Each year as her son’s birthday passed, Jean Burns felt “a deep sense of mourning” for the son she had given up for adoption.
“It never got easier as the years went by,” Burns said. “The pain was always there--along with the memories of being 16, unmarried, pregnant and feeling helpless. I was continually thinking about where he was and how he was. Was he still alive?”
Then, on Jan. 24, 1981, her son’s 17th birthday, Burns began her search to discover what had become of him. It was the kind of search that is being made by a growing number of people in the United States.
Search and Support Group
Burns, 38, of Costa Mesa, sought help from the local chapter of Concerned United Birthparents, a national search and support group for birth parents headquartered in Dover, N. H. During her nearly yearlong search, she discovered not only her son; she also discovered that she was not alone.
“The impact of being a birth parent (giving up a child) never ends,” said May Boyden, an Irvine marriage, family and child counselor whose work is 85% adoption related. “The impact lasts from the moment you first think of relinquishing your child up to the present.
“It follows you all the way to your death. One of the last things my (45-year-old) sister, who was a birth parent, did on her dying day (six years ago) was to ask where was the daughter she had given up for adoption 26 years before.”
The search and reunion Burns has had with her son are symbolic of the relationships some birth parents are forging with children they have previously surrendered for adoption. About 10 million parents in the United States have given up their children for adoption, according to Concerned United Birthparents.
Burns, who grew up in a middle-class Pasadena family, became pregnant in 1963 at age 16, just before the end of her sophomore year. Her 17-year-old boyfriend of a year was a graduating senior from a similar background.
“We were just nice, clean-cut, red-blooded American kids; something like this wasn’t supposed to happen to us,” recalled Burns, who two decades later is still mystified by this turn of events.
“I guess I was living a fairy tale,” Burns said, her voice breaking, her eyes downcast. “I thought we were going to get married; that we were going to live in a white house with a white picket fence.
“I was happy that I was pregnant because I thought this was the start of a happy, stable family like my parents’,” continued Burns, the middle child of four other siblings. “But when my parents found out I was pregnant, things hit the fan.”
At the end of the school year, Burns (known then by her maiden name, Jean Eastwood) was sent to live with relatives in Arizona. Her boyfriend joined the Navy, never having proposed marriage.
In the fall of 1963, Eastwood’s parents brought her back to Southern California and, on the advice of the family minister, placed her in a home for unwed, expectant mothers.
“That’s how things were done in the early ‘60s,” Burns said. “If you got pregnant, your parents shipped you off and pretended it never happened.”
Two days after leaving the hospital where she gave birth to a son, Eastwood returned to her old high school. It was also the day her 10-day-old baby was placed with his adoptive parents.
“It was really hard,” she recalled. “I cried a lot; I was devastated because I had to give my baby away. I couldn’t do anything else because I had no money to support myself. So, I was expected to go back to school and act as if nothing had happened--and I did. But I cried myself to sleep every night for the next year.”
The emotional turmoil she experienced after relinquishing her son stemmed from what therapist Boyden calls the “double bind” in which society places birth parents.
“When you’re single and pregnant and on welfare or without any means of support, the experts--social workers, ministers and others--and society in general coax and cajole you into giving up your child,” said Boyden, who leads monthly meetings of CUB’s Post Search Group in Irvine for birth parents who have discovered the whereabouts of their children.
“You’re told that it’s the ultimate selfish act to keep the baby; you’re told you’re too young and too poor to properly raise a child,” Boyden continued. “And you’re made to feel guiltier when you’re told that there are potential adoptive parents out there who can provide your child with everything that you can’t.
“ ‘My God,’ you think to yourself, ‘I love this child. I want to give him or her the best.’ You become so emotionally worn down by these experts and society that you become convinced that the best, most loving thing you can do for your baby is to give it to two parents who can give your baby everything.
“But the moment you sign those relinquishment papers (placing your child for adoption), nobody wants anything more to do with you--not the social worker who talked you into putting your child up for adoption or the minister who appealed to your conscience to do so. Overnight you’re considered inhuman, cruel and insensitive.
“And as your child grows up, even if he or she is able to work through intellectually the reasons why you had to surrender him or her for adoption, on an emotional level they can’t help but feel: ‘How could my own mother toss me away?’ ”
Following graduation from high school, Eastwood worked as an accounting clerk, remaining in Pasadena for 13 years, with the exception of three years spent in San Diego. Following her 1973 marriage to Grant Burns, she moved to Costa Mesa so that her husband could be closer to his job as a supervisor for a camera equipment manufacturer.
All the while, her son was never far from her thoughts. “I would search the faces of boys my son’s age,” Burns said. “I’d wonder: ‘Is that what he looks like?’ ”
Resolving to answer those and other questions about her son, Burns began writing letters in an attempt to track down the agency that had handled her son’s adoption.
After locating the adoption agency weeks later, Burns was frozen by indecision. “It took me weeks to get up enough courage to make an appointment for an interview with an agency social worker,” recalled Burns, the mother of two daughters, Stephanie, 10, and Beckie, 7.
“I will never forget the day I went to the agency,” said Burns, who has been a preschool teacher for the past five years. “There was my file sitting on a desk only a few feet from me. It had everything I’d ever wanted to know.
“The lady (social worker) carefully read to me all about the couple who had adopted my child: how tall they were, the color of their hair and eyes, how old they were, and how they met and married; their hobbies, likes and dislikes.” But the agency refused to give her identifying information that would enable Burns to locate her son.
Overwhelmed, Burns drove home “trying to piece together all the information in my head. Who were these people? What were they like? I tried so hard to imagine them.”
Then she wrote to several organizations she believed might assist her in her search. One of the groups she joined was CUB.
“You go through some very emotional highs and lows when you search,” Burns said. “It was nice to have people who understood your feelings, and told you it was OK to feel that way.”
By the summer of 1981, after a laborious review of birth and court records, Burns obtained a copy of her son’s birth certificate detailing his name and those of his adoptive parents. Soon after, she discovered where they were living and their telephone number.
“It had all happened so fast,” Burns recalled. “I panicked. Now what do I do?”
She drove to her son’s high school and looked up his picture in the school yearbook. “It was overwhelming to see a part of you looking back at you,” Burns said. “I thought he would look just like his natural father. But he also looked a lot like me and my family; he was really a part of me.”
Still uncertain about how to make contact with her son, Burns groped for a solution.
“I wrote a letter to him, enclosing a picture of myself and his two half sisters,” Burns said. “Days went by while I decided what to do. Everyone told me to contact his parents first. But what if they wouldn’t let me see him? One morning on my way to work I mailed the letter.”
By that afternoon she was engulfed by panic, feeling she had done the wrong thing, dashing her hopes of ever seeing her son.
“That evening I called his (adoptive father),” Burns said. After explaining who she was and what she had done, the adoptive father, David Fox of Glendale, reacted unexpectedly.
“He was very nice,” Burns said, “and he told me a little bit about my son (who was named Bruce). He said it would be OK for his son to receive the letter I’d sent. But he said that while his son knew that he was adopted, it would have to be his son’s decision if he wanted to see me or not.”
Fox, a 43-year-old graphics artist for a Pasadena printing company, did not wait for Burns’ letter to arrive. Instead he told Bruce that his birth mother wanted to meet him. Bruce, who had been told as a young child that he was adopted, readily agreed, and a meeting was set up two days later.
“Bruce wanted to see Jean because he had been wondering who his natural mother was,” said Fox, who has been divorced for nearly a decade.
“It was like a dream come true,” Burns said, recalling her reunion with Bruce. “There was my son staring into my eyes as we examined our faces for a likeness. It’s hard to imagine what someone is going to look like when the last time you saw him he weighed just 7 pounds, 14 ounces and was only 21 1/2 inches tall. He was then 6-3 and weighed 175; he was everything I ever dreamed he would be.”
No Preconceived Notions
Added Bruce: “I was kind of surprised at how much she looked like me. You’ve got to remember that I had no preconceived notions of what she was like; I was totally in the dark about knowing anything about her. But the more we talked during the first meeting, the more surprised I was at how we hit it off; we became friends.
“Our first meeting took place during the summer before my senior year in high school,” continued Bruce, who lives with his father. His adoptive mother now lives in another state.
“That’s a good time for a kid to have parents. My senior year was pretty hectic, and I was working part time at Magic Mountain. That was a good time to have a second mother around to help me through those changes and to share in things like the prom and my being student body vice president.”
In the ensuing three years, Bruce, who is now a Glendale police officer, has developed an ongoing relationship not only with Burns but also her husband and two daughters. He has gone with them to dinner and sporting events and they have visited each other’s homes.
“At first we were just friends,” Bruce said, explaining his relationship with his birth mother. “But in the three years we’ve known each other, it’s become something more.
“Since I don’t live with my (adoptive) mother, it’s been good to have Jean around. It’s not that I consider Jean my mother fully--but we are more than friends. Our relationship is somewhere in between.”
Not all searches are as successful as Jean Burns’. Delayn Curtis, coordinator of CUB’s Orange County-Inland Empire branch (encompassing Long Beach and Pomona and Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties), traced her 17-year-old daughter to Florida and encountered her briefly upon leaving school one day. Curtis’ attempt to talk with her daughter proved unsuccessful and the girl and her adoptive parents have refused any further meetings.
Curtis, a computer operator, hopes that when her daughter grows older she will agree to meet her and Curtis’ other daughter and son, in addition to her husband, Warren.
A similar situation was experienced by therapist Boyden, who has a daughter, now 24, she put up for adoption. (Boyden also has a 21-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter from her first marriage. Since 1976, she has been married to Robert S. Lewin, a 43-year-old Newport Beach attorney.)
Although Boyden, 44, met her daughter’s adoptive parents five years ago, her daughter has refused to meet her, maintaining that it would be uncomfortable for her to do so.
Not Always Wise
Bruce Fox said he believes reunions are not always wise. He served as an intermediary for two CUB mothers seeking to arrange a reunion with their teen-age children who worked at Magic Mountain where he was employed at the time.
“They were not receptive at all to meeting their real mothers,” said Fox, explaining his co-workers’ reactions, “and when their real mothers called their houses their parents hung up and had the numbers changed.
“I’m sure these natural parents were hurting a lot, but they just brought more pain on themselves by trying to force themselves on their children. They should have just forgotten about it.”
Fox agrees with CUB members that adoptive children’s attitudes toward a reunion with their birth parents are shaped largely by the views of the adoptive parents. He also takes issue with CUB members who believe they can ignore or overcome adoptive parents’ opposition to such reunions.
“If you see your son is not open to a reunion and the (adoptive) parents are against it, then to attempt to force your way into their lives is only going to have negative results,” Fox said.
“You don’t know what your kid was told about you. If a child was brought up for 18 years having negative thoughts about his real mother, there is no way she can change his preconceived notions by talking with him for a couple of minutes--even if she’s the greatest lady in the world.”
Because he knew he was adopted and his parents were not opposed to a reunion, Fox said he was willing to meet his birth mother.
“I never thought my mother rejected me because she put me up for adoption,” he explained. “People have problems; I always thought that my mother putting me up for adoption was the best way she had for solving a problem.
“After all, she could have aborted me. But she cared enough about me to have me and to give me to a family that loved me.”