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.