First Contact, No Second Chances

What exactly do we say when we contact a long-lost relative for the first time? Is it better to go slowly, in the hopes of establishing further contact? But what if that initial correspondence is the only chance you have to speak to that person? If you’re using a state-based mandatory intermediary like the ones in Illinois, you’ve got one and only one chance to say what you want to say. Should you take that chance, or hedge your bets and potentially let the opportunity slip by?

This was the dilemma I faced during my brief contact with my birth mother. I had been through so much just to get to the point of speaking with her: years of wrangling with attorneys and bureaucracy even to be able to participate in their blighted, benighted intermediary program. And then to be told we were only allowed three letters each… I felt I had no choice but to try to squeeze as much as I could out of that brief chance at contact. Maybe I scared my birth mother off with what I said, although I tried very hard not to be angry or judgmental. But if I hadn’t taken the chance I would have forever lamented not being able to share what I wanted with her while I could. I will always wonder if the reason she denied contact is because of something I said. But what else are we supposed to do? I think sealed records and mandatory intermediaries lead directly to this problem. When you are given a very limited shot at something as important as contacting your own parent or your own child… if there is a misunderstanding or miscommunication there is no second chance. Not very humane, is it? Makes me wish I’d never heard of intermediaries or open records or hell, being adopted. Maybe ignorance IS bliss.

For example, I made the mistake of mentioning that my daughter wants to know about her “other grammy”. I said it that way because my daughter, who is all of five, considers my husband’s mother her “grammy” and so that’s her vocabulary for it. I think it freaked my birth mom out because she wrote back very strongly that my adopted mother is my “real” mother. I tried to explain that it’s just how my daughter verbalized it and that I wasn’t trying to imply anything. But the fact is, my birth mother is the only “real” mother, genetically, that I could have. That also makes her the genetic grandmother of my children. It’s a simple fact of biology, nothing that either of us can do anything about. (She also said I should “make up” with my adopted mother, as if thirty-odd years of emotional abuse could be repaired with a wave of a magic wand. I guess it would be easier for her if I could take my need for a mother and dump it onto someone else but I can’t, not that I’m expecting her to fill that role either. Truth is, in this lifetime I don’t get a mother. Perhaps I don’t deserve one.)

Do the harsh policies of mandatory intermediaries actually hinder reunion rather than help it? Personally I don’t think the state should be in the search-and-reunion business, period. It’s like the tin-can telephone, the message gets distorted the more you pass it through third parties. And all adult adoptees really want is equal access to the records of our birth, not search, not reunion, and certainly not a strict matronly chaperone wagging a finger and telling us our time’s up.

How many times have you said the wrong thing to someone and had them take it in a way you didn’t expect or intend? In the real world you can go to that person and explain, move through the miscommunication. In Adoption La-La Land it’s one strike and you’re out. I submit this is cruel and unusual punishment, the icing on the sealed records cake. First contact, no second chances.


  1. I think my adoptive mother could have handled initial contact better than my CI did. Knowing what I knew even then, I could have handled it better. My husband still swears that she was never contacted.

  2. The only reasons that CIs still exist under the law is the belief that biological mothers need to be protected from crazy adoptees, and that they deserve shelter from the horrible shame of having been unwed mothers.

    The first argument is somewhat circular; what makes adoptees crazy is the nature of sealed adoptions, of trying to integrate our self-identity when we are forbidden half the necessary data.

    The second argument is moot; today 40% of births to women in their 20s and 30s are not married. Yet those who make our laws are firmly convinced that there is only one “right” way to be born.

    Here in the buckle of the Bible Belt (Missouri) all politics involves religion – specifically conservative Christianity (if that isn’t an oxymoron.) Sin figures heavily in any discussion of marriage, homosexuality, abortion and any public policies involving human sexuality of any kind.

    Let’s face it; it is easy for politicians to dismiss us adoptees as defective products of sin, and birth parents as less than upstanding Christians. Adoption wipes the stain of our parents’ sin from us in their eyes, and we are ungrateful apostates for wanting to reopen the truth of our origins.

  3. I was contacted by a CI when my son was 39 years old. She was great and after our reunion gave us a copy of his OBC.

    However, the shock was not only was my name on the OBC but so was my home address. A home my family still owns! He cold have found me in 5 minutes through the phone book.

    All those years ago I definitely remember leaving my address on an official document and there it was. I did not realize that as an adult he would not have access to that information. I thought that he probably just did not care to know about me.

    For many years he had worked with the state CI system and no one could find me. It wasn’t until this last person informed him he had an OBC that we connected.

    I do think that the reunion should be between the parties involved and not some entry level state worker.

  4. Texans–I think my cat could have facilitated contact better than the CI. And I’m not entirely convinced they told my birth mom everything they told me they told her.

    Bob–I worry that the only way we will get rid of conditional access is to wait for the old generation to die out and a new generation of politicians–who have grown up with international adoption, sperm/egg donors and the like–take up the reins. Of course by that point it’ll be moot for you and I, we’ll be long gone. The idea that my great-great-grandkids might be able to access my records does not exactly instill me with hope.

    Angelle–I’m glad you and your son were able to reunite. I agree that state workers should not be the moderators of our contact with our own relatives. I see this in my capacity as an information technology specialist. When you call your computer maker for tech support you get some first-level flunky who only knows how to read solutions off a screen. Which means if you have a problem that’s not on their list, if your issue deviates in any way from what they read off the screen, they can’t help you. It’s the same with CIs. They have minimal training and little understanding of what it actually means to be adopted or a surrendering parent.

  5. I hate it that you would even think that you don’t deserve a mother. But that is the understandable conclusion that many adoptees reach because of the secrecy and shame associated with adoption. Like we are not worthy. Bull cookies! Every child deserves loving parents, and it doesn’t have to be limited to two parents. It’s small comfort to know that your mother has more guilt than you do to have reacted as she did. I hope that, since she knows your name, that she googles you sometimes and finally gets over her guilt and lets her maternal instinct kick in.

    Meanwhile, I know a LOT of so-called “birth” mothers who would just love to “adopt” you! And I think you got a peach of a Mom-in-Law.

    Hang in there!!

  6. Pennagal–I can’t help feel that way. As I said in a comment on another blog, I haven’t figured out yet how not to take my mother’s denial personally. This is part and parcel of the shame of adoption, that we adoptees and our mothers are still expected to bear that burden even though the times have changed.