A Personal Essay
It was my hope when I wrote the essay below back in 1997 (when I first made a web page), that those thinking of adopting a child might gain insight into how the process of adopting and raising an adoptee might be made better for their children. It was also my hope that birthparents and adopted adults searching would gain some hope and ideas from my personal experience.
As much as this site is about the rights of those personally involved in adoption and how they might gain peace of mind and/or closure from search, it might also be beneficial to look at a personal story.
People take the time and trouble to record family trees going back centuries. Archaeologists sift through tons of dirt to find out where we came from. We remark on the resemblence among family members. We thrill to see a bit of ourselves live on in our grandchildren. We boast about our ancestors. The belief that blood ties matter runs deep in us, and it is only right and natural that blood ties be acknowledged in adoption as well.
It's my contention that all adopted individuals are entitled to knowledge about their biological families that would place them on an even footing with non-adopted people. I am consciously avoiding the use of the words "child" and "children" because it is adopted adults who seek and need such information. The info to which I refer includes the circumstances that resulted in adoption, one's ethnic background, the people involved, one's health history, and potential weaknesses or talents that one may possess without knowing it. Biological children grow up knowing some unattractive realities about the people with whom they live most closely, but they deal with it. Adopted people should be afforded the same opportunity to wrestle with reality.
Adopted people comprise a higher than average percentage of individuals who are in jail or receiving help with mental difficulties. Having attended lectures on such matters, I can tell you most expert opinion holds that the adopted person often grows up with poor self-esteem as a result of several lines of thought. Many believe they were fundamentally flawed or undesirable as babies and were thus given away. Others fear that the blood that travels through their veins is from a criminal, a prostitute, or a drug addict, or even that they were the result of a rape. While such stories do exist, the truth for the majority is much more mundane, and the privacy that was intended as a shield becomes a shadow. The process of closed adoption, and the ignorance and doubt it fosters needs a cold, hard look.
Conventional thought holds that for the sake of the exceptions- those with traumatic backgrounds- the whole should suffer by sealing the records of birth. It is difficult to understand how anything one could find out about people one does not know could be any worse than what some biological families harbor and share daily. This "protective" way of thinking is presumptuous and paternalistic. For most people, the ugly truth would be an improvement over the whispered ghosts of suspicion in their heads. In most cases the truth won't be so ugly. In those minority stories that are not pretty, one still has to credit the individual searching with the competence and reason to handle such information.
My own search was both good and bad. My birth was the result of a two year long affair between a married man and a young woman. I found a mother (with three subsequent children), a father (also with three kids) and a set of grandparents with vastly differing viewpoints on my place in their lives. The good is that I got my questions answered, got to know some blood relatives as friends, learned my ethnic background, learned my health history (significant since I tussle with diabetes), and learned funny, warm and sad stories about the people whose blood is in me. I finally knew where I was born and when. The bad was that I found it difficult when my mother, due to pressure from her mother, found herself unable to continue our relationship. When she died, I was unable to attend her funeral services or those for her father, my grandfather, whom I had come to love greatly. By invitation, I had to sneak into two weddings and sit at the back so as not be seen by my grandmother who was uncomfortable with my presence. I am fortunate in that my birthfamily on my mother's side never felt they had to make any kind of "party line" about me and that they all reached their own - very kind- conclusions about my place in their lives. Because of my grandmother's lack of acceptance, in some ways I divided family communication because I had to be hidden and that obviously was never my intent. Yet, in a perverse way, that all of the family did choose to know me and make me a part of their lives while tap-dancing around our grandmother was flattering as well.
I was conceived during an extramarital affair, so on my father's side the reactions were mixed. He himself was totally honorable and accepting, as was his mother, my grandmother, but his three kids responded to my existence in varying ways. The one born before me, a sister, did want to meet, but unfortunately she died of lupus before this could happen. The next sibling, a son, was accepting and spoke with me a few times on the phone at my birthfather's instigation, and while he was quite decent and nice, he was also not particularly interested as far as I could determine. The youngest child, a daughter, wants nothing to do with me. My birthfather had hoped we would establish a relationship, but she was not open to the suggestion. She has indicated displeasure with the fact she was conceived after me, asking if she was "an afterthought" to a marriage which ended when she was quite young. I think it's probable that she is angered by coming after me because it says in some way that she came from an already "failed" relationship, making her somehow less legitimate. Additionally, she was raised in her mother's home and thus is likely to empathize more with her mother's loss than her father's. On another occasion, my birthfather tried to ask her to be open to meeting me, and he pointed out that in some ways I was a great deal like the dear sister she had lost. Unfortunately, she did not find this attractive, and apparently responded to the effect that she'd had a sister already and did not need another, thank you. I still hold out some hope that this situation may change, but am not actively doing anything about it.
If you need to reflect on the ramifications of adoption and searches, see the movie "Secrets and Lies". Few realities are as grim as the experience of this searching adoptee, but the movie prepares a searcher for the worst, and makes an outsider better able to empathize with the need to know of adoptees.
IF YOU HAVE ADOPTED CHILDREN OR PLAN TO ADOPT don't treat your children as though they did not exist before you got them. Both nature and nurture play a part in who they are. To acknowledge they were individuals at birth is important in accepting them totally. I was adopted at two and a half months of age and really wondered where I had been. Not knowing was as disconcerting as not being able to remember what you did while drunk. I needed a complete timeline and I got it, including where and when I was born- prior to this I knew only the day. I got to meet the foster mother who took care of me during a pre-adoptive study. It brightened her life when one of her (over 100!) babies came back. It helped too because now, in my mind's eye, I knew where I was gestated, born, fostered, and finally adopted. I cried when I saw a picture of me that was taken earlier than any I'd ever seen. I am there, in an unrecognizable chair, wearing a bonnet, and living that other life no one had been able to tell me about.
Try to adopt your child through a channel where counseling is available to you and the birthmother. Social service agencies are more likely to offer this than an attorney who may offer it only nominally. How unbiased is the social work of one who is an associate of a person who has a vested financial interest ? Oh yes, Your Honor, the birthparent has received and absorbed counseling, and is fully able to handle relinquishment of the child. Yes, Your Honor, Mr. and Mrs. Adoption will make wonderful parents. This ridiculous process undermines what the system of social-work adoptions was founded to do: make sure the child, the birthparents, and the adopting parents are fit and happy. To throw the couseling process in question is to set a stage for a potentially unhealthy infant, a birthparent who later feels a need to attempt to reclaim the child, and adopting parents who have received neither good preparation for the special needs and questions of an adopted child, or proven themselves to be fit guardians to the child. In the name of some legal work and money, the solidity of the system is shoved to the side. All those who have waited and qualified legitimately are told to wait for those who bypass the system. These folks place their wallets and their desire to possess a child above the interests of the child they seek.
This is not an ad for social work adoption agencies. They make their share of mistakes too, but as professionals, they offer experienced (and somewhat less money-motivated) counseling to help the birthmother with the undeniable difficulties of relinquishment and to help you with understanding your child. They have no monetary agenda. If you do a so-called private adoption, what message do you send your child? Will you tell your child you loved them so much that money was no object?
My parents had this opportunity and declined it and I was quite proud of them for doing so. They instead went through an agency that evaluated their fitness to be parents, evaluated my fitness for adoption, and supported my birthmother throughout her pregnancy. Knowing all this allowed me to respect my parents more and made me feel better that my birthmother had had some good care.
If your adopted family member becomes a young adult and finally says they need to find their biological family, realize it is not a comment upon your parenting abilities- in fact, the reverse is probably true- they have bonded with you to such an extent that they want your blessing and/or help. They are not looking to replace you or somehow dissatisfied with you, but all the love in the world does not answer the question of why the fundamental relationship between a mother and child was ended. As much as you would like to believe otherwise, no love is strong enough to keep the question from being asked. I encourage you to share your openness with your relatives as well. One relative told me that I should just be grateful and drop it.
I love my adopted parents more than anyone on the planet. They have been with me virtually all my life. They were there with my skinned knees, my tonsillectomy, my childhood triumphs and traumas. They changed my diapers and sent me to college. I know who my parents are. But due to the closed adoptions popular at the time I was born, they knew next to nothing about my past and even to a child, blind reassurances of "Your mother loved you very much but couldn't keep you" just didn't ring true. There is no believable detail here. If they knew she loved me why didn't they know who or where she was? I'm sure my parents wanted me not to feel unloved by her, but I did. If you have information, share it. Everyday in this country, divorcing parents wonder how to keep their children from self-condemnation for the marriage's breakup because it is understood that children are child-centric. It is not a huge leap of logic to realize that adopted children can believe they were at fault for the failure of a mother-child relationship.
If your child invites your help in their search, I hope you can find it in your heart to do so without feeling threatened. If he or she wants you to meet the birth mother, I hope you can do it. It is asking a lot, but my fantasy reunion was my adoptive parents, my birthmother and me being able to talk without secrecy or shame- having my parents accept that part of me did lie with this stranger, and having my birthmother acknowledge the good job done by my parents. Everybody out of the closet. While this was not to be, I cannot put into words how I felt when my birthmother died early in life and my adoptive father gave me his condolences. That he acknowledged this relationship and its loss meant very much indeed.
My search never created an "either-or" choice in my mind. The finding of my biological family could never outshine the years of love I had in my adopted family. If anything, I claimed my adopted family more as my own, and bonded more when I concretely understood how I might have lived, and saw not only how lucky I was, but how separate my life was from that of my biological family. While my adoptive parents initially may have had some (well-hidden) trepidation, I believe in the long run that finding my biological family strengthened our relationship, and I hope it does for you too.
IF YOU CHOOSE TO SEARCH I think you should expect the worst because anything better than your expectations will be a treat. My friend Mykal found that he had been taken from his parents for neglect and abuse. Aimee, a young woman I assisted with a search, found that her mother had been forced to give her up due to a serious health problem and was in a wheelchair at the time of their reunion. I used to have nightmares that my biological mother was a tramp or a homeless person or had died before I found her. Having had such negative thoughts and dreams, it was a treat to find she had been simply a young woman in trouble. Examine your motives for searching carefully. Your biological family or mother did an intensive moral inventory before deciding to give you up and you owe them or her the same. Mere curiosity is not valid, and is unfair if you are not prepared to follow the lead of the other person in developing a relationship. Determine if what you need to know might be provided by the agency through which you were adopted. If you just want to request updated health history or the like, that may be as far as you want to go.
My agency had little info they could give. I could not rest until I knew everything, including the cast of people and the whole truth, and like most searchers, I resolved I would not compromise anyone. Your birthmother or father could be married and never have told their spouse- be sure you don't barge in and reveal something they have not yet discussed with family. Another friend, Deb, found out she was the fruit of an affair between a married woman and a single man. The woman gave the child up because her husband would not accept the child as his own. You never know what you might be walking into, and should consider it likely that you are not a reminder of a good time in your birthmother's life. Happy circumstances don't lead to reinquishment, let's face it. Still, most people readily look past this because they have loved and wondered about their decision for too many years, and the opportunity to know all is well is blessed relief.
I did my search with no special help or encouragement because there was no help available and as an 18 year old I was scarcely in a position to hire a private eye. When I did my search it was not common to do so, no Sally and Oprah reunion shows. I got lucky because for a period in Pennsylvania, the Bureau of Vital Statistics opened their records and I happened to run into another adoptee who told me the records were now open. I got my request in before they closed them. With the birth certificate I got names, (and was thrilled and surprised to find out I had been named) and I cruised libraries and called directory assistance in lots of different cities. It took eight months to get the certificate and two years to find my birthmother's family. Having the tools we do now, I could have found her in one day.
I hope your state allows adopted adults the dignity of their own original birth certificates, but there is a war on to keep adoptees in the dark it seems. Go to Bastard Nation to find out about legislation in your state.
How do you attempt contact? I'm no expert and can only tell you what worked for me, so I encourage you to read manuals and the stories of other people. I found my birthmother's parents first to ascertain if she might want to see me. I didn't know if they were the right family so I did a call saying that I was doing genealogical research for a friend. The man who spoke with me went back in time to the present and told me he had three grandchildren and gave me their ages. I was not included in the count, but knew from his naming my mother that I indeed had the right clan. I asked if his daughter had had a little girl on my date of birth and he confirmed it, so I was never a secret. Thus, I revealed my identity to him and he cried his eyes out, having always regretted the loss of his first grandchild. I later learned that one day years before we met, he and my birthmother were walking quietly through the woods on their property, when she suddenly turned to him and said "You know today's her tenth birthday" to which he responded with an anguished "I know", smashing his fist into a tree and breaking some bones.
He could have just as easily slammed the phone in my ear. That probably happens to some people, though I have seen many reunions and not yet heard of this happening. Reunions can start one way and turn another as foundations are built or not. I really hope you have access to some support or counseling -perhaps from an adoption support group, a shrink, or the agency you came through. Perhaps your adoptive parents will be cool enough to help. In my case, the agency would cough up no info unless there was "three-way consent" between my adoptive parents, my birthmother and I, and we all were to be counseled. I was headstrong and didn't want my birthmother to have the chance to say no, so I declined their help. In retrospect I am not sorry I did this, but do wish I had reached out more for support. I might have been better prepared for when my mother just couldn't continue the relationship with me due to monetary pressure from her mother, my grandmother, who contributed to her daughter's household. As a single mother of three, if you are told something by the person who in large part holds your pursestrings, you are quite under the gun. On the other hand, had I used some kind of intermediary from the agency or court to make first contact, maybe she would have said no. I will never know if I did the right thing. I wish I'd been a little better prepared psychologically, but I did okay.
If you don't have a successful search, I'm sorry. By unsuccessful, I mean either it is unfinished, or bad, or your parents have already died. I think if my own search had remained unfinished due to the withholding of information I would have become inconsolably angry at my state government. I know in my case and in the cases of friends, we were lucky enough to establish firm relationships with other family members. When my mother died I did not lose contact with the clan. To this day I count among my best friends my biological half sister, who is a great deal like me, as well as her sister and brother, and I have a relationship with my birthfather too. If you get bad news- like you were taken away or that your parents were criminals or druggies, that is very sad, and I hope you come to terms with it. My view was that I had the best of both worlds, being able to accept any good I found in my biological family as part of me, and any bad as having been conditioned out by my adoptive family. Who your birthparents are does not wholly determine who you are. Kids raised with their biological families often come out much different from their parents. Obviously drug and alcohol problems have a disturbing way of sometimes being inherited, but biology is not destiny. In any case, regardless of what you find, you are still the same person with foibles and faults and strengths and talents. You might just be a little wiser.
When I found my biological father had become quite heavy, it was not a license for me to go out and get fat. It was, however, a good warning sign that I might have to have fight a weight battle, and indeed I have to keep my diabetes under control. In fact, now I am in a postion to help him and his family with medical issues relating to how we metabolize carbohydrates. There appears to be a previously unrecognized family history of hyperinsulinism which affects weight gain and the development of diabetes. As I write this, my birthfather's brother, my uncle, is developing diabetes, and my birthfather has all the symptoms, including neuropathy (numbness) in his feet (which I share) but he does not yet have diabetes. It is rewarding to be able to give back now, to tell them "This is our issue, and by limiting carbohydrates, it's likely you will lose weight and potentially avoid or control diabetes." How nice to be able to share instead of just ask and take!
IF YOU ARE ADOPTED AND NOT SEARCHING try not to be condescending to those of us who feel differently. More than one adoptee sniffed to me "I don't need to search. I had a good childhood." Hey, so did I. That's not the issue. I needed to feel whole, to not have my history possesed only by the state, to be treated as more than transferred property. I needed to look like someone else. I needed to know what other things might be inside me. I wanted to know if I was German or French. I wanted to thank the person who was wise and strong enough to give me up.
I dislike having my motives assumed by others, and hate to do it in return, but here goes: If you disagree with my searching, I ask "Is it possible you don't want to search because you are scared of rejection or think search will be fruitless or because you are afraid of what you will find?" If you are at peace with the information you have now, that's wonderful. Just don't undermine the decisions of others that are at variance with your own. And beyond this, ask yourself "If I had to give up my child, would I not want to know they were ok? Would it not be decent to allow someone somewhere this peace?" You will never know until you ask.
IF YOU ARE A BIRTHPARENT WHO IS PLANNING TO OR HAS GIVEN UP YOUR CHILD there are a lot of us who would like to say "thank you." Most of us have been told all our lives about your decision and bravery, and as we become adults ourselves we better appreciate the soul-searching you had to do. We know there are not many who casually toss away a child. Do what you can to let that child know you loved or love them. I was not convinced until I was shown a baby blanket my mother had knitted and sent with me. If you can write letters periodically, that probably helps- or even one explaining your circumstances and professing your love. It could mean a great deal in terms of self-esteem to that child later on.
If your now-adult child comes looking for you, try to be gracious about it. They may have some anger from years of denied information, but mostly they just want to understand why you are not in their lives or why they have the lives they do. When I learned that my mother had turned 18 a month before my birth, I could not have empathized more and was so very proud of her maturity in a difficult situation. Her parents had pressured her to let them raise me and she stood firm on the belief that I would have a better life elsewhere. Having seen the family circumstances I know for sure now that she did the right thing. The seeing was the believing. Let this former child of yours see so they can understand. Tell them the good things they might have inside. You made a very difficult decision on their behalf once, and to give them the courtesy of a meeting may give them the ultimate blessing of closure.
If you cannot abide a long-term relationship, say so. I found myself writing and calling more than my birthmother did and she would deny anything was wrong, but clearly something was wrong since she did not reach out as I did. I would have appreciated her honesty had she said, "Look, it was a horrible time in my life and now my mother is throwing it in my face again. I'm sorry. If you need additional relevant information, let me know, but it's nothing personal. It's not you."
Moving on is relative. You may have moved on, though many birthparents do not. This young person before you has not been able to move on completely. That's possibly why they are here now. You can help them do so. Your legal responsibility ended when you signed the papers, but your moral responsibility is not yet over. Try to help, to educate, and to share. They may be contemplating having their own children and want to be able to be clear with them, to tell their children everything about from whence they sprang. Your ability to provide this could be very helpful indeed.
If ultimately you can't find it in yourself to meet, find an intermediary who can get the questions from the child that you can answer. It might be the agency you worked with or another family member. At least you are giving that child his blood legacy and not letting him wonder if he is unacceptable to you.
FINALLY let's all bear in mind that adoption is to give a home to a child who needs it, not to satisfy the wishes of the childless. If the needs coincide, great, but the transaction should not be a bidding war. Most adoptees are appalled by the creepy legal battles and celebrity adoptions because they know that the children in these circumstances are handled like property.
It's about love. It's about being unselfish enough to put the needs of a child before your own. That's the essence of all parenting.
This essay orginally appeared December 1997 on Delphi before they began charging for their basic page service. From then until Fall 2001, it received over 9000 visits. It was moved here in December 2001.
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