In 1991, a 35-year-old mail carrier named Kathleen was seven months along in her pregnancy when she learned she was expecting triplets.
“She was absolutely terrified,” Kathleen’s daughter Rikki Jump, 32, tells TODAY.com. (Kathleen is a private person and does not wish to have her last name identified.)
Kathleen, who is deaf, was working for the United States Postal Service, while her husband, Lee, had a job as a long-haul truck driver. At the time, Lee was 58, and had two grown children from a previous marriage.
Since Lee had undergone a vasectomy prior to meeting Kathleen, the couple used donor sperm. There is always a possibility of multiples with intrauterine insemination (IUI), because the procedure often involves the use of fertility medication.
"He reluctantly agreed that yes, I could have a baby," Kathleen tells TODAY.com.
Rikki says three babies would have pushed them into poverty.
“They were not prepared financially to raise triplets,” Rikki says of her parents. “And there was also the issue of my dad’s age — he was already getting up there in years.”
Together, Kathleen and Lee made the decision to place two of their daughters for adoption.
Rikki says Kathleen received a sign that Kendall and Julianne were meant to be raised together.
“In the ultrasound that confirmed we were triplets, Kendall and I were both breech, and Julianne was head down. All the doctors said, ‘There is no way that will change,’” Rikki recalls. “Well, somehow, Kendall turned to be head down with Julianne. So my mom was like, ‘OK. They’re supposed to be together.’”
Kathleen did not know then that Rikki and Julianne were identical twins.
After the babies were born in July 1991, Kathleen and Lee left the hospital with Rikki, while Kendall and Julianne went home to begin their life with adoptive parents Ken and Tina Scavo. The college sweethearts, who struggled with infertility for more than 6 years, had endured two failed adoptions.
Kathleen tells TODAY.com that she struggled to say goodbye to Kendall and Julianne, though she knew in her heart that they “belonged with Tina and Ken."
"I held each of them,” Kathleen says. “I remember thinking that it might have been a mistake to do this, but I’m very thankful that I did.
“The whole experience was so far out of the realm of anything I had ever or will ever experience in my entire life,” she adds.
Since it was initially an open adoption, Kathleen was able to visit with Kendall and Julianne. But after a year, the adoption became closed.
"Back then, the law was that birth mothers could come and reclaim their children. The news would show footage of birth mother's snatching their children back and I think Tina and Ken got nervous," Rikki says. "My mom was writing to them very frequently expressing guilt and shame and essentially saying if she could do it over again, she would have made a different choice."
"We were scared to death," Tina tells TODAY.com. "We'd waited 6 and a half years to become parents."
The families lived 40 minutes apart from each other in Colorado, but Kendall and Julianne didn't know about Rikki's existence until their parents gave them a special Christmas gift when they were 8 years old.
"They told Kendall and I that they had one present left for us, and it was the kind of present that cannot be wrapped in a box," Julianne told TODAY co-anchors Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie on July 27. "They showed us a picture of Rikki, and let us know we had another sister out there."
Rikki, however, knew all about her sisters from Kathleen, and would imagine what life would be like if they were all together.
“I adored my parents, but I was a pretty lonely kid growing on a farm. We were very isolated. My mom worked the graveyard shift and my dad was gone a lot on the road,” Rikki says.
When Rikki was 10, Lee died from cancer, and Kathleen announced they would be relocating to Missouri to be closer to family. It was around that time that Rikki reached out to Tina and Ken Scavo to see if she could finally meet her sisters before she moved out of state. To Rikki's surprise, they agreed.
“We met at a shopping mall in Colorado and it was totally anticlimactic,” Rikki says with a laugh. “They were pretty unfazed. I mean we were all super anxious before we got there, but then it was normal, sort of like meeting up with an old friend. They felt so familiar."
Kendall, now a graphic designer in Austin, Texas, remembers her first thought was, "Rikki looks exactly like Julianne!"
"I was probably a little bummed that I looked different from them," Kendall tells TODAY.com. "But mostly I thought it was so cool that we had this new sister that we would brag to our friends about at school."
"It was like looking in a mirror," Julianne tells TODAY.com. "We also had the same voices and mannerisms. We both sit with one foot up and crossed, and when we talk, we move our hands in the same way."
Rikki says the reunion brought Kathleen a “great sense of peace.”
“She saw how happy and loved they were with Ken and Tina, and she knew she had done the right thing,” Rikki says.
Tina later confided in Rikki that she also felt a sense of relief.
"Tina said the girls were jumping on their beds when they got home and talking about how excited they were to have met their sister, but they weren't experiencing a biological pull toward my mom," Rikki says.
"That was a fear of mine," Tina says. "I thought they were going to run up to Kathleen and scream, 'Mom!' But that didn't happen. They were just giddy to all be together."
After Rikki moved nearly 900 miles to Missouri, the girls stayed in touch by writing letters.
“They were incredibly well-off, and we lived paycheck to paycheck,” Rikki says. “So I would read their letters about, like, summering in Scottsdale (Arizona), and eating chocolate mousse at the country club. I didn’t hold any resentment, it was more like, reading ‘Harry Potter’ and escaping into their world.”
Every summer, Rikki would spend two weeks living with the Scavos. She describes their home as a lively place, where "friends were always stopping by with their kids."
“I experienced a lot of bullying all the way through high school, and those summers were my refuge,” she says. “Tina and Ken introduced me to foods I’d never tried before, and I went on my first boat ride. They opened my eyes to all these new things.”
Tina, who lost her husband Kenny to cancer in 2009, loves Rikki like a daughter. She's also formed a close friendship with Kathleen.
"I went out to visit her last year and she's come to stay with me," Tina says. "She's an amazing human — that sacrifice that she made. It's because of Kathleen that I'm a mom."
Today, Rikki, Kendall and Julianne all live in Austin, Texas, where they co-host a podcast called “Luke, Who is Your Father.” They go on group dates with their partners and have regular game nights.
There was a two-year period where Rikki and Julianne did not speak. Julianne says the rift dragged on because Rikki is still grasping the concept that a sister's love is "unconditional."
"With Kendall and I, it doesn't matter how badly one of us screws up— we're going to get over it, because that's what we've always done," Julianne, who works in sales, explains. "Rikki didn't grow up with a sister, and is just starting to understand that a sister bond is unbreakable. When we weren't speaking, I was like, 'Get over it, already!'"
Rikki confesses she sometimes feels like a third wheel, but acknowledges that it's to be expected, given that Kendall and Julianne grew up in the same home, with the same parents.
“It’s really sad that we had to be separated — but we would have been in absolute poverty if my parents had three children,” Rikki says. “I know we will never have the relationship that we would have had if we had been raised together. But that’s OK. We have each other now."