Conflict of Interest ?

I got seriously triggered with my husband yesterday. I need to work through my thoughts and I’m sure this is going to prove a lengthy process of contemplation.

Some background –

Both of my parents were given up for adoption in the 1930s. Their circumstances were somewhat different and somewhat similar. My mom’s genetic biological parents were married but at 4 mos pregnant after 4 mos of marriage for reasons I’ll never really have reliable answers to (but a few theories given what I have learned), her husband left her. He didn’t divorce her for 3 years, so there is that as well. With no husband in sight, she was sent to Virginia from Memphis TN to give birth and I would assume expected to leave the baby there but she did not. Instead, after her return to Memphis with my infant mom in tow, she became a victim of Georgia Tann.

My dad’s mom was unwed. She had an affair with a much older married man. Then, she went to a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers to give birth. After about 2 or 3 months, she was released with my dad still in her custody. It appears my dad’s father never even knew he existed. When my grandmother found no support for her and the baby with her cousin, she returned to the Salvation Army seeking employment and was transferred with my dad still in tow to one of their homes in El Paso Texas.

My mom’s adoptive parents relocated to El Paso Texas and in high school, my adoptee mom met my adoptee dad. Probably during the summer after my dad’s graduation from high school before entering a university my parents had sex and my teenage mom discovered by Autumn that she was pregnant. My dad’s adoptive parents supported him marrying her and quitting his hopes of a university degree to go to work and support his new family. I’m pretty certain my mom’s adoptive parents, had they had a chance, would have sent her off to have and give me up. Thankfully that didn’t happen to me.

So the truth I cannot deny is that had my parents NOT been adopted and had they both not ended up in El Paso TX and attended the same high school where they met at a party through mutual friends, I would not exist at all. I owe my very existence in this life to ~gasp~ adoption. I think I once described this situation as imperfectly perfect.

Until about 5 years ago, when I was able to uncover the identities of all 4 of my original grandparents (something that both of my parents died still not knowing), I thought adoption was the most natural thing in the world and that my parents were orphans. I had no idea there were people I was actually genetically biologically related to living out lives as unaware of me as I was of them. I knew nothing about the mental and emotional impacts of the trauma of my parents being separated from their mothers may have caused. I’ve learned a LOT about that since then – as this blog very frequently shares. To be honest, I now would prefer to see vulnerable women supported, so that they could raise their own babies.

So what is my conflict of interest ? My husband’s desire that my writing add some revenue to our family. Of course, I would love for that to happen as well. I have developed a negative attitude toward Christian Evangelical saviorism as it applies to adoption. My husband wants me to make my next book oriented towards Evangelical Christians (I have just finish a revision of my parents’ adoption stories for the 3rd time and will go about trying to obtain a literary agent for that work).

What !?! I accused him of asking me to betray my values for monetary reasons. He spoke of “witnessing.” That stayed with me all afternoon. I reflected on the kind of people my adoptive grandparents were. 3 of the 4 were religious. My dad’s were fundamentalist in the extreme. When one church wasn’t as strictly interpreted per the bible as they wanted, they changed churches to a stricter one. My mom’s adoptive father has been described as morally ethical but not religious. I see that same characteristic in my husband. My mom’s mother however had a surprisingly enlightened spirituality – especially when I consider what I have heard of her own very bible religious mother (to the extent of neglecting home and family). This grandmother’s spirituality was not far different than my own (which was what surprised me when I discovered it). My husband has a negative perspective on religion in general and believes vulnerable people are exploited by it. So I could not believe that HE would suggest such a thing to me. He admits that he is a bit like Mr Krabs in the SpongeBob episodes – all about the money (only really he is incredibly down to Earth, he just worries about supporting this family as he ages).

Yet, aside from the last 5 years of having it banged into my consciousness through my favorite adoption triad group, where the voices of adult adoptees are given preference and describe all that is wrong with adoption and foster care in general, what is it that I actually know from my own experience ?

My parents each felt differently about their adoptions. My dad never spoke to me of his but cautioned my mom against her efforts at locating her birth mother – who had already died by the time she was actively seeking that. One of the last things she wrote to me before she died was an explanation regarding why she couldn’t complete a family tree at Ancestry.com – “it just wasn’t real, because I was adopted but I’m glad I was.” Though I cannot say that she truly was “glad.” She didn’t know any other life.

Both of my sisters gave up a child to adoption. I cannot honestly say that my niece or my nephew would have been better off being raised by my sisters. They are good solid people – both of them – now married in their own adulthoods.

So the question is – can I find a way to target a Christian Evangelical audience, who is going to adopt anyway – regardless of how much I might preach to them about all of the impacts of trauma in this child they desperately want for whatever reason (I do believe there is a bit of missionary purpose in those desires) – and gently prepare them for reality and hope this brings about better outcomes for the adoptee ? Honor fully my evolved values in the effort ?

Corporation Adoptee

It never ceases to amaze me how often adoption comes up everywhere around me. Last night we watched The Truman Show. In this movie, which is described as a psychological science fiction, is an analogy also for the lives of many adoptees.

Truman was selected as one of five children who were products of unwed parentage. So he was born at the “right time” and from birth was the adoptee of a media corporation who builds a long running TV series from his lifetime.

The director, Christof, claims that Truman came to be adopted not just by the show, but by the whole “world”. Truman’s hometown of Seahaven Island is a complete set built within an enormous dome, populated by crew members and actors who highlight the product placements that generate revenue for the show. The elaborate set allows Christof to control almost every aspect of Truman’s life, including the weather.

They do everything they can to prevent Truman from discovering his false reality, even manufacturing scenarios that dissuade Truman from acting on his desire for wider exploration, including the “death” of his father (an actor) in a sea storm to instill aquaphobia. Constantly broadcasting and printing messages of the dangers of traveling and the virtues of staying home. However, Christof cannot predict all of Truman’s actions. During his college years, Truman was intended to fall in love with and marry co-student Meryl (which does happen), but he also did fall in love with Sylvia, who was intended as an extra on the program.

The movie really is like the unreality of most adoptee’s lives. It is a thoughtful rather than comedic Jim Carrey movie.

Surprising Reunions

Holly Shearer and Benjamin Hulleberg

Benjamin’s birth mother, Holly, was only 15 when she gave birth to him. When she was 6 months into her pregnancy, she began to search for adoptive parents for her baby. She feared that she would not be able to provide adequately for him.

Benjamin was given up to Angela and Brian Hulleberg on the day he was born, which just happened to be Thanksgiving Day in 2001. His adoption was never hidden from him and his adoptive parents talked to him about his biological mother.

Like many adoptees, including my own adoptee mom, Benjamin had always had a deep desire to meet his birth mother. He searched for her for many years. He’d written letters to adoption agencies of Utah, had his DNA tested and registered with the adoption registry. Nothing came of his efforts.

Like many birth mothers, Holly cared deeply about the baby she had given up for adoption and did a google search which found him on Facebook. 2 days before his 20th birthday, she took a risk to message him on Facebook – “You don’t know me but 20 years ago I made the hardest decision of my life and placed my beautiful little baby up for adoption with a beautiful family.”

Like many birth mothers, she was concerned about disrupting her son’s life, yet she simply wanted him to know that she had thought about him every day of his life. So she admitted that she finally found the courage to send him a message. She simply wanted to wish him a happy birthday.

When Benjamin saw the message, of course he wanted to meet her right away. So, they planned to have dinner and agreed that both of their families should be there to support them. On National Adoption Day, his wish became a reality. He discovered he had 2 half-siblings and that he was actually working at the same hospital that his birth mother worked at.

His mother is a medical assistant at the heart center at HCA Healthcare’s St. Mark’s Hospital. Hulleberg volunteered at the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. She notes that “Every morning, I would come in through the women’s pavilion to come into work. So, I passed right by the NICU every single day. We parked in the same garage, could have been on the same floor, had no idea that we were so close.”

After their reunion, Benjamin moved in with his mother, Holly. He also shares a coffee break with her each day before his shift in the NICU. He will leave soon to attend school in another Utah town.

~ today’s story courtesy of The Huffington Post.

The Archaic Shadow Of Secrecy

Parent Child Match

The closed, sealed adoption records of yesterday are much easier to pierce with today’s inexpensive DNA testing. Today’s story from Severance Magazine.

It begins this way – in 1967, I’d given birth to my first-born child in an unwed mothers maternity home in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had been a typical 17-year-old high school senior with plans for the future that evaporated overnight. In the sixties, it was considered close to criminal for a girl to become pregnant with no ring on her finger. The father of my child had joined the Army, preferring Vietnam to fatherhood. After my parents discovered my shameful secret, I was covertly hurried away and placed in an institution for five months. There, I was expected to relinquish my baby immediately after giving birth to closed adoption and I was repeatedly assured my child would have a better life without me. After his birth, I was allowed to hold my son three times. My heart was permanently damaged when I handed him over the final time. The home allowed one concession—I could give my baby a crib name. I named him Jamie.

In the Spring of 2016, this woman and her husband submitted DNA tests to Ancestry.com. By October 2016, a  ‘Parent/Child Match’ message popped up on her iPhone, causing me to stop me in my tracks, as my knees gave out from under me. After 49 long years, Jamie had found her. Who was he? Where was he? Would he hate me? How would this affect my life? My family? His family? She had always dreamed of finding Jamie but never thought past that point.

She relates – that night I heard my son’s voice for the first time. The wonder I felt when he said, “I know your voice” transformed me. In minutes, the secret of my son changed from fear of anyone knowing about him to wanting to shout out to the world, “My son has found me!” She also learned she had three new grandchildren.  Within four days, her son flew from Louisiana to California to meet her. She describes that first meeting as magical. She says, “My son was back in my life, and suddenly I was whole.”

Due to severe depression brought on by the COVID pandemic as a messy divorce, the loss of his job, and unhealthy isolation began to destroy him, she worried from a distance. In February 2021, they had what would be their last conversation. Before hanging up, her son said, “I love you, Mom. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” Two days later, the son she had mourned for 50 years, the son who had found her, left her again. He took his own life. Now she had lost him twice and this time was forever. Even so, she cherishes that phone call.

She ends her story with this – “I wish I could speak to all the birth mothers out there, who continue to carry the shame and guilt that society placed on us. For those who refuse to allow their relinquished child back into their lives. I want to say I know your fear. I know your uncertainty. I lived it and still live it. It is deep-seated in us, regardless of the circumstances that resulted in us leaving our children. Please know if you are brave enough to welcome that lost child into your life again, you may create a peace and a bond worth all the fear and guilt. There is nothing quite like reuniting a mother and her child, and you may be giving a gift of connection to that child and yourself, as it should have been all along.”

Irish Adoption Rights

Susan Lohan

In this interconnected world, adoption is definitely not national but international, especially in regards to adoptive parents in the US. I do have some Irish roots (thanking all that is good that I can even know this today). My adoptee father’s, paternal great-grandmother (if I have this right) was fully Irish (both of her parents were Irish born in Ireland.) So, what happened there, does matter to me here in this blog.

Today, I came across this story in The Guardian about Susan Lohan who is an adoption rights activist. She was adopted as a baby, and has been denied any information about her natural parents. Lohan has spent years fighting the church and state seeking for them to reveal what they know – about her (and the thousands of others like her born into the same situation). Similarly, hidden information that traps adoptees as second class citizens here in the US continues.

In the mid-60s in Ireland, up to 97% of all children born to unmarried mothers, like Lohan, were taken for adoption, mainly by the religious institutions and agencies that controlled social services and opposed reproductive choice. The married couple who adopted Lohan were loving parents, unlike some families in the past who took in children to use as free labor. A housewife and a shoe salesman, they were the rosary-reciting ideal of Catholic Ireland and their religious devotion would have been necessary to adopt a child. Couples needed a priest’s approval to adopt and sometimes even proof that they couldn’t have children biologically. Religious-run agencies had used adoption “as a mechanism to separate families” who didn’t meet the Catholic ideal. Lohan’s adoptive parents were told that her mother had died in childbirth but they were skeptical. Lohan always had an image in her mind of her mother as an unmarried girl, too young to keep her. She later found out that her mother had been in her 30s at the time, a civil servant who became president of a trade union. “She was not a woman who was easily intimidated,” Lohan says. “And even she felt unable to resist.”

Lohan now helps to run the Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), which she co-founded more than a decade ago with fellow adoptees and activists Claire McGettrick, also adopted from an Irish Sisters of Charity institution, and Mari Steed, one of the “banished babies” adopted from Irish institutions to the US. The ARA campaigns for the estimated 100,000 adopted people in Ireland to have an equal right to their identity and information.

Lohan was about 21 years old when she met her mother, Nábla, for the first time. A social worker with the religious-run adoption agency made contact with Nábla and arranged and oversaw their meeting. At first, says Lohan, her mother had a stern demeanor but, as soon as they started talking, all that fell away and her mother spoke candidly. When Nábla had discovered she was pregnant, she was already maintaining the family home alone and supporting her brother studying overseas, as her own mother was dead and her father had left. There was no support for Nábla to keep her daughter – there was no welfare for unmarried mothers until the 1970s and, even after that, many were evicted or lost jobs if it was discovered they had children out of wedlock. So she was referred to St Patrick’s Guild, the adoption agency run by the Sisters of Charity. “We were not unwanted children,” says Lohan. “[Our mothers’] sexuality was unwanted. Their self-determination was unwanted.”

After their meeting, Lohan’s mother still kept her existence a secret and withdrew from contact for about four years until her death from cancer in 2000. “It broke my heart,” says Lohan, who was in her mid-30s at the time. “I think that was my first realization that I had been grieving the loss of my mother my whole life.” At her mother’s funeral, the priest spoke of “an additional sadness, because she was a single woman with no family of her own”. Lohan felt like screaming, not only at the untruth, but at the unending stigma.

Years later, having received no information about her father, she was meeting with an official from the adoption authority when he left her alone in a room with her file (she believes deliberately), which allowed her to find her father’s name. She went on to discover that her father had died in the 1990s, while she was searching for him. It would take her until 2016 to establish for certain that she had siblings.

Lohan has helped lead a successful political campaign against a bill that would have criminalized people adopted in Ireland for contacting their natural parents, punishable by a year in jail or a fine. In 2005, she was part of the advisory group launching the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, an initiative to enable people separated through Ireland’s adoption system to voluntarily register their interest in receiving information or contact.

An official review of adoption records has found evidence that tens of thousands of adoptions in Ireland potentially involved illegal practices. The Clann Project produced its own report on mother and baby institutions in Ireland. It found that the state’s policy involved the incarceration of thousands of women and girls and the separation of many thousands of children from their mothers “through a closed, secret, forced adoption system”.

How many more children will have to be born in Catholic-ethos hospitals and attend Catholic-ethos schools (90% of primary schools in Ireland are still under the influence of the Catholic church) because the church will not relinquish influence and the state will not ensure alternatives. “We should have absolute separation of church and state,” Lohan says. “It is long overdue.”

Erasing The Mother’s Name

I was reading an article this morning in Time Magazine (the March 14/March 21 2022 issue) by Aubrey Hirsch titled “Why my children have their mom’s last name.” She describes all of the complications this has raised in their family’s lives. When I conceived my oldest son, my husband strongly wanted my name added to our son’s names and so both of my son’s have my maiden name as their middle names (which in this patrilineal society causes us not the confusion this woman and her husband’s choice has caused). What is a bit strange in our case is that both of my parent’s were adopted and so my maiden name links us not at all in genealogical terms to my family. Even trying to concoct an honest family tree at Ancestry is going to be a challenge (one that I only started but still need to complete).

My dad was given his mother’s maiden name as a surname because she was unwed at the time she gave birth and even though she knew full well who his father was (as I have since discovered in my own adoption story journey and am grateful for the breadcrumbs to my paternal grandfather’s identity that she left me) she did not name him on my dad’s original birth certificate and of course, because he was adopted, his birth certificate has the names of his adoptive parents. And because his adoptive mother later divorced the first adoptive father and remarried, my dad was adopted twice and his birth certificate as well as his first name was changed twice. It was all very patrilineal because his “new” (one could say he spent his entire life as many adoptees do living under an assumed identity) first name was the name of the adoptive father each time as well as the surname for each of these adoptive fathers. I can imagine what this might have felt like to his 8 year old self when the second one occurred.

The woman who wrote that personal essay for Time magazine laments how she has been pushing back against her children having her last name and not the father’s since they were born. Is it true that babies must take their father’s last name ? Well only if the mother identifies who the father was, I suppose, in most circumstances. Studies have shown that 95% of the time, heterosexual married couples give the baby the father’s name.

Ms Hirsch makes a good argument for her choice, she says – women do the hard work of pregnancy and childbirth. They also do the vast majority of the actual parenting (generally about twice as much). And she also points to the circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic 80% of US adults who were not working were women who were caring for children not in formal school or day care.

I agree also that our society simply does not support mothers and their children enough. Note that any attempt to pass more social supports for working parents, like paid family and medical leave, subsidized day care, and universal preschool, have stalled. It is mothers who will be shouldering the bulk of these burdens, forced to give up their jobs along with their names. And it is the male dominated society we live in that is mostly to blame. In general, women are not valued as highly as men, only make about 75% as much in the same jobs in most cases.

The issue of names shown on birth certificates is one that most adoptees are very sensitive to for understandable reasons. Even so, this woman bucked the tradition. She is proud of her family heritage and it is true that marriage erases the family connection for women 95% of the time (though some women today do keep their maiden names in marriage or hyphenate them). For this woman, her family name will be part of her genealogy and not erased as most women’s connections to the family of their birth are.

Ireland Gives Access

A story in The Guardian caught my attention, so I share.

Ireland will allow adopted people automatic access to their birth records for the first time under new laws the government hopes will end a “historic wrong”, including for thousands sent for adoption in secret by Catholic institutions. The minister for children says the proposed law would allow for the release of information – regardless of the parents’ wishes – the law would provide for the full and unredacted release of birth, early life and medical information to anyone over the age of 16.

International laws say all children should be able to establish their identity but tens of thousands of adopted people in Ireland have no automatic right to their birth records or access to tracing services. It remains much the same in half of these United States.

The legislation was published a year to the day since an inquiry found that thousands of infants died in Irish homes for unmarried mothers and their offspring mostly run by the Catholic church from the 1920s to the 1990s. Many infants were taken from mothers and sent overseas to be adopted.

Ireland is seeking to end Ireland’s “outlier status” for adoptees. A historic wrong has been done to adopted people and with this bill, the government is restoring the information that so many of people simply take for granted as part of their personal story.

Successive governments had argued that a 1998 supreme court ruling prevented them from opening adoption files because it emphasized the mother’s right to privacy. A 2019 bill to improve access to records was scrapped after opposition in parliament and from advocacy groups.

Adopted people will still be required to hold an “information session” with officials by phone if a birth parent expressed a no-contact preference. It’s not perfect but it is an improvement.

Realizing the Value of DNA Testing

Getting the results of my own DNA tests (both Ancestry and 23 and Me) did NOT bring surprise results to me – in that I knew BOTH of my parents were adoptees at the time I did the tests. What was I hoping for ? Answers to my cultural identity. A question that had plagued me since public school. What are we ? I asked my mom. We’re Americans, she answered. No, I said, what ELSE are we ? We don’t know because we were adopted, she answered.

And I did get insight into what I had yearned to know from childhood. Yet, my DNA tests did something for me that I did not anticipate. As actual genetic, biological relations were found at the two platforms, my DNA test proved to these that I actually was related to them. Me, someone they never knew existed. Though to be honest, I never knew they existed either. Building relationships with people who have decades of history with my original families (the families my parents were conceived as part of) and none involving me is slow and not earth-shattering but soul warming never-the-less.

I am pretty certain I came as a surprise to some of these – especially on my dad’s paternal line. His father’s family was located in Denmark. Several of his father’s siblings as well as his father immigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, his father never knew he had a son. More’s the pity. My dad did look remarkably like his own father and they shared an interest in boats, the ocean and fishing. They would have made wonderful friends as father and son. So, that family has been the most amazed at my existence. I originally found my grandfather’s step-granddaughter who told me quite a bit about him. And only recently, I now have email contact with one of his nephews in Denmark, who has told me something about my grandfather’s early life in that country before immigrating.

With my other 3 grandparent family lines, there was some awareness of my parent’s existence. One of the first that I met shared the same maternal grandfather with me. His daughters (my mom’s half-siblings) were aware of her existence. My cousin said to me upon my emergence into her life, My mom always wondered about your mom and wanted to have an opportunity to meet her. Sadly, I barely missed this half-aunt of mine. She died only months before I began my own search into my roots after BOTH of my parents had died only 4 months apart.

Next came cousins and an aunt on my dad’s maternal line. 23 and Me outed my cousin and she wrote me in excitement, Delores or Dolores Hempstead/Barnes is my grandmother. The aunt is her mother and she was living only 90 miles away from my dad at the time he died. He never spoke to me about being adopted except that one time after his adoptive father died and my dad was going through some papers and marveled that his original surname was Hempstead. My mom did tell me that he was not supportive of her own effort to search, warning her that she might be opening up a can of worms. That has informed me somewhat about his perspective – that the people who adopted him were his parents – end of story. We did know that my granny “got” him at the Salvation Army. There is so much more to that story that I have now been able to learn and I will always believe that the Salvation Army coerced her into surrendering him to adoption as she was unwed. I’m told she regretted losing him the rest of her life. One cousin lead me to another cousin who had the breadcrumb clue that my paternal grandmother left as to my dad’s father’s identity. A few photos and some notes written on the back of these.

Though the initial focus of my adoption related searches was my mom’s Stark family line, that one took me the longest to finally connect with the children of my grandmother’s youngest brother, who I also just missed as he had died not all that long before. I did learn early on from a woman “related by marriage” who was also a genealogist that my Stark family was Scottish. She belonged to the church across the street from the cemetery where my grandmother, her second husband and her parents are all buried. My maternal grandmother was a victim of Georgia Tann and the baby stealing and selling scandal of the Memphis Branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. My mom knew some of this background information, believed that she had been inappropriately adopted (her words for what happened to separate her from her mother) and actually tried to get her adoption file (the one I now have the complete file of, including photos of my grandmother and baby mom) but was denied it by the state of Tennessee. These second cousins (as they are my age but would be genetically my mom’s cousins) had close and fond relationships with my maternal grandmother. They gave me the warm kinds of intimate details about the kind of person she was – what my heart had yearned to know since I began my own journey.

I believe I have fulfilled my destiny to reconnect the broken threads of our family’s origins – the reason I managed to be preserved with the parents who first conceived me out of wedlock (my mom still in high school, my dad had only just started at an out of town university – high school sweethearts they had been. They did marry and remained married until death did part them).

Until I began learning more about the traumas of being adopted, it was the most natural thing in the world to me. So natural, that both of my sisters actually each gave up a baby to adoption. Thankfully, I’ve met and have contact with both of these wonderful, valuable persons – my niece and nephew. It’s impossible to know how their lives might have been different if my sisters had kept them. If my parents had never been surrendered for adoption – the miracle of it all for me personally is – I simply would not have existed. I love my life and for having one at all and with my original parents, I am grateful. So, I am also grateful I wasn’t given up for adoption – it would have been the most normal thing in the world to have happened to me.

The What If Of It All

Michele Dawson Haber

Today, I was first attracted to a blog by this woman, Michele Dawson Haber, in which she shares imaging her father talking to her while making coffee. “What’s this? Why so many steps? Do you know the coffee we drank in the old days was just botz (mud) at the bottom of our cups? A life like yours, with such complicated coffee—Michal*, it makes me happy that you’re not struggling as I did.” *Michal (מיכל) is her Hebrew name.

I come from a long line of coffee drinkers. The pot was always prepared for the timer to begin the brewing before any inhabitants of the house woke and wanted a cup. After my mom died, I spent several quiet treasured morning drinking coffee with my dad out on their deck as we watched the dawn turn into sunrise. When I returned to my parents’ house following my dad’s death, as I walked through their kitchen, I heard him clearly say in my mind, “You miss your old dad, don’t you ?” Exactly as he would have said it in life. I admitted that I did miss him already. With my mom’s passing, . . . oh, I heard her a lot say “You’re doing really well.” many times while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom where she died in her jacuzzi tub. So much that I finally had to let her know – “enough, I don’t need to hear this any more” – and it stopped.

Yet, what really touched my heart was Michele’s piece in May 2021 in Salon about her mother’s letters – “It’s my mom’s fault I stole her letters.” I found letters like that among my parents things as I cleared out their residence after their deaths only 4 months apart. I wish I had read Michele’s piece before getting rid of my parents’ love letters to each other that my mom treasured enough to keep for over 50 years. Just before I began that work, I had read a piece by a woman who’s mother had destroyed her love letters from her father. The mother had said these were private between your father and I – and for that reason only, I let the letters go after having coincidentally read only one but a very relevant one – as though my mom reached out from beyond the grave to make certain I at least saw that one.

Michele writes in her personal essay for Salon – “I felt guilt wash over me. The debates with my two sisters over whether it was ethical to steal her letters replayed in my mind. In the end, we decided that the information in those letters belonged not only to our mother, but also to me and my older sister.” But I had not and so chose a different course based upon someone else’s story. Michele goes on to say, “the question of privacy continued to gnaw at me. I knew that if I had asked my mother 20 or even 10 years ago for permission to read the letters she would have said, ‘Are you kidding? No way. What’s in those letters is none of your business.’ And so I did what I always do when faced with a conundrum: I researched. In her book The Secret Life of Families (subtitled How Secrets Shape Our Relationships and When and How to Tell the Truth), Dr. Evan Imber-Black distinguished secrecy from privacy. A secret, she wrote, is information withheld that “impacts another’s life choices, decision-making capacity and well-being.” Conversely, if a piece of information is truly private, then knowing it has no impact on another’s physical or emotional health. 

Michele goes on to share, “In my fantasy argument with my mother, I would say that her secrecy about my biological father did impact my well-being, that depriving me of my genetic heritage handicapped my ability to shape a strong identity.” I agree with her reasoning on this one.

I had read one note (not even a letter) from my mom to a friend, stressing about how my father might react to learning she was pregnant. She had conceived me out of wedlock as a 16 yr old Junior in high school. My dad had just started at the U of NM at Las Cruces and it appears they wrote each other almost every day, though mostly these were the letters she received from my dad, except the note I read. I remember when I figured out that I had been conceived out of wedlock and how in my heart (though only for a few months) I turned against my mom because of that. I didn’t want her to touch me, such as take my hand. Hopefully, she thought only that I was asserting some independence because I was growing up. It was just all those “nice girls don’t do that” lectures she had given me. As a grown woman now, I know that she didn’t want me to make the same mistake. I hastened to get married with a month yet to graduating from high school even though I was not pregnant. My parents supported me and we had the fully formal church wedding and reception in my parents’ back yard. I suspect my parents were afraid I might turn up pregnant like my mom did and so did not discourage me from a marriage that lasted long enough to conceive a child 4 months after I married and then ended in divorce when she was only 3 years old.

Finding that letter further softened my feelings about my conception because I could clearly feel my mom’s emotions and concerns before my dad knew he would become a father. Anyway, this long story shorter. I didn’t keep the letters but sent them to the local landfill along with other items my mom had kept from their many journeys – souvenir booklets and the like. Reading Michele’s story makes me regret that all over again, and I have felt that regret before.

After my dad died, I learned from my cousin, who’s father was my mom’s adoptive brother, that it was possible to get the adoption file that the state of Tennessee had denied my mom in the early 1990s. It is a pity they didn’t let her have that because it would have brought her so much peace. My own journey to rediscover my original grandparents (both of my parents were adopted) only took me about year after my dad’s death; and then, I knew who ALL 4 of them were and something about my ancestors. What I didn’t expect was gaining cousins and an aunt. Even though I am very happy to now have family that I am biologically and genetically related to – I will also admit how difficult it is to create relationships with people who have decades of history lived that I was not any part of. Thankfully, they have all been kind in acknowledging me (and sometimes the DNA makes it difficult for them not to).

Do read the links above to Michele’s stories. I’ve made this blog long enough that I am not going to include any more excerpts beyond the coffee bit and some of her thoughts about personal letters.

It Really Is NOT Fair

Anne Rudig writes “I’d like to know who my parents are.” in The Guardian. My adoptee mom wanted to know as well but was thwarted by the state of Tennessee at the time she tried. After her death, I discovered that the state of Tennessee had changed its laws for the victims of Georgia Tann’s unscrupulous practices. I tried to get my mom’s original birth certificate from Virginia and my dad’s (also an adoptee) from California and in both cases – the answer was NO without a court order and that means an expensive attorney and no guarantee of success. Fortunately, I found other ways to get my own desire fulfilled.

Anne goes on to say, “Like countless other adoptees in the US, outdated laws mean I still don’t know my parent’s names, ethnicities and medical histories.” The medical information was part of my own mother’s concerns as she had a condition that the doctors were having a difficulty diagnosing. Until I learned something about my grandparents I always had to say, I don’t know because my parents were both adopted. I only knew what showed up in their lives. Now I know my paternal grandmother had surgery for breast cancer.

Anne has had similar experiences – The medical history on my side of the family is solid white space. Each time I encounter a new doctor, the conversation is pretty much the same. “I see you have no family history for major illnesses – cancer, heart disease, stroke. That’s great.” “No, I have no family history.” Then follows an awkward moment as confusion travels across the physician’s face. I break the silence between us. “I was adopted.”

I read Anne encountered the same difficulties with the state of California that I did – “In some private and all closed adoptions the original birth certificate is sealed by the state of California. The only way to see it is to hire a lawyer and petition the court with a ‘very good reason’ to unseal. When I asked a clerk in Marin County, California, he couldn’t give an example of what a good reason might be, but he did say that wanting to know my origins wasn’t one of them.”

She goes on to say – “At the age of 69, I am not allowed to see my original birth certificate or know the basic facts of my origin. The names of my original parents, their ethnicities, vocations, countries of origin, ages, places of residence, and attending physician – all remain hidden. I want the date of my birth confirmed. I want to know where I came from. I want to know my original mother’s name. My adoptive parents are long gone. My original ones have likely passed too. Who is this law protecting, and from what?

In fact, I tried to make the same argument without success. All of my adoptive grandparents were dead and both of my parents were dead and yes, it was likely my original grandparents were dead too. Eventually, I came to the conclusion it is about money – about the state having to hire extra people to vet and dig up the records and copy them, etc for the descendants and/or still living adoptees. It’s about tax money and where it gets spent.

Anne asks – So why are states still sealing adoptees’ birth certificates? Sealed birth certificates obliterate our identity and origins – the exact things most people take for granted. The goal of closed adoptions is to turn the adopted child into a blank slate, ready for fresh imprint. But no baby is a blank slate. We all come with history, ancestry, fathers and mothers. And many of us don’t want to search; we just want to know.

My first husband and I conceived in the early 70s and didn’t know the sex of our baby until it was born. Still, we seemed somehow convinced we would have a son and when the baby we had turned out to be a daughter, we were surprised. I remember the nurses had to tell me 3 times that this baby was my daughter.

Anne shares – an over-eager sonogram technician led us to believe I was carrying a boy. While my pregnancy progressed, we selected a handful of boys’ names. In the delivery room, my doctor announced, “You have a beautiful baby girl.” My husband looked confused. “You’d better check on that.” So, when our daughter arrived there was a white space on her birth certificate, where her name should have been. We spent a week trying out names for her. 

Anne ends her essay with this truth – Sealed birth certificates were meant to protect adoptive parents from the embarrassment of infertility, the original mother from the shame of unwed pregnancy, and the child from the label of illegitimacy. None of this is necessary anymore, nor does it justify hiding personal information from adoptees. Forty-one states still restrict access to birth certificates through laws that date back as far as the 1930s. (blogger’s note – my parents were mid-1930s adoptees.) It’s time to repeal them. If not for me, then for my children, and perhaps theirs – and for all the children who will be adopted in the future.