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A man’s search for his biological family

Connecting with his biological relatives opened up a new world for Sebastian Lander, who recently met his natural father.

Six years ago I wrote an article in The Times about the search for and reunion with my biological mother, Sally. It was a cathartic process without any of the betrayal, rejection and resentment that can haunt more fraught circumstances. For that reason, I wanted to share it.

My story was a happy one, free of regret, and not only about the close relationship that I forged with my birth mother, but her subsequent friendship with my adoptive mother too. Now I can add the experience of meeting my natural father and his family into this unusual equation.
Sally and James had agreed to give me up for adoption at birth — both were young and ill-equipped to take on the role of caregivers to a baby, particularly a premature child with health problems. There were few options available to them in late-1970s Britain and, in a nod to the general atmosphere, my typewritten adoption file notes the “status of child” as “illegitimate” — rather unacceptable for the time.
After a year of shuttling between hospital and a (caring) foster home, I was placed with my parents, who already had my three-year-old adopted sister. Growing up, we were aware of being adopted and our natural parents were an unseen but powerful presence. The word “adopt” comes from the Latin adoptare, to choose, and we were told often that we were special because we were exactly that — chosen. To a couple who had spent years trying for a family, we were a precious gift.
While their situation is not common, it is a growing one — last week it emerged that the number of adoptions grew by 12 per cent in the past year after reforms to the system.
It is difficult to capture what it feels like to be adopted — but I recently came across a poem written by my teenage self. “You took me when I wasn’t yours”, I wrote about my parents. “I belonged to no one/ No breast milk/ Only the milk of human kindness/ I don’t have your nose or your eyes/ Yet you reward me/ With kisses that take away my pain”. It makes me cringe now, but illustrates my feelings at the time.
My parents always made it clear that if my sister and I wanted to find these troubled teenage life-givers, they would be wholly supportive. Despite separating when I was 21, they have both stayed true to their word.
While I had a very happy childhood, there were unanswered questions about my identity, a curiosity about what parts of me — physically and characteristically — could be assigned to those who gave me life and those who gave me love. I worried that the search for my natural relations would open a Pandora’s box. Would my adoptive family feel threatened? Did it seem ungrateful or disloyal? Would my birth parents want to resume where they left off? And what if they didn’t want to know me?
And so I met Sally eight years ago, aged 26. I contacted the local authority where I had been born and I found that Sally had sent a letter when I turned 18, expressing a wish to know how I had fared. A letter I had written was forwarded and, after months of writing, e-mailing and telephoning, we met up over lunch in Central London. There was a frank conversation and many questions, all of which Sally answered with unwavering honesty. Did she consider terminating the pregnancy? Yes. Was I easy to give birth to? I “shot” out, apparently.
When I first saw her, there was a kind of instant recognition, and I remember thinking how similar our cheekbones and chin were. In those early days, we agreed that it was like being in love — comfortable, familiar, but a novelty. Sally never married or had any more children and her life situation made it easier for our friendship to blossom — there were no jealous half-siblings or a threatened husband to contend with. It helped that I was not looking for Sally to be a mother, I already had a good one; and Sally still maintains that giving me up was the right thing to do. In the years since then we have built an affectionate friendship that has something of a maternal glow. We have much in common. My adoptive mother and Sally have a caring and respectful attitude towards each other, and she has also met my adoptive father.
In mid-2009 the time felt right to explore the paternal side of my birth family. Once again I contacted the local authority where I had been born.
Searching for James meant jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Sally made a tempting offer. She and James had stayed in contact through exchanging Christmas cards and she thought he would be open to meeting.
While adoption experts recommend professional mediation as the safer route, in this instance I was lucky. Looking back at my initial e-mail to James, I am surprised how bold I was to have written in the subject line: “Hello, after 30 years . . .” The subject title of the e-mail I received two days later was equally encouraging. “Reunion”, it said.
He wrote: “After all these years how fantastic that you have taken the plunge and contacted us.
“I have been half expecting, half hoping that you would wish to find your true origins for some time,” he said. “There are hidden bonds in all of us that guide us into our actions.”

James had married and was the father of a nine-year-old girl. My e-mail, he said, had elicited “a buzz of excitement mixed with happiness” within his family. As an only child, his daughter was happy to discover that she had a half-brother. We arranged to meet for lunch two weeks later.

No one could have guessed the relationships between the six people seated around the table that day. James and his family were present, Sally too, and my partner. My conversation with James was not as frank or well-oiled as the one I had had with Sally, perhaps because there were more relationships to manage that day.

My bond with James has grown. He told me recently: “I liked your face — it reminded me of when I was younger — and your easy manner, but mostly your bravery in meeting strangers.”

We don’t live in each other’s pockets, but whenever we do see each other I discover something new about him that strikes a chord. He is kind and oddly prescient about my life, given the amount of time we spend together. He once managed to aptly sum up my feelings during an uncertain time in my life despite me not having shared my concerns. He was able to read me.

James has four siblings, who all have children, and I am working at getting to know them all. I meet one of his sisters regularly for coffee in London. Another sister’s daughter, my cousin, lived in the same area as me and, after a hiccup in her living situation, I invited her to stay for two months. I even attended James’s brother’s wedding. In the bucolic surrounds of the Yorkshire Dales, I met the rest of my relatives.

When you have spent your life not resembling any of your family, in looks at least, being surrounded by people who reflect some or all of your features is quite unnerving. The sight of James still gives me a shock as I can see so much of myself in him.

While my “new” relatives started off as strangers, we have a biological connection, which is hard to define. Meeting them has made me feel more grounded and complete. Like Sally, her relatives and my adoptive family, they have been unquestionably open.

Meeting my natural family has not affected the way I feel about my adoptive family either. As James recently wrote to me: “When a lot of water has gone under the bridge and you don’t know what has happened to it, it’s nice to catch up with some of it.”

In his first e-mail, I remember him saying that he felt pride about the way I had turned out, and that is something Sally said too. Our parents gave us the same assurance when growing up.

I can see now that I am a group effort, nature and nurture interwoven, a complex dance of genetic and environmental factors. And that’s OK.

The source of story: