The Business of Adoption

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Playing hide-and-go-seek in Central Park. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022.  Sometimes sunny, sometimes not yesterday in New York; and slightly on the still-like-winter cool side. But temps in the mid-60s, and you can see the buds on the trees beginning to grow to burst. It’s not about optimism; it’s about goodness.

Families are always on our minds, one way, one kind or another. It’s our claim on being. This is true for all of us, even those who have never felt that claim. Because of our modern technology, many of us have looked into our history often via Ancestry.com. I personally know of several instances where someone’s life changed forever through her research on Ancestry.com. I know because I’ve experienced it personally without ever going to Ancestry.com, from a relative I didn’t know existed. That opened up the book of my life, and remains so.

We get a lot of requests from people looking for images in our archive of other people who’ve been on the NYSD Party Pictures.  Many inquiries come from media. Others come from those wanting a print-out of an image of themselves or a friend or a family member.

Recently we got a request for an image of a woman who the emailer identified as her “husband’s biological mother.”

The message went on to explain that this “mother” had given up her child for adoption more than thirty years before, and that he now wanted to make contact with her.

The woman whose image being requested is a friend of mine. I’ve known her for a number of years. She is a divorcee with a family. I did not know that once upon a time she had had another child, but there was no reason why I should have known since she never told me.

Subsequent email messages (we sent the requested image) revealed that my friend, the “biological mother” had been contacted, not by her son, but by another member of his family a couple of years ago when her identity was discovered through an adoption detective.

She “freaked out” when she was contacted, “afraid of people knowing, afraid he wanted something from her.” Needless to say, the son did not meet his mother.

I myself received a call from an adoption detective several years ago. She was a very friendly lady from Massachusetts who had called to tell me that my own mother had another son, born eleven years before me. My mother passed away in her early eighties in 1988.

This bit of information about her was shocking to me and to my two older sisters. It had a special impact because our mother had been orphaned as a very young child and the experience marked her emotionally for the rest of her life. We, her children, grew up with a profound sense of the pain and terror of childhood abandonment.

The adoption detective, a young woman named Roberta, got into her business while researching the genealogy of her own family and soon discovered that because of the internet you can find almost anybody nowadays in a matter hours, or days at the most.

The matter of women (mostly unmarried women) giving up their children at birth is commonplace. Before the advent of Women’s Liberation and the Feminist Movement, out-of-wedlock or illegitimate children were a shameful mark on a woman’s character. Such a concept now seems ludicrous or even nutty. The terms themselves are no longer in the vernacular.

My mother lived long enough to see many of the changes of attitude that have occurred in society in the past forty years although naturally she maintained the same attitudes she’d grown up with in another era with other “rules.” I don’t know how she would have reacted if her first son had suddenly appeared in her life.

It was not her son, but his daughter, my mother’s granddaughter, who had made the search – not at her father’s request but only his acquiescence. My niece was curious to know about her father’s biological family background for, among other reasons, family health history.

For my sisters and me it was very exciting to learn that we had another sibling. At this late date, we are, none of us, children or even young adults. My sisters and my brother all have grandchildren. Last spring, I met my brother (and his wife), along with his discoverer of a daughter, for lunch at Michael’s. He is retired now, from a very successful business career. He and his wife are very close and have a very close family.


DPC with his two sisters, Jane and Helen, standing behind; in the center his niece Kate, daughter of his recently revealed older brother Bob, her sister Sarah; and niece, Susanne Columbia, seated.

I had grown up in a household of profound domestic strife (to put it gently) between my mother and father. It created hardship for all of us that is very burdensome for a child. It was interesting to see a sibling who was the product of a loving, emotionally stable home. It was also interesting to see that my mother’s eldest son looked very much like his mother when she was at the age he is at now. It was also interesting to observe that his manner and personality greatly resembled his mother.

The discovery turned out to be a wonderful experience for us. Last Christmastime, my two sisters came to visit me for a few days. One night we all had dinner with three of our new nieces. They are all lovely, remarkable woman – smart, enthusiastic, curious – and I couldn’t help thinking that our mother would not only have loved them but admired them. For they had many of her qualities, including her drive and curiosity, and they grew up unfettered by the old rules for women.

Getting back to my friend whose son wants to make contact with his mother, wanting nothing material from her, but just to see her, talk to her, hear her voice. I felt disappointed to learn that she didn’t want to go through with it. In life she’s a very kind and sensitive woman. She’s been burdened too by matters unknown to me (although perhaps they are not so mysterious now) and I’ve long known that sadness figures into her assessment of her own life. I wondered if she were just afraid.

It so happens there is a relative in our family (as it is in so many families) who many years ago had a child when she was young and unmarried. That child was adopted at birth and she never saw the child again. At least not that I know of.

I’ve known a lot of people – contemporaries – who were brought up by adoptive parents. Their experiences growing up mirror those of us who were brought up by our biological parents (or parent). A million different stories. For some it was good, for others it was unremarkable and then for others it was horrible.

Quite a few of my friends who were adopted have made the search for their parents. The results, like everything else, have run the gamut from profound disappointment to complete exhilaration. Whatever else it brings, the experience gives the seeker a glimpse into his or her roots. We are like those from whom we came. Our features, our gestures, our temperaments, our interests, our talents, all served up from the universe’s wondrous gene pool.

Not all “contacts” or reunions are successful. They can fail in a variety of ways, usually a result of expectations and pre-conceived notions. I know of a woman who searched and found her daughter more than twenty years later. She is a very wealthy woman. Her newly discovered daughter was brought up in a middleclass, very modest but very loving circumstances. Her biological mother now wants her as a daughter and has showered her with gifts and luxury. The mother has expressed her enthusiasm very insensitively and very selfishly. The adoptive parents are deeply upset by this and the child is now torn.

I know of a case where a young woman, also brought up in a loving adoptive home, searched for her biological parents and found a receptive and enthusiastic father (and grandmother) and a new family. The two families have been united by this child.

Recently a friend of mine, a contemporary, searched for and found her biological family. She discovered that her mother had passed away (well into her eighties) and she could not learn anything about her biological father. However, she was welcomed into the family of her mother and vice versa. The experience has made a profound difference in my friend’s life; it has put her at one with herself.

I don’t understand why my friend, or my relative for that matter, wouldn’t want to meet, to know their child, no matter who he or she is. Perhaps my feelings are tied to those fears of childhood abandonment that my mother shared so with her children. However, as a man who has not been graced with his own children and who has watched his friends’ children grow from infancy to adulthood, I can’t imagine not wanting to have even the slightest look at the joy of it all.

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