In 1975, a Massachusetts birthmother named Lee Campbell attended an adoptee support group with a few other birthmothers. As she listened to adoptees swap stories, she wondered if mothers who had surrendered children for adoption might benefit from separate discussions about their experiences. The other mothers she’d met agreed. In the year that followed, Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) held their first meeting at (ironically) The Church of the Immaculate Conception on Cape Cod, and incorporated a few months later. During CUB’s first eight years of operation, they answered 45,000 letters, half of which were from adoptees, many of whom were testing the waters on meeting a birthparent. Keep in mind, this was the late 70s/early 80s when most adoptees didn’t think reunions were possible, let alone a socially acceptable option.
Today, CUB is a national organization, a recognized voice for birthparents, and a valuable support resource. In addition, they’re a major resource for adoption reform history and have supplied Harvard’s Schlesinger Library with over 10,000 pages of CUB history.
This old Phil Donahue clip—which includes an interview with Lee Campbell—is a first hand look at that history and the heated early conversations on reunions, searches, pressure to relinquish, and whether an adopted person should have a right to his or her history. I’ll warn you, from about minute 21 on, it’s disconcerting to see that for as much as things have changed, we still have a ways to go.
I had an opportunity to talk with Patty Collings, CUB’s current President (and a birthmother herself), about CUB’s evolution over almost four decades and what they offer today, especially for adult adoptees.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: When did CUB decide to open meetings to others impacted by adoption and what prompted that change?
PATTY: Early on, when meetings were limited to the greater Boston area, CUB’s mission was to create a safe place for birthmothers to discuss their surrenders. Early members developed a birthparent manual of sorts, exploring issues such as searching or not searching; following their children’s lives from a distance or making contact; and how to make a comfortable niche for themselves after reunion, however that turned out. Initially, there was also an active adoptee group in the Boston area with whom we shared a few meetings.
That all changed as CUB grew to better understand birthparenthood and began to open branches across the country, especially in places where there were no active adoptee groups. Today, attendance at a typical meeting is split almost evenly between adoptees and birthparents.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: Why might someone attend a CUB meeting?
PATTY: I’ll never forget one of the first meetings I attended. There was an adoptee in her reunion’s early stages. I’ll call her Carol. She told the group that her birthmother, Susan, had said something that upset her very much and continued to bother her whenever she thought about it. Susan had said: “When I first held you, I just thought you were too perfect for me to keep, so I had to give you up.” Carol felt those words as cold and uncaring, and she felt very hurt by them.
Another birthmom at the meeting told Carol that what Susan said resonated with her. She said she knew that feeling of shame and unworthiness, and that she too had felt unfit to raise a child as an unwed mother. This other birthmom explained that Susan might have thought that her daughter was so precious, so much better than her that she deserved a better mother, a better person to be her parent.
In the months that followed, Carol told us that what she heard in that meeting helped her to feel better whenever her mother’s words popped in her mind, and she didn’t dwell on them as much anymore. I still get choked up each time I remember that meeting and how Carol’s face softened.
That experience is something we see again and again—adoptees have an opportunity to get a better understanding of their own birthparents by listening to other birthparents talk, and it goes the other way too. Birthparents gain an understanding of what their children might be experiencing when they can hear from other adoptees. And it seems easier to take in such points of view when it comes from someone unrelated yet very familiar with the experience.
We believe this is our most important service, providing emotional support and meeting people wherever they are in their journey. Sometimes it is an adoptee struggling post-reunion, sometimes it’s a birthmother grappling with an open adoption that closed, and other times it might be a birthparent or adoptee wondering if they have a right to search.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: Can you describe a realization, or break-through of sorts, that might happen at a meeting?
PATTY: We often hear adoptees who are searching say they believe their birthparents don’t think about them, aren’t looking for them, and don’t want to find them, let alone be found. They’ll assume this because the birthparent has not registered with any of the mutual consent registries. They are often surprised to hear birthparents in the group explain that they were unaware of the registries, and/or that they were told by the adoption agencies that they must never interfere, never intrude on their child and the family who adopted them. So many of us were told this would be very disruptive, and that, for all we knew, our child didn’t know about his or her adoption.
It’s one thing to read this in a book or online, but when birthparents are face to face with adoptees and talk about how they have thought about their child every day, wondered if they were safe and happy, and how they think about that child every birthday – boy do we ever think about them on their birthdays—it has a different kind of impact.
I feel confident saying that the vast majority of birthparents want to be found. There’s an interesting statistic in Jean Strauss’ film about Illinois’ recent open records law, A Simple Piece of Paper: since the records opened, more than 8,000 requests for original birth certificates have been filed. Of that 8,000, only 47 birthparents asked to have their name withheld.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: What advice do you offer someone who has experienced rejection from his or her biological relatives?
PATTY: A birthparent who refuses contact with his or her child is the most distressing situation. My personal belief is that we owe it to our children to be open to a relationship and to give them whatever information they ask for. This may include the identity of the birthfather (and his contact information if we have it). They have the right to know who they are and where they came from, their birth story, the first chapter of their lives.
Adoptees typically search for their mothers first. Birthmothers who initially refuse, but later agree to contact, often describe feeling shock after being found. This is often because being an “unwed mother” might be a long-held secret, and the shameful memories so painful that they have coped by keeping feelings deeply buried. They also anticipate that they’ll be shamed and rejected by their friends and family when the truth comes out. For some mothers who have gone through this, it took years to process these feelings before they were ready for a relationship.
So when a birthparent says “no,” it might not mean never, it might just mean not now. If an adoptee has contact information, I encourage him or her to reach out again after some time has passed, and at some point, also consider searching for siblings and other relatives.
If an agency is involved and will not release information because the birthparent withholds consent, an adoptee might consider contacting a search angel or private investigator, or sign up for registries and DNA matching services. These avenues can help someone discover a sibling, aunt, uncle, or even a grandparent who is open to a relationship.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: I’ve noticed that terminology can be a real hot button. For example, whether to refer to a mother as “birthmother,” “first mother,” or some other term, and I know there are language challenges for mothers as well. How is that handled in meetings?
PATTY: There are no rules other than people can use whatever terminology works best, whether that is “I placed my child for adoption,” “I relinquished my child,” “birthmother,” “first mother”—whatever works for the person trying to share his or her experience. The goal is to support someone wherever they are in the process.
Our founder, Lee Campbell, considered several names when she was establishing CUB—the first organization to support and advocate for mothers who had lost their children to adoption. This video details the word “birthparents” inspiration and Lee’s thought process as she considered commonly used terms at the time — first, natural, biological, genetic—and then decided on “birthparent, birthmother,” as one word, like grandparent. It was a label she hoped would unite mothers of adoption loss. The rest of the title for what Lee called her “unique band of sisters” came easy after that. Lee adds: “I envisioned us birthmothers ‘united’ in our ‘concern’ about our children, and that’s how “Concerned United Birthparents” fell into place.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: Tell me a little bit about fathers—did birthfathers attend in those early years, and has their participation changed over the years?
PATTY: Fathers matter, and we have long invited their participation. Our birthfather membership is lower than birthmothers, but we know that many men may not even be aware they have a child, or that the child was given up for adoption. Also, we have heard from fathers who, years after walking away from their partner’s unplanned pregnancy, realize that they feel shame too.
On a separate note, the recent focus on illegal adoption lawsuits filed by Utah attorney Wes Hutchins on behalf of birthfathers whose children were adopted without their knowledge or consent, or under fraudulent circumstances, may encourage even more fathers to come forward. We encourage them to join us.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: Do meetings also focus on helping adoptees and birthparents search for one another?
PATTY: I joined another group, ALMA (Adoptees Liberty Movement Association) in 1997. I joined CUB in 2001. ALMA is more focused on advising people how to search, and on forwarding open records legislation. In addition, they also maintain a mutual consent registry for birthparents and adult adoptees. While CUB supports these registries and legislative efforts and shares search resources, our primary focus is support and awareness.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: What geographic areas can someone find a CUB support group and roughly how many people attend a typical meeting?
PATTY: We’ve found that the in person connection is invaluable. It can be very comforting to sit and talk with others who really “get you.” And we have all benefited from hearing how others cope with ongoing searches, rough reunions, rejection, finding a grave, and learning to deal with some family members who suggest we just “get over it” and “move on with our lives.”
Several California cities have active members, including groups in Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego north and south groups. In addition to California, there are groups in Boston, Minneapolis, Portland, Washington, D.C. and Lakeland, Fl. The meeting size varies anywhere from 7-20 participants (usually in California). Our meetings in Lakeland, Florida typically have 3-10 people. We also have a younger cohort of birthmoms that meet online via Google Hangouts.
In addition, members who are not close to a local group have found support through our newsletters as well as emails and phone calls with CUB members.
SECRET SONS & DAUGHTERS: Any other in person opportunities, especially for those that don’t live near a CUB group?
PATTY: We host an annual retreat, usually at a hotel near a beach, bay, or a lake so that the environment is ideal for reflection between sessions. The schedule is not packed with multiple sessions that run simultaneously. Instead, we focus on a core program. This year’s conference will be near Tampa, in Safety Harbor, Florida, Oct. 17-19, and feature a panel on Found Adoptees, several experts on an Open Adoption panel geared to younger birthmoms who are contending with open adoptions that closed, and a panel of three (two birthmothers and an adoptee) involved in family preservation work, finding resources and support to enable expectant mothers and fathers to parent their children. We also plan to have a representative from the Philomena Project.
For more information on CUB and upcoming conference details, visit Concerned United Birthparents.
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