Contacting birth moms a delicate undertaking

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On March 20, adoptees seeking their previously sealed birth records marched along Neilston Street to the Ohio Department of Health’s vital-statistics office in Columbus. The records were made available on that day.

She didn’t tell her parents for six months, until the pregnancy became impossible to hide. Their response only deepened the 17-year-old’s shame.

“There was really no discussion,” Loretta Taus said. “I was sent to the DePaul home and dropped off with no support. I didn’t think I was worth anything.”

Taus, now 61, wonders: Does the son she placed for adoption know what it was like then? Will he accept that she had no choice?

A new law that unsealed thousands of Ohio adoption files also pulled back the curtain on decades of social history. Successful reunions, many adoptees and birth parents are discovering, call for a careful understanding of the difference between past and present times.

“Because of the generational differences, there’s a lot more to it than people realize,” said Betsie Norris, executive director of Adoption Network Cleveland. “Adoptees often grow up in a real void of information about what this experience might be like for their birth parents.”

During the 1960s, for example, just 5 to 10 percent of births in the United States were to unmarried mothers. By 2013, according to national statistics, nearly 41 percent of births were out of wedlock.

Voluntary relinquishment of infants, meanwhile, has become far less common. The adoptions that do take place are often open.

Such cultural shifts can make it harder for adoptees to comprehend the pressures birth parents faced.

“If you apply today’s values and today’s attitudes without having that historical context, how would you know?” said Norris, an adoptee who fought for years to change Ohio’s birth-records law.

In March, the state finally unsealed the files of some 400,000 adoptees whose Ohio adoptions were finalized between 1964 and 1996. Most adult adoptees born in other years already have access.

“We’ve had adoptees coming forward who had the impression that their birth parents didn’t want them,” Norris said. “A lot have been pretty blown away to find out that wasn’t true.”

Taus, who grew up in a devout Roman Catholic family in northeastern Ohio, has begun attending support meetings for birth parents and adoptees. Sometimes, she said, an adoptee admits to feeling as if her birth mother didn’t love her enough to keep her.

“But when they hear our stories, they understand.”

Taus’ 43-year-old son hasn’t contacted her, so she doesn’t know whether he realizes, or cares, that he is now free to obtain his original birth certificate.

She is fairly certain she knows who and where he is but hasn’t yet mailed the letter she wrote. “ I do want to send it,” Taus said. “Something will have been lifted.”

Becky Drinnen of Sidney in Shelby County wishes she had opted for a cautious approach when she first tried to contact her birth mom several years ago.

“My lack of understanding of how different things for unmarried, pregnant girls was in 1962 meant that I was completely unprepared for my first contact,” said Drinnen, who now helps lead an adoption discussion group. “It never occurred to me that she might not be as excited as I was.”

Drinnen, 52, still feels a knot in her stomach recalling the disastrous attempt. “What I remember from that phone call is her screaming, ‘What is she trying to do? Ruin my life?’ ”

The rejection crushed her. She waited more than 20 years, until 2011, to try again. By then Drinnen — who had received love and support when she was a young, single mother — had read a lot about the so-called “Baby Scoop Era.”

Her birth mother, who now lives in Westerville, had become pregnant during her first sexual experience. She was forced to read Bible verses aloud “to demonstrate what a terrible person she was,” Drinnen said.

“She’s still not willing to meet me, but we had a really long phone conversation,” she said. “I can’t find it within me to be angry with her anymore. She gave me what she could.”

Drinnen’s birth mother told her she thinks of her, and prays for her, every day.

From March 20 through the end of May, 4,615 adoptees had requested their files, state health officials said. The deadline for birth parents to redact their names was March 20, and just 259 birth parents — a fraction of the 400,000 adoptions finalized between 1964 and 1996 — sought that anonymity.

Still, Drinnen and others say, it’s often best to proceed gently, resisting the urge to message birth parents and siblings on Facebook minutes after learning their names.

“It’s all about the right communication, at the right time, at the right pace,” said Lindsay West, 30, a Reynoldsburg adoptee who recently requested her records and made contact with her birth mother.

The woman had feared telling West that she and the birth father had married after all, and later had three more children. “She was afraid I would respond with, ‘Why me? Why couldn’t you have made it work with me?’  ”

Preparation, a supportive family and discussions with other adoptees put West on solid ground when she was ready to reach out.

“It was painful, exciting — you name it,” she said. “We’ve got our demons being adoptees, and it seems like the birth parents might have deeper ones. But where I am now is a very happy place.”

Recent contact with her Columbus-area daughter is helping Sue Ann Cavanaugh, a birth mother in Miami County, to heal. She thinks all adoptees “have the right to ask why we left you.”

Cavanaugh, who did not have more children, is grateful that her daughter allowed her to explain.

“I finally feel like I’m someone,” she said. “My daughter told me she loved me. That was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.”