From time to time, a researcher prowling through French actes de naissance, (civil birth registrations) will find a child whose parents are named simply as X, or not named at all: père non dénommé or mère non dénommée. This is no mere "brick wall"; it is a complete black hole.
Since the Revolution, a mother in France has had the right to give birth anonymously, Accouchement sous X. (The reasoning for this right is that it was thought that it would prevent child abandonment.) She can request that her identity and her admission into a hospital or maternity home be kept secret. When she does so, she is surrendering her child for adoption or into care. There will be no record or document on which her name or the father's are mentioned. There will be no traceable record of her having entered a hospital or maternity home. At the place where the child is born, and if she wishes, she may, but is not required to:
- Name the child. (If she chooses not to name the child, the law requires the civil registrations officer, officier d'état civil, to give the child three first names, the last of which will be used as the surname.)
- Leave information about her health and that of the father
- Leave any other information she wishes about the circumstances of the child's birth
- Leave her own identity, and/or the father's
This information is then put in a sealed envelope. Never will the contents of such an envelope be made without the mother's agreement. Written on the outside are the names the mother gave the child, along with the sex of the child and the date of birth. The director of the health facility is required to keep these envelopes. When grown, the child can begin to search for such an envelope to know his or her origins. If the mother chose to leave no information, then the child and any descendants will never know who the parents were.
More recently it has become possible, if the father knows he is the father or the child knows who one or both of the parents are, for either to petition to have the birth registration altered to include that information. Since just 2009, grandparents have the right to be identified as such to a child born to anonymous parents (né sous X). In all cases, they will have to be able to prove it. If they cannot and the mother remains anonymous, there truly is no way to pierce her anonymity.
A few days ago, we were conducting research in the Paris offices of a superb charity that has rescued children from the streets or worse for over a hundred years. Another researcher entered, a woman who had been born to anonymous parents and then had been taken in by the charity until her adoption. She had asked at every hospital in Paris and its suburbs for an envelope that might have been left by her mother. The answer was always negative. The charity was her last hope, but all they had was a copy of the civil registration of her birth, with neither parent named. The staff were as gentle and kind as possible, but they explained what she all ready knew: there was no record naming her mother or father. As it became clear to her that she would never, ever know who her parents were, she broke down and sobbed.
©2010 Anne Morddel