Updated: Feb 22
As a young girl, my experience was plagued by a sense that I had no place in which I belonged. My mom was a single parent who had only stories about some man who was my father. Her mental state often made the stories less than believable. I had more questions than answers.
I'm convinced, after having four of my own children, that all children are looking at the people around them asking "Which one is like me? How do I fit into this puzzle?" My mom's family could have medaled in cruelty. She and her two siblings all suffer(ed) from mental health issues. My most significant memories of my grandmother are that she was a cold cruel woman with zero capacity for kindness. I was oftened directed to hug her, which felt more like hugging a lifeless corpse than what somone might associate with "grandma". The first time I was ever called a "bitch" was by my grandmother when I was about 7-years old, because I was defending my mother from her cruel onslaught of name calling. My mom ended up homeless with her two small children after her sister offered to help her, took what was left of her savings and then threw us on the streets. The most unkind experiences I've had were within the boundaries of familial relationship, all under the veil of "I love you." Long story short, I never belonged. I never felt "These are my people." I never felt like I was protected by a family who would be there "no matter what" (or at all).
Not only were the people that I was supposed to call "family" cruel and wholly unkind, I didn't feel similar to them. Likes and dislikes weren't there. Mannerisms and personalities were drastically different from my own. I just felt "other". I remember watching "Switched at Birth" when I was young and thinking...."maybe that's what happened." I look enough like my mother that I knew that wasn't possible.
I think my mom's grandiose stories about my dad were perhaps an attempt to give me something "better" to hang onto...maybe. I wasn't buying it. I had developed a pretty horrific backstory to account for his absence and decided that I was probably better off without another "disappointing family member." Nevertheless in college and shortly after I hired private investigators who had no luck finding any trace of this man that supposedly existed.
Fast forward to me being married and having kids. When you have kids, doctors start asking about family history. I knew nothing. I wagered under the understanding that while mentally my mom's family was plagued, they were hardy stock that seemed to live eternally. But, what if that wasn't the case for my dad's side. I felt it was irresponsible to not at least be curious. My husband invested in a DNA test as a Christmas gift. My thought was that this would produce some medical and ethnic information that could be useful to me/my kids, but nothing earth shattering would come up.
I was always told my dad's family name was B----. Ancenstry. com produced two first cousins with the last name B----. My stomach dropped. I looked at my husband in shock and said "We could find my dad." He responded with a look that said "What did you think we were doing this for?" It took about 40-50 hours of intense family tree and document searches. Each night after the kids went to bed, we'd each open our laptop at the kitchen table and search. Finally we found him. The name I'd begun to doubt. The man I never thought really existed. But our confirmation of his existance came through an obiturary. He was real. But, he was gone.
It was a bittersweet moment. Based on marriage records, he was single when he was with my mom and there were other kids before and after me. I went in that instant from having one half-brother on my mom's side, to having five half-siblings (none of us has a full sibling) and a step-sibling. The dialogue began. "Do we contact his family? What will they think? Let's facebook stalk them. They seem normal...." ALL of them live on the opposite coast from me. "Okay, let's contact the oldest son. He probably has the most information, will be less emotional than the women...maybe receive the news better."
Here's my actual message to my brother:
I've recently taken the Ancestry DNA test to help fill in holes in my family tree. I have never known my father and only had a name to go on. The DNA test came back with a connection to a first or second cousin. Long story short, I am led directly to your "door". I realize this is a bombshell and no one ever wants to get this kind of an email/call/etc... But, I think you may be my brother. Is it possibly that your dad spent any time in Arizona between 1979 and 1980? Thank you so much for taking any time you can to respond. I'm really just looking for my family and I'm hopeful I have found someone after almost 25 years of searching.
He was so kind in his response. Within a few hours we spoke on the phone. Within a few days, I was "friends" with my sisters on social media and within a month we were all meeting in a town central to them for the first time ever. My husband's eyes welled up with tears as my siblings and I sat around the dining table talking about my dad. They let me ask all the questions. My littlest sister brought a voice recording of my dad. I can't tell you what it's like to hear your dad's voice for the first time at 37 years old. It's life altering. It was so strange and yet not. These people seemed "like me." We laugh at the same things, tell the same kinds of jokes, all love a good piece of meat on the grill and a stiff drink in a glass. My sister and I have the same dimples. My brother and I have the same eyes. My older brother and I seemed to just click. From the first phone conversation I don't think more than 7 days has gone by in 4 years that we haven't spoken. Is it DNA? Is it timing? Is it friendship? I don't know.
I think it's God. I think my Jesus knew how desperately I needed to belong. I needed someone to claim me as "theirs". As family.
A few months later, my littlest sister invited me to her wedding. I'd been to family weddings on my mom's side. I always was "invited" to sit in the back. Never in any family photos. Never introduced as "family." It always felt like I was being hidden. I developed a thick skin and a habit of disappearing - finding a place to be where rejection wasn't thick in the air.
The weekend of my sister's wedding began with an invite to join "them" for pedicures. I figured it would be her bridal party and me...awkward. Clearly she didn't intend to introduce me as her dad's bastard child. I had no idea what to expect, but I was anxious. It wasn't her bridal party. It was her mom and her sisters. Her sisters... of which I was one. (WHAT!?!?) My dad's widow walked up to me, tears in her eyes and said "Oh my, you look like your dad. I'm so sorry he's not here. He would have loved you." It was everything I could do to stay seated in that chair and not run for the hills of those Smokey Mts.
When you have never experienced acceptance it feels weird. It feels dangerous It's incredibly disarming.
The next afternoon, I was invited for breakfast at my dad's house while the girls got ready for the ceremony. It wasn't akward. It wasn't weird. It was strangely normal. I have always love magnolia trees. As I pulled up I noticed one of the biggest magnolia trees I've ever seen. Apparently, it was my dad's favorite. My sister pulled me aside, "I hope this isn't weird. I found a candle. It smells just like our dad." Weird? I think it's amazing!!! I had mentioned to my brother that I'd like to see my dad's grave, but that I didn't want to interrupt our sister's wedding celebration. She said she'd really like to come with us and asked me if it was okay.
My childhood came rushing back at me, "This is your dad, not mine. I don't want it to be weird...."
"He's OUR dad." she replied.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?? WHY ARE THEY SO KIND?? My mind was spinning.
Graveside, I stood with my sister, "How are you doing on this special day without him?"
She looked at me, "How are YOU doing?"
(Inside voice "Uh, I'm completely overwhelmed and NOT okay....").
"I'm good. So thankful to be here."
At the wedding, I sat far enough back that no one would think "Who is the stranger sitting there?" but close enough that my sister wouldn't think "Why is she sitting in the back row?"
My brother approached "What are you doing?"
"Family sits in the front," he motions for me to move.
Several of my dad's friends came up to me, "You must be the sister they found."
(Inside "Wait, WHAT? I'm being CLAIMED????")
After the ceremony, I hustled off to the reception area. They were taking pictures and I didn't want to linger awkwardly. My step-sister found me and said, "We've been looking for you. Didn't you hear them say 'Family pictures?'"
It was so hard for me to imagine that I would be included in anything "family". I must have looked like a deer in headlights. I was continually baffled and overwhelmed by the acceptance and connection.
One of the most powerful moments came as I relayed what my dad's widow said "he would have loved you." Tearfully, I explained how impossible that would be to my brother and his wife.
"Come on, really? Why would he love me? Here I am the kid from a brief encounter with a woman thousands of miles away...why would he have wanted that??"
My brother and his wife insisted, "He would have wanted you. He would have loved you."
I cried and shook my head unable to accept that. As I pulled out of the parking lot that night, my brother motioned through the rain for me to roll down my window. The windows on our cars lowered as he said "I love you."
AGGGGG - WHAT? The ugly cry commenced and lasted for several hours.
Even today, four years later, I have trouble envisioning any version of the story with my dad warmly wrapping his strong arms around me in a loving embrace. Even now, my eyes well up with tears as I write this. I'm still not sure that's a thing that could have ever been real. It feels more possible today than it ever has, and maybe someday it will feel totally true/possible.
I'm telling this story for lots of reasons. There are some universal truths in my story that I think are worthy of acknowledgement.
When someone pushes you away as you reach out in a bid for connection, it probably has more to do with them protecting themselves from potentional rejection and hurt than them not wanting you. When someone is guarded, it is because they have been hurt. When someone doesn't believe you love them, it is often because they believe they are innately unlovable.
When little children aren't told how loved, valued, accepted and desired they are - that becomes the narrative they base all relationships on. How you treat children matters. How you speak to them. How you look at them. How you hold them. How you receive their attention and affection. It MATTERS!
The consistency with which you show kindness and love are powerful. The kindness and consistent care of my brother has been one of the most impactful experiences of my life. The wounds of being fatherless and family-less have been healed in large part by him and our continued friendship/relationship. Don't be afraid to love people. Don't be afraid to show up for people. Authentic connection is powerful.
Lastly, the impact of a dad is inmeasurable. (Moms too, but this is my story about my experience being fatherless.) I really believe as a therapist and a fatherless child, that knowing where you come from is really important to developing an identity and having a sense of belonging. It doesn't matter what the adults in the story know or believe. If a child is left without a parent, they will suffer from that. Children need to know who they look like. Where their sense of humor came from? Where did they get their love of math, or whatever their passion is? I'm extremelly handy and mechanical. I get that from my dad. My son is a natural at wrestling. My dad's uncles went to the 1933 Olympics for wrestling. This is how we develop our story...by knowing the context. As a parent, I want to encourage other parents - regardless of the pain it causes you - care enough to allow chidlren to know their story. It's not about you...it's about them. They deserve to know who they are and where they come from. Let them make age appropriate decisions about what to do with that story.
This weekend is the anniversary of meeting my siblings. It feels like a lifetime ago - in the best way. I'm so thankful that God opened this pathway to them and to deeper healing.