Unless you have been adopted, or separated from a long-lost relative under other circumstances, it's difficult to imagine exactly what was running through Matt Love's mind last spring during a highly anticipated day of self-discovery.
After driving for 10 hours from Morgan Hill, Calif., to the small seaside town of Bandon, Ore., Love arrived at the doorstep of a modest mobile home. There, at last, he came face-to-face with Nancy Leona Brown, the woman who gave birth to him in a farm house in 1953 and then promptly gave him away.
Aside from his teen daughter, Brown was only the second blood relative Love, 57, had ever encountered.
"There was this fantastic feeling of connection," he says, recalling the meeting and the days that followed, during which he was introduced to a vast set of new family members. "It's a feeling like you belong — that you're not out of place."
Love was inspired to seek out Brown after his wife, Joan, had her own experience with a long-lost relative. In 2005, she was contacted by a half-brother living in Las Vegas. Joan had only recently learned of his existence when her father revealed an extramarital affair that resulted in a pregnancy.
"We set up a meeting in a hotel lobby on the Strip," she says. "The elevator opened up, and out steps this man who looked just like a younger version of my dad. I was stunned."
These days, an increasing number of people are reuniting with lost family members, thanks largely to social networking hubs such as Facebook that make searching for a relative much easier. Even media mogul Oprah Winfrey recently learned that she has a half-sister whom her mother gave up for adoption and kept a secret for decades.
The trend is reflected in the growing popularity of online genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, which serves more than 1.4 million subscribers, and television shows like "Who Do You Think You Are" (NBC) and "Searching For ..." (OWN), which follow people as they trace their roots.
"People are desperate to understand where they came from," says Pamela Slaton, a genealogist featured on "Searching For ...".
"There's this powerful need to be validated. You can be a highly successful, happy adult at the top of your game. But there's always a child living within who wants to understand why someone didn't want you in their life."
Slaton says people are motivated to search for their relatives by a number of factors, including a death or birth in the family, the desire to know more about their lives or genetic curiosity. And many adults, she adds, want to know their medical background as they get older.
That's what spurred Shelley Hamilton, 44, of Fremont, Calif., to seek out the father who abandoned the family during her mother's pregnancy and never resurfaced. Hamilton's mom eventually married another man, who lived with her for 35 years until his death.
"I grew up feeling loved and nurtured. I never really felt I was missing anything," Hamilton says. "But as I hit my 40s, my doctor began asking more and more questions about my health history. It was something I thought I needed to know."
With the help of an Internet search engine, Hamilton learned two years ago that her biological father was living in Mesa, Ariz. After some lengthy phone conversations, they agreed to meet in the San Francisco Bay area.
Since then, she has been introduced to three half-siblings — a sister and two brothers. The experience, she says, has been both "surreal and uplifting."
"I feel like I'm starting friendships based on common threads," she says. "And with my father, it hasn't been about dredging up the past and asking, 'Why didn't you look for me?' It's more about understanding who I am and where I fit in the world. That's the beauty of it."
But experts caution that family searches don't always end so beautifully. Often, they fail to pan out, or even worse, provoke emotional trauma.
Slaton, an adoptee, knows firsthand about the pitfalls. Twenty years ago, she hired a professional searcher to find her birth mother, but the woman ultimately refused to meet her.
"I got my teeth kicked out. I was crushed," says Slaton, who was moved by the experience to help others with their searches.
"It left me with a deep understanding for the anxieties my clients are going through," she says. "I think it gives me a bit of healing."
Learning about family
San Lorenzo, Calif., resident Cindi O'Neal, 62, experienced a search that produced mixed results. After looking in vain for her wayward dad for years, she finally hit pay dirt, only to discover he had died three weeks earlier. Still, her efforts yielded several new relatives who welcomed her with open arms.
"I guess things happen the way they're supposed to happen," she says. "If I had met my dad, I probably would have vented my anger at him. I would have given him a piece of my mind."
No tensions have existed between Matt Love and the biological mother he tracked down with the help of Oregon's liberal adoption record laws. Since that first meeting in Bandon, they've gotten together several times, And during the past year, he has learned a great deal about Brown, a self-employed hairdresser, who was briefly married to an Air Force man but never had any other children.
"She's very comfortable to talk to, which kind of surprised me. I'm usually shy and tend to hold back," says Matt, who was intrigued to find that he and Brown share several mannerisms, some facial features and a love for sports.
Joan, meanwhile, enjoys seeing her husband discover pieces of his past.
"He is completely enthralled with Nancy," she says. "This is opening many doors that have been closed for a long, long time."