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 but also 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 representative 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.