Switched at Birth: Effects of Keeping Family Secrets

Dawn Davenport


Switched at Birth- How does keeping your child's conception or birth story a secret from the child

Martha Miller (blonde, sitting next to Mrs. Miller in the background) with her brunette siblings. Photo from Life Magazine.

One of the most popular episodes of National Public Radio’s “This American Life” is titled “Switched at Birth”. Make sure to check out the comments to this blog to hear from one of the main players in this story.

At the Beginning

This true story started in the early 1950’s when two girls were born at the same hospital in a Wisconsin town.  As soon as Mrs. Miller brought her daughter home, she suspected she had been given the wrong baby.  For various bizarre reasons the Millers, primarily at the insistence of Mr. / Reverend Miller, did not act on their suspicion.  DNA testing wasn’t yet available, and there were other complicating factors that the show does a good job of explaining.  The other mother, Mrs. McDonald, did not suspect anything.  The Millers raised Marti and the McDonalds raised Sue.  Mrs. Miller told several people her suspicion, ostensibly to have them keep an eye out for Sue’s welfare, but I imagine this secret was just too big to keep to herself, and she needed the support.

The Secret Revealed

Flash forward 43 years.  Rev. Miller is dead, and Mrs. Miller decides it is time to tell Marti and Sue.  She writes them each a letter explaining what happened, and all heck breaks loose.  The show follows the emotional fallout for both mothers and daughters.  I felt such compassion for them all, even Mrs. Miller by the end of the show, and I felt something close to awe at the resiliency of people and families.

Universal Lessons of Family Secrets

This story is not about adoption or children conceived through donor egg, sperm, or embryo.  But as I was listening, I was struck by some universal lessons that do apply to families formed in alternative ways.  At its very essence, this story is about the destructive effect of family secrets.  Undoubtedly, the problems that ensued were exacerbated by major dysfunction in the Miller family, but secrets have a way of wrecking havoc in even the most functional families. I think most adoptive families now accept that how their child joined the family should be told early and often, but this is still a hotly debated concept for families formed through donated gametes (egg or sperm) or embryo adoption.  There was an interesting study done many years ago which found that children adopted transracially scored better on psychological wellness testing later in life than children adopted by same race families.  The researchers theorized that this result could be explained by the openness about adoption that transracial placements naturally require.  Since the child looks different from the parents, the adoption is obvious and discussed more openly within the family.  It is easier for families that look alike “to pass”, and parents can overlook talking about adoption other than in the most cursory way.

Trying to Hide the Truth about Third Party Conception

A surprising number (at least to me) of parents who conceived through donor gametes or embryo adoption are trying “to pass”.  The problem is that passing implies shame, or at the very least, discomfort.  Perhaps a deep-seated feeling or fear that this alternative method of creating a family is not as good as the old-fashioned way, and the resulting families aren’t quite as real. To state the obvious, there is nothing wrong with using donor gametes or embryo adoption, just like there is nothing wrong with adoption.  It is just a different, not inferior, way of forming a family.  Families formed in alternative ways can and do thrive.  What is dangerous and destructive to these families, in my opinion, is keeping this information from your child.  Secrets, especially family secrets, have a way of coming out, and it usually isn’t in a good way. The reality is that the child will in all likelihood find out.  If either parent has told even one other person, say a mother, a sister, or a best friend, this person has almost assuredly told one other person.  And this is the case regardless of how many times you told them that they couldn’t tell anyone else.  They will tell their mother, sister, or best friend and tell them not to tell anyone else.  Pretty soon, a number of people know, except for the person who has a right to know—the child.

The Real Kicker

And here’s the kicker–the very fact that you kept it secret gives it far more power than it deserves, and far more power than it would have had if it had been incorporated into the natural flow of family talk from the beginning.  If mom and dad hid this from me, it must be really bad; it must really mean something big.  I think we all want our kids to believe the way they joined our family is just a variation on normal, and the best time to convey this information and more important, this attitude, is when they are very young.  Also, from an emotional standpoint, the information that was withheld (their adoption or conception) can get all tied up in the explicit or implicit lies that went along with keeping the secret.  The emotions of being lied to then become part of the emotions of their conception or adoption.

Importance of Genetics

The other thing this show brought home to me was the importance of genetics in determining our basic personality.  Pre-kids, I believed that the environment was mostly responsible for how our kids turned out.  Since I was going to be the perfect parent and create a perfect environment for my children, this theory gave me a great deal of comfort.  But the more kids I had, regardless of whether I “had” them through birth or adoption, the less sure I was of this theory.  I became even less enamored with this theory as my kids aged. I now believe that nature and nurture work together, but that the basics of our temperament are determined by our genes.  The environment can bring out or suppress these traits, but can’t change the core.  And to tell you the truth, it’s a whole lot easier parenting when the entire weight of “creating” your child’s personality doesn’t fall directly on the environment you create.

Family Differences Can Be Hard

The show didn’t dwell on it, but it implied how hard it can be on children when they have a different temperament or personality than others in their family.  In this story, I was left to wonder how much this discomfort was caused by the screwiness of the Miller family, but even Sue McDonald, who was raised in what seemed like a very loving and functional family, felt different and somehow inferior to others in her family.  It’s a little scary.  My family consists of six people with very different personalities, strengths and weaknesses.  I can only hope and pray that I can help each of my children honor the ways they are different and the ways they are similar to the rest of our family.  I guess I’ll have to wait until someone does a show on my family 20 years from now to see if my kids agree. Now, that is a really scary thought.

Modern Day Switched at Birth Story

Do you remember the story in the late 1990’s of two baby girls switched at birth in Virginia (Rebecca Chittum and Callie Johnson). This has nothing to do with adoption or donor egg or sperm, or even family secrets, but I thought it was fascinating. The families found out when the girls were 3 years old. Each family wanted to keep the child they took home, but wanted visitation with their biological child. This worked for a while, then things turned hostile and each filed for custody of both girls. Ultimately, the children were raised by the families that took them home. They are old enough now to talk with the press, and it is interesting to here their part of the story.

06/07/2009 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog, Infertility, Infertility Blog | 7 Comments

7 Responses to Switched at Birth: Effects of Keeping Family Secrets

  1. Avatar Dawn says:

    Check out the thoughtful comments and responses we’ve received to Esther’s comment posted on the original page for this blog. https://creatingafamily.org/blog/adoption-domestic-adoption-international-adoption-embryo-adoption-foster-care-adoption/switched-at-birth/

  2. Avatar Dawn says:

    Thank you Esther for sharing more of the “real” story. It is always good for us to be reminded that shows such as This American Life are inherently designed for entertainment and edited to present the story in the way to attract the most listeners.

    I did think that the show portrayed your family as dysfunctional and I appreciate your setting the record straight. As I think my essay/blog illustrated, I well know that any of our families could be portrayed that way because none of us is perfect.

    The purpose of my blog was to illustrate the destructive power of family secrets, which I think still rings true in your family’s story. While the tragedy of switching children at birth is not common, many families created by donor gametes (egg or sperm) are repeating the mistakes that your family made. While your mother was not sure and had little recourse, these families do know for sure and can tell their children throughout their lives in a loving and age appropriate manner.

    I hope your sisters Marti and Sue, as well as both extended families, have made peace with this really difficult situation.

  3. Avatar Dawn says:

    [I received this comment this morning posted on the first post of this essay but wanted to let more people hear her point of view.]

    I am the youngest daughter of Mary K. and Rev. Norbert Miller, and youngest sister of Marti and Sue, of whom the This American Life episode “Switched at Birth” is about. I must tell you that you have it wrong when you say that my mother told Sue and Marti of her suspicions (about them being switched as babies) AFTER my father passed away. In fact, the radio episode noted that my father was alive at the time my mother wrote the letters to the girls and he lived six more years beyond that.

    You should know that I take issue with the This American Life episode, concerning the baby switch, that portrays my (Miller) family, as you say, as “screwy”. The episode chose to skew the facts to make a more dramatic story for the radio and left out a lot of facts from the interviews that would have made it fairer to the Miller family. They chose not to tell you negative things about the McDonald family that may have put a different spin on the story. Ours (the Miller family) is a loving and nurturing one to this day. As we children grew we were also allowed to explore our many interests and hobbies, were encouraged to ask questions, and were encouraged to continue our education beyond high school. Both of my parents were college graduates, my father having gone to seminary after four years of college. My parents were open and tolerant of other religions, races, and socioeconomic groups. When our home was opened to missionaries, who spoke at our church, we got a great education about what was going on in the World. If you call growing up in an intellectual family who worked together in doing chores (teamwork is necessary in a large family) as screwy, then I would say that is just what the This American Life producers wanted you, as a listener, to think.

    Dawn, you mention that your family consists of six people with very different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. I would say that as individuals each of my siblings too would have differing views of what it was like growing up in a large family. Because of this, I know that one of my siblings viewed her youth as more difficult than the rest of us viewed ours and unfortunately it was this sibling’s letter to Sue, which was used in the show to skew it in the direction they saw fit, which I saw as detrimental to my family.

    You must also realize that when my 96-year-old mother was interviewed, she was badgered mercilessly until she said what they wanted to hear. After the interview she was very distraught.

    You say “the problems that ensued were exacerbated by major dysfunction in the Miller family”. I would take issue with that statement. Any “major dysfunction” that you perceived was put there by the interviewer. Perhaps many listeners will not understand what it was like for a married woman in the 1950s, with six children under the age of eleven, to act on something on her own without the support of her husband (who couldn’t believe it had happened). In my mother’s opinion it wasn’t an option, no matter what Mrs. McDonald said. Perhaps Mrs. McDonald had options not available to my mother, but since the hospital’s baby nurse at the time didn’t believe it (as she adamantly said 43 years later when asked), the doctor didn’t know about it, and DNA testing wasn’t available, sorting it out at the time may have been impossible and possibly would have labeled my mother as a nutcase for the rest of her life. Also, perhaps you did not grow up in the 1940s and 1950s and so you don’t understand that children then did not interfere in their parent’s lives by presuming to tell their parents what to do in any given situation.

    The This American Life episode claimed that the sister I grew up with, Marti, was different than the other Miller babies right off the bat. This is not true. Both babies were dark-haired as were both of the mothers. All of us Miller babies had dark hair when we were born and almost all of us turned blonde after we lost that baby hair. Marti was no exception. Being born four years later, my parents saw many similarities between Marti and me as we grew up. Marti also had a space between her two front teeth like my mother’s. Most families can probably note differences between siblings and so a few differences wouldn’t necessarily point to a baby switch.

    Although the This American Life episode would like you to think that my mother was positive about the switch, she was not. In fact, she was under sedation during the birth (the norm back then) so didn’t see the baby she birthed in the delivery room. Back in their hospital rooms she and Mrs. McDonald were always given the same babies, albeit, the wrong ones. It was mostly a mother’s intuition that gave her the suspicion, along with a weight difference that could have been explained away as the loss of weight a baby often suffers after they are born.


  4. Avatar marilynn says:

    Dawn you do such really great work here getting people to tell, like Olivia does in the UK. Don’t overlook that adoption is a solution to family separation while gamete donation agreements are a cause of it. There is good reason for people raising gamete donor offspring to feel like telling is harder and that’s because they wanted the person to not be raised by the absent parent. Seems like the guilt of that launched a new language that makes having conversations about what actually happened much harder for the person being told because they don’t have the right words to express themselves, the words they need have literally been taken out of their mouths. Words like mother, father, parent, family, relatives, siblings, grandparents are all valid words used to describe the larger family of an adopted person and are allowed to be used to describe their feelings of loss and it is generally not pretended to be a supper happy thing that they were separated from those people while joining the adoptive family can be described as super happy. Donor offspring have biological families of course like adopted people like all of us and at least half are missing and alive likely. They are told that their biological parent did not intend to be a parent and does not think of them as family when technically they are related which is a big OUCH. Hardly the calming salve that intended parents want it to be. Being told they are wanted by the intended parents only underscores that they were not wanted by their absent bio family. Adopted people have told me they hear that too though. I just know so many donor offspring told early and often that say they get use to it but its like getting use to something that they know is not good, like how people get use to the smell of a dairy farm when they work there. Alana and Stephanie have used the words desensitized I think. I should ask them again. Maybe they could suggest the things that would make it easier to tell donor offspring. I think the language being more honest is the big take away. From what I’ve heard its real hard to not have it described with normal words.

  5. Avatar meljurgens says:

    Wow–I just listened to that story on NPR. What a heartwrenching thing to go through, for all of them. I understand that times were different then, and more so, perhaps, for the wife of a pastor, but I cannot imagine carrying such a burden for 43 years. I truly wish all involved peace going forward. It reinforces for me all the more the notion of why in the case of our children, who are adopted, the more they know of their biological family, the better. No secrets. It’s not the easiest concept to tackle, particularly as our kids came to us via foster care. I have thought long and hard about how to answer questions about their conception, birth fathers who are no longer “in the picture,” birth mothers whose addresses are unknown, why they were removed from their care, why they never returned to them, etc. I feel even more strongly now, though, that the truth, presented in age-appropriate ways, will be far less painful in the long run. And the fact is, I’m so glad they are ours–I feel they were meant to be ours–so there is nothing in their backstories about which I am ashamed or embarrassed. But still, there are aspects that will likely cause them grief. All we can do is be there for them and reassure them that, no matter what, they are ours and we wanted them desperately.

  6. Avatar The Taylor 5 says:

    What a really sad story for all concerned. For what it’s worth, I thought you were more than generous in your description of the Miller family as it was described in the story. In some shows it’s more obvious when they are editing to make a point. But you got to admit that the way the women were told was less than tactful.

    As to your real point, family secrets, it seems to me that the donor egg community can learn a lot from the adoption community in this area. I agree with you that secrets are almost always destructive. Keep up the good work.

  7. Avatar Bee says:

    I listened to the show and I agree with you that it is a cautionary tale for those of us who built our families through egg donation. Our daughter is still a baby, but we’ve been trying to decide if to tell her. We had already just about decided to tell her, but after reading this and listening to the show, we’ve decided to definitely go for it. I’ve heard a bunch of your Creatig a Family shows that talk about how to go about it, but can you give me any other advice. She is still too young, but it doesn’t hurt for us to start getting ready.

    I’m sorry that Esther’s 96 year old mother had to go through that. It is said all the way around.

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