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NPE: Healing from Family Trauma and Finding Identity

Updated On: February 29, 2024

We’re sharing an NPE (non parental event, not parent expected) story with guest Robin Schepper, author of Finding My Way: A Memoir of Family, Identity, and Political Ambition. In our wide-ranging conversation, Kendall and Corey ask Robin about the discovery of her birth father, her grandmother’s brothel, her time working with Michelle Obama and how she healed from family trauma.

Guest bio

For more than thirty years, Robin Schepper served at the highest levels of American politics and government. She worked on four presidential campaigns and in the Clinton White House, was staff director for the Senate Democratic Technology and Communications Committee under Senator Tom Daschle and served in the Obama White House as the first executive director of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative, Let’s Move! She has advised numerous numerous non-profits and helped draft policy reports for the Bipartisan Policy Center. Robin lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado with my husband, kids and rescue dogs.

Robin Schepper’s website

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Hello and welcome to season three of Family Twist, a podcast about DNA surprises, found family, and amazing adoption stories. I'm Kendall Austin Stulce, and my partner is Corey Stulce. We've had fabulous guests during seasons one and two. We're sharing stories of people who identify as NPEs, also called Not Parent Expected, others who found out they were donor conceived and have surprise siblings, and even others with unique family twists.


We started this podcast to spotlight Kendall's adoption story and his discovering both sides of his biological family in 2017. So if you're just finding the podcast, we encourage you to start with episode one to learn more about Kendall's journey. Thank you for listening.


Thanks for joining us again on Family Twist. Our guest today is a new author, a former White House staffer, and most importantly to us, an adoptive mother. Robin Shepard, thank you for joining us. Thank you so much. Really happy to be with you, Corey and Kendall. Thank you, thank you. So how have things been for you? How has your life been since the book came out just a couple of months ago? Oh, it's been great. I've been traveling a little bit and I'm actually leaving for a West Coast swing next week.


Then in September, I'll be in DC and New York, kind of my final date. So it's been a whirlwind and I know that I want to write a second memoir. I think I know what it's going to be about because of the feedback that I've gotten. A lot of people want to know more about my grandmother who emigrated from Prussia back in the 1920s. She's a great character in my book. Now, is this the grandmother who owned a brothel? Uh, yes, I would. I, uh, yes.


She had a very upscale massage business. And when I was about 13, I realized that the massage business offered other services. That was a rude awakening. And when I told my mother, her mother, about grandma, my mother wouldn't believe it. But my grandma always had cash, dealt in a cash economy. So I realized that and it was kind of an unusual way to grow up. Yeah, absolutely. I bet. Wow. Yeah, that certainly jumped out at me. Yeah. I was so much reading.


Yes. I know. I was like, what? What was that? Yeah. Very upscale. I don't know if you've known New York City, but she lived on 79th Street between first and second Doorman building. It was not, when you say the word Brussels, it's kind of what the publisher put in my book, but it was really just beautiful, like a doctor's office in a very upscale building on the Upper East Side. Her clients were actors, football players, just very, not seedy at all.


was providing other services. Massage parlor with that. Yes, exactly. So there's like twist after twist to your story. It's hard to even know where to begin, but what made you decide this was the right time to write a memoir? Yeah. It's really about the family twist. So kind of hearing about your story about not knowing about your biological father. I never knew my biological father. So it was always a question for me, but my mother had told me it was somebody else.


in my book called Finding My Way, I talk about that process. Actually, since you guys are interested in DNA, if you could indulge me, I did 23 and me and I asked my mother to do it for those listeners that know 23 and me shows you which DNA you get from each parent. And so I was always told that my biological father was from Nuremberg in Germany. He was Bavarian. So I was expecting, okay, I'm 50% German.


And then the mishmash German Austrian Croatian from my mother's side. And it came back. I saw the biological profile of my dad. There was no name attached. It had some German, but it had English, Irish, Scottish, Askenazi Jew had some Congolese, you know, just everything a mishmash and I'm like, Oh, that's an American. Right. Yes. When I showed it to my mother, she still to this day lives in such shame.


When I showed it to her, she said, Oh, Ray was adopted. I was like, yeah. And then 1930s, this guy who had this mishmash in Bavaria was adopted. Not really, but I didn't say anything to my mother because it's just not talked about. In 2019, I got a message through ancestry and this woman said, Hey, it says that we're over 16% related and I can't figure it out. And so through a bunch of emails back and forth, figure it out that.


Her uncle was my biological father. I had written stories for a long time, but, um, I never really had an ending. So I decided to write because I finally had the ending of, uh, figuring out who my dad was. I knew it was somebody, but my mother had been a Pan Am stewardess and let's just say she took the sixties literally.


living in California and just having a really good time. I just didn't think I'd ever find that person. And without consumer DNA, I would have found who my biological father is. What was that moment like when you realized, wow, this is the man. This is my dad. Oh my God. You know, it was so, it was bittersweet because he had just died the year before. I'm wearing his ring. Actually, his relatives gave me his wedding ring and I just climbed to Everspace camp and I decided to.


bring him with me just in a little way that I could. But it was bittersweet. I don't know how you all feel, but when I read his obituary, it wasn't just that I look like him because I saw pictures of him and oh my God, I was shocked. I mean, I saw his high school picture and I compared it side by side with my high school picture and I'm like, we could be brother and sister. Wow. So one, it answered lots of questions that I'd had since I was a little girl. It...


created some anxiety of how do I talk to my mother about this? And then some opportunity, because now I have cousins that I never knew I had. And so that's been lovely. It's definitely something that has been worthwhile for me. But over time, I've also realized that with my new cousins, I don't have the same relationship I have with my close friends, who I call my chosen family, because we don't have the same type of history. So maybe we'll get there someday, but to just all of a sudden have cousins that you've never.


and we don't live in the same town, you have to put some effort into creating that type of thing. For sure. Definitely, definitely, yeah. Just talking about the resemblance thing we just spent yesterday at the beach with Kendall's half brother and his family, just talking about old photos and how the kids have changed and how when this one was younger, it looked just like Kendall at that age. And Kendall is like the spitting image of his uncle, his dad's brother. He doesn't always see the resemblance, but whenever he's standing next to any of them, like there's...


bits and pieces. You could just see there's no denying at this point. Yeah. I don't look like my cousins at all. I don't see any resemblance, but my biological father, it's pretty amazing. He lived in San Diego for many years and was a successful businessman. And he was the Commodore at the San Diego Yacht Club. And I went there and I ordered an Arnold Palmer and I also ordered vanilla ice cream and I was with some of his colleagues and they're like, Oh my God, that was his favorite drink.


Oh my God, he ate some ice cream and I don't drink coffee either. And so they're like, oh my God, he didn't drink coffee either. And then people would be looking at my jawline, like you have his jawline. So it's kind of strange. You feel like you're a specimen. Yes, you do, yeah. So as far as you know, did he have other children? He didn't have any other children and he never knew that I existed. So that's the bittersweet part of it. Yeah, so no half siblings for me, I wish, but no. Right, right. Well, I mean, unless...


There was another stewardess and maybe, maybe haven't found him or her on 23 of me or ancestry yet, but I'll let you know if I do. How did you go about the decision to adopt children? It was a combination of, I got epilepsy in my late twenties. And at that time the laws on the books and lots of different states were really.


telling epileptics not to have children. I went to go see my doctor and he said, but you can have a kid, but let me tell you a couple things. The drug you're on causes birth defects. And if you get off the drug and if you have a seizure, your fetus and you could be severely damaged. So I was kind of mourning the idea of having a biological child, but I decided that it was more important to me to be a mother.


than somebody who came out of my biology. And my family is a little bit unusual and there's a lot of history of trauma in my family. So I'm like, you know, maybe passing my DNA is not necessarily the best thing. So yeah, so it was an interesting process. And my husband, who was my second husband, felt really strongly about adopting because he works on climate change. So he was really concerned about overpopulation. So we both had two different reasons for wanting to adopt. And at the time we adopted


In when we started the process in the early 2000s and adopted our first child in 2003, we have adopted two from Kazakhstan. And I don't know if your listeners know, but you have to in your state. And I lived in Washington, DC at the time. It was not a state, but we worked with the social workers to do a home study. And then you figure out where you want to adopt. Originally we wanted to adopt a kid from Washington, DC, but we were told because we were white.


and that most of the kids in the adoption system or in the foster care system were mixed race, African American and Latino, that we probably wouldn't get the kids.


because we were a different race and foster care really wants to place like races with the parents. So we went internationally and went through this process and went to Kazakhstan. And I called it the bureaucratic pregnancy from the beginning of the home study to coming back from Kazakhstan with our first son. It was nine months, nine months process. And he was eight months when we got him and brought him home. That was our first son. He was now 21 going to college and skiing for a D1


Our second son we adopted in 2006 and he's now 17. Yeah, it was the greatest thing ever. And I've just decided that since I was able to create family without my only biological relations where my grandmother and my mother, I've created incredible family with my husband and friends that we decided that we could do it with our kid. We joke around the house that we're a family and no one in the family is related by DNA.


Well, thank you for doing that. I get goosebumps every time I hear one of these stories. Have your sons done a DNA test? Yeah, they were actually did DNA tests before us. There is a researcher scientist, Dr. Spencer Wells from National Geographic.


who was using DNA to essentially track the history of man and thousands of years and our migrations. And they had a project called the Kazakh Project. So where my kids are from Kazakhstan, which is in Central Asia, is really kind of the crossroads. It was on the Silk Road. So they were looking for more DNA from people from Kazakhstan because it was a place that...


You can imagine the migration. And then also as a place that Stalin sent anybody he didn't like. So you go to Kazakhstan and there's people of German descent, Korean descent, Jews, Catholic, Cranians, Poles. So they were in it first. And that was before consumer DNA was through National Geographic. So.


They kind of found out more like the perspective of hundreds of years back, of what their DNA was. And the most interesting thing our younger son is related to on his paternal side, the Sami tribe in the old days, they were called Laplanders, but now it's Sami and that's the archaic circle of Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia. Then we did 23andMe and for both our kids, but we haven't found any close relatives. And I think really.


We have an obsession in the United States about this consumer DNA. I don't think it's as popular in other countries and in a place like Kazakhstan, that's pretty poor. I don't think anybody's going to be spending $80 for a DNA test when you're just trying to get food on the table. Right. Yeah. That makes sense. Yeah. Well, I know I'm jumping all over the place, but your story is so fascinating. What got you interested in politics? Oh, in politics. Really? That's great question. I haven't been asked that one yet.


Yeah, it was really by accident. I was in a radio and TV journalism and I've always been idealistic. And I think because I was schooled by the Catholic church and Jesuits where, you know, the Catholic church has a lot of challenges, but one of the good things was really always working on social justice. I just wanted to make change and I just had an opportunity. I talk a lot about this in my book of.


Somebody asked me to go on a campaign and go to Iowa to work for a presidential candidate. I didn't have a job and I needed to make money. And I was like, okay, sure.


I knew nothing. I'll do it. I had been living in Europe for three years and I just loved it. I loved going through all these small towns in Iowa and working for my candidate. And then through that process, the greatest was all the people that I met who are now still my dearest friends. My political family is that when you're mission driven of your work, work doesn't feel like work. Even if you're working 12 or 14 hours a day, eating pizza and sleeping on somebody else's bed, some supporter's bed.


I got drawn to politics really because I thought it could affect change and makes people's lives better. And I didn't know anything about it. But once I got in, I became addicted to it. I couldn't stop. I loved it. What was it like the first time you step into the White House? Oh, well, my first time was in the Clinton administration. And I kept thinking about my grandmother who had emigrated to the United States with nothing. And I was like, oh my God, two generations later, and here I am.


in the White House. So it was just awe-inspiring. The other thing is nobody realized how small the White House is. Here in the White House, you're like, oh, this is not very big, actually. And then later when I worked for British lady Michelle Obama, her offices were in the East Wing and I was originally in the East Wing, but then I needed a bigger office for the staff. So I was what's called the old executive office building. Every day I would walk between the East Wing and the old executive office building, which is the old Navy building.




to the East wings. It was essentially awe-inspiring and also a huge sense of responsibility. I would get three to 400 emails a day. And so just realizing that I'm a servant of the people. So I need to respond and whatever I do, I need to do it with the lens of this is for all Americans and not just for a few. Right. Right. Absolutely. I always thought that Michelle Obama's health initiative was great. What a wonderful thing for her to do with her time in office.


How did you become involved with that? Again, another change, after we adopted our second son, I was doing executive coaching from home, but I can't help myself where my older son was going to school in Northwest DC. There was an opportunity for a federal grant called Safe Routes to Schools. They do everything from.


more sidewalks, bus stops, that kind of stuff. I heard about it and so I worked with the principal and one of the teachers there and we responded to this grant request. When we got the grant, the young woman that was helping with the grant administration, she said, oh, oh my God, that was such a great grant reposal response for a mom. And I was like, uh-huh, okay. I'm more than just a mom. So we're working together, we got about three miles of sidewalks in upper Northwest DC and my kids were...


So excited to this day, if we go back to visit, they say, Oh, that's mommy's sidewalk and that it just made me feel so good. But then my husband said, you know, if you have time to do all this, why don't you get like a real job, a regular job? And the first thing I just announced, let's move. That wasn't really on my radar. I was much more interested in the built environment. So just sidewalks and bike paths and walking school buses. But as a good coach, if you've ever worked with a coach, I wrote a vision statement for myself.


that I was going to meet her and I was going to work with Children's Health. Literally two weeks later, a colleague of mine that I had known from campaign work before said, Hey, the first lady just announced their initiative, but they have nobody to run it and they need to build the program. Are you interested? If you are, send me your resume. And I was laughing. I was like, I don't even have a resume I had put together because I'm just dealing with two little kids. So I quickly put one together and went through lots of interviews and got offered a job first by the.


chief of staff, but the final piece was that I had to meet with the first lady, but I had to meet like five different staff people before I got offered the job. But I got offered the job of my background, knowing how to build things, knowing about politics and knowing a little bit about public health. Yeah. So it's fun. I did it for a year. Those jobs are really hard to do, especially if you're a mom with young kids. At the end, I just decided that it didn't have to be me. I felt really good about the foundation and the structure I created.


My older son was not doing well in school that I was working all the time. So I decided to leave after a year. Often people say, oh, why did you leave this incredible job? But if you get three to 400 emails every day and you're working 12 hours a day, you just, you can't sustain that. It's so very hard, especially if you want to see your kids. Right. Not with little ones in their formative years. Yeah. I totally understand. Well, and working one year with that many emails probably feels like the equivalent of, you know, three years. Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely. Wow.


Do you have any idea if the former first lady has read your book? I do not know. I sent it to her. She has sent me both her books and also just sent me her new healthy drink. But her chief of staff said that it was on her desk, but whether she's read it or not, I don't know. Healthy drink. I don't think I've heard of this. We'll give it a plug here. She has a partnership with a new kind of light on sugar snacks. I can't remember the name of it now, but I think she sent to all the staff samples and I gave it to my kids to try. Cool. Or big, big.


Obama fans in this house. It's very, very cool to hear about your experience there. Yeah. Thanks. Yeah. And I even have a strange connection to President Clinton. When he was governor of Arkansas, I lived in Arkansas and I got an award in high school and was invited to the governor's mansion. So I actually, we laugh because I obviously look so much, well, I guess we all look so much younger, but it's Bill and Hillary and I are in the same, you know.


So it's just kind of fun. Well, I wouldn't be surprised once Kendall thinks about retiring. I think he might get into the local politics. Ah. It's always been a bit of a passion for him. I highly recommend it. I live now in the small ski town in Northwest Colorado, and I've been involved in my county and city council, not as an elected official, but just kind of a community activist. It's very rewarding when you see change and when you see how your voice matters. So I highly recommend it. Yeah.


When we were living in St. Louis, I ran for city council against a woman who was an incumbent for years and years and I thought she was an idiot. I guess I can say that nicely. Nobody will figure out who she is, but every time I would experience her, I was like, this cannot be the best person to be sitting there and I lost and then we moved from St. Louis to California. So there wasn't a chance for me to run again, but I would have eventually, I would have eventually gotten that seat.


I'm confident you will. At what stage are you in the second book? Oh, just ideas, putting it down. I don't know how many authors you've talked to or attempted to write something, but it's a long process. The part that's hardest is really the marketing. After you write the book, I have two ideas that I'm noodling with. One is I want to write a book about my grandmother. The feedback that I've gotten about my grandmother has been incredible.


I don't know everything about her story, so it may end up being more of a novel or like historical fiction for lack of a better word. But there's not that many books about the German American experience, probably because of World War I and World War II, but it's a huge population in the United States. I'm noodling with the idea of how to write her story without knowing everything. And then you asked first about adopting, I'd like to write a book a little bit more from a mother's perspective.


There are a lot of adoption books out there, but they're usually from the adoptees perspective. So I'm thinking about that. I have a notebook that I carry and I just jot ideas or little paragraphs. That's kind of how I figured out my first book and then start piecing it together. So right now I just have to try to see how well I do on my first book and then have some time to write the second book and then make sure my second son.


graduates from high school, he's going into a senior year. So that's a very stressful year with college applications. So I don't have as much time, or if I have any time, I'm stressed making sure that he's gonna be on the right path. Right. Absolutely, yeah. Two nephews and a niece just graduated within the last month. And so yeah, we've seen the parents pulling their hair. Yeah, exactly. It's a stressful year. And the kids at that age are not always nice. I think they're going through all these hormonal changes though sometimes.


It gets a little challenging as a parent, but yeah. For sure. Yeah. We lucked out in that sense in that we spent four or five hours yesterday with three of them and just great, great kids, young adults, inquisitive. They were asking all about the podcast yesterday and coming up with marketing ideas that was just very cool while I'm standing in the ocean. Well, that's fantastic. Yeah. That's very, very cool. Yeah. A lot of fun. We were talking about your book most of the morning because you've had a fascinating life.


So I'm really looking forward to checking it out. And I hope that we've whetted the appetites of listeners today, which is teasing a little bit of your story in this short time. Well, that'd be great. It's kind of an interesting story. And now that it's out there, there's all these connections that happens on my LinkedIn. I posted a picture of my mother in her Pan Am uniform. And then I heard from two colleagues that I hadn't talked to.


in forever, he said, Oh my God, my mother was a Pan Am stewardess. That has been the most interesting thing. You feel very vulnerable sharing your story, especially when you're writing a memoir and my memoir has some things in it that are kind of, you know, it's not just about the search for my father, but also what happens to young girls when you don't have a protector. So some of the stuff that I wrote about was really hard and I live in a small town, so when I did my book event here, the person that was asking me questions, interviewing me at the bookstores said, how do you feel about


in this small town that people know your secrets. And my answer was that my hope is that because I was very honest and authentic about everything that happened in my life, not just the search for my father, but sexual trauma and assaults, that it would encourage other women to come forward or at least feel more comfortable writing about it or talking about it. And what's amazing to me, it can be a challenging process to write about it and tell people about your secrets or what's happened, like you finding your biological father.


but I think we become more connected with other people. I get calls from people that I know a little bit from town and just say, oh my God, I loved your book. Let me tell you my story. And to me, I just think that is the greatest thing about being human, of just trying to figure out connection. And sometimes connection can have a hint of sadness in that, but that's what makes us human. And if we realize that life is not a straight line and that we all have struggles, but that's okay. We move on.


create family and create relationships that matter. I hope for me, when people read my book, that they'll do that. But you all do that in your podcast of just taking the veil of the shame that people have about their biological families. And life is messy, so what? Let's just move forward and try to have these great relationships because that makes life worth living. Yeah, you just hit the best point. I got goosebumps again while you were talking.


It is so important for people like you to be able to share their truth. And as you see, you're seeing the rewards. People are coming forward and you're helping people heal. And that's, it's so important. Yeah. Maybe that person in your town, that was the therapeutic moment that she needed. Right. You know, she didn't even know she needed. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Well, kudos, Robin, for the work that you've done in the past and what you're going to continue to do in the future. And you're a little bit further in your second book.


about your grandmother, we would love to have you back on. Yeah, for sure. Okay. I'm really curious about that story myself. That's just gonna be interesting. Even if you have to fictionalize parts of it, it still sounds so fascinating. Yeah, just thinking about a lot of women of her generation, she was born in the early teens, 19 something, 16, 15, I can't remember exactly the date of her birth, but she did what she could do, because there weren't many options. I always tell people that.


If she had been born in like the 1970s, I have no doubt that she would be a CEO. Cause she had all the characteristics and the knowledge to do that. But women didn't always have the opportunities. For sure. Sounds like she had a pretty interesting life. Yes, she did. Regardless. Yes. Well, this has been fantastic, Robin. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you so much for listening to Family Twist. We feature original music by Cosmic Afterthoughts.


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