CNN's "New Day" and "@THIS HOUR" news anchor Michaela Pereira was adopted as a baby
Michaela and her four sisters all grew up knowing they were adopted
In her 20s Michaela set out to find her birth mother, with the blessing of her parents
Michaela found out she had a half-sister and set about building a relationship with her
Editor’s Note: November is National Adoption Awareness Month. Here, Michaela Pereira of CNN’s “New Day” and “@THIS HOUR” shares the story of growing up in a family of five adopted girls in Canada and her eventual reunion with her biological half-sister, Marnie. Marnie describes the shock of finding out she had a sister and the long road to building a strong relationship. And Michaela’s adoptive mother, Ainslie, offers her perspective on taking in children in need of a loving home. Tune in to “New Day” on Friday at 8:30 a.m. ET to hear more from Michaela, and then watch “@THIS HOUR” at 11:30 a.m. ET to meet her adoptive mother and sister.
Michaela: Growing up in our house there was no way to get around the topic of adoption. All five of the kids in my family, all girls, are adopted. One look at us, and you knew this was a different kind of family.
As the story goes, Mom and Dad were a young couple about four years into their marriage when they decided to start a family. Dad was working at the time for the YMCA, Mom was a primary school teacher. They adopted their first child, Darlene, when she was 4 years old. Not long after, they received a call about an infant who needed placement: Me. It was the four of us for a few years until Sheila, age 6, arrived. Laurie and Mary-Lou, biological sisters (10 and 7 respectively) joined our family several years later.
It was, I suppose, an unusual family to grow up in, in the respect that we didn’t look like most families on the prairies of Canada. We are a multicultural family; my parents are Caucasian, my sisters are First Nations and then there is me. I grew up knowing that I was biracial and that on my paternal side, I was Jamaican. I don’t believe my parents set out to create such a racially diverse family. I believe truly that my folks saw a need and helped where they could.
I don’t remember a conversation or a moment when my parents sat me down to explain that I was adopted or that they weren’t my “real parents.” They didn’t need to. It was always a part of our world, our dialogue, the fabric of our family.
I do know that some of my sisters struggled with memories of the families that they were separated from. Some of my siblings to this day grieve that loss. For me it was entirely different, given the fact that I was placed for adoption soon after my birth, my slate was clean.
Just because I didn’t have memories doesn’t mean I didn’t wonder. Every year on my birthday for as far back as I can remember, I wondered whether my birth mother thought of me or worried about me. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I began to fantasize about the identity of my father. All I knew was that I was the product of a biracial “union” but that my birth mother couldn’t keep me. As for my birth father, I knew that much of what I looked like to the outside world came from him. Yet I knew nothing.
But I resolutely squashed the desire to know more about my birth parents, admitting it to no one, for fear that speaking it aloud would be an unforgivable betrayal of my parents who had raised me.
At about age 25, following a brief marriage and divorce, I found myself looking at things a whole lot differently than I had as a child. The urge to discover my roots was too much to ignore. My parents were supportive but understandably concerned. I think they were worried that it wouldn’t turn out as I hoped.
A few years had passed after I initiated the search for my birth parents when the social worker assigned to my case called me to say she had found something. She recounted to me how she had called the house of my birth mother, and a young woman named Marnie had answered who had a year earlier lost her mother, Dale, to a long battle with cancer. The young woman was my sister. Her mother, my birth mother.
Marnie: In 2000 I received a phone call that would forever change my life. It was from an adoption agency in Saskatchewan, Canada, and the perky lady on the other end began to rhyme off detailed facts about my mother. I was confused as to how she knew all this, but reluctantly confirmed her information. She told me that in 1970 my mom placed a child for adoption. A lot of what came next is still a blur. In my confusion, I told her she must have the wrong number and I truly believed that the call must have been a mistake.
I marched downstairs to talk to my dad. I was bordering on hysteria and trying to regurgitate what that woman had told me. As I was talking, my dad slowly sat down and I could tell by the look on his face that he was just as shocked as I was. He immediately called the adoption agency to get all the facts. He was dealing with all this far more rationally than I was.
It had only been a year since my mom died and I was still trying to come to terms with her loss. Now I had all these questions and no one to answer them. I was so angry that I was numb. My mother was an honest person. She didn’t keep secrets, and in turn, instilled those values in me. How could the person I loved most in this world have betrayed me? She had 23 years to tell me about Michaela. She knew that she was dying for five of those years. I had always heard about death-bed confessions, and couldn’t understand why we didn’t get one.
Although my dad was hurt that my mom hadn’t shared this with him in their 25 years of marriage, he was never angry. He immediately reached out to Michaela. I wasn’t there yet, and wouldn’t be for a long time. He believed that everyone had a right to know where they came from and he began corresponding with her. He would tell me things about her, and I would pretend to be disinterested. He intentionally left her letters around the house, and I’d read them when he wasn’t home. I was curious, but my anger overshadowed my curiosity. In retrospect, I believe that sharing his memories of my mom and reliving happier times allowed my father to heal. I’m now so very thankful for that.
Michaela: Marnie’s father, Zig, and I became pen pals for the next year or so. In retrospect I see that it helped a man mourning the loss of his beloved wife, and it gave me the gift of knowing who my birth mother had been and the life she had. Over time, too, it kept the door open for the meeting I was truly seeking in Dale’s absence, a meeting with my sister Marnie.
One day while living in San Francisco, I was doing some work on my computer and noticed that Marnie was online. Before I could second-guess myself, I quickly typed “hi” into the instant messenger and hit send.
Marnie: “Hi.” My hands were shaking as I typed back, “Hi Michaela.” She was gently persistent over the next few years; a Christmas card here, an email there, flowers on my birthday. I stayed silent.
Michaela: Many years passed, and I moved several times, following my TV career from market to market. But every time I moved I was sure to send a change of address to Marnie. I tried not let a birthday or Christmas pass without a card from me. In Christmas of 2009, it paid off. I received a holiday card that read in part “maybe this is the year that sisters meet.” I carried that card around like a promise in my purse for weeks, showing it to anyone who showed the slightest interest.
Marnie: It was late 2009, where in a Christmas card, I first mentioned that I’d be interested in us meeting. It didn’t seem as scary to me anymore. I’d come to realize, through our emails, that Michaela seemed down to earth and normal. I could tell that she genuinely wanted to build a relationship with me.
We decided that I would go out to California (where Michaela was living at the time), as I’d never been there before. We began planning over email, and then I finally decided to pick up the phone and give her a call. I was nervous for about 30 seconds. The next few hours flew by and I felt that I was talking to someone I had known my whole life. We were so comfortable with each other. I’d never experienced that before.
When I arrived in California, any worries I had dissipated immediately. Michaela was so incredibly warm and welcoming. We talked nonstop, sharing our life stories, answering each other’s questions and really taking the first steps to becoming sisters. It was amazing how much we had in common and how we both had inherited so many traits from our mother. Michaela reminded me so much of my mom. She had many of her mannerisms, her widow’s peak and most definitely her eyes. Although my mom was fair with blond hair and green eyes, like me, I could see more of a resemblance between Mom and Michaela.
That first night I talked about my mom for hours. I wanted Michaela to know that she was a good person. I tried to put myself in Michaela’s shoes and understand how she might have felt about a woman who placed a child for adoption and never spoke of it again, even when she knew her time here on Earth was limited. I felt like I should defend her, she was my mother after all. I never had to do that, though. Michaela wasn’t angry. Yes, she felt disappointment, but most of all she was grateful that our mother made the brave choice to place her for adoption.
We had such a fantastic week, but many times feelings of regret washed over me. Why had I waited so long to let this amazing person into my life? Michaela has said many times that “things happen when they’re supposed to.” She’s right. I was finally at a place in my life where I wasn’t angry any longer, I was more comfortable with who I was, and I was ready to share that with her.
Michaela: When I set about looking to discover my roots, I never in a million years imagined that it could have turned out the way it has. I have connected with my blood – my sibling. When I am asked how it feels, I say it’s as though I found a part of me that I hadn’t realized was missing. I cannot tell you how life-affirming and validating it has been to not only meet and fall in love with a new sister, but to learn about myself in the process. I no longer felt random, or like a mistake or an afterthought. My parents did everything they could to make me feel loved and connected and that I belonged. But some of those feelings I had were so deeply rooted to my very start in life that no amount of love and affection could help.
Of my parents’ expansive, inclusive definition of family, one thing stands out the most. Yes, blood is a tie that binds, but so, too, does the heart. Our parents CHOSE us by adopting us. And that is a HUGE statement for a kid who questions her place in the world. And what’s beautiful is that our family grows still. Not only have many of us re-connected with birth relatives, but we have (unofficially) brought into our fold Fatima and Guly, two other “sisters” in need of family!
Ainslie: In our family, adoption was a choice, not a necessity, and “that word” had no negative stigma. When Michaela phoned to say that her birth mother, Dale, had died two years earlier, we both cried together. As Michaela is our third or fourth child to seek out her birth parents, my husband and I were not offended or surprised. We feel that every child has a right to know their whole story and that adoption should not be viewed as secretive, second class, or kept a mystery. All teens, biological or adopted, search for their own identity, values and beliefs. This is magnified in adopted children, but not unique.
It is very common in adopted children to fear talking to the adopted parents about their need for identity and roots. On the surface the adopted child might fear hurting their parents, but underneath is the additional fear of even more rejection.
Children need roots and wings. All adoptive parents can only provide half of this. My girls longed to find “someone to identify with who looks like me.” It tickled me to see a recent photo of Michaela with Marnie and her extended family. There was “my beautiful red rose among a field of daisies.”
And so the family grows to include Marnie and many more who call us Mom and Dad. Other daughters before Michaela added to the family by including their biological siblings. We know their names, have met some and met others through Facebook. We are looking forward to actually meeting Marnie someday – two primary teachers should have a lot of common experiences to share.
Once, a friend of mine pointed me out to a woman and said, “That’s the lady who adopted all those unadoptable kids.” The woman replied, “But she looks so normal.”
So, I look normal. Maybe if I were in charge I wouldn’t have planned this exact path for my life, but if I were in total control of the world, I would have arranged it so that there were no unplaceable kids or hopeless situations.
Marnie: I never would have imagined all those years ago that our story would have turned out this perfectly. Since the day I opened my heart up to Michaela I have never looked back. I have a sister and friend who has changed my life for the better. She makes me laugh, gives me sage advice and reminds me everyday that life is good. I know my mom is proud of her daughters, proud of what we have become not only in our own lives but in each others’. She is definitely smiling down on us.