Cousins, Cousins, and More Cousins

Cousins, Cousins, and More Cousins

To my knowledge, my son has 3 bio first cousins: my sister’s daughter, Samantha, and Tony’s sister’s daughters, Emily and Rebecca. He has never met any of them. He also has a cousin on Kathy’s side, little Parker, the most precocious 7-year-old you’ve ever met in your life. It was very special to watch Eric, this brilliant college senior, spend time with his little cousin over the Christmas holidays. The two of them have a very special bond that is heartwarming to see in action.

My husband has just a couple cousins, as well – and they are quite a bit older than he. That is, on his dad’s side. Not sure about his mom – she’s not really in the picture, and other than his sister, he’s not close to anyone from her side of the family, including any cousins who may exist.

I, on the other hand, have literally dozens of cousins. My parents, though not prolific childbearers, had siblings who more than made up for their lack. My father’s younger brother had 11 children, and his younger sister had five. His oldest brother and sister entered the religious life, so neither had children, but the five Orsini siblings managed to bear an average of 3.4 children each. Then there was my mom’s family. I don’t even know with certainty how many cousins I have on the Rendon side – but as she was one of 11 herself, there are many, many cousins. I believe only three remained childless, and each of the other eight had between two and six kids each. Let’s lean toward the six and say that’s an average of 4.5 – so I’ll put my guess at the number of cousins on my mom’s side at 36. Holy cow! My family, alone, has enough first cousins to field more than five baseball teams!

Things is, I still don’t really know what it’s like to grow up in a sizable family. Because my dad left the priesthood to marry my mother, they were forced to move away from the diocese where they met. They decided if they had to leave, they might as well move to a sunnier climate – which is how I ended up in Phoenix, as opposed to growing up in Michigan. Or so the story goes (I feel certain I am missing a few details!). So there were five of us for a while: my mom, dad, younger sister, and older half-sister – until my older sister decided to seek her fame and fortune in New York City when I was all of about 6 or 7. So then, it was just the four of us. No big Thanksgivings. Only ever needed the leaf for the dining room table if my mom invited people over for dinner – which might have happened twice in my entire childhood.

I was so excited to spend the holidays with my high school boyfriend because his family always had a houseful of people. His mom and aunt and grandmother would make lasagna noodles from scratch, hanging them over the furniture to dry – what a sight! And there were PEOPLE around! It didn’t matter that I didn’t know them and went mostly unnoticed in the corner – it was just so exciting to have more than three others to share special family events with.

My niece had a strange growing up experience. My sister did the very best she could, always putting Samantha’s needs first. And if she were honest, I think Sam would tell you that she was never really deprived of anything. She was in the Phoenix Children’s Chorus, which enabled her to travel the country and the world performing. She attended and graduated from TCU – and spent two semesters abroad during that time. Yet, she bounced around a lot as a kid – spending only the first couple years with both parents. Then she went with Corina to New Jersey for a bit, before they eventually came back to Phoenix. And, for better or worse, she spent a lot of her growing-up years around my mental-health-challenged mother.

She and Eric are just 3.5 years apart in age, and they’ve never met. John and I will celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary this St. Patrick’s Day. I had wanted Samantha to sing at our wedding, but she made other plans, opting to go to Florida for spring break instead. It really wasn’t that she missed our wedding that was so upsetting – although John has said he can’t wait for her to get married so he can not go to her wedding – as much as it was the fact that she turned down the opportunity to meet one of her few cousins, my son, Eric. I’m not sure whether or how much thought he’s ever given to the fact that he has never met Samantha, but I’ve given it quite a lot. Sam’s not what you’d call the giving type – she’s always done things her way, regardless of the consequences – so in retrospect, it shouldn’t really have come as such a surprise that she chose a personal vacation over our wedding. My sister called it karma that Sam got the flu the second her plane landed and she spent her entire vacation in her hotel room.

My son is pretty much the exact opposite – going out of his way to be kind and generous. Kathy told me that he was right around 3 when his sister went to sleep-away camp for the first time. Kathy was a bit nervous, as her daughter had never been away from home for more than a night. Eric could see how upset his mom was, so he threw his arms around her neck and told her, “Don’t worry. I love you, Mama.” Eric and Sam are both smart, though, and have both attended fairly exclusive schools. I wonder what they’d talk about if given the chance – and hope they’d get along. Maybe someday.

In the meantime, I’m quite happy to know that Eric does know what it’s like to have bigger family get-togethers. Kathy and Bruce were very generous in including me in Eric’s high school graduation celebration. That was a party that extended far beyond just family. But even when it is just the family, it’s Eric, Kathy, and Bruce; Eric’s sister and her husband; Kathy’s brother and his little boy; and Bruce’s sister and her husband. That more than doubles the size of my family celebrations as a kid.

The Unique Pain of Being Adopted

The Unique Pain of Being Adopted

No birthmother is happy at the thought that she’s hurt her child by placing him or her for adoption. I can only speak for myself, but I imagine many must feel, as I did, that we were doing the best thing we could for our babies – or older children, as is sometimes the case. I definitely could have parented my son – I was old enough, with a steady job, and health insurance. In other words, I had the means. But I’m not sure, to this day, that doing so would have been the best thing for him. I’m not unmaternal, per se, but I never felt the overwhelming drive so many moms – and would-be moms – seem to have. I think kids are cute enough, but I’ve never gone out of my way to meet a baby or felt something in my life was missing because I did not live the parenting experience.

That’s a challenging admission to make, given that my son could certainly take it as abandonment. And strangely enough, it’s only through the self-inspection, recollections, and research I’ve begun doing for this blog that I realize how deep his pain might have been. Just because I adjusted fairly well to the separation doesn’t mean he did. It’s long been my belief – and experience – that the older person in the relationship (e.g., the parent, teacher, older sibling) sets the tone for the relationship. So in that regard, the tone I set in my relationship with Eric was that I wasn’t going to be his mother. Partly, if I’m honest, because I didn’t want to be anybody’s mother (it wasn’t about him, personally) – but mostly because I didn’t think I could do a very good job at it. My role models had been iffy, my biological clock non-existent. And the one thing I knew was that he deserved a great mom – great parents. So I went through a lot of effort to ensure he got them.

It took me a very long time to find a life partner in my husband, John. I was 42 when we met, and 43 when we married, a first marriage for both of us. He was the first man I dated seriously after Tony, my son’s birthfather. We met through the Craigslist personals. I’d been posting there on and off for five years when we met, yet mine was the first ad John ever responded to. The thing is, as I look back on it now, all of those first dates were a lot like the profiles I saw for prospective parents. I could have said yes to a second date with any of them – just as I could have agreed to a meeting with any of the prospective parents from the first 11 profiles. But I would have been settling for less than what I really wanted, and I wasn’t willing to do that.

I’m not comparing choosing adoptive parents for my son with choosing a mate; the former was far more important, because it affected a little person who was wholly dependent on me to make good decisions for him. If I dated and subsequently married badly, society would easily allow me to divorce and get a “re-do.” If I chose the wrong parents for my son, there would be no take-backs. So maybe holding out until I met the right people to become Eric’s family was practice for holding out to meet John. One thing is sure: I got it right on both counts.

I will say that as John and I were briefly considering the idea of parenting, it did niggle at the back of my mind to wonder how Eric would feel if I’d had another child I kept after having placed him with Kathy and Bruce. I’m not quite sure how much that thought affected my decision not to have a child with John – perhaps more than I realized.

And even though it seems my son has had a great life, I know he has struggled with the adoption, as virtually every adopted kid has. Fortunately for him, the adoption has been at least semi-open since the start, so he’s known who his family is and has been able to see photos, meet his aunts and maternal grandmother, and have his questions answered as they arose. He has a full medical history for my side of the family, and a few details about his birthfather’s. In short, he has a lot more access and information than many adoptees do, even in today’s era of “openness.”

I was banging around, looking for a photo idea for closed adoption when I came across the website, IAmAdopted.net. Grit your teeth and gird your loins if plan to do any reading there – because a lot of its information may hit you hard in the face, especially if you are an adoptive parent. The goal of the site, it seems, is to foster better, more open relationships between adoptive parents and the children they call theirs. There is helpful, eye-opening information for birthparents, too. For instance, one of the posts I read is titled “If Adoption Was About the Child.” It begins with these lines:

“Every day … I read about the experiences and narratives of adoptees, and the overall conclusion I have made is that adoption is about birth parents and adoptive parents. When will we be real about it and admit that?”

Her point is that it’s only in the rarest circumstance when adoption is solely done with the child’s well-being most central. Usually adoptive parents are adopting because they want a [bigger] family – not out of a desire to help a needy infant or toddler. And likewise, adoption is often a solution for the birthmother. I felt defensive reading those comments – and yet I must admit this blogger has a point.

She then goes on to delineate the ways adoption would work if it were truly centered around the child. I am paraphrasing, unless a direct quote is indicated. But please go read the original post!

  • All adoptions would be open. Check.
  • Adoptees would be allowed consistent contact with their birthfamilies – providing safety wasn’t an issue – without the adoptive parents fearing their child would like their birthparents better. It didn’t start like that, but we got there in a way that unfolded at Eric’s pace, not mine or his parents’.
  • Adoptees would have access to their original birth certificates. I wanted this – but even the birth certificate I have does not name Tony as the birthfather. I must have been angrier with him than I remember. And the one Eric’s family has was redacted and changed to indicate their last name, not ours.
  • Birthmothers would not deny contact with the children they placed for adoption. While I cannot imagine doing this, from what I’ve been reading, the guilt and shame some birthmoms experience is overwhelming and they feel they don’t deserve access to their children. What they fail to realize is that in doing so, they’re creating a second rejection that might be even more painful than the original one. The writer calls the behavior selfish, and I’d have a hard time arguing with her.
  • Adoptive parents would allow their children to search without getting overly emotional and making it about themselves instead of about their children’s need to claim their identity. This was not relevant in our adoption, but given how open Kathy was from the beginning, I doubt it ever would have been an issue.
  • The experiences and narratives of adoptees would be validated – not questioned. Adoptees wouldn’t be labeled as angry or bitter. Adoptive parents and birthparents need to admit that everything won’t always be rosy for their kid, no matter how much he or she is loved. The separation of adoption is a form of trauma, requiring attention and recuperation. Rather than scolding them for experiencing their emotions, it would be far more helpful for the parents to help them express their emotions – even the uncomfortable ones. Check, on Kathy’s end. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t always realized the depth of this pain.
  • There would be no lies told or secrets hidden from the adopted child. Check.
  • Adoptees wouldn’t be expected to always feel grateful for being adopted. Wow – this one caught me off guard. I don’t think I overtly did this – but perhaps I expected Eric to be OK with things just because he had all the information. Well, I’m his first mom and I chose to let another person come in and take what would have been my role. How could any of us expect him never to feel even a little resentment for that?
  • There wouldn’t be an exorbitant amount of money exchanged for facilitating the adoption. Her direct quote is: “(When will birth mothers and prospective adoptive parents learn that they are being duped by the multi-billion dollar adoption industry?) You can change that by demanding lower to no-cost adoption. Adoptive parents hold the power in adoption land.” Yep – I agree with this one, even though I wasn’t on the paying side of the equation. Actually, because I had health insurance, I covered most of the costs for doctor visits and my hospital delivery, which makes fees an even stranger consideration in our case. I did, however, receive a stipend of a few hundred dollars for maternity clothes.
  • We would admit that race matters. This, again, was nonmaterial to our adoption, but I love this thought. Especially this part: “If you are going to adopt transracially, be prepared and don’t make excuses for not being able to move or how far you must travel to the nearest city that is more diverse after choosing to spend thousands of dollars on your adoption. Put it in the budget.”
  • Adoptive parents would help adoptees locate their birthfamilies and demand legislation to open all adoptions and provide adopted persons with their original birth certificates. Yep – 100 percent agreement on that one, too.

So if I were keeping score, I’d say we did pretty well with the items on this list. But I’m not really the one to ask – I wonder how Eric would feel we did. A few are beyond our personal reach, but even though we’re not directly affected, we can still get involved in changing things. If we want whole, healthy adopted persons to come out of the strange relationships created by adoption, openness in every area needs to be the standard.

The Cure, Cathartic Writing, and a Berkeley Parking Ticket

The Cure, Cathartic Writing, and a Berkeley Parking Ticket

I’ve begun a habit of occasionally dancing for exercise. Was at it fairly regularly for the middle part of 2017; then the holidays hit, we moved, and I’ve been having trouble reestablishing any sort of routine. Recently, I was re-inspired by this article about how beneficial dance is for staving off the aging process. Today, I finally picked it up again, and all was well. Then I heard a song by one of my favorite bands, “In Between Days,” by the Cure.

In Between Days lyrics

Immediately upon hearing the chorus, I was transported back to exactly two weeks, to the day, after my son was born. That was the day Tony, my son’s birthfather, moved out. A man of few words, he didn’t disappoint that day. The one comment I still remember as if it were yesterday was, “I know this is the biggest mistake I’ll ever make in my life, but I’m committed to it, so I’m going to see it through.” And with that, he was gone, back the apartment we had shared with his best friend, Mike. I know Mike wanted to throw him out on his ass when he showed back up – but that’s not what best friends do.

It wasn’t the end of our relationship – we managed to string things along in the same push-pull pattern we’d perfected before Eric was born for another five years. But his leaving was devastating, nonetheless.

I was still recuperating from the birth – waiting for the last of my milk to stop trickling. That night, I sat alone in my apartment, watching a movie called The Client, about a little boy who witnesses a mob attorney commit suicide. Susan Sarandon plays a character called Reggie Love, the attorney who defends and shelters the little boy. More than anything, I wanted a Reggie Love in my life at that moment, someone whose shoulder I could cry on, who would help me make sense of all the grief and loss and leaving.

My mom really wasn’t a candidate. My sister who lived in New Jersey would have been no help. My younger sister had her own life to deal with. So I turned to the only other person I knew would be there for me, my friend Jane. I called her up, weeping, and she immediately invited me out to visit with her in San Francisco. I booked a flight the next day, and made my (thus far) only visit to The City by the Bay.

Jane was working during my visit, but she went out of her way to make me feel at home. She lent me her car, so I had a crash course in hilly driving, something I revisited on my recent stay in Yonkers, NY. She was a coffee drinker (to this day, I prefer tea), so she told me where the cool indie coffeehouses were. She warned me about the parking police on the Berkeley campus – and I still managed to get a ticket because I forgot to feed the meter. I remember going to a Wells Fargo bank and asking for a money order so I could pay the ticket before Jane even found out about it. I blanched when they told me it would cost $14 – but I paid the fee and took care of the ticket. I also spent an afternoon wandering around Golden Gate Park. These are the details I remember about that trip.

The respite lasted only seven days, and then I had to return to my life in New Jersey, such as it was. Going back to work helped. Knowing Tony was there, even if he wasn’t really, also helped. And somehow I muddled through.

Maybe a year or so later, when I was speaking to one of my first groups of adoptive parents, one of the women told me I should write a book about my experiences. “Maybe,” I told her. But it had already been done, and I didn’t see how adding my story to the others I’d come across would help anyone. While writing my story would probably be cathartic for me, I wasn’t sure it would be of any use to another birthmother or prospective birthmom. I didn’t realize at the time that the few birthmother stories I’d seen were pretty much the only books by and for birthmothers available anywhere.

As it turns out, I did try to write it. I got out a couple of yellow legal pads and began writing my story – our story. I was moving along fairly smoothly, until I hit the part I described in today’s post: Tony’s leaving. That – even two years after the fact – was just too difficult to write. It was like crashing into an emotional wall going 150 miles per hour. So I slammed on the breaks, put those notepads away, and didn’t look at them again until several weeks ago when I was packing to move our house.

Turns out, 21 years makes a big difference, in terms of the triggering of emotions. I got a bit teary today when researching the name of the movie I was watching that night – but the writing flowed easily. And I’ve already written close to 20,000 words for this blog, which is well past the 80 pages of longhand I drafted back in 1997.

As for the book – it remains a maybe. There’s still a gaping hole in the adoption literature when it comes to birthparents. And yet, I’m still not sure how my story would help anyone. I chose to blog, rather than start with a book, because blogging would allow me to be random – describing episodes or discussing topics on a whim and at my own discretion, as opposed to the somewhat neat trajectory the contained vehicle of a book would require.

February 24 will be Eric’s 23rd birthday – and that will be day 53 in a row of blog posts, assuming I write the next dozen or so after this one. At that point, I believe I’ll take the same tack we did when deciding whether and how to continue contact after he turned 10. I’ll reevaluate things at that time and decide whether and how often to keep writing. Maybe, one day, a book. For now, I can only promise to keep dancing.

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“You’re Not Going to Become a Stalker, Are You?”

“You’re Not Going to Become a Stalker, Are You?”

Learning the identify of my son’s family was a big deal for me, and it took a while for the significance to sink in. Bruce may not have been happy about it, but the adoption was now on the verge of being fully open. I sat with that for quite some time before I did anything about it, other than tell the Stanfields about my discovery.

In a short time, the adoption was already becoming more open, and while it seemed Eric and I would eventually have a direct relationship, I knew that would probably take some time. In the meantime, I was quite curious about where he lived with his family. So, after about three months, I made the decision to put my investigative skills to use. It took me about a half-hour and cost me $2 to find Kathy and Bruce’s address through a property ownership website. Things are even easier now, as I was able to use social media and pay nothing to locate Eric’s birthfather’s address when I recently went looking for it.

Now that I had the Stanfields’ address, what to do with it, what to do with it…? Go take a peek, of course!

Again, it took a few months to work up my nerve. Then, one Friday night, I got in my Volkswagen Passat with Moondanz, my Jack Russell terrier, and we set off. I went late – about midnight – figuring I’d be less likely to run into the family at that time as I prowled through their neighborhood. This was way before GPS, so I had to rely on printed directions from Mapquest.

As I write this, I can’t imagine how I screwed up the nerve to make that drive – it felt like crossing a line and something very taboo, but it was also something I needed to do. “What are we going to do if they come outside just at the moment we pull up to their house?” I asked Moondanz. “We’ll say hello!” I answered my own question.

So we went, Moondanz and I. It was a short trip, relative to all the pre-planning. Before long, we turned the corner onto their street, and there it sat. A big, squarish house on a long, beautiful block of homes that dwarfed the house where I’d grown up – not to mention how lovely the area was compared to the Jersey City neighborhood where I was living at the time. The lots seemed vast, with long driveways and mailboxes at the street. Even that was something new to me – the mailbox at my childhood home was at the front door, and the ones in my New Jersey apartments were in the vestibules.

So we parked and sat just looking at the house for a while. Then we took a little drive around the neighborhood, before circling back to see #80 one more time. All was still – most houses were dark and there wasn’t another car on the street anywhere. I needn’t have worried about being spotted. Satisfied at having seen Eric’s home, I took a deep breath, and we drove off. And I did not return until October 2012 – at which time I was invited by Eric’s family.

I was in a Spence-Chapin support group at for birthmoms at the time of my field trip, and I remember telling the other members about my grand adventure. As I told the story, Judy Link, the group moderator and a birthmother caseworker, was dismayed by my confession. “You’re not going to turn into a stalker, are you?” she demanded to know, with utter seriousness. All the other birthmothers and I laughed at her. They understood something she did not – my goal was never to stalk Eric or harm him in any way. I just wanted to see where – and to whatever degree possible, how – he was growing up.

Now, Hollywood and the mainstream media have made a cottage industry of telling adoption horror stories about birthmothers coming out of the woodwork to steal their children back from loving, doting adoptive parents. You may remember the famous Baby Jessica and Baby Richard stories from the early and mid-90s. I think it was those cases that prompted my friend Lynn Franklin to write her book, May the Circle Be Unbroken. I have my own opinions about those cases, which I may share in a future post.

I had no thought of doing anything disruptive – not even checking out his church or his school. I just wanted to know where he lived. And once I did, that curiosity was sated and I could move on with my life. At some point over the next year or two, Kathy very casually asked me if I had been by to see the house yet. “Yes – probably about six months after the incident with Barry,” I told her.

“I figured as much,” she said. No worry. No death grip on the kid. No terrified packing up to move out of the country. Just confirming what she already knew. I’m pretty sure that’s how a healthy adoption relationship is supposed to work.

Popping Juliette’s Bubble

Popping Juliette’s Bubble

Adoption played a starring role in my life the whole time I lived in the NYC area. It seems, in retrospect, that I’d meet someone new, and within a few minutes they’d know about my son. So it makes sense that I told one of the temps working with me in the admin department of the Lehman Brothers Investment Banking division. Her name was Juliette and she was, at the time, making a film about witches. Like many temps, she was a working actor/producer who needed a day job to pay the bills.

If you could picture a woman who’d make a documentary about Wiccans, you might imagine a goth chick. Juliette was most definitely a goth gal. She wore only black, had long straight hair worn loose down her back, and seemed paler than the average woman. We got to talking about my son’s adoption, and Juliette mentioned that she, too, was adopted. The first thing I (still) wonder, on meeting an adopted person, is whether they’ve had a reunion with their birthfamily. As I’ve matured, I’ve become better at discerning the appropriate time to ask that question – sometimes it’s never appropriate. When I met Juliette, I believe I pretty much blurted it out immediately.

And, not surprisingly, I think I put her on the spot. “Um, well, I’ve never really searched for my birthmother,” she explained. She went on to describe an adoptive mom who was the epitome of June Cleaver and told me she’d never felt quite at home in her family.

“You know,” I blathered on, “chances are that you’re a lot like your birthmom. She’s probably arty and interesting and liberal. You might look like her too!”

Juliette’s face fell. She enjoyed being a misfit in her family, in terms of foiling her adoptive mom’s preference for pearls and dinner parties and Good Housekeeping décor. She had chosen to rewrite history in her head, and had more or less convinced herself that she’d descended, fully formed, into this family. And all of the things that made her different – and in her mind, special – were uniquely hers. Although she was 35 years old, it had never occurred to her that she had progenitors and, due to simple biology, was likely somewhat similar to them. Rather than comforting her, the thought that she might be similar to her birthmother seemed to horrify her.

As a new birthmother, I was shocked by her reaction to the idea.

I hated to think that my son might, out of hand, reject me as his birthmother. This was a lot less likely to happen, however, simply due to the timeline. Juliette arrived in her family back in the days of fully closed adoptions, when birth and adoptive families traveled distinct paths which the agencies took great care to ensure never, ever crossed. With our adoption beginning as semi-open, Kathy, Bruce, Tony (to the degree he was involved), and I were much further down the road toward extensive knowledge about each other – which means the mystery never really existed for our son. He knew who his birthparents were, where we were raised, the kinds and levels of education we’d achieved, what our parents had done for work, our religious beliefs, our health histories, and pretty much anything else he or his parents thought to ask – then and since.

Juliette had none of that. Everything was unknown, so instead of assuming she was like anyone else, she preferred to imagine that she had been a blank slate, and that she, personally, had chosen every trait that made her unique. Again, biology tells us otherwise. The nature/nurture debates still rage on, but the fact is that our physical traits, at the very least, are passed down. And likely personality traits, as well as social preferences and much more.

I lost touch with Juliette not long after she stopped temping with us. I did see and recognize her on the news in the days following 9/11, among the ash-covered faces running for their lives in the rubble of the Twin Towers. And I peeked at her Facebook page before writing this post. She’s still involved in acting, but in an entirely other milieu than filmmaking. According to an article in EOS magazine, the witch documentary did get made, though I could find no reference to it on IMDB. The article mentions Juliette’s teenage escape from conservative Orange County, Calif., but it says nothing further about her upbringing. I can’t help but wonder if she ever looked up her birthmom – or if her birthmom might have searched for her and been thrilled to discover what a wildly creative and successful woman her daughter has become.

Adoption is weird – there’s no right or wrong in terms of how the relationships ultimately turn out. We all just do the best we can. I never meant to burst Juliette’s bubble about her imagined story of origin. But at least a tiny part of me would be gratified to know that I planted the idea of a search that might not have taken hold otherwise.

No Longer Such a Thing as a Closed Adoption

No Longer Such a Thing as a Closed Adoption

I was born a researcher – or maybe I was just a good student. My dad started taking me to the library by the time I was 6, and I wrote my first research paper on the Great White Shark in second grade. I’m not sure where it came from, but we had reams of that green and white striped continuous-feed computer paper, which I used to make a stuffed Great White Shark that accompanied the paper. My next paper was on Vermont, including details about Montpelier and how maple syrup is made. Point is, by high school, writing was like breathing and research was second nature to me. No wonder my first real job was as a research librarian at The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

I’m not sure at what point the Spence-Chapin Agency began offering fully open adoption as an option – meaning that both the adoptive parents and the birthparents had full contact information for each other, and some sort of agreement for ongoing contact. The agency would have no role in facilitating the continuation of the relationship, once the adoption papers were signed. Optional counseling would, of course, still be available, should either party choose to pursue it. When I asked about open adoption in 1994, I was told, “We don’t really do that at Spence-Chapin.” Interestingly, that was enough for me at the time, and I moved on without pursuing it any further. Perhaps I knew that if I waited long enough, we’d get there in our adoption.

The thing that’s always perplexed me, though, even way back when I was still pregnant with Eric, was the notion that in 1994 – more or less the dawn of the Information Age – any adoptive parent could believe, even for a moment, that a fully closed adoption was still possible. I’d seen the TV shows. Fictional private investigators could find a person based on a single word scribbled on a matchbook cover. And I once heard of a real-life game (I was unable find details tonight on the interwebs after a comprehensive 10-minute search) wherein a person was assigned the task of finding a stranger in New York City simply by asking random people if they knew that person. On average, it took contestants just 6 hours to locate the person in question.

Closed adoptions? Pshaw – the agencies and attorneys were just conning these prospective parents into believing their adoptions would be closed. If they could string the parents-to-be along under this misapprehension, an adoption transaction would likely transpire – what happened after the papers were signed wasn’t really their concern.

As for me, Nancy Drew Jr., I was stashing away details that Kathy and Bruce revealed to me in the back of my mind for later review and use in tracking them down, if need be. Not to steal Eric away – just to find out who and where these people were. After all, they would be raising my son.

Case in point: Eric’s family lived less than an hour away from New York City by train, in a New Jersey township. Throwaway facts until you realize that there are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each of which falls into one of five types: 254 boroughs, 241 townships, 52 cities, 15 towns, and 3 villages. So now I’ve narrowed down the place to a township within roughly 30 miles of Manhattan. Then, at one point during a pre-adoption visit, Kathy revealed that their church had recently had a new roof installed on it. Bingo! A New Jersey township within 30 miles of NYC whose Catholic church had a new roof – we were in business. I was a trained researcher. How hard could it be to find this church and surreptitiously inquire about the family who’d recently adopted a baby boy born in Hoboken?

As it turns out, I would not need any of this information, as the single detail I would need – their last name – fell, almost literally, into my lap. What began as a “closed adoption” would soon enough become open. Hence my entire premise: regardless of what the adoptive family is promised, in terms of privacy and security, any domestic birthmother with enough will power, information collection savvy, and research tools (now readily available at her fingertips) could probably discover the identity of her adoptive family. And if a birthmom could pony up the bucks for a private investigator? All bets would be off.

Please understand, I am not advocating for birthmothers to go sneaking around to find their kids. A direct approach is almost always a better option. But sometimes, less adequately counseled adoptive parents mean well while the baby is still unborn – yet, once he or she is delivered and the papers are signed, they let their fear take over and they run or hide, regardless of the plans for openness they promised, pre-birth. If such a breach of contract were to occur, should the birthmother just slink away, without any recourse? No – she most certainly should not. And what about the birthmom who didn’t know she really would prefer an open adoption? Should she be shut out because the window for agreeing to something she didn’t know would be important to her has now closed? Again, I say no.

Here’s the thing: like it or not, in the internet age, a guarantee of privacy is a thing of the past. Even people who avoid virtual exposure at all costs can be found. A year or so ago, I found online a copy of the original deed to my parents’ house – the one where I grew up – with my dad’s signature and all. He died in 2005 – and he dabbled with the internet for perhaps 9 months, back in the early days of AOL. He most certainly did not knowingly put that kind of information in a public place where people like me could stumble across it. It’s just the way life is in this technology age.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the search process would be quite as easy for international birthmoms – which seems to be why so many couples find international adoption such an enticing option. In my opinion, however, whatever adoptive parents “gain” by avoiding the birthparent interaction is nothing compared to what their children lose when there is no information available about their bio parents, from medical history to cultural identity to the origin of distinctive personality traits. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the things adoptive kids long for most is a sense of who they are. Yet much of that so often is lost with an international adoption.

According to the bulk of the literature I’m reading online these days about the adoption process, closed domestic adoptions seem to be mostly a thing of the past and are highly discouraged. Thank god! Of course, I met a woman recently who told me she “just didn’t think she’d want any connection” to the birthfamily – something about not wanting them “meddling” and fearing the thought of “being in constant competition” with them. Thankfully, she’s not an adoptive mother – and if she were, I’d hope she’d receive plenty of counseling before being greenlighted to enter into this most unique way of making a family.

Adopted Kids Long to Know Where They Came From

Adopted Kids Long to Know Where They Came From

Back in college, long before I got pregnant and placed my son for adoption, I met a couple through the St. Thomas More Newman Center (the Catholic church on the University of Arizona campus). They’d had a child who passed away in infancy, and I recall them referring to him as their little angel who was looking out for them. I remember thinking that was weird, but touching.

At the time I met them, they had recently adopted a little boy at the age of about 2. He was darling – the mom not so much. Remember, this was back years before I became a birthmother myself. And yet I froze upon hearing this mother say that she and her husband were praying (literally praying to God) that their son would have no memory at all of his first family, his birthfamily. Now, I don’t know the rest of their story. It’s entirely possible that they had adopted through the foster system and this little boy had come from a troubled home. Perhaps he’d even experienced abuse. But just the thought that his new parents should hope to make of him a blank slate with no recollection of – or ties to – his birthfamily was appalling to me. He had a first family. He had a mother who’d carried him and given birth to him. He had a place of origin that was different from his adoptive parents. Wishing that were not the case would never make it so.

As I’ve mentioned, I worked very hard to find the best parents for my son – but I am nevertheless grateful for their openness and transparency with him about the adoption. They never shied away from the topic, and Kathy always encouraged Eric to express his feelings, ask as many questions as he had, and even put him back in touch with their social worker when, as a teen, he seemed to be struggling. Unfortunately, many adoptive parents are not so willing to be that vulnerable, preferring instead to try to pretend the adoption away.

I have posted previously about talking to adoptive and prospective adoptive parents on this very topic:

One thing I was able to do when I would speak to groups of prospective parents was cut through the bullshit. I remember explaining, on more than one occasion, what seemed so obvious to me, but always startled the hell out of these would-be parents: “This baby is never going to be your biological child. He or she will bear no blood relationship to you. He or she was conceived and carried by another couple – and they will always have a tie to your child that you don’t. That doesn’t make you bad or deformed as a parent – it just means that your relationship to your kid is different. And the sooner you come to terms with that – the sooner you stop resenting the birthparents for doing something you couldn’t – the better off everyone will be.”

I recently came across this post, written by an adult adoptee, that contains a list of 10 things adoptees want you to know. Guess what they want people to understand:

  • They want to know where they came from.
  • They want their adoptive parents to be their advocates.
  • They want their parents’ help to make sense of their stories.
  • Their desire to search for their birthparents is important to their identity – it’s not a rejection of the adoptive parents.
  • Even those in open adoptions struggle with feelings of self-worth, shame, control, and identity – particularly when their adoptive families (and pretty much everyone else they know) are so hesitant to talk about the adoption. Talk about the elephant in the room.

What was not on that list was a desire to sweep the adoption under the rug, or the desire to forget their first families and erase all recollection – or knowledge – about their places and people of origin.

I realize that as a birthmother, my perspective is quite different than that of most adoptive parents. If one were so inclined, the two roles could even be seen as adversarial. And although the birthparent chooses not to parent – one could view it as a rejection – the adopted person and the birthparent actually have more in common, in terms of emotions and the aftermath of the adoption, than you might think. Particularly in instances where secrecy/lack of transparency is [still] a factor in the adoption.

As with everything, I think that each adoption is different because the people involved in each adoption are different. However, there are emotional norms and psycho-sociological trends. That data is still coming in, but I’m pretty sure that almost anyone with any stake in adoption would agree that openness is a much better approach to this very peculiar institution.

Like many of the people I met earlier in my life, I have no idea what became of that couple or their child. Nevertheless, I hope for all of them that they came to terms with the way their family was made – and that their child was eventually allowed to be his own person, even if that meant searching for, finding, and meeting the people who gave him life and also made his adoptive parents so uncomfortable.