Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Karen Haltiwanger
I was adopted at five months old, from a foster home in Fulton County, Ga. I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My adoptive father was in the service in Georgia at the time of my adoption, but we ended up in New Jersey, where he was from. That’s where I was raised — in a small, middle-upper class suburb of northern New Jersey.
I don’t remember when I was told that was adopted, maybe I was five…seems like I always knew. I remember that my parents told me that I was “special” because they “picked me out of a bunch of other babies.”
I don’t remember recognizing anything abnormal, negative, or missing from my life as an adoptee growing up. I do remember wondering — later in my teens and in college — where I got my looks from, as I would hear people talk about how much a certain child looked like their parent(s).
I initially searched for my first mom in my early twenties. I was told that since I was adopted from Georgia, the records were sealed, but that I could put my name on a registry, and if she was on the registry, they would contact her to let her know that I was interested in finding her.
NOTHING. Oh, and I forgot to mention that for a fee I could have the “non-identifying” information from the social worker’s intake with my first mom. YES! I did this. Her name was whited out all over. I tried to count how many typing spaces it was. One time they missed a corner of the first letter of her name “B”. “B” plus 4 or so letters. I learned the story of her surrender. I learned medical history. I learned that she DID NOT mention my birth father’s name. She described him physically. My first mom was described by the social worker, too. Now I had a hint about who I probably looked like.
I contacted the agency again in 1996 again. Nothing. I updated my contact info just in case.
In 2003, I spoke to a detective. I figured with my paperwork that he would have a lead to follow. NOPE. Over the years, I tried and tried to find something that would lead me to something, someone, anything.
I worked for an attorney in 2008. She helped me draw up documents to submit to the court in Fulton County. Once again, A BRICK WALL.
So, I should mention that in 1984 whilst at a Christian college, I got pregnant. My adoptive parents convinced me that I needed to surrender my child. There was no other option, as far as they were concerned, and out of ignorance, I conceded. I rationalized that it was better for the baby to have two parents. (Why do I feel that I was brainwashed into believing this?) I also rested in the assurance that I would have my “own” family someday — the loving husband, two children, the dog, white picket fence and all — the whole shebang.
The board members tried to have me kicked out of my college, but a few wonderful people fought to keep that from happening. And so, I was to go to summer school through my last trimester, while living in a trailer and caring for three children of a divorced single father (one of which had Cerebral Palsy) so that I could remain enrolled as student and graduate on time.
Kari was born in August. On the same day that I gave birth, she went home with parents that had been unable to conceive. I vividly remember the nurse bringing Kari to me so that I could “say good-bye” (STOMACH WRENCHES). I chose her adoptive parents from “the book” at the attorney’s office. All I wanted were pictures and updates until they thought she was ready to meet me, or until she turned eighteen.
I always anticipated the letters and photos.
Four years later I got pregnant AGAIN. I received the same reaction and sentiment from my parents (mostly my mother). Although I wasn’t in college at the time, my mother convinced me that I was simply unable to raise a child, and that she would not be “raising my baby”. I think back now and wonder how I didn’t know about the resources available, or even child support, but I didn’t. I mean, I knew about child support, but I thought it was an “option” given to the birth father.
I contacted the same attorney that placed my daughter. I was at Stearn’s Wharf in San Francisco and remember telling him that I hoped it wouldn’t be too difficult for him to find a family to adopt my baby, because he’s black. (Which I’m sure was part of the impetus supporting my parents’ basic refusal to help me raise my child).
Dwight was placed with a couple that had two girls already – ages three and five — but specifically wanted a baby that “wasn’t first on the list” for prospective adopting parents. (“How altruistic,” the attorney and I agreed twenty-nine years ago. Damn shame, my thoughts NOW.)
Dwight was born in November, and since I had a c-section and he was not able to leave the hospital until I did (NJ law??), we stayed for two days, down the hall from each other, visiting as much as I could bear. His adoptive mom flew in from California.
I remember that she wanted to try and breast feed so that they would bond. She told me she was using the breast pump. I WANTED to breast feed MY baby, but instead was given a shot to stop the natural production of breast milk, a life source from God. So there we were, myself, my son, his adoptive mom and my adoptive mom, in the hospital lobby, along with a number of visitors and employee — gathering for “the surrender”. I had to physically put my baby in her arms. MIC DROP.
You go home empty-handed and then you get coupons in the mail for Pampers and ads for the “Foot print” thing. WTH.
Same arrangement about only contact being pictures and letters. Which, by the way, was recommended as the healthiest for the child. REALLY? I never questioned anyone, ugh.
In 1997, when Kari was around twelve, I remember calling the attorney because I hadn’t received her photos that year. He told me that because he was only legally bound to the contract for seven years, he would give me the address and phone number so that I could contact her parents directly.
I remember feeling lightheaded as I pictured her answering the phone if and when I would call.
It was, in this moment, the first time since she was born that reality melted slowly from my subconscious to my frontal lobe like lava down the sides of a volcano. It caught me off guard.
I DID have a child out there somewhere — it WASN’T my imagination. Nowhere to run, THE TRUTH was cornered, no rug to be swept under any longer. I did call eventually and her adoptive father took the call…WHEW!! Her parents were very upset with the attorney about this but continued to send pictures and updates without their emotional buffer for five more years.
I received a phone call in 2003. The caller ID had her last name. My heart dropped; I thought something had happened to her. Out of desperation, her mother had called me because Kari was being exceptionally rebellious, and they thought that if she met me, that it might change things. She asked me if I wanted to meet Kari. I said, “I’ve been waiting for this for 17 years.”
It was great to meet Kari and see our similarities. My heart was full.
In 2008, just prior to Dwight’s eighteenth birthday, I emailed his parents to see if I would be able to meet him. With the puzzle almost complete, the urgency was palpable.
My father paid for my sister and me to fly out to California from New Jersey so that I could reunite with my son. I sensed that he (my father) knew the pain that this had all caused.
Both of my children have been in my life ever since the day we reunited. I would say that we have navigated precarious ground very well, all things considered. My children met each other in 2008 at my father’s funeral. (Unfortunately, my son did not get to meet my father.) I put my son in touch with his birth father the day I met him. I felt this was essential. Kari and I searched for her birthfather for years to no avail.
Two years ago, Kari came upon a casting call for a show called “Help Me Find My Father”. She asked me if I minded if she auditioned, as it may be the only chance we would ever get to have the kind of help we needed to find her birth father. I of course did not mind, because one of the parts of adoption that is so painful to me is the missing pieces, the not knowing.
Fast forward a year to her being chosen for the episode. During the process, the producers found out about me being an adoptee that hadn’t been able to find my birth father either. We were now going to be a double feature!! (I had to audition as well).
The private detectives had to be in constant contact with me in order to find ways to try and locate Kari’s birth father, by skip tracing, etc. When it came to my birth father search, they had me contact the agency in Georgia to AGAIN provide updated contact information and to see if my birth mother was on the Georgia Adoption Registry.
I learned that the laws had in fact changed in Georgia, and that now, the agency could request my file from the state and could contact my birth mother and let her know that I was searching for her. (I could not have the info myself though). I couldn’t believe that I was so close to this buried treasure box after all these years.
I remember where I was that day in January when the representative from the agency called. She told me that my birth mother had passed away in 2008. Her name was Betty. ”B” plus 4 letters. There was NO birth father’s name in the file. So close, but YET so far.
I had her full name, birth date and the date she passed, so I went to work, because I knew that I had an older half brother. I found her widower, and my half brother’s ex wife. I contacted them both. My brother’s ex was VERY skeptical and I had to send her all the paper work I had before she would even tell my brother about me. No one knew about me.
Betty’s widower, Jim hung up on me. I waited two days and called him back. I begged him not to hang up and to please listen to me. He was quiet. And then he said, in a slow, deep southern drawl, “I knew about you.” He didn’t say much else. I asked him what she was like.
He told me that she loved to dance and loved shopping. I asked him how she died, because she was only sixty-eight when she passed. She was a smoker. She died of lung cancer. I asked if he happened to know who my birth father was. No. I asked him for a picture and I got it less than a week later. Her name was Betty Luanna, she went by Luanna. She was beautiful. She was MY firstmother.
After my brother’s ex wife was convinced that I really was Luanna’s daughter, she told him about me and they decided to meet me on my drive to Cali from Fl. They were in Savannah. It was a nice meeting, very emotional for me. They took me around to the house where she lived while she was pregnant with me. They showed me where she worked and where she lived with Jim. They took me to her grave.
My brother did not have much to say, but he was nice. They gave me a few pieces of her jewelry. Jim did not want to meet me. They said it was because he was afraid that I would remind him too much of Luanna. Hmmm . . . probably not.
Shortly after this while we were working on filming the show, the detectives wanted to speak to anyone that knew Luanna to see if it would lead to finding my birth father. No one would speak to them. They felt like it would tarnish Luanna’s reputation. I felt bad at the time, that I even tried to involve them, but now I feel differently. I feel like it’s selfish of them not to try and help me find the missing piece of my puzzle. But they don’t hear me — they don’t understand. At all.
Kari met her birthfather. They are close, as are Dwight and his birth father.
Now everyone has their puzzle completed. Except. Me.
I believe that all theses rips and tears in my emotional framework have caused a lot of problems in my life. Reuniting with Kari and Dwight has helped, although I feel like the severed bond is apparent in my underlying depression.
Having not been able to meet Luanna before she passed has made me sad, angry, and lost in a way. I am sad because she was unable to experience the closure that I had by meeting my children. I know her pain was there her whole life — how could I not? I experienced it firsthand. Maybe that’s why she smoked. I mean, cuz I drink. Self medication.
One of the things that has also hurt throughout this, is the dismissal of the birthfathers, as well as the adoptive parents. I am invisible. The adoptive parents were grateful at the start but not anymore. And the birth fathers, ha! They both gained a best friend and yet I have never even gotten a thank you, let alone an apology.
Honestly, if it weren’t for my faith in Christ, I probably would not be here. There is so much pain and loss and denial surrounding my story that it would be easy to fall down the rabbit hole. Throughout my life, my adoptive parents acted as if my children did not exist. After they met Kari, it was a little better, but to this day, my mother doesn’t recognize them as her grandchildren. Christ sustains me.
I do have the joy of seeing Kari and Dwight fairly often since I moved to California. I have had to try to let go of the resentment towards my adoptive mother (who I found out recently was the main factor in the pressure to surrender both of my children, to the point of threatening to divorce my father if he let me keep them). I am also very frustrated that Luanna never told anyone who my birth father was. This has been very hard.
I was never able to have children with my ex-husband.
Somehow I keep going, one foot in front of the other. A lot of days are good, and some are bad. Not sobbing bad, something like melancholy bad. It hurts inside a little on most days. But I bet you wouldn’t know it if you met me. I’m always smiling. That’s Christ.
Then, on August 7th, 2017, I received an envelope in the mail from my longtime friend that also happened to be my Lamaze partner during Kari’s birth. She had come across a few old letters that I had sent her fifteen years ago and sent them to me.
One in particular was a copy of a letter that Kari’s father Ted had sent to me with a number of pictures of Kari. Inside, he apologized for being tardy in his communication with me as it was six weeks past her birthday, which was when we agreed they would send the pics and update. The letter was signed “We are eternally grateful to you for loaning Kari to us, we love her so.”
Also on August 7th, 2017, I got the news that Ted had lost his battle with cancer and had passed away peacefully in hospice care the night before.
I can’t begin to explain how the weight of these two emotionally parallel events affected me then and still do today.
It brought me to my knees and I sobbed for hours. Kari’s adoptive parents did appreciate me, THEY WERE grateful. Maybe it was just a hard thing for them to navigate through the years.
At Ted’s memorial, his wife thanked me for giving them the gift of Kari and how she brought so much joy to Ted’s life. She looked right at me in front of everyone and thanked me. I fought the urge to break down, I just hung my head and cried. I felt ashamed for ever thinking the way I had all these years. But I also felt acknowledged and that’s what I had lacked.
I rest now in knowing that this is a hard situation for all of us in the “triad.” I no longer perceive it as purposeful neglect, which is liberating. I am presently in counseling to attempt to push through the myriad of emotions I have experienced regarding the surrendering of my children.
Karen recently sold her house in Florida in order to relocate to California where both of her children are. She lives on a ranch in Santa Barbara and works both as a caregiver and as a reservationist at a guest ranch. Karen loves to be outdoors, whether it is running or hiking with her dog Mimi or going to the beach. She tries to see her kids as often as possible.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter.