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Monday, April 9, 2012

Adoption, Anger and Denial

I feel a great deal of gratitude for my life and my upbringing in a stable, loving home.  Yet I feel deeply uneasy about the practice of adoption.  Feeling grateful on the one hand and critical about adoption practice on the other are not mutually exclusive feelings.  Unfortunately, on-line discussions in response to adoption stories in the media (Abducted Versus Adopted: For 1.5 Million of U.S. Adoptees, What's the Difference?Adopted or Abducted?) often degenerate into emotional battles between those who would defend adoption as it is and those who have been deeply scarred by the institution.  Adoption is a subject fraught with emotion -- the way it has been and continues to be practiced guarantees that fact.

I think everyone familiar with the subject can agree that many original mothers have been treated horribly by the adoption industry.  Most can likewise agree that many adoptees have suffered greatly from being cut off completely from their own personal histories.  The only humane and just solution, in my mind, is to unseal records and allow adoptees as adults to secure their own birth certificates.  The records should never have been sealed in the first place, and we know now they were never sealed to protect the original parents -- they were sealed to protect the adoptive families from "unwarranted intrusion" and to sometimes spare the adopted child the "shame" of illegitimacy.

My unease about adoption stems from several sources.  Growing up, I learned early that in inquiring about my original mother, I was entering into dangerous territory.  So I learned to sublimate my own feelings, which in turn led to bouts of depression when I was a young adult.  At that point, I was so steeped in denial -- a denial that was really forced upon me by the closed adoption system -- that I didn't really know what my own feelings were.  Later, I became really angry about adoption practice, when as an older adult, I was unable to access medical records.  Dealing with my agency was what turned me into an adoptee activist.

One of the first questions the social worker asked me as I started my inquiry into my genetic roots was,   "Why do you want to know?"  Immediately, my antenna went up.  Apparently, I needed to pass some kind of psychological fitness test in order to continue this quest.  Once again, I did not feel entitled to my own feelings.  Why in the world wouldn't I want to know?  This was my original mother we were talking about.  During my entire interaction with the agency, one fact became abundantly clear.  I had no legal rights at all.

Eventually, I found my original mother through a private investigator.  She had lived her entire life steeped in denial, just as I had.  The agency had described her to me as an "angry woman."  Is it any wonder?  We did not have a Norman Rockwell reunion.  We had a brief phone conversation.  She was able to say, "I love you," but it seems she needs to continue coping with her past through denial, the only emotion that was available to her during the time period I was relinquished.

I now at least know the truth, and I do know something of my medical history, so I am more fortunate than many older adoptees.  Do we really need all these legal obstructions in place to prevent adults from interacting with other adults, who like any other human being always have the right to say, "No."  State-sponsored secrecy not only forces the participants in the adoption process to live a lifetime of denial; it allows adoption fraud and dishonesty to take place in a market that receives little oversight and is desperate for healthy newborn babies.

One of the most objectionable parts of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's "conditional" veto of the Adoptee Rights Bill last summer was his provision giving original mothers going forward the opportunity to remain hidden forever.  In the first place, how realistic is such a stance in today's open and virally connected society?  A private investigator found my original mother within a week.  In the second place, it is unjust to tell an innocent child she can never know who she really is -- from birth until death -- and it is really wrong to make a human being have to defend herself for wanting to know something so basic about herself.  And finally, a contract sealing lifetime secrecy assumes that original parents and their offspring must remain unknown to each other for all time -- it denies all parties, as adults, the opportunity to come to understand each other.

Some people are successful at coping with their lives through denial, and some are not.  I found I could not live my life rooted in a lie, and I became a much healthier human being when I recognized that fact.  Do I love my adoptive family?  Completely and without reservation.  My parents loved me fiercely and did their best during a time when openness in adoption was not encouraged.  Am I ambivalent about the practice of adoption?  Absolutely.  The laws that govern adoption are in need of a major overhaul, and we need many more adoptees, adoptive parents and original parents to join the state-by-state movements to unseal birth records.  It is the only way to begin addressing the many injustices -- on so many levels -- that the practice of adoption has perpetuated.

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