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Friday, March 1, 2013

Lifetime Secrets and Their Effect on the Adoptee

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?


  1. I am so glad you are sharing your experience. I can't believe the sound good sense, generosity and sensitivity you display will go wasted.
    You make a very eloquent spokesperson for the unsealing of adoption records.

  2. Thank you so much! Advocating for adoption reform is a tiresome business, as I'm sure you know. Every once in a while, I really need some encouragement!

  3. Susan ~~ At the same time as we struggle together in the legislatures and public opinion arena for restoration of adoptee rights to their identity, family history, heritage and the identity of those to whom they are blood related, it would be my privilege to help you search for your truth. I have solved many cases with no names and fewer clues. Plus we now have the incredibly exciting, cutting-edge technology of DNA family matching. I would be happy to talk with you about it anytime.

    1. Thank you, Priscilla, for your generous offer. I will be in touch!

    2. Susan - I have my court records of my adoption with my mother's name and have not been able to get anywhere. Do you provide this service for the public?

  4. Thank you for speaking for so many of us who don't share your talent and skill in writing. I have forwarded many of your blogs to legislators in the hope that something will resonate with them to understand our experience and do the right thing to facilitate needed change in the law. It is long past time for me to be freed from having to keep someone else's secret at the expence of me and my children and future generations. We are being denied our true heritage and the freedom to do with it as we please like every other citizen.

    1. Yes, Tom, change is taking far too long. I find writing about the issue much less frustrating than working with the NJ government! Thank you for your kind words.

  5. Just reading that someone else agrees with what I feel to be true for me is wondrously affirming. Most of my life I have felt different from everyone else...

    1. Thank you, Leslie. The adoptee voice has been silenced by cultural expectations for far too long.

    2. Perfectly stated, Lesley. Now the challenge is to get the folks in charge to understand our reality and to step aside.

  6. I second what Pris said - DEFINITELY look into the DNA testing registries! VERY exciting stuff for us adoptees and price is actually affordable to many now. I've tested w/ the 3 big ones (23andMe, FTDna, and AncestryDNA) and there's an awesome Yahoo group: AdoptionDNA ( Feel free to email me if you want to chat more about this! And THANK YOU for all your wonderful blog posts!!

  7. I don't think sealed records have anything to do with first parents. They certainly don't have anything to do with adoptees. And I don't even think they are for adoptive parents. I think the real agenda behind the sealed records is that they give enormous POWER to adoption facilitators.

    I see I was beaten to the punch. I was going to suggest DNA searches as I think this could give you the information you are looking for. You could then use the information, if needed, to do record searches and I do think you will be able to find the answers you need. I would also suggest that if you feel up to it, that you contact your older sister. She may very well know your late natural father and/or the rest of the family.

    I also agree with Tom that it is not our job as good little adoptees to keep everyone else's secrets. My n-father went to his (early) grave without telling a soul about my existence. When I first contacted the paternal side of my family, they were ,of course ,quite surprised since they had no idea that I even existed. But it's not my job to keep the family skeleton (aka moi) in the closet.

  8. Susan, Thank you. I am a NY adoptee but I now live in FL. I met with my state rep just last week to broach the subject of sponsoring a bill in FL. That road will also be a long one- a very repressive state govt.

    I agree that DNA testing will be a good angle for your next step.

    It boggles my mind that the govt feels they have the right to manage our interpersonal relationships as adult citizens by locking up our birth certificates. Birth parents who do not want a relationship with an adoptee can just say no. We do not owe them their secret if they chose to keep us one.

    What about the thousands of birth fathers from the BSE? Many of whom had no say in an adoption placement of their child and the govt is discounting their voice in this debate. The fathers need to step up and declare their rights to knowing the children they fathered and were placed via adoption in a time when their names were not considered for the birth certificate. Now that would be a class action lawsuit that might hold more weight. After all, states can garnish wages, force putative fathers for genetic testing, suspend drivers' license privelages, put them in jail for back child support all because a father has an obligation to support his offspring- yet they are not considered in the debate for access to birth certificates unless they were married to our mother or a party to the adoption-which most were not. A mother's right to privacy (which relinquishment papers did not promise anyway) should not be greater than a father's right to know his offspring.

  9. Susan, I just recently learned of your blog. I appreciate the thought and energy you are putting in to speaking out about your experience as an adoptee and about the harm done by sealed records.

    I identify with so many things wrote in this post. I also did not truly begin to process the impact my adoptee status had on my life until I was nearly 50. I have also had exactly one phone conversation with my birth mother. She also does not wish to meet as her husband and kept children do not know of my existence. She is 71. I still hold out hope that she will change her mind.

    I've been learning more and more about the issue of sealed records, especially now that Ohio has adoptee rights bills in process. Your thoughtful posts are giving me a lot of food for thought.

    I agree with other commenters who have suggested DNA testing. If you haven't read Richard Hill's book, Finding Family, I encourage you to pick it up.

    Also, please hold out hope on learning more about your birth father. I felt the same way. My mother would not give me his name. However, I was able to take the few facts I knew about him and use genealogy tools to figure out his identity. This process has also brought me in contact with a great aunt and uncle who have welcomed me as their niece.

    Thanks again -- and I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    1. Becky, thank you for your comment. I think I will be pursuing some ancestry tools to further research my genealogy. One of the beauties of the internet is the ability it gives us to connect with the many people affected by adoption and the wider adoption reform movement. I have learned so much since starting this blog last April!

  10. Your post may or may not make a difference in reform, but I think every voice helps. Aside from that, it makes a difference to me. I waited until I was in my 40's to find my first parents. My first mother requested I have no contact with her, her family, or anyone else who knows her. I assume, but don't know, that this is because I am still a shameful secret 44 years later. I had told myself this might be the response I would receive, but the pain it caused still left me reeling. I believe everyone has the right to know where they come from, their history, their roots. If she does not want a relationship or communication she can choose that, but I should be able to get information about myself from records about me. So often I hear the stories about "successful (though surely complicated) reunions" that make me feel bitter sweet. I am happy for those individuals because I know what it's like to want that, but sad because that was not my own story. Thank you for sharing your story.

  11. Kristin, thanks for your comment. I think every voice helps as well, and for me, writing is the best way to contribute. Politics is not my strong suit -- I am a logical thinker, and unfortunately, I have found logic to be sadly lacking in the political arena when it comes to passing adoptee rights bills. I too was caught off guard by the pain when I was told that my original mother wanted no contact. Because I felt I at least had a right to medical information for myself, my children and grandchildren, I did manage to locate my first mother's address and sent her a certified letter along with a medical questionnaire prepared by my daughter, a physician. She did respond to that, as you probably know from my posts. The failure of the legal system to treat adult adoptees like the grown-ups they are is a profound failure of the adoption system, from my perspective. If the original birth certificate doesn't belong to the person whose birth it records, who does it belong to?


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