By Colin Cummins
“You can trace bloodlines as much as you want, but what family really is, is where you feel comfortable and where you feel loved.”
There are roughly one hundred thousand children placed for adoption each year in the United States. And with each adoption comes a story. This is the story of Maddy Tipton.
It all began in September of 1995, in Sarasota, Florida. Maddy was born to her birth mother who, knowing that she was placing her daughter for adoption, listed her name on the birth certificate as simply, “Baby.”
At the hospital that day were Maddy’s adoptive parents, Dave and Sandy Tipton. And for them, this was the first day of the rest of their lives. When the nurse placed “Baby,” in Sandy’s arms, she gained an identity that would forever shape her life - she was now Maddy Tipton.
An only child, Maddy, found her siblings in her neighbors and friends from school. They had sleepovers, your typical themed-birthday parties and spent inordinate amounts of time discussing their favorite Disney-Channel Original movies. She made friends at summer camp, and in Girl Scouts and enjoyed exploring the outdoors with the boys who lived next door.
Yet, being an only child was not always easy. There were times where her friends could not fill the void of her desire to look up to someone. “As any only child will tell you, it’s great about 99% of the time,” explained Maddy, “But there’s always that one percent where you really, really want an older sibling.”
In the fall of 2001, the Tipton family took their final trip to Florida. It was on this trip that Dave and Sandy decided it was time to tell Maddy about her adoption. “I know it’s supposed to be one of those extraordinary moments in life,” said Maddy, “But I honestly don’t even remember it that well. I think I was kind of just like ‘okay, cool!’”
Maddy’s original reaction to the news is not surprising. At the tender age of seven, how are you really supposed to comprehend the weight of the revelation that you were adopted? Especially with Disney World, the beach and sunshine on the agenda for the same week! However, that key piece of her identity would soon begin to develop, as would her curiosity about her past.
For adoptees, this time of identity building is not always easy - but for someone like Maddy, it was easier than it was for most. Bubbly, comical and full of life, Maddy was curious about her adoption, but easily embraced the label. “There’s this thing in society where it’s like 'You’re the adopted kid!’ And I was always the class clown, so I played into it,” explained Maddy, “I’m just me, an adopted kid - no cares in the world and life is good!”
By the time Maddy was about to start high school, she had begun to develop an interest in her past. Not necessarily in her adoption, but in her roots. After being assigned the task of creating a Tipton family tree, Maddy couldn’t help but wonder what was in her blood.
“I wanted to know my heritage,” said Maddy. “A huge part of the American narrative is that everyone has another story. My mom is from a strong, Italian family, that came here in the late 1800s. She even has the certificate from Ellis Island! And my dad, his family has been in the United States since colonial times. I was so fascinated by all of this! But, I remember thinking at the same time - What’s in my blood?”
And with this curiosity in hand, she decided to ask her parents more about her birth family.
“It was at this point, that I learned my birth mom’s name and that she had another child, that was not placed for adoption,” explained Maddy, “Knowing that there was another child out there that was my sibling was tough. It was like (audible groan) I just want to hang out with someone else so bad!”
Maddy held onto this information through her most formative years, navigating the halls of her high school without a care in the world. She performed in her school’s show choir, participated in theatre, was a member of the high school Comedy Team and even worked in-character at Conner Prairie, an interactive history park where she played the role of a young, colonial woman. She was, by all accounts, a completely normal, happy-go-lucky teenager.
In the Spring of 2014, Maddy graduated from high school and that Fall she would move to Bloomington, Indiana to attend Indiana University. Like most young adults about to begin their journey into adulthood, Maddy began to wonder about her past, again.
“Being adopted is interesting, I didn’t realize it at the time,” said Maddy, “But, I was missing something. I could just feel it. And that’s when I decided to reach out to my birth mother.”
Like anyone these days would do, Maddy logged onto her computer and pulled up Facebook. She typed in the name listed on her birth certificate and boom. There she was, the first result - Maddy’s birth mother.
“I said to myself ‘I have no agenda. I’ve had such a wonderful life. I’m not doing this out of a need for a relationship or out of spite or anger.’ Instead, it was blissful acceptance of my own history. No matter what happens with this - I’m good.”
Maddy typed up a long letter and had it reviewed by her parents. They gave her their blessing, and she hit Send.
Facebook Message: “I always knew you’d reach out, glad that you did.”
“When she sent back that message,” explained Maddy, “it was this incredible moment of like, ‘Okay, cool. We did it. We connected.’ It was not nearly as emotionally charged as I anticipated, and I think that was comforting.”
At this point, after communication had been established, Maddy let the message sit. She didn’t want to reply too soon or make the back and forth feel forced. After about a week, she wrote back, and from there they began to chat periodically.
But after a couple of messages, Maddy knew that going back and forth on Facebook could only go so far. She asked her birth mom if they could exchange numbers and set up a time to talk on the phone.
“When the time came, I got really nervous. She was supposed to call me, so I locked myself in my dorm. The call lasted about an hour and let me tell you, it was totally ordinary. I gave her the rundown of my life, how I was a freshman at IU with no idea of what I was going to study yet. She was super supportive and very strong. That’s what struck me the most. She had this aura about her, like a ‘can-do’ type of attitude. I was like ‘HOLY COW - my mom’s a badass!’”
After their first conversation ended, Maddy hung up the phone with an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. “I had this sense of pride radiating out of me,” explained Maddy, “it was like my birth mother was completely confident in every decision she had made in life. When we talked about her decision to place me for adoption, she was gentle but firm, and offered no apology or pity - she knew deep down that she had made the right choice. And that felt really good to hear.”
For the next four years, Maddy and her birth mom would text periodically. Their relationship developed into something similar to that of an aunt and niece. Maddy would wish her a happy Mother’s Day. She would send a greeting full of Emoji’s on Christmas. And her birth mother would wish her a Happy Birthday each year.
It was a new, simple relationship and that’s how both parties wanted it to be.
In December of 2017, Maddy graduated from Indiana University (a semester early) with a degree in History. Still not sure where she was going with her life or what her next step would be, she decided to stay in Bloomington for the next six months and do some soul searching. However, she had no idea just how much of her soul she would come to discover that following month.
Upon the New Year, Maddy’s parents proposed a trip back to Florida. They hoped to see some old friends and revisit the town they had once called home, so many years ago. They also hoped that Maddy would have the opportunity to put a face to the voice that had been within her for so many years.
With her father’s encouragement, Maddy reached out to her birth mom to gauge her interest in meeting up. “Part of me was a little bit nervous,” said Maddy. “We’ve had this nice, simple relationship and I guess I didn’t want to mess that up. But I reached out to her, and with no hesitation, she said yes.”
After texting back and forth, the meeting was set as a dinner date. Maddy would be joined by her parents, and her birth mother would be flying solo. “I have to admit,” said Maddy, “I was totally nervous, and it was kind of awkward. I mean I’m 22, so meeting someone with my parents in tow just felt weird. But at the same time, I knew it was really important for them too.”
From the moment that Maddy’s birth mom sat down at the table, the awkwardness disappeared. That aura of confidence that she had felt four years prior on their first phone call together had brought a sense of calm to the table. The meeting went smoothly, but there was still something that Maddy felt was missing.
“When we were with my parents, there was some tension,” explained Maddy. “How do you have a conversation with this person while a third party is there?” Thankfully, her birth mother reassured her that they could meet again before they leave, and this time, she would bring along her son, Maddy’s older brother.
The second meeting was a day that Maddy will certainly never forget. A local bar and grill was chosen to help create a casual and friendly tone for the conversation. “Meeting my brother was incredible. He is everything I could have ever hoped for - almost immediately, we were going back and forth, making jokes like a ping-pong tournament!”
The immediate bond between siblings struck something in her birth mom, and Maddy could see it on her face. “I could tell it really meant a lot to her, seeing her two children hit it off so easily. And for her and her son to take me in and let me see their life, that was just really heartwarming for me.”
And on that note, that’s how they left off - just the three of them having fun together. “It’s a bit touching,” said Maddy, “I couldn’t help but imagine that if circumstances would have been different, that this is how it would have been, just us three versus the world.”
“I’m just so thankful for everything that I’ve had in this life, so far. My parents, my birth family, everything. And I’m so glad that I was able to reach out to them and meet them,” said Maddy.
Though they all plan on keeping in touch, Maddy doesn’t want to push the relationship. They haven’t spoken in a couple of months, but she is confident, that like always, they will speak again.
“It’s funny because, in the end, everything feels just so ordinary. But there’s something beautiful in the ordinary. And for me, that makes it extraordinary.”