I understand the secrecy. I understand the shame. But when a woman keeps a secret such as giving birth and giving away a baby, the secret, continued lies and shame should not follow her or her child for life.
Let’s clear up this secrecy and betrayal stuff once and for all. A birthmother may be told that the birth records are “sealed,” but in reality, privacy cannot be promised or guaranteed, nor should it be expected. We’re talking about another human being’s identity and existence in this world! Putting emotions aside, in fact, privacy and anonymity is not promised to a birthmother. Research has shown that the true intent of sealing the original birth certificate (and concocting a new one) was never meant to protect birthparents. The two primary reasons for sealing original birth records back when the practice began (likely sometime before 1940) were 1) to keep birthparents from interfering with adoptive families, and 2) to protect adopted children from the stigma of “illegitimacy.” Birthparents were never guaranteed anonymity under state law or in any adoption/relinquishment documents they may have signed. (Donaldson, Evan B., www.adoptioninstitute.org)
I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong, unlawful, illegal, prohibited, criminal or even irregular. So why did I feel so bad? Guilty, even. Many adoptees dive into the unknown with their desire to search for their biological family, even if they’ve had a positive experience with their adoptive families. It’s normal. It’s even expected. You can’t deny it–even for individuals raised with their biological families, questions about relatives (what’s up with that “crazy” uncle?), ancestors (maybe you’re related to Annie Oakley, or you share a common ancestor with Frank Sinatra) and family history abound. Genealogy is big business.
As for birthparents, existing studies indicate the overwhelming majority are not opposed to being “found” by their adult children. Some even seek out their children after years of longing and regret. But always lurking in the back of an adoptee’s mind is the question, “What if my birthmother doesn’t want to be found?” Research shows that the likelihood of a birth mother rejecting contact is extremely small (1%-5%) (www.adoptionbirthmothers.org), but of course, there is still that possibility. Hell, I’m living proof! But, why? How can facing the truth be that terrible? I started out by just rationalizing that she may just be the sort of person I wouldn’t want to have contact with, anyway. Besides, I knew plenty of people who grew up with their biological parents and who were trying to create serious distance from them for whatever reasons. I just chalked it up to not understanding “people.”
So let’s move on. My birthmother is one of the 1%-5% who didn’t want to be found. Or maybe she just needed time to get acquainted with the idea of my presence in her world (a girl could still dream, can’t she?). So the lie continued. I moved on. I graduated from college, got a great job, started paying off student loans, met a decent guy, fell in love, and got married. We had a child. I was pretty proud of myself, too. I did it all in the right order. Like it mattered.
A bouncing baby boy! I was 27 when Zachary was born. He looked just like his father. Aside from the dark brown eyes and dark brown hair, both of which his father also had, we had no similar features. Everyone commented on how he looked so much like his father, but not me. The question often asked was, “Does he look like anyone on your side of the family?”
At this point in my life my adoption “story” became more like a punch line. If adoption ever came up in conversation for any reason, I would laugh it off and almost always make a joke of it. I could always “one-up” anyone’s tragic family story, whether it be about adoption or something else. What? Your dad left your mom and your 12 brothers and sisters when you were just 5 years old? Well, I was born in prison! A prison baby! Right? Imagine that! One month premature–born to a drug addicted, beatnik convict mother! Given up for adoption . . . [snort, snort] . . . and then, guess what? I found her just a few years ago–rejected again!“ Laughter all around. Hilarious.
Rejected again. So why would I go back for more? I could not accept that she didn’t want to know me. I could not accept that she could not (or would not) acknowledge my existence and my value. I read and re-read her letter–it was all about Margaret–clearly, she felt like she needed to defend herself (and her decision to relinquish) and do her best to let me know it was “the right thing to do.” Not only was it the right thing to do, but her life was fantastic because of it! Super fantastic and full of travel and exotic stuff and a dream job and no time to remember my name. So super wonderful that she doesn’t even think about me.
It was Zachary that made me think about it again. Did he look like my family? Surely, she would want to know about a grandson. Her only child (me) has now given her a grandchild. Yuck. Just typing that felt weird. I didn’t “give” her anything. Zachary was mine. Not hers. But there was something that made me want to give her one more chance. And seriously, I still believed (and still believe to this day!) that I am entitled to know about my origins, my history, my ancestry, medical information, etc. I’ll assume that if you’re still reading this, you understand the concept of the search from the eyes and mind of an adoptee. I had to do it.
I wrote another letter. I was more careful with my words. I already knew she’d be
a bitch about it resistant to any kind of contact or any kind of exchange of information. I sent a picture of me holding Zach. I think he was about 6 months old. This was 1991. My hair was big. I think I may have suggested to her that she was insecure–not able to deal with her past in a manner that would allow her to recognize other people’s feelings. Her lie could not make me disappear. I told her about Zach–I told her I wondered where he got his nose and other features.
I know Margaret didn’t want a relationship. I didn’t need (or want) one. I agree that every human being has the right to decline a relationship with another individual. A birthmother most certainly has the right to say “no thank-you” to her birthdaughter’s request for a meeting or an ongoing relationship. Likewise, an adoptee has the right to decline a request from a birth parent. It’s no different for biological families–relatives are “cut off” all the time (well, it’s different because most biological families already have a solid identity “base” and knowledge of family history–family history is usually what causes the riff in the first place). In any event, relationships between family members (biological or not) cannot be legislated. So just answer the questions. Meaningful communication is all I ask for. The more honest and open you can be (I’ll be patient), the sooner I will feel comfortable leaving you alone.
Whoa. I received another letter from Margaret. It was the last contact I have had with her. Her tone was somewhat
softer less agitated but her message was the same. Her opening tore the scab right off.
Each contact from you (or contact from others on your behalf) has so far been such a negative experience that I was made to feel that no good could come from further contact.
What? She was made to feel that further contact would be bad? I don’t get it. It was my fault? Wow! About her “lie,” as I called it:
I find no conflict between the fact that I value my privacy and the fact that I very much like who I am. One thing that I especially like about me is the fact that I had the common sense at a very early age to make the difficult decision to put a child up for adoption. And I hope that you can accept that valuing privacy is not synonymous with being insecure!
Well, I especially like that about you, too. Sheesh–I can’t imagine Margaret as a nurturing mother. And I find it a little weird that she refers to her “common sense” and the fact that she made a “difficult decision” to “put a child up for adoption” (hello–I’m right here!). Did she have a choice? Unwed mothers who were not even in prison have spoken out about how they felt that they didn’t have a choice about keeping a child. They were coerced or made to believe that there were no other options. And she was in federal prison in 1963 (there were no prison nurseries back then) and she believes she actually made a thoughtful choice?
Margaret went on to lecture me again on what I “needed to accept” (accidents happen sometimes) and what I “needed to understand” (what it was like to be pregnant and unmarried in the 1960’s). How her decision in the middle of this “bad situation” was “exactly the correct action under the circumstances.”
Margaret–please hear me now: Of course you made the right decision to put your daughter up for adoption. No one is arguing that you did something wrong in that regard. Not only did it “salvage” your life (your words), but it obviously salvaged mine, too!
Margaret rehashed the whole private investigator incident (callous and without a “shred of human decency”), as well as the communication with the wonderful Mr. Witt (“a man who worked for the county who violated the court order”) (an untrue statement). Basically, she’s still trying to get me to believe that everyone is against her and out to harm her, or disrupt her wonderful
She did address my question about Zach’s features. She wrote about her nose:
My nose is my most distinctive feature, and I’m not fond of it! I’ve enclosed 2 pictures of me so you can see if in fact that is where your son got his nose. There [sic] not very good pictures, but you see, I always try to pose for pictures in a manner that does not show my nose very well, with the result that I had to search extensively to find any that shows it at all, and these were the best angles I could come up with.
Dark hair and dark eyes. Zach doesn’t have her nose. Neither do I. Finally, one last hurrah for how fabulous her life is:
Now I have to ask you a favor. If you really feel you ever have to contact me again, please write to me at work instead of at home. If you mark the envelope “Personal & Confidential,” no one will open it. I’ve enclosed a card so you will have the address. I’ve been there for 22 years, so you’re more likely to find me there in the future than in the same home address.
What in the hell does that mean? I wasn’t expecting warm and fuzzy. I wasn’t expecting hearts and flowers. But maybe a question or two (or, God forbid, a compliment) about Zach? How about asking me how I have been? How am I doing? How do I feel? What do I want to know?
I never wrote to her again. I have no need for her language of self-defense and verbal fortification. I will let her continue to hide and evade and avoid and disguise in her own world.