HOOVER, Ala. (WIAT) – Kaylena Mushen always knew she was different, but when she was 11, she finally found out how.
“I always kind of felt out of place, even though like, you know, I didn’t have any really conscious reason to believe that. But I did always feel like… not like the black sheep, but I just felt like I didn’t truly belong,” Mushen said.
Originally born in Oklahoma, Mushen and her military family moved to Germany when she was six years old.
“I felt that was my family. I had never questioned much,” she said.
While living in Germany, Mushen and her mother, Sharon Mills, would often go to the toy store, but on this particular day, she had some questions.
“I don’t know why this question popped in my mind, but I just looked at my mom and I said, ‘Why was I in your wedding pictures and [my younger sister] wasn’t?’”
Taken aback, Mills did the only thing she could think of: call her husband.
“Should we tell her?” Kaylena remembers her mother saying.
After a brief conversation, she finally gave Kaylena an answer.
“Kaylena. Bill isn’t your real dad,” she said.
“I know,” Kaylena replied.
After a rather quiet and awkward ride back home, Sharon pulled a photo from a box. Pictured was a blonde man with a striking resemblance to Kaylena, wearing a long-sleeved button-down shirt and jeans.
“I just felt a bunch of different feelings. A bunch of big feelings for an 11-year-old, that I didn’t really know how to comprehend,” Mushen said. “And obviously, it was a massive identity crisis. I kind of didn’t know where I belonged in the family. I felt really quite lost and, you know, I had this want to know who he was, but at the same time I was 11.”
Sharon + René
Originally from Lawton, Oklahoma, Sharon Mills followed a friend moving to Birmingham in her early 20s. She got a job working at an insurance company during the day and was a waitress at the Olive Garden in Hoover at night.
There, in 1992, she met a man named René, originally from Germany, who was visiting his family and living in the Mountain Brook area. He stayed long enough to obtain a work visa and worked as an Olive Garden server, too.
Mills said the two connected because they were both German and would often try the baked goods that her German grandmother would send her together. Despite having a bond, she never learned René’s last name.
Three months after the two shared a night together, Mills found out she was pregnant.
Moving back to Oklahoma for the duration of her pregnancy, she never communicated with René again and begged her friends in Alabama not to tell him about her pregnancy.
“I didn’t want him to be stuck here, worried about raising a kid. I barely knew him. I didn’t want him to feel obligated, and I also didn’t want him to deny the pregnancy,” Mills said. “I just kind of wanted to separate myself away from him and raise Kaylena on my own.”
Mills’ friends respected her wishes, but would still give her regular updates on him. One friend even provided her with a photo of René so that once her daughter got older, she would be able to know who her father was.
“I was just young, you know, we never wanted to deny that she had a biological father, but I definitely did not know how to tell him,” she said.
On June 28, 1993, Kaylena Mushen was born.
Mills’ last update on René came from one of her friends in 1994, who claimed they saw him working as a bartender at a local Outback Steakhouse and was wearing a wedding band.
“I was like ‘This is great!’ He’s gone on with his life. Perfect,’” Mills said.
Mills was a single mother for two years until she met her husband, Bill, with whom she has been married for 28 years. The two met in Oklahoma, where he was based at Fort Sill. He, too, had a child from a previous relationship and the two instantly connected. They ended up getting married in 1996 and blending their family.
“When Bill and I first got married [Kaylena] used to call Bill, ‘Daddy Bill,’ and it was her that moved away from the name Bill and just started referring to him as dad,” Mills said.
Mills said she and Bill never hid the fact that he wasn’t Kaylena’s father, they were just waiting for the right moment to tell her.
“We knew the time would come, that’s why I kept those pictures,” she said. “I knew Kaylena was eventually going to ask me. I was very honest, our family is very blended, you know, we have a ‘yours, a mine, and an ours.’ It was nothing that wasn’t in conversation, it was just when Kaylena was ready to hear it and when she would’ve been old enough to understand.”
Mills said she has been to Alabama a few times to look for René, but just didn’t have enough information. She even offered to hire a private investigator, but at the time, Mushen was not emotionally ready to deal with it.
Following the news, Mushen said she did the only thing she knew to do.
“I did what I do best. I just dug it under and I just kind of let it go because I don’t think I was mentally able to even digest it,” Mushen said.
In 2006, the family moved back to the United States. They lived in Fort Knox, Kentucky for about a year, then moved 20 minutes away to Bradenburg. Here, Mushen said “all hell broke loose.”
“I was switching schools constantly. So there was no consistency of friends, which was very isolating,” she said. “Obviously, the identity issue with not knowing my father and feeling like I’d been lied to, my resentment [toward my mom] grew and grew and it really came to its head when I was 15.”
At the time, Mushen’s parents had gotten civilian jobs in Louisville, Kentucky, which is about an hour commute from Bradenburg. This gave her a lot of unsupervised time that she wasn’t used to.
“I got suspended from school, I was fighting. Any way that I could get attention, you know, good or bad, I was doing it.” Mushen said. “I did a lot of things I’m not proud of.”
Despite the turbulence, Mushen graduated from high school on time and attended Western Kentucky University. However, the struggle continued.
“When I got to uni (university), like, that’s when my mental health issues really started to show. From just, like I think, everything building up, and finally registering the information that I had pushed off for so long,” she said.
“This was a major contributing factor as to why I didn’t search for René. Because I was mentally not ready. To even face that reality, go down that road and put myself through that, even put my family through that. Because I kind of felt like they wouldn’t be as supportive.”
Mushen said she was later diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. However, she is not ashamed of it, as her diagnosis and struggle prompted her to focus on taking care of her mental health and to pursue a degree in social and behavioral sciences.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I’m on an SSRI, or that my serotonin is store bought. There’s no problem with it,” she said. “It helps me survive day-to-day, you know, and I don’t know if it’s all a contributing factor from my childhood, but I know [my childhood] definitely played a role.”
Mushen describes herself as a mental health advocate and is active about her struggles on social media, hoping to help others.
“Everything is falling into place.”
After graduating from Western Kentucky University in 2017, Mushen decided to travel the world. While on a trip to Iceland, she met Ben, her husband of two years whom she said “took on this journey with her” and encouraged her to focus on her mental health and heal from past trauma.
“Now that I have that strong structure in my life, I’m in one of the most stable places when it comes to mental health that I’ve ever been in and I’ve finally decided, okay this is the time now that I want to look for my dad,” Mushen said. “So, I just feel like everything has fallen into place. But, obviously, I still have that missing aspect.”
Mushen, who now lives in the United Kingdom, said not knowing her biological father is something that makes her feel like she doesn’t fully know who she is. As she approaches her 30th birthday, she decided that is something she wants for herself.
Even though she doesn’t know if she will ever find René, or if he will want to have a relationship with her if he is found, she believes that she will be able to work through that. For her, just knowing that she tried to find him is enough.
“I’ve had years to digest this information, right? Years to accept it, digest it, understand it. I’m not going to expect René to just be ready and willing to talk to me immediately. I can’t expect that of him. You know, this is going to be massive to him. He might have kids, a family, a wife, like this would be life changing information. And he’s got every right to be angry, to be confused, to be hurt,” Mushen said. “And I’m not going to force him to meet me, to talk to me. I just want him to have the option. Like I’m not looking for him to provide anything to me at all. I just want him to know.”
The search is on
After first learning about her biological father, Mushen tried to search for him online but hit a wall because she did not know his last name.
“I Googled his name, I Facebooked his name, even MySpace. I typed in R-e-n-e everywhere, I looked everywhere,” she said. “I looked at Birmingham, Alabama, looked up Bavaria, looked up Germany. You know, when you put keywords together? I did it for hours on end just searching through the internet, like hoping to God to just find one slither of information. Nothing came up.”
Recently, she contacted the Olive Garden on Galleria Circle in hopes that they could go through their records and give her his last name.
“They told me that legally, they couldn’t give out that information,” she said. “They probably thought I was a crazy person.”
Mushen took a DNA test, but it didn’t turn up anything on her paternal side. Hitting a dead end, she decided to make a TikTok video explaining her situation, as well as asking for help.
“You hear about all these beautiful stories about how people come together to help someone find someone. And I said, ‘I’m just going to put it in the hands of social media,’” she said.
Mills helped her out as well, finding local Facebook groups for her to post her story to. Although she is supportive of the search, she worries about the outcome for her daughter.
“I hope that if she does meet him, he isn’t dismissive and I hope that he doesn’t blame Kaylena. That all falls on me and I am 100% willing to take that responsibility,” Mills said. “I hope this works out for her, she deserves it. But, are you really ever ready for your child to [potentially] get their heart broken?”
Despite their concerns, the two have received an overwhelming amount of online support through Facebook.
“I posted on something called ‘Lost and Found Family Members’ and that probably got like 400 or 500 shares,” Mushen said. “No one has found him as of yet, but I will say, when I posted in the Hoover group, everybody has been so nice, like, so welcoming. No one has passed any judgment. They’ve given me a lot of good ideas.”
Regardless of the outcome, Mushen and her mother say they want to be very sensitive to everyone involved.
“How would I feel as a wife and after 30 years it comes out that my husband has another child,” Mills said. “We don’t want anything from [René] or to disrupt his life. Kaylena knows who her dad is. We just want to give him the opportunity.”
Mushen hopes that when it’s all said and done, she will be able to give her future children honest answers when they ask about their family.
“I feel like it would just be so freeing. I want to start a family and I don’t want to have the same issues that my family did, where people don’t know things and people are held from you,” she said. “I don’t want that. I want to break that cycle. I want the freedom and honesty of knowing my biological father, and giving my child the chance to know that person.”
What we know about René
- He was from Bavaria, a state in the southeast area of Germany.
- In 1992, he was living with his cousin’s family in the Mountain Brook area and Sharon believes that the cousin’s mother was full-blooded German.
- He came to the United States to visit his family long enough to get a work visa.
- He worked at the Olive Garden on Galleria Circle in 1992 as a server.
- He was allegedly last spotted in 1994 at a newly opened Outback Steakhouse in the Birmingham area with a wedding band. Sharon believes that if he married a local woman he could still be in the area.
- Sharon believes that René would be in his 50s.