How to Navigate an Adoption Reunion During the Covid-19 Pandemic
On January 15, 2020 the state of New York unsealed its adoption records. Adopted persons and their descendants may now, for a modest administrative fee, request and obtain their original birth certificates. Within 48 hours of the implementation of the new law, more than 3600 adoptees, not including those in New York City, had ordered their pre-adoption birth certificates.
As more and more adoptees learn the names of their birthparents, thousands of reunions might have ensued, but now the Covid-19 pandemic has wormed its way into the intricacies of an adoption reunion. Imagine it. You receive a hand-addressed letter in the mail, a phone call, a private message on Facebook. The son or daughter you relinquished decades ago has surfaced from the deep ocean of secrecy. Now imagine this. That person has been yanked out of reach. Meeting in person, especially with the susceptibility of older people to the virus is, at least for now, ill-advised.
I am a birthmother who relinquished a child in 1970. The state in which he was born still has sealed records, but when he turned 21, I searched for him and found him. My initiative to contact him was steeled by its own crisis. We’ve been happily reunited for three decades.
Here’s how it all unfolded.
The first thing I did was slow down. I visualized myself in my son’s shoes. What would it be like to be him? Given the approach to adopting a child in 1970, it was almost certain he knew he was adopted, but what if he didn’t want to be found? What would I do then? How could I best reach out to him? Would he believe I’d thought of him and loved him every day of his life?
I did a bit of research. After I learned he lived at home with his parents and a sister, I wanted to find out if he had his own phone line. I called 411 and made those inquiries. After discovering he did indeed have a private line, I called him at home during the workday and got his answering machine. I left a message that went something like this, “Hi, you don’t know me, but my name is Denise, and we have a past connection. I’d like to talk to you if you’re willing.” I left my phone number.
My son didn’t return my call. Dozens of scenarios played in my head. Was the silence the calm before a storm of resentment and anger? Was he figuring out how to tell his parents? Was he taking things slowly too?
My next contact was a brief letter with a photo of me, seven months pregnant, in my prom dress. The lacy white empire-waist dress concealed the pregnancy. Telling that part of the story felt like a good start, but still there was no response.
It was hard to stay on an even keel after my attempts at contact yielded nothing. I doubted myself. Should I stay the course? I had two young daughters, and I wanted them to know they had a brother. I wanted my son to know he had little sisters. I wanted my son to know the story of why he was given up. There was some medical history I needed to share. I couldn’t abandon hope, but I didn’t know what to do next.
Operation Desert Storm was intensifying at the beginning of 1991. After my daughters were safe in their beds, I’d find myself on the couch, holding my breath, the TV tuned to CNN. Was my son was on the way to fight a war in the Middle East. What if he died before I had a chance to meet him?
One night a couple of weeks past the New Year when my husband was working late, I turned off the TV, went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of Grand Marnier. Standing next to the phone in the darkness, I stared out at the city lights while the baby monitor to my daughters’ room hummed softly on the counter. I turned on the light and pulled out the pad of paper with my son’s information and dialed his number. He answered on the second ring. “This is Denise,” I said, “I wrote to you a couple weeks before Christmas and then left you a message a few days ago. It’s okay that you didn’t get back to me, but I just need to know if you’re in the military and if you’re going to the Middle East.”
“No,” he said. “ No, I’m not.”
My son and I had a conversation. We agreed to write to one another and exchange photos. Six months later we arranged to meet in the lobby of a hotel. We had a drink. We had dinner. He came to my house for cookies and coffee, and we talked until 1 a.m. The next day he met his little sisters. Over the following year he made the 400-mile drive to see us for more visits. His mother and I exchanged several letters, and I wrote letters to my siblings, informing them of my son’s existence. My family went to visit my son and his parents. He joined my family on camping trips and family vacations. Since then there have been many birthdays, holidays, trips, and milestones.
It’s now thirty years later. My son is married with three teen-age children. My daughters are grown with partners of their own. They don’t remember not having a brother.
Many of the adoptees now reaching out to their birth families are far older than 21. Their birth parents are senior citizens. While I was able to proceed slowly with the first steps in reuniting with my son, the timing of a reunion must now be weighed against the backdrop of a global pandemic. It’s more urgent than ever to weigh past losses against the potential for present and future love. Now is the time to allow secrets and lies to be undone. And when you do finally hold that lost person in your arms for the first time, you may come undone. Open your heart to all of it. Let the serendipities, synchronicities, and surprises blow your mind.
Every adoption begins with loss. Unsealing original birth certificates is the first step toward restitution. May your next steps be steady, strong, and healthy. It’s later than we think.
DENISE EMANUEL CLEMEN is the author of the memoir, “Birthmother.” Subscribe to her blog and check out her website at https://deniseemanuelclemen.com.