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'Hope For Joy, Be Prepared For Catastrophe': Stories From Listeners Looking For Their Birth Parents

Baby girl touching adult hand (Getty Images)
Baby girl touching adult hand (Getty Images)

Last week, Here & Now’s Peter O’Dowd spoke with author Gabrielle Glaser about her new book, “American Baby,” which details one woman’s lifelong search for her son.

In the 1960s, as a young, unmarried mother, Margaret Erle was forced to place her infant up for adoption — and then the records were sealed. In the U.S., unethical adoptions were a common occurrence for decades in the mid-20th century, Glaser reports in her book.

After the conversation with Glaser aired, Here & Now’s email was flooded with responses from others searching for their birth parents.

“I’m crying right now because I’m trying to find my family. And it’s been 35 years. Iowa refuses to open any records to find my family. And I’m 73. It’s just heartbreaking,” said Mary Sue Hayes of Colorado in an audio recording.

We also heard from York — he asked to only use his first name because some of his family members aren’t aware of his story — who received an email from his birth mother last month. She told York she had been searching for him his whole life. It’s been a “wonderful” experience, he says.

“We are finding that we’re ridiculously alike. It’s bizarre. We literally have the same truck in the same color. We have the same burgundy Toyota truck. I mean, that is crazy,” he says. “It’s just that feeling like this is my person, you know?”

Before this correspondence, York had taken a DNA test that turned up one relative on his birth mother’s side. So he sent her a message, asking if she knew anyone who was 15 years old in 1968 and gave a child up for adoption in Southern California. He wrote that the adoption could have remained a family secret.

The woman who appeared through York’s DNA test didn’t have any answers for him, but she did go ahead and forward the email to her cousins.

To York’s elation, the email eventually landed in his biological mother’s inbox.

“Just still yourself for whatever you find, hope for joy, be prepared for catastrophe,” he says. “But in the end, in your life, it’s so much better to know than not know.”

For others, success hasn’t come as easy. Sherryl de Vries, born in 1963, hasn’t had as much luck. She started looking for her biological mother when she moved back to Seattle, her birthplace. Through a Washington state reunion agency, de Vries hired an intermediary, a person who opens birth records and tries to connect families.

“I never, ever thought [my biological mother] wouldn’t want to know who I was,” she says.

De Vries hasn’t given up hope. She’s submitted DNA samples with Ancestry and 23andMe, but so far there’s been no leads.

“I think there’s a part of me that just needs to see and smell and say some words and hear that story to feel somewhat satisfied,” she says. “I just have such a big feeling of wanting to say thank you. It can’t have been easy for her either.”

Joan Griffin, born in 1954, says her biological mother called out of nowhere one day. “She came on really strong,” Griffin says.

They kept in touch for years but ended up falling out over politics. Her birth mother ended the relationship.

About a decade later, in 2019, Griffin took a DNA test and found a close connection on her birth father’s side.

“And I crossed all my fingers. How is this going to work out? And it has been absolutely delightful,” she says.

Since then, she’s been in almost weekly contact with three new siblings she’s discovered.

The whole process has been “an emotional roller coaster,” she says, considering the tumultuous end to her connection with her birth mom. The pandemic has made building relationships with her new siblings slow but steady, something that has proved to be beneficial so far compared to her past experiences.

DNA genealogist Leah Larkin says she’s not surprised by how many people reached out to Here & Now to share their accounts. Her job is to assist the “inordinate number” of people who are searching for their biological parents.

DNA testing can help people find second or third cousins. Then “with a little bit of elbow grease,” it’s possible to work backward to find where someone fits in a particular family.

“Before DNA, if you couldn’t get your original adoption records or if you didn’t know someone who knew someone who knew the details, it was almost impossible to find your birth family if you were adopted,” Larkin says.

Although DNA testing has become relatively commonplace, Larkin says the chances of finding relatives is harder if a family hasn’t been in the U.S. for 100 or so years.

Before Larkin made this her career, she was part of a community of “search angels” who help people on the internet track down their families. “Search angels” have either been through adoption themselves or are simply passionate about connecting families.

Once a DNA match is made or a family member is identified online, Larkin suggests going easy when first reaching out, considering the situation can be sensitive for all parties involved. Sometimes the person on the other end of the correspondence doesn’t want to talk, while other times folks are eager to connect, she says.

“You can never predict how the person on the other end is going to react,” she says.

But she adds in almost every case she’s worked on, there’s at least one person in the extended family who is happy to talk. It just might not be the birth parent, she says.

People’s motives for contacting biological family members often have many layers, Larkin explains. It could simply be for medical history or something much deeper, like developing a warm relationship, she says.

Reuniting people is “one of the most gratifying things” that Larkin has done, she says.

“I love being able to see years later — I call them ‘my adoptees’ — my adoptees meeting up with their sisters and brothers that they didn’t know they had,” she says.

 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

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