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Karissa Karlen rolled over in bed on a Sunday morning to see an email on her phone that brought her to tears. The subject line read, “From Your Birth Father, Nathan James.” After the long debate of whether to make contact with her birth parents or not, she suddenly had an email in her inbox that would answer the questions she had wondered about for years.
For as long as she could remember, Karissa knew she had been adopted. It felt cool. She knew her adopted family was her family, so knowing she was adopted didn’t cause any major identity crisis—it was just a small part of her identity.
In elementary school, she told her friend that one day she would meet her birth family and they would be happily married with kids. Though her birth parents had been 17 and unmarried when they had her, she still had hope that they had had some fairytale ending. As she grew up, however, she witnessed other people who were adopted find their birth families and have negative experiences. Slowly, she began to realize her perfect story may not come to fruition. What if they were drug addicts or in jail? What if they were dead? Her curiosity and hope turned to fear.
It wasn’t until after serving in the Spain Madrid Mission that she took the leap of faith to contact LDS Family Services to request information about her biological parents. When she walked into the office, the social worker handed her a box of tissues and said “This is extremely emotional for a lot of people.” Expecting an address or biographical information, all she received was some non-identifying health/background information, three letters, the address of her birth father when she was born, and her birth father’s name: Nathan R. James.
Karissa felt overcome with emotion. As she got in the car with the papers in hand, she burst into tears and drove to the Provo Temple to cry in the parking lot. Through tears, she read her birth parent’s letters to her, which not only expressed love for her, but told her they had decided to get sealed in the temple and had had another baby. While she finally knew a little bit about the people who gave her life, in that moment she also felt deeply that the family she was adopted into and sealed to was who she was meant to be with. She was placed for adoption for a reason.
The sweet letters and the confirmation from the Spirit answered many of her questions, but she still did not know who her birth mother was, where her birth parents were, and if they had stayed married. A few months of debating later, Karissa began the ultimate stalking quest on social media and Google.
She found a surprising number of people named Nathan James in California, but with some narrowing down and multiple drafts crumpled up and thrown away, she placed a stamped letter in the mailbox, not knowing if she was sending it to the right person or when they would ever respond. Now that she knew a little bit about her birth parents, her curiosity was insatiable. She wanted to know what happened to those two teenagers who brought her into the world.
When 17-year-old Emily James found out she was pregnant, she was absolutely terrified. She and her boyfriend were both members of the Church in San Diego, California, and for three months, she kept the pregnancy a secret, unsure how to break the news to her Latter-day Saint family and insecure about the future.
Fortunately, Emily’s parents took the news with love and support. As she and her boyfriend Nathan went to the bishop and debated back and forth, through prayer they felt that adoption was the best choice. “Once I made the decision, it was made. I didn’t waver,” Emily said.
LDS Family Services gave Emily some options for her pregnancy, and she ultimately decided to live with another Latter-day Saint family from a different stake nearby for 3-4 months so she could process all that she was going through. When Emily was close to full term, the adoption agency gave her and Nathan 10 different couples as options to place their baby with and let them decide. Each couple wrote a letter to them, and soon Kristen and Ron Karlen stuck out as the right match for the baby.
The Karlens were shocked when they got the call. The social worker they had been working with told them the wait would be about a year before they would be matched with any babies, and three months later, Emily and Nathan chose them to be the parents of their baby. Ron was on a 24-hour firefighter shift when Kristen got the call, so when he tiredly walked in the door, Kristen told him they were going to be the parents of a little boy. He was shocked.
Sooner than they ever anticipated, Kristen and Ron were driving down to San Diego to meet Emily and Nathan, and during the drive, Emily went into labor. When the Karlens arrived at the hospital, they walked into the room to find a tall, skinny young man and a shy young woman working through contractions together, eagerly awaiting the potential parents of this baby that was fast approaching. Though they were only given 30 minutes to talk to the Karlens, Emily and Nathan felt strongly that they were the right parents for their baby.
After their brief meeting, the Karlen’s drove home to Northern California while the 17-year-olds remained in the hospital room. At 8 p.m., what they thought was going to be a baby boy came out a baby girl, and Emily and Nathan held little Karissa together all night long, savoring their last moments with this baby they had brought into the world. Meanwhile, Kristen and Ron began frantically buying things and preparing a nursery for a baby girl.
Before the Karlens could officially take her home, Karissa had to be in a foster home for almost two weeks, so when morning came, Emily and Nathan walked their baby out to the social worker’s car to say goodbye. They both wept as they buckled her into her first car ride and watched the car drive away. They spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach holding each other and crying.
Tears wished Karissa farewell, but they also greeted her when Kristen and Ron finally flew down to San Diego to pick up their new baby. “I remember feeling such mixed emotions because while I was so excited for us, I knew [Emily and Nathan] were giving up something so precious, and there was a piece of me that felt guilty for that, because I knew that it would be such a hard and difficult thing. Who was I to be the one to receive this sweet little gift?” Kristen said.
The social worker brought baby Karissa into the room where Kristen and Ron had been waiting, and they immediately fell in love, feeling distinctly she was coming into their family for a reason. Karissa was placed in Kristen’s arms and she couldn’t hold back tears of joy looking down at the perfect bundle.
“She had these little rose bud lips and beautiful almond shaped eyes, and this little button nose and this brown fuzz of hair and perfect round cheeks. She was breathtaking. I just remember feeling overwhelmed with happiness and joy, because what a gift! We just stood there staring at her and crying over her and my tears dropped on her little white dress,” Kristen said.
Though Emily and Nathan were heartbroken, they were comforted by the confirmations they both received that the Karlens were the right family to adopt Karissa. They were young, but all they had been through together brought them to the decision that they really did want to stay together. Less than a year later, they were married.
Over 20 years later on an April afternoon, Nathan was checking the mailbox in front of the home he and Emily lived in with their three children. As he sifted through the mail, he came to a letter addressed to him from Karissa Karlen. Emily was out of town at the time, so Nathan called her immediately.
“Hey I just got a letter in the mail from Karissa Karlen,” Nathan said. “Who’s that?” Emily said. “Your first born child!” Nathan replied. After the initial shock, disbelief, and wondering whether it was an April Fool’s joke wore off, Nathan wrote an email in reply and sent it.
A few months passed, and while Karissa had been writing back and forth with her birth parents, the idea of meeting in person came into the conversation. She didn’t want Emily and Nathan to feel any pressure or to feel any pressure herself, so she did not immediately jump on the opportunity. They tentatively started to plan something but then Karissa backed out in fear. Emily and Nathan told her they would be in Utah in July and they would be happy to meet up even last minute if she changed her mind.
The night before Emily and Nathan were to arrive in Utah, Karissa had a dream about them. She woke up, realizing they were coming that day and suddenly felt the courage to meet up. Her heart beat fast as she drove up the canyon to their meeting spot. Karissa arrived first, so she found a little forested area and with all the nerves in her gut and all the faith in her heart knelt down to say a prayer. “Heavenly Father, I don’t know what’s about to happen, but I’m really excited and really nervous,” she said. This was a moment she had waited for her whole life.
When they sent her a text saying they had arrived, Karissa was terrified and thrilled all at once. Her first view of Emily and Nathan standing under a tree blew her away—she couldn’t believe she was actually meeting her birth parents. She laughed hysterically because she could hardly handle all the emotions swirling inside of her. Nathan and Emily both teared up a little and then they joined in on her laughter, totally overwhelmed with the moment. “It felt like a first date but way more intense. It was awesome,” Karissa said.
They walked and talked for 2 ½ hours, catching up on 21 years of life and beginning an emotional bond to solidify the biological bond that already tied them. Karissa was so happy to learn about her three full biological siblings and to hear that her birth parents were active in the Church. The daydreams she had had as a kid had finally come to fruition.
Karissa recently met up with her birth parents for a second time and got to meet her biological siblings for the first time ever. Karissa said, “It was just like friends hanging out and having a good old time.” As she reflected on her experience meeting them, she said, “I think God used them as the means to get me to earth so that I would have a connection to them without being in their family—they are AWESOME, and we had so much fun!”
More than anything, finding and meeting her birth family has not only taught Karissa about herself but confirmed to her that God has a specific plan for her. Not all children who are adopted find their birth families nor do they find them in such positive circumstances, but this experience has given Karissa the chance to both connect to her biological family and confirm that being adopted was an integral part of her journey.