Tag Archives: open adoption

The Adoptee’s Right to Search

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The four sisters sat at a sidewalk café to take in the Floridian breeze over drinks and dinner. Even with the contrast in our looks, anybody walking by would have known we were sisters and our laughter broadcasted our comfortable repoire. We had converged from the west and east coast for the weekend near Fort Myers to celebrate our father’s 90th birthday. The day had been spent with our parents in their assisted-living facility and now we relaxed under the setting sun and soaked each other in, hungry for the chance to commune and confide.

We are different from each other but close. No matter what, our truest selves come out when we are together, for better or worse. We cherish time together as sisters.

I am the oldest sister after three sons. Mary came after me, between the next two brothers; Deborah followed and finally, the baby of the family, Gina.

Mary and I shared a room growing up and Deborah and Gina were roommates. Our family moved several times over the years and our memories are highly contrasted by timing and context. While I have fond memories of my grandmother’s aromatic cooking and cheerful Yankee humor, my youngest sisters remember a scary alcoholic with burnt food in the kitchen and mounds of cigarette butts in ashtrays by the roaring television.

Our memories and points of view are tightly rooted in the timing and evolution of our growing family. My parents waxed into their prime during my youth while my youngest siblings felt their stamina wane at the tail end of the large family we inhabited.  As a teenager, I was grounded regularly for coming home late after midnight. When the younger siblings came in after curfew, it was barely noticed. We lived in different chapters in the family story.

When the status of Kathleen~Cathleen, the working title of the book my first daughter and I have been writing for the past eight years, came up in the conversation, I told them about the “Lost Daughters” blog that my daughter had participated in recently that had resulted in a controversial dialogue that was still under debate weeks later.

The nature of the debate started with the pros and cons of open adoption and evolved into the adoptee’s right to search and access their original birth certificate and information that would reveal the identity of the original mother and birth family.

One of my younger sisters smacked her lips and without hesitation said that the records should remain closed; the birthmother had no right to intrude on the privacy of the child they had given up nor the adoptive family and the information could be harmful to the child. The other youngest sister defended the right of the child to be protected from the birth mother’s identity and possibly unseemly circumstances. “What if she was a prostitute or worse?” “Why should the innocent child suffer information that would just make them feel bad about themselves or their situation if they knew the truth?” and “What about the woman’s right to privacy when she has signed a legal agreement stating that she doesn’t want to be discovered by the child?” “The woman should be protected, too.”

My relinquished daughter and I have been in reunion for almost twenty-four years. I was eighteen when I became pregnant with her in 1970Abortion was barely legal and was still considered a crime. My siblings were still children themselves back then and had no idea that I was “in trouble.”

Then Cathy and I came together in 1989 and my siblings were included in the revelation and celebration that unfolded with the truth. Cathy was welcomed into the family by my most  and the anomalies of her previously invisible existence became part of the family story. My siblings seemed happy that Cathy was part of the family now. As Cathy and I learned how to be together and grew closer, my family seemed supportive and open. In retrospect, my idealism and optimism may have been hard at work. Suddenly I wasn’t sure of anything.

The same sister who welcomed Cathy into her first family gathering at her house pursed her lips tightly and was indignant at the suggestion that an adoptee might have a inalienable right to search and access their birth records. Not only did she reject the idea of the right of an adoptee to search for their birth mother but, in her view, chances were high that the child was better off not knowing. If a mother could give her child away, then there was a reason for it. That woman had made her decision and it may be that this mother should not be allowed access to the child. That child now belonged to other people and they deserved better consideration.

I froze and curled my toes into my sandals as I grappled for words. We had been having such a nice time and then, all of sudden, I was a birthmother trapped in the worst of stereotypes, an unworthy mother with all the scars left by feeling judged as “bad”. Even as witnesses to my own experience, I didn’t hear any compassion in the tone. The adoptee was a commodity, up for grabs in their eyes and the birthmother was just out of luck. I felt sick.

My closest sister watched silently from across the table and didn’t speak as the youngest sisters tossed their argument back and forth. I told them that a legal agreement signed by a young mother does not mean that she doesn’t think of her child every day and might wish to change her mind and be allowed the chance to meet and know her child in an appropriate way. If that child wants to know where they come from and the mother agrees to it, why should anyone interfere or refuse them their right to reunite?

“What if the adoptee wants to establish themselves as an heir entitled to inheritance from their birth parent?” Now the adoptee was presented as a threat to the biological family assets.  “What if the family prohibits the mother from acknowledging the child because of the shame of the circumstances and the culture of the family?”

It’s complicated and it only gets more complicated: in-vitro births, surrogates, alien children from other countries and cultures. What is the answer when there are so many questions?

Underneath I pondered the real question. If a birthmother feels safe because of the privacy veil, it may give her the strength to follow through with the birth. If the child’s birth means a vulnerable future of exposure and shame, that child might not have a chance of birth at all. How much can a woman be expected to bear at a young age before it becomes too much to handle. Confusion in an unwanted pregnancy is a binding dilemma, whatever the answer is. Whether it’s abortion or relinquishmet, you can’t take it back.

But the child born from that decision bears the cost of her heritage. A parent’s decision to relinquish responsibility for the child is a decision of the parent, not the child. Should the child be punished and withheld the right to know? Does an adoptee have the right to their past, positive or negative? I believe people are defined by the generations who came before them, and that generations ahead of them experience the impact of the life they live. More than environment and circumstance, they are defined by their actions and the actions that brought them to bear. To disallow anyone the right to know their origins is to cast them as second-class citizens by the default of adoption. Is that right? If there is hope that the child may seek when they come of age, is there more chance that the child will not be born at all?

There may be harder decisions but I don’t know what they are. Circumventing access to birth records denies a basic human right for that information. There are many reasons for adoption after birth, but in my mind, none of them preclude the child’s right, when they are ready, to know who they are and where they came from. Even if its uncomfortable, there is no substitute for the truth. Hidden or revealed, the truth remains. To impact the true identity of a human being by untying all that connects them to the past condemns them to illusion. I believe that all human beings deserve to know their truth. It may be hard but it’s right. What happens then can go anywhere. That is the moment when the child becomes the author of her story.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.
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Language for Invisible People

One challenge of life-in-reunion is finding language that supports it.  Adoptees become the usual “daughter” or “son” after the initial “adopted” child fades to becoming simply “the child” of their parents – adopted or otherwise.  The parents are considered the “adoptive parents” socially at first and then that term is dropped to “parents” by the time the child comes of age unless there is a conspicuous reason to include it.  “Adoptive parents” become “parents” and “birthmother” disappears to become an historic reference – a woman who’s name and true story remains veiled behind the faceless storybook role she plays to produce the consequence of her decisions in the form of a child. Of course, the generation when my daughter was born preceded open adoption.  From discussions with members of triads (birthparent, adoptive parent, child) involved in open adoption, I wonder if the gap has closed much or whether it remains enigmatic.  My gut says it’s still a can of worms.

The word  “birthmother” was coined a few years ago to define the role I am in.  The definition can be found in the medical or law dictionary but it’s not to be found in standard dictionaries. If you google a dictionary online, it comes up short – no results.  Dictionaries that do include the word “birthmother” define it as “a biological mother.”  That sounds like a word for a breeder. It has a clinical ring to it. I am not a breeder.  I’m a conscious person living an intentional life who became unintentionally pregnant at an early age.

When I am introduced by Cathy as her birthmother, it is because she needs to differentiate between her adoptive “real” mother and me, her “unreal” mother.  It’s a painful setup for me but I am powerless to change it. I bear the consequences of my decision and becoming nameless is one among many.

Words are important in our society.  Without a name, it does not exist. So for now, this is a word I need to embrace no matter how it makes me feel.  There is no satisfying word she can use that protects me from the loss of my limb, the child I brought to bear.  I am part of a paradox that includes and excludes me from the definition of the word “mother.” Even my child takes an explicitly matter-of-fact stance on whether the “M” word is one that I have her permission to use. I do not. So it goes.

When I introduce Cathy to people, it is as my daughter and she’s okay with that.  I’m glad. I am grateful to use the word “daughter” for my first child, the baby I bore unable to raise.

The possessive “my” before “daughter” looks innocent enough. In reality, that two-lettered word is loaded with contradiction for any mother who has relinquished a child.  Papers with my signature lay buried in a file cabinet somewhere in New Jersey as proof of a dispossessed child and any claim I ever had on her. For eighteen years I didn’t know if she was still alive while her real “mother” watched her grow by day and night, one year after the next.

Now we have been in reunion for twenty-two years.  It is a relationship lined with familial aspects of mother and daughter.  It is also a relationship that bars me from using that word out loud.  Ever. Our relationship is defined somewhere between yes and no, visible and invisible, possessive and dispossessed, a word and a wordless place.

There is a body of layers – physical, emotional, spiritual – between my role and our connection.  There may never be a word for me that answers the heart between vanquished mother and reunited mother. Maybe having the word doesn’t matter as much as what we are saying to each other and who we are being with and for each other.  There is no one like me.  There is no one like her.  We are unique in our bond and words cannot break or bind it – words can define or distract but in the end they are only words.

On the outside, I am cool and collected.  Nonplussed and immovable. When I get flustered, I remember that what we have is an unusual and remarkable gift. If I take it for granted enough to get annoyed, all I have to remember is what it was like when I didn’t know where she was, what she looked like or how life was treating her.  To know these things is nothing short of a miracle for me – no matter what I am called or not – and I hold on to that knowledge like fine gold. Our connection makes me much more than a breeder and less a nameless mother under indictment.

There is love between us.  It’s a love that belongs to us. We get to share this love with family, friends and deep community who share our lives in Portland.  “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  … I will care, watch, listen, tune in, pray, sing and wait.  My mother heart beats blood we share.  If the perfect moniker is to be discovered for who I am to my daughter, it will merely be a word for what is already there.
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To view my daughter’s blog on the same topic, please visit ReunionEyes.