As an older adopted person, I've come to terms with the fact that there are many things about my background I'll probably never know. While I've had a sweet, but brief conversation with my first mother by phone, I've never laid eyes on her, and she did not wish to meet face to face. I don't know the name of my original father, although social workers at the agency that placed me in 1950 do. My first mother said that she couldn't tell me anything about him "because he was a married man." As a woman in her eighties, this was still her thinking, I suppose, that she did something terribly wrong by becoming entangled in an improper relationship.
My understanding from my "non-identifying information" is that my first father was a family friend from Denmark -- both my original parents are Danish -- who was separated from his wife at the time of his relationship with my first mother. My original mother, I am told, hoped for a long-term commitment; my original father, quite a bit older at the time of my conception -- age 53 -- was apparently unwilling to commit.
There was some talk, I'm told by an agency social worker, of me going to live with my first father's son and wife before I was placed for adoption. I still have no idea where I was during the first three months of my life, or who cared for me during that time. I realize that I know a lot more than some adopted people do. I know my ancestry, I know my first father lived into his eighties, and that my first mother is still alive at the age of 89. I know I have a half-sister five years older than I am, and at some point, I'll probably contact her.
I believe that I have all the information about my first mother that I am going to get from her -- she made it clear that she did not wish to talk again. She was able to tell me in that brief phone conversation that "she loved me in her heart," but she has lived her entire life not acknowledging my existence to anyone else except for her own mother.
It irritates me no end that I can't learn more about my first father, as he sounds very interesting. He was raised in Denmark, trained as a pilot, and loved the outdoor life, just as I always have. He is long deceased, as is his son, so just what risk there would be in the agency releasing his name to me is hard to understand. And that is the injustice and the ludicrous nature of sealed record laws -- in this case, they afford more rights to the dead than they do to the living, and they bind the adopted person to a lifetime restraining order in which he or she had no voice.
Although the sealed record system encourages denial as a standard coping mechanism, I think both my first mother and my adoptive mother were just starting to understand the complexities and the hidden nature of adoption as they both approached their old age. My first mother picked up the phone and called me after we had exchanged letters and medical information, I believe, because she came to realize that in protecting her own secret and rejecting my offer to meet, she was hurting me at a core and primal level. She wasn't able to open up completely, but she was able to say "I love you," and I appreciate the fact that she was at least able to reach out a little. She relinquished, after all, in a very different era from the open society in which we now live.
And while my adoptive mother didn't like to think about the fact that I had an original family, she did say to me as she grew older, "If you ever want to know more, the files are right there in that drawer." She herself knew nothing about sealed records, and my adoption decree included my original birth name. My mother only knew that adoption had worked extremely well for her -- it had given her the family she so badly wanted -- but she felt deep inside, I think, that there was an underlying, hidden aspect. She just didn't want to go there.
One thing I do know for sure is that my adoptive parents truly did love me, and that love and support has helped to make me the person I am today. My genes have helped to make me that person as well, of course, and it is only natural from my perspective that I should want to know more about the people who passed them on to me. I am motivated to write about adoption issues because I believe strongly that sealed records are unjust, and that they are truly damaging to many, many people. They encourage unhealthy thinking, repression, and denial as the means for coping with life.
Sealed records were the reason in my case, I think, that it took me too long to grow up and assume total responsibility for my own life. In a way, sealed records imprisoned me, because I didn't feel free to express my innermost feelings about adoption. Although I seemed to be successful in my personal and professional life -- I did well in school, earned graduate degrees, married happily, had children, and worked as a teacher and public relations professional -- I did not feel empowered to take charge of my own story until I was well into my forties.
Every adopted person's journey is unique, of course, but I know that my story is not atypical. I just cannot understand why, as a culture, we would continue to shackle adopted people to an institution that is governed by such archaic and repressive laws, when the data tells us clearly that most first mothers are open to contact. Those who are not, like my original mother, can simply say no. This is an emotional subject for sure, but all of us affected are adults now-- we do not need outside agents supervising our own, very personal business.
The repressive laws set the tone for the either-or thinking we often see in on-line responses to adoption articles. The kind of thinking that assumes those adoptees who search are expressing disloyalty to their adoptive parents, or that the adoptee should just "be grateful" and move on. These attitudes are really very hurtful and dismissive of many adopted people's experiences, when the reality, obviously, is that an adoptee does have two sets of parents, and like every other human being, is a unique mix of her DNA and her upbringing.
Telling adoptees that they are not entitled by law to access their own original birth certificates is belittling and unfair, when every other American citizen can apply for and secure hers for a nominal fee. It is institutional discrimination, and it exists for no good reason, as we have plenty of evidence to show that adoptee rights bills work for the benefit of the greatest number of people.
I do not know whether these essays I post are making a difference or not, but I feel compelled to share my experience. If I don't, as an older adopted person, who will? It is probably too late for me to learn much more about my personal history, but it's not too late for many others. I write in the hopes that my voice, along with so many others, can play some small part in advancing the cause of adoptee rights, so that other human beings affected by the sealed record era will not be made to feel guilty just for attempting to discover the truth about their own lives.
You might also like:
Adoptee Rights, DNA, and the Opposition
An Open Letter to Adoptive Parents
Sealed Records are Wrong. Period
Why does America lag behind on adoptee rights?