Nobody cares much about snail mail in 2021, but today my hands are shaking as I pull a priority envelope from the mailbox. I have been waiting for this for six weeks. And also a lifetime. I pull the tab and slip out two sheets of paper stapled together neatly in one corner. I stare at the information, none of which is new, but all of which I am seeing on official paperwork for the very first time. I am a middle-aged adult, but until last year, my original birth certificate was an illegal document.
What I thought was my birth certificate all my life was a sham, a work of fiction. It was created after my adoption was finalized. Intended to legitimize my place with my new family more than to document my entrance into the world, it is more sales receipt than birth certificate. I was a transaction, not a creation.
When I asked my mother why my birth certificate looked different than everyone else’s, she didn’t tell me there was another, original one, sealed up somewhere. Maybe she didn’t know. Later I learned that back in the 1930s, former New York Governor Herbert Lehman sealed these original records because he had adopted a child and he hadn’t wanted his child to discover the truth. So for the next nearly ninety years, the 650,000 adoptees in New York State, including me, were denied the right to our truths as well.
But here it is now, a photocopy of the original, in my hand. A lifetime of memories and emotions all flood me, hit me so hard that I am dizzy and crying and overwhelmed all at once. I sit down on my front steps to keep myself from falling or throwing up or I’m not even sure what.
I have always known I was adopted. My father told me in my teens that Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency, had advised them to be transparent with me, so they explained my adoption once when I was so young I don’t remember the conversation, and we never spoke of it in any detail again.
You always knew, they said every time I tried to ask them to tell me again, hoping they would offer something new, anything. We told you. But what exactly they told me, I could never say. I remember nothing. This seems anything but transparent.
As a child, I imagined I would recognize my birth mother from a distance because of our shared DNA; she would look like me, move like me. I daydreamed about seeing her through a store window or across a busy café. I’d look for my mannerisms in her, my body language, my posture. I’d watch who she was with, where she went, what she read. I’d see if she looked around for me, if she noticed me there, or if I looked like her too. But she never noticed me. She’d finish her coffee and go back to the rest of her life, and I to mine. In my mind it felt safer that way. I knew if I tried to reach out to her, there was a good chance she wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me, and I couldn’t handle being rejected by her a second time.
Instead of a birth certificate, I had this daydream.
Over the years, I pieced together a story of infertility in an era when getting someone else’s baby was a consolation prize for doing it wrong. Home visits done. Phone calls, meetings, tests, evaluations, references, interviews. Money surely exchanged hands. A sketch came together, but never any details. The short version is this: Back in 1973, it was a phone call and a pile of paperwork that made us a family.
I even came with a warranty.
Somewhere inside, I knew this could not be the whole truth. There was surely a reason why mother and daughter hadn’t found a way to connect, but not once did it occur to me that it might have nothing to do with me.
For most of my life, I was self-absorbed. My mother never told me she was hurting, but I also never asked. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself for being alive, for being stuck in this random family. I raged, mourned, flailed. For nearly two decades, I cut my body with razor blades, leaving deep scars: the kinds you see and the kinds you don’t. But it wasn’t just me. Nearly every adoptee I’ve met has issues. Depression and mental illness are common. We are an often angry, insecure, possessive, submissive, depressed, unlovable bunch. All variations on a central theme: abandonment. Many adoptees, especially those from closed adoptions, struggle to find themselves. We try on a variety of identities before understanding who we are.
My mother told me recently she’d always suspected she might not be able to conceive. I didn’t get my period until I was fifteen, and then I only got it once a year. Daddy wanted children, but he understood it might not happen.
I was fate, she said. I could hear the joy in her voice even then. She’d asked to be discharged from the hospital a day earlier than planned from the surgery she’d had to remove her ovarian cysts, and that was the day the call came from Louse Wise saying they’d been approved to adopt. Back then, there were no answering machines and the lists for parents wanting babies was long and they moved to the next family if one didn’t answer. But she was home when this call came.
You were old, she said. People didn’t want an older baby, but I didn’t mind. But I remembered the first six months of each of my daughters’ lives vividly. I knew that for a baby’s development, six months is a very long time.
I arrived with a name and a disposition, eye color and hair, likes and dislikes, sleeping habits, a thumb already in my mouth. Nothing my new family could take credit for. My mother proclaims that I was an “easy baby,” I never cried, I ate well and often. A good friend — also an adoptee — scoffed when I told her this. Of course you were easy, she said. What choice did you have? You were born and no one wanted you. This was your fourth home. Maybe more. If you weren’t good, you might get left again.
I contacted Spence-Chapin, the adoption agency that for some time after Louise Wise closed held all their records and provided their post-adoption services. From them I learned that I was in two different foster homes while awaiting placement. Two homes, in the arms of two different families. But Spence-Chapin would not tell me who, or where. Six months of my life, summed up in a page of generic notes about a generic baby. You ate well, you played with toys, you were very pretty, you cooed. It could have been about any baby. It could have been about no baby. Six months of my life, gone.
When I heard that I’d been bounced around from hospital nursery to multiple foster families before I even met my parents, and that I got the parents I have not because we were determined a match but because others didn’t want an old baby, I felt sad for that baby. Luck of the draw.
Around the time I first found this out, Louise Wise was in the news; a scandal had broken. A set of reunited twins had written a book about how they, nearly a dozen other sets of twins, and one set of triplets, were separated and adopted out as single-birth babies by Louise Wise in an unethical pseudo-study of nature versus nurture in the development of mental illness in children when it was present in some biological mothers. The triplets found each other by chance – that is how strong the pull of genetics is; one died by suicide – that is how difficult the world of adoption is. Louise Wise had a history of questionable practices, and I suspected possible foul play here too. Not that I was a twin. Just that there must have been a reason for the six-month delay.
My mother was told the delay was related to my birth father not signing the papers, but at some point, I learned that Louise Wise was told from the start there would be no signature. From this I theorized that there was a different family for me, one that fell through for whatever reason. Or families. I will never know.
When my first baby was born, I pored over her birth certificate when it arrived in the mail. I took it out of its envelope countless times, unfolding it and reading it again and again. Her name that we gave to her in utero. My name in the mother category. Johnny’s next to father. It made her real in a way I never felt real, even to myself. My child’s identity right there on paper, preserved. Legally and publicly.
Holding my birth certificate in my hand for the first time, I notice it’s dated shortly after the day I was born. The revised birth certificate I grew up with was created and stamped shortly before I was seven months old. By seven months, my first daughter held her hands out to me anytime she saw me. She called to me smiling. Mama, mama. Mamamaamamamamaaaa. Who did I call to?
Adoptee babies are typically placed as quickly as possible, often within a few days of birth. All the stories about orphans and adoptees I read said that white newborn babies went first. I was surrendered the moment I was born. Put up for adoption, we said back then. Now we say surrendered. Healthy. Ten fingers and ten toes. Maybe I was cute. Why did no one want me? Months went by. What did I do wrong? Did someone else change their mind about me?
At eighteen, I wrote to Louise Wise for my non-identifying information. This was basic information contained in the adoption record such as general physical and genetic description of the birth parents: age, race, eye and hair color, medical history, and sometimes a little anecdotal history: interests and family details, but nothing that reveals any identifiers. It’s all that New York could legally provide and I knew it would disappoint me, but it felt safe, like dipping a toe into something that could be either very exciting or very scary.
I did it to understand what I could about my genetic history, I told myself. Doctors and schools and applications asked all kinds of invasive questions that I didn’t know how to answer, because there never was an answer.
When it arrived, the letter brought tears to my eyes. It was a page of information about me that no one else in the world knew. A page of my history that gave my presence in the world a little more legitimacy, a little more weight. It wasn’t especially informative, probably because of the one sentence that was. An adoptee herself, your mother felt this was the best choice for you.
An adoptee herself.
My birth mother was adopted too.
With no additional genetic information, no information about my heritage, my ethnicity, and almost no information about my father, the but where are you from-from? questions still went unanswered. Even for a white kid like me. In a neighborhood like Jackson Heights in Queens, where faces came in all colors and the languages were rich and varied and my school was diverse, we often asked each other about our backgrounds. Especially once I started to dye my hair black, making me look much paler, this turned into a quiz show my friends loved to play. Guess That Girl’s Background!
Look, you have freckles. I’ll take Irish for a thousand!
But your hair is so dark. Mediterranean for 400.
Your nose is so teeny and your eyes are light. No way are you Jewish. I’m going with German for 500.
Or Greek. No, Italian.
I hated these games. I lied and told people I was Austrian. It sounded goyische enough, European enough, and just bullshit enough to make people stop asking. But years after that, a 23andme genetic test revealed I was 99.9% northern European, with only 25% of that being Ashkenazi Jew. The rest was solidly British and Irish. What’s more, I also found out that my birth father was a Mayflower descendant. I thought, wow, the game contestants were closer than I was. I never could have guessed.
For most of my life I brought none of this up to my mother and for most of my life, she didn’t bring it up to me either. I never stop looking for the thing that will connect us, but I am also deeply–genetically–terrified of my mother’s rejection, which keeps me from saying so many things I wish I could say. And then, in my late thirties, a semi-functional grownup with a partner and a career, I found it. Or rather, I made it. But then I had to tell my mother.
When I said Hey, Mom? into the phone, my mother’s yes? was tentative, fearful.
I swallowed hard and spoke.
I planned to bury my announcement in as much banal conversation as I could and expected she would say little in response. There might be a brief pause at a forced oh how nice and a polite I know, I’m so happy and then a sharp turn at so how was the rest of your day? and then I’d get another call or her pot would boil over and we’d sign off quickly and neither of us would mention this again until we had no choice because I’d be holding a live, human baby in my arms.
But there was silence on the other end of the line and I knew the conversation was not going to go as I hoped. Waiting for my mother to say something — anything — I felt utterly alone.
Mom? Are you still there? Mom?
I looked at the phone in my hand and saw the time looking back at me. She’d hung up.
I felt stung. For the millionth time in my life, I wished I had a different mother.
But that was not all. Because the truth was, I did have a different mother.
And it was this mother I wanted to call.
But I’d grown up believing that a search would only be painful and unfruitful. Adoptions in New York were closed, the records were sealed. When people asked me if I wanted to find my real mother, I knew it was pointless to try. I knew next to nothing about her. What I did know played like a mantra in my head: She was a teenager, she couldn’t keep me. That’s all I knew for years.
Until I’d found her, almost by accident.
Finding her was the easy part. Someone had told me to fill out a form that would never go anywhere but then, my phone ringing with a woman’s voice asking me to confirm that I was me, that I was adopted, and that I had in fact registered with the Board of Health’s Adoption Registry.
Yes, yes, I’d said, suddenly nervous. That’s me.
Do you have a pen? the woman asked. Her name is Fran. She wants to hear from you. I’ll spell her email address. Ready?
Ten years later, staying in each other’s lives was still the hard part. We wanted to, yes, of course we did. And yet. Society doesn’t have a role for birth parents and their adult babies to step into when they reunite. She and I loved each other unconditionally right away, but we didn’t know how to fit into each other’s lives. There’s no easy way. There’s just no way at all.
I lay one hand on my still-flat belly. I was barely four weeks pregnant; it was far too soon to call anyone else, but there was someone I can start talking to.
Don’t worry, little baby, I whispered to my belly. I’m going to do everything differently. You’ll see.
If the moment I called my mother to announce my pregnancy was the moment I promised my baby that things would be different for her, then the moment my daughter was placed into my arms was the moment I realized I never had to make that promise in the first place.
The validity of this baby, my baby, is something that never grew old.
I was amazed it was my face she turned to automatically. My nipple she drank out of. My arms that soothed her to sleep. That it was me the nurses looked to for a decision, like when she was mildly jaundiced and I refused to send her to the nursery. I was surprised when they listened to me, maybe more surprised when I was right.
Parenthood was not an exercise in becoming all that my birth mother might have been or all that my mother was not. Immediately I was at home in myself. Motherhood was tremendously healing; a chance to be the mother I’d wanted for myself and wanted to be, all at once. And that in turn began to heal my family. Families.
Books about adoption argue that there is a difference between saying “I was adopted” and “I am adopted.” The books advocate for use of the former because it identifies the adoption as a singular and past event. When I read that, I practiced saying “I was adopted as a baby.” But the truth is that I am adopted. Adoption is not an isolated, singular incident. It’s something I am every single day. Like me, many adoptees live with a pain that other people can’t understand.
Adoption is like grafting a tree. It’s a traumatic uprooting that requires a lot of love and work to take, or it will surely wither. It’s a big deal. People who are part of the adoption triad—birth parent, adoptee or adoptive parent—carry adoption with them long after the actual event. Closed adoption in particular was designed to protect the parents. The biological parents could go on with their lives. The adoptive parents could avoid the public shame of infertility. The babies were unprotected. My parents were set up this way; it’s not their fault. It’s what they were taught. It’s what Governor Lehman wanted for himself all those years ago and what so many fearful adoptive parents wanted so their children would love them and forget they came from somewhere else.
But we know.
I told my parents the news of my second pregnancy when they were visiting to celebrate my baby’s first birthday, but not until they were walking out the door. Oh! Before you leave, there’s one other thing. My mother remembered the phone call; I saw her eyes flicker to my middle. I was only eight weeks, but I had such a belly that I was already getting a seat on the subway.
Again! That’s wonderful, she said. She didn’t make me say I’m pregnant.
That was good enough.
There won’t be a third baby. Except there already was and I never realized it until the paper is here in my hand. It’s that baby who hatched from an egg, except don’t be ridiculous. Babies don’t hatch from eggs or fall from the sky! But I almost believed that and so did my parents and everyone else Governor Lehman tried to trick for so long.
This is the story of that baby. It’s a story I’ve never heard but it’s a story my body knows, my brain knows. I came with this story ingrained into me and seeing this paper wakes it up like a song you haven’t heard in so long that you’re sure you don’t know it and suddenly you’re singing all the words. It’s like that.
This baby, she was born forty-eight years ago and she had no parents and then two and then four and then three and then two and it was very confusing because all her life she didn’t feel real, but here is the paper that proves she was real all along. Her name was Baby Girl and that baby was me. Listen close.
Once upon a time, the Vietnam war was raging, hair was long, jeans were flared, and there was a sixteen-year-old girl who realized something was very wrong. Her belly was getting bigger and her period wasn’t coming and she counted on her fingers to that time at that party when she and her ex-boyfriend, well, you know, just that one time, and all of a sudden, she realized and it was five months along and oh my God what was she gonna do? And she knew what she wanted but her mother said no so she went to high school with a straight back and a big belly and that’s why she couldn’t name me because her heart was broken enough and that’s why there was no father signature because she never talked to him ever again.
It’s a hard story but what story isn’t?
It’s ironic that most adoptees long for the piece of paper that says yep, you’re bastards all right when the fictitious version allows us to appear legitimate. We know the truth. My real birth certificate marks my inglorious start in this world with a capital B for Baby and G for Girl but her last name was my name too, and that’s a piece of paper I am going to frame because it’s all I have that shows I come from anywhere. It’s better than that daydream.
I stand up to go inside. There’s someone I want to call.
You see, little baby? I whisper to the baby in my mind, to Baby Girl. You did okay in the end. But we’re not done. There’s more to do differently. You’ll see.
My birth mother died ten years ago. I found her when I was twenty-six, fostering babies awaiting placement for adoption. Every one of those babies is a second chance at you, she said then, making them scrapbooks and buying them onesies. I was jealous of those babies. She did get a second chance at me, I just wasn’t convinced she wanted it. Then she was dead at 56.
But it’s my adoptive mother I want to call now. We’ve been inching toward each other since the birth of each of my children. This paper is another rebirth, and I think she will say It’s wonderful.
Even if she may not want to see it, she will look now.
Because she will understand that I want to show her.
Aimee Christian writes creative nonfiction, essays, and memoir about identity, adoption, parenting, and disability. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cognoscenti, Pidgeonholes, Hippocampus, the Brevity Blog, and more. She reads creative nonfiction for Hippocampus and is an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more about Aimee and her writing at aimeechristian.net.
Abandonment and neglect. Substance abuse. Alcoholism. Suicide ideation. These are subjects which are prominent in child welfare and foster care; on average, foster children remain wards of the state for two years. I asked: Why are these stories uncommon despite its longstanding presence? Why is the adage “education out of the system” the emergent path to adulthood? Why have I not found a safe space for these stories from educators, administrators, foster parents, biological parents, kinship placements, adoptees, and the fostered and unfostered?
There has to be a way to make that happen. That is what I’m looking at for this foster care series. The writings I aim to publish will take a variety of forms, including creative nonfiction, hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, visual and text-based. More importantly, they will come from voices which are undeniably unafraid to speak. If language can do that, I think we can get closer to reinventing our experiences; we’re not so different or alone at the end of the day. Send your writings on foster care to firstname.lastname@example.org. And keep speaking.