Editor’s note: It’s National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM). How will you #FlipTheScript?
I first spoke with Steve, a 53-year-old New Jersey adoptee, in February, soon after he received his original birth certificate thanks to a change in state law in New Jersey. *
He’d just found his birth mother and was bubbling over with excitement. “I’ve got all sorts of feelings, worries and aspirations running around in my head!” he told me then. I remember thinking as he rattled though his story, that his feet likely hadn’t touched the floor since he opened the envelope with his birth certificate in it.
Steve said finding his mother meant a great deal to him — he wanted more than anything to thank her for the good life he had. But it also meant a chance to figure out who he is. Growing up adopted, he said, always meant feeling different and out of step. He longed to understand his identity and know that “there are other people out there like me.”
He connected with his birth mother a few weeks after our call, and emailed to tell me how thrilled he is that they are forging a relationship.
This past Friday, Steve called me again, this time in search of a sounding board. Through information his birth mother gave him, he had found his birth father and was again overcome with excitement. The photos Steve found online of his birth dad show that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve’s 14-year-old son. He was eager to know more, but hadn’t yet tried to contact the man, in part because, based on things his birth mother had said, Steve feared his birth father didn’t know of his existence.
“I have no one else to talk to about this and I need your advice,” Steve told me. “What should I do? Should I call him?”
Remembering our February conversation, and the pain then in Steve’s voice, I urged him to make the call.
“If you don’t call, you’ll sentence yourself to a lifetime of wondering,” I said, adding, “You don’t need someone’s permission to know who you are.”
It seemed to be the answer Steve was hoping for. We talked candidly about the possible outcomes: He might face rejection, and that would be difficult and emotional. But he might also finally have the answers he’s yearned for — what his ethnic background is, who he looks like, where his talents and thought processes come from, what his medical history is.
We ended the conversation with Steve promising to tell me what transpires.
Afterward, I pulled out my notes from our first conversation and realized that Steve hadn’t needed my advice at all. He already had the answer. Here’s what he told me when we spoke in February: “Your history defines who you are. You need to know it. What I find out as a result of searching is going to help me one way or another. When I’m dying I don’t want to be thinking I should have looked for my family. ”
And yet, Steve felt this week, as a great many adoptees do, that he needed to ask someone’s permission to stand up for himself.
Worse? He felt so alone in trying to decide what to do that he called me — a stranger he’d met one time on the telephone –for advice.
I hung up the phone both sad and angry. Yes, we’re making progress. After all, a change in New Jersey’s law had given Steve key information about who he is. But there’s so much more to do to flesh out that “adoption is wonderful” script.
Wanting to know who you are is a normal, valid human emotion. When will we ever get to a place where adoptees — the people at the center of adoption — feel that it’s OK to put their needs first?
When will adoptees finally be able to speak out about their experiences and know they will be heard?
* In all but nine states in the U.S, adoptees are not allowed unrestricted access to their original birth certificates. Those documents were sealed at the time of the adoption and replaced with revised birth certificates that list an adoptees’ adoptive parents rather than the people who conceived them. This policy was meant originally to spare adoptees the stigma of illegitimacy but in practice serves to keep adoptees in the dark about their origins, ethnicity and medical history. Today the quest to provide all adoptees access to original birth certificates is a flashpoint in the adoption reform movement.
My adoption blogs put me in touch with thousands of other adoptees who encouraged me to write a book about my journey to find my birth mother. I appreciate those votes of confidence, but instead of writing about me, I have decided to write a book about you – the adoptees I’ve already met and those I plan to meet the next few months.
In the coming months I’ll be interviewing Baby Scoop era adoptees about their experiences to get to the heart of what it means to be adopted.
The book’s focus
I’ll be speaking with adoptees who have searched and those who choose not to, those in positive reunions with biological family members and those who did not connect or whose reunions have fizzled. We’ll discuss:
Despite the spotlight on adoption these days and the movement to open birth records that is gaining momentum across the country, all too often adoptee voices remain absent from the discussion on adoption.
We are viewed as forever children, with the media and pro-adoption groups often speaking on our behalf as though everyone else will always know what’s best for us.
Or we are portrayed in stereotypes: the people-pleasing adoptee, the selfish adoptee, the angry adoptee … or worse.
The truth is that while we have some shared experiences and insights, each adoptee story is distinctive. Each of us deserves to be heard.
Movements like The Lost Daughters #FliptheScript initiative and adoptee blogs like The Declassified Adoptee have started to shine a light on the subject. Adoptees’ memoirs and anthologies offer poignant individual glimpses at what it means to be us. But more attention is needed if we’re ever to move past the secrets and lies that are the hallmarks of our stories.
The book is all about you
My book will bring together a large cross-section of adoptees whose stories will support, connect and inspire adoptees and the people who love them.
More than 30 people — many of them strangers — have agreed to speak with me in just a few weeks of my making casual requests. Many of them have already shared their journeys with me.
That tells me I’m on to something. I hope you’ll agree.
If you’re a Baby Scoop-era adoptee willing to share your story, write to me at email@example.com so we can arrange a time to chat.