By Tiia Norsym
I was adopted from Cali, Colombia in 1976. My birth mother didn’t have plans for my future, and knew she couldn’t care for me. I most likely would have ended up in an orphanage had it not been for her nurse, Julia. Julia was friends with my parents and knew they were looking to adopt a baby girl. A match was made and very quickly, my adoption was privately arranged. My parents flew from New Jersey down to Colombia just months after my birth mother relinquished her parental rights, while still in the hospital. In the meantime, I was placed with a loving foster mother in Cali.
I didn’t know any of this story until I was 12, when I first learned that I was adopted. In the 70’s there was not as much openness about adoption, and my father was afraid to tell me. Right before his untimely passing, he told my mother that I must be told the truth. While I accepted the news from my mother positively, this of course led to a lot of confusion and questions. Raised by immigrant parents, I had identified as Estonian and Burmese/British. I attended Estonian school on the weekends and my grandparents only spoke Estonian to us as kids. My mother cooked Burmese food and raised us with the British culture. Now who was I? Am I Colombian? As a pre-teen, even telling my friends this news was daunting, and I kept it a secret until my college years. At this turning point in life, I embraced my ‘new’ identity, became fluent in Spanish, traveled to Central and South America for study abroad programs and yearned to know more about where I came from, so that I could better understand myself as a whole person.
With the support of my mother, my sophomore year in college, following a study abroad program in Ecuador, I flew to Colombia to begin my search for answers. Fortunately, we still had the wonderful family connection that had helped arrange the adoption. I had the opportunity to meet the doctor who had cared for me when I was very sick before leaving the country, the nun who knew my birth mother when she was pregnant, and my foster mother who lovingly cared for me. All of them vividly remembered the story, and it was a very emotional experience, especially meeting my foster mother. She never fostered another baby after me, as it was so difficult to let me go.
This trip didn’t lead to much information about where my birth mother was, but certainly sparked my interest to know more. I knew I would take the next steps later in life to launch a full search, but I had to muster up the courage to do so. In my early 30’s, I started to think more about the unknowns of my medical history and since my husband and I were planning to start a family, I wanted to know more. I still felt a great void in my heart and needed answers…where does she live, do I have siblings, who is my birth father, why did she give me up, what would my life have been like in Colombia and on and on. I knew, however, that I couldn’t just disrupt someone’s life, just for the sake of my own curiosity. This would be a decision that would greatly impact my birth mother, and I needed to be ready to jump into this new relationship for life.
With much trepidation, I hired a Colombian private investigator. Since I was really fortunate to find my birth mother’s cedula number (Colombian SSN), the investigator found my birth mother within days. She was living in the mountains. Although I had been waiting for years, this was moving along much faster than I was prepared for! I gave her the go-ahead and along with a psychologist, she travelled to Manizales, Colombia to tell my birth mother that her daughter was looking for her and gave her a letter I wrote to her. We were soon set up on a Skype call for a very teary ‘meeting’. Throughout the call, she kept saying, ‘es un milagro de Dios’ (it’s a miracle from God). She had been keeping my birth a secret from her entire family, with the exception of one sister, for 30 years. Through all of this, she was able to free herself of the burden of this secret and celebrated with her siblings that same evening.
Fast-forward almost 10 years, I have traveled to Colombia 3 times and have brought my son and mother to meet my birth mother and very large family. I’ve been embraced as a daughter, niece, and long lost cousin, just one of 60 or so living all over the world. My birth mother never married, and I don’t have any siblings. I didn’t learn much about my birth father except that he wasn’t in her life for long. I feel complete in my heart and loved by my Colombian family and have been able to answer most of my questions. I have the opportunity to raise my children with a Colombian identity, and the hopes to soon go visit their Colombian grandmother, cousins, aunts, and uncles during the summers. It’s the connection to this culture and family that I didn’t have.
My experience of searching for answers to all the unknowns and ethnic identity issues may not be the experience of all adoptees, during this time of open adoption and open conversation about the child’s adoption story. But my personal story has inspired me to do my small part to help families openly share the story of their child’s adoption, through photographs. I want the adopted child to grow up seeing photographs of their first moments with their family, as I yearned to see photographs to help me piece together my story. I even photograph any memorabilia from the adoption process or anything their birth mother sent along with them, including the outfit they were wearing or a picture. Later in life, when they may have questions like I did, they can turn to these images to help complete the puzzle of their life.
I work with Red Thread Sessions, offering complimentary photography services for the official adoption day, homecoming, or a session within the first three months of adopting your child. This is my way of giving back, to families that go through so much to bring a child into their home, to love them forever. This opportunity is also a gift for me and feeds my soul, being a part of such a special time in a family and child’s life. When I look through the lens at a family that has been built by adoption, it truly touches my heart and reminds me of the blessings I have been graced with in my own life.