Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life. Kate Chopin
I hear, “Hello, this is Cathy Bowman.”
I take a deep breath and draw myself up. “Hi, Cathy. My name is Linda Franklin. I saw in the Gladney newsletter that you’re the Post-Adoption Social Worker.”
“Yes; how can I help you?” Cathy’s voice sounds congenial, warm, and concerned. I also hear a hint of firmness.
I push the words out and then hold my breath. “I had a baby at Gladney in October 1964. I’m wondering if I might be able to find him. Or at least maybe find out more about him.”
“Well, I can try to help you,” Cathy answers. “I work with lots of women who are still having a hard-time decades after relinquishing their babies.”
Other mothers have a hard time with this, too? Cathy, a social worker like me, sees this. My twenty years of professional education and experience make me want to challenge her. We’re supposed to help people. If Cathy sees how damaging adoptions are to first/birth mothers, how can she keep working in the place that does them?
But Cathy sounds caring. I need her help. I mustn’t challenge her. I know the rules. In 1964, we girls did what we were told. We didn’t ask questions.
I remember my first interview at Gladney.
“You won’t use your real name here,” Mrs. Lewis explained. “All our girls have aliases they don’t reveal to each other. What would you like to be called?”
I was stumped. Words that began with F ran through my mind. Findley, Fawcett, Fussbudget. She looked at me expectantly. “How about Farris?” she suggested.
“OK, sure,” I agreed. Back then, I was innocent and compliant.
I went along with a system that thrived on secrecy, even outright lies. My baby received the name of the people who adopted him. A false name; not his original name. Even the laws on adoption created a lie and called it legal. The birth certificate would have been amended to show his adoptive parents had given birth to him.
“I’d like to find out anything you can tell me about my son,” I tell Cathy.
“I can’t really tell you anything,” she replies. I expected this, though I don’t believe her. I listen for sounds of her fingers tapping the keyboard or rifling through cabinets for facts about my son. Hmmm, records from 1964. Where would they be?
Cathy continues, “However, a law has been passed in Texas requiring adoption agencies to pass on medical information provided by birth parents.”
I press my palm against my cheek and lean into Cathy’s voice on the receiver in my other hand. “Do you mean I can write a letter to my son with medical information and you’ll have to get it to him?” I can feel blood rushing through me.
Cathy hesitates, “Yes, I’ll try to pass along any medical information you give me, but you need to understand I know nothing about your son’s or his adoptive parents’ whereabouts. I may not be able to find them.”
Can I write an entire letter? How long? How much can I tell him? I draw a deep breath and rise taller in my swivel chair. “Well, can I include personal information? Maybe even pictures?”
“Yes,” she replies. “Of course, we don’t know if he’ll want to receive a letter, but if we can locate him, I can offer it to him.”
I feel as if I could almost jump up and whoop, but I swallow my shout. “Okay,” I tell Cathy. “I’ll be visiting my father in North Texas in four months. Can I bring you my letter?”
“Yes; I’ll be happy to meet with you.”
I could tell Cathy cared. She was a professional who used the laws and policies to do whatever she could to help struggling first/birth mothers. I could also tell that if my first son turned the letter down, she wouldn’t encourage him to change his mind. She wouldn’t try to persuade him. She’d respect his wishes above everything. As a social worker and now a psychotherapist myself, I know this is her proper role.
But back in 1964, the social workers told us what to do. They didn’t offer us choices. They never suggested we could change our minds. We’d be selfish to keep our babies.
That was different. That was then. My heart speeds up, resentment and longing in tandem. I ask more questions. I’m not ready to hang up. Even though Cathy said she knew nothing of my son, I feel as if she has some magical connection to him. She is the umbilical cord. She holds the key to his identity. My son, if he lives, would now be a full-grown man of thirty-five. Yet the laws allow Cathy to know his name and deny it to me. Bitterness gnaws at me.
Being honest with Cathy, even over fifteen hundred miles of phone line, though painful, feels healing. The secrecy I’ve lived in for so long hides my long-ago loss. My husband Dave, sensitive and supportive, never brings up my lost son. It seems only Jared thinks about him and cares the most.
“Feel free to call me anytime,” she offers.
Her parting words reverberate. My scabbed-over wound scratches open and I feel Cathy wanting to pour soothing balm on it. A part of me longs to let her; but a bigger part does what I usually do, retreats into distrust and vague anger.
Can I really accept help from what feels like the enemy camp? I doubt it.