About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along ...
— Opening lines of “Musee des Beaux Arts,” by W.H. Auden
• • •
A few years later, applying for a job with the student newspaper at the university I wound up attending, I’d sit down next to a desk in the newsroom and meet with Christine Bauer, the managing editor who would interview and possibly hire me. Chris had started university a year before I had. Here’s what she’d been concerned with in fall 1984, during her first weeks there:
There were products to take away body odor, products to make your skin soft, products to get rid of zits and stop bleeding. There were tablets to freshen your breath and capsules to make your headache go away. There were pills to make you sleep, and even kill yourself if you wanted.
But there was nothing to make a pregnancy disappear.
That excerpt is from the opening paragraphs of Bauer’s new book, “Those Three Words,” in which she discusses that pregnancy (which birth control had not prevented) and everything that followed from it. Reading an advance text recently, I made comparisons. In late 1984, as I had continued to walk dully along in my quotidian high school realm, Chris had been agonizing over the decisions inherent to her situation: How to steady herself those first weeks, essentially alone. Whether to terminate the pregnancy. When to tell her family back home. And what then?
The next May, on the day I was celebrating my high school graduation, she was giving birth.
I’d known nothing about this during our time as colleagues on the student paper. Chris and I became friends in the way that people working on a group endeavor can become so without really getting to know each other.
One’s time in college is brief, one realizes later. After Chris graduated ahead of me, she and I lost touch for many years. But we reconnected professionally a few years ago, when she offered a commentary, and later a second, to the Star Tribune about her nephew’s death from an overdose. As we exchanged e-mails about that, she mentioned that she was working on a book. I wrote that I’d like to hear more.
“It’s about my journey as a birth mother,” she replied. “If I remember correctly, you are adopted.”
Indeed, I’ve always been rather proud of the fact that I was adopted. From an otherwise opaque background, it was something about myself that I could share. I haven’t, however, always been as amenable to the idea of the open adoptions that are common today and which Chris undertook.
• • •
Chris works as director of marketing and brand management for the Science Museum of Minnesota. In her memoir, self-published through Wise Ink Creative Publishing, she tells her story conversationally, in intensely personal and sometimes blunt language. It’s not only about pregnancy and adoption. It also traces an early trajectory familiar to young people in our hub-and-spoke region — from a hometown in South Dakota to the nervous start of an exciting career in the Twin Cities (at Dayton’s, no less) to the challenges of relationships, parenting and aging parents. In other words, generally weaving through the good and bad of life and the many ways three words can sum things up.
It’s true that when reading a story like this, one can think of things that might have been done differently. Certainly there are those who’ll be unsympathetic to the fact that Chris put her younger self at risk of a pregnancy in the first place. There are people who — to allude again to the Auden poem, derived from a painting about the fall of Icarus — would be unmoved by the fall of a young person from the sky and would go on about their decorous activities as the youth drowned.
Chris did not drown. Once she decided what she would do and revealed her situation to her family members, they supported her every step of the way. Her parents did not for a moment criticize. A sister with whom she had sometimes uneasily shared a room at home now provided a home away from home and a link to the couple who would ultimately adopt Chris’ baby girl.
There was also the dedication of that couple to their new daughter, and their selflessness in sharing updates with Chris over the years.
• • •
As an adoptee from an era when little to no information about biological parents was passed along, I’ve long tried to imagine what my birth mother’s life might have been like — what her hopes and fears might have been, and from where her strength and support might have come, first as she made the decision to give me up for adoption and then as the time came and she followed through. Chris’ book helped me fill in what that missing context might be. But as her story confirmed, I’ve had one thought about adoption right all along: On all sides, it is an act of love.
But while that act is ongoing for Chris and her daughter, in my story, it hits a wall. In 1967, when I was born, the love toward a child being given up for adoption was expected to be expressed by giving birth, then completely letting go. This standard was one reason why as a teenager I felt repulsed by the open adoptions that had become routine in the years after my adoption. Or so I thought. What I came to realize was that my resistance to the idea was much more selfish. I feared, irrationally, a loss of control.
Like Chris’ daughter, I had been adopted by the best parents I could have hoped for. But I would have wanted no arrangement suggesting that they were anything less than my parents. And I assumed that what was right for me was right for all.
But the thing about adoption is that feelings evolve. For years I had little interest in trying to find my birth parents, then one day I had some. My subsequent slow progression was a means of protection — of myself and of the parents who raised me. There are many good reasons to seek out one’s birth parents, both emotional and practical ones, but to me it was an ambitious branching out. I had to feel ready, and I had to feel confident that my adoptive parents were ready, too.
• • •
I’m ready now, and they are supportive. But I still can’t easily move ahead.
When you are adopted, your birth certificate is revised to reflect your adoptive parents’ names. If it is a closed adoption, the original birth record is sealed, and in Minnesota, it is then unavailable to you except through a lengthy process, possibly requiring a request for a court order. The level of complication depends on when you were born.
Several states and countries provide adoptees unrestricted, or at least easier, access to their birth records. A similar revision in Minnesota, however, languishes year after year at the Legislature.
In this biennium, HF 2030 and its companion bill on birth records, SF 1284, are among the many bits of legislation out of more than 4,000 introduced that will get no hearing, make no advance. (There are more pressing matters to attend to on behalf of the broad population.) If this year’s session matches recent ones, in the vicinity of 100 bills ultimately will be passed, although many disconnected topics will be bundled into them. (Unconstitutionally so, but that’s another story.)
One action I have been able to take in my pursuit of information about my biological background is DNA testing. The practice of spitting in a receptacle and mailing your sample for genetic sequencing has been mushrooming in recent years. My theory is that anyone who’s willing to do that is also ready for whatever they might learn about their family as a result. On the other hand, there’s the possibility of finding the trail of close relatives through such testing without their direct participation. In that event, I would consider it necessary to proceed with utmost caution and respect, in much the manner I would if I were handed the magic key of an original birth certificate. I don’t feel that any biological relative has the obligation to provide me with a relationship, nor I them. It’s the opportunity to know that matters.
Through DNA testing, I’ve corresponded with several biological cousins, including one in Canada and one in the U.K. whose relationships to me are close enough to provide tantalizing hints about my ancestry but distant enough to keep the connection obscure. Both were sympathetic in response to learning about my exploration and apoplectic that the law in Minnesota restricts me from information about my own background.
The Minnesota bills, as proposed, are carefully worded to protect all parties. They would continue to allow birth parents who wish to retain privacy to file an affidavit of nondisclosure, and short of that they would add the option of attaching a form to the original record stating preferences about being contacted. But in the absence of an affidavit, the bills would release the original birth certificate much more readily to adoptees.
It would be congenial for Minnesota to move ahead, so that the knowledge of family and ongoing acts of love that are available to those from the era of open adoptions can be a possibility for all. Something for the next legislative session, perhaps.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com. Christine Bauer’s book, “Those Three Words: A birthmother’s story of choice, chance and motherhood,” is available at authorcbauer.com and through online booksellers.