My birth certificate was legally falsified when my adoption was finalized. The New York State government called it amended.
I pored over it as a small child in New York City, looking for clues. It was obvious that it had been changed. Next to my name were the date and time of my birth in 1973. Under “Location” was the hospital I knew I’d been born in. All of that was correct. But under “Mother” and “Father” were my adoptive parents’ names. They had not been there. They didn’t even know who I was then. I didn’t meet them until I was six months old, and the date stamped on the document was several days after that. Everyone else I knew had a birth certificate dated the day they were born.
Secrecy in adoption was intended to protect both the birth parents and the adoptive parents. In New York, the law sealing original birth certificates (OBCs) was created in 1935 by Governor Herbert Lehman, an adoptive parent who bought two babies from a notorious baby broker named Georgina Tann. Lehman didn’t want his own children to access their information. So he created and pushed through a law that sealed original birth certificates not just for his children, but for all adoptees in New York State for more than eighty years.
No one thought about the psychological effects these laws would have on the infants who grew up not knowing the truth of their origin. Attachment was not understood, but it is now. No person should be denied the very basic human right to information about who they are, yet domestic adoptees in most states have been denied this all their lives, until recently. One state at a time, the United States is undoing the damage. Most recently, it’s Massachusetts’ turn. Sadly, in at least eighteen other states and Washington DC, original birth certificates are still sealed, except in some cases by court order.
Former Governor Cuomo signed the law reversal in New York in November 2019 to go into effect in early 2020. I sent for mine although I wasn’t sure what it would change. I’d met both of my birth parents. They were not together. I’d learned that my birth mother had also been adopted. I knew she’d been seventeen, traumatized, and very scared when I was born. I’d developed healing, loving relationships with each of them since we reunited.
I met my birth mother when I was twenty-six. I met my birth father when I was forty. I’d also met their families, my biological siblings. I’d done a lot of therapy around my birth, my surrender, and my adoption. But I thought it would be interesting to compare the original birth certificate with the falsified — no, the amended version. My birth parents were both deceased now, my mother by a sudden stroke and my father by suicide. I thought I had closure.
It took so long for the document to arrive that I nearly forgot about it — eight weeks, maybe nine. But when it did, it was as if I’d been working on a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle my entire life, put together nine hundred ninety-nine pieces, and then left the puzzle out on the table in the hopes I’d find that last one but never did. Then, one day, forty-eight years after starting it, a mysterious package arrived with the final piece inside. Fitting it in caused a flood of tears and emotion.
My birth mother had told me she hadn’t named me. It was true. Under “First name”, it said “Baby Girl”. But I hadn’t considered my last name.
I’d been resistant to last names. I hated the one I’d grown up with and my mother hated it too. When she married my dad, she tried to convince him to take her name — but that was too unconventional for him back in 1969. I grew up determined to change my last name at the first chance I got.
I married at 23, too young for it to last. I kept the name long past the divorce. When I was ready to remarry, I refused to change my name. “I’m a feminist. I’m keeping my name!” I said. But my spouse said, “That’s your ex’s name, not yours.” And he had a point. I changed it again, hating how I’d compromised my values, but agreeing that if I’d just had a name that meant something to me — a name of my very own — I’d have kept it all along.
At forty-eight I learned I did have one: my birth mother’s last name. Right there on my birth certificate. I’d never known I’d been given her last name. Even while I’d known her, I’d never thought to ask and she didn’t know to tell me; she’d never seen my birth certificate either. Having had her last name made me feel whole, because it recognized that I had belonged to her. The illegitimate baby I’d been had had a legally legitimate beginning. And recently, I incorporated that name — Seiff — into my own to reflect that.
I don’t know what revelations original birth certificates will provide for domestic adoptees as more states unseal them. Yet access to these documents should never be denied. It’s information that belongs to us, and always has.