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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

I was a people pleaser -- now I'm an adoptee rights activist

Recently, I participated in a long on-line conversation with other adopted adults about the challenges of following our own hearts and truths without offending the sensibilities of other family members.  Many adopted people are truly concerned about hurting the feelings of their adoptive parents, whom they love, and then, as they pursue their biological family connections, they become concerned all over again about possibly upsetting the lives of original family.

This scenario is very familiar to me, and I know I'm not alone.  I delayed a search for years because I just knew, even without words, that my adoptive mother would consider it threatening, and that it would compromise her view of herself as my only mother.  Later, when I found and reached out to my original mother, I proceeded carefully and with compassion, because once again, I knew that my birth was a sensitive subject, and that it must have been emotional and painful for her.

When my original mother returned a medical questionnaire that I had sent to her by certified mail, she informed me that she had never told anyone else about me, except for her own mother, and that her other daughter, five years older than I, does not know that I exist.  Through public records, I do know who this other daughter is and where she lives, but so far, I have not reached out to her.  My original mother has asked me to "please not make trouble," and for now, I have honored her request.

I'm not sure just what I'm going to do about all this, and when, but once again, I'm the one in the middle, the one worried about how my feelings and actions might impact everybody else.  Isn't it strange that adoption, which is allegedly conducted in the best interest of the child, puts a human being into such a difficult situation?

One of the reasons I advocate for adoption reform is that I do not want tomorrow's adoptees to have to worry about everybody else's feelings at the expense of their own.  That is what so many of us adoptees from the closed adoption era feel -- that we have to tiptoe around the feelings of our adoptive parents and the feelings of our original parents, all the while sublimating our own feelings and needs.  It doesn't help that during this confusing journey, other people are very eager to tell us what we should think and feel about adoption.

As a grown woman who has been an adopted person for 62 years now, I do not want to be told by anyone what I should think about my own adoption.  And I especially don't want to be patronized, yet like other adoptees, I often am.

To many stakeholders in adoption, my many years of experience as an adoptee are irrelevant.  Over the past ten years, ever since I have had the audacity to declare I have an inherent right to know my own basic history, I have been insulted and patronized by adoption agency personnel, several adoption attorneys, legislators, and occasionally even casual friends and acquaintances, who unknowingly parrot common adoption myths like these:  "Birth mothers were guaranteed secrecy," and "It shouldn't bother you that you don't know your ancestry -- your 'real' parents are the people who raised you."

I became an activist when I came to realize it is the adoption industry itself that willfully drives such myths in its attempts to sell adoption as the win-win solution for everyone involved.  Interacting with the agency that facilitated my adoption many years ago was the catalyst that spurred my growth from polite "people pleaser" to adoptee rights activist.

This agency maintains a confidential intermediary system that will connect adoptees to original parents if both parties agree.  In my case, the system failed for several reasons, one being the agency's bureaucratic and rigid protocol.

I felt most patronized, I think, when the agency's CEO, after several interactions between us, wrote this to me:  "I hope your efforts to advocate for adoption reform impacts the secrecy that surrounds the nature of adoption to make a positive change for the future."

This sentence actually enraged me, because this agency had charged me for their meagre services, had lost my records for several months, and as I now know, had given me misleading information about my original mother.  All the while, they behaved as if they knew best, from a social worker's first question to me -- "Why do you want to know?" -- to the last, condescending letter from the CEO.

Now I realize that the agency is constrained by the archaic law that seals an adoptee's original birth record.  But my thoughts in response to the CEO's statement are these:  Why do you encourage me "to make a positive change for the future" even as you continue to facilitate closed adoptions?  If you really cared about impacting "the secrecy that surrounds the nature of adoption," you would take a stand.  You would advocate for an adoptee rights bill that would enable adult adoptees to act in their own best interest.  The fact is: You do not care at all about the rights of adopted people.

This agency's long-standing motto is "changing the lives of children since 1894."  As an adopted adult, I feel a more honest slogan would be "changing the lives of adults (especially if you are infertile or are in trouble) since 1894."  What the agency really does in its adoption program is meet the needs of adults who wish to become parents through adoption and the needs of adults with "problem" pregnancies who wish to relinquish their babies and remain undetected in a government and agency-sponsored witness protection program.

As I wrote back to the agency's CEO: "Why should I or any adopted person be asked to honor an agreement that was unjust and that didn't consider my best interest in the first place? ... Babies are not commodities -- they grow into adolescents and adults, and many are unwilling to accept the legal fiction that the closed adoption system has forced upon them.  I don't see how you can say you are an advocate for children and then remain on the fence about those same children's life-long rights, when the harmful psychological impact of the secrecy and lies inherent in the closed adoption system has been well documented for years now."

The agency most likely wrote me off as another one of those "emotional" adoptees.  But this experience was actually very educational for me.  It demonstrated that I have no legal rights at all and that my "best interest" as an adopted person isn't even on the radar screen.  At one point, an agency social worker said to my husband, who had made a phone call on my behalf, "Well how would you like to be approached by a child, now grown, who you had fathered years ago?"  She just assumed that the adopted person has no right to know who her original parents are, and that the original parents would have no desire to know how their offspring have fared.  What an ignorant, insulting and patronizing comment.

Legislators, unfortunately, often echo this agency's point of view.  A NJ Assembly member once said to me:  "People have to keep secrets."  He might as well have added, "And you're one of them, so you have no right to know who your original parents are.  You're a special case, and we have to exclude you from the rights that the rest of us enjoy."

I was so dumbfounded at the time that I couldn't think of an appropriate response.  Now, wiser and more self-confident, I might respond, "Just wait a minute.  I never agreed as a condition of my adoption to keep lifetime secrets for other people, especially when those secrets affect my own well-being."

One of the things so objectionable about the adoption industry is that it works to willfully hide the truth from adopted people, in spite of all the evidence that original mothers and adoptees benefit from more honesty and openness.  And the fact that most adoptions today have some degree of openness has not solved the legal problems -- the original birth certificates of adoptees remain sealed in the majority of US states.

The legal framework that drives the discriminatory thinking that I and many other adoptees have encountered must change.  And someday it will.  But if it's to happen anytime soon, many more of us who have lived the adopted life will have to speak out, and encourage others to do the same.

You might also like:

The Silent Adoptee

Why I Oppose Confidential Intermediaries

Why Adoption Experts Sometimes Irk Adult Adoptees

Where do Family Ties and Adoptee Rights Intersect?


  1. Wow . . .my blood is boiling at the comments people have said to you and your husband!
    Great post, Susan!

    Susan, do you have any advice as to how to talk to the legislature so they will understand our plight? I have no experience with this but have been asked to work on a legislative committee.

    1. Lynn, I would encourage you to work on the legislative committee because you are so knowledgable about the realities of adoption. In New Jersey, our main opposition is the Conference of Catholic Bishops, NJ Right to Life, National Council for Adoption, NJ Bar Association, and believe it or not, in recent years the NJ ACLU, which seems to think that keeping a child a secret should be part of a woman's reproductive choice. We have attempted to persuade legislators through facts and figures, and over time, that has helped, as both the Senate and Assembly approved the last Adoptee Rights Bill. Gov. Christie, however, who has close ties to Catholic Bishops, "conditionally" vetoed it and suggested a confidential intermediary system instead. The opposition does not have any facts to support its stance, but it preys on people's fears and emotions. And money must play a part too, as I have seen many back room deals over the past 10 years. I feel we have to keep focusing on this as a human rights issue -- it just isn't fair to treat an entire class of people, a minority, differently by law than we treat everyone else.

  2. The CI program is an utter failure. Those who have worked as CIs have access to personal information about the APs (such as their infertility problems) and natural/first parents (TMI) that often leads them to make value judgements impacting whether or not to allow the adopted-out adult to reconnect with the first family. They are basically employed (or at the behest of the adoption agencies or industry), whether or not they realize this at the time. Thanks for continuing to advocate for OBCs and open records. It is great to have you on the side of adoptees who want the truth. And, on your natural older sister, personally I would try to meet her. Let her know you have important news to share with her. You might be surprised. She may already know or have some inkling that you actually exist. Don't let any talk you out of reconnecting. Go with your heart, Susan!

    1. Susan,
      I hope you don't think I'm overstepping, but I have thought a lot about your situation and I am going to give you my 2 cents. I think your mother was a young widow or divorcee who then had an affair with a man who could not or would not marry her. When she found out that she was pregnant, she, along with your maternal grandmother, came up with a plan to hide the evidence (aka you). At 5 years old your sister must have had some idea of what was going on and may still wonder about it to this day. I agree with Chad that you have a right to know your own sister, but that is, of course, up to you. But if you do decide to connect with her, remember that no matter how it goes, there are many of us to support you.

    2. Robin, you're not overstepping! I know I have a right to reach out to this half-sister; I'm just a little afraid of more rejection, I think. And my original mother is very elderly at this point, so I remain somewhat conflicted. But I always like to hear your point of view, and I do understand it. I've already written an appropriate letter to be mailed at some point, so I have taken a baby step!

  3. Oh, let me tell you the fun of being a first birth whatever other mother to step out of the closet in the mid seventies. Some friends were great, some strangers were amazingly amazed and passed me nasty notes, said dreadful things, pounded tables(so I heard) at dinner parties. Revolutionaries always get flack, it's part of the deal.

    Thank you for speaking up; in some ways it is even hardy for an adoptee. I just have to take the garbage for being a fallen woman who is supposed to sit down and go away and shut up but I don't have the "guilt" factor of "hurting" someone with my words to accompany it. Thank you for being you.

  4. Lorraine, I can only imagine the abuse you have experienced for so honestly sharing your story. I agree -- it comes with the territory when we speak out against the status quo. Fortunately, I'm old enough and secure enough in my thinking that I really don't care what people say, and I'm much quicker to call them out on it when they are off base, which of course, they almost always are when they defend the closed record system. It has been empowering (and educational) for me to connect with so many other adoption reform advocates on-line.

  5. Your words ring so true about being in the middle with no real respect for adoptee's feelings or rights.

  6. Susan, so much of what you wrote rang true for me as well. I'm a NJ adoptee who worried very much upsetting my family when I decided to search.

    I found I also have a half-sister (and several half-brothers) who don't know about me. I, too, have honored my birth mother's request to not make contact with them at this time. We exchanged letters, and she was very kind, but said it wasn't a good time in her life right now to tell my half-sibs or to continue contact with me. I wish it didn't, but consumes so much of my life... just wanting to contact and know them.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Kat. It helps to know there are others out there with similar dilemmas. Are you on the NJCARE mailing list? That's the group lobbying for adult adoptee rights in our state. If you're not, go to their website -- we can always use more advocates!


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