On Adoption: Part Three – Opening the Pandora’s Box

Pandora's Box

please note that these comments, opinions and experiences are my own, your mileage may vary

for a bit about my credibility as someone who can rant about things like adoption see this post

Opening the Pandora’s Box

Of all the things in my life I am passionate about, adoptee rights never really occurred to me as being one of them. It turns out, however, that I am not just rabidly opinionated about it I am quite passionate about my rights as an adoptee (and yours too).

For anyone not adopted, let me clue you in to what I mean by “adoptee rights”. When an adopted child is placed with their adoptive parents and the adoption is finalized, a new birth certificate is issued listing the adoptive parents on it, and all records of the adoption, including the original unamended birth certificate is sealed. Currently only 7 U.S. States allow adult adoptees access to their original unamended birth certificate (the unamended birth certificate contains the names of their birth parents).  The unamended birth certificate is kind of the holy grail for adoptees, it’s often the single most vital piece of information about their origin they have.

I know for non-adopted folks this may seem like something important (legally) but certainly not as dramatic as we make it out to be.  I can only say;  you’re absolutely wrong. In my adoption story, when told by my mother, I am always referred to as ‘the baby’.  My biological mother went to Oregon to have ‘the baby’, she was young, a student and couldn’t take care of ‘the baby’ and she wanted a better life for ‘the baby’. It’s not until the nurse carries me out of the hospital wearing the dress my mother picked out and puts me into my mother’s arms that I am “ME” no longer ‘the baby’, but their child. I’ve always wondered, wondered about who I was before I was my mother’s daughter, when I was ‘the baby’, who was the woman who carried me to term, endured labor and then signed away her parental rights. What was the circumstance, was the story I was told true? Did she think about me?   The millions of unanswered questions that adoptees have and they all end with “No”.  “No” you cannot have any information relating to your past, your history, your biology. The state, the institution responsible for your adoption, the lawyers, the social services, they no more than you do, and you cannot be given this information.

There is a great article on the Huffington Post about birth records and our collective struggle to obtain them, they delve into the reasons they were sealed to begin with. Privacy for the birth parents, privacy for the adoptive parents,  helping to remove the stigma of out of wedlock birth, etc etc.  Ultimately for me it came down to this.  How dare any state, any institution, any person, deny me of my right to my OWN identity?! I am  an adult and as such you should not be able to hide what is rightfully mine.

That was (and still is) my frustration, my rant, my rage… and then the wonderful people of Oregon agreed with me and just like that I could have my unamended birth certificate. I used a knife to open the letter (usually I just used my thumb, tearing at the envelope which was casually discarded), treating it as the precious item it was. It was a simple xerox copy, folded and slid into a printed State of Oregon embossed envelope, but for me it meant everything. It’s strange for a person to say that a xerox page validated their existence, but it felt like it did. I read it over and over again, carefully examining my birth mother’s signature, and then it hit me… now what?

I’d spent so long with this battle, this rage against the bureaucracy that kept me bound that I’d really never given much thought to what I would do when (or if) I ever got the information. In the weeks that followed I’d finally settled with the knowledge that “the baby” was actually “baby girl Wilson”, before I was me, I was someone else, who is also me, just the part of me I couldn’t talk about or risk hurting my adoptive family.  I wondered who she was this ‘baby girl Wilson’, where she’d been, how she’d come to be and what secrets her genetics held that I didn’t know.  The more accustomed to it I became the more I recognized that I had already decided that I would find my birth mother. There wasn’t a point where I thought “okay let’s do it” but more like the realization that this was my goal from the start, something I had always planned to do, as a child, as a teen and now as an adult.

I knew I wanted to find her but beyond the how there was the very complicated why and what.  It sounds silly but I knew that when I decided I was ready that I would find her, I had no idea really how I would accomplish that, but the fact that I would find her was a forgone conclusion to me, it was only a matter of when; when I was ready.  In my teens and 20’s I wouldn’t have been ready, of course I didn’t have the option, but knowing myself I was too involved with my own crap, sorting out who I was and what I wanted, tracking down and showing up on some stranger’s doorstep would have been a very bad idea, for everyone.  I was 30 when Oregon passed the referendum allowing unamended birth certificates, so well past my angsty teen and young adulthood… but still I was hesitant.

I struggled with a lot of questions about my motivation and the reality of having her in my life. Questions like:

What did I want from her? What kind of relationship did I expect or desire? What would she want from me?   I mean besides the desire for the story of how she found herself pregnant, who my father was, their story and questions of biology and genetics (what diseases run in the family, what part of Europe are we from? etc). I already had a mother; one I was still struggling and growing into a relationship with, what did I want from this woman, what was I prepared to give?  I had to consider as many possibilities as I could, from the possibility of hostility at my contact, her not wanting to meet me or have anything to do with me to her being ‘broken’ from the adoption experience and wanting to recapture the 30+ years of my life she’d missed. I was terrified of her rejection as much as I was the idea of her being obsessed with connecting with me.  Reading the A.M. Homes book “The Mistress’s Daughter”  literally set my search back several years.  It was every adopted person’s nightmare, not just the shattering of the fantasy narrative we create, but a scenario so awful you’re certain that A.M. Homes would have been better off not knowing.

Books like “The Girls Who Went Away” really humanized these women but also showed the side of the adoption equation I’d really never considered much, just how damaging it was for my biological mother.  In my adoption narrative she was the hero, she was the smart woman who knew she was ill-equipped to raise a child and brave enough to give her to those who could. She was supposed to move on to bigger and better things, just as I was supposed to forget that she existed and embrace the family who adopted me and my new, brighter future. If only things turned out the way they were supposed to.

There are many reunion stories, some bad, some great and others somewhere in the middle. Before I decided to search I needed to be sure what my motivation was, what my expectation was and whether or not I could handle the worst case scenarios.

If you are starting your search, I encourage you to talk about it. Talk with friends who can understand, talk to a counselor who has experience with adoption issues, talk to adoptee support groups. Consider as many possibilities as you can because once you’ve found her you can’t undo it.

One thought on “On Adoption: Part Three – Opening the Pandora’s Box

  1. A very thought provoking blog. At one point in my long career, I’m old, I worked at Juvenile Court where the adoption records were kept, and I would research those records for the Judge so that he could respond to inquiries from the adoptees and the birth mothers. At that time the court would put the letters of inquiry into the appropriate file and if the birth mother and adoptee were searching fore each other, he would take that into consideration. Privacy laws, are somewhat stricter now, I suppose.

    I want to follow you to see how your story ends. Prayers with you.

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