My birth mother had a lot of secrets. And hurting her was the last thing I wanted to do, when I began to search for her seventeen years ago. But our 14-year-old son was suddenly diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition. I was adopted, so I had no medical history. That meant that my son had no medical history, either. Yet, his doctor told us that, to keep my son alive, I had to find my family.
The thought of looking for my birth mother made me extremely uneasy. I felt like an intruder. Sick child or not, I wondered how much of a right I had to walk through the doors that had been locked behind my mother, the day she walked away from my twin sister and me.
But I had fears greater than your average adoptee’s about the kind of mother I would find at the end of my search. There’d been whispers about her in the family from as far back as I could remember. She was an alcoholic and was often seen coming out of neighborhood bars at all hours. She had lived “in sin” with numerous men – scandalous behavior, according to my 1950’s adoptive Italian Catholic family. She was a “fallen” woman.
Locating my mother proved extremely difficult. I didn’t know my own name, never mind hers. New Jersey law forbids an adoptee from seeing their original birth certificate. And in 1991 there weren’t the tearful adoption reunions that you see on television today. My son was sick, yet people in positions of authority called me “ungrateful” and “insensitive,” for pursing my birth mother.
But I met many other compassionate souls, who took pity on me. A priest from the Catholic Church (one of open records bills’ biggest opponents) revealed my birth mother’s name to me for the first time. It was written in an old Baptism ledger. Nuns who worked in orphanages during the 1950’s called me from out-of-state to try to help. I felt like I was consorting with people from some sort of Catholic Underground.
Agency supervisors put their jobs on the line and allowed me to see “sensitive” confidential documents. Even though I was adopted, they revealed my mother’s secrets to me.
And what secrets my mother had. She had been arrested numerous times and had served time for child neglect. (The very first photo I saw of my mother was a “mug shot.”) She’d relinquished four other children. She’d used the surnames of the different men who had fathered our brother and sisters as a way to “lay low.” She’d attempted suicide numerous times. She told lies about her past. She moved in and out of more neighborhoods than a criminal in the Witness Protection Program.
A 1956 Star Ledger newspaper article told me that my birth mother abandoned me when I was two months old. She resurfaced long enough to sign my adoption papers and then was gone again. Social Security told me that she must have “fallen through the cracks.” My heart told me that my mother simply didn’t want to be found.
But I had to find her. My son’s life depended upon it. And find her I did, luckily stumbling upon the name of her Matron of Honor, whose name appeared on an old marriage certificate.
That woman reluctantly told me how my mother committed suicide, by jumping to her death from a 12-story window. My heart sank. I was too late.
But the woman also told me that we had another sister, who was currently living in the same town as our brother – a mere mile away from him. It’s sad to think that our mother was so close to her son; she could have walked to his house, while visiting her daughter.
Our newly found sister was a great help in putting together a medical history for our son, who is a healthy 31-year-old man today. She was also able to tell us our mother’s story. She said that our mother was haunted her entire life by the memories of the children she had relinquished. And she believes that those regrets greatly contributed to her suicide.
How much better our mother’s life could have been, if she hadn’t tried so hard to keep her secrets hidden. How much easier, had she lived in a time when things like depression, alcoholism or having a baby out-of-wedlock weren’t considered to be “shameful.”
Those terrible, senseless secrets! What good are they now? Those secrets kept me from finding my mother, and they kept her from finding me.
As more states in the U.S. consider adoption open records legislation, many more secrets are going to be revealed. That has some birth mothers very worried. But they needn’t be. Knowing my birth mother’s secrets helped me to understand her better. It enabled me to forgive her for abandoning me. It helped me to find the “missing piece” to my puzzle. I didn’t want to judge her, I merely wanted to know her.
I hope more states pass open records laws. I never got the chance to meet my own mother. But it fills my heart with joy, just thinking about all the other adoptees out there who might have the chance to meet theirs.
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