Born in the Panama Canal Zone, Stephanie was adopted by a US military family stationed there in 1961. She was never told she was adopted, but she always knew there was a family secret. When she was 43 years old Stephanie discovered the secret was her own adoption.
Because she was born in the Panama Canal Zone, her adoption records were available through a Freedom of information Act request (FOIA). Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to a reunion with her biological mother. After 13 years, she has never heard from her biological mother.
Fortunately, she reunited with her birth father and his entire family has warmly welcomed her. Stephanie says “For the first time I know how it feels to look into the eyes of those whom I share a connection with. That cannot be described with words.”
Cause you know, I never really looked at it that way before to say, wait, nobody uses the same pen to write something over a six year period. And it's like, and then all of a sudden, you know, it's like I've now I've just got to go. I'm thinking to myself my whole life fundamentally has been a lie.
Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?
This is Who Am I Really, a podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. I'm Damon Davis and on today's show is Stephanie. She was never told she was adopted, but she says she always knew there was a family secret. In her early forties she discovered the secret was herself and the woman who raised her was not her mother. While she felt vindicated that she had been correct, the news turned her world upside down as she looked in the rear view mirror to see a trail of deception right down to the notes in her baby book. Her reunion with her birth mother didn't go as she had hoped. Fortunately, things were very different in the reunion with her birth father, Stephanie shares, how she located her birth father's roommate in the military and how he was one of the many supportive interveners throughout her life. Here's Stephanie's journey.
I always had this feeling that I, something wasn't right.
That's Stephanie. Before I even had a chance to ask her a question about her journey, she was already going deep on one of the interesting parts. So I just listened.
You know, like there was some sort of secret in my family, something wasn't right and I kept coming back to I don't fit here, you know, and I have friends that I've had for 40 years and they always say, have you taught, you been talking about this adoption thing for ever. So the way that this happened is, um, we had family here for Christmas in 2003, um, a toothbrush was left in the house and it was a room that my adoptive mother or at that point, my mother stayed in. So we clarified that it actually belonged to her. And I said, well, this is my chance to actually find out if I, what I have believed for a very, very long time is true. And I found a lab in Canada that could extract DNA from it and sent it off and waited and waited.
And about six weeks later, and um, April of 2004, this letter arrives and my spouse opened it and I got home from work. I didn't know it had arrived. We sat down and there was kind of this nervous tension. We had a friend staying with us and finally she said to me, so a letter arrived. And I'm like, well, okay, are you going to tell me? And I will always remember the way that it sounded to me in that response as "the toothbrush wasn't your mother." Because that's kind of the words you hear when something like this happens. You always hear it a certain way and remembered a certain way. And I was like, and I jumped up and it was like I knew it. I always knew this was true. Oh my God.
And you were 43 years old when you found out.
I was 43 years old when I found out I was adopted.
Stephanie didn't use the commercially available DNA tests that most of us think of when we're looking for answers about our biological past. She had swiped a toothbrush that was left behind by her adoptive mother. I asked Stephanie what that confirmation of her lifelong suspicion had changed for her.
Well, I would simultaneously say everything and nothing, so it changed everything about my life and nothing about my kind of background. So it was sort of a mixed bag of things all at the same time because it kind of vindicated this sense from me that I always knew that there was some thing in my family that didn't fit and that there was a secret and there was all these things going on and all these dynamics. I just didn't know it was me.
Okay. Now let's go back to the beginning of Stephanie's story. She was born in the Panama Canal Zone, adopted by a U.S military family stationed there in 1961. She was the only child of parents who had been married for seven years prior to her adoption. Her father spent most of his time out of the family home on isolated military assignments, but that wasn't the only isolation Stephanie felt. Her mother's greatest interests seemed to be with keeping up appearances for outsiders. That put a lot of pressure on Stephanie to stick to the script and put on a good show for others.
My parents divorced when I was 12 my father was pretty absent and we really didn't have any extended family, so I came from a very isolated childhood. But you don't know as a kid what isn't normal unless you don't know what's normal. Right?
Right. Your normal is what's normal.
Exactly. So I now, you know, look back on it and say, well, there were some things that were pretty weird about my childhood.
No interaction with any sort of extended family, no interaction with anybody. And as long as everything looked right to the outside, it didn't matter what was really going on inside the house. The inside of the house was fairly strange in comparison. And the older I got, the more aware I became of that.
What do you mean by it was strange?
So my mother was extremely secretive about everything that went on in our house. And I learned from a very young age keep secrets. Everything was a secret.
Can you give me an example of something?
Agree. I think a good example would be my parents got divorced when I was 12. I didn't know that nobody there, that nobody outside the house was supposed to know that. That she had gone on portraying to everyone that he was on a military assignment somewhere, but that they were actually divorced.
So, you know, I'm a kid. I mean, I know what's going on. And um, you know, I go to school one day and one of my classmates says, well, your dad's my dad now he lives at my house.
No! Really? What did you think at that moment?
I sort of, um, I think looked at this individual and said, really is that true? You know, I mean you just don't know what to say that situation. Cause you know, I was so used to playing off anything that happened. Like it was just normal. And that by that time I had had learned to spend a lot of time looking at people around me and learning how to behave because I wasn't learning any of that in my house.
You were taking social cues from other people?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean I learned all of those sorts of interactions from people around me, not from anyone who parented me.
So do you get the impression then that basically your mother was really trying to maintain appearances at, at whatever the cost?
Yes. And I'll describe it a little a little differently by saying my mother had a story and she had a story about how I came into this world and she had a story about how life was. And that story was drilled into me from the earliest age. It was, I'll describe it as well documented, well memorized, well-rehearsed and it was not to be deviated from and well, there were pieces of the truth in it that were weaved in. So, um, I don't know if you had a baby book. I had what was called a baby book. So it started from theoretically the moment of my birth through about age seven. Okay.
And it had, you know who your, who your godparents were and who the first people who visited you were. And when you took your first step, all these things, right. So it was as, as the document, if the documentation was correct and that was the story and we don't deviate from the story and that story was drilled into me from the moment I can remember and we just don't ask questions outside of that story.
Did you..what would happen if you asked question? I mean, children are just naturally inquisitive. Like they, they reach a point where they recognize that babies come from moms and they say, mom, tell me what you felt like when, when I was in your belly. Like, did you ever, do you recall any situation like that where you just asked the question?
Yeah. So it was quite interesting in terms of the ways that she, um, uh, both gave and withheld any sort of affection or any sort of interaction. And her method for withholding was to not speak to me. So understanding that there were two people in the house, if someone doesn't speak to you for a number of days, that can be extremely kind of damaging psychologically to a kid.
You know, and you learn very quickly what not to ask and what subjects not to touch.
And I would imagine that the canvas of those, those questions expands dramatically with each one of those silence, silent treatments.
We just stopped talking about it. So, you know, I mean, there was, you know, there was never, maybe it was not as though I ever even asked the question, is there a possibility I'm adopted?