Happy Birthday!

My Handmade Greeting Card

Tomorrow is my daughter’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Sweetheart! We smile when I tell the story of her birth–again. The doctor had agreed to follow the Leboyer method of childbirth to minimize trauma for my newborn. I was looking forward to minimal trauma, too! The room would be warm and dimly lit with gentle music playing in the background. My baby would be placed in warm water immediately to ease the transition from the womb.

A couple of minutes before her birth, I clearly recall the doctor coming into the delivery room with a cassette tape recorder and hanging it crookedly on the wall. For me, the ambience quickly slipped away! Our not-so-gentle background music was coming from a cheap shoebox recorder! Furthermore, the room was freezing and I didn’t see a tub of warm water anywhere! The lights were dim—I was grateful for that! He held up my precious baby girl and said, “About eight and a half pounds.” They put her on the scale and magically, she weighed exactly eight and a half pounds! I guess our doctor had plenty of experience. Whatever part of the Leboyer method was lacking, there was no trauma and we were thrilled with our adorable baby daughter.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my excitement when I learned that there was an adoption file on me—proof! “I had actually been born!” I am sure fellow adoptees would agree with me that anything having to do with birth can conjure strange and irrational thoughts. It took me quite a while after my children were born to truly realize that they were my biological children. I felt that they were my husband’s kids. In fact, I also thought that his parents were their real grandparents and my parents were not. In all fairness to adoptees, I believe that it does make sense to feel a disconnect from biological relatives in a closed adoption and have those thoughts follow us into adulthood. It also makes sense to move on from irrational thoughts!

Today, I am delighted—we have two wonderful children and four amazing grandchildren.

My Search for a Foundling’s Identity

There’s searching and there’s researching. Searching may require a lot of research, unless you ‘win the lottery’ when your DNA and your birthmother’s DNA match  immediately, as one lucky gal recently shared on Facebook.  I remember the day I decided to research my maternal great-grandfather, James Thurnall. On my family tree, he appeared to have no generations before him. I needed to search for James to learn his family history.

Ancestry found him, and I quickly discovered how our lives were similar. James’s name appeared on a class list when he was ten years old, living in the London Foundling Hospital (LFH) in 1880. A foundling is a child who has been abandoned or relinquished. The LFH was actually a children’s home for foundlings. Now I was on a mission to find out why James Thurnall was a foundling. All the records from the hospital are kept at the London Metropolitan Archives. For a reasonable fee, they located James’s records in the archives and mailed copies of everything to me! 

James’s mother, Mary Anne Wingfield, was seventeen when he was born. One of eleven children in a very poor family, she was employed as a housemaid. James’s father, Charles Davis, worked at the same estate. Having promised to marry Mary Anne, Charles fled to Australia soon after James’s birth. Mary Anne had no way to support her baby. She turned to the Foundling Hospital for help.

The large envelope I received from the London Metropolitan Archives included INSTRUCTIONS and a complete copy of Mary Anne Wingfield’s PETITION to relinquish her baby to the LFH. There were handwritten references from her employer, parish minister, and family doctor.  James Twiddy, a Governor at the LFH, wrote a detailed statement of support. The cover letter to my packet explained what the committee was looking for. “The Foundling Hospital would only care for illegitimate children when their mother made a sufficiently strong case for her ability to make a new start in life.” Mary Anne succeeded—her PETITION was accepted. At three months, baby Charles Davis, named after his father, entered the LFH. He was baptized and renamed James Thurnall. At the age of fourteen,  James left the LFH and was apprenticed to a “hairdresser to be instructed in his business.”

James’s mother and my birthmother were unwed and without the means to support themselves and their infants. Mary Anne relinquished James to the LFH. I was relinquished to foster care and then adopted by my family. Both of us received an education, got married, and had children of our own! Similar paths in so many ways.

With the addition of James’s family, my family tree has grown. And when I search my AncestryDNA for the surnames Wingfield and Davis, I get many matches. Identity is both complex and sacred!

Domine Nos Dirige
 “Lord, direct (guide) us”

London Metropolitan Archives
(logo on my cover letter)

Completing the Triangle

In my childhood, my mom and dad and I rarely mentioned my birthparents. My closed adoption was a non-issue—accepted and understood on the deepest level of our love for one another. There was no adoption triangle—there was a child and her parents. The words adoption and adoptive were not heard because they didn’t really apply to us. As an adult, I was surprised to learn the term, adoption triangle. In my eyes, life essentially began when my parents took me home, almost eight months after my birth. The circumstances of my birth and those first eight months seemed insignificant to me until my late teens. I had some catching up to do!

What used to be insignificant became very significant. As a young mom, I decided to search for the missing side of the triangle. Searching for my birthmother soon expanded beyond a search for her name and character traits and details about her family. I started to think about her pregnancy with me, who supported her during my birth, our time together, and then our separation from each other. The adoption triangle became a new reality for me—my mom and dad, my birthmother, and me.

She and her parents made an adoption plan. It’s one thing to have a plan to hand your baby over to someone else—it’s another thing to follow through with that plan. The more I learned about her, the more difficulty I had understanding how she could give me to someone else and why it had to be that way. I didn’t feel angry or abandoned—I simply didn’t understand. 

My enlightenment evolved over quite a long time. I listened to the voices of birthmothers—in books, film, blogs, online groups, and friends and relatives. I felt the shame, the searing disapproval from family, and a culture that labeled unwed mothers as unfit for motherhood and their babies as illegitimate. Separations were traumatizing! The effects often lasting a lifetime. However, it became clear that my birthmother’s adoption plan for me was her only option. There were no alternatives. I believe that without support from her family and community, she did her best. Eventually, I understood her decision. 

In childhood, my parents and I were solidly linked. Then I learned that my birthmother and I were the first link. The adoption plan completed the triangle.

January 1970 Our Rehearsal Dinner

“I Got You Babe”
Sonny and Cher 
lyrics by Sonny Bono 1965


They say we’re young and we don’t know
We won’t find out until we grow


Well I don’t know if all that’s true
‘Cause you got me, and baby I got you
Babe


I got you babe
I got you babe

“I Got You Babe”
Sonny and Cher 
lyrics by Sonny Bono 1965

A Jigsaw Puzzle!

Believe me, I was absolutely thrilled to receive non-identifying information about my birthmother and family for the first time back in 1983. I think I soon had it all memorized.  She liked to knit and read and ice skate and roller skate. She was 19 when I was born. She carried me to full term and I was “a normal healthy baby.” Having had no information, this was a dream come true. It was stunning to know the file existed—I had actually been born! It’s true that adoptees have strange thoughts compared to everyone else. 

It wasn’t long before I wanted more. They had piqued my curiosity and there was no turning back! Parent Finders of Montreal guided me. With every letter from the adoption agency, I wrote back with more questions. Interestingly, the agency kept sending me small bits of non-identifying information. I always wondered why I didn’t receive it all in the first place. This is when I formed the image—the agency folks had the lid from the jigsaw puzzle box! They had all the answers, both identifying and non-identifying. They were also sworn to obey the Quebec laws and never divulge identifying information to an adoptee. Maybe they suspected I would keep coming back for more. And not wanting to run out, they chose to give me small bits and pieces over time. I do believe they had strategies!

I had strategies too. On top of being curious, I was usually patient and almost always grateful for everything they were doing for me. I learned early on that they made mistakes. For example, she had a sister named Frances. The agency confused Frances with Francis and told me she had another brother. I was offended when they referred to my mom and dad as my adoptive parents. They were, in fact, my only parents. The agency apologized and said they were happy for me. (And, yes, I do understand why they said adoptive.) As my search continued, I examined each and every puzzle piece they sent. I was on the case—hoping for a mistake that might be a valuable clue to my birthmother’s identity.

My St. Patrick’s Day Greeting Card

That was Then…This is Now

We all know how dramatically technology has changed our lives. Was anyone smart enough to predict the present day, widespread use of smart phones? Many people actually prefer text messaging to talking on the phone. In 1983, I began my search for my birthmother. We had one home phone and one television. I sent handwritten letters to the adoption agency, government offices, newspaper, and search angels. I checked out adoption books from our neighborhood public library. Long distance phone calls were very important, but also expensive back then. Eventually, I had an Apple IIe computer—definitely an improvement over our old typewriter. We lived in Buffalo, NY. When I finally had unlocked a few crucial clues to my birthmother’s identity, my husband and I drove up to the Toronto Reference Library to read microfilms for final answers. That was then…

This is now! The Apple IIe has been replaced with various computers and laptops over the years. We still have a landline, but texting on my smart phone and relying on its GPS and camera are now a part of everyday life. I have newspaper archives at my fingertips, messaging on Facebook, I can share old and current photos, and create family trees online. AncestryDNA, 23andMe, My Heritage, and FamilyTreeDNA are just a few of the DNA testing companies today! AncestryDNA began selling test kits in 2012–a little saliva mailed back the old fashioned way and six-eight weeks later, your genetic identity pops up in your electronic mail—email! Mind boggling! My first close DNA match was with a first cousin, Marc. Our match was a turning point for both of us—two adoptees from Verdun, Montreal! The DNA results indicated our birthfathers were brothers. We became search angels for each other—friends for life.

There are a couple of variables in searching that have not changed over the decades. In many states and Canadian provinces, adoptee files remain sealed. Where it is lawful to learn your birthparents’ name(s), the adoption agency or government wait times can be painfully frustrating. Another unchanged variable is that the adoption agencies or government still make mistakes. Some mistakes provide excellent clues for which we are grateful! Other errors contain misinformation and can take a long time to unravel. The last unchanged variable is curiosity. Adoptees may experience disappointments in their searches, but curiosity brings us back to the search until we have our answers.

My grandfather was an amateur photographer. He’s caught me here curiously eyeing something!

Early Memories

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” Mary Poppins Returns                      favorite verses:

Memories you’ve shed, Gone for good you feared, They’re all around you still, Though they’ve disappeared, Nothing’s really left, Or lost without a trace, Nothing’s gone forever, Only out of place

Time to close your eyes, So sleep can come around, For when you dream you’ll find, All that’s lost is found, Maybe on the moon, Or maybe somewhere new, Maybe all you’re missing lives inside of you

Songwriters: Scott Wittman / Marc Shaiman,“The Place Where Lost Things Go” lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company  

In “Mary Poppins Returns,” Mary sings this soulful ballad as a lullaby to the children who are grieving the loss of their mother. The lyrics help them keep her memory alive. I heard this song on the Oscars the other night while I was planning to write about early memories.

Throughout my memoir, I question my ability to remember my birthmother. There is a sense of loss experienced in an adoption. A mother and infant are separated, seemingly forever. As an infant, I was too young to use language. So I wonder, Where are my memories? How are they stored without words?

Infants remember sounds from before they were born. They can identify their mother’s scent. Heather Turgeon, a psychotherapist who writes about child development and parenting,  calls it “our emotional memory.” Early memories are coded by our feelings and relationships around us. She further states, “This is why early childhood has such a powerful effect on us, even though we remember so little of it. Our first years are when we build our emotional blueprint of the world, and we take that understanding with us through the rest of our lives.” 

Heather Turgeon, “Kids and Memory: What Do Babies Remember?” Daily Beast, November 9, 2010.

Maybe all you’re missing lives inside of you. I am confident now that I have an emotional memory of my earliest experiences with my birthmother. I describe in the book times when I felt her presence. Searching has led to so much more than simply finding my birthparents’ names!

Learning about emotional memory has brought me back to my toddler years. Some favorite memories are bolstered by family stories and old photos. My mom loved to tell the story of my 2nd birthday party. My brother invited all the neighborhood kids—Mom found out when they all arrived! My daughter has a wonderful memory—people, colors, events! She remembers many things from around the age of 3—playing in our backyard, family holiday dinners, and her purple jelly shoes. Sometimes, it’s the little things in life that count!

Baby Congratulatory / Baptism Card

Original Birth Certificate, Please!

Most people have a birth certificate, and it shows their birthparents’ names. Proof of age is very important in so many circumstances. Our children were often required to give a copy of their birth certificate to sport teams, schools, and the DMV!

In adoption, birth certificates are an even bigger deal. When an adoption is legally finalized, the original birth certificate is replaced with a new one. In a closed adoption, like mine, my original birth certificate was sealed away in a vault—by law, it was sealed forever. The new, or amended, birth certificate had the names of my parents who adopted me, my mom and dad.

In my memoir, I reserve the names, mom and dad, for my parents. My birthparents are my birthmother and birthfather, or mother and father. So, at a glance, the reader knows who’s who!

Once I knew my birthmother’s name, I decided to ask for my original birth certificate. It was a tricky process, but thankfully, I succeeded. What a joy to hold that simple document, a lawful and legitimate record of my illegitimate birth!

When I showed it to my son, he said he was surprised it wasn’t framed and on display—he knew how important an original birth certificate was to me. It is the only record I have that includes my birthmother’s name, her signature, my name, and my date of birth. That is who I was until my parents took me home at eight months. In fact, legally, my first name was my name until my adoption was finalized. I was almost two years old. That’s a long time to have a different legal identity! 

Adopted at 8 months!