By Lisa Altmann
23andMe changed my life in ways I never imagined. It gave me the tools to find “my truth” and my unexpected yet amazing origin story.
I’ve always been overly curious. As a child, I would drive my parents nuts asking about anything and everything, including questions about our ancestors. I wanted to know where we came from but my parents had very little information to share with me.
I knew that their families had escaped Jewish persecution in Poland and Russia. They’d survived hardships, and immigrated to America through Ellis Island. I took a lot of pride in those Jewish roots. I was very close with my small but close-knit family but I wanted to know more about our ancestors.
Then last year, at the age of 48, I took a 23andMe DNA test to discover more about my Polish and Russian roots. At first, my results confused me. Then, as the reality of what those results meant settled in, the truth turned my world upside down.
It turns out I do not have Russian, or Polish, or Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. I’m Italian and Croatian.
Harder for me to handle is that I’m not biologically related to my parents or my two brothers, all of whom I love very much. That was a hard truth, but it was my truth. It is something that I am learning to accept with an open heart and gratitude.
I’m writing this because I hope it might help and comfort others in similar situations. I wouldn’t change anything about using 23andMe, but anyone considering DNA testing should consider the possibility that they too might discover something unexpected and life-changing.
Our DNA offers a way to discover more about what makes us unique, and those revelations can be exhilarating. But sometimes an unexpected result can have profound implications for both you and your family. 23andMe does a good job of letting you know about these possibilities both before you use the test and before you consent to participate in DNA Relatives, 23andMe’s featured to connect you with other customers with whom you share DNA. It’s essential to think of how a surprising result might impact your life as it did mine.
Asking the Hard Questions
Talking to my parents about my results was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had in my entire life. I will never forget the conversation. It still rings in my ears as I could feel the fear in my dad’s voice as he was anticipating the big question. After nervously explaining my DNA results and research, I finally threw out the big question, “Was I adopted?”
A storm of emotions engulfed my mom and dad when I asked that question. It hit them like a force of nature. I felt guilty for even asking. My parents are older now and more fragile, but I needed to know the truth, my truth. They both struggled to answer. As my mom cried in the background, my father said to me, “What does it matter? We love you, and you are our daughter.”
Nature and Nurture
He had a point.
My parents had chosen me, raised me, and poured their love into me. They still love me deeply. They never made me feel anything but loved. I was their “first child” and the only girl in my family. I remember always feeling adored by my entire family. They’d encouraged my big personality to entertain them all with dance routines, singing, and comedy acts. I felt loved and cherished by my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. This never changed even when my two younger brothers came into the picture. I would always be their daughter.
But the truth was that I had a biological mother who I later learned was still alive. I had a lineage that traced back to a small town in Southern Italy. I shared traits, physical features, and DNA with biological relatives I had yet to meet. All of that mattered too.
An Adoptees Search
Learning that you are adopted, especially learning that truth in mid-life, can be disorienting. I’m not sure how I would have handled it if I learned this when I was younger. Learning this now meant I was emotionally mature enough to navigate through all the emotions that came with this discovery.
I leaned on my core of special people like my amazing husband Jack, my wonderful brother Paul and his family, and my dear friend Claire, who helped me work through what it all meant. Many times when I share my story people ask if I am angry with my parents for not telling me I was adopted. Anger is never an emotion that crossed my mind. I was shocked by my adoption. I was surprised. But more than anything, the emotions that welled up in me were of gratitude toward my loving parents. I feel thankful for the amazing life they have given me. I know without a doubt everything they’ve done has been with tremendous love, sacrifice and the best intentions for all of their children.
Finding My Roots
I am my parent’s daughter, but I learned that another woman had given birth to me.
I wanted to know more about my birth mother, and what part of her was in me. I’ve heard others talk about nature versus nurture. It isn’t one or the other. Yes, the parents that raised me made me who I am. But my genetics also play a role. Understanding that part of me is helping me understand more about who I am.
After I learned I was adopted I wanted to know who my birth mom was. I wanted to know whether we look alike or have similar personalities. I eventually found her with the help of an amazing genealogist named Linda Doyle who specialized in working with adoptees and DNA results. I went through the emotional process of writing a “Dear Mom” letter. In it, I told her about my life. I said I didn’t hold any anger or resentment toward her.
A Better Life
My birth Mom called me in tears after receiving the letter. We talked for five hours. I learned about her, and her family. I found out we share some personality traits. And I learned of my biological family’s connection to Italy. I felt like we’d known each other my entire life. It gave me a better understanding of myself. It gave me tremendous peace. And yet, I also know that her decision saved me from the chaos of the life that would have been mine if I’d hadn’t been adopted. She gave me a better life by giving me up.
My birth mom was young and single and didn’t have the means to raise a child on her own. Her father died when she was 9. Her mom had been ill her entire life. She was 23.
My parents, who were having trouble conceiving, were told about a young woman in New York City desperately wanting a good family and a better life for her baby. My mom and dad took me home to Washington D.C. where I was raised. My parents were eventually able to get pregnant and had two more children, my brothers.
Loving My Family and Those Who Came Before
No one ever knew I was adopted. Now they do, but it doesn’t change that this is my family.
Revealing this secret was hard and at times painful. Despite that, it’s given me incredible insight. My husband and I, along with my brother and his family have traveled to Italy. I was able to visit the town near Naples where my ancestors came from. I got to see my biological great grandfather’s childhood home. I went to his church where I was shown family baptismal records going back centuries. It brought me to tears.
It felt like coming home. I’ve learned so much about myself on this journey, but also about the people who loved me and came before me.
23andMe gave me so much knowledge, understanding, and truth, right when I needed it most. Although the process has not been easy, it has brought joy, peace, gratitude and a lot of love into my life.
I hope to help and support others in their adoption discovery process as I learned so much from mine. There is beauty in our ancestral truths even when those truths change how we see the world and ourselves.