The law and culture don’t favor adoptees who may be curious but reticent to go all in.
There are questions, I’ve found, that I can reliably anticipate in certain interactions: “Would you like anything to drink besides water?” “Receipt with you or in the bag?” “Have you ever tried to find your birthparents?”
That third one is, of course, not mundane like the others. It feels sensitive. It is weighty. Thus the asker, though genuinely curious, often presents it with a worried look.
If only he or she could know that there’s no need to be ginger about it. I’m never bothered by the question, and frequently I’ve invited it anyway by volunteering that I was adopted. I’ve often wondered why I do so. I don’t bring it up unless it’s germane, but I can’t help feeling that it’s also part of a very human compulsion to express an identity, to say this is something about me that stands out.
The answer, by the way, is a simple no. I haven’t tried to find my biological parents. Which generally prompts a follow-up along these lines, more emboldened: “Aren’t you curious?”
For many years, that answer also was no. It began to change a bit about the time I turned 40. Many hesitations remain. But I grew interested enough to discover that it wasn’t going to be easy to satisfy my curiosity on my terms.
What terms? At the risk of sounding creepy, I want to lurk first. If there’s to be a new course to my life, I want some control over its trajectory. I don’t mean stalking; I’d just like to gather whatever basic information I can without tipping my hand. I’d want to know enough to know that I was serious about going through with it. I can only imagine that the same might be true of biological parents who are wondering about the children they gave up for adoption.
Therein, a conundrum. In Minnesota, adoptees do not have access to their original birth certificates, but that’s precisely the document that could be a starting point for an investigation. Although it’s possible to request it, or to work in a more general way with the agency that handled the adoption, these are involved steps that trigger third-party contacts with the biological parents, perhaps raising expectations that an adoptee is not ready to fulfill.
Year after year, there are bills before the Legislature that would make the original birth certificates available, as several other states have done. So year after year, I’ve thought about writing about the topic for these pages. I’ve always held off, partly because the proposals rarely find traction and partly because of what a public divulgence might set in motion. Still, I’d like to balance what appears to me to be a predominant assumption: that it is natural, even obvious, to want to sleuth out one’s past — all the way to the point of arranging a reunion. Indeed, that may be true for a fair number of adoptees. But not for all.
Some background: When I was young, I would bristle whenever I’d hear or read about situations involving the custody of children. It seemed natural to me that the most important opinion was that of the child. I recall thinking this especially when I’d read about the trend toward open adoption. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone telling me whose presence I should desire in my life, and I couldn’t fathom wanting any other parents than the ones I had.
I was just a month old when I was adopted. I can’t recall ever not knowing; it was always a matter of fact that I had been born to unwed parents who were not in a position to raise me, that I had become the treasured son of a couple who had been unable to conceive and, most important, that I was loved. If for some reason words to that effect hadn’t sufficed, the evidence was — and continues to be — in strong supply.
Part of my reluctance to upend the order of things, then, is a desire to protect my parents, who are now in their 80s. They certainly would understand if I chose to explore; they’ve told me so. But I know that despite their selflessness, it is only natural that they’d be hurt. Think about it: If you had given years of devotion to a child, then learned that a search for greater fulfillment was underway, no matter how logical and well-adjusted you were about it, wouldn’t it feel at least a little deflating?
Then there’s my own fear of what I might find — even though it is as likely to be rewarding as regrettable — and my concern over whether, the contact having been made, I would be able to give this new relationship the attention it deserved.
Finally, there’s the possibility that one’s biological parents believe that ties were severed cleanly, based on the understandings of the era, even though it was never an explicit promise under the law. While they can minimize the chance that they’ll ever be contacted by filing an affidavit of nondisclosure, any change to the birth certificate law would undoubtedly set up a period of maneuvering — by adoptees hoping to act before any newly opened window closed, and by some biological parents hurrying to seal that opening shut.
I do realize that the cautious way I approach these questions is part and parcel of my personality, my upbringing and the circumstances of my life. Others may see it all differently. Many biological parents are, in fact, delighted to be found, and there are many stories of edifying reunions. In addition, there are practical considerations such as knowing one’s health background. Articles at http://tinyurl.com/msnk6p6 and http://tinyurl.com/nao2ufq give this context in more detail.
Although I don’t feel entirely at ease with a legal change that would clearly be in my interest, I believe that it should be approved for the sake of others, and that eventually it will be.
Then what will I do? I’m still not sure.
Despite seeing myself as a person who appreciates change and adapts to it well, I’ve actually had a lifelong tendency to choose security. I’ve come to think of this preservation instinct in retrospect as a personal impediment — but who’s to say that the risks I’ve declined would have left me better off? Never doubt the allure of a serene status quo.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.
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