Still Untold . . .

Last week I turned fifty.  Fifty?  Eeeek.  No one has flat out asked me if I’m having a mid-life crisis.  I must be holding it together pretty well.  Or maybe it’s just so obvious that no one wants to ask.  Don’t look her in the eye–she’ll crack, for sure!

I’d call it a kind of mid-life identity crisis.  It’s been about 22 years since the second letter from Margaret.  Okay, I’ll just go ahead and say the word I keep avoiding: Rejection. It’s a word that is commonly used in the adoption community, but I refuse to label her treatment of me as “rejection.”  She didn’t reject me, she rejected the idea of me.  She didn’t even know me.  How could she reject me?

To be relinquished at birth for adoption is one thing. That’s Margaret rejecting the idea of being a mother.  She was young and unprepared (not to mention a little preoccupied with serving a prison sentence), and a baby just did not fit in her plans.  Adoption was her salvation (and mine).  But to be rejected later in life by the woman who gave birth to me –to be rejected as a grown, rational (for all intents and purposes) adult asking questions about the very core of my being, seeking answers that most people take for granted, is something completely, utterly, and abhorrently different. I read an article some time ago written by another adoptee who described the feeling of rejection simply, but completely:

Me: I exist.

Margaret: I wish you didn’t.

Exactly.

I can’t control how Margaret feels.  I can only control my reaction.  And I’ll admit it hurt . . . but I’m not the type to kick something around forever.  It happened once (well, maybe twice . . . or 3 times), but my life is full of other moments.  Great moments.  Pretty darn good moments.  Why wallow in it?

Zach is now 22 years old.  He’s out on his own, happily finding his way with his music.  I’m proud of him.  A lot of other stuff has happened in the span of those 22 years.  By stuff I mean life.  Divorce, remarriage, another son.

Garrett (son number 2) is now 13.  When he was little, everyone said he was the spitting image of his dad.  He still looks like his dad.  Light hair, blue eyes, fair skin . . . once again, I was gazing into the face of my child looking for similarities and any sign of familiarity. Nothing.

Identity crisis or not, I have a great family and things are pretty peachy.  Over the years, I didn’t think too much about Margaret or my biological origins.  I was too busy with the here and now–the good stuff.  My boys were growing; they were keeping me busy.  And you know what else happened over the course of these years?  Science and technology happened.  All kinds of science and technology.  On the technology side, computers are now everywhere, connecting everything and everyone. The world wide web is constantly evolving, with its growing data bases, easy access to public information, instant communication and sharing of personal data via social media.

On the science side, I have been especially fascinated with the advancements in and evolution of DNA testing.  My husband, Guy, is a prosecutor who works with people who do forensic DNA testing.  Forensic DNA testing has enabled old cold cases to be solved in an instant!  How cool is that?  Well, it’s cool, but I wasn’t as interested in that as I was interested in the way DNA testing was being used for health and genealogy research. Talk about an evolution.

DNA genetic testing may be able to predict risk for certain diseases and medical conditions. This would be helpful. In addition, DNA testing can reveal information about family background and familial traits, ethnic heritage, and ancestral history. And finally, the newer autosomal DNA testing has become a tool that can accurately identify relationships between family members by comparing DNA segments.  Put technology (easy access via the internet) and DNA testing together and you’ve got . . . big business.  The bigger the database to compare your genetic results (thank you, internet), the more useful results you’ll get!  Genius!

Why not?  It would be great to finally have some information that might shed some light on my health and predisposition to particular illnesses. I sure wasn’t going to get that information from relatives. My boys are entitled to this information, as well!

As technology has evolved, prices for the DNA genetic testing have come down.  What used to cost nearly $500 is now $99.  I went with 23andMe.  I spit in a test tube and sent it in.  And then things got weird.

Quiet, But Too Well Poised to Be Shy

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.

Dear Laureen,

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  lie life.

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.

Family Ties?

I look back on my childhood with fondness.  I was happy.  My brother and I spent loads of time outdoors during the warm summer months and after school running up and down the block with neighborhood friends.  Middle school (“junior high” back then) was without trauma and actually pretty uneventful.  I muddled through with my two besties.  High school was actually a blast.  I kept my grades up (graduated salutatorian), participated in ASB and student council (senior class president!), and found myself in the middle of normal teenage mischief (ditching class to grab breakfast with friends, vandalizing the rival school’s property before the big game, sneaking out my bedroom window in the middle of the night to hang out with friends . . . wait, that’s not normal?).

I hardly ever thought about being adopted.  It was a non-issue.  So what?  I never “felt” anything but normal.  I can look back now and can clearly see the dysfunction of my family, however.  But it had nothing to do with my brother and me being adopted.  We were no different than most other families.

College was a struggle.  I was the first person in my family to go to college.  My parents were unprepared monetarily to pay for an education or to take on any debt on my behalf.  So I lived at home and enrolled at the local state college, working 30 hours a week to put myself through school. My parents helped out with books and gas money on occasion–they were proud of me, but more than a little perplexed by my ambition.   So, my mother’s reaction to my idea of spending my senior year abroad was no surprise: “Why?”

The California State University system had (and still has) an International Program that affords students the opportunity to study abroad. I have to be honest.  I was thinking less about the academic opportunity and cultural experience, and more about the opportunity for me to finally get out of the house and have the “college experience” that my friends that had gone to a four-year college away from home were already having.  I was ready.

Even though I had 4 years of French under my belt (2 in high school and 2 in college), I decided to make it easier on myself by applying for a program in the United Kingdom. No language barrier would make the studying part that much easier. There were several universities in England that offered  programs in political studies (I was majoring in political science), so I filled out the application and crossed my fingers. There was a selection process–you had to have a high GPA and be able to write an essay about why you wanted to study abroad (I’m fairly certain I didn’t disclose my desire to party in a foreign country and meet guys with hot British accents)–and only a few slots to fill from the entire Cal State system, so I waited on pins and needles to hear the news.

Beautiful Yorkshire

Beautiful Yorkshire

Haworth, West Yorkshire

Haworth, West Yorkshire

I was over the moon when I got the news.  I was headed to the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire!  I had no idea where that was, but it didn’t matter, really.  I had never even gotten on a plane until I was 18 years old–now I was barely 20 years old and leaving the country to live in a foreign land (and go to school) for nearly an entire year!  Turns out that Yorkshire is one of the most beautiful places I would ever ever see.  I was unprepared for the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales and the history surrounding me.  Haworth, the home of the Bronte sisters, is  just north of Bradford–and it’s rich with history and beauty.

A Varley in Bradford

A Varley in Bradford

Imagine my mom’s surprise when I told her the news.  She actually wasn’t at all surprised that I had been chosen; she was surprised that I was headed to Bradford, England.  She couldn’t believe it.  You see, my adoptive mother’s mother’s side of the family is actually from Bradford.  I didn’t know that. Now I did.  That was all my mother could talk about.  She was so excited for me to go over and find some of  “our” family members.  She started pulling out old photos and documents . . . “You must find the Varleys!”

Bell Ringers in Bradford - I assume there's a Varley in there!

Bell Ringers in Bradford – I assume there’s a Varley in there!

I was really quite impressed with the photos, old documents and postcards she had from back in the day in Bradford.  Even a handwritten record of birth for Samuel Varley born in 1859! Impressive! Even though I didn’t know who Samuel Varley was (nor did I care).

Town Hall, Bradford

Town Hall, Bradford

Seriously, I did not care about the Varleys.  Hello . . . I am 20 years old and I’m heading to a new, foreign land to have the adventure of a lifetime!  And besides, the Varleys aren’t my relatives.  They were her relatives.  I think this was the first time in a long time that I had thought about being adopted.  Was it because I was adopted that I just didn’t care about these Varley people?  Or was it because I was a 20-year-old, self-absorbed young woman who couldn’t wait to flaunt her new found independence (and try some well-hopped pale ale in a real British pub)?

Anyway, once situated in Jolly Ol’ England, I got acquainted with the local pubs, met some fine proper Brits, drank tea with milk, ate some formidable curries, and did a little studying and traveling, of course.

I hiked here!

I hiked here!

It took me a while to work up the enthusiasm to do it, but I did at one point venture to the local post office in Bradford and look up the name Varley in the post and phone directory. Bloody hell!  I was overwhelmed to find pages and pages and pages of Varleys!  What in the world was I supposed to do with this information?  There were no computers to search and narrow down results.  I spoke to my mother over the phone and told her the news.  There were literally hundreds of Varleys in Bradford.  Now what?  That was the end of that.  Even when my parents came to Bradford to visit, the Varley situation didn’t come up.  I think she was just as overwhelmed as I was.

As I said, when my mother started pushing the Varley stuff on me in early 1985, it was the first time in a long time that I thought about being adopted.   And I kept thinking about it even when I was in Bradford.  I wrote to my parents at some point expressing my desire to find my birth parents.  They were supportive.  I even wrote to a private investigator that specialized in adoption cases while I was out of the country. They responded.

We would be thrilled to find your birth parents for you when you get back to the U.S.  We WILL find them.

It was going to be a priority when I returned home.  I will find my birth parents.  

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.