Part II: A Continuing Quest
The increasing light shed and effort expended on improving adoptions are encouraging - most domestic adoptions today allow for some degree of openness. Still, past systems of secrecy continue to exert an influence on this new openness. No one feels the frustration of this more than today's adopted adults who are looking for answers.
Some estimate that 2%-5% of Americans are adopted, though it is difficult to be sure. This figure includes grandparent and step-parent adoption and may not include many that are unreported. Nonetheless, we can know that millions of Americans are affected personally by adoption, millions of those are themselves adopted, and tens of thousands of adopted adults are now actively seeking out information about themselves, often to no avail.
Adopted adults and birth family of closed adoptions are consistently aliented from their supposedly inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness - a pursuit which many equate to the search for answers about their genetic pasts. When something like this happens, more than part of the population is affected. Such questionable fairness, in policies regarding basic human rights, affects everyone.
History of the Search
In spite of legal barriers, people do succeed in reuniting with birth family. It is difficult to name a specific point at which people began to search in large numbers, but one could say that the 1970s marked the turning point from "Why are you searching?" to "Why aren't you searching?" (6-7). It may help to remember that this time period was the wake of the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, after which it was not so unheard of or shameful to be - or have been - single and pregnant (10).
The increasing popularity of media coverage on adoption must have also helped, including television shows like "Donahue," which highlighted a few cases of adoptees and birthmothers reuniting. Individual stories served to inspire others, and the search and reunion movement caught on. By the 1980s, many reunions were starting to take place (Prologue xxvii).
Reunion, however, was often the culmination of years of hard work, and had to be fueled by an intense desire to locate birth family. The origin of this desire itself ranged anywhere from strong curiosity to an all-out quest for emotional peace. However daunting the obstacles seemed, the desire for knowledge often proved to be more powerful.
The Search for Knowledge
People are naturally curious about their roots. We study cultural history, genealogy and paleontology. We have always looked up at the sky and wondered about the beginning of the universe. Like anyone else, adoptees may want to know what their ancestors did for a living, when and why they came to America, or whether any of them led particularly intriguing or even famous lives. They may be curious about how their mother felt when pregnant with them, or how easy or difficult their birth was.
Adoption researchers note that adopted people as a group tend toward certain feelings (49). Aside from natural curiosity, they may share feelings of rootlessness, disconnection, incompleteness, fear of abandonment, and anger. Moreover, none of these feelings seems to stem from their upbringing, and none seems even to begin to resolve until the fact of the adoption is correlated.
Reunited adoptees report that such feelings tend to resolve once the holes in their biological background are filled (60). Finding birth family sheds light on many mysteries, increases self-knowledge, and even increases self-esteem. Answers are given not only to simple questions such as, "Who do I look like?" but also "Why was I given away?" The birthmother may explain how difficult it was to face an unplanned pregnancy, how much love she felt when she saw her baby, and how sad she was to lose him.
In rare cases, it may be revealed that the birthmother had been deceived - told that her baby died, or that she could go pick him up from a foster home only find out later that she was too late, the baby was gone. These cases may be unusual, but nonetheless are reported to have happened (14).
The Quest for Peace
Everyone in the triad feels a loss, but adoptees are the ones who tend to feel lost. They are, after all, a major loss of their birthparents' lives. Searching for birth relatives is a way to perhaps reverse the loss, or at least shift the focus from the loss to what can be gained through reunion. For adopted people, birth family can shed light on mysteries that no one else can solve. For birth family, seeing or knowing facts about the fate of their relinquished children is an incredible relief.
Secrecy can be a great cause of unrest. Adoptive parents may have been told never to speak of their child's "shameful" origin, lest they cause emotional damage. Their children then picked up on their family's mistrust of their origins and internalized it. The whole family then carried the burden of this secret other family that no one wants to talk about, let alone claim.
Birthparents, especially birthmothers, also tend to carry the former shame of their unplanned pregnancy with them throughout their lives. They report feeling "unauthentic," able neither to claim nor forget their secret child. They may dread meeting new people, since meeting them might entail questions like, "Do you have kids?" or "How many children do you have?" (14-15)
Reunion relieves the unrest of secrecy and promotes at least some feeling of peace. Birthmothers just after reunion often report feeling physically light, regardless of how well the first meeting went. Adoptees report feeling more rooted and assured that they were not given away for lack of love. Even adopted parents can gain peace, having a face to put on the mysterious birthmother and seeing that she's just another woman in the grocery store, wondering what to pick up for dinner. (101)
If only it were easier for adopted people and birth family to search for each other, but any number of barriers can present themselves, even before they start. If it's not the guilt of trying to avoid hurting their parents, then it's the difficulty in getting their original birth certificates, or simply the time it takes to procure their original documents. If you are lucky enough to live in a state like Oregon, your birth records are now open if you are over 18. But for those in the other forty-odd states whose records remain closed, you may be in for a long haul.
These days there are adoption forums and search registries that help thousands of people locate each other. You can hire a private investigator, read how-to books, or look up tips on the Internet on how to get around some states' closed record laws. Most of the time, however, the search must be done the hard way and takes time, perhaps years. This is simply unfair. These are adults who are searching - they don't need to be protected from supposedly harmful information anymore.
Original birth records exist for virtually every single person in America. Most people need not give them a second thought. They have their answers, without ever having to go looking for them. Adopted people, especially if they take the time to search, are entitled to their answers, too. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the answers can be found, they are guarded blindly by strangers who haven't the slightest idea how vital these statistics are.
Why does it have to be so hard? And is this really constitutional? Some argue that amending birth certificates is blatant forgery, since the removal of the birth parents' names and replacement with other names constitutes an intent to defraud. It is at least an affront to birth parents to have their identities literally erased from their own children's births. It's like telling a birthmother who has just gone through labor and delivery, "This birth never happened."
Of course, there is always a bright side. We are slowly amending the problems of closed adoptions. New generations of adopted people generally will have access to the answers they seek, at least when they become of legal age to seek them. In a few cases, closed records have been opened, and new ways have been found to circumvent the old, closed system.
Birth families every day do somehow manage to overcome these obstacles. The results are overwhelmingly positive. Even if the reunion doesn't happen or doesn't go well, searching is almost always reported as better than not searching; knowing as better than not knowing (104).
Part three of this series discusses closed adoptions from the birthmother's point of view, and explores the common circumstances that led up to the women's relinquishment of their children to closed adoptions.
Gediman, Judith S. and Linda P. Brown. Birth Bond: Reunions Between Birthparents And Adoptees - What Happens After. . . New Horizon Press, Far Hills, NJ: 1989.