Meeting the Daughter I Gave Up for Adoption 44 Years Ago as told to Shiffy Friedman
This past spring I made a mommy peptalk about my friend who had finally tracked down the baby she had reluctantly given up for adoption 44 years before. In the end, somebody from Ami Magazine saw that peptalk, and decided to feature the following article about my friend and her emotional meeting this past spring with her long-lost daughter.
In the fall of 1967, I was a 22-year-old Ohioan woman working as a waitress and attending college in New York City, still weaving the dreams of my future. I knew I wanted to be a mother–a good mother, unlike the narcissistic one who had raised me and filled all the spaces of my growth with her own needs. I wanted to marry and build a family, but first I needed to heal from the traumas of my childhood and acquire the tools necessary to become a healthy, effective mother myself.
Before long, the first half of my dream materialized. I met Danny*, a 20-year-old secular Israeli musician, and only six months later we were married. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that we weren’t really compatible. I became aware that we had both brought our dysfunctional backgrounds into the marriage, and the results were problematic. I understood then that it would take time until we were psychologically and emotionally prepared to be parents.
I was the second child of three. Before I was born, my eldest sister died in a fire accidentally started by my mother. Because of this, my mother, herself the product of an abusive home, handled me with special care during my infancy and early childhood. My sister’s birth, however, put an abrupt halt to her tender ministrations. My mother could only handle one child at a time.
My mother’s narcissism taught me from an early age that I didn’t count for much in her life. Her behavior was a harsh teacher. At two-and-a-half, I would spend hours outside our isolated country home, having “quality time alone,” as my mother called it when she closed the door behind me.
When I was 15, my father suggested that I attend a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania. In order to be admitted, I had to win the regional scholarship for five states, which I did. Achieving such a distinction boosted my self-esteem, which was also nourished by my three-year stay in what turned out to be a supportive and challenging environment.
After meeting Danny’s parents and visiting their home, I realized that his childhood had been equally difficult. He was a man of few words when it came to discussing personal issues. We could talk about mundane matters: the furniture, the sky and the trees, and we even wrote songs together, but we never came close to in-depth conversations about our troubled family histories, respective traumas, or pressing needs.
When I discovered that I was pregnant several months after our wedding, Danny’s reaction shocked me. I felt a chill when he said, “I’m not ready to be a father, Robin.”
I knew that he was serious. When he made up his mind about something, he never reconsidered. He was solid as a rock. And I..I was the weak, submissive product of an unstable childhood whose words carried no weight. I found it impossible to verbalize my desires and concerns to the man who was supposed to be my other half.
When Danny said those fateful words, I instinctively weighed my painful options: to be a single, incompetent mother, and subject my child to a difficult, fatherless life, or to give him or her up for adoption. With the latter he or she would be raised by two loving, stable parents in a secure family.
Oh, the misery! Which to choose?
At night, I tossed and turned in bed, agonizing over my quandary, while my husband slept peacefully, his decision final. If I were to keep the child, I reasoned, three of us would be miserable. But if I were to give him or her up, only I would suffer.
When I realized this, the verdict was clear: I would give up the child.
What I didn’t understand then, in my tumult and grief, was that my suffering would never end. This decision wouldn’t be a one-shot deal that I would soon get over. It would be my constant companion: a pain that would cleave to me forever.
So it was that I submissively accompanied Danny to the private lawyer my doctor had recommended. “Find us a warm, loving family,” I said to him. “I want my child to be raised in the best possible environment.”
When he informed us that he had found the perfect family, his words were comforting. “They’re an infertile Jewish couple,” he shared with us,”who have already adopted two daughters. They’re friends of mine. Anything else you want to know?” They lived in Queens, we learned, and the father was a successful engineer.
I was greatly relieved to realize that this was exactly the family I would have chosen. I wanted only the best for the child whom I would never know, who would never know my love.
Because all adoptions at that time were closed, I knew that the child would only be mine during the four-day hospital stay after his or her birth. After that, I would have no inkling of his or her location or ultimate fate. Indeed, after the birth, the lawyer made sure to remind me, “Don’t even think about looking for your child.”
It was arranged that the adoptive parents would pay for the delivery and neonatal expenses. In return, we would have nothing to do with our child after we surrendered him or her.
The combination of my difficult childhood and distant relationship with my reticent husband had caused a pervasive numbness within me.
I took a job as a secretary to keep my mind off the great loss that I would experience after the birth. Danny’s life continued as usual, while I struggled with my agony. Unlike me, he did not seem to be concerned about the decision to give up our child. “The papers are already signed,” I would remind myself when I felt my ambivalence and grief surfacing. “You’re doing the best for your child because you care about it, because you truly love it.”
Like every expectant mother, I made sure to eat only healthy food and to take the prenatal supplements that were prescribed. As the due date drew near, I tried to prepare myself to deliver the child another family was excitedly expecting.
Finally, I went into labor. When we arrived at the hospital at eight in the evening, the irony of the moment struck me. I was entering a ward that represented life, while I felt as though something inside me were dying.
At 4:05 AM, the baby was born: a girl. She was a beautiful, perfect child who looked very much like my father, whom I loved deeply. I didn’t know then that she was the only baby I would ever deliver.
When my daughter uttered her first cry, I beheld the miracle I’d nurtured, dry-eyed. The next four days were excruciating. Nothing could have prepared me for the agony and unbearable pain that tore my heart into tiny shreds.
As was the protocol then, she was brought to me three times a day. I was filled with anxiety during those feeding times, although I tried hard not to let her feel it. I wanted to use those precious hours to let her know how dear she was to me, and to send her forth with love and security.
I tried to be as loving as possible so that she wouldn’t sense my pain. I didn’t want her to suffer along with me. One broken heart was enough.
The time that I spent with my daughter awakened in me a fierce desire to keep her. I had to remind myself that that was impossible. The bassinet for my daughter, whom I had privately named “Popik” (the word for baby in the Eskimo language, which I had learned from a film I had seen while pregnant) was already decorated with pink ribbons and bows in a cozy home somewhere in Queens. She wasn’t mine. She never would be.
When the hospital stay ended, I felt something inside me wither. I forced myself into clothes, gathered my belongings, and apprehensively approached the hospital doors. I cradled my innocent, sweet child in my aching arms. I took a long last look at her. This was the most difficult moment. I bit my lip upon receiving congratulations from passersby.
“A girl!” one woman gushed. “I’ve always wanted a daughter.”
How to explain that this was a parody, that I had just been given a fleeting taste of a pleasure I would never know?
Danny opened the door so that I could step out into the winter air. Through moist eyes I observed the passersby, who were ignorant of the drama that was unfolding.
When the agent for the lawyer approached us, I wanted to scream. I wanted to hold my daughter to my heart and run, run, run, to escape this horror.
She extended her arms, ready to accept. It was time for me to give.
Slowly I lifted the child I had carried for nine months into the hands of a stranger, my lips tight, my heart heavy. In my mind, I said, “Good bye my dear child, my love.” Then I turned and walked away.
Empty of child, I walked to the subway with Danny, wondering how my legs were carrying me. I was silent during the ride home, traumatized.
At home, I continued to mourn my child. My sister, who came to stay with us for a few days, was my anchor. Although she couldn’t understand the extent of my agony, she comforted me as only a sister could.
My postpartum convalescence was difficult. There was no joy to help ease my pain. I was trying to heal from a birth that had brought me only heartache, desperately craving support from an oblivious husband whose mantra was “You’ll get over it.”
Soon after, in 1969, Danny and I took a trip to Israel to visit his family. With the exception of his older brother and his wife, his family was unaware of our recent trauma. Surprisingly, his father, a photographer, seemed to possess psychic abilities. Once, when I was alone with him in his photo studio, he asked me, “What did you do with my grandchild?”
I was stunned,. “What grandchild?”
He replied, “You had a child.”
He was convinced. “How do you know that?” I asked.
“I dreamed it.” I later learned that he was known to have this unusual gift.
Unbelievably, he became abusively angry with me for not giving my daughter to his oldest son.
I never discussed this with Danny. Actually, we never discussed anything of consequence. As our marriage disintegrated, I suggested that we get help. He was dumbstruck by this idea. “Marriages either work or they don’t work. You can’t work on them,” he finally replied.
I knew that we were finished. Three years after our baby’s birth,I divorced Danny.
Many years later, I spent Shabbos with a friend in Tzfat. On Motzei Shabbos we went to a klezmer concert in a local shul. When we arrived, the shul was already full, so we watched from the window. My jaw dropped when I saw who the guitar player was: Danny! I turned to Elana and said, “You’re probably the only one of my friends here who will ever meet my ex-husband.”
After the concert, he was very surprised to see me. We had met several times at concerts. He was married for the third time, and was now the father of three boys.
When another musician emerged from the shul, I complimented him on his music. “You played very well”, I said.
“Very well?” Danny sneered, as if to say that the compliment wasn’t good enough. I started to say, “I mean excellent, I mean…”, but stopped at once.
It wasn’t till that moment that I realized how much he had manipulated me, and how far I had come to greater self-confidence and self-reliance.
After our marriage ended, I moved around a lot. I stayed in New York for three years. I was part owner of a highly successful Romanian-Israeli restaurant in the Village, but when the intensity of the city got to me, I relocated to Florida. Within a few years, I was living in Montana, where I became a columnist, an editor and a boatman. Finally, I moved to California to study healing.
During this span of twenty years, I thought about my daughter often. My longing to know her never waned. When she was one, I wondered if she was already walking. At two, what was she saying? And when she was six, I hoped she was making friends.
Wishing that somehow she would hear me, I meditated to her. It was the only way I felt I could reach her. On her eleventh birthday, I wrote her a poem wishing her a wonderful life surrounded by love and support. I had friends, but no one could fill the hole in my heart caused by her loss.
In January, 1989, while living in San Francisco, I had to have gum surgery. A friend offered to pick me up after the procedure. On the way home we stopped to rent some videos. “You’ll need them while you’re lying on the couch recuperating,” she told me.
I only remember the last film, “King David”. It had been shot in Italy, and wasn’t historically accurate, but it reminded me of Israel. I suddenly heard myself say, “I have to go to Israel this year.”
One week later, I happened to speak to the owner of a company that recorded international medical conferences. I had recorded for him in the past, but hadn’t spoken to him for more than a year.
“How would you like to work in Israel this year?” he said.
Without hesitation or even hearing any details, I said “Yes!” He sent two of us to Jerusalem, where we worked for six days of a six-week visit.
On Lag b’Omer, I met Yitzhak and Tamar Attias, who invited me to a Shabbos dinner in their home in the Old City. When I arrived at their door, I was warmly welcomed and accepted despite the fact that I was wearing pants! The joy and beautiful singing that night, as well as holy atmosphere, made me realize that this was where I needed to be. I decided to become religious and live and learn in the Jewish Quarter. I would live surrounded by this profound history!
According to plans made long before by the company’s travel agent, I had to travel from Israel to Florence, Italy, to record a final conference there. On the plane, which was flying on Shabbos, the flight attendants served ham-and-cheese sandwiches. I was close to tears throughout the flight.
After completing my work, and returning the equipment to California, I returned to Israel. I attended seminary for a year and set up my apartment. After I made aliyah a year later, I established my practice as a massage therapist and began my new life in Jerusalem. After so many years of moving around, I was home!
No matter where I was in the world, my daughter was never far from my thoughts. At times I’d start to wonder, “How is it that someone who can’t stand to misplace anything, even an earring, was able to leave behind her most precious daughter?” I had been told never to look for her, but times had changed since then.
When she was twenty, a friend suggested that I write her a letter. “Why?” I asked.
“So that she can know that you wanted her,” he replied.
“Well, of course I wanted her,” I thought. “Oh, wait–I gave her away, didn’t I?!”
I called the lawyer who handled the adoption. Fortunately, I was able to remember his name. I asked him if I could write to her. He said that he would deliver the letter.
Wow! I might actually be able to reach her! I was ecstatic. But when I began to think about what I’d write, I didn’t know how to start. How could I begin a letter to her when I didn’t know whether or not she knew she was adopted? When I called the lawyer again, he said he didn’t know where the family was. This made me a bit suspicious, since he had said that these were friends of his.
After that, he became evasive and didn’t respond to my calls. Attempts to find her through other channels were unsuccessful. I became discouraged. Once again, I was forced to accept that the child I’d borne might only remain a memory, her existence present only in my heart.
It would take many years for this harsh reality to magically change, almost overnight.
Several months ago, I received an invitation to the fiftieth reunion of my class at the boarding school I’d attended in Pennsylvania. I didn’t want to miss this. Since I hadn’t been in the U.S. for more than sixteen years, I began to think that maybe now I could find my daughter. That would be miraculous! Would it be possible?
I had previously contacted an online network that helps connect birth parents with adoptees. A flurry of activity ensued. Thirty people received my emails. They recorded all the details I gave them, and then they asked for her name.
Of course I couldn’t tell them. The only name I had ever used for her was Popik, and only Danny and I knew that.
“If you don’t have her name, we can’t help you,” I was told. This made no sense to me. How could I know her name if I’d given her up in a closed adoption? I felt I’d reached an impasse.
I couldn’t give up. I had to find her!
I called a friend’s daughter, a lawyer who employs a detective and had helped my friend find her mother.
“Can you please help me?” I pleaded. “We’ll see what we can do.” she said.
In the end, she helped me pro bono. It was a blow to me to learn a short while later that the detective had found the lawyer who had arranged the adoption forty-four years earlier. He was living in an old-age home, stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and didn’t remember anything about the case. On top of that, his family had thrown out all his old files! “Dead end,” I thought.
“But wait!”, I thought. “There’s that card on the refrigerator!” It had been given to me a year and a half before by Leah, a friend and work colleague. It read “Pam Slaton, professional search specialist”.
When she had given me the card, Leah had said, “Pam is an adoptee who searched for and found her own birth parents. After her difficult success, she began her career to help others in similar straits. Maybe she can help you.”
I checked Pamela’s credentials online and felt that she was trustworthy. I decided to try again, and contacted her. I was encouraged to hear that she’d already reunited thousands of parents and children.
She informed me that she has a no-find, no-fee policy, but if she was successful, I would need to pay $2500 to receive the information about her. I didn’t have this amount of money. Nearly all my financial resources were tied up in my trip.
My friends encouraged me to go ahead, that I would find the money. I assumed that I had a little time, that she wouldn’t be found overnight.
Amazingly, I received an email from Pamela three days later, on a Friday. It read: “Congrats! Search is complete. Please send the money to…and we’ll talk about how to make contact.”
“Make contact”! That probably meant that she was alive. I had never had any validation that what the lawyer had originally told us was true. She could be in any situation. Was she even alive? Yes!!!
But I didn’t have the money! Suddenly, the technicalities didn’t matter.
Somewhere in this world, I had a forty-four year old daughter! She was a real person, not just a dim memory. I was so close to finding her!
Because I found the email 15 minutes before Shabbos, I was able to share the news with very few people. Everyone who heard was joyously amazed!
Danny was quite surprised when I informed him of this momentous event. I asked if he could pay half the sum. He replied that he would if he could, but he couldn’t. His brother confirmed his financial situation. In the end, he made a donation. That was very important to me.
On Motzei Shabbos, Sharon, my friend and Shabbos lunch hostess, called to tell me that she’d gladly contribute $1000 to the cause. Her very kind gesture warmed my heart. It helped me realize that my friends really cared, that I wasn’t alone, and that this reunion could actually happen.
My sister donated another $1000, and sent the entire sum to Pamela to expedite the process.
As I was gathering the funds, some skeptics asked how I could trust a stranger with so much money. I felt that I had no choice. I had to follow this lead. If I didn’t, and lost this opportunity, how would I ever forgive myself?
We were still short $500. Over the next few days, through the kindness of dear friends, and some of my own money, we reached the goal, a feat that almost seemed harder than the search process.
Trembling with suspense and excitement, I called Pamela, only to learn that she was sick. When she returned to the office four days later, we discussed strategy. She had my daughter’s address, but no phone number.
Our first option, to contact my daughter’s adoptive father, was potentially risky. There was a chance that Pamela’s conversation with him could turn adversarial, in case he didn’t approve the reunion.
Still, she decided to go for it. “Hi, this is Pamela,” she said to him. “I’m looking for Barbara*. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in touch with her, and I just can’t find her phone number.”
He gave her the number without hesitation. She commented that he seemed to be kind. That was encouraging.
That night, Pamela placed the fateful call. First she gingerly asked Barbara if she knew that she was adopted.
“Yes,” was the answer.
Then Pamela gently divulged the reason for her call: her birth mother wished to contact her. She also told her that I live in Israel and haven’t been in the U.S. very often, and that I was about to be in her area.
Barbara’s reaction was positive. Although she was surprised, she seemed to remain composed. When asked if she would be interested in a meeting, she said that she would have to discuss it with her husband first, and maybe her father as well.
After the call ended, Pamela repeated the conversation to me. My heart swelled with gratitude to learn that my daughter was a happily-married mother of two, and a teacher. Her childhood had been happy. Sadly, her adoptive mother had died four years earlier.
Over the weekend I waited anxiously to hear from Pamela. Would I finally get the long-awaited chance to talk to and maybe even meet my daughter? Oh, how I had longed for this moment to come!
I knew it would be challenging, after forty-four years of separation, but there was no doubt that I wanted this more than anything else. Would my daughter feel the same way? If not, I was prepared to be satisfied to know that she was alive and had had, and should continue to have, a happy, healthy, fulfilled life.
After a rather anxious Shabbos, I finally got the call. “She wants to meet!” Pamela exclaimed.
My heart skipped a beat. I felt joy, relief and a bit of tension. How would the reunion be? So many feelings had been bottled up for over four decades! I realized that we would have different challenges. I had suffered her loss for her whole life, while she had become bonded with an entirely different family. At most, she was only dimly aware of my existence and had never really felt my absence.
That was as it needed to be. She had told Pamela that she knew that she was adopted, but hadn’t thought about finding her birth mother for a long time. I was glad to hear that, since that meant to me that she had had a good life.
How life can change in a moment! This was less that two weeks since my initial call to Pamela. Now I was dialing a different number, one belonging to my long-lost daughter!
How to talk to my child, with whom I’ve only been able to communicate in my heart? I have the deepest intimate connection with her, while she is in fact a stranger. I am aware that I need to move very slowly and carefully if we are to have any kind of relationship.
Our first conversation was brief and pleasant, though a bit tentative. I commiserated with her that this couldn’t be easy for her.
“No, it isn’t,” she replied.
I assured her that there was no rush, that this would take time. Actually, we didn’t have a lot of time, since this was shortly before my trip to the States. I was very relieved to learn that she lives close to a city already on my itinerary.
I had planned my two-week trip with much precision, calculating every stop. First, I would attend the class reunion in Pennsylvania. This always happens early in May. Since this year Shavuos came early, I would then travel to spend it with my close friends, Deborah and her husband. My next stop would be Los Angeles for Shabbos, then on to Oregon. I would conclude my journey there with my sister, whom I hadn’t seen for 13 years.
I had a perfect one-day opportunity, interestingly the day after Mother’s Day, to reunite with my daughter. At last! I would behold my beloved daughter, whom I had so reluctantly surrendered forty-four years before!
Barbara and I discussed our impending meeting. She wanted to bring her husband, Dave*, and meet at a Starbucks. I decided to bring Deborah, my dear friend of more than twenty years. She had walked with me every step of this process. She had also made a financial contribution to facilitate this miracle.
Deborah and I walked into Starbucks on a warm spring afternoon. I blinked when I saw the couple sitting at a table at the far side of the room. There she was, my grown-up daughter!
“She looks like you!” Dave exclaimed. His eyes were kind and welcoming.
Their first question, probably the same one that haunts every adopted child was: Why had I given her away?
This was, of course, the most difficult question to answer. I felt that I had to protect any potential relationship she would have with her father, since it was his decision.
Although I had had much advice from friends about what and what not to say, I decided to speak from my heart. I told her the truth. I told her how difficult it had been, and that it had been done only because that was what my husband wanted.
“I loved you,” then I paused, suddenly aware that I was addressing my daughter! I continued, “And I love you too much to put you through the ordeal of growing up with me as a single mother. I wanted you to have a stable, happy family.”
Barbara listened attentively, still trying to absorb this shocking new reality that had erupted into her life only a short time before. Dave had tears in his eyes throughout this meeting. His warm personality gave me much joy.
We talked for two and a half hours, learning about the divergent paths our lives had taken since that wrenching morning. When Barbara described her family, I realized that everything the lawyer had told us was true! He hadn’t known where they were because that had relocated to an upstate New York city.
What joy! I began to feel the agony I had lived with for so many years begin to ease.
I found that we were similar, my daughter and I: We had chosen similar professions in special education. Our mothers had both died when we were forty, and we do resemble each other.
As always, Deborah was my angel, filling in details that I forgot to mention: How I always missed my daughter, how I thought of her constantly, especially on her birthday, and how she had a special place in my heart.
I had brought pictures of my family and of me at different ages. Dave took pictures of some of them to share with their children. He picked up one of my sister and said, “Aunt Emily*!” We all laughed.
As we walked to the exit, Dave said quietly to me, “Thank you for not killing her.” This shocked me, but it helped confirm that my initial decision had been the best one.
Before we parted, suggesting that we keep in touch, I presented my gift to Barbara. In an Italian leather change purse I had placed a malachite heart pendant. I had had this pendant for years, since I lived in San Francisco.
Before I left home I wanted to bring her something personal, and thought of that pendant. When I found it, I realized that one of the heart’s “wings” had been broken and mended. What an appropriate gift!
It will take time–lots of time–to form the bond that I hope to build with Barbara, but right now, my heart is filled with joy. I am very, very grateful for this miraculous discovery. The absent mother in me is healing, one day at a time.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
**Information for anyone interested in finding lost relatives: Pamela Slaton informed me about New York State birth certificates. I already knew that the birth certificate issued by the hospital is sealed so that a new one can be issued with the adoptive parents’ names. What I didn’t know is that both certificates have the same number! When Pamela first spoke with Barbara, she told her to verify my status as her birth mother by looking at the number of her birth certificate.