New Jersey’s new adoption records bill, signed into law two weeks ago, speaks to basic issues of identity, birthright, and in some cases, long-held, shame-tinged secrets. The law will give adopted adults access to their original birth certificates and any medical or personal history an adoption agency recorded at the time they were surrendered. It will also facilitate reunions between birth mothers and adoptees if both parties agree to meet.
The push to open adoption records, sealed in New Jersey in 1940, has been going on for more than three decades and has inspired passion on both sides. Proponents pleaded with lawmakers to allow adoptees to know what most people take for granted — everything from their ethnic origin to their genetic risk for developing heart disease. Opponents, including the Catholic Church and Right to Life advocates, opposed efforts to allow adoptees to have any information about their birth parents, fearing that pregnant women would not choose adoption if they could be tracked down some day by a teenager they had long consigned to the past.
Many of the bill’s opponents stressed that birth mothers deserved to keep the shield of privacy they had been promised, a clean break and a new start for mother and child alike. As recently as the 1950s, at least some adoption agencies counseled adoptive parents to tell their children that the biological parents had been killed in a car accident. Follow-up questions were not encouraged and that pretty much was that — at least on the surface.
But, as popular literature clearly shows (think of “Little Orphan Annie” or the Ben Stiller movie, “Flirting with Disaster”), the phantom first parents often remain vividly, if secretly, present in their kids’ minds.
And some women would joyfully give up all they have to meet the grown up people they surrendered as infants long ago. Betsey Norland of Cranbury is one of these birth mothers. While her story has a surprise ending with the discovery of a celebrity offspring, her story is also representative of the emotional roller coaster that can accompany such a search.
As the New Jersey Catholic Conference pointed out in a statement issued the day of the bill’s signing by Governor Christie, the desire for adoption information can be a complicated two-way street. “Some birth parents talk about the trauma they suffered when they gave their child for adoption. Some adoptees express feelings of being unloved by birth parents or being incomplete because they do not know their full family story.” (See page 30.)
Under the new law’s provisions, people over the age of 18 who were placed for adoption in New Jersey soon will be able to obtain at least some of the information that many adoptees have sought. Many probably will try to find out whether they are Irish or Polish, if anyone out there shares their unique sense of humor, weird ears, or dead-on perfect foul shooting prowess. They will also want to know why their moms and dads were not able to raise them. They will hope to learn their back story.
Any number of birth mothers, though, do not want to be found, and under the new law, they have the option of remaining anonymous. Some of these women are undoubtedly in their 70s and 80s, great grandmothers whose husbands and children never knew they had given up a baby. Others may be ashamed that they are having trouble getting their act together or may be afraid that the child they were not able to raise will make their lives a living hell — or at least become an unpleasant presence.
Norland is a multi-talented Cranbury resident who holds a Ph.D. in American history from Rutgers. She has been a dancer and a theatrical wardrobe designer. She is also a writer, and her first book, “Intermission: A First Mother’s Story,” tells the story of her unplanned pregnancy, at age 18, her subsequent life in the Crittenton Home for unwed mothers, and her decision to give up her daughter for adoption (see excerpt, page 31).
That child, she learned more than 50 years later, is Kitty Carruthers, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist who, along with her brother, Peter Carruthers, another adoptee, is one of only a handful of figure skaters whose names most Americans recognize.
“I had seen her on television,” says Norland, recalling the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, “but I never made the connection.”
While she didn’t carry Carruthers’ picture in her head, let alone her wallet, the young woman, aging a bit each year in a place Norland could neither visit nor imagine, was always in her head and her heart.
The child of a single mother, a secretary who divorced when Betsey was 10, Norland was uncommonly ambitious and single-minded from a young age. She spent her high school years in Waterville, Maine, with her mother and younger brother. Her father, a salesman who went on to marry twice more and have two more families, played little part in her childhood. As she became increasingly interested in acting, her talent impressed her mother, who moved the family to Massachusetts so that she would have more opportunity to do theater work.
Norland won a scholarship to Boston University, where she enrolled in the fine arts program. But just a few months into her freshman year, she discovered that she was pregnant. The year was 1960. Her mother, predictably, was appalled, angry, and embarrassed. She promptly hid her away in the Florence Crittenton home, where she had plenty of company. While some of the girls, whose fictionalized stories she tells in her book, probably put their unplanned babies out of their minds easily enough, Norland never did. The unknown child haunted her, informing every decision.
“I went back to Boston University, but I left after 18 months,” she says. “My passion was gone. I never graduated. I just wanted to replace my baby.”
Toward that end, she married twice and miscarried a number of times. “Secondary infertility is very common in women who give up babies,” she has since been told.
During those post-college years, Norland worked in theatrical costume design for a number of performing arts organizations, including the Boston Ballet and the Boston Opera. “I didn’t want to be in the spotlight anymore,” she says. “I preferred to be backstage.”
Toward the end of the 1970s, a hero appears in her story. She met Tim Norland while she was working in a regional theater in Rochester, New York. In 1979 she married Norland, who is now a partner in Cranbury-based Norland Industries, a company he owns along with his two brothers (the transition from one generation of owners to another was told in the May 30, 2001, issue of U.S. 1). The couple were delighted to become parents through adoption a few years later. Their son, Chris, now 30, is an IT professional in Las Vegas.
Far from secret, Chris’ adoption could not have been more open and celebrated, but it does illustrate a few of the many thorny variables that can crop up in adoption. “Chris’ mother lived with us for five months during her pregnancy,” says Norland. The birth mother promised the Norlands that she would always be available should Chris want to know her. She kept in contact for a while but then changed her mind. She no longer wants any contact and refuses to introduce Chris to his half-siblings. She also refuses to reveal the identity of his father.
All the while, Tim has been supportive. “He always encouraged me to search for my daughter,” says Norland. He also supported her career change. “Sewing and fitting costumes is hard, physical work,” says Norland. “And there are no unions for costume designers. You’re always on deadline. There are long, long hours. I wanted a career where I could sit down!” Toward that end, she pursued an undergraduate degree from Douglass in American studies and then a Ph.D. from Rutgers, where she worked as an adjunct professor.
That career, which involved research and writing, morphed into a life of writing fiction. “It was such a relief not to have to use footnotes!” she says of the switch.
Norland was spurred on by the support of a women writers’ retreat in Minnesota, called Norcroft (now defunct). As she was writing her first book, where her main character’s experience is her own and the other characters, including her mother, are composites, she came closer to finding her daughter.
“I had registered with the New England Home for Little Wanderers, (which had placed her daughter for adoption), saying I would welcome being contacted by my daughter,” she says. But that was all that Massachusetts law allowed at the time. Like New Jersey, it did not allow birth mothers to initiate a search. By 2010, though, Massachusetts had changed its adoption records law to allow birth mothers to request contact. Norland did so right away and the agency phoned Carruthers with her request — or it tried to.
Carruthers had done a lot of volunteer work and fundraising events for the agency, Norland recounts with a laugh. “So when she saw their number come up on her phone ID she assumed they were calling to request more of her time.” Busy with career and family, Carruthers never picked up the phone. “Then,” Norland says, “one day one of Kitty’s sons answered the phone when the agency called and handed it to her.” Carruthers agreed to meet.
But after yearning for this reunion for so long, Norland began to be afraid. “What if she’s angry at me for giving her up?” she worried.
But she needn’t have been concerned. Carruthers was raised in Burlington, Massachusetts, by parents who could have been picked out of central casting for superlative parenting roles. Far from being pushy sports parents, the pair built an ice skating rink for their kids so that they would have a safe alternative to sledding down their steep hill. When Carruthers met Norland, she thanked her for making the sacrifice that gave her such a wonderful family.
“I’m so glad I could meet my daughter and be forgiven,” says Norland, her voice full of emotion. “She has the same talent I have. I have grandchildren. It’s the most amazing thing!”
Norland sees Carruthers as picking up where she left off, rising to heights as an athlete and performer, heights she once thought were hers for the taking.
In another similarity, Carruthers suffered miscarriages before adopting two sons and then giving birth to two daughters. The kids are now teenagers and they, too, illustrate some of the many paths that adoption can take. Norland says that the birth mother of one of the boys has been a guest at Carruthers family events. That boy welcomes contact with his birth mother, but his brother does not want to meet his own birth mother.
While Norland’s joy at knowing her biological daughter and her grandchildren is immense, there is some sadness, too. She missed out on the early years of her grandchildren’s lives and worries that she will not have the close connection that some grandparents have with their children’s kids. She and Kitty were so happy to meet, but the post-reunion glow has worn off a bit, she says. Still, Norland freely admits that a good part of the distance is inevitable given Carruthers’ extremely busy life. And, while Carruthers’ father is deceased, her mother, says Norland, is an extraordinary mom. Mother and daughter are close.
It’s a truism that you can’t go home. And it’s probably also true that relationships formed by mothers — and fathers and siblings — with an adult child who was placed for adoption decades in the past will be complicated. They may not be mirror images of relationships between children and the people who raised them, which, of course, also vary tremendously from family to family.
But Norland, for one, thinks reunions are worth the risk. “Meeting Kitty,” she says, “helped me to put my life back together.”