Sometimes people have the mistaken impression that adoptees who work for adoption reform must be angry all the time, or maladjusted, or both. Or maybe the adoptive parents did something wrong. In my own case, all three impressions are incorrect. While the sealed record system does offend me, and its proponents cause me great frustration, I don't believe any of the people who know me well would describe me as an angry person. Now that I am 62 years old and have a great deal of experience in many facets of life, I can say with confidence that I seem to be better adjusted than many! And my adoptive parents were dear, well-meaning people who worked hard to be the best parents they could.
I became involved in adoptee rights over 10 years ago, several years after my inability to secure my medical history compromised my medical treatment for stage 2 malignant melanoma. I would say that before I started to search for my birth family in earnest, I most definitely bowed to the cultural pressure "to leave all that alone." My parents adopted in an era when openness was not promoted, and it was clear to me from an early age that they really weren't comfortable with the topic. So I did "leave all that alone" and tried to put it out of my mind.
I was successful to a point, but for many years I suffered from low-grade depression, a condition I now believe emanated from my feelings of powerlessness; I just didn't feel free to do what I really wanted to do for myself -- tap into my own history and explore my roots. This feeling became quite strong for me when I had my first child -- but I didn't have the time or confidence during that period to initiate a search. I really didn't even know how to begin.
After my medical crisis, my daughter, who is a physician, urged me to try and secure my family health history. My adoptive mother supported my efforts, and I suppose I finally felt validated to do what I had wanted to do many years before. It was the searching process itself that taught me how powerless we adult adoptees really are and how much discrimination we face at every turn.
I tried the agency route, and I briefly tried the legal route. The attorney I consulted made it clear that I didn't have much of a case because "I had already had cancer." As my very close friend said to me at one point during my frustrating journey, "You have no rights." And she is correct -- I don't. The sealed system and the "authorities" -- agency social workers, supervisors and attorneys -- force adopted adults to behave like child-like beggars in order to receive the most basic facts about themselves. The system as it now stands is preposterous.
A private investigator helped me to locate my original mother within one week's time -- my adoptive parents had always had my birth name. And what did I find at the end of all that agency and legal stonewalling, at my own expense and after a great deal of time? I found an older woman who did not feel capable of meeting face-to-face, but who felt comfortable enough to share medical and some personal history in a phone conversation that she initiated after she received a sensitive, certified letter from me.
What was the point in keeping her identity secret from me for all those years? After our conversation, I felt a great weight lifted from me -- I knew the truth at last and finally felt that no one was trying to pull something over on me. Did our conversation harm my original mother? I don't think so. I found her inability to meet with me disappointing, but not surprising, considering the era in which she relinquished. She is a human being entitled to her own feelings, as am I, and like it or not, we share a connection. We are both adults, for heaven's sake. We can handle our own private affairs without state or agency intervention.
Those who continue to oppose adult adoptee access either misunderstand the issue or feel it is in their best interest financially to maintain the status quo. There is no data to support the perpetuation of a system that has caused great harm to many original mothers and adoptees. The current system is entirely unfair for adoptees, and it frustrates many more people than it protects. This we know for a fact from the statistics kept in states that have restored original birth certificate access to adult adoptees. In Oregon, for example, where birth certificates have been available to adoptees 18 and over since 2000, fewer than one percent of original mothers have filed no contact preference forms.
So yes -- the sealed system and its advocates do make me angry, and I'll continue to speak out until that system changes. But am I angry all the time? Of course not! I have spent many magnificent week-ends at the New Jersey shore this summer with my husband, our two daughters and their families, and other assorted friends and family members.
I have enjoyed seafood fests prepared by my son-in-law and his close friends: clams on the half shell, grilled salmon, Jersey corn and tomatoes. I have spent mornings on the beach with my daughters and their children, as we were treated to cooling off-shore breezes, delightful water temperatures, and smooth waves for body surfing and boogie boarding.
I'm not sure I can find the words to describe the joy and exhilaration that come along with catching the perfect wave and riding it into the beach. I feel that exhilaration when I catch a wave myself, and I feel it all over again when each of my grandchildren catches a wave for the very first time.
Life is good for me in many ways, and I am generally a happy person. When I had my cancer scare, the chances were 50-50 that the melanoma would return, in my lungs or in my brain. It didn't. I am fortunate to be here, and I never take my life or my blessings for granted.
But none of that negates the fact that I am deeply offended by a system in which adopted adults are still unable to secure their own legal documents of birth. State and agency officials continue to hold the key and guard the door to my own personal history. An adoption system that treats adult adoptees as if they were little children incapable of handling the personal details of their own lives does make me very angry. But not because I have some kind of personality disorder or I had deficient adoptive parents. I'm angry because the power brokers in adoption and some legislators refuse to listen to those of us who live adoption, and they refuse to change a system that ill serves the very children that system is supposed to serve.
Like all unjust systems, this one will eventually evolve, just as it has in more enlightened states and countries. More and more "angry" (I mean well-informed) adoptees are speaking out, and many original mothers and adoptive parents are joining the movement. We may not have the political power that opponents to the reform movement possess, but we do have the truth and the facts on our side.