When Nate Schiffer met his birth family at their home in the Philippines — he processed seeing the life that would have been his own, and the completeness and connection that now means the world to him.
“I was in the middle of the table. I had my adoptive family on one side, and my biological family on one side. Like, emotionally, it just felt like I was in two different corners essentially. And neither corner loved me any less.”
When Nate Schiffer traveled with his family to the Philippines for vacation at 17 years old, he didn’t expect the chance to meet his birth family. But here he was, in their single-roomed home — comprised of three walls and a blanket covering the opening — in an alleyway between two buildings in the city. They directed him to sit on a metal folding chair beside a small table. His biological siblings and biological parents sat feet away on the pallet bed they all shared, and his adoptive family stood near the doorway opening because there wasn’t enough room for everyone inside.
One of his first thoughts was, ‘This could have been my life. I could have grown up in this room.’ It wasn’t a thought of whether that would have been a good thing or a bad thing — but the thought kept sweeping through his mind, that his life would have been entirely different.
His birth mother made him an entire platter of Filipino spaghetti and lumpia and put it before him.
“That’s one of the biggest things I remember — my biological mom and my adoptive mom were both right next to each other, watching me eat,” Nate says. “No one else was eating. But I understood the symbolism…”
My Birth Family Found Me
Ever since his birth sister found him on Facebook two years earlier, Nate had been talking with them regularly, putting together the pieces of his story he wouldn’t have otherwise known. He learned that his birth family still lived in poverty. That when they placed him for adoption, his dad had been sick and couldn’t work. That his birth mother was severely malnourished when she was pregnant with him — and so was he inside her womb.
“They decided that they wanted to give me a chance,” Nate says. “Even though they’d have to give me up to the orphanage almost immediately to get care.”
So as he shoveled down bites of spaghetti and lumpia in the humid, typhoon-season air, he knew what an important moment it was.
“For my biological mom,” he says, “it probably felt like the first time she was ever able to feed me.”
A Family of Filipino Adoptees
When Nate was adopted by Rachel and Dave Schiffer in Springfield, Oregon at 2 years old, he became part of a large family that would soon include four other siblings adopted from the Philippines. There’s his older sister Mimi, Sam and Joe — his younger twin brothers — and most recently his little sister Jessa, who joined their family as a teenager just a year and a half ago.
At an early age, Nate’s parents explained to him and all of his siblings that their adoption stories were an open conversation. They could at any point, whenever they were ready, look at their birth certificates, adoption papers and more. No question was off the table.
So when Nate got that Facebook message from his birth sister when he was 15 years old, his parents helped him navigate it as best they could.
“At first I was very overwhelmed,” Nate says. “But because my parents are so awesome, they were very supportive. They were like, ‘If you want to talk with them, great! If you don’t and you want to wait, great!’ They didn’t force anything.”
Nate decided to continue the conversation. After verifying with his former orphanage caregiver that this was in fact his birth family, he began to ask questions: Why was I placed for adoption? What do you do now for work? Do you still all live together? He learned about what their life was like. That they had photos of him up on their walls. And that every year they celebrate his birthday.
He also learned some difficult parts of his and their story, including that they had another child after placing Nate in the orphanage — a son they were able to keep and raise.
“As a teenager, that was something I struggled with. Like, why was I the one out of the five of us ?” Nate says, acknowledging himself as the only one of his birth siblings that his parents placed for adoption.
But through the years of wrestling with this question, as Nate learned more and grew to know his biological family better, he found resolution and understanding.
“I stepped back, and I understood their situation,” Nate says. “They loved me so much that they wanted to give me a chance at life, even though they knew they would have to give me away to receive the help I needed to survive.”
When Nate first walked up to his biological family’s home, they rushed out to hug him — his biological sister, brothers, nephew, aunt, mother and father. And he saw their full range of emotions.
“Everyone was crying, there was so much raw emotion,” Nate says. “I saw the pain and the happiness in them.”
He saw the love they had for each other, and how it extended to him as well. And as he learned more about their life and the difficulties they faced — now and 15 years before when he was born — he understood more about the decision they had made all those years ago.
Nate’s biological father’s job was to sell ice cream, and they stretched this income to try and support the whole family. Each day’s earnings were used to purchase the next day’s food. So when he suddenly got sick and couldn’t work, the effects were immediate — and the family started to go hungry. His biological mom was malnourished, and they knew that Nate, in her womb, would need medical care and proper nutrition to recover.
“Everyone was crying, there was so much raw emotion. I saw the pain and the happiness in them.”
Nate’s four older biological siblings, 8 to 12 years old at the time, remembered their mom being pregnant with him. And they remember the excruciating decision their parents made to place him in the orphanage to someday be adopted.
“Either grow up super impoverished, get aborted, or get adopted. And I think I got the best option out of all three of those,” Nate says. “That’s kind of how I was able to process it, and it helped me eventually become grateful for what they did, and not have any other emotion other than that — because it was kind of the only option.”
Adoption can be complex and difficult in a myriad of ways, and for everyone involved. And that day, Nate got to see first-hand what this meant for his biological family.
“I got to experience that it’s not just hard for the adoptee, but it’s hard for the biological family to give up their kid,” Nate says. “Sometimes people forget about how hard it is for the biological family. But they didn’t just do it because they didn’t want me.”
Proud to Be an Adoptee
Nate knows that these topics of gratefulness, of birth search, and meeting birth family are complex topics for adoptees, and that his story is a rare one. His experienced opened his eyes to how important it is for adoptees to have the chance to explore their history, if they choose — just like the choice and opportunity he had.
“To see where I came from and the people who share my blood helped me feel proud to be an adoptee for the first time in my life,” Nate says. And now, Nate feels passionate about helping other adoptees process their own adoptee identity, whether through learning information about their past, adoption-competent therapy and counseling, or even birth search.
This summer, Nate will serve as Holt’s new adoptee camp director, traveling the country to help facilitate camp for hundreds of youth adoptees — and he’s eager to share his story.
“Adoption is loss, and as an adoptee it’s hard not to speculate about why you were given away,” Nate says of his parents decision to relinquish him. Not every adoptee will have the same chance that Nate did to ask these questions and finally get the answers he was seeking. But he says it’s important that all adoptees have the chance to process through their adoption stories — whether or not they ever meet their birth families.
“I know that [my story] is very rare,” Nate says. “There’s a lot of kids that do not have the same story.” But he knows his story has given him the perspective and experience needed to walk with other adoptees as they process their own adoptions.
Because for Nate, being able to meet his biological family without doubt and without resentment made all the difference for him — sitting at that small table, eating spaghetti and lumpia in a room with both his adoptive and biological families.
“I visually saw myself between both of them, and I knew that they both loved me. I just felt super loved, and super lucky,” Nate says. “Even though it was a sad situation, I was more just overwhelmed with happiness.”
And now, he feels a completeness and a connection that he didn’t expect to have, but is so grateful for.
“I’m glad that I met my birth family. It helped me feel more completed and filled in the missing pieces of my story,” Nate says. “Having a connection with my birth family means the world to me.”
Did you know Holt provides support to all adoptees?
Every adoptee has a unique and complex life experience. Holt strives to support all adoptees, regardless of their placing agency, by providing help with birth search, citizenship and more.