The Best Time I Met My Birthmother

by Liz Labacz

I have no memory of my parents telling me I’m adopted. They started talking about it so early that it was always simply a fact of my life. I know other adopted kids who had the “big reveal” happen, or worse, the “big figured-it-out-on-my-own” when they were thinking, cognizant humans, and that was always a traumatic drama bomb. For me, being adopted was normal, even before I totally understood what it meant. (As a child, I imagined Adoption Agencies were like retailers, with rows of slanted shelving like Payless Shoes, but instead of pumps and sandals, there were babies, wrapped in pink or blue, lined up for easy viewing.) I don’t feel touchy about it, and I never mind talking about it — though I do take some pleasure in making people squirm a little when they treat it like a taboo topic.

My adoptive parents are my parents, my real parents, and that has never been in question, but despite my absolute security in their love, I was curious. (I’ve also met those weirdly well-adjusted adoptees who are all “I know who I am, I don’t need to seek,” and come on, they have to be full of it, right? Doesn’t everyone have a wonky eye or something that demands a genetic explanation?!) From an early age, I knew I would eventually search for my birthparents, though it always seemed like something I’d do “when I was a grown-up” (stay tuned for that happening). There are so many horror stories about birthparent searches that I always assumed I would need a private detective, years to dedicate to the search, and a sizable amount of money to find even the smallest amount of personal information.

In reality, it took 20 minutes on Google and — boom — I had a name, which, in terms of closed adoption inquiries, is definitely the crest of the uphill climb. In the last semester of my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh, I dreamt that I found my birthmom on a message board. Jolting awake, I wondered how I had yet to try the internet. How could I, nosey Googler of nearly everyone I have ever met (if you’re wondering, yes, probably you), not have thought to Google the people whose DNA I share?

I only had tidbits, the tiny nuggets of information the agency was allowed to feed my parents in the era of closed adoptions. I knew my birthmom had red hair, that she was probably of Irish decent, that I might have been named Megan for the first three weeks of my life, and that while I grew up in Philadelphia, I had been born in nearby Bryn Mawr. My birthday was the key piece of information, and after some Boolean acrobatics, I found a record that matched all of the pertinent details on a website dedicated to reuniting birthparents with their children. If this turned out to be her, it meant she was looking for me, too. Of course, I fed that piece of information back into the world’s most popular search engine, and beyond just a name, I had information.

There was an address, an email address, and a phone number. There were spotty references to her in support groups for birthmothers, and there was an article. It was an archival piece from the Philadelphia City Paper, and in it, the woman who (spoiler alert) would turn out to be my birthmom blasted the arcane policies that kept adoptions in the dark and lamented the difficulty of giving up a baby. She described wondering if every injured child on the news could be hers and spiraling into a dark and dangerous place because of it. (You guys, it’s OK, this has a happy ending.) The attached photo was too grainy to see clear facial features, but there was something familiar about it; my best friend confirmed that it looked quite a lot like someone Photoshopped my head on a body wearing ’90s clothing. I shuffled into the living room where my roommates and a handful of other friends were lounging, skipped over, “good morning” and opened with, “I think I just found my birthmom.” I like to make an entrance.

Progress slowed during the next two months. I wrote a letter on the only stationery I owned (Catwoman), feeling that a phone call was too invasive (and, duh, terrifying) and an email was too informal. Not to hate on the USPS, but for future reference, immediacy is the name of the game in situations like this: If I had called or emailed, I would have realized much, much sooner that all of the contact information I had was out of date. The phone was disconnected, email address was defunct, and the address belonged to a new family. Advice to future generations? Waiting for a precious letter in the post is deliciously Bronte, but it’s unnecessary torture; either suck it up and make the phone call or embrace technology and send an email.

I floundered. Every neurotic synapse fired. Perhaps she had changed her mind? Yes, the likely scenario was that, having gone to enormous lengths to be easy to find and outspoken about open adoptions, this lady pulled a 180 and moved to a different house to hide from me. Definitely.

Once the crazy passed, I went into problem solving mode. At the suggestion of a journalism major, I contacted the Philadelphia City Paper, explaining my story and asking for assistance. Emails were exchanged and forwarded, and while the writer of the piece (who had since moved to another paper, but was still willing to help) didn’t have my birthmom’s new contact information, he did put me in touch with Susan, who ran a support group for birthmothers and who knew the birthmother in question.

Here’s where it gets a little confusing (here? just here?) so stick with me. My birthmom is married. Well, actually she’s common-law married. Well, if Pennsylvania had common law marriage, she would be married. She and her husband (my birth-common-law-step-dad) did move to another house in Philadelphia near where he (Preston) still works, but they spent about a third of their time at his family’s home in Maryland, sometimes separately, while he worked during the week in the city and she stayed in Maryland to help his mother. Still with me?

Susan was able to contact the husband while he was working in the city. Preston, I have learned, is a Rottweiler when it comes to my birthmother. Incredibly protective, and with a suspicious streak from years in law enforcement, he shook off the initial shock and jumped right into arranging DNA tests and background tests. But then Susan faxed him my picture. As he tells it, my eyes came out of the fax machine and he abandoned all of those plans. DNA tests and background checks are reasonable. I recommend them! There are a lot of scam artists out there and, perhaps more difficult to deal with, a lot of misguided hopefuls who are grasping at straws. But sometimes you see a face, and there is no question about where it came from.

Pushing the car close to the sound barrier, he made it from Philly to Maryland in record time, barreling into the house without a plan. First, he insisted that she get dressed and they go out to dinner. Having dragged her to the restaurant, he decided in the middle of ordering that they should get the food to go, so he could tell her at home. With raised eyebrows and a sneaking suspicion her husband had been body-snatched, my birthmom rolled with it. If you ever meet my birthmother — based on my experience, I recommend it — you are guaranteed to sit through a dramatic retelling of finally hearing Preston’s news. There are gasps, there are sighs, and I believe at some point she claims to have swooned.

Things moved swiftly after that. We spoke on the phone for a few hours, and she made plans to visit me in Pittsburgh with her father who was conveniently driving there on a business trip. About a month after college graduation, I sat outside of my favorite coffee shop, forcing myself to look casual while I scanned passers-by over the top of the book I was pretending to read. A middle-aged red-headed woman paced nearby. Her face had none of the resonance I had come to expect from even the grainy newspaper photo, but after 15 minutes of side-glances, I finally asked “MJ?” She looked at me quizzically. “Are you Mary Jo? I’m supposed to meet a Mary Jo here?” “Oh, no, I’m actually…” and then I wasn’t listening anymore.

A tan sedan approached the intersection and, seemingly without the car actually stopping, the passenger door opened and a tumbleweed of hair and tote bags zoomed out and firmly attached itself to me. Now face to (similar looking) face, I had finally met my birthmom in person. If what came from that meeting was only the surreal experience of seeing someone who looks like you for the first time ever, it would have been worth it. But what followed has been an immeasurably positive experience.

I quickly met grandparents, uncles, aunts, and a seemingly unending number of cousins. Last year, I met my birthdad, his wife, their children (siblings!) and grandchild (niece!), along with more extended family. Every single one of them has been warm, open, and welcoming. My parents have met both of my birthparents and have been absolute champs about integrating them into our lives. It has not been without challenges, but the biggest one has been finding more time to spend together, and if the greatest hurdle we have faced is wanting to see each other more often, then I consider myself lucky.

Extraordinarily lucky, in fact. I am sometimes hesitant to tell this story to other searching adoptees or birthparents, not because I am shy about the details, but because I don’t want to inflate expectations that every search will be that easy.

And there are other warnings to heed. It’s not all long-lost nieces and family crests. You may learn things you didn’t want to know. For instance, you may be forced to confront the fact that you were conceived after a Ziggy Marley concert. Damn hippies.

Liz Labacz is a fundraiser and improvisor in Pittsburgh. She feels an unreasonable ownership of the color red and excels at keeping people up past their bedtimes.