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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Silent Adoptee

Sometimes I get really discouraged that more adoptees don't speak out about their second-class status as adults.  Then I have to remind myself that for the first 50 years of my life, I didn't speak out about adoption issues either.  Growing up, I don't think I knew another adopted person.  I was expected to blend in, and for the most part, I did.  I grew up in a close-knit community and loved my family, friends and neighbors.  During my high school years, I played tennis and basketball and continued my love affair with all things sports-related.  In college, I refined my critical thinking skills and fell in love.  I thought about my original family from time to time but worked hard to put those thoughts out of my mind -- the adoption culture during that era did not encourage adoptee inquiries, and I didn't want to be labeled as one of "those adoptees" -- fragile and emotionally deficient.

I married right after graduating from college, and my husband and I built a fulfilling life together.  I had my first profound adoption thoughts, I think, when my first daughter was born.  The birth of a new and unique human being is such a life-changing event.  After our Kate was born, I lay awake half the night, feeling euphoric about her arrival and deeply unsettled about my own personal history.  Where was my original mother?  And how could she ever forget an event like this?

Once again, I pushed those thoughts to the background as I devoted myself to being the best parent I could be.  Three years later, we had another daughter, and the following years were busy, as we built careers, attended school and sporting events, coached teams, helped our daughters to navigate the teen-age years, nursed ailing parents, and did all the things that a life as responsible parents and community members entails.

I really did not confront the reality of the adoption culture until I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in my late forties.  I couldn't have been more shocked had a bolt of lightning come down from the sky and struck our house.  My long-term outlook was unclear.  I had to have my right big toe amputated and have follow-up scans every three months for a few years to ensure the melanoma had not traveled to my lungs or my brain.  I was terrified.  I felt as if I had a sword hanging over my head every moment of the day.  During my hospital stay, I was asked to join a controlled study along with other melanoma patients, and I was ready to participate -- until the doctor learned I had no family medical history.  I was disqualified.

That was the moment in my life when I decided that I would no longer be the victim of an adoption system that makes no sense.  My daughter, who is a physician, urged me to try and obtain my medical history.  Being a naive and eager-to-please type of adoptee, I started my quest through the "proper" channel -- the agency that had placed me for adoption.  The search process became unsettling and offensive as I gradually came to realize that of all the people in the adoption circle, my rights came in dead last.

The social worker eventually informed me that my original mother wanted no contact.  I was absolutely devastated.  I was hurt to the core of my being.  I really did care for this person I wasn't supposed to think about.  Deeply.  "Did you get my medical history?" I asked.  "Well, she wasn't very forthcoming," replied the social worker.  Now I was hurt and very, very angry.  "I am here," I wanted to shout.  "I am a mature adult.  I have a right to ask for my own personal information, on my own terms."

And that is what I did.  I hired a private investigator, who located my original mother quite easily.  My daughter crafted an easy-to-fill-out medical questionnaire, and I forwarded it to my original mother along with a compassionate and carefully-written letter.  While the agency's search had taken nearly a year, my original mother responded to my questionnaire within the week, and the following week-end, she picked up the phone and called me.  We had what I believe was a mutually-beneficial conversation.  We came to an understanding.  We behaved like the adults we both are.

Since that episode, I have become passionate about adoptee rights.  And even though most adoptions today have some degree of openness, I have learned during my advocacy struggles that many adoption myths and unethical practices persist.  For example, one legislator said to me during a private meeting that sealed records must remain in place because "people need to keep secrets."  I wish I had had the confidence then to say, "What people are those?  And what about the rights of the adopted person who signed no contract and did not ask to be yoked to a life-time restraining order?"

Then there was the attorney I had consulted during my efforts to locate my original family.  As the legal expenses grew, he informed me that my chances of success weren't good.  "You've already had cancer," he explained, "so the 'good cause' angle probably won't work.  And wanting your medical history isn't a good enough reason to unseal your records.  Because, he added, then every adoptee would be able to secure her own records."

Aha!  Another illuminating moment.  In a sane world, every adoptee would be able to ask for her own records.  Perhaps the final straw for me came when I consulted a therapist to deal with my anxiety after the melanoma diagnosis.  When we talked about my adoptive status and how that made me feel,  I showed her the "non-identifying" information about my original family that I had received from the agency.  She took one look at it and said rather dismissively, "So, your birthmother was young and uneducated.  What else do you need to know?"  Once again, I felt deeply misunderstood.  Obviously, this adoption thing was something I was going to have to navigate on my own, using my own instincts and common sense.

Many professionals, legislators, members of the public, and unfortunately members of the press just don't get the adult adoptee perspective.  I'm hoping this blog might help to inform them.  I have to accept that all of us involved in the adoption world are at different steps on the journey, and some people are more comfortable than others speaking out.  But I'm hoping that as more and more voices are heard, we can all agree that there is something profoundly wrong with a legal network that makes people feel defensive about learning the very basic facts about their lives.  When and if you have the opportunity, please add your voice to the growing chorus demanding equal rights and equal access for adult adoptees.  They have waited long enough for a level playing field.


  1. I just read through your blog. I found it very informative and well-written. Each issue is written in such a concise and compelling way. I look forward to more posts.

  2. Thank you, Robin. I appreciate your kind words. I'm working on a post now about the parallels between the Vatican scolding the nuns and the Bishops in New Jersey opposing adoptee rights. Hoping to get it posted tonight or tomorrow. We're busy babysitting three of our grandchildren today!

  3. Hi Susan,
    Thanks for the link to your blogpost from Amanda's. I am now interested to read more of your posts now I have found you. :-)

    I am a mother who lost my firstborn to adoption at age 16. Like you and other adoptees, many of us mothers have also been pressured to stay silent. I always knew I wanted to find my daughter when she was an adult, but I didn't talk about her much over the years. I did find my daughter 5 years ago and we are making our way in this reunion journey. It is difficult for her because her adoptive family does not support our reunion.

    I am glad you are no longer keeping quiet. It is wonderful you are advocating for adoptee rights. I look forward to reading more of your blog.


  4. Hi Anon,
    Everyone in the adoption circle needs to be treated with more respect, for sure. I am so sorry your daughter's adoptive parents do not support your reunion. Hopefully, they will change as time goes on and they realize you are not a threat to their relationship. Many adoptive parents were not well prepared for the realities of adoption, I think. I was brought up in the closed era, and it was hard for my a-mother to think that there was another mother out there somewhere. But she always wanted me to be happy. Thanks for your comment.

  5. your story is almost identical to mine-i found my bio mom at age 59 and she too did not want contact from me-it was my bio siblings who talked her into it and we exchanged letters and then the meeting for the first time-she is 86 but sharp as a tack. she told me-no tears-i am a very emotional person but i never felt like crying onece-it was a very pleasant visit with lots of pics and stories about her past-her mom had abandoned her when she was 5-i was one of 4 kids she gave away-and kept 5 more. i understand your blog 100%-u r a great writer.

  6. Thanks Anon,
    It is always good to hear that my words are resonating with some. Your story is interesting to me because so far, out of respect for my b-mother's wishes, I have not contacted my half-sibling. On the one hand, I feel she has the right to know I exist; on the other, I suppose I don't feel like opening myself up for more rejection. Oh, for an end to the closed adoption system and all the dysfunction it perpetuates!


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