Renee Rosnes always knew she would eventually search for her birth mother. The acclaimed jazz pianist simply wanted to know—had always wanted to know—where she came from.
Born in Regina and adopted as an infant into a middle-class Vancouver family, Rosnes, 35, has nothing but praise for her parents. Their love of music in particular, she says, has been vital to her career. But finding her natural mother in 1994 added a powerful new dimension to her life.
In fact, four selections on her 1996 CD, Ancestors—which won a Juno award for best mainstream jazz album—are tributes to both families.
‘You really feel something in your gut when you see people who look like you,” says Rosnes. “I love my adoptive family very much, but I’m not like them in personality. When I met my mother and my [half-] sisters, there was an instant chemistry. The way we communicate is very natural.”
A happy story—but not without trauma. Rosnes’ birth mother, who is of East Indian heritage and lives on Vancouver Island, had never revealed Rosnes’ existence to her own family. She had never even told Rosnes’ father, who died in 1977. Then, after her birth mother decided to tell her family and a reunion had taken place, a crisis hit Rosnes’ adoptive family. Only a few weeks after the reunion, her adoptive mother was diagnosed with cancer. The illness progressed rapidly, and there was no appropriate opportunity to share the discovery with her before she died a month later. Now, like many who
have been through the process, Rosnes is quick to point out that reunions affect whole families, not simply two or three people. “It’s an exchange,” she says, “not a one-way thing.” She is also cautionary about the risks of embarking on what can be a life-altering experience. “I knew I had to be prepared for whatever information came back to me—that she’d passed away, or didn’t want to see me—and I’d have to accept whatever it was. I knew there might be rejection.” A case in point is Rosemary Laughlin, one of the two sisters Rosnes grew up with. Also adopted, Laughlin never shared Renee’s desire to meet her natural parents. Instead, her birth mother sought her out in Medicine Hat, where Laughlin, 38, lives with her husband and two children. The two were reunited about four years ago. But they have little in common, Laughlin says, and the relationship, which was initially cordial, has recently deteriorated. “My natural mother was very upset that I couldn’t say that I loved her and missed her,” Laughlin explains. “But she was a stranger to me.” Joni Mitchell’s dramatic story of loss and reunion has recently
Birth parents and adoptees push for more openness
brought such tales to the forefront of public attention. But their appeal is universal. Most people, social workers and psychologists are finding, want to know at least the bare outlines of their genetic heritage. Many want to know much more. The birth of children, in particular, often provokes adoptees to search for the natural grandparents. Some adoptees also nurture rich fantasies about birth families, and feel compelled to learn the facts about them and why they were given up. Often, there are discouraging obstacles: while the number of searches has surged sharply over the past decade, almost all provinces still keep their adoption records confidential. In general, most will only release identifying information if both the adoptee and a birth parent have voluntarily registered with the government. The reason, officials say, is to keep promises of privacy that were made to birth parents when they decided to give up their children. But pressure from adoptees and birth parents is growing, and the trend is clearly towards more openness. Last November, British Columbia became the first province to open its adoption records: under new legislation, either the natural parent or the adopted child may apply for disclosure. They will only be refused if the other registers a no-disclosure or no-contact veto with the province’s adoption registry.
Given the vacuum left by most government agencies, many searchers turn to other methods, especially as a way of speeding
up the process. Private search firms are becoming more popular, as are such well-established groups as Parent Finders, an organization that offers advice and search assistance to adoptees. And there is always word of mouth.
New Brunswick country and western singer Julian Austin,
33, began an on-again, off-again search for his birth parents seven years ago.“It was just eating away at me,” he recalls. “I wanted to do it but I was wondering what I’d find, what they’d think of me. It was like walking on eggshells.”
Austin’s adoptive parents divorced when he was in Grade 1 and he has had virtually no contact with his adoptive mother since then. He was very close to his father, he says, and was dumbfounded when he learned, at 17, that he was adopted. After his father’s death two years later, feeling disconnected from his adoptive family, he decided to take the name his birth mother had given him: it was one of the few details of his background that his father was able to tell him. Later, when his career began to take off, his music had more airplay on local radio stations. Unknown to Austin, his birth mother and her family lived in Minto, a small town 50 km northeast of Fredericton where Austin is a well-known surname. A series of serendipitous connections through colleagues and their friends finally led Austin to his aunt, his mother’s sister. “I was scared to death,”
Austin says of their first meeting. “We both broke down crying.” Austin, who has grown close to his birth family, has no regrets about the way his life has gone. “If I hadn’t been adopted, I probably never would have picked up a guitar,” he says, noting that his adoptive father strongly supported his singing and songwriting. And if he had searched while his father was alive, he would have worried about the hurt he could cause: his father delayed telling him about the adoption, Austin says, for fear that his son would drift away. “But that would never have happened, not in a million years.”
It is not unusual for children to wait until a parent dies before they begin their search, especially in sensitive cases. Douglas McColm, who lives in Kitchener, Ont., was always able to deal with his daughter Michelle’s intense desire to find her birth parents. But his wife had to struggle with the idea. “It hits you, not necessarily badly, but it is very emotional,” he says of an adopted child’s decision to search. “My wife agreed that she had the right, but she was afraid when the idea came up.” Like many people, McColm says, his wife feared that blood really would be thicker than water. “But she finally decided that her original objections were not right— she made that decision out of love.” Still, their daughter waited until after her adoptive mother’s death before seeking out—and finding— her birth family. And the tie is indeed a powerful one. Recently, she changed her name to include her natural grandmother’s maiden name, as well as the first name her mother gave her when she was born. “It feels more balanced, more organic,” says Zoë Diana McColm Kessler, formerly Michelle McColm, a Toronto advocate of open adoption records and author of the 1993 book Adoption Reunions. “I’m reclaiming the name I had when I was born,” she says.
For those involved in “open” adoptions—an increasingly popular alternative—the challenges are very different. In open adoptions, birth parents choose the adoptive family and retain contact with them and the child. Details vary from family to family, but there seems little doubt that such unconventional models will become increasingly popular. Counsellors emphasize, however, that open adoptions tend to change over time: some adoptive parents are disappointed when birth parents drift away, often after the first year. Other families may need occasional counselling to define appropriate boundaries between the birth parent and the adoptive family, such as how often a birth parent visits, what notice should be given,
Often, adoptees wait until a parent dies to begin their search
and how other children in the family should be treated. Even so, most experts agree that children are the ultimate beneficiaries of such arrangements. “Secrecy and loss are the problems in adoption,” says Cathy Basile, a social worker who helps arrange reunions for the Children’s Aid Society in London, Ont. “Open adoptions eliminate some of the problems that we see in today’s reunions.”
Glen MacKinnon, a Calgary artist and stay-at-home dad, is certainly sold on the idea. His son, Louis, 6, and daughter, Natalie, 4,
were adopted through a private, nonprofit agency that also helped the family set up a plan that allows them to have regular contact with their birth mothers. While one of the women visits fairly often, the other drops by the family home about four times a year. In both cases, MacKinnon, says, the children are clear on where they come from and they are equally clear on who their parents are. He believes they may feel confused about the situation at some point, however. “All their classmates will be living with their birth parents, but they won’t be. I think they’ll have questions.” But while he views his family as a social experiment, he also believes it is a good one. “The old ways weren’t terribly successful,” he says. “This just seems healthier.”
Intriguingly, most reservations about open adoptions seem to come from those who were raised in the traditional system. Rosnes, for one, believes that the presence of birth families might interfere with the formation of bonds in the new family. On the other hand, she says that openness once a child has reached adulthood is a good idea. “If I had found my mother in my teens,” she says, “it might have upset my life. I’m not sure I would have been ready to deal with it.”
But as the trend towards open adoption continues, experts such as Carol Lamb, program director at the Calgary-based placement agency Adoption By Choice, believes that the tumult of adult reunions should become a thing of the past. The exceptions are likely to be international adoptions: during the first half of this decade, Canadians adopted more than 2,000 children per year from foreign countries. But in general, situations like the Joni Mitchell case will become much less common, Lamb says. “The sensationalism— whether it’s in private or the public media—just won’t be necessary,” she says. “And that’s a good thing.” □
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