Guest Post: The Photo That Changed My World

by Jenn Nielsen

I’ve always imagined, a tiny baby wrapped tightly in a white blanket with a small blue and pink stripe, pink or blue cap on the baby’s head. A newborn’s first portrait, everyone has one; everyone but me. I have always been jealous of these photos and I often wondered, desperately hoped, that somewhere existed a well-worn baby photo of me. A picture treasured and deeply loved. You see, I was placed for adoption at four days old and in Utah, in 1980, all adoptions were closed. Little to no information passed from the LDS adoption agency to my adoptive parents. I knew I was born in northern Utah, that my biological mother had ties to the LDS church and that both of my biological parents were very young and very blonde. Nothing more.

I have always wondered about the girl who carried me, who gave me life. As a girl I would make up elaborate stories describing who she was and what she was doing now. My favorite being that time I tried to convince my friends in third or fourth grade that I was Candace Cameron’s twin (we looked a lot alike in the early years of Full House) and that while ‘my sister’ was on TV ‘our mom’ couldn’t take care of both of us, but eventually she’d come back. I was sure they believed me.

Searching for my biological family has been a deep desire since my teen years. I wanted to find who I came from, for a lot of reasons. First of all, having a medical history would bring peace of mind and honestly? It would just make life easier. Having to explain time and time again why I have no idea if heart disease, or cancer, or allergies run in my DNA can be deeply intrusive. And, each time I see a new Dr. or even a new nurse in a Dr.’s office I’ve been going to for years, it happens again and I am reminded of all I don’t know. I am grateful for those who accept the shortened answer without trying to delve deep into the whys and how could I know nothing about something so very important. Honestly, when thinking of having my own children, this lack of medical background knowledge is something that has weighed heavily on my mind. Could I unknowingly be carrying a gene that could cause my child a potential lifetime of medical issues and even death?

On a more personal level and much more important to me, I wondered if I look like her. Do we share the same eyes? Or laugh? Do we have the same interests or desires? Did she later have other children who would be my half siblings? Now I understand that I have always been searching for a sense of belonging, roots that extend from my genetic DNA back in time to the women who built the family that created me. Through my lifetime, I have spent hours searching people’s faces and movements, their speech patterns and bone structure to detect how they are related. I must admit I’m pretty good and more often than not, I can identify biological family members in a crowd. But also, this superpower developed because, subconsciously, what I was searching for in the sea of strangers was me.

Although my goal was never to leave my adopted family or replace them, there has always been a deep sense of longing for that connection with my first family. I decided I wouldn’t start looking until I had my adoptive mom’s approval. It was very important to me that I not cross that boundary without her knowing my intention and giving me her ok. After a long talk and receiving what I needed, the ball was in my court. And, almost instantly, I realized I wasn’t as prepared as I thought to actually move forward. Maybe waiting for approval kept me safe from facing what could come next. I wanted to start the search and I was scared, scared of all the ‘what if’ scenarios that might become my reality. It took a couple of years to take the leap of faith, to trust that no matter the outcome, it was time.

A year after connecting with a wonderful angel who helped me search for my parents and completing a DNA test, I had given up hope on any kind of a breakthrough. (The joys of deep Mormon and polygamous roots means that most of us are related somehow which caused my family tree to grow sideways without a clear picture of how it all fit together. This made my search even more difficult.) One uneventful evening I received an email with two pictures attached of women believed to be great aunts in my biological family tree. I received that email at work. I sat in stunned silence and I couldn’t look away. Finally at thirty six, I saw what I had been looking for my entire life, my full cheeks, my eyes, my turned-up nose and lips. I saw me and I knew that I was real.

I can’t adequately describe what happened in that moment. I stared into the eyes of women I will never know and yet instantly knew. I came from them. An immediate sense of grounding occurred. A sense of belonging I had never known washed over me. The feeling of a deep exhale after holding my breath for a lifetime. Beginning steps on a journey of healing.

What I know now is that we each have a deep biological need to see ourselves in someone else. Those small cues from our DNA tell us that we came from someone, that we belong.

November is adoption awareness month. And while the adoption process is 100% better than it was, it still has even farther to grow to protect all parts of the adoption triad. Frequently the voice of the adoptee is unheard or silenced because, like me, we don’t want to hurt or disappoint anyone in our stories. We carry the deep sorrow and pain of the family who said good-bye, and the family who accepted us as part of their own. We balance the intense pressure of hope and integration into the family that raised us and the anguish of those who couldn’t. Our stories are vital and must be spoken.

Raised in the Salt Lake Valley, Jenn is a product of the LDS adoption system. She is a lifetime searcher, learner and healer, working to find answers to questions deep within herself and supporting others through their own personal life journeys as well.

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5 Responses

  1. Risa says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. You’re exactly right that the adoptees’ perspective is often left out of the narrative in the adoption triad. Few realize that in most states adoptees are the only citizens denied access to their original birth certificates. Few consider the primal wound many adoptees are left with, especially in closed adoption but sometimes even in open adoptions. Thank you for your courage in searching and sharing that with us ❤️

  2. Chiaroscuro says:

    thank you for sharing your feelings. your story is important! I hope you find what you are looking for

  3. Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    Your story is beautiful and helps me to understand how to be more sensitive to an adoptee’s feelings. This part made me a little weepy, “I must admit I’m pretty good and more often than not, I can identify biological family members in a crowd. But also, this superpower developed because, subconsciously, what I was searching for in the sea of strangers was me.”

  5. Roberta says:

    As a First Mom, I felt your trauma deeply because I too searched the faces looking, looking! And ‘what I was searching for in the sea of strangers was me.’ I had no baby photo of my daughter… in 1966 there were no cell phones and I only got to hold you once to give you a Mother’s blessing. I placed you in God’s hands for protection and to give you all you needed to become a beautiful grown up daughter of God. I prayed that we would meet again so I could give you another hug.
    I searched against all odds in the 1980’s [before internet] when finding you should have been impossible. I contacted you by letter at your age 21 and by prearranged phone call at your age 28, but you were not interested in future contact. I packed away all my love, hopes and dreams and buried them deeply in my heart.
    What a shock when at your age 54, [my age 77] you Messengered me on Face Book! You let me know you had not told your still living parents that you were contacting me as that would offend them. When I answered your list of questions, you wanted no further contact. What a High High and then a Low Low for me during the 2 months of emailing! You are gone again and i am packing all my feelings and hopes away again. It’s harder now that my family has passed away and I am alone.
    Healing and support has come to me through this web site for Adoptees and first parents:

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