This story highlights the aspect of secrecy in adoption. A secret weighs heavy on the heart. A secret can be found out. You mind your tongue, look over your shoulder, scan the room for a face with a knowing look. Your heart begs you to lift its burden.
Not long ago I was having lunch with new friends when someone asked the ages of my children. The answer to this question always elicits raised eyebrows or a comment. “I had my son when I was a teenager,” I said. “He was given up for adoption, but I reconnected with him.” I always keep the answer short, but people want to know more. When I say that I searched for my son and found him, people think that I’m Nancy Drew, or that I’m super courageous, or a ballsy political activist. My answer is just, I had to.
And sometimes we feel we have to tell our stories. Here’s the link to Caitriona Palmer’s book.
Adult adoptees are frequently infantilized by virtue of the fact that they are perpetually regarded as adopted children with, in most U.S. states, no access to their medical histories due to closed adoption records. Imagine going to the doctor and filling out that sheaf of forms by simply scrawling across the top “unknown.”
A few months back the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement regarding adoption records. It’s not unequivocal good news since it contains the caveat “unless specifically denied by the birthparents.” I’m a birthmother, not an adoptee, but I’m pretty sure many adoptees viewed this as only a partial victory. What strikes me is that it was the American Academy of Pediatrics that came forward to voice their (partial) support for open records. My research cannot find a similar policy statement issue by the American Medical Association. Doesn’t their silence perpetuate society’s view of adult adoptees as children? As a person grows older, doesn’t medical history become even more important?
My boyfriend died of lung cancer in June. We’d only been together for five years, so there was a lot I didn’t know about him. Dan had been at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, while I was a boy-crazy 8th grader at a Catholic school in Iowa. Even before that, if I have the timeline correct, he’d joined the Freedom Riders and had gone down to Mississippi. An old friend of his told me that while he was down there he was arrested and taken to jail. “Are you black or white?” Dan was asked over and over again as they were preparing lock him up. Dan, a Korean-American, wouldn’t answer the question, but as the questioning got more aggressive, Dan finally went with white. He was jailed anyway.
I’m telling this story as an introduction.
I do not imagine aligning myself with the folks who call themselves pro-adoption. But then again, I might if the label were dissected and arranged in such a way that it didn’t mean unethical or illegal adoption. I might if it didn’t mean secrets and shame and sealed records. I might if it didn’t mean child trafficking or endangerment or taking children from poor single mothers and giving them to couples with a bigger bank account.
But I don’t really want to be anti-adoption either. I acknowledge that there are children who need to be removed from their biological families. Still, adoption is no guarantee there will not be abuse. I acknowledge that there are children in orphanages and in foster care that need families. Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy elaborates on the anti-adoption label in her ESSAY from Portrait of an Adoption and pretty much covers everything. So, yes, if I have to choose, I’ll have what she’s having. But only if it’s served up like that.
Reform of the adoption industry is absolutely necessary. But I don’t like the line in the sand. I’m guessing that a lot of the people who label themselves as pro-adoption don’t really want to associate themselves with the corrupt practices present in adoption today. Or at least I hope not. So I wish they wouldn’t say they were pro-adoption without writing an essay defining it.
Strength is something we seek. Taking a stand is admired. Fervent seems like a nice adjective. But maybe we all have to stand together in the middle of the hurt and confusion explaining every little thing to one another, listening as hard as we can.
“Forced adoptions have been a major issue in Australia. In 2013 their Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered a national apology to those affected by forced adoptions. The Australian Senate Enquiry Report found that babies of unmarried mothers were illegally taken by medical staff, social workers and religious persons, sometimes with the assistance of adoption agencies and other authorities, and adopted out to married couples.
Many of these adoptions occurred after the mothers were sent away by their families due to the social stigma associated with being pregnant and unmarried.
It was found that some women were drugged, others restrained, some forced to sign, signatures faked, no informed consent and few (if any) chose to give their children away.
This went on up to the 1970s. It is recognised that this has resulted in major issues for generations of families and for Australian society. Many mothers have died early due to stress related illnesses or committed suicide. Many who have survived do so suffering complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
I’ve often wondered about general life outcomes for birthmothers from the era of secrecy in the U.S. I’ve picked up small pieces of information here and there as I researched my memoir, but found nothing extensive. Sometimes it seems that we’re still the girls who are supposed to disappear.
I’ve been blogging regularly on my Other Blog which is not to say that I do not frequently think of adoption and its myriad issues. I continue to see the world through the eyes of a birthmother, and those eyes popped wide open recently when I read THIS. I have some personal experience with Iowa’s bureaucracy regarding birth certificates. In 1990 when I began to search for the son I had given up for adoption 20 years earlier, I wrote several letters to the Iowa Department of Human services asking them to provide me with the original birth certificate for my son. While I knew the original birth certificate would provide no identifying information that would aid in my search, I viewed it an empowerment exercise. My son had been taken from me, and the evidence of that separation had been erased. Silenced for two decades by shame, I came out of my closet after the birth of my third child brought home to me the fact that my son could not be replaced. At the very least, I wanted the state of Iowa to acknowledge that the birth had taken place. I wanted the piece of paper that held my name and his–although he was listed as merely “baby boy.” It’s probably worth noting here that my son’s biological father’s name did not appear on the original birth certificate since I declined to identify him. Nevertheless, with my own name as the only identifying information, I could not obtain the original birth certificate. On medication for glaucoma at the time and afflicted with a moderately severe case of scoliosis, I had my doctors intercede with the state of Iowa as we attempted to have my medical history passed on to my son. The only communication that I received stated that there were no records pertaining to my inquiries. Until the recent Iowa Supreme decision confirming the rights of same sex couples to have both their names appear on their children’s birth certificates, The Iowa Department of Public Health insisted on listing the biological parents. While gay marriage has been legal in Iowa since 2009, Iowa has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the union to allow gay marriage while refusing to list both spouses on the birth certificate. The irony of that, Iowa, is thicker than a cloud of mosquitos on a humid summer evening. As a postscript, I’ll say that I hope the gay and lesbian couples who are now officially recognized as their children’s parents will not relegate their offspring to the blackout of information that many adult adoptees continue to endure in the state of Iowa. Of course, there is this: Effective July 1, 1999, Iowa law enables adoptees, their “birth parents,” and their blood-related brothers and sisters to find each other if the birth is registered with the State of Iowa. The “Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry” was established in order to match those persons requesting that their identity be revealed to registrants “matching” information concerning an adult adoptee. All information provided to the registry is confidential and revealed only in the event that an appropriate match is made and the parties have been notified of the match. A $25 fee in U.S. funds and a certified copy of the applicant?s birth certificate must be submitted with each consent application. I’m trusting the instructions are a bit oversimplified. Surely, they don’t expect birthparents to supply a birth certificate…… Readers, have any of you out there used the Iowa Registry? Did reunions result? I’d love to hear about it. photo credit: astoria-rust.blogspot.com
It’s enough to make me want to move to New England. Along with Maine and New Hampshire, Rhode Island has restored the rights of adoptees, allowing them access to their original birth certificates. Rights advocates battled for twenty years in Rhode Island, and it could be that Connecticut will be the next state to win its battle for adoptee rights.
So now there are seven states where adoptees have access to their original birth certificates. Maybe soon there will be eight.
My son’s original birth certificate resides in the state of Iowa.
Dear Iowa, please look east and pay attention.
Oh, and isn’t it neat–the Rhode Island state flag? It says “Hope.”
My son once told me that being adopted was like being in the Witness Protection Program–but without access to family medical history. With all the debate about healthcare swirling around us, I find myself thinking about healthcare and adoption. I most definitely want reasonably priced healthcare for all Americans. BUT adoptees need more than that–which is to say they need what those of us familiar with our biological families have. Our medical histories.
I know what my grandparents died of…and my father. I know that my mother has high blood pressure and that quite a few people in my family have circulatory issues (Maybe from smoking.) I know that despite the fact that most of us are as pale as the underbelly of an eyeless sea-creature, no one has contracted skin cancer. And that while we can eat pretty much anything, I know we’ve got one member with severe wheat allergies and issues with dairy. Another is allergic to dessert pollens and olive trees. Curvature of the spine is a big issue. Maybe hip degeneration. Imagine not knowing those things about yourself. And when adoptive parents hold that baby in their arms, don’t THEY want to know? My maternal grandmother was allergic to penicillin and Novocain. One of my three children has that penicillin allergy and it can be life threatening. How can parents rest easily without knowing? For many, many adoptees, the information is available. Unsealing adoption records would make it accessible.
A few posts ago, I wrote about reunion vis a vis the California Adoption Bill (Assembly Bill 372.) Yay, I thought, more birthparents and adoptees will be reunited. I think I got an email from some nefarious person or organization touting what a good idea this was and that only encouraged my naive stupidity. There was a clause in the bill (now in some lucky legislative limbo) that required birthparent consent, which is a huge impediment to open records. The bill was a trick. A ploy to get in the way of open records.
I’m in the middle of a divorce, writing the thesis for my MFA, trying to rise out of the ashes once again and my brain is somewhat broken.
Today is my son’s birthday–or so he’s been told. It wasn’t uncommon in 1970 for adoption agencies to tamper with details like birth dates. Sometimes, when the amended birth certificates were generated, changes were made and searches were thereby hampered. But I hesitate to make these accusations because it could be that in my effort to put my son’s birth behind me and begin anew, I may have confused his due date with his date of birth. Giving birth to my son was a secret event known only to my parents and my boyfriend and when I emerged from hiding, I was supposed to forget and move on.
I’ve heard that this confusion is not unusual among birthmothers. Dates might be forgotten, but never our babies.
I try frequently to step into the shoes of an adopted person. I’ve been trying these shoes on for size ever since I was a pregnant sixteen-year-old in a small Catholic town in 1970, knowing that my only respectable recourse was to keep my pregnancy a secret and give my son up for adoption.Like Ellen Ullman’s records, my son’s adoption file was sealed, too. His original birth certificate, which bore the standard particulars of birth along with my name and his name listed only as “Baby Boy MacDonald” contained information that I was already well aware of. Yet, I was not allowed to have a copy.
My son, whom I reunited with when he was twenty-one, says that being adopted is like being in the witness protection program–but without the medical information. While Ullman is certainly entitled to tell herself any story she likes about her origins, I object to her passive glossing over of the disservice that sealed records inflicts on both adoptees and birth parents. Yes, it is true there are many ways to conceive and carry a child these days, but it seems a shame to let the intricacies of that conversation obscure the totalitarian approach state governments take toward adoption records. And I suspect that Ullman herself, having made the phone call regarding her adoption file, might someday like to fill out a form in her doctor’s office without drawing a slash through the medical history section and marking it “unknown.” Her essay betrays a longing for other things, too, and I sincerely wish the power to discover those things resided in her hands and not with the state of New York.
I’m willing to give not-knowing its due. I’m fine with not knowing whether or not my son’s five-year-old daughter whose baptismal picture looks just like my own will turn out to resemble me or share my talents when she’s a mature woman. But I could never be fine with not knowing she existed at all.