Unlike Lorraine and Linda, I am a birth mother who can fathom the idea of rejecting our children which I did--before Megan, the daughter I surrendered to adoption, and I connected in 1997. I became pregnant in February, 1966 when I was 23 and living in Fairbanks, Alaska. I had grown up in Chicago and had gone to Alaska in 1960 to attend college thanks to the generosity of my uncle, my deceased father’s older brother who lived there with his wife.
I went to San Francisco in September and Megan was born there in November. She was placed in a foster home and I struggled for a month about what to do. Giving my baby to strangers was wrong but when I tried to visual how to keep my baby, I stared into a blank wall. I finally signed the paper but I told myself our separation would be for only 18 years. I knew that records would be closed but I figured I would go to law school, learn how to beat the system, and find her when she turned 18. By making this promise, I was able to rationalize abandoning my newborn daughter.
While I was in the hospital after Megan was born, an attorney who had been referred by a doctor I had seen who handled private adoptions came to my bedside. The attorney placed babies with Mormon families and knew a Mormon family in Idaho that wanted a baby girl. Idaho and Mormons did not appeal to me and I sent the attorney away.
After I signed the surrender paper at the San Francisco County Social Services Department which served as the adoption agency, the social worker asked me about religious preference, telling me that, while they could not guarantee any religion, my preference would be respected. I had been raised in a liberal Protestant church but I was not religious. I preferred either a non religious family or a liberal Protestant one. However, if it was necessary to give my baby a good home, a Jewish or Catholic family was okay. Remembering the attorney and the Idaho Mormons, I added as an afterthought that that I did not want my daughter to go a family with a non-mainstream religion like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Seventh Day Adventists. I thought it was unlikely this would happen – after all, I was in ultra-liberal San Francisco. I considered Mormons and the rest as kind of loony. I had known some Mormons in college and they didn’t even drink Coca-cola. One had tricked me into going to a service of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church by telling me we were going to a meeting which would be beneficial to me. The social worker and I crafted a statement containing my preference for either no religion or a mainstream religion and specifically stating my objection to Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Over the years as I learned more about the LDS Church (its racism and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment), I thought “at least I didn’t let my baby be raised by Mormons.”
I graduated from law school four years later. When 1984 came around, I was living in Salem, Oregon; I had a good job as an administrator for the State of Oregon, was married, and had three more daughters. I decided to put off my search until Megan was 21 telling myself 18 was really too young. While my husband knew that I had placed a baby for adoption, we had not talked about it since the day before our wedding in 1968. My daughters knew nothing about this older sister. In fact the only people close to me besides my husband who knew anything were my now deceased uncle’s widow, a few friends, and of course Megan’s birth father, all of whom lived in Fairbanks, far enough away that I felt secure that my secret would not reach Oregon.
In March of 1987, I came home one evening and my husband told me that my aunt in Fairbanks had called telling him a young girl in Utah or at Brigham Young University, I forget which, was looking for me. My husband had written the girl’s name and phone number on a napkin. I barely looked at the napkin and I did not learn her name for more than ten years. I thought immediately that the caller might be, probably was, my daughter. I refer to her now as my daughter but until we united I always thought of my first born as “the baby.”
I was stunned, terrified. I had heard of adoptees searching but not this young; she was barely 20. I called my aunt reluctantly; I did not want to know anything about this girl in Utah. My aunt told me that she had refused to give the girl my name and phone number. “Did I do the right thing” she asked. “Yes.” I assured her. She said something to the effect that since you have the information, I don’t need to send this. Later I learned that Megan had sent my aunt a letter and I think that’s what my aunt was referring to. At the time, I would have agreed to anything. I wanted to get off the phone. My aunt is a good person but we were not close and I did not like her being involved in my personal life. I was also angry that she had passed along information to my husband instead of waiting until she could talk to me. Since the young woman who called lived in Utah, she was probably a Mormon. I rationalized that it could not be my daughter. It did not occur to me that the social worker might have gone against my wishes.
My husband and I were going out of town for a conference in a few days. I decided not to think about the call and the name on the napkin until we returned and I didn’t. When we came home, I could not find the napkin. My mother-in-law had come to stay with our daughters; she had thrown the napkin away while tidying up. I was relieved.
I feared meeting my birth daughter. She became a ghost, haunting me, ready to strike. For the next few weeks I jumped when the phone rang or someone came to the door. A few months later as I was doing “spring house cleaning,” going through drawers and closets, throwing out the worn, the useless, and the meaningless, I came upon a picture of me taken a few days before Megan was born and the identifying bracelet put on my wrist right after she was born. I had saved these objects for 20 years because it was all that I had of her. I cut them up and threw them away to keep the ghost from returning.
What was I afraid of? Unlike many birthmothers, I was never afraid that people would find out I had sex without being married. I never thought that was wrong. I was afraid of people learning that my life had been out of control, that I had failed myself and my family by getting pregnant, that I was not who I pretended to be: competent, professional, knowledgeable.
My mother died in July of 1988. Death brings to us a need to strengthen the bonds with remaining family members. I began to feel Megan’s absence acutely. My mother never knew about her and never would. I begin thinking about conducting a secret search. I did not think of calling my aunt to ask for the name of the young woman who had called a year and a half earlier. It doesn’t make sense but I had completely blocked out this phone call.
That winter, I came across Florence Fisher’s The Search for Anna Fisher on a table at the library. I snuck to the back of the stacks and read the book in one sitting. It included information about ALMA (Adoptees Liberation Movement Association) which Fisher had founded. I sent in the membership fee and reunion registry information with a note asking that any correspondence be in a plain envelope. Several weeks later I began receiving newsletters with words like adoption, reunion, search spread all over the front page in big letters. I cancelled my membership. Sometime later I received a call inviting me to an ALMA meeting in Salem. I hung up on the caller. I was upset that someone, perhaps someone I knew, a neighbor, a co-worker, a parent at my children’s school, knew my secret.
My aunt, the same aunt, called again. I remember it being in late 1990. She told me a woman was looking for me who said she knew me in college. She gave me the name but it meant nothing. I told her I did not know the woman and asked her not to give the woman my phone number. Again I was terrified. Later I learned that Megan had contacted my aunt in 1991 asking for my number which my aunt refused to give her. That may have been the call that I remember receiving in 1990.
As time went on, I thought more and more about searching. I registered with AOL’s search registry which resulted in a slew of emails from private investigators offering to search for a fee. I thought of writing to the adoption agency in San Francisco but I was afraid my daughters would see the envelope when the agency wrote back. I checked into renting a post office box so that I could keep my correspondence secret and learned that the post office would not rent boxes to people with street addresses.
I can’t explain my thinking because it doesn’t make any sense. On the one hand there was this ghost which if it appeared would change my life for the worse, damaging my relationship with my husband and children, adversely affecting my career, and diminishing my image in the community. I did not want to be seen as a woman who could not manage her life, who at 23 was less rational than a 16 year old in the back seat of a Ford tussling with the high school quarterback. In failing to respond to Megan’s overtures, I did not even consider that I was rejecting her; I deluded myself into thinking that I could excise a part of my life that never should have happened.
On the other hand there was this baby out there somewhere with whom I desperately wanted a relationship in order to restore a missing part of my life. I hid from the ghost and feebly pursued the baby. What I wanted – and needed – was the ability to control the timing and pace of a reunion.
On November 18, 1997, the day after Megan’s 31st birthday my aunt called for the third time and told me my daughter had called and had written again. This was the first time she referred to the caller as “your daughter.” My aunt indicated she was tired of dealing with this woman. I told her I would take care of it and asked her to forward Megan’s letter. Although in retrospect it would be easy to criticize my aunt for not passing along me Megan’s letters or pressing me to contact her. I believe that my aunt meant well. She was trying to protect me. I’m sure she assumed as many do today that I did not want contact. I also think that she had an irrational fear that the story of my pregnancy would be circulated again in Fairbanks which somehow might occur if she cooperated with my daughter. She and my uncle were prominent in Alaska and very concerned about scandal when I became pregnant. Alaska is a dull place for the most part, particularly in winter. The most interesting goings on tend to be the negative, who ran off with who’s husband, who crashed his car while driving drunk, and so on. My aunt was so fearful of possible scandal that she waited until she took a trip to Seattle a few days later to mail Megan’s letter. Apparently she feared someone at the Fairbanks post office would see the envelope and know what was in it.
I could focus on nothing while I waited for Megan’s letter. One minute I wanted to jump off a bridge. The next minute I was euphoric. I knew my life was about to change. While I had read an occasional newspaper article about reunions and The Search for Anna Fisher, I knew little about the search movement or why adoptees searched. I knew nothing about AAC, Origins, Bastard Nation, the local Oregon support group, the International Soundex Reunion Registry, the fight for open records, Lorraine’s memoir Birthmark, Betty Jean Lifton's writings, or any of the other “books." I knew of CUB (Concerned United Birthparents) only through adoptive mother Lucinda Franks’ biased and mean 1993 New Yorker article, “The War for Baby Clausen” about DeBoer case. With work and three daughters I did not have time for morning news shows or daytime talk shows. I barely knew who Phil Donahue was. I prepared to call Megan by watching Secrets and Lies, a 1996 British film about a mother/daughter reunion.
I called Megan on November 24, anticipating the conversation would last less than 15 minutes. It lasted two hours. It was an awkward conversation, however. Megan had a lot of information and misinformation from the adoption agency and I was on the defensive much of time. I learned she was indeed a Mormon to which I expressed my displeasure. I later learned that the social worker had simply written “no Jehovah Witness” on my file. So much for the carefully crafted statement.
Megan told me about her search. In the fall of 1986 when she was 19, she obtained her non-identifying information from the adoption agency. It was so specific that she was able to determine her father's name, where he lived, and my maiden name. She wrote her father. He wrote back (against the wishes of his wife) giving her some information about himself and the name of my aunt who he knew was aware of Megan’s birth. He asked her not to contact him again.
Megan did not tell my aunt who she was, only that she was a young woman in Utah. She believed that if she told my aunt who she was and my aunt told me, I would be less likely to call her. The opposite was true. If I had known who Megan was I would have been more likely to have called because I could not have pretended I did not know who called. Over the years Megan contacted my aunt several more times, keeping her informed of her address in case I should ask for it. My aunt soon realized, if she had not known at the beginning, who this woman was. Several times my aunt told her that I did not want anything to do with her. Learning from some of our readers who have not had contact with their first mothers, I can only imagine how much this must have hurt her.
In the fall of 1997, Megan was living near Chicago where her husband was going to graduate school. He brought home The Joy Luck Club and Tender Mercies as part of a class assignment. These movies about reunion with lost children brought her to tears. Encouraged by some church members, she considered searching again. Although the LDS church discourages searches, it has no formal position against it. Megan prayed to God for guidance. She signed on to alt.adoption, a former newsnet group, and met a birthmother online who encouraged her to search again and be more forceful in her telephone conversations. Megan wrote and called my aunt once more. She also called her father. He was now divorced and agreed to meet her at his home in California where he had moved from Fairbanks several years earlier.
Megan also knew nothing about the search movement. If she had obtained help from a search group, she probably would have been able to find me without going through my aunt. If Megan had contacted me herself I believe I would have responded positively.
I’ve met adoptees who think they can soften the blow on their birthmother by asking a relative (even her husband!) to be a “go between.” A big mistake, I tell them. “Reunion is between you and your mother. Don’t let anyone else, who, for all you know might be your mother’s enemy, get between you.” I suspect that the reason that some confidential intermediaries claim a low reunion rate (fifty percent some assert) is that mothers become angry that a stranger knows their secret. They react negatively and the CI uses that to confirm what the CI believes, that mothers don't want contact. The best practice is for states to give adopted persons their original birth certificates and leave the search to them. Unfortunately this is only possible in six states.
Next: Telling my family, coming out in a full-page newspaper ad for Ballot Measure 58.