May 26, 2009
From Saturday's Globe and Mail, Sunday, May. 24, 2009 12:11AM EDT
On the evening of Feb. 7, earlier this year, I was climbing the stairs
to my third-floor den in a melancholy mood. On the way up, I looked in
on my 10-year-old daughter, reading herself to sleep after another
hard day in Grade 4.
Even in repose, she had a quizzical look, imposed on her by eyebrows
that peak like a roof, just like mine. "Those are my eyebrows," I said
"No they're not," she laughed. "They're mine."
She had heard this before. I'm sure she knew, in her 10-year-old way,
what I was getting at - the reassuring physical evidence of our
kinship, which is so precious to me. My daughter is attuned to my way
of dressing up serious feelings in jocular garb. (Does that come down
through the genes, like the eyebrows?)
Before I left her door, I declared that she's my favourite daughter.
"Dad," she retorted with feigned impatience. "I'm your only daughter"
It's another joke we like to share. And she was right, of course. She
is my only daughter. But she's not my only child. What was making me
melancholy that night was the memory of another child, born 40 years
ago that day. His mother (who is not my daughter's mom) named him
Graham is my only son, but it's hard to say he's my favourite son.
I've never looked in on him at bedtime. We've never shared a joke. In
fact, I saw him just one time, for only a few minutes, behind layers
of glass in the hospital maternity ward. He was one of perhaps 15
newborns arranged in rows in their bassinettes, but even at a glimpse
I recognized him beyond any doubt. His eyebrows were peaked too.
As I watch my daughter grow, I am haunted by my son. For 40 years, he
has been lost to me. Days after he was born, he was gone, hustled off
to the waiting embrace of the Children's Aid Society. At four months
old, he would move on to his adoptive home - as his mother and I had
agonizingly agreed should happen - and out of our lives forever.
Or so we believed. But that is about to change.
On June 1, new legislation comes into effect in Ontario - An Act
Respecting the Disclosure of Information and Records to Adopted
Persons and Birth Parents, also known as the Adoption Information
Disclosure Act or simply Bill 183, which was passed last May.
For many years, the cardinal rule of adoption was secrecy. Once an
adoption was finalized, the law declared in 1927, the records of the
event were closed, severing the relationship between birth parents and
No information that could lead to either party learning of the
identity or whereabouts of the other was supposed to be released from
the government's files.
In recent decades, however, attitudes have shifted. Open adoption has
become commonplace and next month - following the lead of
Newfoundland, Alberta and B.C. - Ontario will open the closed files
and lift the veil of secrecy.
Adopted adults will be able to apply for copies of adoption orders and
birth registrations. Birth parents will be able to apply for
information from these documents.
After 40 years, we will be able to find Graham and he will be able to
Graham is one of 250,000 children placed for adoption in Ontario since
the province began to keep records in 1921. His mother and I are
therefore among the half-million birth parents who gave their children
up. The other corner of what is called the "adoption triangle" would
involve roughly the same number of adoptive parents. And surrounding
the triangle are legions of siblings and other relatives.
All of us are facing a future with a new relationship to the past.
Certainly there will be pain in the wake of June 1. There will be
birth parents whose anguish at giving up a child has long since
scarred over and will now find the emotional wounds gaping open again
- Graham's mother, for one. Even though she is a historian, she felt
for a long while that in this one matter the past should remain past.
But now her view has changed. Hoping that revisiting an unhappy
chapter in her life may lead to a happy ending, she is, nervously,
eager to reconnect.
I, too, have wondered how the delicate equilibrium of my present life
will be affected. A child who has been an abstraction to me will
become real. What new complications might this bring? And my daughter?
She will suddenly have a sibling, after years of flying solo. Will she
want this? Do I? I certainly wonder.
There will be other families forced to face secrets they were sure
were safely buried, the ones who fear "the knock on the door." And
there will be some, on all sides of the triangle, who do not wish to
restore broken links or to invite the unpredictable into their lives.
Remember that 40 years ago, when Graham was born, women who were
pregnant "out of wedlock" were shrouded in shame. To protect such
women from a lifelong stigma, and to protect their "illegitimate"
children from odium, "unwanted" pregnancies reached term (abortion
still being illegal) during a convenient absence to some faraway place
- for an Ontario girl, preferably Victoria.
Pregnant girls and women were said to be "away at school" or "visiting
relatives" while they waited for their secret children to be born.
These distant relatives were often relatives of convenience.
Ironically, my own mother was such a (totally unrelated) relative to a
number of girls "in trouble." They came to our household as mother's
helpers who looked after my brothers and me, making lunches and doing
light household chores for someone else's children while they grew
ripe with their own unacknowledgeable offspring.
Although the language now seems quaint, it is still potent for some.
The "knock on the door" lobby, supported by the province's privacy
commissioner, successfully opposed the opening of adoption records in
Ontario for more than a decade.
However, for Marilyn Churley, champion of the "open book" position,
the privacy rights of both birth and adoptive parents are trumped by
the rights of the adopted child when he or she comes of age. "Once you
turn 18," she said, "you're an adult and you have the right to know
your own background, the right to have a relationship with your birth
parents, if that's what you want."
As an NDP member of the Ontario Legislature from 1990 to 2005, Ms.
Churley repeatedly introduced bills to open adoption records. Finally,
she helped Liberal MPP Sandra Pupatello draft the original version of
Bill 183, which passed on Nov. 1, 2005.
Two days later, though, the bill was quashed by the Ontario Superior
Court. A group of adoptees and birth parents represented by Canadian
civil-rights lawyer Clayton Ruby, citing potential complications such
as stalking or the reappearance of abusive birth parents, argued that
the law constituted a violation of privacy.
The legislation was amended to include a disclosure veto, allowing
either party to stop the release of identifying information to the
other. Ms. Churley viewed that as a great mistake, believing that
adoptees in particular have a right to know their roots. (Early
warning of inherited diseases, for example, can make a life-and-death
Nonetheless, people refer to Ms. Churley as the mother of the amended
bill we have today. But she is also a mother in another sense - as a
young woman, she gave up a child for adoption. As I wrestled with my
own dilemmas and prepared to write this piece, I met her to swap
stories in a coffee shop in the Toronto riding she once represented.
Ms. Churley and I are of the same vintage, both born in 1948. And in
1968, a year before Graham was born, she also had a son "out of
wedlock" (she mimed the quotations in the air with her fingers).
Yet, unlike my partner and I, Ms. Churley struggled alone - the father
of her child denied responsibility and took off. She became one of the
young women of the era who vanished from the public eye for some part
of nine months.
She lodged in a small town with a charitable family and gave birth in
a hospital attended by less-charitable health professionals who, she
says, took moral exception to her "predicament. "
Decades later, she decided to try to find her child. In 1996, she and
William, then 29, were reunited. But the difficulty of that search
made Ms. Churley the fierce champion of freer access to adoption
information she became.
There have always been openings in the shroud surrounding adoption
records, some deliberate and some unintended. In the 1980s, the
Ontario government became the first jurisdiction in North America to
set up machinery to reunite willing birth parents and their adult
When adopted children reached adulthood, they could notify the
Adoption Disclosure Registry of their willingness to be put in contact
with their birth parents. If either or both birth parents also
registered, the parties would be brought together - at least in
theory, as Graham's mother and I were to discover.
Like Ms. Churley, we had decided we wanted to find our child. And so
on Feb. 3, 1987, four days before Graham's 18th birthday, we filled
out an application. But there was a catch - three catches, actually.
Catch 22-A: Graham would apply to the registry only if he knew he was
adopted. Did he?
Catch 22-B: Graham's adoptive parents could withhold consent for him
to receive our contact information.
Catch 22-C: Even if everything was in place, the government admitted
it could take a long time for an overstretched registry staff to link
his name to ours - up to four years. Ms. Churley, who was at one time
the minister in charge of the registry, said that was an
understatement: The wait could be as long as a decade.
So we waited. And we waited. And while we waited we drifted apart,
formed new partnerships, changed addresses and married other partners.
The registry, of course, had no means or motive to track these
vagaries. And in all the bustle, neither of us thought to update our
registry information until very belatedly. If Graham did register, he
may well have met with a series of dead ends.
Our experience was not atypical. The registry reported that in 2004,
of the 57,000 people on its rolls, only 887 achieved a reunion.
Ms. Churley had been more savvy: She had applied to the government for
what was termed "non-identifying information" about her son's adoptive
family, including ages, occupations, interests and miscellaneous other
data. Although it wasn't supposed to, that provided her with enough
clues to find her child.
"It took about a year," she remembered.
Graham's mother and I also received non-identifying information about
our son: His adoptive parents were both teachers living on the
outskirts of the city. His new father was born in 1928 and his mother
in 1931, and they were married in 1953. He enjoyed fishing, she liked
to knit and they both liked reading and gardening.
When their first son was born in 1957, the wife became a homemaker,
but took university courses in Russian, French and English and excelled.
After blood-type complications prevented them from having more natural
children, they adopted a daughter in 1961 and, of course, Graham in
1969. The first summer he was with the family, he went camping and
"seemed to thrive on the trip."
It was distressing to read about this other reality he had entered, as
if he had gone through the looking glass. It made it more real, more
final. At the same time, it was a comfort to believe that he had gone
to a good place where intelligence and strong values prevailed.
While this was not enough information to make finding our son easy, it
may have been enough to make it possible.
But at that juncture, 12 years ago, we blinked.
For me, the sticking point was whether Graham wanted to be found. He
had not apparently entered his name in the registry. But perhaps he
didn't know, couldn't find us, was fearful - the perhapses were
Ms. Churley sipped her coffee at the café on the Danforth in Toronto
and shared some things experience has taught her: Graham probably does
know he is adopted, she says. By the 1970s, most parents were telling
the truth to their adopted children - and if they did not, the
neighbourhood grapevine would eventually deliver the news.
If he failed to enter the registry, however, it should be no surprise,
she said. The fear of a second rejection is frequently too
discouraging for all adopted children.
Male adoptees particularly often will not take the initiative to seek
out their birth parents. "Frequently when they do, it's their wives or
girlfriends pushing them."
Ms. Churley's final advice was this: "In your situation, I would do
everything I could to let him know that you want to know if he's okay.
That has to be your goal."
Questions and answers
That is my goal now. I've dealt with my reservations. I've spoken to
my daughter, who says it's "cool" to have a brother. Time is getting
short and there is much to catch up on.
I have often imagined our meeting. I have tried to anticipate the
questions he will ask and the answers I will give. Absurdly, perhaps,
I have superimposed my 10-year-old' s boundless curiosity on the now-40-
year-old Graham; on the other hand, maybe it's a family trait.
I can tell him about his roots - his ancestors from Poland and the
Scottish Highlands, and the English inventor who first thought of
perforated postage stamps. I can tell him about his great-great-
grandmother, the famous Impressionist painter, and his infamous great-
uncle who absconded with a crate of her better paintings and ran away
to Belize. I wonder if he'll identify. I wonder if he's an artist too.
Or a scallywag.
I can tell him about his great-grandmother, the celebrated Toronto
bookseller, and his grandmother, the Varsity Sports Hall of Famer.
Perhaps he's a reader, encouraged by those adoptive parents who also
liked to read. Maybe he's a sport.
I can tell him that his mother is a formidable intellect and a great
beauty - if he wants, he can see for himself. I can tell him that he
was conceived in love by parents who remain devoted friends; true to
our natures, we bucked convention, scandalized our community and lived
together until he was born. (Maybe that's his nature too.) I can show
him that he comes by his angular eyebrows honestly.
He may have more penetrating questions, for which I have no ready
answers. The most challenging one would be about regret.
Expectant couples know how long nine months can seem as they wait for
the birth of their child. That is how I feel as I wait for my adult
child to be reborn into my life. Soon after June 1 - very soon, I hope
- Mother Churley's bill will present Graham's mother and me with a
bundle of joy, maybe; certainly one of challenge, complexity and high
Forty years of thwarted curiosity, arrested yearning and suppressed
love will be over. We will be able to look into the face of another
human being, and recognize ourselves.
Richard Wright is a Toronto-based writer.