Adoption search and reunion seems to be everywhere lately, from the reality TV shows of a couple years back; to the Facebook posts of adoptees and first parents desperately trying to find each other; to the big screen, where Judi Dench’s title role portrayal in Philomena, the story of an Irish woman’s search for the son she was forced to relinquish, is bringing audiences in and sending them home with wet tissues.
If you read the New York Times yesterday, you learned that the real Philomena’s son, Michael Hess, who died before Philomena could find him, had been searching for her, too. Three times he went to Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland asking for information about his first mother. Three times he was sent away empty-handed.
Today, on the year anniversary of the first conversation I had with my birth mother, Pat, I’m thinking a lot about why adoptees search.
In short, we do it because we must.
There more than 1.5 million of us born between 1940 and 1975 alone, long before the open adoptions of today. Our identities are moving targets, part secret — often part lie. We are compelled to find ourselves, learn where we fit, and to understand the how and why of how we came to be.
People are the sum of a collection of experiences and biology, yet most adoptees come up short, rich though our childhoods may have been.
Unless we’ve been lucky enough to get a report of non-identifying information from the adoption agency that handled our case, most of us don’t know our ethnicities, or what the women who gave birth to us look like, have accomplished or do for a living. We don’t know their medical backgrounds or our family trees. Though we’ve created our own second chapters with adopted families, we have none of those first little details that make it into the kind of family lore spun around the holiday table.
Consider that I was 43 before I learned that I am English and German. Turns out I am Polish, too, but that was left off the paperwork.
(Lots of things were left off the paperwork. Last year, I met an adoptee about my age who grew up thinking he was Italian. Turns out his first mother thought that sounded better than the Mexican roots that are his truth, so she put it in the forms.)
Consider, too, that I was born breech on Feb. 15, 1966 — both feet first — a tidbit that would have been the topic of family chatter over and over again if I’d not been relinquished.
But no one talked about that. In fact, no one in the family talked about me — ever. again. — after Pat came home following my birth.
That’s not all that was hush-hush. Up in Albany, NY, by the time my adoption was finalized in May 1967, the bureaucrats were hard at work generating my amended birth certificate — my identity was changed as a privacy protection, you see.
People are surprised when I tell them state law prevents me from seeing my original birth certificate but it’s true, in New York where I was born and most other states, including in Connecticut where I live now. (In my state, the grassroots group Access Connecticut is trying to restore adult adoptees’ access to their original birth certificates. If it is successful, Connecticut will follow on the heels of states like Rhode Island, Maine and Ohio.)
It probably just sounds like a piece of paper to most of you, but to us it’s so much more — it’s part of finding validation, insight and understanding, the very things that drive us to search in the first place … the very things most non-adopted people take for granted.
You see, we don’t search because we had bad childhoods, because we are selfish or looking to cause pain.
We search because like all of you we yearn to know — good, bad or otherwise — who we are.
Many of us will never find the women who gave us life, and those of us who do reconnect know that navigating a reunion will be challenging even in the best of circumstances. Many reunions fizzle out or end abruptly for a whole variety of complicated reasons.
And yet we risk all that for the chance to finally know and not simply wonder.
wow, great story and I hope someday my daughter autumn from Texas tries to find me as I keep searching for her.. bless you all.
I hope you reconnect with her too.
I read these posts with great interest. Last year, at the age of 53, a well meaning friend told me about Search Squad. My friend had been fascinated by my adoption story and couldn’t understand why I had never really looked. To anyone but another adoptee, the reasons were too convoluted and complicated to explain. Simply put, I was afraid. Afraid of what I would find, afraid of rejection. Figuring the chances were slim anyway, I went to the site and gave the non ID information I remembered from a paper I had seen 30 years ago. But you know, that information was burned into my memory. My birth name, which made my adoptive parents cringe, was Pearl Ann. I knew I was born on November10, 1961. Cleveland, Ohio was the place. I had no idea at the time that Ohio had unsealed the records. By the next morning I had my birth mother’s name, her address, pictures, Facebook page. I couldn’t believe it. I sent a message straight away, explaining who I was and that I just wondered if she wondered what had become of me. In less than 10 hours my phobe tang and I knew from caller id that it was her. My birth mother. I almost didn’t answer the phone. I did though and we talked for hours. It was awesome. I have four half siblings and my mother married a couple of years after I was born and had been married for 51 years. We spoke on the phone about 5 times and then my oldest daughter and I loaded up my three grandchildren and drive 13 hours to meet her. In between first contact and meeting she had told everyone that I had found her (she had told her husband and her daughters but not her sons). Three of my half siblings and several of their children were there to meet us. It was a magical weekend. We all got along fantastically and it was wonderful.
It wasn’t until after we left that I realized that no one had exchanged so much as a phone number with me. I decided to give everyone (including me) some time to process what had transpired. Things kind of got away from me and soon a month had passed. I called and left a message and my birth mother called back. I called again and left another message. No response. I emailed a couple of times. No response. I waited several months and emailed and texted. No response.
My adoptive family was great when I was small but as I grew and was very different from them, we became eztranged. Now both my adoptive parents are dead and no one in the family is in touch.
I have no idea what happened with my birth family but I’m happy to have met them even if I never speak to anyone again.
Carolynne, would you be willing to chat with me for my book project?
Wow, you just spoke to what I am talking about for myself. I will be sending you an email. I am an adoptee and since my adopted family is way messed up to mention, I feel really alone in the world, not knowing who I am or what I am. Thanks.
Patrick: thanks so much for commenting. I’d love to speak with you for the book I’m writing about the adoptee experience. Would you like to chat?
Glad that you were able to find your birth mother and got to understand more about your roots.
For me, the goal of searching was to find the two people who gave me their genes, and to get from the two of them some understanding of the infinite combination of characteristics they imparted, the parts of them that took root in me. Some visible. Many hidden. Many not understood. Some active and some dormant. I was 50 when the veil of secrecy was lifted.
My adoptive mother was English, a naturalized American. My adoptive father was descended from German immigrants. However, as interesting as their family stories were, they were just stories that offered me no understanding of my own identity. Their stories explained my environment. Nurture. The pleasant setting I had for growing up. But nothing about nature, my nature.
Eventually I decided it was time to look for the people whose genes I carried. When I asked my adoptive parents for their help, they willingly offered me all the adoption information they had. After handing over their file, which revealed very little I didn’t already know, they stood by stoically while I searched.
For reasons that go beyond explanation, there was no doubt in my mind that if I were to find my biological parents I would find parents whose natures would resonate with my own in the most profound ways. There would be the kind of common emotional and intellectual ground that wasn’t present with my adoptive parents. I believed if I met them I would connect with each of them in ways that would go beyond anything I had ever experienced. Would it matter about their nationalities, their ethnicities, their religions? It seemed to me it wouldn’t.
And then, when I was 50, it happened. Out of the clear blue sky there was a letter. It was from my birth father. After 15 years of searching for my birth mother, I was found in a week by a man who’d been drafted into the Korean War shortly before my birth. Till that moment I had no idea if he’d survived the war. Immediately my mind was reeling. In minutes we were on the phone with my brain racing through the possibilities for developments even more remarkable than the one I’d just experienced. Sadly, there was one. Turned out that 20 years earlier my birth mother had died. That was a blow. A big one.
However, the connection with my birth father fulfilled my expectations. and from what I’ve learned from my mother’s daughter, my half-sister, the same kind of resonance would have arisen between my mother and I. But even without her to share it, her story matters immensely to me, and since 2002 I’ve been filled in by some well informed relatives as well as boxes of family archives.
I remember connecting with you in the early days of my search. Comparing notes with you marked one of the first times I wasn’t alone in my questions and emotions, and hearing your story gave me hope and insight.
Thanks for sharing it all again here.
This first mother is happy for you–and will always be. Good job!
Terri, beautiful post, as always! I can’t begin to explain the peace and closure that knowing my sisters and my family history have brought me. These sealed record laws are so misguided and antiquated that they boggle the mind.
Indeed they do, Susan. I’m so glad you have that closure … and so said that so many of our adoptee brothers and sisters don’t and may never. …
Great piece of adoption truth writing!
A great explanation of why it is important to find your roots. I’m glad you have found yours