Thursday, December 20, 2012

Article on adoption in The Age

Today's edition of The Age has an insightful article on adoption and adoption law in Australia. The article, a full-page feature on its last page, discusses the relatively recent changes in the law (enabling access to information regarding the identity of the biological parent) against the backdrop of the personal struggles of several children adopted between the 1950s and 1970s to learn more about the conditions surrounding their birth. The article focuses in particular on the stories of two people from Melbourne who've spent more than 30 years trying to discover the identity of their respective birth mothers. Their inquiries have been thwarted by the fact that the adoption papers of their generation often contained factual anomalies - their birth dates and other details were changed to evade later identification. A historian at ACU argues that this is because adoptions, particularly of children born of unwed mothers, weren't socially publicized. This led several adoptive families to "effectively erase" any vestiges of their children's prior identity, including their prior name (if any) and birth information. For the two people profiled in the article, this has meant an unending, tenuous and difficult emotional journey. One of them discovered that he was adopted only after the death of his mother in 1980. He found, among her personal effects, albums with photos of his boyhood years but none of his birth, which led him to ask some difficult but pertinent questions. He found pictures of his mother dressed as a bride but none of the bridegroom, leading him to suspect that her wedding was a "mock-up". The other, a lady, found her birth mother's name on her birth certificate, which said that she was a nurse who'd arrived from London. She went to England in search of any remaining relatives or friends who could shed some light on her mother but returned unsuccessful. She said, "Not knowing is like a black hole and sometimes I feel as though I am falling into it."

The article raises several important questions about the nature of identity and the ways in which it can become the overriding determinant of a person's life. I personally believe that greater transparency in adoption laws, and in social relations surrounding adoption, is a necessary and important development. I find it hard to imagine being in the shoes of the two people mentioned in the article and undoubtedly those of several others like them. It is also important to recognize that it must be equally difficult for the adoptive family to process the emotional uncertainties, vulnerabilities and pitfalls inherent in the journey. Adoption is beautiful and life-changing. But it is also an onerous undertaking. There is so much at stake. The loss of the adoptive parents' primacy in their child's life can be devastating, and the journey towards self-discovery can be painful and arduous. Openness and some serious thinking about the support mechanisms available to families would definitely contribute to better understanding and improved communication between families.