By Kim Nursall
On July 22, 1989, John and Gwyn Nursall adopted a baby girl at a Calgary hospital. While growing up, their daughter, Kim, now a reporter at the Toronto Star, didn’t think much about her history. Then she began to explore her feelings, and two years ago, her biological father got in touch. In the candid, moving Star Dispatches ebook Wounded at Birth?: My Struggle to Understand the Meaning of My Adoption, Kim describes how the fact of her relinquishment as a baby caught up to her in young adulthood, and how she believes it made the trauma of her parents’ divorce that much more profound. Wounded at Birth? is a powerful read for anyone trying to make sense of pain and loss.
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Wounded at birth?
In my inbox is an email from my birth father. We’ve never met. I’ve been searching for my biological parents for years, but now that I’ve finally heard from my birth dad, I don’t know if I will respond.
The email arrived this morning, April 4, 2012. My birth father’s words sat undiscovered in my inbox while my partner and I ate, showered, took the dog out and settled in for a long day of schoolwork in my Vancouver basement suite.
Then I checked my messages. “Oh my god,” I whispered. My hands leapt up from the keyboard to cover my mouth.
“What?” Sean asked. I didn’t respond, at least not right away.
“Hi Kim . . . I am your birth father,” read the email from Randy, whose name I had been familiar with since I was an adolescent. He was responding to an inquiry I had posted in a searchable adoptee/birth parent database four years earlier.
But instead of celebrating the fact he has made contact, all I can do is cry. It will take some time before I am able to do anything else.
As recently as four decades ago, domestic infant adoptions took place behind a wall of denial. Unwed and thus perceived-as-unfit mothers gave birth to bastard children in secret. Many of those children were then handed over to complete strangers judged to be more capable, appropriate parents. Birth records were sealed away, new birth certificates were issued with the adoptive parents’ names and, as explicitly stated, adoptees grew up “as if born to” their adoptive parents.
Society erased the unappealing past of the “adoption triad” (adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents) through this “win-win-win” solution: birth parents got their lives back, childless couples were granted the gift of a baby and adoptees were raised in loving, stable homes, untroubled by their sullied birth history. Or that was the hope.
In the 1970s, some birth parents and adoptees began to fight back against these ideas and the closed system, shoving off the cloak of secrecy. When I was adopted in the late 1980s, there was some openness, but an atmosphere of denial and shame lingered.
By the 1990s, an “open” form of adoption had emerged whereby adoptive and birth families exchanged information, met before the baby was born and sometimes stayed in touch afterwards. But as the first children of open adoptions enter their 20s and 30s, the impact of any kind of adoption — open, closed or a hybrid — on a child remains murky.
People who study adoption largely agree it can affect a child’s development, but the questions “How much?” and “Why?” remain difficult to answer. Does the initial separation between birth mother and adoptee cause what some have called a “primal wound”? How does being told you’re adopted affect your emotional development? And if the impact of adoption remains unclear, how can adoptees like me fully understand not just our birth history but ourselves?