Kathleen Shea Kirstein


Wendy. Kathleen. Janet. It seems I am collecting first names along my journey as a Late Discovery Adoptee (LDA). Wendy was my original name for 43 days. The name my bio mom gave me at birth. The name she came up with after being asked to pick a name she would never give to another child or a pet. I grew up as Kathy, short for Kathleen. The name given to me by my parents during the court proceedings to finalize my adoption. Janet is the name I use on zooms when there is another Kathy, Kate or Kathleen in the room. It helps ease the confusion and as of yet I have not met any other Janets on the zooms I have been on. I guess if that were to happen I could change to Ralph as someone at a retreat once called me that for fun. (They didn’t know my dad was named  Vincent after Ralph Vincent, his uncle.) Or perhaps just use my last name Kirstein.  

The Janet story is a better story than the Wendy story. I am a registered nurse, recently retired. A physician I worked with for years could never get my name right. Our receptionist was Jana and he routinely called me Janet. So that’s how I came up with that name. 

My story started in 2005 when my husband won a free trip to Cancun, Mexico. His passport arrived and mine did not. It seems I did not supply the U.S. Government with documentation explaining why my birth certificate was filed 14 months after my birth. Oddly enough, this was on my husband’s 5th birthday. Who reads the “file by date” on a birth certificate?! Because of this oversight, my passport was denied. I attempted to answer this question and essentially prove that for my first 14 months of life I wasn’t at some baby terrorist camp. My warped sense of humor needed something to deflect the pain of not being allowed a passport and the impending loss of identity.

I was told my birth story only once by my mother. So I had always known I was born in Burlington, Vermont. I was told my mother’s doctor, a ski enthusiast, had a winter home there and while in Vermont he had privileges at the local hospital. I work with physicians who do that so it seemed reasonable. I was told he knew how scared my mother was and agreed for her to deliver in Vermont.

As I grew older, I started to realize Burlington, which is a three hour drive by today’s standards, would have been a full day’s journey during winter in the late 1950”s. The story started to crumble. This coupled with the fact that I also felt like I never totally fit in or belonged. My problem solving skills and my body type are completely different from my parents’ or my sister’s who was 5 years younger. Despite this, my childhood was good. Yet because of my feelings of feeling different, I eventually asked every adult member of my family if I was adopted. I was told by everyone including my mother, “NO you were not adopted,” and that I was crazy for even asking.  

Not ever thinking or believing my entire family would lie to me, I accepted what I was being told. I internalized their answers and told myself I was the one with the problem. And that I was crazy for even asking. 

I called my mother to ask if she knew why my birth certificate was filed so late after my birth. I thought best to ask her before I started to research what could have happened. She said it must have been a clerical error. She then ended the call and didn’t speak with me again for three months.  We usually talk at least once a week. So, I wondered what I had done to earn the silent treatment. 

The passport office sent a birth affidavit that my Dad graciously agreed to fill out with me in front of a notary at work.  He talked about a different doctor’s name which prompted me to look at my medical records. This is the benefit of working at the clinic/hospital where I have always gotten my medical care. In fact, the medical records room was actually 2 floors below my office. 

Why I never thought to check my medical records all these years still kinda haunts me. I can only think maybe I wasn’t ready to know or see that first entry in my medical record. It said, “Adopted Baby 4lbs 4 oz, a preemie”. I would later find out that I was whisked away from the maternity home and spent the first 2 days of life in the hospital bonding with an incubator. Once discharged, I went back to the maternity home for the rest of my 43 day stay. 

This was the middle of the day that I read those words, Adopted Baby, and I needed to get back to work. Before I punched back in, I made two phone calls. One to my husband to tell him I was adopted and the second to call the Probate court of Chittenden County to tell them, “I am not supposed to know it, but you are looking for adoption records.”  I then went on about my day. Two days later, my parents called and asked me to come over. When I walked into my childhood home, Dad said “You know why you are here?” I responded, ”Yes, I have known since Monday.” I handed my mom a long stem red rose.   

They told me the story of getting the call; about not being prepared and having no clue I would be coming home with them that day. Did they think they were going on a shopping trip? Pick out the kid you want and then get delivery when you’re ready? No, I was next in line and they were next on the list. I will give credit to the maternity home as I later found out my bio mom had rules for my placement and they followed those rules to the letter. I feel that in some way my bio mom picked out my parents with those rules. But maybe this is still a bit of lingering adoption fog. 

My parents couldn’t remember where they got me and fortunately for me another family in town who adopted at the same time gave my folks the name of the maternity home. Dad had contacted the adoption coordinator and asked me to speak with her while at the house. She said she would try to get me my birth certificate so I could get the passport in time for the trip, next month. She asked me to call her as soon as I got back to work. I did and started the process of getting all non-identifying information.  

While still at the house, my mother said she couldn’t go to lunch with her friends later that day. That our winning the free trip was the worst day of her life and she didn’t know how she could go on. At that moment, I was glad that I had known for a couple of days. Unconsciously I made the decision that from that moment forward my job was to support her/them. To make sure they never felt a moment of rejection. I was successful with that until their last breaths. Ultimately this postponed my own processing and healing.

In February of 2006 I was asked to write my bio mom a letter. A letter that took me 8 hours to write. In the middle of crafting the letter my mother called to see if I wanted pizza for my birthday dinner in a couple of days. I don’t even remember hanging up the phone after the call or getting back to my computer at my desk. It was just all surreal—talking on the phone to one mother while writing a letter to the other. Something to this day I remember as if it just occurred.

I reunited with my bio mom in April of 2006 and was told her son was my full sibling brother. That was the gift of reunion for me.  I had wanted a brother my entire life. My bio mom was well into dementia when we met. While answers to my questions were not going to be obtainable, the time I did spend with her was precious. I would drive up to Vermont twice a year to visit her. I even met with my paternal half sister. We had a lovely visit but then I got the “don’t ever contact me or my family again” email. I grieved that loss.  

Bio mom died in October of 2015. My Mom died four months later. I grieved them in unison.  

Oddly enough, 16 years later I would discover via a DNA test I did at age 62 to see how much Italian I had, that the man I thought was my bio dad wasn’t. The test also revealed that my brother and I were only half siblings. His bio dad died just two months before my brother’s DNA test results arrival. History would repeat itself, and I would again grieve the death of my adopted dad and loss of who I thought was my bio dad together. When the test results came in, I learned the truth. The test showed I had zero Italian. My brother was 43 % Italian. I had spent two weeks in Italy, with three days in what is now just my brother’s ancestral hometown but I had thought was mine too.

After working my DNA matches I found my paternal bio father in May 2021. He had passed away long ago. His son blew off my attempts at contact. So did some of my new first cousins who said they would give information but never followed up. I agonized for a year and then reached out to his daughter who agreed to take the DNA test. For the first time in my life at age 64, I was sitting in the living room of my paternal half sister’s 5th wheel camper with people who looked like me.  Her brother arrived to meet who he thought was his new found cousin. Only to be surprised when I showed the DNA tests that proved we were half siblings.     

It’s been a wild journey over these many years. I am now finally starting to process as I discover that adoption is trauma. My saying, I have to FEEL it to HEAL it, helps remind me that the pain I am now allowing myself to feel is healthy. I have learned that my behaviors over my lifetime were not me being crazy, simply me responding to the trauma I wasn’t consciously aware of. 

As I attend groups and meet in community with other adoptees and people with DNA surprises, I learn so much about myself. I am learning to accept my adoption. While I am not grateful for the trauma of adoption, I am grateful for the communities I have found along the way and for all those who are all part of our DNA surprise tribe.