Well Adjusted? How Do You Really Feel?

I was over the moon with this new information. So many possibilities! I had this entire extended family of aunts and uncles and a maternal grandmother. And I felt that I was getting so close to finding my bio mom. Remember, I had already hired a private investigator who was off and running with my bio mom’s name. I couldn’t wait to get this treasure trove of new “non-identifying” information to the investigator. . . .

Whoa . . . maybe I should slow down here. I’m thinking that before I go any further with my story, I should at least acknowledge all of the different attitudes, emotions and opinions surrounding adoption. This story is filled with emotional roller-coaster inducing twists and turns. Frankly, at times, even I don’t know how to feel. I’ll give it a try. So here’s my basic primer on adoption.

First, there are laws (and they differ from state to state!). Legally, adoption is a statutory process that terminates a parent’s legal rights and duties towards her biological child and substituting similar rights and responsibilities with the child’s adoptive parents. Most states have laws that mandate that the original birth records be made confidential (“sealed”). Confidentiality and sealed records were promoted by authorities as a way to decrease the stigma associated with illegitimacy and to make child welfare the governing rule in placement decisions.

During the 1950’s and continuing through the early 1970’s, there were (and still are to a certain degree) social pressures and growing trends, such as the stigmas on unwed mothers and “illegitimate” children and maternity homes as “warehouses” for unwed mothers, where social workers may have practiced manipulating coercion tactics aimed at convincing young mothers to give up their newborn babies (there was even a name given to this period of adoption prior to Roe v. Wade: The Baby Scoop Era). Finally, there were medical advances (such as “the pill”) and the landmark legal decision of Roe v. Wade, which sparked a national debate on abortion rights that continues today. All of these things can affect in an individual’s attitude about adoption. And there is much more.

I know that when I began my search some 25 plus years ago, I thought I had educated myself pretty thoroughly about the sociology, legalities, and psychology of adoption and I knew exactly what I was feeling. Moreover, I [thought I] knew my rights as an individual. There was a growing movement in many states towards opening adoption records (making available to adult adoptees the original unamended birth certificate). It just made sense–of course a human being is entitled to know his or her birth origins, ethnicity, heritage, biological roots or whatever you want to call it. It is one’s basic identity. And it would be great to have some basic medical history–it gets old writing “NOT APPLICABLE–ADOPTED” on pages and pages of medical history forms year after year.

Another big draw for a lot of adoptees, as simple as it sounds, is the desire to find someone “who looks like me.” Seems kind of trivial, really, given everything my adoptive family gave me. But every single adopted person I have ever spoken to talks about the longing to find out where they got their blue eyes, or their thick hair, or their long legs, or their need to flail their hands wildly when they talk (yes, I wonder where I got it). It’s called biological or genetic mirroring. I didn’t know it had a name until just a few years ago, but it makes complete sense. People who are not adopted may find it difficult to understand, but genetic mirroring is easily understood by an adopted child. In a natural biological family, a child experiences mirroring every day from members of his or her genetic family. It’s almost subliminal how it works. Similarities silently confirm belonging. Everything from physical resemblances to how a parent raises an eyebrow, walks, her tone of voice, his metabolism, his athletic ability, musical talent, artistic ability, physical strength, etc. These genetic markers are fundamental to who we are, providing building blocks for one’s personality to bloom naturally. This all takes place at a subconscious level and is pretty much taken for granted by biological families.

I’m jumping forward a little here, but after the birth of my first child, the genetic mirroring thing became apparent. It was so obvious that my son looked like his father’s side of the family–everyone could see it. And they mentioned it, too. “He looks just like his dad!” It was obvious to me, as well–but what hurt was that he didn’t look a thing like me. Everyone mentioned that, too. I remember staring into his little face for hours trying to compare our noses, the shape of our eyes, chin . . . I got nothin’. As he got older (he’s now 22), his features matured and I can definitely see similarities between us, as well as similar personality traits–just like a “regular” biological family.

Back to adoptees. Generally, adoptees are conditioned from the beginning (assuming they know they are adopted) to be grateful–they were chosen by their adoptive parents. There is usually a story ingrained in them about how their biological parent or parents either were not able or did not want to take care of them. They were saved by their adoptive parents from a life as an orphan. The story is usually meant to comfort the child. But really, it’s kind of scary. On the flip side, as a child gets older and understands a little more about being adopted, it becomes clear that even though they were chosen by one family, they were “unchosen,” or rejected by another. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but in the mind of a child, it’s pretty simple. One result is that the adoptee can be overly focused on the needs of others–adoptees tend to be “people pleasers,” always trying to please other people, especially their parents. After all, the reason we were placed with adoptive parents in the first place was to fulfill their desire to have a child; to make them happy or “whole.” In addition, an adoptee may be fearful (consciously or unconsciously) of being rejected (again). Always walking on eggshells. Always trying to figure out how to fit in.

There are so many theories about what an adoptee should feel: abandonment, rejection, isolation, low self-esteem, grief and trust issues–and that’s just for starters. Some psychologists or adoption “experts” also believe that all adoptees experience a deep physiological and psychological trauma due to the unnatural severing of the tie between the biological mother and child. According to these “experts,” the trauma will stay with the adoptee for the duration of his or her life, together with a deep sense of loss and grief that they are not allowed to mourn. Whoa, that sounds serious. The fact is, being adopted and living a “normal” life as a “well-adjusted” adoptee is much more complicated than one would imagine. And each adoptee feels different.

The truth is, some adoptees will identify readily with some or all of these feelings; others will not. Some adoptees will feel the need to search for their biological family; some will not. There isn’t any one right or wrong way for an adopted individual to feel. Those that do choose to search will have their own reasons. I do believe, however, that any individual, adopted or not, is entitled to know his or her own identity, obtain and possess any legal or government documents that pertain to historical, genetic, and legal identification, including legal name(s) before adoption, place and date of birth; and the identities of biological parents.

Okay. So now you’ve been inside the head of an adult adoptee. Sort of. But to understand the whole picture, you also have to understand the mind of a mother who relinquishes her child to adoption. Well, good luck with that. Just like adoptees, birthmothers come in all shapes and sizes. There are birthmothers out there who believe they made the right decision in giving up their child. There are birthmothers out there who regret their decision. There are birthmothers who claim that they were coerced or shamed into relinquishing their child. Some will even claim that their babies were forcibly taken from them. Some search for their “lost” children and yearn for a reunion. Some do not.

Now you know. Or you don’t. The truth is, you know about as much as I did when I started my search. I promise I’ll be honest about and explain as much as possible my own feelings as I move ahead with my story. Be warned, though, on occasion my own feelings were unexpected. Sometimes I would feel different from one hour to the next. Or one year to the next. As I said before, it’s a journey. I’m still trying to find my way.

My [Non-Identifying] Story

I think Bill Witt went way above and beyond the call of duty in providing the following information to me.  I am grateful that somehow I found him when I did.  I am curious to know about other adoptees (in California or across the country) who have been provided their “non-identifying” information.  Did you receive a story?  Did you receive vivid detail about skin tone, personality, quirks, family members?  Or did you receive some sort of factual outline or listing of non-identifying data? Thank you, Bill Witt, for putting together my story.

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Good read, right? The information in my non-identifying story provided many more pieces to the puzzle that I was putting together. And there was someone else on the job, as well. In addition to contacting the County Social Services after I got home, I had also contacted the private investigator. She had also begun her search.

Baby Girl ____________________

This is the beginning of my story.  The part where I enter the world.  It’s a condensed version–a quick introduction. I hope to share more details as my blog grows.  If you haven’t already, check out my “About Me” page to get an idea about what makes me tick and why I’ve decided to share my story.

I have changed some of the names in order to protect certain individuals who fear their privacy will be invaded by the telling of my story.  But seriously, I doubt that any lives will be torn apart by my mere existence in this world.

Baby picI was born on December 15, 1963. At the time of my birth, Margaret, my birth mother, was 18 years old and serving a 10-year sentence in the California Institution for Women (CIW), a female-only state prison located in the city of Chino in San Bernardino County, California. She was incarcerated on a felony drug conviction.  I was also led to believe that my birth father was also arrested.  According to the “story,” the two strung-out lovebirds were arrested together and both were convicted. At the time of Margaret’s arrest, she claims she was not certain that she was pregnant. She had not told any of her family members about her pregnancy. She did not tell my birth father that she was pregnant. It was her dark secret.  She was determined to keep it a secret during this tumultuous, uncertain time in her life.

I was identified as “Baby Girl Michaels” on my adoptive parents’ legal papers. Michaels is Margaret’s last name. When I started this journey, I had no identifying information about my birth father. My guess is that he was probably never told of Margaret’s pregnancy, my birth and subsequent relinquishment to the county adoption services.

Margaret served about 4 years of her sentence and was released. The adoption records were sealed—it was the law in California. Margaret was promised “privacy” (I have a real problem with that word in this context) and secrecy in exchange for choosing adoption. She was certain she was walking away from this dark time in her life and, if she tried real hard, she could all but forget the whole experience (the drugs, the arrest, the conviction, prison, birth of a baby . . .).  She was, in her mind, “reborn” as an adult and started a new life.

By this time I was a toddler, now named Laureen, running around barefoot in my cozy home in San Bernardino, California. Henry and Lilouise (known as Hank and Little by their friends and family) were doting parents. All was well in my world. I even had a big brother. Little could not bear any children of her own and so she and Hank had adopted a boy two years before I entered their lives. Tommy had red hair and freckles. I was a brunette with brown eyes, like Hank and Little. I was often told I looked like Little. I always thought that was funny, but it made me feel warm and fuzzy anyway.

By all accounts, I had a normal childhood.  Little was a stay-at-home mom and she tried her best to do what she was supposed to do–raise her kids.  Hank worked at the phone company.  My brother was in the Boy Scouts.  I tried to hang out with the Girl Scouts for a while, but I really didn’t fit in.  We went on family vacations, sometimes camping–The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Giant Sequoias up north. My brother and I fought all the time.  I had two best friends that I met in grade school.  We are still friends to this day.  Normal, normal, normal.  Right?Collage

When friends or acquaintances find out that I am adopted, their first question is usually some variation of, “When/How did you find out that you were adopted?”  I think they’re looking for some kind of drama  . . . but it wasn’t like that for my brother and me.  We just always knew. And we were fine with it. We were chosen. I remember my mother used to sing to my brother and me:

I see the moon, the moon sees me;

The moon sees the one I long to see.

God bless the moon and God bless me;

And God bless the one I long to see.

It seems to me that God above

Created you for me to love.

He picked you out from all the rest;

Because he knew I loved you the best.

[Lyrics adapted from Jim Brickman’s “I See the Moon.”]

For a child, this explained it all.  And it was all good.