THE NICE LADY with the beautiful high cheekbones and the sweet smile sat cuddled with her little girl. The child wore bunny slippers and was happy because there was a new book to be explored, "The Chosen Baby," the story of an adoption. It had pictures, an exciting tale, and a happy ending.
The little girl was thrilled with the story, but even as she sat snuggled against her mother, she knew there was something special about this book. That afternoon she learned that she, too, was a chosen baby. She was told that other parents had to accept just any baby that came along, but her mommy and daddy got to pick out their own child, and they chose the little girl who now sat cozy and warm in her mother's lap -- me.
The feeling of specialness and belonging was wonderful, and it lasted quite a while -- until the sweet smile went out, and I was 14 years old.
But in those years before my mother died, there were bad feelings too, uncertain feelings, scary feelings. After all, if my parents could choose me, they could also un-choose me. I wondered what would have happened if other people had adopted me, or how I would feel if I were a "real" child.
And there, lurking behind all this, was the real issue: Who was I? Who was my natural mother, and what were the circumstances of my bith? These are the central questions that every adopted child must face. After years of sifting through various alternatives, one finally settles on an acceptable way of integrating the fact of adoption into one's life. It just is, like the color of your eyes or the fact that you can't carry a tune.
I integrated it, and it's mostly all right because things could have been a lot worse. After a time I eventually stopped scrutinizing every face on the street, hoping and fearing to find that mirror image. Mostly I didn't mind it, and mostly I didn't think much about it.
Except sometimes -- like on my birthday. On that day, on the anniversary of my birth, I want to go to that women, the "birth mother" as the social workers call her (I think of her just as "her") and tell her that it's okay. I want to tell her that I'm making it, that I'm not always happy but I am surviving, that I've been luckier than most in being able to direct the course of my own life. And that I forgive her for abandoning me.
I want this, and it seems as though I might be able to have it if I tried. But I never try. I never go to the meetings of Adoptees in Search, the Bethesda-based organization that teaches adult adoptees how to find their birth mothers. I once talked on the phone to one of their officials, but her fanaticism about encouraging me to begin the search scared me.
So if I want to find her, why don't I try? Perhaps I'm afraid of what I might find. Maybe she's an awful person. Maybe she's a bag lady, and I'll have to start feeling guilty about her -- or being responsible for her. Maybe she's an ordinary married woman, with a nice husband and "real" children, who doesn't want her life complicated by a child who no one knows about stepping out of the mists of her past. Maybe she doesn't want me to find her. I don't want to know that.
This is the real point of the story -- her not wanting to be found. We must ask who has what rights in regard to the aftermath of adoption.
When I was adopted in New York State in 1939 the law required that the identities of the people involved could be made known only to the intermediaries: state officials and adoption agency personnel. Many other states had similar laws.
The brochure of Adoptees in Search says, in part, that such a practice of sealing records is a "deprivation of (adoptee's) rights accorded by the First, Fifth, Ninth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Others who oppose the policy believe that it stands in violation of an adoptee's natural rights, that it can be detrimental to an adoptee's physical and emotional well-being, that it is representative of an antiquated social concern."
Adoptees in Search and other similar groups are composed of adults who, for a variety of reasons, want to find their birth mothers. There's nothing essentially wrong with this, but what I find selfishly insupportable is their belief that it is acceptable to translate a personal desire into rights language and to term a promise of anonymity made to the birth mother an "antiquated social concern."
One cannot claim a right to something simply because one wants it. Moreover, one cannot ignore that the birth mother has a continuing right to count on that legally granted anonymity. It seems to me that her right to remain uninterfered with is stronger than the adoptee's right to go knocking on her door after all these years -- if one acknowledges that the latter is a right.
These adoptees believe that the trauma of adoption gives them the right to begin the search. Well, let's agree that an adoptee's physical and emotional well-being is truly jeopardized by not having information about his or her birth mother.
So what? Short of not having a genetically compatible donor in the event of life-threatening illness, what physical harm can come from not knowing one's genetic endowment? Nowadays people seem to believe that one has a right to know all about one's ancestors' genetic diseases and defects before making a decision to bear children. But even if this claim could be justified, can one acquire the informaton at the expense of the birth mother's guaranteed right to privacy? I think not.
Adoption does indeed take a good deal of getting used to. It's always there. I suppose I'll always be sad on my birthday and will always feel a certain sense of alienation that will wax and wane for the rest of my life.
But what's so terrible abouttthat? I have a friend who knows his family history. It is one of Huntington's chorea. He doesn't talk about it, but he must be scared, seeing what the disease has done to his relatives. He must be constantly on guard for those first symptoms in himself. Surely it affects his physical and emotional well-being, but he adapts to it. There's nothing else to do.
He has integrated the knowledge and fear into his life and perhaps has even benefited in some way. But he never whines about it. Knowing his family's past is a part of him as not knowing is a part of me. We're adults and we cope with it as best we can. That's what adults do.
But Adoptees in Search insist that their rights are being violated because some state laws prevent them from searching for their birth mothers. Do they have ulterior motives? In addition to wanting to search for roots and identity, which seems to be all the rage now, do they want to accuse her of selfishness?
Why is the adopted identity not sufficient? Is it not enough to say, "I am a person, a woman, with hazel eyes and wavy hair. I love opera and hate green peppers. I am adopted"?
I would love instantly to have a warm and close mother-daughter relationship with "her." But I want other things too. I want a little house of my own in Bethesda. I want a golden retriever. I want to love and be loved forever. I want them, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I have a right to them, especially if seeking them means I must infringe on the rights of others.
Neither do adoptees have a right to find their birth mother unless one knows absolutely that she wants to be found.