Friday, August 28, 2015

Who Knows Best?

Imagine a tug-of-war with not one rope and two sides but many ropes and multiple sides and you have some idea of the tensions within the adoption community, especially when it comes to making original birth certificates freely and easily available to adult adoptees.  Natural mothers from the BSE (Baby Scoop Era--WW II-1972), desperate to find their lost children before time runs out, practically prostrate themselves before intransigent legislators and judges who, for whatever reasons, refuse to grant access.  Adult adoptees who have never known who they are or the truth about their biological roots  are desperate for the information that every other American takes for granted.  When there are medical issues or the need to acquire a passport, this desire becomes even more urgent.  The billion-dollar adoption industry wants to maintain control of its "product," and adoptive parents want to be sure no inconvenient "birth" mother will reappear and upset their lives.  The kind of adoption we're used to--whether closed or open--legally and permanently removes the child from his natural parents and maintains the fiction that adoptive families are just like any other, that adoptive parents are the "real" parents, and those who take issue with this fiction are too often labeled "angry" or "bitter".

Since finding the son I relinquished for adoption in 1968, I have ridden the reunion roller-coaster, had everything I thought I knew about adoption upended, and discovered that, contrary to what I'd believed for decades, it was possible to change my mind about something deeply held and embrace a new reality.  What's more, the change of heart that I had feared has proved to be a greater liberation than I could have imagined even five years ago.  Reunion has not been smooth sailing; there have been waves I thought would drag me so deep I'd never breathe freely again, but having regained my footing, I have turned my attention to those who hesitate at the water's edge, afraid to take the plunge into reuniting with a lost child or a natural mother.  They cannot see far enough into the depths to be sure there will be a bottom, so they remain in denial where there is a familiar kind of safety. 

I will state unequivocally that no mother in reasonable health should ever make an adoption plan, select an adoptive family, or speak with an adoption worker until at least six weeks after the birth of her child.  If after that time of bonding and caring for her infant the mother still wants to consider adoption, that is the time to begin, and she should be given information about resources to help with practical matters like food and rent as well as information about the long-term consequences of adoption for both her and her baby.   I am not at all in favor of surrogacy, but if it's going to occur, these same guidelines should apply.  Even surrogate moms deserve a chance to change their minds.  As they say, Having a baby changes everything.  And money should never be part of the equation,   putting adoption agencies out of business, to which I say, Amen.

Now that all my children are grown and my grandchildren are no longer babies, I find myself thinking back to the years when I was immersed in the comfortable chaos of family life with small children.  I long for the weight of my kids' sweet bodies on my lap and in my arms, the smell of their baby necks, the tidal wave of connection.  I have snapshots in my head of moments with each of my children: rocking my son till he fell asleep when he had a fever at a year old, another son with his first ice cream cone, my daughter with her "mi mi" (blanket) that went with her everywhere.  So many memories.  I can flip through them like a rolodex.  When I taught university students, I used to tell them to have adventures so that when they got old they'd have memories to cherish.  The greatest adventure for me has been my children, not because life was always easy or we always got along like the figures in a Norman Rockwell painting, but because nothing else connects me to the past, the future, and the universe like my connection to them. 

But my memory book has many pages with empty pages.  I didn't raise one of my children.  I lost my first son to adoption when he was three weeks old, and the memories I have of him are as vivid as the ones I have of the other two I gave birth to and the son I adopted when he was still an infant, but a couple of days in the hospital and a short farewell in the social worker's office are all I have until I found him 44 years later.  Now, nearly four years post reunion, I do have a relationship with my first son, which I never expected and for which I am exceedingly grateful.  But regaining my son does not obviate the pain of losing him, nor does it fill in those many empty pages.  I realize now that I am experiencing another loss to add to the losses age inevitably brings.

I am turning 70 on my next birthday and, while I try to be philosophical about it, I have to accept that my life is closer to its end than to its beginning.  The person I am and the life I have are the pinnacle, no longer the preparation.  For so many years I was my kids' mom; that was my primary definition, certainly to myself.  Now I'm just me.  The body I took for granted is beginning to betray me.  A recent diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis has me trying to accommodate a new normal that I wasn't expecting and certainly wasn't prepared for.  It may not be a scientific conclusion, but I am convinced that the stress of the past four years, of finding my son and going through the eruption of grief and anger that reunion unleashed, has triggered my own body to turn against itself.  Anytime there is friction--as when water drops upon a stone or a hammer rubs against a palm--there is physical change.  Could it be that the friction of unresolved grief scrapes against the body in miniscule, unnoticed ways until the body gives way?  Stress is healthy in the short term.  It's what protects us from the inevitable threats of life, and once the threat is vanquished stability returns, but the stress of losing my son to adoption was like a piece of grit in an oyster, only it didn't produce a pearl.

Reunion released an avalanche of stress, and I can imagine friends and family asking themselves if finding my son was worth it.  They wouldn't ask me that, of course, because even though they may wonder, they know what my answer would be.  Yes, it was worth it.  It's better to know my son's fate than to forever wonder, better to live truthfully, better to feel restored to wholeness. 

Incredibly, there are still laws in most states that prevent adoptees from obtaining their original birth certificates.  New York, where my son was born, is one of them.  There was hope that this year, finally, the NY State Assembly would open its adoption records, but a handful of legislators, who have consistently obstructed change, once again quashed the efforts of adult adoptees and "birth" parents working to end these archaic laws.  One can only assume that the motive is financial, because it certainly can't be constitutional to deny a segment of the population--adoptees--their own information.  Who else in America has their identity stolen with the collusion of the state?  Who else is constrained by a contract devised by others without the consent of the person most intimately involved in the agreement: the adoptee?  The comparison to slavery is not far-fetched.

Opponents to releasing OBCs argue that "birth" mothers were promised confidentiality.  Leave aside the fact that more than 90% of mothers would welcome contact by their children, let's look at the issue of rights and whose should be honored.  Does a mother have the right to permanently deny her own child?  No one is forced to have a relationship they don't want.  Releasing information would not require mother and child to embrace and ride off into the sunset together if they don't want to.  But shouldn't the shape of the relationship be determined by those actually in it?  How can politicians, judges, and adoption professionals justify their intrusion into the decisions made by adults they don't even know?  To my knowledge "birth" mothers were not "promised confidentiality."  It was simply taken for granted in the BSE.  I know I was never promised any such thing.  I didn't think I had a choice.  I was able to find my son without the NY Assembly, but I guess I broke the law to do it.  Just twenty years ago Sandy Musser, author of "To Prison With Love," was sent to prison for helping adoptees and their mothers find each other.  A prison sentence for helping families reunite! 

Mothers from the BSE are getting old now.  Many have died without ever knowing the fates of their children, and many adoptees who search will find only a grave.  Other groups that were overlooked for decades--the Tuskegee airmen, Native Americans whose children were taken from their families and put in boarding schools, Holocaust survivors--are receiving the attention that is long overdue.  When will it be time for hundreds of thousands of mothers and their lost children to be acknowledged and, yes, honored?