Buffalo to Rzeszów: A Belated Snapshot

Perhaps this is long overdue. While I don’t know if and when I’ll write a long post about meeting my birth mother, I wanted to share a few memories from my trip. I am forever grateful to the many friends and family who helped me through every step of my journey. I honestly could not have done it without you.

I found my birth mother — and brother — on Facebook back in 2013.  We talked frequently and were even able to video chat on Skype (with my dad’s assistance with translating). I know not every adoptee’s family is supportive of the search and reunion process, but mine definitely was and is, and I’m very thankful for that. My (adoptive) family knew I wanted to meet my birth mother, and frequently asked how she was doing.

About a year ago, I decided I had had enough of waiting. I had to meet her. I had to know. I was bursting at the seams with curiosity. Does she like the things I do? What is her house like? What does she like to cook? What does she smell like? What shampoo does she use? Does she smile and laugh easily like me? Does she sing when she washes the dishes? Where, exactly, did  I come from?

These are simple things I never knew the answer to. And my desire for that knowledge far outweighed the stark and simple facts: I barely knew Polish, I was traveling to a foreign country not sure of what to expect, and I was going alone.

A lot of people called me brave. Maybe a few thought I was naive. Whatever I was, I was going. I booked my ticket in March and counted down the days to my departure.

My partner drove me to the Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto on June 11. He waited with me until the last possible moment. I wouldn’t see him, or anyone familiar, for about four weeks. That realization hit hard as I was pushed into a sea of people. I suddenly felt very small and very alone.

From there, I flew to Montréal. The flight was short, there were free snacks in the airport, and I began to feel more at ease. Then I was off to Frankfurt, where I tried to get some sleep on uncomfortable plastic chairs during a ten-hour layover. Finally, about thirty of us got on a very small plane to Rzeszów. Everyone was speaking Polish; many of them were returning home. This is it, I thought. Part of me felt like I was going home too.

I arrived at the airport, unsure where to go. It was just past midnight and not many people were around. I pushed open the nearest doors and there she was. We hugged and hugged and hugged. “Moja córeczka,” she said as she stroked my hair. “My daughter.”

My birth mother’s friend drove the car while we sat in the backseat, snuggled up close together. I realized she hadn’t held her baby, her child, in 23 years.

Her apartment was modest but immaculately clean, with family photos all around. My birth mother’s father, my grandfather, ran up to me and took my hands in his. He was talking a mile a minute and he definitely wasn’t speaking English. I could only make out a few words; he was smiling and crying at the same time. He kissed my cheeks and indicated I should sit down. We had champagne. We had food. So much food. (Turns out my birth mother also loves onion, garlic, chives, and dill.)

My brother showed me around the city. He spoke some English, and our conversations flowed more easily than I had ever hoped. I was thrilled. We walked for hours, we got ice cream, we watched flickering lights dance over a fountain of water at sunset. We tried to squeeze over two decades of our lives into a few hours. There was a lot of laughter. He picked flowers on the way home. “For our Mom,” he said.

I was in Poland almost a month, and I didn’t stay with my birth mother the whole time. I was incredibly fortunate that some of my family’s friends were able and willing to help me out — with translating (my birth mother spoke almost no English, and it was difficult for us to communicate), and experiencing as much as I could before I had to return to Buffalo.

I met the nurse who delivered me–in the hospital where I was born. I met Dr. Janowski and his wonderful family. I met my parents’ friends and their (now adult) kids, who showed me around Krakow and Warsaw. I caught up with a friend I had been corresponding with online but who I hadn’t seen since I was five years old. Everyone was so kind, inviting, helpful, and warm. The hospitality in Poland is something else.

I got to visit the orphanage where I spent the first year of my life, and where my family lived while adopting my younger brother (I was 5 then). This was one of the most incredible parts of the trip. One of the women who worked there remembered me from when I was only a few weeks old. We held each other close as I thanked her over and over again for taking care of me. They had all my old records. I saw my original birth certificate, my health information from the hospital, and the documents my parents signed to adopt me. The papers had been sitting, collecting dust in a drawer for almost 24 years. Some of them are mine now.

I had twelve hours in Kraków with friends, and we made the most out of every minute. We spent most of the day walking, taking it all in. Castles, bridges, music, horse-drawn carriages, shops on the street selling handmade scarves. In Warsaw, I got to bike to the Old Town. We went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Everywhere there were so many beautiful churches. We went to parks. We had pizza at a restaurant. The food was delicious, so fresh and full of flavor.

On my last day in Poland, I brought my birth mother flowers. We promised we would see each other again soon. And we hugged goodbye. Na razie. For now.

I wrote in my journal:

I can’t believe I have only one day left. I couldn’t have asked for a more incredible trip. This journey was more than a vacation – it was about getting in touch with my roots and meeting my birth mother. I finally got to see her, hug her, kiss her… and that alone is a miracle to me. I also got to meet my birth brother, grandfather, and uncle.  After 23 days, I feel a sense of peace: I’ve put together some  of the missing pieces of my story, and the circle is complete. Unbroken. My heart is bursting with the love, kindness, and generosity I’ve received during this trip. Thank you for being part of my journey of a lifetime. I am eternally grateful.

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Vote Them Out

You know how we keep hearing that Bernie will never be able to get anything done because of Republicans in the Congress/Senate?

Let’s change that.

Let’s vote in not only the primaries, not only the general election – but in every election, big or small. Don’t like Republicans? Vote them out. Don’t like anti-choicers? Vote them out. Don’t like racists? Vote them out. Don’t like Xenophobes? Vote them out. Don’t like politicians cutting disability services? Vote them out. Don’t like those who are anti-immigration? Vote them out. Don’t like the people that generations before us elected, who are still in office as if it’s a guaranteed job for life? Vote. Them. Out.

I’ve voted in every single election since I became registered to vote. I know a lot of people are apathetic to politics, and feel that their vote doesn’t make a difference. That’s completely understandable. Others are tired of establishment politics in general and think their lack of a vote sends a louder message.

But let me just speak frankly – and this is only what I think – sitting at home and refusing to vote does not help anyone. It does not help to push out those public servants who have never, and will never, adequately represent us.

There’s a reason why they are called “public servants.”

These people are paid a lot of money to represent US, the people. It’s just that a hell of a lot of them don’t do a very good job. Let’s kick them out.

If you come across a candidate that you like and agree with (I know, they’re rare and elusive), do your best to support them. I’m thinking of people like Zephyr Teachout, who support clean energy, public education, getting money out of politics, and more.

We have the chance to get involved and make real change—not only to help Sanders’ campaign, but to help each and every one of us.

Stop making adoption about abortion

Here are some facts:

In the U.S., 397,122 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. 101,666 of these children are eligible for adoption, but nearly 32% of these children will wait over three years in foster care before being adopted.

Source: AFCARS Report, No. 20

Around the world, there are an estimated 153 million orphans who have lost one parent. There are 17,900,000 orphans who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets and lack the care and attention required for healthy development. These children are at risk for disease, malnutrition, and death.

Source: Childinfo (UNICEF, 2011)

According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. families adopted more than 7,000 children in 2012. Last year, Americans adopted the highest number of children from China followed by Ethiopia, Ukraine, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Source: United States Department of State (FY 2013 Annual Report)

No child under three years of age should be placed in institutional care without a parent or primary caregiver, according to research from 32 European countries, including nine in-depth country studies, which considered the “risk of harm in terms of attachment disorder, developmental delay and neural atrophy in the developing brain.”

Source: Childcentre.info (Executive Summary)

Children raised in orphanages have an IQ 20 points lower than their peers in foster care, according to a meta-analysis of 75 studies (more than 3,800 children in 19 countries).

Source: IQ of Children Growing Up in Children’s Homes A Meta-Analysis on IQ Delays in Orphanages

In 2012, 23,396 youth aged out of the U.S. foster care system without the emotional and financial support necessary to succeed. Nearly 40% had been homeless or couch surfed, nearly 60% of young men had been convicted of a crime, and only 48% were employed. 75% of women and 33% of men receive government benefits to meet basic needs. 50% of all youth who aged out were involved in substance use and 17% of the females were pregnant.

Source: AFCARS Report, No. 20,  Jim Casey Youth

Nearly 25% of youth aging out did not have a high school diploma or GED, and a mere 6% had finished a two- or four-year degree after aging out of foster care. One study shows 70% of all youth in foster care have the desire to attend college.

Source: Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth

As of 2012, more than 58,000 children in the U.S. foster care system were placed in institutions or group homes, not in traditional foster homes.

Source: AFCARS Report, No. 20

States spent a mere 1.2-1.3% of available federal funds on parent recruitment and training services even though 22% of children in foster care had adoption as their goal.

Source: Adoption Advocate No. 6: Parent Recruitment and Training: A Crucial, Neglected Child

Three years is the average length of time a child in foster care waits to be adopted. Roughly 55% of these children have had three or more placements. An earlier study found that 33% of children had changed elementary schools five or more times, losing relationships and falling behind educationally.

Source: AFCARS Report, No. 20

Regardless of your stance on abortion — whether you’re pro-life, pro-choice, or not sure: Please stop making abortion about adoption. Stop stealing and co-opting our (adoptees’) stories for your own agenda. This does absolutely nothing to create positive change (but maybe makes you look good in a cute Facebook post?)

I cannot speak for all of us, but many adoptees are tired. We are tired of our personal (and sometimes very difficult to share and/or traumatic) stories being stolen. We are tired of being used as a pro-life prop, especially when many of us are pro-choice. Our stories are not yours. They are ours. And reclaiming them can become exhausting.

There is NO shortage of babies or children to adopt. Birth mothers are not your baby factories for your own perfect, healthy, newborn baby.

Want the amount of orphaned children to go down? Consider adopting or fostering, or volunteering with an organization that helps kids. And please, leave abortion out of it.

Disability & Employment: We Need Change

Reading accounts of what other glaucoma patients have gone through in the employment field makes me angry. We need change. One woman said that when she ran out of medical and vacation time, her company let her go. She never received accommodations on the job–the adapted equipment she needed arrived weeks after her employer forced her to leave.

Another man said that although accommodations might be useful at work, he is afraid to disclose his condition because he doesn’t want to be perceived as unable to do his job. Still another person recounted a story of how she had to leave her job and stop attending college because of lack of accommodations. There “wasn’t enough room” for her guide dog, she was told.

The stories go on and on. Many mirror each other. These are not isolated incidents; they happen all over the world.

Stories like this are the main reason that, in the United States, fewer than 1/5 people with a disability are employed.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there are so many people with disabilities who genuinely want to work and are able, but not given reasonable accommodations. These are accommodations that would not be difficult to secure. We’re talking about access to a magnifier, a larger computer screen, or dimmed lighting (to accommodate light sensitivity), and/or someone’s guide dog being allowed at the workplace.  Unfortunately, employers are not always understanding. Even when regulations are in place — usually as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act — they’re not always followed.

So people with disabilities are pushed out of work. They’re surviving on SSDI  benefits that barely pay the bills. Others, like the man I mentioned before, try so hard to hide their condition at work. Then there are those who are still desperately searching for work and being turned down time and time again due to prejudice. Recent research shows that employers express interest in candidates who disclose a disability about 26 percent less frequently than in candidates who did not.

There’s a lot of stigma surrounding all kinds of illnesses. I often hear well-meaning people say, “If only we treated physical illnesses like mental illnesses!” The fact is that all health conditions/disabilities come with their own set of stigmas; they just play out in different ways. People may look at you as lesser or unable to do your work.

We need to do more to help people with glaucoma – and other conditions – find meaningful employment that pays fairly. All the money being poured into research is wonderful, but there are many people who will never reap the benefits of that research in their lifetime. In my view, we need more money and resources being allocated toward patients. We should be creating and building patient support, help with employment, and etc.

Some may not realize that there are a lot of people with various disabilities/illnesses who have undergraduate, and even graduate degrees. We’re hard workers. We’re a resilient bunch. We want, and are capable of, so much more than a tedious minimum-wage job. We have skills that we’re eager to put to use; we want to help others.

We’ve pushed through a lot to get where we are, and we’re more than willing to keep pushing. But we need help.

In the medical model, patients are so often left out of the picture.

That needs to change.

The Power of Authenticity

Almost everyone who I’ve told about reuniting with my birth mother/family immediately asks: “Well, what did your [adoptive] parents think about that? Were they okay with it?”

As if I left them out of the equation completely. As if I went behind their back. As if I was so deeply unsatisfied with my life that I was looking for a totally new one. As if my searching for my birth family was a rejection of my adoptive one. As if one type of love could replace another.

While I can understand how someone might arrive at these conclusions, that’s not how it transpired at all.

I know plenty of people – who are not adopted – who spend hours researching their genealogy, take DNA tests, and try to connect with long-lost relatives. Are they, too, rejecting the family they know and love? Does anyone suggest this?

The desire to know where we came from is not unique to adoptees.

I’m also very lucky that my parents were very supportive of my search. My mom encouraged it, saying, “It would be great to know more about your health history.” My dad, who grew up in Poland and is now a certified Polish-English translator, was absolutely instrumental in establishing a connection with my birth mother. When we first Skyped, two and a half years ago, he translated for hours. “Pro bono,” he quipped.

Unfortunately, not every adoptee is told the whole truth. Some adoptive parents may feel that withholding information will protect their child from feeling hurt, abandoned, or betrayed. Other times, birth certificates and other records are sealed due to complex and arduous legal issues. In some cultures, it is considered taboo to let a child know they’ve been conceived “out of wedlock.” We all have different ideas of what is considered both ethical and considerate of others’ feelings.

I’ve been asked what it feels like to be adopted. I always reply that it’s difficult to say, because I have nothing to compare it to. I always knew; it was never a secret. Growing up surrounded by this openness, this authenticity, is something I am deeply thankful for. From the very beginning, my adoptive parents’ honesty let me know that looking for clues from my past would be accepted. It would not be seen as an act of rejection or severing ties. It would be – and is – an addition of family, not the opposite.

When I was a child, hearing about “my adoption story” was like hearing about someone else’s life in great detail. Except here, there were photos, memoirs, notes my mother kept in her beautiful cursive handwriting. And I was in those photos. And this was my life.

So, in short: Yes, they know. And yes, they’re okay with it.

And at age twenty-four, I am more grateful for my parents’ careful, gentle honesty than ever.

#NAAM15

With less than an hour of National Adoption Awareness Month left, I’m suddenly realizing that hundreds of people have, and will continue to read my story… it’s a humbling thought. This has been an incredible experience from start to finish. From submitting my piece, not expecting to be chosen, to finding out I was accepted (while I was in Poland reuniting with my birth family), to seeing the various edits, and finally receiving the books at my doorstep. Wow. I am so grateful for all the adoptees I have connected with.

Growing up, my adoption was never a secret; my parents talked about it openly. But I didn’t know many other adopted kids. Now I realize – we’re everywhere. And we’re not kids anymore. We’re adults, with so many stories, feelings, and thoughts. We’re starting to tell those stories, and people are listening. Thank you for listening.