The words, spoken quietly, were firm.
“I want to find them,” she said.
“Who?” I asked, though I knew.
“When do you want to try and find them?”
“Now,” she said.
And so the journey began.
I have always felt that birth parents are, for the most part, good people who make careful, well-thought decisions they will abide by. I see adoptees searching to find answers — not new parents. And I believe that adoptive parents feel more secure when their children have the option, whether or not they act on it, to meet their birth parents.
But I find that I have a complicated view of openness in adoption. Although birth parents often select and meet adoptive parents, boundaries still exist, even in so-called open adoptions. Most are really semi-open, meaning that people met, exchanged information, then went on with their lives without requesting or anticipating ongoing contact. I believe that some degree of openness is best, especially for the child whose basic rights are in many ways vanquished by closed adoption. Nonetheless, I confess that there were ways in which my own closed adoption felt comfortable, easy, and uncomplicated. During Elizabeth’s early years, I enjoyed the fact that she was all ours. I felt immense gratitude toward Elizabeth’s birth parents, but little inclination to share her with them.
But things changed. Once Elizabeth was old enough to ask basic questions — What is my birth mother’s name? Where does she live? — closed adoption no longer simplified things. How do you explain to your child that you don’t know her birth mother’s name? And how do you help a teenager who doesn’t want to leave home for college when you know that it is because she has been through so many losses?
The Search Begins
A series of events that had the potential to confirm or contradict all my beliefs about adoption were set in motion by my shy and quiet teenage daughter’s simple request.
Our first stop was the office of our social worker, Lisa Bray-Sinclair. Elizabeth’s dad Don, (from whom I have been divorced for several years), and I accompanied her and voiced our cautious support of her quest. “We support her searching, as long as she is ready,” I said to Lisa. “We feel that she needs to have counseling or read some books first. We want very much for it to be a good experience, but we know that it can be immensely difficult.”
Lisa respected our concerns. She would indeed recommend counseling, possibly a support group, and certainly some background reading. She also was in favor of Elizabeth accompanying me to an American Adoption Congress conference in Washington D.C.
The conference was, as we’d anticipated, a deeply moving experience. The high point was a session conducted by an adoptive mother and her daughter, who spoke of the daughter’s search and reunion. For Elizabeth, the conference fortified her feelings. For the first time in her life, she heard other adoptees talk about their searches. She was given insights into the experiences of birth parents, and their love, determination, and pain had all been confirmed for her. For me, the conference nurtured a hope that Elizabeth and I would have a stronger relationship because of her search.
Elizabeth went to see Lisa after we returned home. Determined not to let high school graduation and plans for college interfere with her search, Elizabeth began the process that fall. Lisa explained that her first step would be to send Elizabeth’s birth mother a brief letter stating that she had information of interest to her. Lisa hoped that the letter would bring a prompt response, but if it did not, she would follow it up with a registered letter that said more. If that didn’t work, we would then discuss our next step.
At the time, I was certain that Elizabeth’s birth mother, Cora, would call Lisa immediately upon receiving the letter. I could imagine the warm, emotional reunion they would have. It never occurred to me that Cora would not respond. Not to the first letter; not to the second. Not to Elizabeth’s sweet note that followed, explaining that she only wanted information and, perhaps, a chance to meet.
How does one mother understand another’s failure to respond to a shared — and beloved — child? I could have been angry or hurt, but all that I felt was sadness. I did not take Cora’s silence as rejection. Rather, I think it simply hurt too much to call. Unfortunately, her silence must have caused Elizabeth immense hurt. I say “must have” because my soft-spoken daughter’s response was simply to forge on without complaint. If Cora wouldn’t call, maybe her birth father would.
Lucky to be right this time. Bob returned Lisa’s call immediately. Yes, of course, he wanted to meet Elizabeth. He was happy to hear from her and to know that she was okay. Yes!
All that matters now is that Elizabeth’s birth father did respond and turned out to be a terrific person. Knowing that my daughter would finally see her own flesh and blood gave me immense pleasure. And long before we ever met, I was tickled to think how happy Bob must be to have been found.
Elizabeth set the pace for the reunion, eager to make it happen soon. Her first meeting with Bob occurred only a week or so after he responded to Lisa’s letter. When Elizabeth originally decided to search, I thought that her timing could not have been worse. Not only was she a high school senior, but she was clearly having a hard time leaving for college. She made it clear that she was unwilling to go far from home for college. Searching at a time when she was so vulnerable seemed like a bad idea.
Elizabeth knew when the time was right and pushed forward. Because her search turned out as it did, we are able to celebrate its many positive effects. Elizabeth enjoys an active campus life; she connects to us in more loving and positive ways; and she is more enthusiastic about school than ever before.
I used to worry about what would happen after the first or second or third meetings. What sort of relationships would unfold? How can it all work out in the long run?
Recently I got a phone message from Bob. He called to ask my advice about a gift for Elizabeth. He said two things that touched me deeply. One was, “I wanted your advice because you know her so much better than I do,” and the other was, “I haven’t heard much from Elizabeth. I’d like to see her more.”
Since Elizabeth, like Bob, has a sentimental streak, I suggested a picture frame or an album. Then I offered some words of reassurance: “The fact that you don’t hear from her frequently is a good sign. She feels comfortable. She knows you are not going anyplace.”
When Elizabeth found Bob, we all became part of an extended family. He and his son, Ben, came to family weekend at her college. I am especially excited about her 20th birthday, which we will be able to share together.
The Challenges We Face
Although the anticipation of family occasions with Bob gives me pleasure, there are aspects of this reunion that are challenging. One has been Bob’s wife, Karen’s, reaction. She knew that Bob had placed a baby for adoption, but she had assumed that this would remain in the past. When Elizabeth came back into Bob’s life, Karen was at first dismayed. After a few weeks, she felt more at ease and invited Elizabeth to their home on several occasions. Still, Karen remains reluctant to get together with our family. This is surely difficult for Bob, and it represents a loss for us.
Another person having a bit of a hard time is Elizabeth’s younger sister, Mollie. Because she had grown up knowing where she came from, that she was planned and wanted, I admit that her feelings about this did not concern me. Elizabeth was the one who had been dealt the tough hand. Why worry about Mollie?
When Elizabeth found Bob, she also found Ben and Hannah, his children, whom she promptly referred to as “my brother and my sister.” Having only one sibling, Mollie was unnerved when Elizabeth suddenly had three.
A Lifelong Process
I adore Bob and am thrilled that he is in our lives. But I still cannot imagine what it would have been like for all of us to know each other over the years. What if Elizabeth had seen him on occasion? How would she have felt when he got married? And how would her loving relationship with Mollie have been impacted by Ben and Hannah?
People who are considering adoption are often told that it is a lifelong process. Elizabeth’s search has underscored this for me. It is a process filled with contradiction and ambiguity. Thanks to Elizabeth and Bob, it is filled, also, with discovery, celebration, and wonder.