Switched at Birth

On a summer day in 1951, two baby girls were born in a hospital in small-town Wisconsin. The infants were accidentally switched, and went home with the wrong families. One of the mothers realized the mistake but chose to keep quiet until the day, more than 40 years later, when she decided to tell both daughters what happened. The current episode of NPR’s This American Life tells the story of how the truth changed two families’ lives-and how it didn’t.

the miller family by you.

I listen to This American Life faithfully because it never fails to deliver fascinating looks into the lives of ordinary, and not-so-ordinary Americans. “Switched at Birth” is no exception, but it is one of the most compelling episodes I’ve heard in the past year of listening. Although the episode isn’t really about adoption, it is about what happens when people discover they have two families–which is exactly what adoption is all about. Because both families affected by the switched babies are Christian, it is also about faith and about how these particular believers worked out their pain. It’s about how one misguided religious person–in this case, one of the fathers who was also a minister–can make a terrible mistake and yet believe himself to be completely right, even to the point of invoking “the will of God.”

I hope any of you with iPods or who have computer work to do but who want to multi-task and listen to this broadcast will listen to it. I was so deeply moved by the comments of both mothers, in particular, but also by the daughters who grew up in the ‘wrong’ families.

If you listen to it, please come back and comment. I’ll comment, myself, later when I have more time; but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, either.

27 responses

  1. Mary, I’m so glad you came back and saw my response, and very glad for your ongoing comments. Even though this situation is difficult for you and your family, I see good coming from it as you faithfully go around and communicate your real self and your family’s culture, so to speak, so that people who are interested enough to have blogged or otherwise written about it can actually get to know you. Thank you so much for that.

    You asked, “And they also have Kay McDonald saying that had the case been reversed, she would have definitely taken the baby back regardless. I wouldn’t be so sure. I mean, haven’t you ever been surprised by how you responded to something even though you thought you knew yourself through and through?”

    Oh yes, Mary, I certainly have been very surprised at myself. When it comes to love and especially to one’s children, I know all too well that we can be surprised. As an adoptive mother and former foster mother, I know all too well how much love you have for your children. It doesn’t matter if the baby is blood related or not, regardless of what anyone says, unless a woman started out crippled in her ability to love in the first place. Clearly, your mother was and remains a big-hearted, loving woman. Nobody said otherwise; I hope you remember that, because I don’t think anyone who heard the interview came away thinking otherwise. She loved your sister as her own and never said she didn’t. But there was that terrible ethical dilemma and the times she lived in, and all have to be taken and put into a whole context.

    I agree with your friend Erin and what she said. Unfortunately, it’s all too true that seriousness and introversion and just about any temperament type that represents a substantial minority are looked at by the majority as being different–because they are different. Introverts make up a minority of personality types, so obviously the outgoing types such as the McDonalds just don’t “get” introverts. We’re too serious and introspective. I was raised by two extroverts and never felt I was taken seriously (haha, pun intended) by either parent, much, but at least I learned how the outside world was going to receive me well in advance.

    In your family, a person like myself would have thrived, I’m sure. And it sounds as though both of your sisters did well in the families they grew up in. They did portray your sister Sue, though, as still being an ‘outsider’ in both families. I wondererd if this is true, or accurately portrayed? If she’s introverted and stands off as an observer, it would go along with her personality to remain that way. I do think introverts are just more awkward in any social setting, including within a family, because we’re wired that way. Our gifts come from other situations.

    About your sister, Faith: Maybe her personality is more sensitive and she didn’t take the family environment well. There’s a child like that in just about every family, as far as I can tell. Children who are more intuitive or feeling tend to take stressful or noisy environments differently. I have a friend who grew up in a family of eight children, and her perception of her childhood is markedly different from that of her siblings. I think this is just something that happens; there’s not necessarily a right or wrong, mistaken or accurate perception; just a balance among all the viewoints. Probably for Faith, the environment was more difficult and trying, that’s all.

    In my family of origin, each of my siblings perceives our upbringing differently. One was nearly crushed by it; another thinks it was wonderful; I am somewhere in the middle on the issue, seeing both sides but also sticking to my own perspective about this situation or that, one parent or another, while the views of my siblings differ sometimes drastically from mine.

    When I was younger, I thought they were unaware or unconscious, probably because I needed to think that about them. Now I’m more merciful and simply see that everyone has his or her own unique perspective and experience. There’s room for all to be honored in a world that’s often like a kaleidoscope. And that can be beautiful and brilliant.

    Finally, about the spanking. I grew up in the 1960s and every child who lived in our middle-class neighborhood was spanked. Children were paddled at school, a fact that fascinates and enthralls my own children as I tell them about the time I was paddled by the football coach for flipping peas across the cafeteria with my fork. It’s incomprehensible today that children in public school would be paddled in public, but probably many of us can remember something like that happening.

    You’re quite right about that, it was a different era, for better or for worse. Or both.

  2. Thanks so much for your comments, Eve. I’m glad there are families like yours and mine, and I appreciate your sharing more about how the story struck you. I feel that you came away with a more balanced view than some people who have written in blogs or whose opinions came to me second-hand.

    The questions to my mother were legitimate, but I will tell you that the reporter Jake Halpern and his producer Sarah Koening asked them over and over and over and over again – about 40 times according to my mother. I think she probably exaggerated the number of times, but the point is that she felt like she was being interrogated like a criminal and that her answers were not being accepted no matter how many times she explained them.

    She was completely distraught when she returned to the family in whose home she lives. She couldn’t sleep, and her caretaker could absolutely not get her calmed down. If I had known she was going to be given the third degree, I would never have allowed her to be interviewed without another family member present.

    Later, when I relayed her reaction to the interviewer and producer, they told me they had no idea that this was anything but a warm conversation they had with her. That’s how gracious my mother can be. In my generation or certainly in the one below me, we would have told the interviewers to take a walk if they couldn’t be decent, but that would not be my mother. She barely let them know how accused she felt, and they perceived only a warm, friendly atmosphere. I understand that she started by giving them a meal, she showed them around the house, she asked them about themselves, and generally treated them as friends. This is how my family is.

    In the discussion I had with Sarah, she admitted that once Mom turned directly to her and Jake and said, “You think I should have returned the baby, don’t you.” She knew she was being accused. Sarah said that she and Jake said something like, “Oh, no, we just want to know what you thought.” But even a 96-year-old woman understands that when the same question is repeated again and again, it means that the questioner is wanting a different answer.

    She had already told them her situation and reasons. They apparently wanted her – 57 years later – to say she was all wrong, that all her reasons were invalid, that NOTHING should have prevented her from taking the baby back, that it was wrong to keep her regardless of the repercussions to herself, her relationship, the 6 of us kids, or anyone or anything else. They got their wish. She says it was wrong to keep the baby.

    And they also have Kay McDonald saying that had the case been reversed, she would have definitely taken the baby back regardless. I wouldn’t be so sure. I mean, haven’t you ever been surprised by how you responded to something even though you thought you knew yourself through and through?

    Maybe Kay would have tried to return the baby, but even so, no one can know how the hospital would have responded back then when there were no DNA tests, when the ordinary blood test for the girls would have shown they could have been daughters of either set of parents, when the attending nurses might have stood firm that there was no confusion, etc., etc. As it was, when Kay or Sue talked to one of the attending nurses after they learned that Sue wasn’t a McDonald, this nurse said it could not have happened. But the DNA tests had already proved that my mother’s suspicions were correct.

    I’m really glad, Eve, that you did not come away with a negative impression of my family. But others did. My friend Erin listened and then wrote to me, “There was definitely a value judgment being made that “serious is bad and outgoing and funny is good.” That kind of sweeping generalization is not good for anyone. Both kinds of people are needed in the world.”

    Some other people went with the concept that Sue “lucked out” being raised a McDonald. They stated it in just that way, using the phrase introduced by my sister Faith in her letter to Sue. Faith is very eager to share what she calls the “deficits” of the family and says that “Martha with her happy-go-lucky nature could take the climate of the Miller home.”

    “Wow! Wow!” exclaims the reporter Jake Halpern. ” So she’s actually saying to you that you may have gotten a break here being in a family…”

    Sue breaks in: “Yeah, I lucked out.”

    Jake says: Are there times you felt you lucked out being in a home that was a little bit easier to grow up in?”

    Then Sue goes on about the “deficits” that Faith shared with her by phone and says, “and I’m thinking, ‘How would I have survived with that kind of upbringing? You know, and I didn’t grow up like that at all. I don’t know how I would’ve survived.’ ” The rest of us Miller children are certain she would have done just fine in our family.

    Yes, we were spanked, but then all our friends got spanked too when they misbehaved too badly. Remember, this was the early 1950s. Yes, we did chores. Yes, we had 4 girls in one bedroom and 2 boys in another, but think of it this way, it was kind of like a pajama party every night.

    Another aspect of the harshness portrayed was the false statement that our family never took vacations. On the contrary, each year we made the 200-mile trip to visit our grandmother (my dad’s mother), our uncle and aunt, and our cousins on dairy farms near Seymour, WI. We stayed a week each time, I think. Every 3 -5 years we drove down to Louisville, KY to visit my mother’s mother, our uncle and his family there. They had orchards and ran a produce stand. We would stay 2 weeks there. At both grandparents’ we roamed the farms and enjoyed our cousins and the culture of their families.

    About going through the hole from the bedroom to the bathroom, when I was a kid, “going through the hole” to the bathroom was something we did for fun. The time Marty talked about was much later when I was off at college. I doubt that my parents even knew about this.

    • Mary,

      I hope you haven’t given up on this thread, given the passing of so many years. I have just heard the TAL show for the first time, on a podcast, and… wow. I was out running and came in immediately to Google the story.

      I came across this and was amazed to hear from a family member. But I was equally amazed by the exchange you’ve had here with Eve, which seems so sensible and clear on both parts (not so common here in the blogosphere, I can tell you).

      I don’t think I can add much new to your exchange, except perhaps to say that I came away from the story shocked but, in a strange way, optimistic. I know that might seem odd, where I see others here saying how they felt “gutted,” etc. And surely, this caused pain to both families too, both the actual event and the aftermath of the TAL coverage.

      Yet, I don’t know… in the end, is there not some goodness here?

      For instance, I understand what people say about your mother and how they should have corrected the situation early on… I understand how they might muse on the relationship between your parents and with such a large houseful of kids… but really, honestly, I was charmed to hear your mother at 96, so clear headed and clearly with loving memories of the child — the children — she raised. And I felt her deep sincerity when she expressed her sadness for Kay M. and what this discovery had meant to her.

      I even felt that the TAL interviewers made it clear that the circumstances of the time, from your mother’s discovery through her illness and your father’s attempt to protect the doctor’s reputation — while a strange mix of circumstances and some bad choices — had their own kind of innocence and even good intentions, however much a mess it turned out to be.

      Your family, equally, sounded perhaps like a cerebral one, but not a boring or overly-rigid one by any measure. Even just from listening to the show and prior to reading this post, I pictured the closeness of the large family and the details of the hobbies alone made it clear you were a fascinating, life-enjoying bunch.

      If there was any deficit in the story-telling, I wish TAL had been able to show that side of the McDonald family as well. But as it was, the requirements of telling the story demanded they focus on the pain after the discovery and not as much on the joy that preceded it, of which I’m sure there was also plenty.

      And this is the real thing, I think, that makes me feel… good… in the end, about how this turned out. Yes, the different character and appearance of these two girls as they grew up in their swapped families is fascinating. But the real message here, which I haven’t seen stated anywhere yet is that, here are two children in two separate families, growing up surrounded by deep love and nurturing.

      Of course this happens in families all the time, unsung and unnoticed by most because it IS so common. Parents love their children. Brothers and sisters grow together. And normally, we don’t even mention it beyond the walls of family holidays and events. Because, normally, it’s the broken dysfunctional families that make for better headlines.

      Yet, in this bizarre instance, we have a chance to put not one but two families that loved the child upstairs in the nursery, for all of their lives.

      And isn’t that a wonderful thing?

      • I left a word out there. The next to last paragraph was meant to read:

        “…we have a chance to put not one but two families that loved the child upstairs in the nursery, for all of their lives, into the spotlight.”

  3. Mary, thank you so much for your comments, which are good reminders that we should remind ourselves that what we see and hear in the media can’t represent the entirety of a person or a family at all. Although I suspect most of us discussing this knew that there was much more to the story, it’s good to be reminded of it by someone who lived it.

    You wrote that the story seemed stacked against your family; but I don’t necessarily agree. The illustration Life Magazine did shows a busy, interesting household, and your family was described as one that had many guests over and a wide variety of interests. So there was a balance to it. I tend to think that a family of more serious-minded introverts, always in the minority, are simply going to be considered boring by the majority of other people, even when they’re not. But I can understand why your family would feel the interview was skewed.

    I didn’t think that your mother’s decision was “made to seem ridiculous from the start.” I do think, though, that we had to wait until the very end of the episode, to the part where Ira Glass interviews your elderly mother, before we got the real gist of the story and of who your mother is. She endeared herself to me far more than Mrs. McDonald did, by the end. Your mother tried and tried to get everyone to see the truth, but nobody opened their eyes; and then they blamed her for their own blindness. This is pretty typical when dealing with unconscious people; they project their failures onto others so that they don’t have to suffer the pain of taking responsibility. I wasn’t surprised by it, and maybe it will help you to know that I’m not blaming your mother. Of course I questioned her; given the way the interview was laid out, for a good story, most listeners would question her. And I think the questions are legitimate, don’t you? (Or not?)

    You wrote: “Eve, I take issue with you when you said, “the children themselves said they grew up being treated rather severely, while their sister was raised as one of only two children and had a happy, more free, childhood.”

    I stand corrected. Without going back and listening to the segment I was thinking of when I wrote this, I can’t say exactly what the interviewer said. Maybe he put words into the aggregate mouth when only one person interpreted your family life that way. It was the part where Sue described climbing through an air return vent to get to the bathroom, which seemed pretty unusual to me.

    As for the rest of what you wrote about growing up in your large family and how it was depicted, at times, in the show, your childhood sounds much like a modern childhood in a large family might sound. I’m raising quite a large brood of children, myself, and we too are bookish, serious, intellectual, and follow a variety of interests. Most of my children play a musical instrument, speak at least one foreign language, and have some hobby they engage in. We read books out loud at the dinner table. I teach my children to do their own laundry when they are tall enough to reach the washing machine, and they are proud of themselves for being able to do it. Everyone who lives in our house has a kitchen day and we, too, have regular chores.

    This is just to name a few similarities. I think you’re quite right when you suggest that maybe Glass was judging your family by 2008 standards, except I would add that he may have been judging your large family by small family standards. Every large family I know lives similarly; I find that most of the time, parents in large families make extra efforts to see to it that their children do get to follow their own interests because they want to be sure that their children don’t “miss out” due to the large family size.

    Large families can be a lot of fun, and it sounds to me like your parents were intentional in the way they lived. That very last part of the interview with your mother broke my heart and also endeared her to me.

    I didn’t think the interview was fair to the mothers, but then it was supposed to be about the babies who were switched more than the mothers. Maybe this was a focal mistake, but on the other hand, there’s only so much one can do with a piece that long (or short).

    In any case, Mary, thank you for your comments and for sharing part of your life with us. More than once I’ve had my words or even bits of my life twisted out of proportion by others, and it hurts. I’m sorry if I contributed to what must have been a sometimes painful outcome to these interviews. I think that many who listened to the episode will agree that we’re grateful to your mother and family for allowing the interview at all. While it was no doubt painful to all of you, it really did a service to people who have unusual families who aren’t all blood related. Please convey my personal gratitude to your mother and your family. It helped me to think again about some of the mothers of my adopted children and how their reasons are reasons I can’t understand, always, but I can still respect, accept, and love them. That’s what I brought away from the interview in the end, and so I think over all it accomplished good in the world. I hope you think to, too. I hope you’ll see that the emotional and psychological fruit it bore was more than the sum of its parts.

  4. I’m the oldest daughter of Mary K. and Norbert Miller, sister to Marti who grew up with us and sister to Sue who grew up with the McDonalds.

    The comment I find most useful is Al Lucero’s when he says that “I have learned to be pretty non-judgmental in viewing what parents, especially mothers, do in the circumstances given. I believe all mothers do the best they can.” I want to add that I think we all try to do the best we can.

    Mr. Lucero says he “wasn’t taken with Mrs. Miller, though, to be honest.” Let me suggest that the main reason he wasn’t is that, in my opinion, the interviewer Jake Halpern, the producer Sarah Koenig, and the host Ira Glass stacked the deck against my mother and our family in general in how they chose to tell the story. This denigration begins with Ira Glass’s introduction, and while it at times is quite subtle, at other times it is hammer-hard.

    Even a 12-year-old who visits my home every weekend could detect the slant against our family. She was a captive audience for the first half of the story as we traveled home by car, but she didn’t want to continue to listen once she had a choice because she felt the story insulted my family. She said, “It makes your family seem dull and boring.” Clearly she doesn’t agree with the storytellers.

    I, of course, cringed at how the Miller family was depicted and how my mother’s decision was made to seem ridiculous from the start.

    Eve, I take issue with you when you said, “the children themselves said they grew up being treated rather severely, while their sister was raised as one of only two children and had a happy, more free, childhood.”

    It is only my sister Faith who has that opinion of our childhood. She was the one who took it upon herself to tell Sue about what she calls “the deficits” of our family. The rest of us including Marti, don’t feel we had a harsh childhood.

    In fact, since the broadcast, these are Marti’s exact words about that issue: “It’s funny that he [Jake] showed our parents to be such stern disciplinarians because I actually told him the opposite when he asked me if they were strict parents…I specifically said no they were actually lenient in many ways. …Just for the record, I never thought I had a bad childhood either.”

    Let me explain a little bit about what it was like to grow up in the Miller household so that nobody has to continue feeling sorry for any one of us nor has to believe that it would necessarily be any better to have grown up with the “light-hearted” McDonalds.

    We Miller children had a very rich life. For example, we had conversation around the table 3 meals a day and were encouraged by both parents to speak our minds. We could agree or disagree with our parents. We didn’t just talk about trivia. We talked about big issues. I guess that’s intellectual and bookish as Ira Glass puts it and not so subtly puts us down for. But, I’ll tell you it was freeing, not constricting.

    Our family was stimulating. We hunted agates on the aggregate pile beside the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien. We learned to grind and polish the agates. We learned about developing black and white photos, and we learned how to put 35 mm color film in holders so we could see the photos in 3-D. We raised angora rabbits and helped harvest their wool by plucking or clipping them. We each had our own garden and I vouch for the fact that I took great pride in taking care of mine and bringing food to the family from it. We also had pigeons, cats, and a dog for a pet. Once we had a pig, and for awhile we had a donkey.

    We enjoyed music. Each of us took up an instrument in turn, and I think all of us girls took piano lessons too. We sang together on car trips. We played games in the car that helped us observe what we were passing by – in contrast to today’s kids who are playing electronic games. We played with our siblings and with the neighbor kids. We had overnights.This is not a complete list, just examples.

    Yes, we had chores. How else is a mother of the 1950s going to get all the work done for a family of 8 – and eventually 9 – without enlisting the kids. Remember, this was a time when men did not help with childcare or household tasks of any kind although my dad did take me on his pastoral calls at times so I could play with the kids of the families he visited and I could even ride horses, something I was dying to do.

    “This American Life” has it wrong when it says that Marti was washing and drying the dishes for the whole family when she was 5 or 6. We all did dishes, but each child washed OR dried the dishes from ONE meal each day. Yes, we learned to do this early, but we could take pride in doing this. Not that we actually wanted to do it all the time. Of course not. But by doing something, you get the reward of knowing you accomplished something.

    I myself took pride in making the family breakfast. As a school teacher, I learned that today kids often don’t even eat breakfast. They often have to scrounge a breakfast for themselves if they get any at all. What a contrast to our family life where we not only went to school nourished by a hot breakfast but by the conversation we had with our parents and each other.

    I could go on and on and respond to some other comments I consider off-base. That will have to wait for another time. Too late at night now.

    Oh, by the way, our “strict, severe” parents didn’t demand any particular bedtime for us. They were nightowls, and so were all of us. We could always get up in the morning regardless of the time we went to bed.

    And when we got older and we girls went out with boyfriends my parents wouldn’t have chosen, did they run us out of the family or ban us from seeing those boys? No, instead, they invited all the boyfriends in and engaged them in friendship.

    So much for the severity and the “house full of rules” depicted by “This American Life.”
    That program is judging our family by 2008 standards only, not by the standards and customs of the 1950s. Back then, spanking happened in most homes whereas now it is thought to be child abuse no matter how light. Now it is considered practically abusive for kids to have chores or for a child to have to sleep with a sibling or even in the same room as her sister. Times were just different then. I would not call them worse.

  5. Al, I’m sorry to say I’m merely a poor writer, like yourself. Let’s throw some pixie dust around here and see if a publisher doesn’t just come by and beg us to publish right away! ;o)

    I read some adoption-related blogs and they are in my blogroll. I’d trust Amy at Adoption and its Triad, Judy at Just Enjoy Him, or Mei-Ling at The Original Heping to point you in the right direction as far as resources. I used to swim in that pond as an activist, but now, alas, I am on sabbatical and don’t know much of what’s going on in the adoption world (other than my own).

  6. Deb, yes, a person can lose what they value most by doing the right thing, sometimes. Probably everyone who tries to live right has had the experience of fearing the loss attached to doing what’s right.

    I’m glad the aide stepped forward; I’m sorry for Katie! Is she OK?

  7. Irene, your comment so aptly expresses what I’ve thought, too, since listening to the podcast. I agree with what you wrote about “how things can reverberate in ways we aren’t aware of.” I commented to someone the other day that the effect we have on the world seems like a stone thrown into a pond; after the stone has settled on the bottom, the ripples keep moving outward for some time. I wonder sometimes if people don’t choose to remain unconscious because much awareness of the consequences of our actions might be so worrisome. Trying to make compassionate choices takes a lot of work.

    It seemed easier for me to judge Mrs. Miller more than anyone else in the situation, and yet at the end, when Glass interviewed the 96-year-old Mrs. Miller, I was so moved with compassion. When her voice broke and she began to weep over how hard she had tried to show others the truth, and yet how constrained she felt by her circumstances, I felt very sorry for her. It’s easy to judge her as old-fashioned and unenlightened, but there are women all over the world in similar circumstances today. Probably each of us has, at one time or another, made a bad decision out of similar feelings of compulsion, constraint, or slavery to an ideal or person. I suspect that the recoil I experienced at first was probably a reaction to these same tendencies toward survival within myself.

  8. I’ve just spent the last hour listening to the podcast, and I honestly felt, feel, gutted. As the whole story unfolded, as each person told their side, I kept thinking, how can this be? I felt amazed at how many times people chose not to see things for so many reasons.
    I also noted how easy it can be to judge the personalties and motivations of others. As each story unfolded, I realised how important it is to listen, and to understand how complex and multi-faceted any situation can be. I mostly had trouble understanding where Mrs. Miller was coming from – I guess its important to take into consideration so many things: a small town, an older generation, and everything else many here have spoken of already. But when she said she hadn’t really concerned herself with Marti so much when she was growing up and not achieving, because she knew she wasn’t her daughter… poor child. And I feel so much for Sue, I think she seems to have had the hardest time of all.
    As the story unfolded, I felt dumbfounded at how life, and the decisions we make, can take so many people to places we’ll never know. How connected we are, how things can reverberate in ways we aren’t aware of…

  9. I didn’t get a chance to listen to it but read what you had written about it. Many people live in fear. Tonight we found out that one of Katie’s aides had forced Katie to lie face down on the floor as a means of dealing with Katie’s behavior. The other aide who witnessed this was too afraid to come forward right away, she waited for two weeks out of fear of retribution.

    I can understand a person so cowed by fear that they can’t do what they know is right.

  10. I guess I don’t get why people just throw up their hands and say “It’s God’s will,” when it is their own action or inaction that has clearly led to the situation. Maybe we can’t know why some things happen, and then “God’s will” might be an appropriate way to handle it emotionally. But it just feels very wrong to me to use that as some sort of personal excuse.

    I believe in karma, but I also believe that we have free will. It seems pretty clear that all of the people in this story are karmically entangled–but again, it was free will that came into play once the switch was discovered the first time!

  11. Thanks for the note, Eve. You’re not in the publishing business, by any chance? Literary agent? Just to be clear, I’m hoping so. 🙂

    It has been five years. It was a life transforming experience. I have not met my other family, although I made attempts a few years ago. One thing I learned reading about late-discovery adoptees is that they have one of three responses, or all three at different times: 1) a strong drive to meet their natural family, 2) a wish not to meet them, and 3) a feeling that it doesn’t really matter. I’ve felt all three, and right now am on #3.

    My life pretty much exploded when I heard. It made sense, but it challenged everything about my life, down to the most basic relationships. I’m doing better, thanks. Writing has kind of saved my ass.

    I’m in Los Angeles. If you know of any late-discovery adoptees support groups or whatever please let me know. I’m curious about the experiences of others and obviously am not shy discussing my own. Thanks.

  12. Al, thank you for your visit! Of course I’m fascinated to read that you didn’t discover until quite late in life that you had been switched at birth. That’s a story I’d love to read!

    I would imagine that your experience would parallel that of late-discovery adoptees. If you come back here to check your comments, I’d be interested to know how you’ve adjusted, and what your relationship is like with both families.

  13. Helen, I didn’t notice the song; how clever of you to notice that. And what a nice touch from the editors. Now I’m going to have to listen to the podcast again, just to hear it. ;o)

    Mrs. Miller’s mindset is similar to the mindset of some South Korean birth mothers who gave children up for adoption and married later; they don’t want their new husbands to know they gave up babies before, as it could wreck their current marriages. This was the reason given for refusal to meet (twice) one of our Korean-born children. So of course it still happens in the world that women feel or are stuck, dependent on their husbands and the life they built on secrecy.

  14. I just got time to listen to this, Eve. And I listened before I read comments. I, too , felt sorry for both daughters, who, being infants, obviously had nothing to do with the mix-up. One of them mentioned that Mrs. Miller saw everything as black and white. Even at 96, she couldn’t conceive of going against her husband because she thought she would lose his friendship. How sad. As you said, the poor woman was sick for months after giving birth, and she lived a life of fear that if she “crossed” her husband she would lose him and support for herself and their children. Her “hints” obviously didn’t work, but they seemed to be the best she could do. I felt very sorry for her. And I felt sorry for Mrs. McDonald whose “friends” all knew but kept this “rumor” from her. But in the end, there seemed to be a prevailing hope that people are able to cope with imperfect circumstances and get on with making a happy life.

    Did you happen to notice the lovely instrumental rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” about halfway through? Really set the mood.

  15. Hello Eve and Co., I found your very nice site because I have a daily google search with the key words “switched at birth.” I am editing a memoir right now whose catalyst was my own discovery five years ago that I also went home with the wrong family, so I approach the subject with a lot of empathy.
    I was sitting at home editing my book about being switched at birth and a radio program entitled “Switched At Birth” came on. Now how weird is that?
    Two points: the first is that I have learned to be pretty non-judgmental in viewing what parents, especially mothers, do in the circumstances given. I believe all mothers do the best they can. I wasn’t taken with Mrs. Miller, though, to be honest.
    The second point is in relation to your blog. Adoption is mentioned more than a few times. I was fifty when I discovered I had been switched at birth, and the largest group of people I have found with whom I could affiliate and identify with are adult adoptees, people who as adults discover they have been adopted.
    If you would like some more information or to be put on an email list to be informed once I’m in print somewhere, here is my email:

  16. Oh, one more thing, Elizabeth: I noticed that what both of the switched daughters were most concerned about was whether their mothers (the loving mothers who had raised them) would still love them and still be their mothers. I found this most interesting, because since they had never known they were switched, they hadn’t grown up knowing that they weren’t biologically related; they therefore assumed relatedness and the mothers who raised them were their “real” mothers in terms of role and love.

    After 43 years, when they found they were not related at all, they still considered the mothers who had raised them to be their primary mothers (I don’t know how to put it–in terms of role? psychological mothers?). I wondered if adoptees fare differently when they know from the beginning that they are adopted? Or was this just a peculiar response from these two different women who were switched at birth?

  17. Elizabeth, yes, parts of it are just stomach-churning and heart-breaking. I felt so sorry for both of the women (the daughters) who had been switched and whose entire identities went topsy-turvy when Mrs. Miller finally admitted what had happened. But even they seemed to adjust better than their mothers had. It seemed to me that the mothers simply could not really adapt or adjust to all they’d lost, while the daughters seemed to be able to draw mental lines in their own minds and say, “I just won’t go there” in terms of thinking about what might have been.

    The daughters also seemed to be able to adapt to having two families, while the mothers never did, because the mothers in their own minds and experiences only ever had one family apiece. I think their inability to expand themselves to include each other’s families caused great pain. Did you see it that way, also?

    I found it particularly sad that the introverted, serious Miller daughter raised as a McDonald felt that she didn’t fit into either family very well, while the extraverted, fun-loving McDonald daughter raised as a Miller found a place in both families and seemed able to expand herself to belong in both families. The families themselves simply seemed to admit that each woman had two families. The mothers couldn’t seem to accept this, and lamented their losses; and it seemed to me that the introverted serious woman had trouble adapting in either case.

    All this leads me to suggest the possibility that mothers, due to their unique perspective as mothers, only ever really want or find it able to admit to one Mother role, which is the role she has during the child’s childhood. Even if another mother exists or comes on the scene in adulthood, nothing whatsoever seems able to compensate for the lost childrearing experience.

    For the daughters, it seems possible that temperament can accommodate some losses and not others. Maybe introverted, serious types are also more ‘brittle’ and don’t do well in many settings (I think research bears this out), while extroverts tend to take even major issues in stride, or seem able to adapt socially.

    Extended families seemed to fare the best in this situation, being able to absorb more siblings, cousins, nieces, etc. It just seemed that parents and the actual daughters involved had the roughest time of it.

    How much of this extends to adoption, I don’t know. But I do notice that in adoption situations, there are some parallels. Mothers seem to have problems every step of the way. These particular two daughters seemed to have the most difficulty based on their personalities. The outgoing daughter just didn’t seem to take what had happened as hard, even though she’d had the rougher upbringing and less privilege. The only time in the entire interview when she nearly broke down and cried was when Ira Glass asked her the “what if” question. She replied, “I decided a long time ago just not to go there, because of what that opens up.”

    Elizabeth, I had to listen to the interview about four times over a period of as many days before I was able to integrate it all. I’d be interested in any comments you have about what stood out to me, and if you agree that the mothers seemed to have a harder time integrating the switch than the daughters.

    Also, I agree with you about the Rev. Miller stating it was “God’s will.” I liked what Mrs. McDonald said, which was, “No, it was God’s will for you to do the right thing and return my baby.” Right on, Mrs. McDonald!

  18. Heni, the first mother to realize something had gone wrong was Mrs. Miller, who discovered upon returning home that the baby she brought home weighed 2 lbs. less than her own baby. She told her husband, the Rev. Miller, who dismissed it. Shortly after she returned home, Mrs. Miller began to have seizures and to bleed heavily. She was ill for about six months after giving birth, and the physician who delivered the baby provided his services free of charge since Rev. Miller was a minister.

    By the time Mrs. Miller recovered, so much time had elapsed that they didn’t want to say or do anything to disgrace the doctor or to disrupt the family who raising their own daughter (the McDonald family). This was their explanation at the time.

    Years later, Ira Glass asked the 96-year-old Mrs. Miller about it again, and she said that had she pressed the issue, she would have lost Rev. Miller’s friendship, and the marriage and family would not have worked. The implication was that he was a hard man, even though he was a minister. They had 7 children and the children themselves said they grew up being treated rather severely, while their sister was raised as one of only two children and had a happy, more free, childhood.

    There was a lot of pain in both families due to the switch, and by the end of the episode, it’s pretty clear that the main reason that the Millers never said anything was because of Rev. Miller. Mrs. Miller tried numerous times to alert Mrs. McDonald, even telling her to her face, “these two are ‘sisters,'” and “Did you ever wonder if our girls were switched at birth?”

    On the girls’ 18th birthday, Mrs. Miller even invited the McDonalds to their home for dinner, hoping that Mr. and Mrs. McDonald and the girls themselves would see that the girls didn’t ‘match’ their families. But nobody could see, at the time, what was obvious. Finally, when the Millers attended the wedding of the McDonald daughter (who was their biological daughter), the elderly Rev. Miller could finally see that the girl actually was his own daughter and looked just like him. However, Mrs. Miller waited until both daughters were 43 years old and mothers themselves to write and let them know that she believed they had been switched at birth.

    For me, listening to the pain both mothers expressed, particularly the elderly Mrs. Miller, who tried every way she could to get everyone else to see the truth, and failed—and who felt so trapped by her husband’s demand that she let it go—was the most compelling part of the interview. Her fear of losing her entire family was greater than her fear of living with the consequences of living a lie… which, I think, motivates a great many people to live with various lies. The fear of losing one’s family is a motivator for many a mother and wife, I think.

  19. UGH. I listened to all of it. It was very triggering. It made me sick to my stomach. A quote from Sartre comes to mind, “Hell is other people.”

    If this was “God’s will” then God is very sick and twisted.

  20. I wish my work would allow me to listen to podcasts…but reading manuscripts takes too much of my brain!

    I’d like to know why that mother chose not to switch back.

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