Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Birthmother's Fears of Reunion

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.

18 comments :

  1. What a sad story. I can't imagine -- It seemed very honest. That must have been difficult to write.

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  2. Your aunt actually waiting until she was in Seattle to mail a sealed envelope to you is what hit me the most :(

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  3. I agree, Joy.

    Jane, you provided a lot insight on why a mother may be apprhensive about contact.

    I found it frustrating because you were so concerned with control and image and not your daughter. But I realized that the system of adoption and secrecy is responsible for portraying the adopted person as the destroyer of lives just for wanting to know their mother, father and family - and how those who come into contact with the adopted person can be full of judgment, loathing and fear. Adoption certainly did its job well in this situation.

    Meagan endured a lot of judgment and rejection throughout her search for you, yet she persisted. Wow. She and all adoptees that don't give up despite being viewed as the bad guy deserve a medal.

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  4. Thank you for writing this. I am finding, as I become more involved/informed with adoption "issues," that there is frequently a resistance to acknowledging the grey areas of this experience. That you could be simultaneously longing for and resisting contact with your daughter makes sense to me. I think we (as in everyone "touched by adoption") are all better served if we acknowledge how paradoxical and complicated our feelings can be, and resist judging each other when those feelings deviate from what's expected.

    I am very much looking forward to your next part of your story.

    L in Chicago

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  5. Celeste BillhartzJuly 10, 2009 at 2:08 PM

    Jane, thank you for such an honest, heartfelt post ... you have opened my eyes to another way of seeing "refused reunion" and I thank you for that.

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  6. I think you are right about the CI thing. My mother and I would have been better served if I had connected with her instead of the CI.

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  7. I am always intrigued by stories about contact refusal. My mother initially refused to speak with me, and through time and persistence, we finally connected. Her hesitation had to do with buying the lies - that she was "bad" for me, that she had nothing to give me, that I didn't NEED her. Figuring out how untrue that was has been a painful process for her.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Every time I read something like this, it helps me to understand a little bit more.

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  8. This is a very compelling post, probably the one I have found the most thought provoking in the history of your blog.

    It is easy for me to forget how even though I had a hard time with my own mother, so hard there were times where I just could not be in contact with her. Things are better now for me anyway.

    I didn't realize I would recognize her as mother, until I met her you know, I didn't know she was so much more than a "birth lady" Even though my mother initially, and well for many years did not want to have compassion for me, I think she does now. She treats with much more consideration than she used to, and I hope that is true of me too.

    How it must have plagued Megan to be rejected a second time and for eleven years is just heart-breaking.

    As time has gone on has your ability to empathize/sympathize with her changed?

    I mean obviously you can never know what it is like to have your mom give you away, and then turn you away later, any more than I can really know what it is like to give my baby away.

    I have found though that trying to imagine what it was like for my mother makes me soften toward her.

    I wonder if that part of mothering ever blossomed in you in re: Megan, and how that would impact your kept children. I often find that there are consequences of choices in arenas we least expect them.

    Also, did I am curious if Megan seemed kind to you and if that changed or not over the course of your relationship.

    Thank you for sharing this, it is rare to find such honesty.

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  9. I am an adoptee and just went through this exact thing...the Illinois CI was only able to find my birth aunt, and my birthmother has e-mailed the CI saying she does not want contact and is tremendously angry that her sister was contacted. I now feel like a total jerk for upsetting my birth mother, to whom I wish every blessing, but have no option under IL law to make direct contact. My non-identifying information was too vague to be any help. Any thoughts on this situation are most welcome.

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  10. Jane,
    I never knew you had the same thoughts I did about the "temporary" view of surrendering my daughter. You wrote "I finally signed the paper but I told myself our separation would be for only 18 years." I thought the same thing.
    I searched and found my daughter after 26 years. When she was born, I was forbidden to keep her (I turned 21 only 3 weeks after she was born). I was with her for 5 glorious days, and then I had to say good-bye. I promised her I would find her again. After all, I reasoned, 20 years is not that long to wait.
    As I entered the world of adoption reunion in 1997, I began to hear stories of how women fought to keep their children, and lost. I hated myself for being like a lamb led to slaughter. I never fought. My only thoughts were to somehow redeem myself in my parents' eyes. I knew that losing my baby was wrong, but I was so beaten down that I never objected.
    It was not until I heard Elizabeth Samuel speak at the AAC convention about the words she found in various surrender documents that I realized, I never fought because I CONSIDERED SURRENDER AS TEMPORARY. I knew I would find her again and all would be well. I did not factor in the reality of how my daughter would be changed by being raised by someone else. I did not realize that she might harbor subconscious anger towards me for "abandoning" her. She shows that to me in passive-aggressive ways while professing her undying adoration of her adopters.
    Thanks for sharing your story, Jane. I am waiting for the next part.

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  11. How sad.

    I have to say that I find it disturbing that you were more worried about your image than what your daughter was going through.

    I just can't get into that mindset and I suppose I never will.

    I have reunited with my son - for me, his happiness and welfare was paramount - nothing else.

    My other children thought it was "cool" because now they have a half sibling like their friends
    (amazing to find so many in the same boat).

    My son's father and my husband both helped in finding my son - they even talked to each other about the best ways of doing so. My son's father's wife even helped. We have found him, he is happy to be found and all of us are happy to have found him, including all of my son's siblings.

    Keeping secrets is very destructive for everyone and very bad for your health. It shortens your life, limits your happiness - and for what?

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  12. I agree about government interference. When my son was contacted by the reunion registry, they told him that he had to make up his mind right away. They contacted him 20 times in one day!! He backed out of a reunion because of their constant persistence - and lies.

    I found out that the mediator had told my son a pack of lies, such as not knowing who his father was. That seems to me like they wanted the reunion to fail. When I threatened to sue for libel, I was given the info I needed to find my son.

    I left it 2 years and contacted him myself. My son says I did a much better job at our reunion because I gave him all the time he wanted to go at his pace. I never pressured him to do anything. Our reunion is now 5 years old.

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  13. On the issue of feeling surrender was "temporary": I've heard lots of mothers say that they vowed to find their child in 18 years at the time they surrendered. When I surrendered I could not think ahead 5 minutes let along 18 years. The words that ran through my mind were from that sad, scary Doors song "The End"; "this is the end....I'll never look into your eyes again...." I honestly did not think I would ever see my son again, nor deserved to. I did not care if I lived or died.

    And yet....I searched for him at the first opportunity I was given, when he was still a young child. I never shut it out because I couldn't. I pretty much told anyone I got close to and got involved in adoption reform as soon as I heard there was such a thing. I had no idea adoptees wanted to know their birthmothers and when i heard that some did, I was devastated not because I would not want to see my son, but because he might be suffering. I also did not know adoptees could not get their records when i surrendered.

    There was no plan and no sense of having a "right", I just did things as the impulse hit me, and the fear I would never again have the chance to find him. I had to know he was alive and ok. If he had searched (and in some ways I wish I had waited for him to make the first move) I would not have cared who he contacted or how, intermediary, relatives, show up at my door in a clown suit....I just wanted to know he was alive and ok and if he had wanted to know me that would have been a miracle.

    Once again another example of how differently some of us have dealt with the same heartbreak. It is good to hear as many perspectives as possible.

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  14. I think the saddest thing is when both reject each other. I know about CI issues. I wonder if people don't realize that mother's are people too and our lives are also disrupted. I have pulled back twice due to inability to function because overwhelming emotional reactions. I believe that has totally ended my reunion. To reject a child is not a rejection of them as a person, but a rejection of the feelings that overwhelm. IMHO.

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  15. I'd say when both reject each other there is no problem, just like when both were actively searching and reunite. Both parties get what they want. if neither person is interested or wants to pursue it, then both walk away with what they wanted.

    The tragic situation is where one party really wants a reunion and wants to make a relationship work, and the other one does not and slams the door and keeps it slammed. Either way that goes, it really hurts and the rejected party can't help but take it personally. Also can't help asking "why me"?

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  16. Jane, thank you. This is a very thought-provoking post, one that must have been very difficult for you to experience much less write down. I can't stand CI programs not just from my personal experience but also because it doesn't give mothers and adoptees the chance to work through these issues. It takes time and communication for healing, on both sides. We need the chance to get to know one another as people and not just "birth mother" and "adoptee" before we can decide how to proceed in the future. As Michelle said, adoption has indeed done its job well on all of us. I would be interested to hear more about how your relationship with Megan has progressed and if the two of you have been able to work through some of these issues.

    An aside to thejuj--please contact me (you can find me through my blog at 73adoptee.blogspot.com). I too have been through the Illinois CI program and been denied. I may have some advice for you.

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  17. I'm interested that you had a cool enough head to decide to go to law school in order to beat the system and to find Meagan when she was 18.
    I guess things were different in the US than in the UK. There was no hope there in 1962 that records would ever be opened. If there had been, I'm quite sure the lives of my son, his father and myself would have been very different.

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  18. Thank you for sharing - you actually helped shed some light on what fears my mother and family may be currently going through.

    I just turned 47 yesterday. I am a product of the foster care system, having never being legally released for adoption by my mother.

    In March of this year, 2009, I located my birth mother after many long years of searching. I found her by new information obtained & sent to me by a member of an adoption group I have been working with. This information was the obituary of my grandmother and it listed her four surviving daughters - one being my mother....

    With this new information, the group and I were able to locate telephone numbers, driving records, marriage records, name change records, addresses and telephone numbers. None of the numbers worked so I wrote a letter to my mother instead. I tried to assure her that I did not hate her, was not standing in judgment of her - I just wanted a chance to know where I came from. A chance to see her face to face, look into her eyes, to smell her, hold her & love her (if she would let me) before it was too late. I left my address, my e-mail, my home and mobile number...

    My mother called me a few weeks later but only to deny that she was my mother. She said she was not the person I was seeking. She lied to me about a number of small details about herself, but I knew the truth... She wished me luck in my search. I was so hurt by her rejection of me once again but when Mothers Day came around, I still ordered roses from online and had them sent to her anyway.

    Yesterday, my birthday, I received a call from someone in the group who told me she located and had spoke with one of my Aunts who admitted to being aware of me. She was told the story behind my search, that I was again denied by my mother and that all I wanted was to know where I came from, who I looked like, to see my mother and to know my familys medical history. My Aunt said she would have to consult with other family members first before going any further...

    I am driving to Florida from Maryland this coming Tuesday - if I do not hear from anyone before then, I will get my answers face to face....

    Is this wrong??? Some say yes. I feel strongly that I am not wrong. I believe it is my right to know! Am I afraid? Hard to admit, but yes...Yes I am. I have been rejected by so many people, and moved through the foster system so many times I'm very self protectant - to go through a double and quite possible a triple rejection is not something I wish to deal with, but if not now, when???

    I never knew it before, until right now, this very, Very instant... I know in my heart that I LOVE my mother...

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