The adoption triad involves the adoptee, the adoptive parents, and the birth mother. Once an adoption is completed, the birth mother is often forgotten. In cases of open adoption, the birth mother may remain a constant in the child’s life. However, in closed adoptions, the triad is far less involved in one another’s lives. While adoption records date back as far as the mid-1800s, open adoption did not start until the 1970s. By 1975, open adoption had become very popular and by the 1990s, most adoption agencies and attorneys offered open adoption as an option. Today it is estimated that about 95 percent of adoptions involve some sort of communication between the birth mother and the adoptive family. There are a number of adoptees and birth families who choose to pursue reunion later on in life.
In 1971, a 16-year-old girl named Jill was faced with an unplanned pregnancy. She and the birth father married for a short time and it ended in divorce. After much thought and long discussions with her parents, she decided to place the baby for adoption. This decision was not made lightly. Her parents struggled with what would be best for everyone. She was not forced to place her baby for adoption; she felt it was a good choice at the time.
A baby girl was born shortly after Jill turned 17 years old. She refused to sign the papers relinquishing her parental rights until she knew that the birth father had signed. She wanted to make sure he would not have any rights to the baby. Jill had very specific requests for her baby’s future family. Jill wanted her to be raised in a home where the religion was the same as hers, where she would have the opportunity to play the piano, and that she would be raised by a loving couple who could not have children. Her doctor would be making the arrangements for the adoption and both she and her parents felt confident that her wishes would be fulfilled. Open adoption had not been introduced yet, so this was a closed adoption. All information was kept secret and records were sealed.
Relinquishing the rights to her baby triggered a lot of new emotions. It wasn’t as easy as stepping away from the hospital and moving on. Jill felt lost. Her grief was overwhelming. After feeling the life inside of her for nine months, she was suddenly empty and alone. She did not feel like she belonged with old friends and had trouble connecting to new friends. Jill went through a phase of wondering who she was. This turmoil led to years of drug abuse and eventually treatment and a lifetime of recovery.
I was a nine-year-old little girl watching this story unfold. I had always looked up to my sister. I wanted to be like her. She loved me so much and always made me feel special. It was hard to watch my family; they were all just doing the best they could under circumstances they were not prepared for. As I grew up, I came to see the story in a different light. My parents loved my sister and wanted what was best for her. Many years later, I was married and had two daughters of my own when Jill was going through treatment for drug abuse. My parents took my baby girl to visit my sister one afternoon. This visit inspired her to get better. She and my daughter still have a special connection nearly 40 years later.
Jill found the love of her life and married again. After about five years of being in a stable marriage, she began to think about the possibility of finding her baby. One day she was reading the newspaper and came across an article for Search Finders, a local support group for those involved in adoption. She joined this group and made new friends who shared similar backgrounds and desires for reunion. Jill was working in a building where the Bureau of Vital Statistics was located. She had shared her desire to find her child with a friend who worked there. One day her friend told her that she had found the records involving the adoption. She said, “an angel was placed in my path.”
Although at the time of the adoption, my sister had no plans of ever looking for her daughter, Carly, she had always wondered about the baby girl she placed for adoption. Did she have a good life? Was she healthy? Did she get to play the piano? What did she look like? What does she like to do? She decided to write her a letter. Not wanting to interfere in her life, Jill just wanted her to know the circumstances surrounding her birth and let her know that she was loved. Jill also felt that it needed to be Carly’s decision if they were to be reunited. She worried about being rejected and not meeting her expectations. Not expecting anything in return, Jill got a voice message the day after Valentine’s Day saying that Carly would like to have contact. She had grown up knowing that she was adopted. She was overwhelmed, excited, and confused and waited a few days after receiving the letter to respond.
The two spoke every day over the next two weeks. During their discussions, Jill learned that the adoptive father had mental health issues and Carly had only had a father in her life for five years. The adoptive mother had become a minister for a different Christian religion and she did learn to play the piano. Jill felt betrayed by her doctor and feelings of disappointment and guilt came flooding back. Unknowingly, Carly had repeated her own life and was pregnant at the age of 17. She married the father and had two more children.
Jill says the first time she heard her daughter’s voice on the phone was “pure bliss.” A few weeks, later they were reunited in person, and they held each other for the first time. She did not get to see or hold Carly as a newborn. Jill recalls of the reunion, “When I held her in my arms, it felt like having a newborn baby placed on my chest for the first time. I finally got to hold my baby girl! I had waited my entire life. This was a miracle I thought I’d never experience.” They met in 1996, Jill was 41 and her daughter was 24 years old. Jill calls up those feelings of their first meeting when their relationship encounters bumps in the road—it helps her get through them. She gained three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren from this reunion.
My sister had not asked for family support when she began her search and reunion process. However, as our parents met their granddaughter for the first time, they felt the same joy. Reunion was a full-circle moment for all of them. I remember when I saw her how much she reminded me of my sister. Nature and nurture were very obvious. Everything from her eyes to her mannerisms were so similar. Our father shared with a close family member that Carly had Jill’s smile. That was the start of a lifetime of healing.
Jill had another daughter during her years of drug abuse. Though she married the baby’s father, that too ended in divorce. We all helped raise this baby feeling like she was our second chance. The two girls share a typical sisterly bond.
In 1996, I was the mother of four children of my own, one of whom we adopted. When Jill told me she had found her baby, I had mixed emotions. I was excited for her, but being an adoptive mom it also scared me. It brought feelings of fear. He was only six years old and we had a whole lifetime ahead of us. Ours was a semi-open adoption and we had contact through our attorney on birthdays and Christmas. At the age of 24, they too were reunited. My fears were finally put to rest. They share a friendship.
Closed adoptions caused a lot of emotional trauma for those in the adoption triad. Mickey Duxbury writes in her book, “Making Room in Our Hearts,” “In order to know who you are, you need to know where you came from; in order to move into the future, you have to be able to claim your past” (bpar.org). In the 1970s, society left those involved with adoption with feelings of guilt and shame. Closed adoptions were common for these reasons. Over the years, it has been shown that open adoption allows for better healing for everyone. Reunion has also been a resource for tying up loose ends.
This has been an emotional interview as my sister and I shared these special memories with each other. Not all reunion stories end with this kind of outcome. But whatever your story is, live it well and be happy in the knowledge that you do have.