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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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 videoon the New York state adoptee bill of rights featuring comments from birth parents and adoptees.
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.
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?
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.
Christmas always conjures up memories of Christmases past. This year for the first time, I also wondered about the holiday scene in the home of my first family.
I never knew my biological family so I have no idea how they spent the holidays. Last year was the year I became an enlightened adoptee. I uncovered facts about my birth mother, Lillian, and her four other children, my three half brothers and half sister. I never knew they existed until a few months ago.
What a discovery! Each time I talked to a relative or friend of the family, I learned something new about my mother or siblings. Every time I turned up a new detail, no matter how small, I felt a sense of satisfaction. A picture of this family began to form in my mind.
Of course, some of the facts were painful. Only two of my siblings are still living and Lillian is also gone. Twice divorced, my mother was only 48 years old when she died of breast cancer 30 years ago.
As I’ve written before, we lived parallel lives 35 miles apart in the Chicago area. My adoptive family never crossed paths with my biological family.
I grew up with my parents, Claire and Bob, and sister, Melissa, in a working-class neighborhood of modest bungalows on Chicago’s southwest side. Melissa and I never knew we were not our parents’ biological daughters but we knew something was different. None of the other kids our age had parents old enough to be their grandparents.
I remember nice, quiet Christmases, just the four of us at home. We always had artificial trees. The one I remember the most was a silver tree, which we put up in the living room and covered with ornaments and garland. Claire painstakingly set up a Christmas village under the tree, with decorative villagers, ice skaters, animals and other characters on a bed of white tissue paper. Bob put colorful lights up in the front windows of our bungalow.
We opened our presents on Christmas Eve. Once in a while, we would attend midnight mass but more often, we went to church on Christmas morning. Christmas was one of the few times we ate dinner in the dining room, which was packed with formal dark mahogany furniture, with a chandelier over the table. Baked ham or kielbasa often appeared on the holiday table. It wasn’t fancy but it was always tasty. My parents were not drinkers but they made an exception on Christmas. They served Mogen David at the table in fancy crystal goblets.
Thirty-five miles away, my biological family celebrated Christmas in a modest house in Northbrook. I have faded photos of Lillian with her children standing in front of a green Christmas tree decorated with shiny ornaments and silver tinsel. How noisy must it have been on Christmas day in a house with four excited kids! I imagine it was a little rowdier in Northbrook than it was on the southwest side. All those boys! I never had brothers. What would it have been like to grow up with boys? They were a tight-knit bunch of hard-playing kids, according to my sister, Sissy, who was a tomboy back then.
What was it like in their house on Christmas? Was it chaotic? Fun? Messy? What did they fight about? What did they have for dinner? My imagination will have to make up for my not having been there.
I cherish what I have, the memories of Christmas in Chicago with Claire, Bob and my wonderful sister, Melissa. Blood and genes did not tie us together. The powerful and loving bonds were formed over years of living together and sharing good times, bad times and thousands of ordinary moments.
I cringe every time I hear about an adoptee who is rejected by her biological family.
For all the happy Hollywood-worthy reunions, there are many sad stories of adoptees who get the cold shoulder from their bio families. This comes after many spend months, even years, looking for relatives. I don’t know how frequently it happens but anecdotally, I hear the depressing stories on a fairly regular basis.
It’s a shame. How can people be so cavalier toward their own flesh and blood? We are not black sheep. Many adoptees just want to fill in the missing pieces in our history. We want names, faces and a few anecdotes. We are not looking to turn somebody else’s life upside down.
Fellow blogger Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy attempts to explain why birth mothers in particular turn away their long lost children. I imagine for a birth mother it must be like opening an old wound.
Adoptees are outsiders. We didn’t grow up with our biological families. Without that experience, we approach our kin as strangers. We are at a disadvantage. Relatives may associate us with a dirty secret from the past, the child who was given up for adoption, the child who was not supposed to re-appear ever again.
Of course, that’s baloney in the 21st century. Anyone with Internet access can dig up facts and faces from their past. It’s hard to hide in today’s world.
Personally, I don’t need a warm and fuzzy reunion filled with hugs, kisses and tears. My yet-to-be-found paternal relatives don’t have to welcome me with open arms or even send me a card at Christmas. Just answer my questions, please.
Adoptees go through life with questions about identity, relationships, family history, medical history….so many questions and so little information.
Being adopted can be a challenge. In families with biological and adopted children, the adoptees sometimes are treated like second-class citizens. Fortunately, my parents bent over backwards to treat Melissa and me, their adopted girls, the same.
Some adoptees struggle with depression and low self-esteem. Given all these challenges, adopted adults don’t need to be treated like garbage by their newly found blood relatives.
I am fortunate. Since I began searching for family this year, I have not encountered any jerks among my kin. I’ve had friendly phone conversations with my half sister, Sissy, and her daughter, my niece (or half-niece), Chrissy. They’ve answered my questions and shared stories about my birth mother, Lillian. They’ve welcomed me. We have even found things to laugh about, not easy to do considering all the pain in our family.
But knowing how common rejection is gives me pause. I hesitate to pursue my bio dad’s family too aggressively. I don’t want the door to be slammed in my face and I don’t want to go where I don’t belong. Now I understand why adoptees don’t bother to search for their kin.
I’ve made a promise. If some adoptee searching for family calls me out of the blue, I will take the call, be nice and answer questions as best as I can. After all, I’ve made those calls and know how difficult they are to make.
Who the hell needs rejection anyway? What purpose does it serve?
I took a DNA test to find blood relatives who might know my biological father’s identity.
I am an adoptee on a mission. I’ve written about the mystery man before, the father who really wasn’t a father to me. I don’t need (or want) to meet bio dad. In fact, the thought of meeting him actually scares me. But I would like some answers. What’s his name, what did he do for a living, does he have a family, do I have other brothers and sisters? How did he meet Lillian, my birth mother? I wonder if he and I look anything alike. Photos along withfacts would be great.
I’ve talked to a handful of people who were close to Lillian, hoping they would know who my father was but nobody knows (or they’re not saying). Finding my bio dad is like locating an available New York taxi in a downpour. Still, I am giving it my best shot.
Well, I got my DNA test results and I am a little disappointed. None of the more than 600 matches are close relatives. There are no siblings or half siblings. I have cousins, hundreds of cousins, but they’re not exactly kissing cousins if you know what I mean. There’s not a single first cousin on my list of matches. The closest relatives are second cousins and many are even more distant on the family tree.
I knew a DNA test was a long shot. Taking the test was quick and painless. Interpreting the results is time consuming and hard.
Using Family Tree DNA’s chromosome browser feature, I try to separate the cousins on my maternal side from those on my father’s side. I have emailed a few of my DNA matches to introduce myself and delicately inquire about the nature of our relationship. I don’t use the “A” word (adopted) unless I know I’m talking to another adoptee. As my fellow adoptees know, that word makes some people nervous.
Three of my cousins got back to me and wouldn’t you know? They’re all from Lillian’s side of the family. Two are genealogy buffs. Shannon and I have exchanged several friendly emails. She’s shared many interesting stories about how our Irish ancestors scraped by and filled me in on the diseases that run in our family. That’s valuable information. I like Shannon and hope we meet in person some day.
In a few hours, Sharon managed to put together a family tree for me. How did she do it so quickly? I was awed by her skill. Thanks to Shannon and Sharon, I know quite a bit about my ancestors on Lillian’s side of the family.
I shared the family tree with another cousin, Duane, who used it to create a tree of his own. Duane and I have gotten friendly. We’re both adopted, close in age and on similar missions. Duane and I are seeking answers to questions about our birth parents.
Two cousins never responded to my emails. I believe they are from my father’s side of the family. Wouldn’t you know?
I thought about calling one of them. He is a few years younger than me and looks friendly enough on his Facebook page. Most important, this guy is one of my closest DNA matches, and he has taken a Y-DNA test. Perhaps he knows who my father is. Maybe he is also adopted? Since he hasn’t responded to emails, would he be more receptive to a phone call?
For adoptees who have taken DNA tests, what would you do in my situation? Have you called any of your matches directly? Is it taboo to call a match who doesn’t respond to emails?
I feel discouraged. I am no closer to answering the big question hanging over me: Who is my father.
This is hard work. I need encouragement so I am re-reading Richard Hill’s excellent book, “Finding Family” for motivation and tips. An adoptee, Hill used DNA tests and old-fashioned detective work to learn the identity of his father.
I take comfort knowing it took Hill many years to dig up the truth. That could be my future, too. I have a lot of spade work ahead of me.
Learning about my birth mother makes me feel grateful for what I have.
I started writing about Lillian a few weeks ago. She was born into a large Indiana family in the 1930s. Her parents were overwhelmed by the baker’s dozen of children who filled their rural home. Amidst the stress of being unemployed while trying to support this growing brood during the Great Depression, Lillian’s father, George, left his family twice – the second time permanently.
The children were parceled off to different foster homes, where Lillian spent much of her childhood before attending Indiana University and moving to Northbrook, IIl., where she had me in the 1960s.
The stories I have heard rival how people live in Third World countries. People are not supposed to live like farm animals, right? Two relatives have told me that Lillian’s family was so poor – and perhaps had recently lost a home? – that they were forced to make their home in a chicken coop. The story sounded ridiculous the first time I heard it, but I believe it more after hearing it from another family member. I have no trouble believing another bit of family history – that Lillian’s brothers occasionally stole chickens to put food on the table.
Me? I’ve never had to steal my supper. I will serve roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry orange relish, braised red cabbage and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. At this moment, I have a refrigerator and pantry stuffed with food and I’m not even talking about the Thanksgiving goodies, which I have not bought yet. The abundance makes me feel guilty.
I didn’t know what I was going to find out when I embarked on this journey. Learning about Lillian’s childhood, her family and her problems with alcohol and mental illness has made me look at my life differently. I think about my childhood now and remember the times I enjoyed with my family rather than dwelling on what I never had, couldn’t do and didn’t like.
My adoptive parents, Claire and Bob, came from big families, too. They didn’t have a lot of money. They survived the Depression and knew how to stretch their dollars. Claire and Bob didn’t spoil my adopted sister, Melissa, and me but they loved us and protected us. They were grateful for their girls.
“Children are your millions,” Claire used to say.
Gratitude should not be something we feel only during Thanksgiving week or, in my case, after digging up hard truths about my birth mom and the rocky childhood I escaped.
Gratitude helps people feel happy, according to recent research. Instead of focusing on what I don’t have, I think about the great people, wonderful dogs and other good stuff in my life.
I am trying to make a habit out of feeling grateful. What about you?