Welcome back to Blogville where the tea is hot and so is the topic sometimes. I have been talking about openness in adoption.
This is the fifth in a happenstance mini-series that occurred when I started talking about how openness in my adoption may have helped my parents and me. Eventually that led to my thoughts on how openness might have helped my birth siblings and me. Today’s blog is focussed on my paternal birth siblings, and me.
Openness can range from an annual update letter and maybe a photo provided to the birth parent(s), to face-face visits that are sometimes supervised by adoption workers, other times just in the company of all the parents, or even just the birth parents and the child/children. Openness among siblings is more common, especially when siblings are not able to be adopted into the same family. Society has finally started to realize that the babies who are legally freed for adoption have a right to their sibling relationship. If they can’t be adopted together, siblings should at least know that each other exists and how they are doing. As I have already mentioned in previous blogs, during the late 50s and early 60s, openness was not a consideration in the adoption process.
In my experience, when siblings grow up not knowing that they have birth siblings from their birth parents, finding this out can be a bit of a shock. Speaking personally, I found the shock of the news was softened when it was delivered by the birth parent to the adult children as opposed to finding out other ways. I can only measure this in my own experience with the way my paternal birth siblings accepted, without much question, that I was their birth half-sister; while my maternal birth siblings needed some time to fact find before they were able to offer their wholehearted acceptance.
Folks might argue with me here, but it is also my experience that society empathizes with birth fathers when their infants are placed with adoptive families while at the same time mercilessly judging birth mothers. My birth father was never even contacted by the adoption agency so that he might exercise his parental rights! As was often the norm, all blame and decision making fell to the birth mothers. In my own case, following my birth, my birth mother and her family actually moved from their community due to the shame of her having given birth twice, ‘out of wedlock’.
Could this be why our birth parents’ subsequent children were never even told about us, let alone allowed contact with my older sister and I through openness? The children later born to our birth parents were not factored in to our adoption journeys until many years later, when my sister and I took the first steps to find them.
As I noted in a previous blog, I feel that at minimum there should have been some form of openness between the family who adopted my older birth sister and my family. To be frank, the family who adopted my sister should have been contacted to consider adopting me as well, to keep us together when we had each already lost so much.
In my case, my birth father was never notified of my birth mother’s pregnancy, nor my subsequent birth. His parental options/rights were also denied him by the adoption agency even though my birth mother had identified him. However, before you blame the birth mother alone, I must point out the notion that after having intimate relations with someone, a man might follow up with her, even after leaving her community. I’m just sayin’.
While my birth mother was spending time in a strange community in a home for unwed mothers, my birth father had met, and fallen in love with, a woman with a daughter just a few months older than me. This little girl grew up as his daughter while I, his birth daughter, was being raised by strangers. The irony should not escape you; as it did not escape me when I realized this is what had happened.
When my birth father was notified of my existence, he immediately agreed to speak with me. Initially, he was not sure that I was actually his biological child and was ready to ask for DNA testing, until he heard my voice, and he somehow knew I was his daughter. He proudly talked about his other children and asked me for time to be able to speak to them about me. Following our first telephone call my birth father made up and mailed a sweet ‘birth announcement’ card, and included a tiny little cigar. Giving out cigars was tradition among new fathers at that time. My birth father told me he had two daughters and two sons, but that sadly one of his sons had passed away. I felt inexplicably robbed of the opportunity to meet this brother.
So many emotions!
Joy at being immediately acknowledged and accepted by my birth father.
Jealousy at the fact he raised a daughter born to other biological parents while I was being raised by non-biological parents.
Sadness that I never knew and would never know one of my paternal birth brothers. Disappointment at how my birth father lived the cliché of having intimate relations with my birth mother and never looking back.
Fear that his other children may not accept me.
Happily, my fear was unfounded. In fact, I met my birth father’s other children before I even met him. Ironically, these birth siblings live in or near the same community as, I would later discover, most of my maternal half siblings do. Actually, my birth parents had even resided in that same community at one point, married to different people and raising their families there. I often wonder if they ever unknowingly passed each other in the local mall, or grocery store. I can only imagine what an unexpected meeting might have looked like! Somehow, I picture abandoned carts full of items, swinging store doors, and two people running to their cars.
Within months of first contact with my paternal birth siblings I had a business event in their neighbourhood in Southern Ontario so they invited me to meet and spend some time with them. When I met them I had never felt so insecure in my life!!! My outside was saying, ‘WOW, these are my actual birth siblings’!!! My inside was saying all kinds of stuff like, ’They are not going to like you.’ ‘Who do you think you are?’ ‘You probably don’t look anything like anyone.’ I cannot tell you how hard it was to be there in those moments, how out of place I felt, but then I realized that these are my genetic half siblings (well except for the one born in the same year as me, but at least we had the same hair colour lol). Eventually I realized that they, and their children, were genetically stuck with me! I felt better then.
I met so many people all at once, struggling to keep names straight, trying to enjoy being with biological family members when I wasn’t sure if I should be. Was I being disloyal to my parents and my brother? But, WOW, I got to meet my actual birth siblings!
I have this little photo album with pictures of my paternal siblings’ family events; weddings, camping events, Christmas gatherings, photos with pets, family dinners, photos with children and grandchildren, well, you know what I mean. These photos were sent to me by my birth father and my siblings when they learned of my existence. No words can describe how bittersweet this album is for me. I mentioned in a previous blog that a photo of three of my birth father’s children eating ice cream cones had inspired a rush of feelings themed, “Where is my ice cream?”
Finally, we were able to meet and I found them all to be incredible people; warm, welcoming, and accepting. They taught me about their dad and what it was like to be his kids. They taught me what it was like to have siblings that you are blood related to; not really any different from siblings related to you through adoption if I’m honest. They showed me how to look at resemblances in family pictures and in those dreaded school pictures. My school photos were always proudly displayed in our home but never discussed in terms of who I looked like. Trust me, I was scouring those pictures seeking, sometimes finding, resemblances to these siblings. When I got home from meeting my birth siblings I pulled out that little photo album, looking at it with new eyes.
But I digress. It was a whirlwind time of meeting people, each of us sneaking looks at the other to see if I looked at all like their dad (our dad?). Words cannot express how it felt to be accepted by these kind people as a sibling. They acknowledged me as one of them. They were my brother and sister, and my bonus ‘step-sister’. We shared a birth father, but not a history, we would have to get to work on creating our own history as siblings.
Welcome back to Blogville friend, so good to see you again. Today’s blog is accompanied again by a Sister Sister tea blend which I thought would be appropriate as I am going to be talking about meeting my maternal birth (half) sisters who were raised by our birth mother and her husband, and all that that brings with it. I’ve chatted in more detail with you about meeting my maternal birth (half) sister in Part 3 of this little blog mini-series and how adoption openness might have changed our lives. I’ll let you be the judge of how openness might have impacted on us when we maternal birth half-sisters finally met. I call the six of us the ‘womb-mates’.
As you know, my older birth sister and I had requested to meet our birth mother, which she sadly declined. At our request, she did provide an updated medical history and a photograph of herself when she was in her early 20s, taken between our two births. She had rationalized her decision not to meet by saying that her husband knew about us but her children did not. My sister and I would joke that maybe she had all boys and that we were her only daughters. We would talk about knocking on her door to sell chocolate bars or cookies if we could only find out where she lived. We wouldn’t interfere, we just wanted to meet her. I will always wonder if she had been given the option to have some form of openness, some type of communication with our adoptive families from the beginning, if things would have been different.
If some form of openness had been available, would things have turned out differently? Maybe we wouldn’t have had to wait to know her name until the government deemed it appropriate for adult adopted people (born in Ontario) to have access to their Statement of Live Birth. More importantly, maybe my birth sister would not have had to resort to combing through obituaries hoping to find our birth mother until, sadly, one day she did. Mitigating the pain of realizing we would now never actually meet our birth mother, was the chance we could meet our birth half-siblings, our four sisters!
Originally my birth sister wanted to reach out to one of our birth mother’s brothers who were listed in the obituary. I said, ‘hell no’! and reminded her that one of them had advised our birth mother not to meet us when she first had the chance. What if he is the one we happen to reach out to? I further pointed out to my sister that all our maternal birth half sisters were adults and entitled to make up their own minds about meeting us. All of us were innocent in the adoption process and I strongly felt we had the right to try to find and meet them.
It turns out that our birth mother’s husband had actually alluded to his daughters that their mother had two other baby girls that had been placed on adoption. The girls did not really believe him, especially when they did not find the evidence he had told them about. Evidence from our correspondence with our birth mother back in 1991 their father said she had kept was no where to be found. The actions of their father truly helped us by adding some credibility to our claim that we were their mother’s birth daughters. They were intrigued.
In March of 2018, one of our new sisters responded to my sister indicating they were coming to terms with the shocking news of our existence. She assured my sister that she would get back to her. Over the next few weeks correspondence between these two sisters began to build an acceptance of our existence, and piqued curiosities. Some pictures were exchanged and we all then knew the truth, we had been born to the same woman, no doubt about it.
The first gift we received from our new sisters was in an email, “On behalf of my sisters and I, we’d like to say how happy we are that you were able to find us.” The author then added the email addresses for each of her sisters so that we could start exchanging emails, and more pictures, to begin building a relationship. We learned that their father had exploded their world only a few days after their mother’s passing and how they had been shocked and frustrated that their father did not seem to know any details. Not to be deterred, the sisters formed a plan to find out more. That first gift they gave us was acceptance.
There followed a flurry of exchange of information as we six sisters began the journey of getting to know each other, our partners, and our children. We were comfortable with each other surprisingly quickly. A few weeks after finding each other we began planning to meet in a couple of months. This sparked a flurry of activity, determining dates and accommodations. We agreed to stay together in a college residence in their community. My sister would fly to Toronto and one of the sisters would get her from the airport to bring her to the college. I would drive down and meet them there.
On that amazing first day, I had just arrived and was standing in the college residence entrance when my sister and one of the new sisters arrived. Ironically, it was the new sister that recognized me while my older sister walked right past me. That was a great ice breaker!
All six of us eventually arrived at the college campus and awkward introductions were made. Everyone was looking at each other, searching for resemblances if I had to guess. We were surprisingly comfortable pretty early on in our meeting. Unbeknownst to each other, all of us had brought some small gift to offer. That was a wonderful ice breaker, giving and receiving these gifts. Every gift had a reason for being given to the sisters, making it a touching experience. The initial awkwardness soon gave way to early feelings of camaraderie and the beginnings of bonding together in our new roles as one of six daughters born to the same woman.
The days that followed included meeting the our new sisters’ partners, and a number of new nieces and nephews. One of the apexes of the weekend was meeting our birth mother’s husband, our new sisters’ father. He was very emotional at our introduction and expressed a lot of guilt in having kept us secret from his daughters. We understood that he was simply respecting his wife’s wishes, after all, we were her secret to share, or not share. Upon her death, he felt compelled to tell his daughters about us and for that my sister and I thanked him. The more we learned about our birth mother, the more my sister and I realized where our strong personalities came from. Who knew that was a genetic quality!
Being in our birth mother’s house was difficult, I’ll admit. Seeing those Knick Knacks on the shelves and walls and not knowing their history felt weird. Looking at the array of family photos hung with obvious pride tugged at my inner child as I looked for my face among her children’s pictures, even though I knew it would not be there. I ran my hand over chair surfaces where she had sat with her children and later, grandchildren, held lovingly on her lap. I listened to the stories of how she babysat so many children because she loved children so much and irrationally wondered why I had not been lovable enough for her to keep. Touching surfaces that she had touched, standing in the kitchen where she had cooked so many meals, and listening to the beautiful memories her daughters were sharing was bittersweet and very moving. I acknowledged the gift of being in her home, in the company of those she loved, and I was grateful.
I was offered one of my birth mother’s rings. Upon her loss, her girls had each chosen their favourite ring to keep as a memento of their cherished mother but there were rings left behind. The sisters generously offered those rings to my sister and I. At first I was simply overwhelmed, but then I slipped that ring on my finger just like her other daughters had done with their rings. When my mom recently passed, I had found her family ring in her jewelry box and guess what? Both rings from my mothers can be found on the same finger, proudly worn by their shared daughter.
As you may or may not be aware, my youngest birth sister and I wrote a book to help adoptive and kinships families talk about their journeys and normalize their feelings. The book is called, “What Is Your Story? Let’s talk about adoption and kinship” and we are very proud of creating this book together to help others. Collaborating on this book helped her and I get to know each other and gain a better understanding of how adoption impacted on each of us.
The six of us keep in touch, some more than others, as I believe is normal even with siblings raised together. We are looking forward to being in each others’ company again as soon as we can figure out the semantics.
Back in 1991, when our birth mother sent in the requested updated medical information for my older sister (through the Ministry) she included a greeting card. The irony does not escape me when I note that in the card she wrote, “Chances made you sisters, love will make you friends.” Turns out she was right, but for all six of her daughters (the womb-mates), not just the two of us.
Thanks for reading! Oh, as you can imagine, I also had a birth father. I feel like openness with him might have been life changing! You can read about that in Part V of this little blog series about openness. Spoiler alert, he had other children too . . .
As you know, your comments and questions are always welcome, here on this site, or by emailing me at email@example.com See you in two weeks.