Feelings Are in the Present Tense

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     When one’s search and initial reunion are somewhat in the past, we tend to think that the feelings also are past, over and dealt with. We hear phrases such as “moved on” and “closure.” We are encouraged to put those feelings, both good and bad, into a metaphorical box with a strong lock and not revisit them. In truth, although our feelings about some things may change in intensity or our point of view may change, many of our feelings concerning adoption, relinquishment, search, and reunion do not really change much. When events or past periods of time are recalled, especially when they are shared, the feelings may suddenly be very much in the present again, just as intense as if the events or situations were recent.
     This became clear to me recently when I was visiting, casually at first, with a woman I’d met through an entirely different connection. As we were talking about aging and physical disabilities, she said, somewhat offhandedly, “I’m an adopted person, so I don’t have my entire medical history.”
     I told her I am a reunited birth mother.
     “Oh!” she said. “I’ve not met many reunited birth mothers. I did meet mine years ago, before she died.” She became more animated and her eyes brightened. I encouraged her to share her story if she wanted to do so.
     “Oh, it’s been a long time, but I remember it well. I wanted to find her, to find my family, to find people who looked like me. Well, they did and they didn’t, but it was wonderful to finally know, to have that connection, to know my truth.”
     She went on to describe her life, a very positive childhood with loving, open adoptive parents who did not withhold what little information they had about her birth family, mostly her birth mother’s last name. As anyone who has searched knows, having that name is a big piece of information.
     When she was a young girl, perhaps twelve, thinking her parents were “so awful, to make me dust the baseboards once a week and dust the piano, and even help with the dishes”—she laughed at her young feelings—“I’d go sit under this tree that faced the highway and I’d fantasize that if my mother came driving by, she’d recognize me and take me away.”
     Of course, that never happened. She grew up and became a nurse, married and had her own children. But she always held on to whatever clues she had about her origins, including that name.
     Frustrated that she did not have any of her medical history, either for her own needs or her children’s, she decided to try to find out more. At some point, she became active in ALMA (Adoptees Liberty Movement Association), one of the first adoptees rights organizations, whose founder, Florence Fisher, wrote The Search for Anna Fisher, one of the first books I read about adoption search and trying to get records opened. Knowing her birth mother’s original last name, and having her own birth date and birth place, and the papers her parents gave her, she decided to search.
     Her adoptive parents died before she was able to complete her search, but she knew they had been supportive of her efforts. She had been born in Florida and continued to live there, so she had an idea of where to go. She wrote to the agency that held the records, and then went there.
     The woman at the agency with whom she spoke said, “Gee, I don’t know. You were born in 1935; that’s a long time ago. I doubt if we have records that far back.” But the woman called back soon and said, “I found your records, in the basement. I can tell you what’s written there.”
     Some of the facts turned out not to be accurate, of course, but they were a big help. As my friend told me these things, she was excited, and sometimes tearful. “I haven’t told my story in a long time. I need to tell it again, before I forget the details.” I encouraged her not only to tell it again, but to write it down so her family will have it to share and pass down.
     She compiled the facts she knew, and composed a letter stating who she was, why she was searching, and that she wanted to know more, and she sent it to all the people with that last name she could find in that part of Florida. She did receive some answers and calls, and some were, indeed, from extended family, who gave her her birth mother’s current name and telephone number, and address.
     A little scared, but determined and excited, she called her, first asking if such-and-such a date meant anything to her. The woman said, “No. Should it?”
     Trying a different approach, she asked, “Does such-and-such maternity home mean anything? Do you recall the name so-and-so (her birth name)?”
     The woman hesitated a long time and then said, “Are you trying to tell me you’re my daughter?”
     My friend replied, “I am trying to ask you if you’re my mother.”
     As it happened, her birth mother had long been hoping she would be found, and had not withheld the information from her husband, other daughter, or her large family. She said she’d always wanted to find her, but hesitated at that moment to meet her, saying she’d been sick. “I’ll call you again tomorrow, when you’ve had time to think about it,” my friend said.
     When she called again, the next morning, her birth mother said she wanted to see her and asked her to come to her hone. It turned out she was terminally ill. They met and visited several times in a short period of time.
     When her birth mother was only 13 years old, her own mother died and she was left to help her father raise a great many younger siblings. Finding herself pregnant at 18, with no money, no options, a guy who literally skipped town, and in 1935, she simply could not keep and raise this child. She had the baby with her for a month after birth, until her father came to get her, and the baby was adopted, fortunately by loving parents who never said anything derogatory about her origins.
     My friend said, “I really did not like her in some ways, which bothered me, but I understand why she was so honored in her family for her efforts to raise her siblings, and I understand why she couldn’t keep me.
     “I honor her decision to give me up, and I love her for having me. I just didn’t really like her as an individual, and I didn’t know how to change that. She died six weeks later, and I didn’t attend the funeral, because I didn’t want to be the center of attention, the newly found daughter, distracting everyone from focusing on her. I did meet my half-sister and kept up with her, although we were never close, and she is now deceased. But when I left my birth mother’s home that very first day, I felt a peace of mind I’d never known before. I also felt great satisfaction, knowing I’d succeeded in my search and I’d beat the system that tries to keep all these secrets.”
     Talking to her later, to ask permission to share some of her story in this newsletter, she said, “It was good to tell it again. I will gladly tell my story to anyone who is interested. Most people are so uneducated about adoption issues, and they just don’t get it.”
     We discussed how intense her feelings still were, when she revisited those events of over thirty years ago. She agreed that feelings do not go away, that it all comes back as if it happened just yesterday. As we had shared both our stories that day at her home, my own feelings about relinquishing my son, and about finding him when he was thirty years old, were also very much in the present, not the immediate sadness and grief of signing the papers and not being able to raise him, but the deep feeling of loss of his childhood to me. It also created a bond between us, both having adoption connections.
     Some would say, “How could it be the same? She is an adoptee and you are on the other side as a birth mother?” But the point is that we are not on opposite “sides.” All people with adoption connections have losses, especially when they don’t have all their information, and when we see adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents as somehow in opposition to each other, we miss the connections we can make.
     The more we are open to sharing our stories with others who are interested (not just the general public on the bus or in the store), the more connections we find, which serves to validate our own experiences, feelings, and lives. I can see this woman now as someone who was determined to find the truth in a time when the resources were few and society had heard little or nothing about search or adoptees’ or birth parents’ rights. I can also realize that thirty years after her mother had to relinquish her, I had not many more options myself and relinquishment was the best decision I could make at that time. Sharing our stories with each other was a great gift for both of us.
     In researching for the book review in this issue, I contacted a woman from the AAC, who also lives in Florida. She is a reunited birth mother, and we shared our own stories. She agreed that the feelings about relinquishment, adoption, search, and reunion are still very fresh, even after many years. In telling our stories, we don’t reinforce the trauma, but come to terms with it, and integrate those experiences into who we are as individuals. Our stories are part of the tapestry of each of us.
     In the same way, search and reunion are not about “closure,” but about connections, about the searcher and the person found connecting with themselves, with all of who they are. Even if the person searched for is deceased, the searcher can connect with whatever information they can find. “Closure” implies that the whole situation, episode, or feelings, are all over and done with, feelings forgotten. Most people with adoption connections do not want closure, they want connections, to the past, the present, and the future. They do not want no longer to have feelings, they want to be able to have and express a variety of feelings, in appropriate ways. The goal is to let go of both denial and of obsession, neither of which is healthy. This is what my friend meant when she told her husband, after meeting her birth mother, “I have peace of mind.”

Excerpted from the October 2014 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2014 Operation Identity