Thursday, November 19, 2015

Chapter 7: Adoption Awareness

November being National Adoption Awareness month, I thought I'd pause in my story for a moment, take a breath and let all of this sink in. I must admit the whole idea of a month dedicated to adoption awareness kind of makes me smile, since I have only been aware of my own adoption since May. What am I supposed to learn now that it's November?

But in the past 6 months I've become aware of a good many things about myself, and none of them have much to do with the names and dates I've found in my research. 

More than a few people, after hearing my search story, will part ways to walk down the street and sign off by saying, "Well, good luck. I hope you find... whatever it is you're looking for..." 

I've added the ellipses.  I actually see them in the air, trailing along once the person has turned around and started walking.  Those three little dots...

Whatever it is I'm looking for...

Sometimes I sense in those ellipses something patronizing.  Or maybe that's just my late discovery adoptee paranoia. That's something I definitely have become aware of in myself. There's a reason I tend to think you're talking behind my back and keeping something from me, even though I know it's probably not true.

Or... is it?

Never mind. 

Joking aside, I have to admit that it's been good to question from time to time what I'm looking for.  I ask it of myself often. I've spent a lot of time searching, a lot of energy, attention and money. My birth mother Judy passed away eight years ago and left no immediate family behind.  So why am I doing it? Why am I still searching for living threads to connect me with this woman? Why does it matter?

Sometimes I have absolutely no idea.  I just know that it does.

One thing I've realized is that who and what I've found matters less to me than the fact that I am still searching, that I am still uncovering the lost pieces of me, rather than pretending that those pieces were never, in fact, lost.  Still fresh in my mind is the painful fact that, until very recently, I didn't feel that I had a right to search.  I felt selfish and ungrateful for wanting to know. And when the result of asking was to be handed a lie, I believed I was at fault for putting people in a position of having to lie to me.

The truth is that my instinct is still sometimes to feel that way. And it matters that I find a better way to navigate the world.  Knowing and feeling that I have a right to this... that I have a right to want this... without explaining myself or apologizing for it... That matters.  Because it's who I am.  This idea that it's better to pretend that adoption is irrelevant, not true, or that it "shouldn't matter" is an idea that doesn't work. It discounts a deep truth that adoptees know and feel down in their marrow.

Denying reality doesn't make for a sincere and authentic life. Take it from me. I denied the reality of my own reflection in the mirror for years. Throughout my life people have described me as nice, sweet, quiet, funny and sometimes charming. They have rarely described me as confident, strong, decisive, or as a man who "knows who he is." Well, until recently I didn't know who I was. My true identity being a question mark, I learned to adapt, fit myself in, and be who you needed me to be.  Girlfriends would often say, "I don't feel like I know the real you."

Well, I'd think. That makes two of us.

In many states, adoptees, aged 18 to 80, must beg permission from the state, from a judge, from their birth mothers, before they are allowed to see their own birth certificates and learn their own history. In many those states, they are routinely denied, even when knowledge of their own medical history could potentially save their health. Being treated like a perpetual child far into our adult years, having decisions made for us about what kind of information we are fit to know, comes with this territory.

I recently received a note from one adoptee born in West Virginia, a state with the most restrictive of laws, who had to hire a lawyer and go before a judge to gain access. The judge not only denied her but also berated her for having the audacity to ask.

I know a man in his 70's who is still trying to find his birth mother. The state claims the records have been lost. The adoption agency has her name, but they refuse to release it, even though they are fairly sure she is still alive.

I do not take for granted the gains that were made in Ohio.  I owe it those who don't have what I have to do what I can.

But in order to help and to stand strong, I have to stop seeing myself as an ungrateful child who must apologize for wanting to know the truth.  I don't need permission to fully claim who I am, and I don't need to say I'm sorry for being here. I am very grateful for the life I have. But as adoptees we hear all the time that we should be grateful. What this usually means is that we should be quiet. Being grateful doesn't mean I should deny this fundamental need to dig deeper.  My life is big enough to hold several last names.

I know now that part of my identity will always be to have a missing piece.  And that's okay. Knowing and accepting that reality is already so much better than the game of pretend that I had gotten so used to.  Non-adoptees are born with a sense of who they are and where they come from.. a culture, a nationality, a narrative that they fit snugly into.  I didn't have that.  I don't say this to be self-pitying.  I say it because it's true. And knowing that it's true can also be liberating.  I get to still discover my identity, and even create it.  I still have surprises ahead of me. And since I was not handed a narrative, I get to write one for myself.  In fact, I'm doing it here at this moment.  How cool is that?

A while back, I had a talk with someone, not adopted, but sympathetic to my search, about how frustrating it's been, all the brick walls and dead ends I've hit in finding my birth family. This person, well-meaning and perhaps sensing the exasperation on my voice, reminded me emphatically: "Just remember, you have a sister!"

It took me a good several seconds to realize that this person was actually reminding me that I have an adopted sister, as if by searching for birth siblings I somehow forgot she existed.  The truth was, I had just spoken to Kerry that morning.

I was taken aback at the time and I bristled a bit at the assumption behind this reminder. But I know now this person meant no offense. I think, for many who know me, there may be genuine concern that, in this obsessive search of mine, I will somehow go away and not come back, that I may conclude that I have no family at all, and that I am alone.

But I am not alone. My family is still my family. And one of the things I have learned in the last few years is the power of identification... finding others who have been or are going through similar experiences.  It's human nature to seek your tribe, to find others who speak your language. I have learned this lesson with other struggles in my life and now, as I embrace this identity of being an adoptee, I am diving in and finding others.

We are, all of us, adopted or not, lucky to be living in an age where finding kindred souls is as easy as a few words in a search bar.  Are you dealing with illness, depression, divorce, taking care of an aging parent, recently grieving?  Are you dealing with an addiction or do you love someone who is? There is a tribe out there just waiting to take you in if you if you are willing to search, make a connection, and admit you can't go it alone. Through such connections, we learn to heal, to be ourselves, to ask for help.  And as we get better, we can give back and help others.

I have sought such help in the past, before adoption was ever even on my radar, and continue to do so. It has changed my life.  So now, as I absorb this new reality of myself, and as I uncover those buried feelings of grief and deal with this obsessive need to search for my origins, there is definitely a temptation to fall back into a familiar old assumption: that I am alone... that I am the only one.. that no one else gets this.  But that's just a lie that my brain likes to tell me - the delusion that I am safer if I don't let you in.  And I'm glad I've been taught better. I'm glad I have sought out my fellow adoptees.  Those connections, even the many wonderful online friendships, have been a kind of life raft in rough waters. Sometimes a simple instant message a day after hearing some crazy news: "How are you doing with all this? ~Hugs" is everything.

I am gaining a newfound strength of self. But the irony is that, in doing so, I need others more.

I know that National Adoption Awareness Month is meant to celebrate the joys of adoption and to promote the practice nationwide. And indeed, there are many joyful adoption stories.  I know more than a few adoptive parents, some of them good friends, that are full of love for their children.  And they are, thankfully, part of a new culture of adoption that is much more open and honest.

But there are other stories that have, historically, not been told.  Stories of birth mothers shamed and coerced into giving up their children.  Stories of adoptive children who grow up feeling like outsiders in their own lives. Stories of battles won in the fight to release birth records to the thousands of adoptees who have been asking, demanding, pleading, begging for them.  And there also stories of battles lost, of birth certificates refused and purposely altered. There are stories of reunion with birth families.  And there are stories, like mine, where the chance to reunite was lost.

So I will keep telling my story. And I will keep listening to the stories I  hear... stories from birth mothers, adoptive parents, and from the ones we have all heard from least: adoptees themselves.  Because when we hear only one kind of story about adoption,  this single narrative has a way of negating all the others. And while, yes, there is much joy for many of us, there is also pain. There is grief and loss and a distance inside many of us that needs to be bridged.  I will be writing and talking. I will be meeting up and speaking up. Because we need to.

My search has continued and very recently has turned up some amazing things that I will be writing about soon. (Teaser!) But as satisfying as it has been to find lost answers and lost people, the most important discoveries so far have been the ones I have found in unexpected places along the side of the road.  The search has changed me and continues to do so. There's a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw that says, " Life isn't about finding yourself. It is about creating yourself."  I think I'm doing a little of both.


  1. I so enjoyed reading this, I relate to so much of what you have said. Thank you for writing and sharing your story. I am an adoptee myself, and adoption has brought a lot of sadness and struggles into my life, I can certainly relate to the trying to fit in and not being true to myself, I had taken on a false self to cope. I like your comment to create oneself not find oneself, I am in the process of doing that. Reading your chapter has encouraged me to continue with the writing of my own story. I am trying to get it published and need to get it out there. Thanks, take care.

  2. I'm so happy to read this. I'd love to hear your story!

  3. I'm so happy to read this. I'd love to hear your story!

  4. "Because when we hear only one kind of story about adoption, this single narrative has a way of negating all the others". Perfect! I so wish to burn this into my brain, to call upon when chided regarding our need to know!

  5. I just found your blog and am enjoying the story of your search. I, too, am a searcher. I just finished reading "The Girls Who Went Away" by Ann Fessler. I've known lots of adoptees who have found their birthmothers, all of whom were in these maternity homes...forced to give up their babies because it would be better for everyone. If you ever have the chance to read it, please do!

    1. I'm reading it right now! I think it pretty much tells the story of my birth mother. Or, I assume it does based on what I've been able to learn. Very powerful.