Through her work as an adoption professional and social worker, Carol Shipley has seen a lot. She has navigated the joy and heartbreak, the longing and the loss, counselling birth mothers and adoptive parents both. She's a tireless advocate for adoptees, the children who have no voice in the process.
Shipley's passion comes from a deeply personal place. She, too, is an adopted child. She's also an adoptive mother.
It's those three unique perspectives that inform her first book, Love, Loss, Longing: Stories of Adoption (McNally Robinson), which she will unveil at a book launch tonight. Shipley, 77 and now retired, shares her own story of searching for (and ultimately meeting) her birth mom after 52 years. She writes about her own adopted daughter's story and her reunion with her birth family. She also shares over a decade's worth of perspectives amassed during her career.
Shipley is a vocal supporter of open adoptions, in which biological and adoptive families have access to varying degrees of each other's personal information, as well as the option for contact, whether it be annual photos or face-to-face visits. Whether the birth family and adoptee decide to meet down the line or not, Shipley firmly believes that a child has the right to know where she or he comes from.
"That's the controversial piece," she acknowledges. "But the child has no say. I think the child's right to know should trump the right to privacy."
It's an issue that's very close to her. "I know what closed adoption can do," she says. "Secrecy hurts people."
Born in Winnipeg during the Depression, Shipley was adopted at four months old. The prevailing adoption practice at the time was the so-called "as if born" concept. Typically, adoptees weren't told they were adopted, nor that they had birth parents, and the adoption records were sealed in what Shipley calls a form of "legalized deception."
Shipley, however, had progressive parents who told her she was adopted as soon as she was old enough to understand. She wasn't a happy kid; a long black shadow of depression followed her through her youth. She fantasized about her birth mother, a "beautiful, sensitive, poor girl, alone and isolated who loved me but was unable to keep me." Then uncertainty would creep in. She left it alone.
Years passed. Shipley got married and had four kids, including an adopted aboriginal daughter. She began taking university courses and doing volunteer social work. In 1980, she started work at the Children's Aid Society of Ottawa. Although "adoption was a stone's throw away from this work," she writes, she wasn't ready to work in the field. "It was such a loaded thing for me because I didn't know my background," she says.
She was able to glean a few facts from a progressive, rule-bending social worker. She learned, for example, that she was Ukrainian. "Then she asked, 'Would you like to know your birth mother's name?' I can't believe I said no," Shipley recalls.
Looking back, Shipley says there were likely several reasons she made the split-second decision she did. "In those days, if you searched for your birth mother, you were an ungrateful adoptee. I knew I'd be considered badly adjusted human being. And I was just plain scared because I didn't know what I thought."
Still, she wasn't content with so little information and her curiosity trumped her fear. It wasn't until 1986, when a change in legislation allowed Shipley to learn her birth mother's married name, that her search really took off.
In 1988, she got the letter. Her birth mother wanted to meet.
"You see the Oprah-type reunions and what the media tends to focus on is the euphoria you start out with," Shipley says. "And it is like that It's like falling in love. There's a fantasy you have -- and then you find out things that maybe bug you, or shock you. This is your mother, but she's also a stranger. An 'intimate stranger,' someone once called it."
Shipley, too, had to reconcile fantasy and reality, and some truths were particularly harsh. Her birth mom's racist attitudes toward aboriginal people hurt.
Still, Shipley doesn't regret meeting her birth mom. Both her mothers, who have since died, also met.
"I feel like I was able to put the puzzle together. Not perfectly, mind you, but I had some answers."
Years later, her adopted daughter was able to get some answers of her own.
In 1970, Shipley and her husband adopted Elaine, a three-and-a-half-year-old girl of Cree ancestry who had been apprehended from her home when she was two and placed in foster care in Northern Saskatchewan. "We had a progressive social worker who told us her last name," Shipley recalls, but otherwise the adoption was essentially closed.
Like Shipley, Elaine was ambivalent about meeting her birth mother as a teen. "I was advocating all along to do it because I knew it would be a good thing for her," Shipley says. "It's not good to not know your heritage, but it's not good for the adoptive mother to push it, either.
"I felt it was very important she knew who she was, but she had to wait until she was emotionally ready."
Elaine was 30 when she made the trip back home to learn more about her heritage and ended up meeting her birth family. "I think it was the most important thing she ever did her life," Shipley says. "She reclaimed her heritage, proudly."
She also was afforded the opportunity to deal with the trauma of being apprehended. "She had a recurring dream that she was standing in the back of a car, looking out the back window, and she was crying. Children were running towards the car," Shipley recalls. "Her sister told her, 'That wasn't a dream -- that's what happened.'"
Through her lifetime and first-hand through her practice, Shipley has seen attitudes around adoption shift. An increasing number of families are opting for open adoptions and exploring how they can work for them.
"When I ended my practice, it was all open adoptions," Shipley says. "People began to see the good that could come for all three parties. A lot of people would be surprised. They could see how good it is for the child."
That's one of the reasons Shipley was motivated to write Love, Loss, Longing: Stories of Adoption. She wanted to hold up shining examples of "the life-fulfilling possibilities in adoption."
"The families I wrote about, I wrote about them because they were so generous with each other. It isn't the social workers who improve the practices; it's the clients."