Life is Short—Search Now!

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     In recent weeks, I have experienced the deaths of several people close to me, including my mother and a minister who was like a parent to me. He baptized me when I was 11, performed both my weddings, and both he and his wife, who died five years ago, were extremely supportive during my first pregnancy. She went to the hospital with me and remained with me throughout my labor. They were supportive as I relinquished my son and were never judgmental.
     I moved back to Albuquerque partly because they were here, as well as the fact that my son was born here. He was still living here and I am reunited with him. My regret is that he did not meet these wonderful people who considered themselves like his godparents. My other regret is that I did not spend enough time with them, as I’d hoped to do. Even in their retirement and my own, we all seemed too busy, even living only a mile apart. The time just went by. My son and I don’t see each other a lot, either, but we have vowed to keep in closer touch from now on. Life is short, even if one lives into one’s 90s. We can never make up for lost time.
     What I don’t regret is finding my son when he was 30 years old, in 1996. Had I waited for him to search, I might still be waiting, and he would not have been able to meet his biological grandparents at all. Although I wish I could have known him as he grew up, because time lost really can’t be made up, no one seemed to think of the possibility of open adoption in 1966. Searching for birth family or relinquished offspring was not even mentioned. Yet I knew in my heart that I would somehow find him one day. By the time I did search, my son’s adoptive mother was urging him to search for me. Had I waited, I might not know my son’s adoptive parents, either, and he would not know his half-brothers.
     In waiting “because I don’t want to interfere in his/her life,” many people lose forever the opportunity to know each other. Sometimes it is a near miss, by months or even weeks, when the one being sought dies before the search is completed. What causes people to delay searching? It’s usually fear—of the unknown, of knowing the truth at last, of finding a person that doesn’t match one’s fantasies, of not being welcomed, of letting the secrets out, of once again displeasing parents (adoptive parents or birth parents’ parents), or just ignorance of the legal possibility of search. Those of us who are active in adoption circles talk about various states’ laws and restrictions, but the majority of our society ether thinks that anyone can search very easily on the Internet or by going to the state, or they think that it’s always illegal, unethical, impossible, or even immoral, to search.
     Some people do a half-hearted search and become discouraged, angry, or afraid to finish the search and accept the truth, whatever it might be. Again, that vague notion of who one’s parents or child might be seems more comfortable at times than the real possibilities. To finally know a real person means throwing out the fantasy person that one has had in their mind, maybe for many years, and that may feel like a death of sorts.
     In today’s open or, more often, semi-closed adoptions, there may not be a need for formal search, but we all know that many adoptees still grow up without knowing birth family and many birth parents do not have access nor a relationship with their offspring. A meeting before the birth, a few pictures afterward, a supervised visit through an adoption agency, without disclosure of full names, addresses and telephone numbers, is not really an open adoption, not really a relationship. The adults involved sometimes tell themselves there will be plenty of time when the child is grown, but sometimes birth parents die, or children die, and all those opportunities are gone. I remember a case in this city where an adoption really was open, with frequent visits, and the young birth mother was killed when the child was four years old. At least this dear child has memories of his birth mother, of celebrating holidays with her and his adoptive family. There are still a few adoptive parents who don’t tell their children they’re adopted, incredible as that seems to most of us. There are some parents who adopt internationally with no intention of maintaining any connection to their child’s country of origin, let alone encouraging a search for birth family when possible. Some even prefer to adopt “an orphan” so there is no possibility of connection with birth family. That’s hardly seeing things from the child’s perspective. There are those who adopt through the foster system who disparage birth parents to the children with the hope of “protecting” them from abusive or neglectful birth parents, but also to justify their own parenting. They may be terrified of their children wanting to continue contact with birth family. Sometimes this tactic if effective, but it usually results in resentments on the part of the adoptees.
     Many adoptees wait to search until after their adoptive parents are dead “because I didn’t want to upset them or hurt their feelings.” Quite often this decision is made without ever discussing it with the adoptive parents, who might, in fact, be supportive of a search. Some adoptive parents say, “I don’t want to upset my son/daughter by bringing it up.” So assumptions are made that keep people from searching and possibly having wonderful relationships with birth family. Some birth mothers do not search because they’ve never told a spouse or subsequent children, being afraid of disapproval, again assuming there would be disapproval when there might not. In not talking about the birth parents or relinquished offspring, information may be lost that is held in someone’s memory, or may be in writing, but in a place no one else knows about. Or an adoptive parent or birth parent dies and someone throws away all the information, making that decision without consulting anyone else. Other times, a person waits to search until the adoptive parents have dementia and can’t remember information that might be helpful, or a birth parent confesses to having relinquished a child right before they die and they may or may not remember dates, places, and other information.
     In Jean Strauss’s award-winning film, For the Life of Me, she follows several people who searched as soon as Massachusetts changed their laws to allow adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, and other persons in several states who could not gain access to birth certificates or other information. Some found their information shortly after a parent had died. Others were already quite elderly themselves and had been trying to search for years. Some of them died while the film was being made, in fact, still not knowing their heritage. Laws continue to be convoluted and restrictive in many states, and even more so for birth parents who search. So, why search if everything seems okay, if you love your adoptive parents, if you’ve “moved on” or have tried to convince yourself that you have, if you have a spouse and/or other offspring, if your adoptee seems content to have you as the only parents? Why not continue the secrets, the fantasies, the possibilities, the status quo? Why search now? Search now because the truth is the truth, because life is short, because everyone deserves a chance to have relationships with all the people to whom they are connected. Make it a priority, even if it does cost more than you think you ought to have to pay, even if you have to postpone something else. Remember, you are searching for the truth, not for your fantasies come true!

Excerpted from the January 2011 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2011 Operation Identity