For children of adoptive parents, the prospect of reunion is a lingering, emotional mystery. It’s only natural to wonder about the circumstances of their birth. Were they unwanted, or were their parents simply unable to care for a child?
Sometimes, life has a way of bringing people back together, regardless of the odds. In the stories below, adopted children reflect on their experiences reuniting with their birth parents—and the twists and turns they traveled to get there.
1. His Parents Were Torn Apart, But Love Found A Way
David Neal’s parents were high school sweethearts. But a fatal hunting accident changed the course of his family’s life—and brought the family back together almost six full decades later. Before Neal was born, his mother’s brother and his father’s brother went on a hunting trip. “My mom’s brother shot at a rabbit, and my other uncle stood up, and he killed him instantly, Neal told Instant Checkmate. From that point on, “my birth mom and dad were pretty much banned from seeing each other,” he said.
But when Neal’s mom became pregnant, the family faced a tough decision. His father’s relatives had said there would never be a child between the families. So, his mom’s parents put Neal up for adoption. Decades later, Neal used a copy of his original birth certificate to find his mother’s contact information. He was able to get in touch with his siblings, who connected him with his birth mother—and on his birthday in June earlier this year, Neal walked through the doors of a home in Sacramento and hugged his birth mother for the first time. ““She was crying, and I was crying. It was pretty unbelievable,” he said.
Despite the circumstances of Neal’s adoption, the families on all sides have been nothing but positive. And since making that initial connection, Neal’s family has exploded in size: his birth mother was the youngest of 12 children, and Neal is traveling with her to Arkansas later this year to visit his birth father for the first time. Neal’s reunion started with a search online, and his story continues to unfold as he meets and gets to know his extended birth family. “It’s been positive all the way around and everybody’s just been really wonderful,” Neal said.
2. The Reunion She Regrets
Author Lisa Lutz grew up knowing she had been adopted, but she never obsessed over finding her birth parents. “I was simply curious about my biological parents,” she wrote in the New York Times. To sate her curiosity, she paid a woman $100 to find the names of her biological parents, and when she came back with her birth mother’s name and phone number, Lutz decided to reach out.
Over the phone, her birth mother’s first reaction wasn’t tearful happiness or patient relief. Instead, she was angry. “She’d initiated a private adoption, she said, so that her identity would remain secret,” Lutz wrote. Their communication soon fizzled into nothing.
Later, Lutz used the help of an online adoption community to find her birth father’s contact details. He was pleased to hear from her, but their meeting was largely one-sided: her father “talked mostly about his motorcycle, his boat, and working out,” and when they parted ways, he asked if she wanted to go to Disneyland. A tempting offer, but Lutz wasn’t interested at 37 years old. “That was the last time I saw him,” she said. At the end of her reunion experience, Lutz felt like “the result of a mishandled science experiment.” She attributes her level of ambition to the adoptive family she grew up with, not the parents she missed out on knowing. “Family is the luck of the draw, and so is how you turn out,” she said.
3. The Realization That Came Too Late
By all accounts, Mariah Mills had a normal childhood. Her adoptive parents told her that her birth parents loved her, but hadn’t been ready to care for a baby. However, Mills still thought about her birth parents, especially on her birthday. “I had a recurring fantasy that when I finally found them, they’d invite me to dinner, and lots of family members would be thrilled to meet me,” she wrote in Cosmopolitan. On Sept. 11, 2001, Mills was a junior in high school. When her principal announced that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, Mills felt a gut feeling she couldn’t completely explain.
Years later, in January 2004, Mills requested a copy of her birth certificate—which is how she discovered her birth father was Tom Burnett, one of the men who prevented the hijackers from crashing United Flight 93 into the White House or Capitol building. Mills wasn’t able to meet her birth father. But when Tom Burnett’s widow, Deena, emailed Mills, a new opportunity presented itself: Mills was able to meet Deena and her three half-sisters. On the day they met, Mills said, “My sisters ran up to me, grabbing my hands and wanting to be close to me. Their warmth was just what I’d always hoped for.”
The experience helped Mills find the closure she craved earlier in her childhood, and she said that “meeting my birth family has strengthened my bond with the parents who raised me.” And while Mills will never be able to meet her birth father in person, she is able to stay close to his memory through her Deena, her half-siblings, and a handwritten letter Tom Burnett left for Mills decades ago. Today, Mills lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her family includes her husband, their children, and the people she grew up with—as well as the extended family she was happy to find.