I’m addicted to podcasts. I actually look forward to gardening or cleaning house when I can tuck my iPod in my pocket, earbuds in my ear, and lose myself in a good show. I’ve even taken to running while listening to shows. And hey, I know I’m not the only closet addict, because lots of you have told me that you listen to the “Creating a Family” show via podcast. I like to imagine that I’m inspiration to vacuuming.
One of my favorite shows is the National Public Radio’s “This American Life”. As I was deadheading and weeding my front bed last week, I listened to the show titled “Switched at Birth”. (You can listen to the show on your computer.)
Two Babies are Born
This true story started in the early 1950’s when two girls were born at the same hospital in a small town in Wisconsin. As soon as Mrs. Miller brought her daughter home, she suspected she had been given the wrong baby. For various reasons the Millers, primarily at the insistence of Mr./Reverend Miller, did not act on their suspicion. Keep in mind that 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.
Flash forward 43 years, 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.
This American Life uses the story-telling format, and as such they “fit” the events to make the story more fluid and compelling. It’s hard to know what was left out (see comments below by one of the children involved and her sister), but they portrayed the Miller family as dysfunctional and the McDonald family as more functional. Regardless, by the end I felt such compassion for them all, and I felt something close to awe at the resiliency of people and families.
Lessons for Adoptive Families & Donor Conceived Families
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 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 donation.
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.
Why Hide the Truth
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 embryos, 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.
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.
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. 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.
P.S. Please read the comments by one of the children (now adult) switched at birth, Marti Miller, and her younger sister. Clearly, much was left out in the telling and they believe the story was intentionally slanted to make the Millers the “bad guys” in this story.
First published in 2008.Image credit: Photo from Life Magazine 1953. Martha Miller,blonde, sitting next to Mrs. Miller in the back of the photo.
Add Your Comment
Hello Esther, I am just hearing this interview now (April 2022), years and years after it was broadcast. And I too had the same feeling that the producer was absolutely merciless and abusive in questioning your mother the way he did. It was shameful and distressing to hear so I can’t even imagine how it felt to her. I know there is always two sides to every story and I don’t think that either of the families were screwy or in any way dysfunctional. Thank you for sharing your experience. I wish this story could have been given more time than just an hour and more equal representation. I came out the other side feeling awe for all the people involved. There is nothing that can prepare anyone for this complete upheaval.
I wholeheartedly agree. 🙂
Marti: I’m sorry you and both families have been negatively affected by the show. As you read from my blog, I think the show and the possible lessons learned could be applicable to many different situations-including adoption and donor egg and sperm. I appreciate your defense of your mother and hope my kids will do the same for me. Heaven only knows, all parents give their children cause for a righteous defense.
Sven, What I actually said is that it is easy in hindsight to know the right thing to do. No doubt all of our decisions would benefit from knowing how things would turn out. It speaks volumes to me that two of Mrs. Miller’s daughters present her side with such sympathy. As a mom, I can only hope that I raise children who feel such understanding for the mistakes I’ve made along the way.
Sven responded to Marti, but I have chosen to not post the comment because parts seemed gratuitously mean. The gist of the comment was that the birth weight discrepancy alone should have been enough to prove that the babies had been switched. I don’t know anything about this story other than what was on This American Life, but I think birth weight alone would be pretty slim evidence of a switch. It is very common for babies to lose or gain weight-sometimes a remarkable amount- within the first week of birth. This was also during a time when doctors and hospitals were seldom questioned. I don’t think any of us are in the position to say for certainty what we would have done. It’s easy to say now with the clarity of history, but Mrs. and Mr. Miller didn’t have the benefit of hindsight.
Marti, thanks so much for sharing. As I posted before, radio “shows” such as This American Life are just that- shows. Designed and edited for entertainment and to follow an logical story arc. By necessity, they leave things out and “slant” the story to fit the time and the arc. As your sister Esther said in a previous comment, much was left out of the telling.
I think you raise such a good point about needing to take into account that when you were born, there was no way to prove which child was a Miller and which a McDonald. Your parents were in a no win situation. They had no way to know if anyone would believe them and they may have caused more pain by telling than by not telling. Hindsight is 20/20; too bad, the same can’t be said for the complete blindness of foresight. From what you say, your parents did what they thought was best and they apparently did a good job based on what we hear from you and Esther.
Well said all of you! I reposted (with a new title) this blog to give Esther’s comment more exposure and let more people hear her point of view. https://creatingafamily.org/blog/adoption-domestic-adoption-international-adoption-embryo-adoption-foster-care-adoption/family-secrets-to-tell-or-not-to-tell/
I posted my response to her comment at the repost. Other people have commented on that posting as well.
I am so sorry for the heartless cruel thoughtless comments left by the poster Sven. I hope you knew to just ignore his careless stupid comments.
I caught how TAL twisted and skewed the interview to make it more appealing as a radio talk show.
In the end, despite the interviewer’s obvious attempt to slant the story,I understood the dilemma Mrs. Miller faced upon coming home from the hospital back in 1951. I understood that in small town America in the 50’s you don’t make waves, DNA testing didn’t exist and the reality of having 6 small children to take care of trumped everything. Your mother barely had time to even think about it with 6 children at home.That plus the lack of support from her husband and society was enough to make her decide to look the other way. I also did not get the impression you come from a screwy family-on the contrary, I admired the way your parents raised you, the obvious values they displayed at home. Iam sorry your mother was distraught after the interview-frankly, no 96 year old needs to live out her final days distressed by a stranger who wanted to embellish his story.Your values, your personality, the values of the family you were raised by,comes through. I love your attitude about it, and I admire your family immensely. Good luck to you and just know that those of us who are thoughtful and intelligent recognize the kind of person you are and who you come from. Thank you for sharing your fascinating story.
I feel great sympathy for Mrs. Miller. It sounds to me as though everyone involved handled the situation as well as they possibly could.
At first, I thought Rev Miller sounded like the “bad guy,” since he apparently made it clear to his wife that their marriage would be over if she made public her suspicions that the babies had been switched.
However, I cannot presume to judge Rev Miller based on the small amount of information available. It’s quite possible that he thought his wife’s suspicions were crazy. Maybe he wanted to protect her from being humiliated, as she might have been if no one believed her. The hospital personnel would probably have been prepared to swear that they didn’t switch the babies, and at that time there was no way to prove the babies’ identity conclusively. If Rev Miller was guilty of keeping quiet, then so were all the other church members, whom Mrs. Miller told, but who said nothing to Mrs. McDonald.
It sounds as though the story has a somewhat happy ending. I was glad to hear that both daughters called both their mothers regularly.
Marti: I’ve listened to the program several times and enjoyed reading your comments. This is an unimaginable situation. I’m curious as to your relationship with Kay McDonald?
I think it’s fascinating how this one radio story had ramifications that no one could have predicted. Also reinforces how emotionally charged the subject of adoption–intended or not–is for so many people. Dawn, I admire the thoughtfulness of your moderation.
You’re right that it is easy to say what the right thing to do was but it’s hard to do the right thing. Obviously Mrs. Miller chose not to.
Thanks for sheltering me from mean comments…as you have probably guessed I’m a little sick of how this radio show has negatively affected my life and relationships and really don’t need to hear such negativity from someone who knows so little about the truth.
The birthweight issue is an interesting one because it is obvious by looking at the hospital documents that they were altered. The weights listed were very similar…within ounces actually and, as you said, babies commonly lose weight. The scale could have been unbalanced, As a nurse, I can assure you, I’d never believe someone had the wrong baby based on a weight difference alone. I can’t imagine, in view of Kay’s reaction to my mother’s suggestions later that she would have ever gone for a “switch back” without some better proof which was simply unattainable. My mother was on her way home with me when she began to suspect this and I can only speculate what they would have said to her if she had walked in demanding the right baby but I doubt it would have been nice. Something else that really needs to be understood is that this was my mother’s suspicion only until we had the blood test 43 years later. She had no proof.
Thanks to all of you for understanding that much of the story was left out and/or skewed and accept this as the explanation for my fierce defensiveness for my Mom. I’m very happy I grew up in the Miller family and had the parents I did.
Thank you so much for sharing the additional information about your family, Marti! I was singularly captivated by your family’s story when I heard it on the radio, and even though it was edited for entertainment value by This American Life (I shake my head even writing that sentence — your lives should not be entertainment for the rest of us), I hope you realize that most of us listeners empathized with everyone affected by the switch. Times were different back then; we can’t view that situation through a 21st century lens. Thank you again for taking the time to share your story. God bless. 🙂
I just heard the story last night on NPR and did a search to see what else was written about the situation on the web.
I feel so sorry that the selfish actions of such a weak, evil woman affected so many different people. If you listen carefully to her quotes, it’s quite clear that she blames others for HER decision to not make things right. It was her husbands fault, no wait, it was Mrs. McDonald’s fault, no wait, I know, it’s God’s fault. She alone knew that the babies went to the wrong families but did so little to fix it that it should be criminal.
The daughters did their best to protect this woman who thought so little of her family and another family. It stuns me that anyone can talk to someone so vile.
The daughter here can post all the red herrings she wants but the fact remains: her mother stole another families baby and gave up her own daughter. Those actions are so vile she deserves something so horrific that it’s unprintable.
I just wish Mrs. Miller had the dignity to take responsibility for her disgusting act.
As one of the daughter’s who was switched I just want to say that your remarks are both offensive and annoying to me. My mother…the one who raised me, tried for years to get others to believe her and they all told her she was crazy. Perhaps you missed the fact that all of ths happened in 1951 and there was no way to prove that she had the wrong baby. There are many details you don’t know and I believe that she did what she could to find the truth and was unsuccessful. Have you thought for one minute about imagining yourself in that situation and how you might respond? She didn’t “steal” anyone’s baby but was just as much a victim as Kay was. No one was at fault except possibly the nurse who made the fatal switch and from all appearances, she wasn’t aware she had done it. My mother is not vile nor is she a thief or a criminal and I take offense at your name-calling and ignorant accusations. Maybe you should think before you speak.
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.
Thank you, Esther for this defense of your family. I just wanted to share that I found this story wonderful in its attempt to display so many different angles, and I loved the interview at the end with your mother. I didn’t find her “evil” or “malicious”, I found her intuitive, insightful and caring. I think she very clearly evoked the difficulty of her position, and the strength of her conviction. How wonderful that she was able to learn and share the truth with everyone before she died. I hope you’ve found peace with this revelation in your life and relationships.
Thank you so much for sharing the additional information, Esther! I was fascinated by your story, and I’m so glad to know more about it. I’m so sorry for any heartache that the story caused your family. I hope you realize that your story captivated the rest of us, and continues to do so, years after its initial broadcast. God bless, and thanks again for sharing your family’s story. 🙂
I felt the Millers came off as a loving, excepting family. You all welcomed your “new” sibling (and your parents welcomed their “new’“ child) with loving open arms. It was very touching.
I also think it came across as your mother did the best she could. She tried to what what she thought was right. The man of the house has the final say. Times were different then.
I can also see how the idea of embarrassing/tarnishing your doctors reputation, would not have seemed like an option to your father. The doctor had been so kind and helped your family.
The admonition to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes applies here.
Of course the babies should have been placed in the correct homes. I don’t think anyone disagrees.
I didn’t feel like either family was vilified in the story. I think both families came across as doing what they thought was best for the children.
I’m so sorry that your mother was distraught after the interview. Her story was very touching.
Thanks Esther for you reply, I really enjoyed reading it. I’m sure your family has gone through a lot, and you can’t go back and re-make the choices for your mother or for Mrs. McDonald. You are very lucky to have 2 wonderful families.
As a listener to the podcast, I can assure you I never got the feeling that the Miller family was “screwy”. I think the episode presented an unusual situation from four different viewpoints, and each viewpoint seemed completely legitimate.
I wish peace to you all,
I was fascinated by this story because I was almost switched at birth 47 years ago. My mother,the baby and my older sisters were in the lobby of the hospital waiting for my father to get the car when my older sister realized that the baby my mother held was not me. I believe our names were similar and the nurse misread our wristbands. I ended up with the right family , but this idea of being switched at birth has always interested me. The NPR broadcast was excellent, but I did suspect that it was a bit skewed. Thank you for clarifying the facts. I always believe in hearing all the facts. Good luck to you and your family.
Perhaps it will be somewhat helpful it I tell you that I noticed the way the show was slanted. Even better, I have to say I didn’t find myself being to critical of either your father or mother. Times were, indeed, different then.
In fact, it seems as if both Marti and Sue were raised in loving homes, and they both grew up as well-adjusted, good people. That’s not something to be sneezed at. I hope that by now both of them have become closer to each other, as well as to their newly discovered families.
Choices that we make can be right or wrong ethically, but the ethical right or wrong doesn’t necessarily match up with whether the results are good or bad in an existential sense. It seems to me that Mrs. Miller’s decision turned out to generate quite a bit of good, and the bad is being dealt with.
While some people might wonder if a correction of the error in 1951 wouldn’t have been better, in fact it might have been worse, for one or both families. After all, we don’t know when that train will hit us, we just do the best we can to avoid being on the tracks. Both Marti and Sue have done that well. Had they each been reversed, they might not have been so lucky.
Thanks for setting the record straight about your family.
In reply to Esther:
As a secular humanist, I have a bias against the Miller family. As soon as I heard “evangelical,” I assumed they were all crazy. However, by the end of the NPR show, I had great empathy for the Miller family. What the Miller parents did was perfectly comprehensible, even admirable.
I loved that the show presented, in only an hour, enough viewpoints to give this story the complexity it deserves, and to demolish whatever biases we listeners brought to it.
It’s upsetting to me that Mrs. Miller was “distraught” after the interview, but I think she came across as a wonderful person. I was ready to assume the worst about her, but I now consider her the heroine of this story. She truly did the best she could.
I have to reaffirm what the others have said that upon listening to the podcast I didn’t come away with the impression that the Miller family was “screwy”. It seemed very apparent that it was a loving and creative household, it just seemed that they (This American Life) tried to play up the fact the the households were different. It was obvious that they were over-emphasizing the “nature vs. nurture” angle trying to highlight that Marti and Sue were just innately more like their biological families. Whether or not that is the actual case I don’t know, but it is a common theme in all “switched at birth” or “twins separated at birth” stories. I do want to say that I thought your mother’s interview at the end, while you say it left her distraught and she was badgered in obtaining it, was my favorite part of the program, solely for the honesty and care that your mother articulated. I sincerely hope that your family has not been further grieved by this radio program, but I felt that it was beautiful story about how families care for one another.