I don’t know anyone who looks like me.
I used to stare at family photos and search my parents’ faces for any hint of resemblance to mine.
But there is none. I’m adopted, and my white American parents with their German-English-Scottish-Irish ancestry do not have my almond-shaped brown eyes, high cheekbones, dark brown silky hair or typical flat, round Filipino nose.
I was born in 1988 in Valenzuela, a city in the Metro Manila area, the capital region of the Philippines. Sonya and Vernon Westerman adopted me from a nearby orphanage 10 months later, and I moved to their home in rural western Kentucky, halfway around the world. They had wanted children but had trouble conceiving for years. They decided to adopt from the Philippines, in part because there were already three adopted Filipinos in my extended family. It was the late 1980s, and international adoptions into the U.S. were on a decades-long rise.
Two years after my adoption, their first biological son, my brother John Paul, was born, and two years after that, my brother Eric.
Eric takes after my mom’s side. John looks like my dad. For them, looking at our parents was like instant proof of where they came from. I was about 8 when I decided I wanted that, too. Maybe if I found my birth mom, I would finally be able to see my face in someone else’s.
Some years later, I set my sights on 30 as the age I would search for my birth mother. I imagined I’d be mature enough to handle what has been billed just about everywhere — in movies, books and news stories — as a huge life-changing event.
But what happens when it’s not?
‘Filling that void’
I knew the background of my adoption — or at least the story told to my family by the nuns at the Heart of Mary Villa, a home for unwed mothers and the orphanage I was adopted from. HMV said my birth mother was young and poor when she got pregnant so she decided to relinquish me so I could have a chance at a better life. I also had adoption papers with her name, the hospital where I was born and her last-known address.
When I was about 12, I tried to use that information to find her on the Internet. I stumbled across a woman in a chatroom who claimed to be from Manila — a city of almost 2 million people. My mom caught me and wisely shut down my covert operation. My parents have always been supportive of my search for my birth mother, but that day, my mom and I had a long conversation about the right way to go about it and why I should wait until I was older.
Part of the reason I wanted to find my birth mother was to get answers to basic questions like “where do I come from?” and “why was I put up for adoption?”
Another reason: FOMO, or fear of missing out. Around the mid-2000s, I started to see more and more stories about international adoptees in the U.S. searching for their birth parents. There aren’t hard numbers on who is searching and how many, but many adoption agencies in the U.S. confirm that they’ve seen an uptick in international adoptees searching for their biological parents over the last decade or so.
Adoption experts say that is the result of a few things.
First, more international adoptees than ever are cresting into adulthood. Beginning in the 1950s, the number of children adopted internationally into the U.S. has generally increased. The numbers peaked in 2004, when almost 23,000 babies were adopted from overseas, according to the U.S. State Department. They’ve dropped precipitously since — down almost 80 percent since the mid-2000s — primarily because three countries clamped down on their international adoptions. Many experts also argue that rising costs and policies put in place over the years meant to regulate international adoptions actually make the process more cumbersome.
Do-it-yourself genetics tests, the Internet and social media have helped facilitate adoptees’ searches. There are whole communities online dedicated to sharing experiences about being adopted and adoptees finding their birth parents. Adoptees are also using Facebook to both find relatives and join groups to talk about their searches. I’ve joined a handful of these Facebook groups, but I’ve tried to take these stories with a grain of salt because every adoptee’s situation is different.
A connection is made
Years ago, a search could take months, but better record keeping and information sharing on the Internet has made it easier to find people around the globe.
At the start of 2018, the year I turned 30, I emailed my orphanage and asked for help finding my birth mother. I exchanged messages a few times with a nun, who sent me this about two weeks later:
When are you coming to Heart of Mary Villa? Kindly send me your latest photo. May I ask what do you want to know about your birth mother?
I froze. What DID I want to know about my birth mother?
I had never been asked this so directly before. For years, the questions always just swirled in my head. Did I want to know where she was from? What her life was like before and after me? Or would I rather know if we have any mannerisms or personality traits in common? Or did all I really want to know is whether or not we look alike?
My reporter instincts kicked in. I replied:
I suppose I want to know about her, her life and what her life has been like these last 30 years. I am a journalist after all; I’m sure I’ll have lots of questions but in time. At first I just want to know who she is as a person.
The next day, a nun wrote to say she had located her:
I found her on Facebook. But her last entry was in 2014. I saw in our record that she went back to her home town after she left HMV. I happened that I have a friend in that place so I asked help from her and finally she was able to find her niece who gave me her mobile phone number.
Then, she sent a message with a photo of her.
Before clicking it open, my heart raced. Would the face staring back be a comfort — or a stranger’s?
My heart sank.
I scanned for my face in hers, but I didn’t see it. I didn’t recognize her.
I panicked. What do I do? Is this even the right woman? Do I go through with meeting her?
Maybe the photo is a bad angle or something, I thought. Perhaps we’d look more alike in person.
A few weeks later, I was on a plane heading halfway around the world to meet her.
Walking up the long driveway to HMV’s main house, I was anxious. My nerves, mixed with the intense humidity of the Philippines in February, made the trek torturous.
I approached the entrance and was greeted warmly by Sister Lea Comia, one of the nuns who helped find my birth mother. She showed me to a room with cream-colored walls and green trim. There was a large wooden table with a cluster of chairs in the middle. A fan blew quietly in the corner.
It was here, she said, where the reunions happen.
Sister Lea and I sat and chatted about my birth mother, Lucita Timbal Picana, who is 52. She is from Bohol, a tiny, turtle-shaped island in the middle of the country.
When she got pregnant with me, Lucita was 22. She didn’t tell her anyone in her family. Eighty percent of the Philippines is Catholic, and the stigma associated with getting pregnant out of wedlock — especially 30 years ago — causes many women to place their children with adoption agencies to avoid bringing shame to themselves and their families.
Lucita, Sister Lea said, had always wanted to make contact with me but had been waiting for me to reach out first.
She had advice for me about my reunion. “Expect nothing,” she told me. “Keep an open heart and an open mind.”
Then she left to go fetch Lucita.
The moment right before an adoptee meets her birth mom is a heavy one. And I felt every ounce of its weight. What started as a curiosity as a child was just about to become a reality.
Her big, deep-set brown eyes glistened with tears when she walked in the room, and she had a shy, almost uneasy, smile — like she was unsure how I would react when I saw her. For a moment, we hesitated, and then she reached to hug me. We hugged for a long time, and Lucita sobbed loudly as tears silently streamed down my face.
Facing each other, at long last, I scanned her face.
But it wasn’t one I recognized. I did not see my face in hers.
And, frankly, I felt really let down.
I tried not to show it. I handed her a photo album I’d made for her of my life, and we flipped through its pages. We started to catch up on the last 30 years, with Sister Lea translating from English to Tagalog and back.
But language wasn’t the only barrier to connecting. Lucita couldn’t truly understand my life growing up in the U.S. and its nuances, like the uneasiness I always felt being not just an adopted person but also a person of color brought up in a majority-white rural community. Nor could she relate to the racism and discrimination I’ve experienced through life — or the struggles I face now was a woman of color in the professional world.
And in turn, I really couldn’t wrap my head around her life.
Lucita grew up very poor and didn’t go to school past sixth grade. She spent decades as a domestic worker. She is married now and lives in a town by the sea with her husband, a fisherman, and their four children, my half siblings. One of them, her 12-year-old daughter, Nicole, looks a little bit like I did at that age. And knowing this gives me a little comfort.
She told me she was worried I would be angry with her for giving me up.
“She’s thankful to God that you are successful and that you’ve had a good life,” Sister Lea said, translating for Lucita.
“I have,” I answered. “I have had a really good life and you did the right thing — and I’m not mad about it.”
Then I watched as 30 years of guilt and sadness melted away. Her eyes instantly brightened and a wide smile broke out onto her face through her tear-stained cheeks. [Listen to the radio story that captures the moment Ashley Westerman and her birth mother met.]
For Lucita, it was obvious our reunion was also long awaited.
For my part, while the reunion was also highly anticipated, I don’t feel like my life drastically changed. I realized Lucita and I didn’t have much in common other than our DNA, and we’ve talked very little since we met. In fact, a lot of the time I was meeting with Lucita, I was yearning to be near my parents back in Kentucky. I think there’s a lot of pressure on adoptees when it comes to reuniting with birth parents — like we’re suddenly supposed to have all the answers because that’s why we search in the first place, right?
I got some answers, but overall, my journey to find my birth mother felt a little anticlimactic — and that’s OK. There’s no blueprint for how reuniting with one’s birth parents is supposed to go.
A common mantra in the international adoption community in the U.S. is that everyone has their own adoption story. I assume everyone has a unique reunion with their biological parent, too. I’ve accepted that this is my story.