My Birth Mother’s House

What would it have been like to grow up in my birth mother’s home? I will never really know, but perhaps I can get an inkling by seeing it. On a trip to Chicago, I take a swing through the northern suburbs to get a taste of what could have been.

I feel anxious, uneasy on the Metra train to Northbrook. My son, Jake, and I are going to see Lillian’s home — the house where I would have lived if Lillian had not given me up for adoption.

At the Northbrook train station, we jump in a cab. Our driver takes us to Alice Drive, a nice, quiet, leafy road with an odd mix of newish McMansions and small older homes. Lillian’s old house is a modest but tidy two-story gray and white home with dormered windows upstairs. The mature trees and shrubs in the front yard make the house look tiny. Behind the house, there’s a big backyard with a well-tended lawn. A mansion across the street and another large, imposing home to the immediate left make Lillian’s home look dinky.

IMG_2141

Lillian’s old home where she lived with my four brothers and sister. Alice Drive  is quiet.

IMG_2157

I start taking photos. There’s an attached garage and a central air-conditioning unit on the side of the house. I’ll bet Lillian and her family didn’t have central air conditioning in the 1960s. I can picture my brothers and sister having a blast climbing that tree.  I can see my brothers sneaking out those windows upstairs. Did Lillian or her husband, Dick, ever slam that front door after an argument? My imagination takes over.

I fantasize about the present owner of the house or an elderly neighbor approaching me.

After I explain what I’m doing, they tell me about Lillian, the lively waitress, the great cook, the unhappily married woman who was overwhelmed by the job of raising three boys and a girl.

Your mother was a lovely woman” or “what a tough chick,” or “I’ll never forget your mother’s beef stew” or “Lillian sure liked to drink”…or some new bit of information that surprises me.

Well, nothing like that happens. Perhaps the house is vacant or the owners are on vacation or sleeping. Nobody opens the blinds or the front door. I see no sign of life in the house or on the property. You could have heard a pin drop on Alice Drive. The whole block feels dead. I don’t see a soul.

Is this how it is in the suburbs? I grew up in a brick bungalow 35 miles away on the southwest side of Chicago. Neighbors hung out on their front porches. After dinner on summer evenings, my parents used to sit on the front steps and watch life go by on Sacramento Avenue. Kids played in the street. In Brooklyn, where I live now, I can look out the window at any time of day and see someone walking along my block or lingering to chat with a friend or neighbor. Brooklyn is a 24/7 kind of place, full energy. Chicago is lively too. Northbrook has a nice train station with paperback books for riders to enjoy, lovely homes on grassy lots, good public schools. But it’s too damn quiet.

I decide to trespass. What the hell, who’s going to stop me? I step on the lush lawn to take closer shots of Lillian’s old house.

This feels strange. I don’t belong here. I never lived here and I never knew the family who lived here. Many people might wonder why I’m curious about this house.

Well, I’m an adoptee on a mission of discovery. I don’t know my biological family’s complete story, only bits and pieces.  My blood relatives were like candles that burned at both ends. Two of my brothers, boys who used to play outside this house, are long gone. One committed suicide as a teenager, the other one died at 23 following an accident. Lillian was only 48 when she died in 1983. I am related by blood to the people who used to live in this house but I will always be the outsider.  That will never change.

I’ve got all the photos I need. The patient cab driver drives Jake and me back to the Metra station where we wait for the next train to downtown Chicago. My anxiety fades. I can’t wait to see my sister and fellow adoptee, Melissa, who grew up with me in that bungalow on the southwest side.

Unlike Northbrook, I will get a warm welcome when I walk in the door of Melissa’s home in the suburbs of Will County. I always feel at home in their house, which is something I never had with my biological family.

When DNA cousins play musical chairs

I check my account on Family Tree DNA  every week to see if I have a new daddy, brother, sister or first cousin. I never know who will pop up on my DNA lineup.

A couple weeks ago, I sat up straighter when I saw a new dark-haired fellow at the top of my list of matches. He is a “second to fourth generation” cousin and he occupies the No. 1 spot on my list, meaning he’s the closest relative among all my matches. Whoa! Brandon bumped cousin Susan out of the top spot. Susan had been perched at the top for months. Susan and Brandon both live in California but they don’t appear to be related to one another.

Of course, this new match intrigues me. For what it’s worth, Brandon matches me for a solid stretch of 41 pieces (cm) of chromosome 12. I Googled Brandon. I checked him out on Facebook and LinkedIn. I viewed a cute dog video he uploaded on YouTube. We exchanged friendly emails. Like many of the other cousins I’ve contacted, Brandon has no idea how we are related. Sigh.

If I were to guess, I would say Brandon and I are related on my mother, Lillian’s side.

He is related to another cousin, a distant cousin who’s a genealogist. Sharon put together a family tree for me based on what she knows about Lillian’s side of the family. But I can’t rule out the possibility that Brandon and I are linked on my dad’s side. After all, my father and mother could be distantly related to one another, which would not be as odd as it sounds.

Brandon appears to be in his 30s or 40s, an approachable-looking guy and apparently a dog lover. His approval rating went up in my book when I saw his video, featuring a sweet little dog fetching a tennis ball in a stream.

Our predicted relationship is third cousin, according to Family Tree’s chromosome browser, but I think Brandon is probably a second cousin once removed. That could mean one of his parents’ grandparents could be a sibling to one of my grandparents. But which grandparent and from which side of the family?

I took a DNA test to find family on my bio dad’s side of the family. So far, the mystery remains just that. I have no idea who he is (or was), whether he had other children, whether he even knows I exist.

That's me checking the latest DNA matches

That’s me checking the latest DNA matches

And the truth is I have done next to nothing lately to uncover my father’s identity. Adoption searches are exhausting and they suck up time. I work, I’m raising a teenager and I have two dogs who need me for daily walks and affection. I’m married, too. I don’t want the search for lost family to come at the expense of the people and critters who love me.

Still, my imagination goes into overdrive every time I open my Family Tree account. What’s tantalizing and frustrating is seeing the names and photos of matches on my screen and knowing that some of those people knew my father.

Of course, they don’t think of him as “Lynne’s father.” (I am sure my dad does not know about me or if he does, he’s pushed my existence out of his mind. I’ll bet he never told his wife/wives about me.) Maybe my DNA cousins know him as goofy Uncle Jim, the one who drank too much and told off-color jokes at family parties. Sorry, dad, I can’t picture you being a model citizen. You’ll always be a rogue in my imagination.

Every time my DNA cousins change places on my match list, I think of musical chairs. It’s not a breakthrough for an adoptee looking for bio dad and family but it keeps the DNA game interesting.

Let’s Give Adoptees Their Original Birth Certificates

If you are not adopted, you take your birth certificate for granted. It’s a piece of paper you’ve had forever, with facts about your parents and your birth that you’ve known about all your life.

But if you’re adopted, the original birth certificate is like a piece of gold. I just got mine two years ago and feel lucky to have it. Without it, I would be completely in the dark about my birth mother Lillian’s identity, which is part of my identity, too.

me and the BC best

That’s my original birth certificate

Many adopted adults can’t get their original birth certificates because of old-fashioned state laws that keep those records sealed. That’s not fair. I think other adoptees should be able to learn about their origins without having to jump through a million hoops or spend gobs of money.

I signed Sandy Musser’s petition, which would restore original birth certificates to adult adoptees. Sandy, an adoption reform activist, wants to take her petition straight to the White House. She hopes to convince President Obama to enact an executive order, which would restore the OBCs to every adult adoptee in America “in one fell swoop because it is a civil and constitutional right.” I’m with you, Sandy.

If you’re reading this, take a moment to add your name to Sandy’s petition. The more signatures, the more likely this drive will make a difference.

Advice for Adoptive Parents from an Adoptee

From my own adoption experience and as someone who hangs out with adoptees on Facebook, I know many of us have grievances with our adoptions.

Here’s mine. My parents, Claire and Bob, never told Melissa and me we were adopted. Claire and Bob were recovering from the death of their only child, Bobby, when they decided to adopt a baby girl – that would be me. A year later, Melissa joined our family.

claire, bob and bobby

Bob, Claire and their son, Bobby

Claire and Bob took these “secret” adoptions to their graves. I use the word “secret” ironically since everyone in my family except for Melissa and me knew about our adoptions. I didn’t find out until I was 38 years old. By that time, my parents were both gone so I could not ask them about the adoptions. When I asked my cousins for details, they knew very little so I was left with many unanswered questions.

I don’t like being a late discovery adoptee. Really, who would?

I’ve been thinking about what I would tell a couple planning to adopt a child. I’ve never done it but as a mother, I think I speak for many parents when I say parenthood is a job you can’t really prepare for. Doesn’t matter if you give birth or adopt. No parent knows what she’s getting into when she has a child.

Of course, adopting a child brings with it some special issues. I’ve put together a short list of suggestions for would-be adoptive parents. Call it the “do’s and don’ts” of adoption from the adoptee’s point of view.

• Be straight with your child. Tell her the truth about being adopted. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal every unpleasant detail about the circumstances behind your child’s birth especially if those details are painful. Tact is not a bad thing especially with a little one.

But you owe it to your child to be honest. Yes, adoption is complicated. It’s also one more way to create a family so why hide the truth?  Besides, isn’t it better that the truth comes from you rather than having your child discover the facts on her own? Believe me, if you choose not to tell her, she will find out anyway.

• Don’t play favorites. I cringe when I hear stories from adopted adults who are scarred, having been made to feel like second-class citizens compared to their parents’ biological siblings.

Note to parents: don’t bother adopting if you don’t have a big enough heart to love the child the same way you do your natural offspring. No one ever said blending a family would be easy but I assume as an adopter, you chose to bring a non-biological child into your home. Nobody forced you to do it.  So make the best of the situation, no matter how tough it is. Bend over backwards to make your adopted child feel loved and protected. Be sensitive to her feeling of being different. Whatever you do, don’t make her feel second-class by treating her differently than the other kids in the house.

• Don’t feel threatened. At some point, your adopted child will want to know about her origins. Don’t take it the wrong way when your child asks questions about her birth mother or father. Don’t be offended when she embarks on a search for facts about her biological family. Don’t be hurt when she wants to meet with her blood relatives in person. Understand that your child’s curiosity and need to know are natural.

If you are not adopted, you probably have known about your family since Day One. Your mom and dad filled you in on the story of your birth and the details about your first days of life on this planet. You’re not curious because you know your story. If anything, you take it for granted.

Put yourself in your child’s shoes. If you were adopted, wouldn’t you want to know about your first family? Be supportive of your child’s desire to learn about her kin. Oh, and if you happen to know things about your child’s other family, it’s time to come forward. Don’t be an obstacle in your child’s search for truth. She will appreciate your love and support.

• Educate yourself as much as you can. If you plan to adopt a child from overseas, go into it with your eyes open.  Ask questions. Do your homework. Many children from faraway countries have been hurt. They may have health and behavioral problems that you’ve never heard of. Can you make a lifelong commitment to loving and helping a troubled child? It won’t be easy.

Last year, Reuters exposed the underground practice of “rehoming,” where unhappy parents seek new homes for the kids they regret adopting with no official regulation or oversight. Vulnerable children, many from foreign countries, have ended up in the hands of unfit even dangerous people.

Until I read the articles by Reuters, I never knew giving up was an option for adopters. The idea of adopting a child and then changing your mind when the going gets tough makes me angry. When you adopt a kid, you make a commitment to loving and raising the child. It’s not a consumer purchase.

Before you adopt, ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a good mom or dad even when things become difficult. Maybe you’re up for the challenge. Or maybe not?

Twin Identities – An Adoptee Reunion Story

It’s strange enough to find out as an adult that you are adopted. It’s even weirder to discover you’re not as unique as you thought you were. Hey, meet your identical twin.

That’s the strange and shocking scenario presented in Identical Strangers,  a memoir written by identical twin sisters and adoptees Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein.

I read this book while on vacation near Cancun, Mexico with my family. (My recipe for a perfect vacation? Put me on a beach, add a good book with a couple of mojitos, and I’m happy.)

Good book with a mojito on the beach equals a great vacation.

Good book with a mojito on the beach equals a great vacation.

Paula and Elyse didn’t grow up together the way sisters normally do. They were raised by different sets of adoptive parents. Early on, they knew they were adopted but they had no clue about their “twinship” until they were in their 30s. Whoa!  I cannot imagine how strange it would be to discover as an adult that I had an identical twin sister. It was weird enough to find out the truth about my adoption as a woman well into my 30s. That’s when I learned that my sister, Melissa, and I had been adopted. Of course, this family “secret” was a secret only to Melissa and me. Our cousins, aunts, uncles, God knows who else, all knew about our adoptions. Ah, the joy of being a late discovery adoptee.

Paula and Elyse are late discovery twins. They discovered they were separated as infants for a secret and misguided study on separated twins. Speaking to each other on the phone for the first time, the women realize their voices are practically identical. The sisters both suffered nearly fatal reactions to sulfa drugs. They also suffered from depression.  Meeting in person for the first time, Elyse and Paula realized they shared the same mannerisms and even liked the same shade of lipstick.

Yet Paula and Elyse live very different lives. Paula is married, has a little girl and lives in Brooklyn. Elyse, who is single, lives a bohemian lifestyle in Paris.

As an adult, how do you fit a brand new twin sister into your life? Paula has reservations about a relationship with Elyse.  Still, they forge a bond. They laugh, they cry, they get on each other’s nerves, just like sisters do. Their many uncanny similarities, shared DNA and love bring the women together.

Elyse and Paula embark on a search for their biological parents. Hey, I can relate to the excitement and pain that goes along with the search for kin. Of course their search leads the sisters to painful realities. Among other things, they learn that their mother, Leda, tried to commit suicide when she was more than 5 months pregnant with them. Like me, Paula and Elyse never got a chance to meet their birth mother, who was long gone by the time they found out about her.

When she discovers Leda is deceased, Paula is relieved.

“A bittersweet mix of relief and sadness sweeps over me,” Paula wrote. “There will be no emotional reunion, no pressure to find a place for our birth mother in my life.”

I know many adoptees wish for nothing less than a happy reunion with their natural mothers. I’m like Paula. I breathed a sigh of relief when I found out Lillian was deceased. Though I still find it fascinating to learn things about Lillian’s life, and would have liked to have met her, I have never had a huge desire for a relationship with the mother who was absent from my childhood.

I remember how much it hurt to find out the woman who brought me into the world battled with demons in her head. Lillian suffered from bipolar disorder. Leda, who suffered from schizophrenia, was hospitalized several times for emotional problems.

Adoption searches force us to face painful truths. Paula and Elyse suffered when they learned the truth about Leda, but their search brought them even closer to each other. Adoptees in search of happy reunions will enjoy this story.

Questions About Identity Never End for Adoptees

My friend, Mary, sent me a link to Laura Skandera Trombley’s wonderful article about the identity questions that adoptees wrestle with every day.

“I saw this story and immediately thought of you,” Mary wrote.

Skandera Trombley, who is a college president, talks about the questions adoptees have about their first families, the circumstances that led to adoption, biological ancestors, ethnic roots and medical histories.  Like me, Skandera Trombley was adopted in the 1960s.

“I was born during a cruel time for the adopted; the 1960s was an era when such transactions were considered “closed,” and basic information was routinely and legally withheld,” Skandera Trombley wrote. “And yet I cannot escape or pretend to ignore my past. It walks with me every day.”

Unlike me, Skandera Trombley knew early on that she was adopted. She also learned that being adopted was not something you dropped in casual conversations with people outside your immediate family. When people asked her where she got her pretty red hair, rather than saying “I’m adopted,” Skandera Trombley’s adoptive mom advised her to tell people that she had a red-haired aunt who lived in New York.

I can identify with Skandera Trombley’s fierce attachment to her name. Miller is my adopted father’s surname, the only name I’ve ever had and the name I intend to keep for the rest of my life. When I got married, there was never any question that I would continue being a Miller. I liked having a name that’s short, simple, easy to pronounce and spell. More important, my maiden name is part of my original identity, the name readers see when they read my articles. My name is my name. Like Skandera Trombley, I don’t want anyone messing with it.

I thought I knew who I was and where I came from until that day 11 years ago when I found out I was adopted. My identity suddenly felt like it was up for grabs. Some man other than Bob Miller actually fathered me? Claire Miller was not my real mother? Was I not really a Miller? Was I something other than Polish and German? Why didn’t my parents tell me I was adopted? How could I have been so stupid to have not figured this out years ago?

I’m still wrestling with some of those questions. Having searched for my blood relatives through DNA testing and old-fashioned record checking, I know who my biological mother was, why she gave me up for adoption and my ethnic heritage. I have filled in many names on my family tree but it’s still only half a tree. My mother and her relatives are represented but my father and his relatives are nowhere to be found.

nice photo of Lillian and Howard

Was Lillian part Cherokee?

These days I wonder what my last name would be if my biological father had raised me. Will I ever find out that name and other basic facts about the man who (perhaps unknowingly) brought me into the world?

“I learned a hard lesson: For the adopted, coming to terms with one’s identity is a lifelong struggle,” Skandera Trombley wrote.

That’s one way to look at it. It’s true that learning about my original family and their challenges has brought tears to my eyes. It’s been very sobering. Still, I don’t feel like I’m struggling, exactly. I am learning the truth about my origins and I’m taking the good with the bad. Truth is good. I can handle occasional jabs of painful truth. Just don’t lie to me, please.

Last week, I discovered two distant cousins who only recently found out they are related to one another as uncle and niece. Pat and Sheryl live in Oklahoma, a state I’ve never visited, one that’s known for its huge population of mixed-blood and full-blooded Native Americans. Pat has an Irish or Scottish surname but he is as he put it a “card-carrying Native American.” He and Sheryl have Native American roll numbers.

How intriguing! Now that I’ve found blood relatives with Indian ancestry, I’m wondering again about my heritage. My DNA test didn’t turn up any Indian blood. In fact, my ethnic background is more than 98 percent Western European, according to Family Tree DNA. I’m definitely Irish, possibly English and Scottish. But I’ve heard stories about my birth mother, Lillian, teaching her other children an Indian rain dance, according to my sister, Sissy. Rumor has it Lillian was part Cherokee. Could I have trace amounts of Native American blood from way back when?

These are the kinds of questions that I turn over in my head. I guess you could say my identity is a work in progress, a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day From a New Irish-American Adoptee

This is my first St. Patrick’s Day as an Irish-American. Ok, that’s not exactly right. I’ve been an Irish-American since the day I was born but I just found out about my Irish roots a few months ago.

Happy_St._Patrick's_Day!

Courtesy of National Library of Ireland on The Commons/Flickr

What can I say? I’m adopted and my ethnic identity got a makeover. It sounds weird doesn’t it? For adoptees, it’s  a normal experience, particularly for those of us who found out about our adopted-ness late in life. We grow up associating with one or more ethnic groups only to find out we’re actually related to an entirely different population.

I grew up on Chicago’s Southwest Side with a Polish-American mom and a German-American father. Polish and German. Kielbasa and sauerkraut. That was my ethnic stew and I never questioned it.

My life story began to crumble 11 years ago when I found out I was adopted, a detail my adoptive parents took with them to their graves. Last year, after starting my adoption search, I found blood relatives and other people who were close to my family. They told me the truth about my birth mother and the situation that led to my adoption. They revealed family secrets which of course were secrets only to me. I also did DNA testing hoping it would help me find relatives on my father’s side. Today I have a new ethnic identity, along with stories about my biological family, birth certificates, a death certificate and a stash of old faded photos.

Many of the things I’ve learned are painful. My mother’s childhood and the poverty, sadness and sickness that scarred her and other members of her family have made me cringe.  Those photos of Lillian with her four other children – my brothers and sister – and the pictures of Lillian’s siblings and other relatives are fascinating to look at, yes. But there are days when looking at the photos makes me want to cry. A photo gallery of dead relatives I never knew. So dreary.

Finding out about my ethnic heritage has been one of the happier discoveries in this adoption search.  My ethnic identity is alive, intact and part of who I am today. Nobody can take it from me. It’s something I share with my son. After all these years, Jake, who is 14, finally knows what his mother contributed to his ethnic makeup.

Just like Barack Obama, I’m not 100 percent Irish-American. I don’t know anything about my biological father’s background though it’s safe to assume his ancestors came from Western Europe, too. Judging from all those Irish and English surnames among my DNA matches, I think I must have a fair amount of Irish/English/Scottish blood in me.

When I think of Irish-Americans, I think of fun-loving, smart, articulate people. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of their club? Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Medical History: Adoptees Fill in the Blanks

Every time we turn around, we hear about the importance of family medical history. Yet for adoptees, these facts are missing or at best incomplete.

A couple of recent  situations reminded me how little I know about my family medical history.

Leafing through Better Homes and Gardens on the subway, an article about heart disease caught my eye.

“When it comes to heart disease, what runs in your family matters—a lot,” the article began. “Studies show that if one of your parents had a heart attack or stroke, your own risk for these conditions can double, and having a brother or sister with the disease ups your chances of having a heart attack, too.”

I turned the page. Another article suggested talking to relatives about diseases that run in the family and then telling your doctor, who can use the information to recommend lifestyle  changes or screenings. “So grab a pen and paper and start interviewing Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and everyone in between,” the article said.

Yeah, right. Like I can pick up the phone and get the scoop on family health conditions just like that. The writer is obviously not adopted.

On another day, sitting in an office in Manhattan, my doctor and I tried to calculate my lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Lillian, my mother, died of breast cancer at the age of 48 and that’s why I made this appointment. I have no idea how old Lillian was when she was first diagnosed with the disease so I couldn’t answer my doctor’s question about age of onset. Hell, I didn’t know about my adoption until 11 years ago and didn’t know Lillian’s name until 2012. By the time I found out about her, Lillian had been gone for nearly 30 years.

I recalled hearing from a relative that Lillian had battled cancer for quite a while.  How long is quite a while? Let’s say my mother had the disease for seven years, I told my doctor.  She knew I was guessing and she wasn’t pleased. My doctor quizzed me about the other members of my family who had the disease. I don’t know, I don’t know, I said. My blood relatives are strangers to me.

I knew what my doctor was thinking: you should know your family history! I am adopted, I said, feeling compelled to defend my ignorance.

pic for medical history article

Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/Grant Cochrane

As we wrapped up our meeting, my doctor commented on how frustrating this lack of history must be for adopted people.

Yup, adoptees from the sealed records era run into these situations all the time. We don’t have family gossip stored in our memories because we never had a chance to talk with our biological kin. We can’t answer doctors’ questions with actual knowledge. We are clueless about our family histories.

In recent months, I’ve learned a few things about the health issues that run on my mother’s side of the family.  Lillian, in addition to breast cancer, struggled with alcohol and probably bipolar disorder. At least one of her brothers struggled with bipolar disorder, too. Lillian’s father, George, also had a drinking problem. My half-sister has diabetes and suffered a mild stroke some years ago.

What little I know about my mother and her relatives seems like a treasure chest of facts compared to what I have on my father and his family – absolutely nothing.

This problem is finally getting attention from the outside world. New Jersey lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow adoptees to gain access to their medical histories along with their original birth certificates.  I say it’s about time.

In the absence of information, I will do what I can to keep heart attacks, strokes and other bad stuff away.  Healthy genes, heart attack genes, mystery genes – whatever I inherited doesn’t have to dictate what’s going to strike me five, 10 or 20 years from now.

I try to take care of myself by making (mostly) healthy choices. Today I have a head cold. Part of me wants to take a nap, the other part of me thinks it’s time to get up, stretch my legs and have a glass of water with another shot of cold medicine.  It’s snowing and 27 degrees outside but a walk might do me good and get my mind off the things over which I have no control.

Original Birth Certificates: A Basic Right for Adoptees

Maybe I hit a nerve. After posting an article on the importance of original birth certificates, I heard from many adoptees who are fed up with birth certificate laws that keep them from learning basic truths about their origins.

“At 47, doesn’t the Legislature think I am old enough to know where I come from?” one reader wrote. “It’s crazy! I was born in North Dakota. Getting information from them is worse than pulling teeth.

“Over the 30 years I’ve been searching, I have learned I have a sister who’s a year older than me who was also given up. You’d think maybe they would offer up a little information about her, but no such luck. I wasn’t even given a birth month, just a year. North Dakota is as old fashioned as they get. I doubt they will ever give up the information. At my age, medical information is almost a must.”

These restrictive laws are on the books in many states. (If you wonder whether you can get your original birth certificate, here is a state-by-state summary from the American Adoption Congress.)

As if it’s not bad enough that adoptees can’t get their hands on these documents, many have resorted to expensive alternate routes to obtain a few facts about their births. It’s not unusual at all for adoptees to shell out several hundreds of dollars for court fees and confidential intermediaries. Responsible adults who have jobs, families and homes of their own have to spend big bucks just to get a few tidbits of information about their births and birth parents. Of course, those who don’t have the money are completely out of luck. This is not right.

me and the BC bestI am one of the lucky adoptees. I was born in Illinois, which recently unsealed original birth certificates for adopted people. A couple of years ago, I sent the Illinois Department of Public Health a check for $15 or $20. Months later, I had a non-certified copy of my birth certificate.  That document revealed my birth mother’s maiden name, married name, age, address and her place of birth. With that information, I began my search for more facts about blood relatives. Thanks to that piece of paper and a wonderful search angel, I have been able to learn many important things about medical and family history.

As far as birth certificate access goes, Illinois was ahead of New York, the state where I currently live. I am glad to see the Empire State moving in the right direction. Here’s a great 20-minute video on the New York state adoptee bill of rights featuring comments from birth parents and adoptees.

Why Adoptees Need Their Birth Certificates

I take my birth certificate for granted. I don’t give it a second thought, even though it was less than two years ago that I got my hands on this document, the original birth certificate with my birth mother’s name in black and white.

my BC and thumb #4

But as an adoptee, I shouldn’t take this piece of paper for granted. The only reason I have it is because I come from Illinois, one of the states that has unsealed birth certificates for adopted people. Many adoptees are not so fortunate. They can’t get their original birth documents because of old-fashioned state laws that keep those papers locked up like cold hard cash in a bank vault. (At least the money hoarders have keys to their safe deposit boxes. No such luck for adoptees who come from the wrong states.)

If you are adopted, the original birth certificate is a key to your origins. It reveals the name or names of your original parents, their hometowns, their ages, where they were living at the time of your birth, even whether or not you have a twin brother or sister. These are basic facts that non-adopted people know from day one. Why should adoptees in the 21st century be kept in the dark? It’s just wrong.

Without my original birth certificate, I never would have been able to find out anything about my mother, Lillian, her children, her husbands or other details about her life and death. My quest to learn about my original family and medical history never would have gone anywhere without that piece of paper. My birth certificate unlocked doors.

Adopted people are not the only ones who want these vital documents unsealed. Lorraine Dusky, a birth mother, makes a compelling case for opening the record vault. “Adopted people are not children all their lives,” she writes. “They grow up and need not only updated family medical information, but they need and desire to be whole and integrated individuals.”

I am glad to see a number of states are starting to recognize the rights of adoptees to their history. In Ohio, adult adoptees will be able to get their original birth certificates under a recent change in state law. Lawmakers in New York and Georgia are considering similar actions. (Here’s an overview of birth certificate access state by state, courtesy of the American Adoption Congress.)

Writing about this has brought back a memory. In 2012, it came in the mail, many weeks after I had requested my birth certificate from the state of Illinois. Until that day, I didn’t have a single document related to my adoption. It was a private affair that occurred soon after my birth in the 1960s in suburban Chicago.

My hands shook a bit as I ripped open the envelope. Inside was a non-certified birth certificate containing an honest answer to that basic question I had wondered about for years: Who is my birth mother?

me and the BC best

The birth certificate dispelled a couple of myths I had entertained. Contrary to what I had suspected, my birth mother was not a member of my adoptive family, nor was she a teenager who got in trouble. Lillian was a married woman of 28 when she had me. Of course, my birth certificate did not fill in all the blanks, especially the one for my father. He was listed as “not legally known.”

Still, it was thrilling to see the facts for the first time. I was no longer the “undocumented” adoptee. Those kernels of truth got me going on a mission to dig up more truths about my family history.

No adoptee should be denied this experience.