well and you know there are a ton of cousins, so it was really nice to meet all of them. And I moved to a different part of the country at some point and we just sort of lost touch with one another. You know, it was much harder to keep in touch with people when all you had was a phone number and maybe someone moved and they changed a phone number, et Cetera. It’s just harder when people were moving across the country. Today it’s of course much easier. You can get in touch, social media, you can text, whatever. But it was much more challenging and I wonder whether things had been different had we been in touch more easily with everything that we have in our lives now.
Damon: 17:49 Yeah. The digital communications make it very easy to just maintain one sort of online identity and move around the country around the world and still be able to connect to people. But you’re right, if you were in college in what the late eighties early nineties there’s no way that you would have been able to manage the same kind of communications that we can now. So you lost touch. Did you reestablish touch what happened next?
Kathleen: 18:13 Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. I tried to at some point, and he had actually reached out to me over the years, but I guess we just crossed signals because I didn’t get the message or I didn’t know about it. And you know, clearly he did. And it’s sad because he actually had my 40th birthday, he sent me flowers to my office and I was out of town for my birthday with my family. So I didn’t, I thought it was from another family member, so it was a total miscommunication. So that was, that was a big miss. And I feel really badly about that. I wish I could go back and you know, I wish I had known more clearly that it was him. So what happened was in 2013 in the fall, I don’t know what it was, but I guess, you know, I, I’d had three children at that point and I was working and very busy and you know, I’m still busy and still working, but something just made me want to reach out and reestablish contact with him.
Kathleen: 18:58 So what I did was I think I sent a linkedin invitation to one of his sisters, just kind of a random crazy thing, but she was visiting him at the time when I sent the linkedin invitation, but sadly he was being treated for cancer and that was I think in September of 2013 and he got much, much sicker in a very short period of time. He was living in North Carolina. So what I did was I went out in December, 2013 and visited him at Duke and he was at this point just nearly gone. And my half brother was there and we both got to say goodbye to him. So I was really lucky to have the closure that I needed. It was very sad, but you know, we’re able to go there and I was so happy to have my brother there too. And it was just to experience, it was incredibly sad, but it was a nice thing to have someone there with you and, and go through all that.
Damon: 19:47 No, I can only imagine. I mean, just to think that you sort of lost touch and were able to refind him and at the time that you regained contact, he’s, you know, reaching the end of his life. That must’ve been incredibly sad. But I’m sure you are so thankful to be able to make it to Duke in time.
Kathleen: 20:03 Yeah. You know, I was happy to make it and time to say goodbye and uh, you know, the other thing is I went to his house and I stayed there, um, with my half brother and I noticed on his computer and he had a, a little posted on it and I guess he had read an article about me or something and sort of legal publication and he had the names and ages of my children, which was just really, really nice to see.
Kathleen: 20:30 Yeah. He had the other names and ages and he, you could see that he had actually marked off every year when they got older and was, you know, marking their age according to, you know, when he first read the article they were a certain age and every year he updated their, their ages, which was really sweet because he didn’t have any other grandchildren. So I’m sure it was nice for him to know of them. And after he passed away, there was a service for him back up in Chicago and my children were there and my husband was there and you know, we all got to see the large extended family again. And it was really a nice thing to, to have to be able to see them all.
Damon: 21:03 Oh that’s amazing. So where are things now? Your mother discovered you as a teenager, she is able to connect you with your biological father and this has satisfied, I would imagine a lot of curiosities that you had in your young life and you’ve got your own family now you know more about your heritage. How do things stand with you and your mom and what, what has it changed for you as a parent or anything?
Kathleen: 21:28 So, I’m just lucky to have both my birth mother and my mom in my life and they’re wonderful people. And recently on my birthday, they were, I had them both there and it’s, it’s just so great that everyone gets along and, you know, I have this extended family. It’s, I’m really, really blessed. I’m fortunate. I, you know, I, it seems like I have, uh, a small city of a family worked out, you know, and you know, I think that as my husband says, I like to keep a circus environment going at all times. There’s always something going on. Of course people in and out of our house. But yeah.
Kathleen: 22:00 Yeah. And you know, we always have, you know, I mean, holidays I can only imagine are a bit of a challenge. But yeah, I know my kids love it. They love all the cousins in Iowa and they really feel close to that family. They love the cousins that they have from my adopted family as well. So we’re just really lucky to have all these folks that makes for great big holiday celebrations.
Damon: 22:23 Oh Man. Kathleen, that sounds so amazing. That’s really incredible. I guess I’ll just ask you one other question and it’s kind of a challenging one because your reunion with your biological mother happened to you. It was not an engagement of your own search, it was, she came to find you. But I’m just curious, have you ever thought of anything that you would do differently?
Kathleen: 22:45 You know, if it were up to me, I probably would have searched for her earlier. And in a way I’m glad that didn’t happen because I needed to be a little bit older and you know, appreciate and understand it. But then on the other hand, on the other hand, you know, I, I wish that I had known her since the day I was born. It just, the way that life happened and you know, what a great sacrifice that she had made for me, let me go to another family. So, you know, on one hand I think it’s good that it wasn’t until I was in high school, on the other hand, just the way that things happen in life and different things that went on and you know, and what I would’ve liked to have known her sooner. But no, I don’t have regrets. I’m happy with everything that happened.
Kathleen: 23:25 I have a great life. I’m lucky to have what I have. I have three beautiful children, a great husband and this great big family. So I’m really lucky to have that. It was difficult balancing between my birth mother and my birth father because I wanted to be sensitive to, you know, most of all my birth mother because she was the one who really, I think had a difficult time, more anyone with the whole situation. So, um, luckily it’s, it’s turned out and then of course you have to balance it against your, the family that’s raised you because they were there for you and, and you know, they provided for you and gave you what you needed as a kid. And so you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and make it seem like, well, this family is more important to me than another family. They’re all incredibly important to me, so I hope they know they should. I try to make it clear to them, but, but that, that’s sort of it. I guess it’s just a, it’s a balancing act.
Damon: 24:13 Yeah. Well, a lot of it is in how you carry yourself and your gratitude for getting to know both of them and expressing your appreciation for having the opportunity to connect both your biological mother and your adoptive mother. I mean, you just sound eternally grateful and I’m sure you’ve said it multiple times, but I think it probably just shows in every aspect of how you interact with the two of them and individually. So, your story’s incredible. I’m so thankful that you were willing to share it with us. This is, this is really spectacular, and I think you are, you’d agree, you are certainly one of the lucky ones. I can’t help but think that your mother, you know, she sat on that secret for 15 years. That’s a huge amount of information to have. I just, I admire her for waiting for an opportunity when she must have thought you might be close enough to mature enough to be able to handle the information. It’s just really spectacular.
Damon: 25:21 Hey, it’s me and I hope you enjoyed Kathleen’s heartwarming story. It was really incredible to me that her first mom resolved to keep the secret that she knew her child’s parent’s name and could reach out to them anytime, but didn’t so that Kathleen could grow up in their loving home. I hope you’ll find something in Kathleen’s journey then inspires you, validates your feelings about wanting to search or motivates you to have the strength along your journey to learn. Who am I really? This episode was edited by Sarah Fernandez. If you would like to share your story of locating and connecting with your biological family visit, whoamIreallypodcast.com/share.