Today’s blog is accompanied by a tea called Sister Sister which I thought would be appropriate as I am going to be talking about when I actually met my maternal birth (half) sister who was also raised in an adoptive family. I’ve chatted with you about meeting her in Part 2 of this little blog mini-series and how adoption openness might have changed our lives.
As you all know, I was raised with a brother who, for all intents and purposes, is my only sibling in the ‘growing up together with siblings’ world. So many times in my childhood I had fantasized about having a sister instead of a brother, or even in addition to. Unless I needed protecting or once he started bringing over his good looking friends that is. Then having a brother was ok. I guess I just wanted someone to giggle with and do sister stuff with even though many of my friends who had sisters pretty much hated them.
Also at play, I think, was the fact that I grew up believing that I already had a biological half-brother being raised by our birth maternal grandparents somewhere out there. Due to a lack of openness in my adoption my parents misunderstood the verbal information provided by the worker, and I was in my 20s before I understood that my birth mother and her mother had a baby in the same year. Her mother gave birth to a boy and my birth mother gave birth to a girl a few short months later. I’m sure you can imagine how this misinformation impacted on me growing up. I’m also sure you can recognize how openness in my adoption may have mitigated that impact.
It is true that I felt somehow better when I found out that the child our birth mother had placed for adoption before me was also a girl, and was also placed on adoption. Though that did not immediately change my skewed thinking that boys were somehow more valuable, more ‘worth keeping’ than girls, it helped in some strange way. It also took some time to absorb that the first child born to my birth mother was not any more ‘worth keeping’ than I was. I struggle when I think of how simple openness might have made a difference in my feelings of self worth.
It was another eight or ten years before things started to open up in post-adoption services and I dared to think I might be able to actually meet my birth sister. A birth sister with whom I could or should have been raised, but that a lack of openness in adoption prevented. Here we were, two grown women, still being blocked from each other due to society’s fear of openness among people who had been adopted. I cannot begin to describe how disloyal to my parents I felt when I submitted that application, but that is a story for another blog.
I’ll admit I was feeling overwhelmed at the idea of contact with my birth sister, admittedly dragging my feet at times. I experienced all the loyalty to my parents stuff and basically, my fear of the unknown. But I pursued based partly on the fact I had always wanted a sister, and feeling safe due to the knowledge that she lived a couple of provinces away. Meanwhile, as she told me later, my birth sister was relentless in wanting to speed up the process at her end. As the rules were in those days, we first exchanged letters and basic information through an adoption disclosure worker. We both had to sign a consent, protecting our government’s butt from some sort of lawsuit I suppose.
I was pregnant with my fourth child at this time, and driven by a search for medical history information as well as seeking to get to know my birth sister. I had tried to get information when my first child was born but timidly accepted the door that slammed in my face at that time, a door that would not have been there if there had been some form of openness in my adoption. It is amazing how being adopted and raised with a ‘mystery history’ that everyone around you was counselled to withhold, can make one feel like they are doing something wrong in seeking information. If I lost the right to be raised by my birth family, ‘how can I have the right to find out about them?’ swam around continually in my mind. That is, until I became a parent. Once my status as an adopted person interfered with my children’s right to medical history information I was suddenly on a mission. But at the same time, I felt like a new recruit approaching their first time on the battlefield.
I was extremely nervous as I attended my appointment to sign the consent that would begin the process to connect my birth sister and I. I signed the document with trepidation and suddenly, without warning, the worker put several photographs on the table. They were the first photographs of my sister and her family that I had ever seen. I feel like their should have been some warning, or fanfare, or well, something to introduce this momentous occasion. Then I saw that we had the same eyes.
Meanwhile, my birth sister, who also had no idea that I existed, was very motivated to meet me. That gave me the courage to move forward. Due to distance and the fact that I was expecting our fourth child, our meeting was delayed for about 6 months. During that time we exchanged letters and talked on the phone, getting to know each other, and hearing about each other’s lives with our families who adopted us.
Finally the time came for us to meet. She flew to Ontario and I was to pick her up at the airport. We have a tiny municipal airport but the planes still manage to land here. So, as a nursing mom, I made the executive decision to nurse the baby before going to the airport so that she and I could go out for some quiet time before meeting my husband and four children. I think I also wanted to assess if she might be weird or dangerous before bringing her home lol. It turns out I was late. She would want me to include how, here she was in a tiny municipal airport in the middle of nowhere (where they tend to put small airports) and no one to greet her. Oh, and may I note that these were the days before everyone and their dog had a cell phone. Provinces away from home with a bored janitor asking her to put her suitcase onto the chair beside her and pick up her feet so he could mop underneath her, who knows what she was thinking! Well, I actually know but I’m not able to share it here. All I can do is recommend that you not leave a adult adopted person in an airport far from their home and not expect them to feel abandoned, again.
When I did get to the airport, she was obviously greatly relieved. I was also happy there were few people to witness our awkward greeting. Do we hug? Neither of us big huggers. Do we shake hands? Oh, this was the early 90s, women did not easily or automatically shake hands yet. I always envied men of this accepted greeting ritual. But I digress. Off we went to have some quiet time to get to know each other a little more in person before I took her to my place, once I figured she seemed harmless to my family.
She had the unpleasant task of letting me know that her search for our birth mother had ended with a refusal to meet with us. So we united in requesting any updated medical information about her and any family medical information we should be aware of. We also asked for a photograph. Not a recent one, but one of her somewhere between the age she was when she gave birth to my sister and the age she was when she gave birth to me, three years later. Then, together, we went through the stages of grief. I am so glad we had each other because only we could understand what this felt like. For her to have given up the right to parent us over 30 years ago when she was very young was one thing, for her to give up the right to meet us now was very painful. I feel like, if there had been an openness agreement where she had agreed to give and receive non-identifying information about us, things may have been different. She would have known we were doing ok and we would have known that she had married and had four more children. She saw her children as a reason not to meet us. We saw her children as our half siblings and my sister and I made a pact. If we ever learned of our birth mother’s passing, we would reach out to our half-siblings. Stay tuned for part 4 of What If It Had Been Open, to see how that went!
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Welcome back to Blogville friend! Won’t you join me in a cup of hot chamomile tea as we talk more about openness in adoption and how I, and my siblings, might have benefitted? This is all speculation as I am not aware of even the concept of openness planning at the time of my adoption in 1959/1960.
On their website (www.adoption.on.ca), the Adoption Council of Ontario, speaks about openness as follows: “Openness refers to the information and contact that occurs between an adoptive family and the child or youth’s birth family and other important people in the child or youth’s life. Openness orders and agreements are a way for an adoptive child or youth to maintain contact between themselves and their birth family, including siblings, as well as other important people, such as friends and neighbours, when it is in the child’s best interest. It helps children and youth remain connected to important people and their communities and cultures while forming new relationships with their adoptive family. For First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children, openness helps to develop and maintain connections with their culture, heritage, traditions, and community.” What is missing in here, to me, is mention of openness specifically between the child or youth and their former caregivers such as foster or kinship families, though I suppose they technically fall under ‘other important people’.
At minimum, there should have been an openness order or agreement between my new family and the family who had adopted my maternal half-sister who was almost exactly three years older than me. Our birth mother was a client of the same child welfare agency for both pregnancies, so one can assume the workers knew I had a half-sister. During my pre-reunion counselling I had asked why, if my birth mother wanted an adoption plan, was I not adopted before nine months of age. The response was an unbelievable, “Oh, in those days there were drawers full of babies and not enough families.” I kid you not. In my view, that should have been even more reason for my sister and I to have been placed together once I was born. In our case, two adoptive families were matched with children instead of placing the two of us together in the same family. As a result, my birth sister and I grew up without our birth parents, and without each other, in separate adoptive families. Directly due to the lack of openness between our two families, we waited over 30 years to find each other. Who does that?
Like an episode of Bob Newhart (Best of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl), one of the other consequences of a lack of openness is that my sister and I have the same first name, though spelled differently. Our birth mother had originally given us different names but often infants and very young children’s names are changed in the adoption process. My birth sister’s name, given to her by her adoptive parents is Lynne. My name, as you know, is Lynn. The social worker involved in our finding each other when we were in our thirties actually thought that was neat. I don’t think I can ever forget the excitement and enthusiasm with which the worker asked me, “Guess what her name is?” Are you kidding me right now? Anyway, I’m pretty sure that if my parents had known that I had a half-sister out in the world named Lynne, they would have given me a different name. I sincerely doubt that they would have thought it was ‘neat’! Openness could have prevented us being given the same first names.
Imagine, introducing your birth sister to people and having to explain how we had been separated by the adoption process. Since that is not complicated enough, finish that introduction by saying, “This is my sister, Lynne” (or Lynn, depending on which one of us is doing the introducing). When people would make the ‘this is Daryl and my other brother Daryl reference’ I would sometimes nod, smile, and add, “Oh, her name is spelled with an e on the end, that’s how you can tell us apart.” Unlike the Bob Newhart comedy, Lynne and I have to live with being half-sisters and having the same name. I know it sometimes happens with step-siblings but I’m pretty sure when they say, ‘this is my step-sister, or step-brother’ with the same name, people do the ‘math’ and don’t think about the Bob Newhart Show. I mean, I could be wrong. Either way, our scenario would likely have been avoided if there was an openness plan between my parents and Lynne’s parents when I was being placed and given a new name.
Taking the same name issue to a different level, imagine when our poor maternal birth sisters found out that they had two maternal half-sisters, both with the same name. I believe they initially thought we had been named the same by our birth mother until we were able to clarify we had coincidentally both been named a version of ‘Lynn’ by our respective adoptive parents. In order for the sisters to know which of us the other person meant in conversations, they resorted to referring to us as North Lynn and West Lynne. I could sense their embarrassment when they explained that to us. I guess that turned out in my favour since the characters in the Wizard if Oz are the wicked witch of the West and the good witch of the North (though I’m not sure Lynne would agree with that observation lol.)
As we later learned through adoption disclosure documents, Lynne had originally been placed as a newborn in a prospective adoptive home in the same community where I would later be placed with my new family. Sadly, her adoption placement disrupted when Lynne was about five months old due to a concern with the mental health of the prospective adoptive mother. As a result of that disruption Lynne was returned back to the community where she had been born and was subsequently placed in the family who eventually adopted her. She and I have often talked about the possibility that we may have both been raised in that small town never knowing we were half sisters. How sad would that have been? Even worse, at one point Lynne and I realized that had her adoptive family remained in the community where our birth family resided, Lynne might even have dated her birth uncle who was only a few months younger than her.
Meanwhile, I learned that my birth father had met and married a woman who had a daughter, born about six months before me, that he raised as his own. Three more children were born to this relationship, three more birth half siblings to me, and a bonus ‘sister’ through step-parent claiming. So many times in my childhood I had fantasized about having more siblings, while in reality I had many birth half-siblings. A lack of openness kept that information from me for many years. Come back to Blogville in two weeks and I’ll tell you what it was like to meet them all. . .
Questions for me but not comfortable asking them in this forum? Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to answer any questions or just listen to your comments or feedback.