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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, September 10, 2009
Baker finds her birth parents, wants to help others do the same
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Donna Baker has searched for her identity for more than thirty years and now she’d like to share her experiences with others on similar journeys.
A slender woman who is impeccably dressed, Baker sits on the floral couch in her neat-as-a-pin Guilderland home and says, “My husband and I live a very simple life.”
She goes on, “That’s definitely the influence of my parents…The way I dress, always having to make my bed before I leave…that’s my Mom.”
Baker is talking about the parents who raised her, who adopted her when she was just three months old. They provided the only family she ever knew as a child.
She believes now, as an adult in her fifties, that both nature and nurturing shaped who she is. After decades of searching, she has found, and is developing a relationship with, her biological father. Baker has discovered she shares more than the same facial features with him. She shares an emotional side and a passion for politics that was missing from the family that raised her.
“I’m the country mouse; he’s the city mouse,” Baker said from her small-town home of the newly found father who lives in Miami.
Baker would like to start a support group for others in the area who were adopted and who are now searching for their roots. She urges those who are interested to call her at home, at 357-2878.
“Some people have no desire to search,” said Baker. But, for those who do, she said, “We shouldn’t be judged harshly.”
There are one-and-a-half million adopted children in the United States, which is over 2 percent of all American children, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national not-for-profit organization devoted to improving adoption policy and practice.
According to a national survey by the institute, two out of three Americans believe it is usually good for adopted people to search for and find their birth parents. But at the same time, only about 49 percent not quite half believe it is usually good for the birth parent when the child they placed for adoption finds them; this is a decline from the 56 percent in 1997 who thought it was good for the birth parent.
Sixty percent of Americans believe it is usually good for adoptive parents when their adopted children find their biological parents, up from 44 percent in 1997.
Baker would like to start a group where people can share their experiences, “not to be bitter or angry,” she said.
Both her husband, Rob Baker, and her sister have been supportive of her own search, Baker said. She also got support from her mother when she was alive. “Mom was a very self-confident woman who didn’t feel threatened by what I was doing,” said Baker.
She said of those searching for biological roots. “We’re not looking for parents; we’re looking to understand why we are the way we are.”
Baker describes her success with two words: “I’m stubborn.”
“The secret must be kept”
Although Baker had a happy childhood and loved her parents very much, she felt something was missing.
“My sister and I always knew we were adopted,” said Baker, so there was no ugly surprise. “My mother couldn’t conceive,” she said matter-of-factly.
Her sister was adopted five years before Baker and has made a search of her own.
Their father was a salesman; their mother worked in insurance. They grew up in a close-knit Catholic family in Latham.
“My mom never spoke disparagingly of our birth mothers,” said Baker. “She told me my birth mother loved me very much but wasn’t able to raise me.”
Baker’s was a “closed adoption,” she said, through Catholic Charities of Albany. “My adoptive and birth family knew nothing about each other.”
Baker, who works now in marketing for a retirement community, processes her feelings through writing. “I keep journals, not to show other people,” she said. “It helps me to put thought to paper.”
She shared one of the poems she has written about her birth:
Born into silence
No joyful shout, it’s a boy!
A beautiful girl!
This birth is veiled in shame
Two lives to be lived
One must go on
The other can’t quite begin
Shhh the secret must be kept!
The cycle of shame
From mother to child
Shhh the secret must be kept!
Baker explained, “Being adopted does make you a little different than everyone else. The secrecy alone creates a sort of dysfunction. At some primal level, I grew up feeling not good enough. On an intellectual level, I knew I was as good as everyone else. But, on that primal level, I felt like a fraud. I felt the shame on the part of the birth mother.”
She hastened to add, “My parents or relatives never made me feel that way.”
Part of it came from the era in which she was born. Baker was born in 1955 when there was “a huge stigma” for out-of-wedlock pregnancies, she said. “Today, there is not.”
She also said, “Today, there are open adoptions where the birth mother chooses the adoptive family.”
Starting the search
When Baker was in her early 20s, she read Betty Jean Lifton’s book, Lost and Found: The Adoptive Experience.
“That got me thinking about my own adoption,” she said. “It was never about looking for my parents. My parents are the people who adopted me at three months old. They are my real parents.”
Nevertheless, Baker was curious about her origins and asked her mother to see her adoption certificate.
“My mom was open about that,” Baker said. She carefully unfolds the document and points to the typewritten name her name at birth: “Mary Helen.”
“My birth mother had enough feeling for me that she gave me a name…That’s what prompted me to search for her,” said Baker.
It was a long and arduous journey. Baker was frustrated by New York laws that kept her identity from her. “I can never get my original birth certificate,” she said. She shows the certificate she’s entitled to, by law, that states just the name of her adoptive parents, not her biological parents.
The only clue she had to start with in the search for her biological mother was the name on her adoption certificate. She assumed her last name, typed there after “Mary Helen” was the last name, the maiden name, of her mother “since she wasn’t married to my father,” said Baker.
She went to the Catholic Charities office in downtown Albany to inquire and was given a single typed sheet. “It said my birth mother was from Newfoundland,” said Baker. That province is the farthest north in Canada on the Atlantic coast.
“I started making phone calls,” she said, noting that this was in the 1970s before the Internet made it easier to find people. “I was persistent and kept at it. I was lucky.”
When she finally reached a distant relative of her biological mother, she pretended she was an old school friend, so as not to reveal her mother’s secret.
“My mother had worked on an Army Air Force base on Newfoundland. My father, from Brooklyn, had been stationed at that base,” said Baker.
Once she had the name and phone number of her biological mother, who had since married, Baker decided to call her rather than write, aware that a letter from the United States might raise questions in the family.
“If she hadn’t answered the phone, I would have hung up,” said Baker. But she did answer.
“I said, ‘I think you’re my mother.’ There was dead silence,” recalled Baker.
“You must be mistaken,” came the reply.
“I’m quite sure I’m right,” responded Baker.
Another long silence followed.
“She said it would be better if I had not found her,” said Baker. “Her family did not know about me and she wanted to keep it that way. She asked if I had been raised Catholic. I had been. That seemed important to her.
“I did not want to harm her in any way. I told myself, ‘You don’t have any right,’” recalled Baker.
Her biological mother said she did not know the name of her father. Baker left it at that.
Continuing the quest
More than 30 years later, in 2005, Baker called again and asked for her father’s name. Baker thinks she may have been prompted by the death of the father who raised her. He died in 2004, four years after the death of his wife.
“I was looking for that biological connection. I wanted some answers if I could find them. I also had health questions,” said Baker. “By then, I realized I had some rights, too.”
She dialed the same number she had dialed three decades before and, again, her biological mother was not happy to hear from her.
“Both times I spoke with her,” said Baker, “I made it a point to let her know I never had ill feelings towards her.
“I don’t know how you couldn’t,” she responded.
“She had a lot of shame,” said Baker. “She couldn’t believe that I saw her as courageous.
Baker thanks her adoptive mother for that view. “My mom was fantastic,” Baker said. “She didn’t have a jealous or bitter bone in her body.”
The search for her biological father, once she had his name, was much faster. “Now, in the day of the Internet, it was much easier…I found he owned a company in Miami, Florida,” said Baker.
She called his business number. “I said I was looking for a man stationed in Newfoundland in the 1950s.”
He said he was.
“I said, ‘I believe you may be my birth father.’
“He started crying. He said, ‘There’s not been a day I haven’t wondered what happened to you.’”
Her biological father is married with a family. He told his wife before he married that he had fathered a child, so it was not a secret, Baker said; he had even gone on adoption websites, looking for her, to no avail.
That month, Baker and her husband traveled to Sarasota, Florida to meet her biological father and his daughter, Baker’s half sister.
“One of the things I’ve learned on this journey,” said Baker, “is that a biological connection does not mean you have a connection with someone. We were two strangers.”
Still, the meeting was the start of a relationship. Baker displays a photo of herself next to her biological father and points out the similarity in their looks they have the same high forehead, the same bright smile.
They have kept in touch and she has discovered where parts of herself came from. “I’m very emotional and he is, too,” said Baker.
She has also discovered differences. “I’m a conversationalist; I relate through talking,” she said. “He relates differently. He sends e-mails with New York Times political articles and jokes from the Internet. That was a disappointment to me at first. I wanted heart-to-heart talks.”
Her biological father also sends her birthday greetings and flowers every Valentine’s Day.
“You shouldn’t go into this with expectations,” Baker said of hoping for a deep personal connection right away. “That was a mistake on my part.”
But making the connection has changed her life, Baker said. “I’ve gotten answers as to why I have certain characteristics,” she said. “My parents were very calm and not politically motivated. I’m very passionate about causes I believe in, which is like my birth father and his family.”
There’s also the practical matter of knowing her biological family’s medical history.
And, from her biological father, she has learned more about the circumstances that led to her adoption.
“He was very candid,” she said. “He was young, and not ready to become a husband or father. He wanted to go to college after the service.”
He had an aunt and uncle who were unable to have children and wanted to adopt her, Baker said. “He’s Jewish and my birth mother’s family said, ‘You don’t want your child raised as a Jew.’” So her biological mother stayed with an aunt in Albany until the baby was born and could be adopted.
“He’s really a decent man,” said Baker. “I’m glad I’ve gotten to know him.”
And, although her birth mother does not want a relationship with her, Baker believes that both of her biological parents are relieved to know what became of her.
She is disappointed she won’t be able to get to know her birth mother, said Baker.
This summer, Baker decided to deepen her search and seek out the children of her biological mother, her half siblings. She went online and found a daughter who never married and lives in St. John’s in Newfoundland. Baker called her half sister in July.
She recalls saying, “This is a very awkward phone call to make. I think I may be your half sister.”
Her assertion was answered with silence.
Then, Baker fondly mimics the lilting tones of a Newfoundland native speaker as her half sister asked, “So, who do you belong to?”
Once Baker told her they shared a mother, the woman said, “Wow, finding this out explains an awful lot…I always knew there was something troubling her deeply.”
Baker and the woman are getting to know each other through weekly phone conversations and she has told her three brothers about Baker.
The woman confided in Baker that one of her brothers had a troubled youth and, when things got really bad at home and someone said, “Why don’t you just get rid of him?” their mother “went ballistic,” Baker said. The woman said she now understood why her mother would react that way.
“We have some things in common, a nice connection,” said Baker. “That comfort level is not automatic. It takes time to build.”
Each has expressed a desire to meet, Baker said, and she thinks she will probably meet her half sister and perhaps her half brothers after her biological mother has died.
They are keeping their interaction secret from her birth mother. “I don’t want to put her in an uncomfortable situation,” said Baker.
The woman has told her, “I think Mother would have been a lot happier had she not kept this secret.”
“Secrets,” said Baker, “are harmful and they do cause dysfunction. There is that cycle of shame.”
Baker went on, “Any adult adoptee has the right to know their history…We have the right to know why we’re the way we are…To me, this is such a luxury…I don’t think any woman who gives a child for adoption should be ashamed. It’s a courageous thing to do. The whole element of shame needs to be taken out of the adoption triad.
“I think records should be open for the adult adoptees. That adds to the shame,” she said of closed records.
Baker and her sister have talked about their journeys in searching for their biological parents. “We both came to the conclusion that we really hit the jackpot with the mother that adopted us,” said Baker. “Although we’re not related by blood, we’re sisters. The people that are our real family are the people we were raised with.”