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Hide and Seek: Not Every Birthmother Wants to be Found
Sylvia is an adult adoptee, in reunion with her birth family, who grew up in New York City’s Chelsea area before it was a cool destination. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, it was a gritty Manhattan neighborhood filled working people.
“We were a very small family. It was just me, my adoptive brother and my parents. “My mother was born in Vienna and she came to the United States after Hitler invaded Austria,” says Sylvia. “Most of her family died in the Holocaust so holidays were shared with a small group of cousins”.
Sylvia confirms that her childhood was good and loved growing up in the city.
When she was nearly three years old, Sylvia’s parents adopted her younger brother. She recalls her family life being good, and her parents doing everything for their two children. But still, there was always a nagging feeling in the back of her mind that she was somehow different.
“My parents never encouraged conversations about our adoptions or birth families,” Sylvia says. “In those days, adoption was not discussed. It was like there was an unspoken rule that you should feel grateful because you were ‘chosen’, but it was never talked about. My mom always wanted things to be nice and hated conflict and that was an uncomfortable topic. My brother and I always knew we were adopted from day one, but anything more than that felt like it was an issue that should not be discussed.”
Yet, while no one in her family talked about adoption which was fairly typical of adoptive parents in those days due to a lack of education about adoption life cycle issues, Sylvia indicates that she thought about it often, dreaming up scenarios about her birthmother and reasons why she had been relinquished. She recalls wishing for a big family and finding them all someday. Often, as she stared at herself in the mirror Sylvia wondered who she looked like.
At age 22 she got engaged and began preparing for married life. Up until that point, Sylvia does not recall experiencing any serious problems or conflicts related to her adoption. Until she encountered her observant Jewish in-laws.
“Right after I got engaged, my in-laws insisted that my fiancé determine that I was 100% Jewish,” Sylvia says. “I had been brought up Jewish, attended Jewish Day School, Jewish summer camp and spoke fluent Hebrew. That was the first time I had any serious thoughts about trying to learn more about my birth family and it was stigmatizing to be subjected to this request”.
Sylvia reached out to her adoption agency to attempt to get any non-identifying information about her birth parents available. She learned that her birthmother was indeed Jewish but there was only a short health history in her file, and her agency could not share the remaining information because it contained identifying information. So, Sylvia decided to let it go. A few years later her father died further compounding her choice not to search and upset her mother.
Research focused on adoption posits that adoptees tend to search for birth family at certain milestones in their lives. Like many adoptees, Sylvia became seriously interested in her biological family when she was pregnant with her first child. At the same time, she found herself surrounded by adopted friends who all indicated they had never considered searching for their biological connections.
To search, or not to search? Sylvia knew she wanted to search but feared what she might find and who she might hurt.
“For me, the turning point came after my husband and I divorced. The loss of my marriage brought up many issues I had been holding back; loss of my genetic identity, my health history, my culture”.
It was at that point Sylvia initiated a full search, again reaching out to her adoption agency, and this time she got lucky. The adoption worker who answered the phone that day truly wanted to help and had access to files and photos. The worker sent a newborn photo of Sylvia, as well as information that had been added to her file in 2011.
“It was amazing to see a newborn picture of myself,” says Sylvia. “Most people take those pictures for granted, but I never had one. My parents adopted me when I was three months old. “
Sylvia launched her search immediately after successfully scraping off the whited-out information covering her birth name. She instantly listed her information in an online search registry. Then she waited, and waited, for a response.
Having no luck initially with her online posting, Sylvia says she turned to reading to help her cope with the long wait – reading Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited by Elyse Schein, and several books by renowned adoptee and writer Betty Jean Lifton. After watching an episode on Oprah focused on adoption connections Sylvia decided at age 50 it was time to hire the professional searcher featured on the show — Pamela Slayton. Within six weeks Slayton had tracked down Sylvia’s birthmother and found her half-brother.
Sylvia says she immediately searched and found her brother on Facebook, yet spent several months in counseling building the courage to sendhim a private message indicating she believed they were biological siblings and asking him to contact her. Less than 24 hours later her brother Kenny called her back. At first Kenny says he did not believe her, but when his wife Wendy looked at Sylvia’s Facebook photos she said to him “Kenny, she looks like your mother!”. “Wendy was sure the connection was real,” Sylvia explains.
“Kenny immediately drove from his home in Pennsylvania to his mother’s house in Queens to confront his mother. She initially denied ever giving birth to a daughter or giving a baby up for adoption, but eventually admitted that Sylvia was her daughter”.
Sylvia finally knew the true story of her relinquishment. Her mother had been a single mother to Kenny when she got pregnant with Sylvia and gave her up for adoption.
“At first, my birthmother refused to meet me,” says Sylvia. “However, Kenny had always wanted a sibling and we immediately connected. We have very similar personalities and we speak at least once a month.
Eventually, Sylvia’s birth mother relented and agreed to meet in person;the meeting was strained with Sylvia feeling the onus to carry on the conversation and the relationship has not been what she had longed for. Sylvia also learned that her biological family is very small. Her birth grandparents and aunt died long ago, and her birthmother is not connected to anyone else.
Sylvia says that she initially was hurt and felt re-abandoned, but at the same time knew that her birthmother’s emotional and cognitive limitations made the situation impossible.
“I realized that while my experience was not what I had hoped for, it ultimately was ok because I have a great mom. I am coming to terms with the knowledge that I am not going to have a relationship with my birthmother. More recently she was diagnosed with dementia, so Kenny deals with her. I feel like my role is to be a supportive sister/friend to him.”
Happily, Kenny’s family are glad he connected with Sylvia. She has established a close relationship with her half-brother, and says that she has been sharing information about Jewish culture with him since he was raised as a Christian.
“Kenny calls and complains about his mother, and ironically, those conversations have led to a closer relationship between us. I may not have a relationship with my birthmother but I have gained a brother I treasure. “
Sylvia feels in many ways her reconnections with birth family have brought some completion to her life. She is thankful she has access to cultural and essential health information she lacked, and answers to question that were frequently on her mind during childhood. And, despite a difficult reunion she would not change a thing.
“My goal was finding more family, and I found my half brother and birthmother. I already had a great family. And, in the end I got a bonus, my brother Kenny.”
Sylvia shares that counseling with Joni Mantell has helped her get to a good place. “Today I understand that my subconscious feelings of abandonment make me extremely sensitive to loss”, Sylvia confirms. “Whenever I feel ‘not included’ or a relationship is not working, I immediately feel abandoned, and quickly get very hurt,” Relates Sylvia. “I realize now that behind many decisions, the failure of my first marriage probably had a lot to do with this huge issue of not feeling important. Knowing this about myself has helped me find more effective ways of coping with the lifelong process of adoption.”
Identity formation, a key development task, is more complicated for adoptees, and very difficult without a point of reference. Many mistakenly believe adoptees search for birth family to replace their adoptive family; however, the exact opposite is true. Most adoptees, confident of their adoptive parents and siblings love search out their birth family to complete identity tasks, and find the one missing piece of their life’s puzzle. Culture, medical and sociological about our families helps us figure out who we are. Seeking and finding birth family is an affirmation of an adoptees belief in their connection to their adoptive family.