The Day I Learned I Was Adopted …

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Today is the 20th anniversary of the day I learned I was adopted.

On the afternoon I learned the news, I sat in a beige office in a government building.

My dad sat to my right; my mom was perched to my left. An Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) bureaucrat sat on the opposite side of a large, paper-strewn desk.


The INS official was brunette. Young-ish. That’s all I recall about her.

I was there to get my U.S. citizenship. I was too young to understand what “citizenship” meant, though I had a vague sense that it was somehow important. My parents explained that it was a process I needed to undergo in order to reserve my right to vote.

I only knew that my immigration hearing allowed me to escape my 4th-grade math class. If citizenship entails an afternoon without fractions, bring it on.

I’d later learn that most citizenship applicants must pass a civics test filled with questions like, “What’s the introduction to the Constitution called?” (The Preamble.)

I escaped that requirement through a loophole: I was a dependent child. Both my parents swore their oath when I was 8 years old, granting me the privilege to follow suit within a few months. The INS scheduled my naturalization to take place on October 19, which coincidentally happened to be my 9th birthday. (I turn 29 today.)

I was thrilled to ditch school on my birthday, even if it meant I had to spend the afternoon in a featureless office in downtown Cincinnati.

The brunette bureaucrat handed us a thick stack of papers. The grown-ups pored over documents while I daydreamed about ice cream. Hours passed, but I didn’t mind. Immigration hearings are more fun than long division.

Then the INS official made a remark that shattered my reality.

“I understand your daughter was adopted, correct?”

My neck snapped to the right. My dad stared straight ahead.

“Yes,” he replied. He couldn’t look at me.


“From your brother, correct?”

“Yes,” he replied.

He fidgeted in his chair, ever so slightly. His eyes focused toward the front of the room.

I could sense my parents peeking at me from the corner of their eyes, checking to see if I was going to cry, yell, make a scene.

I knew better than to disrupt an INS hearing. I was well-trained.

My mind raced, but my expression stood stoic.
The day I learned I was adopted
Adopted? What did that even mean? I didn’t know anyone who was adopted, other than my cat. We adopted him from the ASPCA. Maybe I came from a shelter, too?

And what does “from your brother” mean?

I sat silently for another hour, perhaps two. The brunette, oblivious to the bombshell she had dropped, continued paper-shuffling. After an eternity, she asked if I could sign my name in cursive.

“Yes,” I replied, forgetting about the adoption for a moment as a wave of indignation arose. Third-graders learned cursive. I was in fourth grade. Did I look like a measly little third-grader?

“Sign here,” she advised. I obeyed, executing my “P”’s with a flourish. See, I knew cursive. Shows her.

“Congratulations.” She smiled.

I had become a U.S. citizen. I could vote in another nine years. Great. Now could I get out of here?

I don’t remember leaving the INS building. It must have been an awkward walk.

My next memory takes place inside a Baskin-Robbins. My parents bought me ice cream and explained the messy circumstances of my birth.

My parents had an arranged marriage at age 13. By the time they turned 43, they hadn’t conceived. It was the mid-1980’s; in-vitro fertilization wasn’t as advanced as it is today. They had wanted a child throughout their 30-year marriage. (They’ve now been married 58 years).

Meanwhile, my adoptive dads’ brothers’ wife was 7 months pregnant. The brother and his wife were excited about their child: they had been buying clothes, planning the nursery, discussing names.

But then an idea flashed into my adoptive dad’s mind. His brother and sister-in-law already had two daughters. Could he adopt baby number three? Could he and his wife have a shot?

He called his brother and pitched the idea. In the ultimate act of generosity, my birth parents agreed. They wanted to gift my adoptive parents with the opportunity that nature denied.

People see what they want to see. I prefer to believe that the world is a good place; that humans are innately kind, giving and empathetic.

What blows my mind, though, is the knowledge that I’m living proof.


  1. says

    Wow! It’s hard to imagine there are people that generous in the world. Maybe that should depress me. Did that affect your relationship with your uncle/birth father?

  2. says

    I think WOW too. My son is 9 and I teased him and asked if I didnt take a wrong boy in hospital. He almost cried. I had to immediately asure him that its an impossible thing. The thought of growing up in another family was scaring his 9 year old mind.
    What a gift!

  3. says

    Such an amazing story! Thank you so much for sharing such an intimate part of your life. I think that many people keep these family secrets their whole lives and while it was hard finding out at age 9, I think it’s really important that you did. I hope that sharing this with your readers encourages other families to talk about things that might be difficult and gives them strength to become closer with their family because of it. THANK YOU!

    • says

      @Mrs. Pop — Growing up, I knew my birth parents in the context of “uncle and aunt.” I had no idea that they had a particularly, um, special relationship with me … :-) The next time I saw them, I apparently stared at them in manner that made it obvious that I had learned the news.

      I think it made our relationship closer. We don’t chat on the phone or anything like that, but we’re friends on Facebook. :-)

  4. says

    Great story Paula. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you have a great example of good people. I guess that’s the example all parents want to give their children.

  5. says


    I would love to know if you felt hurt by your birth parents.

    Too, not getting to live the life your siblings lived?

    Not saying your adoptive parents are less in your mind, I am
    certain not. Just wondering if you would ever repeat what your
    birth parents did under those type of circumstances?

    • says

      @Betty — Nope, not at all. I was fortunate to have my birth parents remain in my life. When I was little, my adoptive parents would send my biological parents copies of my school photos, home videos and other little mementos. As I grew older, that correspondence fell off. Then Facebook was invented, so now we’re online friends.

      My biological siblings and I had very different lives — not better or worse, just different. My birth sisters grew up in Nepal with each other, and with a close community of our other cousins. I grew up in America, with more opportunity and more mobility, although I had a more solitary childhood (as an only child with no cousins living in the country).

      I can’t really compare our experiences — I have no clue what siblings would be like, nor can I imagine being anything other than an American. All I can really understand is my own life, and it’s been a good one.

  6. says

    Wow, I’m glad it worked out so well for you. I’ve occasionally pondered the idea of us adopting a kid, but I always wonder what “that conversation” would be like. Maybe it’s best to tell them when they’re too young to remember, so they just always know?

    My boss has two adopted sons who have known their entire lives. Apparently it hasn’t always been easy, partially because their birth parents are still sort of around and aren’t the most together folks.

    • says

      @W — I think if I ever adopted a kid, I’d start telling them from Day One, so that they always grow up knowing — in the same way that kids grow up knowing their name. It would spare the shock of an abrupt discovery.

      I know a woman who constantly tells her children, “Mommy and Daddy flew to Russia, picked you out and brought you home!” Her kids are young enough that they assume that’s where all babies come from.

  7. says

    Wow – great story, well written. I’m late to the party, but congratulations.

    Here’s one thing to remember about being adopted: you were chosen, not an accident or just another baby that came along. You were special. Never forget that. :)

    (And, no, I won’t tell you that you were adopted on the 5 year anniversary of Black Friday LOL)

  8. says

    That is awkward, but hey! At least, you got two pairs of parents. LOL! By the way, you haven’t mentioned how your relationship with your birthing parents is? I couldn’t imagine myself in a situation where i must say, “Hey uncle, but in the back of my head (dad? yeah right) oh yes uncle!

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