I grew up knowing that my mom was placed for adoption when she was an infant in the late 1950s. My grandparents were unable to have children and worked with a private attorney to adopt my mom. We had little to no information about her birthmother, and what little we may have had, was probably speculation at best for the reasons surrounding her decision. Growing up, Mom never had a strong inclination to search for her birthmother. In my high school and college years, I remember asking questions about why she hadn’t looked for her because I had a strong desire to search and (let’s be honest) meet my biological grandmother one day. But my questions were always met with the same response that she simply wasn’t interested and she knew who her family was. She also wanted to respect my Grandmother and feared that searching for her birthmother would crush my Grandmother’s heart and cause her to feel like less of a mother in my Mom’s life. I deeply wish that my Grandmother would have understood that completing a search, and potentially meeting a birth family member, would have never diminished or replaced her role in my Mom’s life (or mine).
After graduate school, I started working in the field of adoption. I was so amazed to see some of the advances that had been made towards sharing information in adoption – sending pictures, having visits, collecting genetic health information, etc. As levels of openness in adoption have increased in even the last decade, I have often pondered the circumstances surrounding my mom’s placement. Who was her birthmother and what circumstances did she find herself in that made adoption her best option? What became of her life and did she ever have more children? Do I have aunts and uncles out there? Equally as important, I desperately wanted her to know that she made a good choice for my Mom and that she has had a good life. And then, of course, I had other practical questions like, any chance you’ve had cancer or some other major hereditary disease we should be on the lookout for?
Starting Our Search
The day eventually came that Mom felt comfortable starting the search process. She began by signing up on the State of Texas’s Central Adoption Registry. Many states have a website where birthmoms, adoptees and biological siblings can voluntarily register and if a match is found, the state facilitates contact (with a little bit of pre-meeting counseling for all parties). A short time later, Mom received a letter in the mail in response. This letter informed us that her records were matched with her birthmother’s and that her birthmother had passed away. The end. No name. No date of death. No identifying information that would tell us anything beyond the simple fact that she was no longer here (and my dreams of meeting her were crushed). I had always pictured two outcomes from signing up on the registry – either being matched (with a living person) OR knowing nothing (because her birthmother or siblings had not signed up on the registry). It didn’t occur to me that we would be matched AND we would know nothing further.
Our next step was to have a judge sign a court order to unseal Mom’s adoption records, which are maintained at the Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS) in our state’s capital. I thought this process would be like climbing Mount Everest blind folded. I shared our situation with a friend who is an adoption attorney and he had the right connections to make this happen quickly. He was able to do a little bit of research for us and within days a judge had signed off on an order! He mailed it to the BVS office and we waited for a response. And we waited a little longer. And, sadly, we are still waiting now.
I know there are other methods we could use to continue the search. A simple Google search yields 11.2 million results for “searching for birth mother” with promises from companies to find birthparents in 3 easy steps. For our family, we are working through the channels and at the pace with which we are most comfortable. In my longings to have my questions answered, I have to remember that while this is my history, this is my Mom’s story. I don’t want to press and pursue beyond her comfort level.
Things to Consider when Searching for Your Biological Family
- If you are thinking about searching for your biological parent or child that you placed for adoption, start with signing up on an adoption registry in the state where the child was born. While there is a small fee in some states to do this, these sites are legitimate and a simple way to be available in the event someone is searching for you too.
- The options for searching are growing. Court orders to unseal records may be granted or denied. And, if granted, they still may not yield the answers you’re looking for (as in our case). There are companies for hire and support groups alike ready to help you search. We have not engaged in this process so while I have no recommendations to make, I caution you to do your homework on these companies and understand any fee structures before engaging their services.
- Have some fun with your DNA. This past Christmas, we purchased a DNA kit from Ancestry.com and learned a little more about Mom’s ethnic heritage. It didn’t produce direct answers, but I was surprised by the excitement I felt at knowing a little more about where this side of my family comes from. Another company, MyHeritage is also involved with DNA testing, more specifically to assist in matching biological families. Currently, they are offering free DNA kits to those who apply and qualify through April 30, 2018. As stated above, I caution you to do some research here too.
- For those of you who may have an open adoption, I would implore you to do what you can to keep the lines of communication open with birth families. Relationships between birth and adoptive families can certainly be challenging to navigate and may change in their frequency over time. However, having direct access to a birth family member who can answer questions an adopted person may not have until decades later (or, ahem, perhaps even the adopted person’s child!) is an asset. Please know that I’m not encouraging you to maintain close contact if it puts a child in danger, or if someone is not making healthy choices. But, if the environment is healthy, do what you can to maintain this relationship.
- For those considering adoption, I encourage you to work with a licensed agency. If my grandparents had worked with an agency (which I realize were not as common then as they are now), I wonder if documents might have been on file with them. In our state, agencies today are required to maintain adoption records. In the event they close, there are policies and procedures in place for the transfer of these records. An adoption agency will be a much easier entity to contact if information is needed. Plus, they are also required to gather genetic health information from birth families, which is a valuable tool for you and your adopted child to have. Adoption agencies can also help you navigate through birthparent relationship challenges that may arise.
Searching for birth family is a unique and personal journey. There is not a one-size-fits-all search process that works for everyone. Our family has learned a lot about each other in this process and have grown closer as we have experienced both excitement and grief in searching for Mom’s birth mother. We may never know this side of Heaven who she is, but we know that she made a loving decision for my Mom and we will always honor her for this.