Monday afternoon Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill that will make approximately 40,000 adoptees in the state equal to all other residents: They will have the right to their original birth certificates. In doing so, he made Connecticut the 10th state that gives adult adoptees full and free access to their original birth certificates.
The legislation fixes the loophole in Connecticut’s complicated road map of adoption law and frees up the birth certificates of the people caught between when the state first sealed birth records (1944) from the people they most concern — the adopted — and when it unsealed those of all adoptions going forward (1983). This meant that if you were between 77 and 38 and were adopted in the state, you could not have a copy of your original birth certificate.
Those of us who have always known who we were when we were born, having an official birth certificate may never have seemed that important. Lose it, we can get another. We know who Mom and Dad are, as well as cousin Sue and where we fit, not only in our nuclear family, but in the long line of people who came before us. Mere “curiosity” does not begin to convey the deep-seated need to know where one comes from.
But to adoptees that original, unamended birth certificate is the key to their own, personal history, one that began generations before they were adopted. Without it many adoptees — no matter how loving their adoptive families are — remain lost in a forest of anonymity without a compass marking true north, the place where you come from. Behind one’s mother’s name is a treasure trove of personal data, both medical and emotional, that all other citizens of the state have always had simply by the fact of being raised in their original families.
The reason to keep the records sealed has always been to “protect” the anonymity of the women who surrendered their children under the cloak of secrecy. Many undeniably were promised by their social workers that they would be able to make new lives without anyone ever knowing. Some of these women haven’t told other family members, including other children who came after the one given away, and they are fearful of being found out.
But such an agreement never included the voice of the adopted themselves, who were never asked, nor did it have the weight of law behind it, for sealed records laws never were intended or written to “protect” the natural mother, or “birth” mother, as she came to be called. Additionally, the woman who signed the termination of her parental rights was never given the opportunity to object or arrange a state-sponsored adoption without having the child’s birth certificate amended to erase her name. As for fathers, unless married to the mother, they are listed as “Unknown.”
I understand the plight of these women for once I was one of them. When I had my daughter in neighboring New York in 1966, I did everything possible to keep it secret. My family in another state did not know. When applying for company health insurance in my first job after she was born, I lied to the doctor once when he asked if I had ever been pregnant. I thought I would take my secret to the grave.
But as years passed, and I learned about adopted people protesting this form of identity theft, I found I was bursting with the desire to know her on whatever terms she chose. I told my family. My father was deceased, but I had to fess up to my mother and my brothers. All were supportive.
It wasn’t easy to get the words out, but I was free. It was as if I had let go of something inside me, choking my feelings, suppressing my heart. I have written about this issue since then many times, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t difficult to tell someone who doesn’t know me. That doesn’t mean that answering the question, “Do you have children?” still doesn’t cause me to pause for a second, deciding how I will answer.
I am aware that when I reveal this part of me, it changes the mood. Everyone instinctively grasps that lasting grief has been a part of my life. I can smell pity, a shift in attitude, or understanding. It would be easier to say I used to shoot up heroin.
Like me, a great many women who bore children they could not keep for whatever reason enthusiastically endorse this new legislation. They hope and pray for reunion and a relationship of some sort. By going around the law in New York, I was reunited with my daughter in 1981.
Yet whether mothers who want no privacy from their own flesh and blood are few or many, any such “right to privacy” loses all moral authority stacked against an adopted individual’s right to his or her own, true identity. Difficult conversations can be withstood. Most people will be forgiving of the long silence on this major life event if they can grasp the sense of shame and scandal that unwed births generated in another era.
Today I rejoice with adoptees and natural mothers all over the country, knowing that Connecticut’s new law is another step in finally toppling the sealed-record statutes that prevent most of America’s adoptees from answering the question that sometimes pops up at three-a.m. — Who was I before I was adopted?
Lorraine Dusky, a longtime activist in adoption reform, is the author of Birthmark, a memoir about relinquishing her daughter in 1966, and Hole in my Heart, about their reunion. She lives in Sag Harbor, N.Y.