My sophomore biology class was studying genetics when I learned, by accident, that I was adopted.
As my teacher used eye color as an example of recessive genes, she explained that two blue-eyed parents would never have a brown-eyed child. It was genetically impossible, she said.
I raised my hand, happy to be the exception. "My parents have blue eyes and mine are brown," I told the class. She looked a little confused, but figured maybe one of my parents didn't have true blue eyes, before changing the subject. My classmates and I spent the rest of the day joking about my mother's affair with the milkman.
My adoptive parents, Nancy and Ken Hardy, and I at the Mall of America Aquarium in Minnesota in 2006, around the time I was moving there for college.
After school, I described the scene for my parents, still amused. At 15, discovering your own ability to defy genetics was like learning you had a superpower. My irises had beaten science! And then my mom burst into tears.
For a hormone-filled teenager, I didn't work up much of a made-for-TV reaction in the moments following my mother's confession about my adoption. I was shocked, and a little angry about the secret she and my father had kept, but it didn't last long.
At the time, I hadn't really given heritage much thought. People would sometimes ask me if my family was from Northern Ireland, but I'd rarely give their questions a second thought. (A few years later, an anthropologist would raise the question to me again, having studied face shapes of different regions.) But my curiosity grew over the next few years. My parents only had limited information about my birth family. They knew that my birth mother was Wanda Gardner, and that I had brothers living somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The decision that I'd be given up for adoption was made a few weeks before I was born, and my adoptive parents were there waiting at the hospital. They named me. Their names are on my birth certificate. I am their daughter.
Baby photos after my adoption.
But when I was 22, I wrote to the State of California, asking for more information about my birth. I got a packet full of the information they had on file: a few details, the ages of my brothers and details of my birth in San Diego. I tucked it away, and wouldn't begin to search for them for another two years.
One day, a friend had the idea to run my birth mother's name through a public record database, and there she was. The records also told me that she preferred to go by Wende, not Wanda, and I began to search for her by her maiden name, Wende Moten. Soon, I had a list of known family members that I plugged into Facebook. Almost instantly, I had found a cousin by marriage who lived in Hawaii. She was only 18 years-old, and I wrote to her explaining that I was searching for my birth family. I got a response in less than an hour. I had no idea if I was really ready for this.
My birth mother, Wende, and I connected the next day on the phone, and the Facebook friend requests came flooding in. I have four older brothers (one of whom is full-blooded) and two younger brothers. I had grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles -- and they all welcomed me into the family. I flipped through photos and got to know them through their posts. It was like having a window into the part of their lives I had missed out on.
My birth mother, Wende, and I.
Truly, it was amazing to get to know the family of a life I almost had, but my priority was to make sure that my adoptive parents knew that my search didn't mean I wasn't their daughter, or that I didn't want to be. I know it was a nerve-wracking experience to go through, but they supported me with patience and understanding. The truth is that I had a wonderful childhood because of them. Wende wasn't living a stable life when she was pregnant with me -- my birth father had no idea she was expecting -- and I'll always appreciate her decision to give my parents a chance to give me this wonderful life.
As I got to know Wende's side of my family, I started to learn more about my birth father. I guess I should have seen Northern Ireland coming because sure enough, I really do have Northern Irish lineage. My birth father's anger about being kept in the dark about the daughter he'd always wanted soon melted into affection. He wanted to know me, and again, I used Facebook to connect with the huge Irish clan I instantly became a part of.
Me, with my birth dad and my two little brothers, Ryan and Tony, in Ireland.
After visiting Ireland a few months after finding the Irish side of my family, I had always wondered what it would be like to live there. I was 26, still living in California and working at a job I didn't love when I decided to drop everything and go back. For the next three months, I got to know my birth father and his family. They were friendly and welcoming and I couldn't have asked for a better experience.
I've always been a friendly, outgoing person, and getting to know my birth family has really tested that part of me. As I began to connect with relatives online, I knew I wanted to meet them in person. These journeys have taken me to San Diego, Seattle, Phoenix, Ireland and England, and have opened up my world in a way I didn't know was possible. Meeting my relatives has given me perspective on how profoundly lucky I am to have such wonderful and supportive parents, as well as an extended birth family in my life. In a way, through getting to know them, I feel like I've finally gotten to know myself.