Michelle Madrid-Branch, the founder of ‘The Greater Than Project,’ opens up about her childhood, her biological parents, and what called her to be an advocate for orphans world wide.
Fairy tales, even the real-life ones, always have a sorrowful beginning, and the story of Michelle Madrid-Branch is no different. The author, global advocate for women and children and former broadcast journalist, entered this world as an orphan in England and was promptly saddled with many labels: “illegitimate, dark, difficult to place.” Her mother, who was white and married to an officer in the Royal Navy, had had an affair with a Spanish man. Although her mother had considered abortion, she decided to give birth to Michelle, who was immediately placed in foster care at the insistence of her husband. Her birth father gave up all claim to Michelle and left before she was born.
As early as she can remember, Michelle recalls feeling different and “less than” all the rosy-white complexions around her. She felt ashamed her birth parents had given her up and that she must have done something wrong. “It felt like a choke collar constantly around my neck,” Michelle explained. Around two years of age, an American expat family adopted her, despite the orphanage’s surprise they would want someone who was “dark” and unlike them. “I don’t care if she’s purple,” Michelle’s adoptive mother told the administrators.
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But Michelle’s adoption into a loving family with two other children wasn’t a quick fairytale ending. Moving to America with her new family around age five, Michelle was always aware of how different she was, and she lived in constant fear her adoptive family would reject her. She decided she needed to be perfect because she had learned “imperfect things get sent back. Perfection meant safety and that I could stay.”
Michelle’s adoptive mother, whose husband was an alcoholic, also modeled a relentless quest for perfection—an enormous pressure for a little girl who already lived in strain and uncertainty. “My mother tried to hide my father’s drinking from the outside world. She would often have me go around and empty bottles that were hidden around the house, before I left for school. I could not talk about dad’s drinking problem openly, and we tried very hard to make things ‘perfect’ when he was home so that he would not get upset.”
Although Michelle’s adoptive mother always told her “adoption means love” and she didn’t want to appear ungrateful to her family, Michelle craved answers about her birth parents and desperately wanted to meet them, but she never expressed it, retreating into a private world of longing and loss. For years, Michelle’s imagination weaved a “fantasy kingdom” of what it would be like to meet her birth parents. And that she would finally get answers to questions such as if her mother had wanted to give her up, and if her father ever thought about her.
But reunions are not always fantasy kingdoms. As a young teen, and with the support of her adoptive family, Michelle connected with her birth mother and flew back to England to meet her and her family. Walking the busy expanse of London’s Heathrow Airport, Michelle spotted her mirror image across the way: Except for the pale skin and blue eyes, her birth mother’s likeness was so close Michelle felt like she was looking at herself. They both cried.
Their reunion was beautiful and awkward at times. Both were nervous and eager to make up for lost time. Her biological mother tried to find ways to connect with Michelle by doting on her, drawing warm baths, brushing her hair and fussing as much as Michelle would let her. She showed Michelle the Relinquishment of Parenthood, the document she signed to send her to the orphanage. She wept and said she had never wanted to give her up. At times, Michelle reveled in the displays of love, but it didn’t wash away the hurt and resentment she felt. “It was a tug of war of feelings.”
One day toward the end of her visit, as she and her mother stood in the garden, a neighbor came forward and asked, “Well, who do we have here?” Michelle looked to her mother, anxious for her response, and saw panic spring up in her eyes. “A relative from the U.S.,” her mother responded, with no further explanation. While feigning composure, Michelle “felt like I had collapsed on the inside. I was broken.” When she confronted her mother later she said it was none of the neighbor’s business. But the young teen could only see that her birth mother was ashamed of her. Fresh feelings of shame and abandonment traveled home with Michelle, who never shared with anyone else what had happened.
The spiritual turning point
Over the years, Michelle masked her battle with low self-esteem by racking up impressive accolades, earning her master’s in journalism and covering thousands of stories for various TV stations around the country. She met and married her husband Jeff (“an amazing partner!”), and gave birth to a son. She also continued with regular visits to her family in England and has even forged a renewed relationship with her adoptive father, who chose sobriety when Michelle was a young adult.
Still, throughout these accomplishments and love from all family members, Michelle had not been able to shake off the feelings of low self-worth. She also had unexplained and serious symptoms of physical illness, and doctors mistakenly diagnosed her with lupus. (She went on to discover the real culprits were gluten and dairy and not lupus.) In the midst of this, her medical journey also became a spiritual one. Instead of the negative internal chatter she often heard in her head, one day a voice inside clearly stated, “Maybe you need to start loving yourself.”
It was a revolutionary concept to Michelle, who so far had spent a lifetime excelling out of fear of being rejected. “I had a choice to make: whether my life was a gift or a curse. Because of my deepening faith in God, I realized I was here to do more than just be this adopted kid who felt unworthy.” She also decided, as she had always been forgiven, she would fully forgive her birthparents who had given her up, and the social workers who had never believed anyone would want her. In a powerful, radical act of love, she decided to turn her rejection into acceptance, and the beginning of a new spiritual life for herself.
Meeting the ‘adoption tribe’
This profound, life-changing transformation from within, also became a multifaceted calling to support the children, the mothers and everyone who comprise what Michelle calls the “adoption tribe.” She started the Quilt of Life blog, where people submit their adoption stories so people can know they are not alone. “Every story and person is different and I want people to feel supported and know their stories matter.”
Michelle and Jeff’s own “quilt of life” expanded from a family of three to four as they adopted a son from Russia. It was an easy decision to adopt. “Delivering through adoption has always seemed normal to me.” Then five years passed and Michelle had a growing sense they weren’t “done” yet. She and Jeff decided to adopt another child. But, where to begin? Russia again? The U.S.? Their questions were soon answered. On a near-daily basis, Ethiopia began to pop up randomly in conversation with friends and anywhere else their daily life took them. After a few weeks, Jeff turned to her and said, “I think we’re supposed to adopt someone from Ethiopia.” It was a fateful moment.
Soon, they traveled to Ethiopia and met a beautiful baby girl who was about 10 months old, yet so tiny she fit into the clothes of a three month old. She’d been abandoned on a street, starving to death. A policeman found her and named her Tiblet, which means “let her be greater.”
“It felt like a Divine directive when I heard the meaning of her name,” said Michelle. “I had spent so much time feeling lesser than.” Later, after bringing their new baby home from Ethiopia, Michelle reignited her skills in video journalism to launch the The Greater Than Project, interviewing women who have survived profound loss and learned what gives them strength “to rise above the darkness.”
|My parents were once little boys and girls who were broken.|
“The ‘greatness’ I focus on in these stories and in my life is in an other-worldly sense, not in status,” said Michelle. “I wake up every day now with a sense of gratitude and I ask, how can I serve and help today?” On this particular day, Michelle had woken at 3 a.m. in her Santa Barbara home, her internal clock still adjusting from a trip to India. She had spent time in Mother Teresa’s hospice, a home for abandoned elderly and handicapped people. “Grown-ups can be orphans too. It was such an honor to follow the footsteps of Mother Teresa.”
Reflecting on her life so far, Michelle admits that “adoption can be so hard. For so many years it just felt like it hurt. I didn’t know it was special. It is a never-ending journey, surprises will keep happening.” The most recent surprise? After years of searching and with the help of a private detective, Michelle finally located her birth father in the U.K., but not in time to find him alive—he had passed away several months earlier. He had eventually married and had a son, another half sibling for Michelle, who has welcomed her with open arms. Her brother also answered Michelle’s long-held question: Did her father ever think about her? Indeed, a month before his death, he told Michelle’s brother he had a sister.
“My parents were once little boys and girls who were broken. They are all so special to me and have taught me so much about the power of forgiveness, and that perfection does not exist. It’s OK to say, hey, there are some wrinkles here.”
While continuing with her travels and adoption advocacy, Michelle is making the finishing touches on her 4th book, “Let Her Be Greater,” her first to be launched by a publishing house.
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