by Lisa Ritter Starr
Ninety nine point nine percent of the average adopted person's life occurs post-adoption. The entirety of her childhood is spent with one mother and father, one family, and one home as her own. Simply speaking, that is.
I find myself continually discovering how simple these things are not.
Consider, for example, the following notion: Adoption doesn't begin when the legal documents are signed and the baby is placed into a parent's arms. Nor does it start with a baby's birth. Or the desire to bring a baby into the world.
Perhaps this is an unconventional notion, but it is not a far-fetched one. Because the roots of adoption reach back even further, back to the crisis of an unplanned pregnancy. The whole direction of an adopted person's life shifted at this very point, due to this particular circumstance, about which their first mother made one of the most difficult decisions of her life.
Of closed adoptions only, now: How often do we think about this comparatively tiny stretch of time in each adopted person's life? How much social significance is placed on any of an adopted person's pre-placement history? And what sort of significance should be placed on it?
These days birth mothers have more choice in the adoption process than ever, yet it wasn't long ago that being a birth mother meant lifelong uncertainties, shame, secrets, fear, and pain. Just a few years ago, a birth mother might be told she wasn't worthy to raise her child, that she should give him up and forget about the whole thing forever. Many were told never to search for their children, because it would be an invasion in the child's life - to which they gave up all rights the day they signed the adoption papers.
To complicate matters further, some parents of closed adoptions were advised not to talk about the adoption to the child or else risk the child's mental and emotional health. They might also have been afraid to confuse or stigmatize the child, or themselves due to whatever "problems" led to the adoption itself.
"What problems?" one might ask. On the one hand, there are the problems birth parents faced in bringing the child into the world. Then there are those the adoptive parents probably experienced, since there are basically two reasons for a couple (or single) to adopt: 1) you are unable to conceive biological children, and 2) you decline to give birth to a child in an overpopulated world already filled with parentless children. While both reasons lead to adoptions, I'm sure I'm not the only one who believes the former reason outnumbers the latter.
Some "problems," therefore, seem to exist. But while I don't propose dwelling in the past, I do suggest that the past should not be denied. Why? Well, because it is history. Because history is educational, even inspirational. Because this is part of the adopted adult's whole heritage, which is something that non-adopted people have the luxury of taking for granted.
Heritage is exactly what many adopted adults lack and hope, for whatever reasons, that they will someday regain. Tens of thousands - if not much more - birth family members, lost through closed adoptions, are searching each other out this very moment.
AdoptionForums.com alone currently lists 32, 231 posts under the section on birth family search. Some of these posts are stories from people who have searched and found their family, and want to share their joys, pain, suggestions and personal insights. The majority read like a newspaper want ad - "ISO male born 12/12/72 in Chicago"- or a desperate plea: "Please help me find my daughter."
While most adopted people's lives have been very happy and their parents healthy and loving, the secrecy and negativity surrounding the inception of a closed adoption can hurt an adopted person even well into adulthood. It's certainly no secret how this past system continues to hinder the reunion of birth parents, their children, and other birth family. It was just such a system, by the way, that influenced the child's life in that largely forgotten, supposedly insignificant pre-adoption period.
Just look again at the sheer numbers of birth family who seek each other out. There is nothing they can do about the past. They lost touch with a part of themselves and now only hope to rediscover it. But they constantly run into obstacles. Although some family members are happily reunited after a relatively short search, others tearfully reunite after searching maybe two, four, ten years, or more. So many more continue their search only to find that reunion isn't possible due to family deaths or other unforeseen circumstances. Finally, some just continually reach dead ends.
It might be easier to take it in stride, if this outcome depended merely on random luck. The fact remains that the information many adopted adults need is there, but they are told that they simply can't have it. Laws and procedures must be followed, respect to parents' past wishes given, various family members' moral and emotional objections observed.
But what about the person who was adopted? Where are her rights written? Where is the respect for her feelings, her emotional objection to being told she can't know anything about her biological history? I believe adoption has always been intended to be a loving choice for abandoned, orphaned, or unable-to-be-cared-for children. But how can anyone continue to say they have the adopted person's well-being in mind, when they simultaneously bar the way to her biological heritage?
Pretending an adopted person's life didn't start until adoption might be fine for a while. It might allow the new family to form and identify itself more clearly. But anyone who has done a family tree, studied Grandpa's native German, or said, "I have my great grandmother's smile," knows how important it is to know and acknowledge your heritage.
And any parent, especially a mother, should know that you cannot forget your own children, no matter how little or how long you knew them.
I hope that, for the most part, the crudeness and insensitivity of past closed adoptions is gone. However, the secrecy and shame that shaped the system continue to infiltrate the newer one that is now (finally!) taking its place. I have dealt with it personally as a birth mother and know of countless others - adopted people and birth mothers, mostly - who have experienced it, too.
At least there is something we can do about it. For one, let's stop tiptoeing around the first hint of any strong emotion that goes along with adoption. Sure, adoption is emotional (is that any surprise?) but it doesn't have to be shameful anymore - not for the loving set of parents who adopt, nor for the loving people who choose adoption placement for their children.
And two, let's realize when we're pretending that biological family isn't important, even if it is intended to assuage an adopted person's insecurity, fear, sadness, worry, or wonder. Once we realize it, we can stop. Because we know damn well how important it is. As Judge Wade S. Weatherford of South Carolina said of his ruling to grant an adopted adult's access to his adoption records:
"Mankind is possessed of no greater urge than to try to understand the age-old questions, 'Who am I?' and 'What am I?' Even now the sands and ashes of the continents are being sifted to find where we made our first step as man. Religions of mankind often include ancestor worship in one way or another. . .Those emotions and anxieties that generate our thirst to know the past are not superficial and whimsical. They are real and they are 'good cause' under the law of man and God."
Adoption is one of many beautiful and unique ways we have invented to create families. In any kind of family, I have yet to meet someone who would throw their baby out with the bathwater. So why do we insist on bruising the preciousness of adoption with the cold denial of it's history: the adopted person's own biological heritage? Without it, there would be no adoption at all.
The birth mother knows that placing her child will affect not only the rest of her life but that of the child, his parents and many others. But remember: She is the one who brought that child into this world. She was the guide at that first fork in the child's life path, and had the strength to say, "You will go that way, even though I can't go, too, because that is the clearest path for you."
Return to the Missing Pieces home page.