Friday, August 29, 2008
About two years ago I learned Helen Hunt would direct and star in the movie I couldn’t wait to see it. Bette Midler was cast as Bernice, perfect as the in-your-face talk show host birthmother from, well, if not hell, certainly not heaven.
I finally saw the movie when it was released in May and I was terribly disappointed. (Spoiler alert: I discuss the movie and reveal the ending.) It was a small film, full of clichés. The book was all about the mother/daughter roller coaster relationship, which sadly took a back seat in the film. Hunt plays April, a teacher who is an insult to teachers everywhere--very drab and dreary. Hunt altered the book by throwing in a “gotta have a baby NOW” plot. Lorraine disagreed with me here; she “[liked] the emphasis on I WANT MY OWN BABY. I would have made her say: I want to see someone who looks like me....” While coping with baby fever, she's also dealing with her terminally ill (adoptive) mother. There's an unrealistic scene (at least to me, you're dying, this is what's foremost on your mind?) where April's mother is lying in her hospital bed with enough strength left to insist that there's no difference between a biological and adopted child, a mother loves them both the same (uh-huh). And she even tells her distraught daughter to adopt! April subsequently becomes pregnant by her husband who has walked out on her, and loses the baby in the first trimester
Bette/Bernice has kept tabs on her daughter’s life the way most birthmothers do--guesswork, a few crumbs here and there. She tells her daughter her father was Steve McQueen (altered from JFK in the book); the “sperm donor” was a neighborhood mensch, less than stellar, so Bette embellishes. She tells Hunt she was with her three days in the hospital, and then had to let her go, but April/Hunt later learns that wasn’t the case and she’s stunned by the revelation—her birthmother lied to her! And then the movie goes steadily downhill. The two argue. “You gave me away!” screams April. (Ouch!) Bernice is forced to admit she wanted to have a life rather than have her father ignore her, ignore her child. Lorraine shared this with me after she saw the film: “...It was painful for [me] to make Bette/Bernice say that, I gave you up because I wanted a life--Christ she was 15 and alone...and got no help from anyone, and so that seemed unusually cruel, but how they feel, I suppose. The adoptive saints were there.”
Bernice starts parking in front of her daughter’s house; the birthmother as stalker. April’s brother, their mother’s biological son, suggests that Bernice buy something extravagant for April to make up for all of “this.” That something extravagant is in vitro fertilization treatment. (The most extravagant gift I gave my daughter was a Tiffany bracelet.)
Cut to a few years later. We’re at Helen/April’s beau’s house (Colin Firth, who can do no wrong in my book). Helen asks his kids, “Where’s your father?” They point around the corner of the house. Helen goes to him; he’s gazing at something off camera. He leaves the frame, then Helen’s sitting alone, looking stoned. She’s looking at a little girl…her little girl, three, perhaps four. When the child turns around, I groaned out loud. April adopted a Chinese girl. Lorraine astutely noted, “It had to end with an adoption.... how tidy. How nice to make everybody feel ... good about adoption”
I walked out of the theater angry that I plunked down $10.25 for dreck.
I guess I was so annoyed because the movie was released shortly after Juno, and we all know what a great job that movie did for promoting adoption. Hollywood overall has done a terrible job of portraying out of wedlock pregnancies and single motherhood in film (Losing Isaiah, Knocked Up, and the dreadful Baby Mama come to mind). Yet the Hollywood/celebrity community doesn’t blink when unmarried actresses have children (biological or adopted) without marriage or even a father for their child (Angelina Jolie, Mary Louise Parker, Diane Keaton, an adoptive mother who was originally cast in the role of Bernice, Sheryl Crow, Calista Flockhart, Meg Ryan…feel free to add to the list).
Last Saturday night I was watching the 11 o’clock news and saw a commercial for a late night movie, The Last Trimester. Thankfully this made-for-TV movie barely saw the light of day, based on this anonymous synopsis from the IMDB web site: A young married couple, Eric and Tracy Smythe, are thrilled when they adopt a baby, only to have it taken away from them when the mother turns out to be married. At a complete loss, and in debt from in vitro, they are desperate to complete their family. When Eric comes home with what seems to be the perfect solution, a young woman who is pregnant and does not want the baby, their dream of family seems to be coming true...but the dream is about to become a nightmare.
So, birthmothers are as evil and deranged as Alex Forrest (the classic role played by Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction?
This post has me thinking about birthmother/adoptee relationships in movies; surprisingly, there are a few, some of them quite good. I’ll post my favorites here in a day or two. Meanwhile, if you’ve read or watched Then She Found Me, did you feel as Lorraine and I did? Or did you take away something else?
Here are some reviews for the movie from critics who aren't birthmothers:
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Her famous French mother was basically a high falutin' courtesan, and after she divorced Yvonne's father, had numerous affairs and a couple more marriages to wealthy European playboys, and left the raising of the children to their father. So Yvonne was raised in boarding schools with her sisters, both in France, until the divorce and the war, and then in this country. She says she hardly knew her mother when she went to live with her outside of Paris when she was seventeen. Her older sister did not see her mother for nearly two decades....
I've been attacked before by people who really hate that I am a mother who searched, that I am not against first mothers searching, that adoptees have the right to search, but unquestionably, the ones who are the most angry/upset are those who were abandoned by their own mothers. And that's what I think has happened here.
This is the letter I sent to Yvonne yesterday:
I am still quite distraught about what happened Sunday, but the white flowers seemed to say that you feel that we are only having a "disagreement" that could be easily patched up. It left the ball in my court to call you and say, Oh gee, let's forget it, let's be friends. I didn't accept the flowers because they would have only been a reminder that to you, I am, at the most basic level, a "reproductive agent." Without any rights except to mourn the loss of my child all my life. Instead of flowers, I would have welcomed a phone call to talk. I still would.
I don't know if the wine loosened your tongue, but if it did, it certainly only brought out how you really feel about women like me. I can not be separated from other women like me, anymore than you, in your mind, can not be separated from the French who did not stand up stronger against the Germans. That is a subject I have certainly not broached with you--for what purpose?--and I recall your angry reaction when Cocteau was criticized for collaborating with the Nazis. YOU WEREN'T THERE AND YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SAY ANYTHING was your hot and instantaneously emotional reaction when the comment was made at our dinner table. Yet you can tell me--no, insist with anger and certainty --how I, and the other women like me, had no basic human need/instinct/right to ever find out what happened to the children we gave up for adoption. Yet you have not lain in my bed. You have no idea with the experience is like. Yet you make ironclad judgments about it as if you had lived through it yourself.
Would it surprise you to know that in 1980, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, after holding numerous hearings around the country (for which I testified) issued a Model Adoption Act that included these words:
"There can be no legally protected interest in keeping one's identity secrete from one's biological offspring; parents and children are considered co-owners of this information regarding the event of birth.... " The Act would have given both adoptees and birth parents the access to the information. It also included this phrase: "modern attitudes and realities of adoption no longer support the cloak of secrecy upon which sealed records laws were based." But adoptive parents, and the financial backing of the Mormon church (for their own reasons of "family" in the afterlife) have fought this tooth and nail. Most other countries today do not seal birth records of adoptees. Adoptions from places like Siberia and Kazakhstan are suspect because there are several known cases of stolen babies, forged relinquishment papers, and the like.
People like Brooks Hansen go overseas, it appears, to get babies so they can have babies without an identity other than the one they give them. Most adoptions in this country today are some form of "open adoption," in which the parties know each other. These natural mothers--i.e. reproductive agents--apparently have a much less difficult time in their lives reconciling with the fact that their children are adopted. Let me ask this--and I don't know the answer--how old was Brooks and his wife when they decided to have children? In their most fecund reproductive years? Their twenties? Later? Much later? It is always sad when someone who wants to have children can not, but that does not entitle them ipso facto to someone else's child.
Your vituperative attack on me--and referring to us as "reproductive agents" is an attack on me-- went to the very core of who I am and what I have been about for most of my adult life. I have, over the years, received hundreds of letters from grateful adoptees, and other natural mothers, aka "reproductive agents", for the work I have devoted a large part of my life to. The letters are full of tears and thank yous. And of course there are always a few from adoptive parents who want to kill me. I have tried not to talk about this to you--though it is basic to who I am--because I know how you feel, and that nothing I ever said would open a crack in your feelings that I am wrong, and should shut up and sit down. Your mind was made up.
But know this: All adoptions do not work out well, no matter that the few that you know of have. Kids get returned; one parents dies, or they divorce and the new partner often doesn't want the kid and he's shuttled off to boarding schools and summer camps with little affection the week they are home in between; adoptees end up back in the care of the state; the statistics that I can show you prove that more adoptees end up in therapy, special schools, on drugs, both prescribed and illicit, have other children out of wedlock, are prone to pathological lying, etc. than the general population. Some adoptees can not search for any number of reasons--they may not have a birth certificate with the right date on it, or even the place--and only the natural mother can reconnect, because only she has access to the accurate facts of that birth.
Adoption is way more complicated than your experience has shown it to be. This is not just from my own experience, or from a few friends; I have a small library of books/academic papers/reports about this. I have testified in Albany to a joint Senate-Assembly committee, in Washington to a Senate committee, and in court for adoptees who want their records, been on television more than a dozen times talking about adoption reform. This is the subject of my life.
What I feel from you is a basic rejection/repugnance of all women who have surrendered children ("reproductive agent" says that), or at least all women who want to do more than say a million rosaries for those children. And that has to include me. So where does that leave us? I don' t know, but if you like, I would welcome you to come over and talk. If you want to do that, please give me a call so we can set up a time. I have been so very upset by this break. I hope we can repair this, but you have to understand that I can not erase from memory the words I heard you say with such vehemence. I am writing all this because I feel I could never get it all out if we talk. And I feel I not only owe you an insight into my feelings, but also would like you to know what the extensive literature on adoption says.
This break has hurt me deeply because I have been so very fond of you. I have often thought of you as the sister I never had. Our closeness has only made this worse. It is as if my sister told me I was worthless, and that how I have lived my life was a mistake.
I'll let you readers know what comes of this. She does not read her email everyday. I know some of you may not understand, but I do hope there is a way we can come to some sort of understanding and have a relationship. None of us are perfect, all of us have glitches, and there is much about her that I like. Coming to the realization about her mother was liberating, and made me think more predisposed to excuse her. Though I don't know if my analysis will have any bearing on the outcome.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
But there was always one huge gulf between us: adoption. Yvonne never met an adoption that wasn't happy. Though she knew my granddaughter--who even stayed in her house with my nieces (when ours was overwhelmed with relatives) she always needed to make clear to me that she always sided with the adoptive parents and that...she was not in favor of reunions, searching, every adoptee she knew fit in just perfect with her adoptive family, you name it. I always managed to change the subject ASAP, and I knew she was a woman of adamant opinions that offered little room for negotiation.
When Juno came out, I gave her Birthmark to read, thinking that she might at least see my point of view. She did, for about fifteen minutes, apparently. She does know one adoptee who searched, found and became good friends with her mother. According to Yvonne, that is all right. That is the only thing that is all right. But birth mothers' searching: Non, nyet, no, nien!
Sunday, I stopped by her house for a late afternoon visit. On her coffee table is a new book from the point of view of the adoptive father, The Brotherhood of Joseph (the original Biblical adopter), by Brooks Hansen, the son of her old boarding school chum and who lives, as fate would have it, only a few blocks away from us both. You get the picture. Aristocratic also--Brooks? He couldn't have kids with wife (don't know the ages at which they got around to thinking about that) so they adopted a child from Siberia, and a second from Kazakhstan. Which Mirah Riben devotes a small section to in The Stork Market.
Here is a snippet of the description on amazon:
Brooks Hansen vividly captures the emotional turmoil he and his wife, Elizabeth, endured as they tried to concieve, (sic) the years their lives were put on hold, and the excruciating sense of loss. He writes too of the couple’s journey through the bewildering world of adoption—a path to parenthood fraught with financial, legal, and emotional risks of its own.
I first heard of the first adoption at dinner one night at Yvonne's house and when she was getting dessert from the kitchen, and the adoptive grandfather said his son and wife were adopting from Russia so they wouldn't have to deal with "that birthmother business"--he had no idea he was speaking to one--I thought, what the hell, I'm going to burst his smug bubble, and told him...I'm a birthmother, my daughter has lived with us for summers, worked downtown at the ice cream place one summer, her parents have been great, etc.
Well, frankly that's just what we want to avoid, he said just as Yvonne returned with an apple tart and we changed the subject.
Anyway, maybe Yvonne is in her cups a bit last Sunday--she has poured herself a second tumbler of red wine with ice--but this time she will not quit. Showed me Brooks's book on her coffee table, that maybe it's something I ought to check into later when I have the time (she knows I am writing a memoir about my daughter Jane), and somehow and before I know it, she is yelling at me that ... women like me are wrong, we have no understanding of what it really means to be a mother, we are not mothers...the only feelings that count are those of the adoptive parents, WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO INTERFERE, because...we are nothing more than "reproductive agents." We can only give up our children for whatever reasons and pray for them. That is it. Searching? On our own? NEVER.
I argued for a few more moments but tears just started spurting out of me and I said, I can't talk to you about this. As I ran out for the door, she was grabbing my arm, saying, but I love you, dear, let's have dinner this week.
I was sorry that her opinions were so cemented in hardness. I was sad this friendship had come to this. But there is a point at which we can not be doormats to outmoded opinions.
to be continued....
Saturday, August 23, 2008
To Megan, a proper family is a husband, wife, and children. Her views come from – or at least are reinforced -- by her strong Mormon beliefs. If the natural family does not fit this “Ozzie and Harriet”/“Leave It to Beaver”/“I Remember Mama” mold, a new family must be created through adoption. This is the pattern God established for families.
The Church encourages its members to prepare a family history – in the case of adoption – it is the adopted family’s history although, according to Megan, they may also research their birth family if moved to do so. Genealogy is rooted in the Church’s requirement that its members baptize their deceased forebears in order to pave their way to a higher place after death. Genealogy has nothing to do with learning one's genetic heritage.
Hope your summer's been fine. Aaron's birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and I would like to ask you not to send anything for it. We've always really enjoyed your thoughtful presents, and really appreciated them, but at times I've felt a bit uncomfortable about them. I wasn't really sure how to deal with it, but I've decided just to take the direct approach and ask you to stop.
I'm sorry. I don't mean to offend you. Thanks.
Aaron, Megan’s youngest child is almost ten and I have been sending him gifts since he was born.
I debate what action to take. Ignore her, end our relationship, or ask her what’s behind her decision. If I received a similar letter from one of my raised daughters, I would call her immediately. We are family.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
My husband and I attended a family event over the weekend. We rarely see his family so naturally everyone was catching up on events. An in-law I’m close to asked if I had heard from my daughter and I replied no, but did I tell her I now have two “imaginary” grandchildren? I hadn’t. And this woman said what she says every time, “That’s not right. She came to you.”
It’s not right, but that’s how it is, as readers of this blog know all too well. The last time I saw or heard from my daughter was her wedding day, Memorial Day weekend three years ago. I didn’t want to go, but my inner circle of advisors said I must. The wedding was in North Carolina (her mother and I are in NJ). I met my daughter’s mother for the first time the evening before the wedding (we had been in reunion for over five years); it was a very awkward, very public introduction. My daughter made sure I kept my distance; I had less than fifteen minutes face time with her, as I expected. I wasn’t invited to the rehearsal dinner, she wouldn’t allow me to do a reading during the ceremony. I wasn’t included in any of the professional photographer’s family photos. I was just another guest. My husband, my sister, niece and I were seated at a table of the groom’s mother’s friends; I was on the other side of the room away from my daughter’s relatives, of which there were very few.
From what my sister has told me, my daughter was outraged that I stole her thunder on the most important day of her life. My status as the fairytale birthmother was the focus of the day, not the bride. My sister tried to tell her niece that I was on my best behavior, people came to us, I didn’t flit about the room bragging if I wasn’t for me, there’d be no wedding, as she insisted I did. People—her uncle, elderly second cousins--came to me; they shook my hand warmly and told me how glad they were that I was there.
I took away two things from that long afternoon and evening. The first was a brief but surreal conversation I had with an adoptive mother, a dear friend of my daughter’s mother, and the following encounter. My niece and I were in the ladies’ room and an attractive young woman turned to me and said, “I just wanted to tell you how great it is that you’re here. I’m an adoptee, and my mother wants nothing to do with me.” Of course, my heart sank. I knew, I KNEW, that I was just hours away from being cut out of my daughter’s life, and yet I had on my shiny happy birthmother face. I told this woman what we all know too well—reality is messy, reunions are complicated. I told her to give her mother time, try to be patient…the same things people have told me. She also mentioned her husband was also an adoptee but after seeing what she went through, had no desire to search for his birthmother. I told her that was fine, that was his right.
Later in the evening I found myself on the terrace with this young woman and her husband. He immediately started to tell me all the reasons he didn’t need to search for his first mother, and I listened and assured him his feelings were valid and allowed. As his speech wound down, I noticed he was in tears. I wonder if he’s changed his mind about searching.
When I arrived safely home two days later, I turned to my husband and said I felt as though I deserved an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy for my performance, and he agreed.
And so it goes.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
It has nothing to do with the original, first, birth family. Quite the opposite. In fact, if you had been listening to the folks talking at the Second International Conference on Adoption and Culture at the University of Pittsburgh last fall (2007) you correctly would assume that the adopted person became so totally integrated into the new family that the old family...shucks, hardly matters at all. The adoptee point of view--about how maybe adoption is not that great--was relegated to the creative sessions...since we did not have academic papers to present.
By the time I heard the "kinning" paper presented, I knew what was coming.
Of course, I remember the time that my daughter Jane told me how she knew she was home: when my husband told her that her footfall on the stairway was just like mine. Heavy. She told me not long ago that she had been criticized for years...Jane, can't you just walk quieter?
Well, um, no she couldn't. It was an inherited thing.
There may have been more mothers at the Pitt conference, but Carol Schaefer, Mary Anne Cohen and Shelia Ganz and I were the only ones that I'm aware of who attended. Although Carol and I read at the opening session, which was good, Shelia and Mary Anne read at the late night and very poorly attended session for poetry and other original contributions. It was an academic conference, and our contributions were...not in the mainstream of what this conference was about. I was so glad to have the company of other birth mothers (along with Marley, my favorite bastardette), especially at the conference dinner.
However, I did have some nice interactions with several adoptees who seemed glad to have us there. Mostly, it felt like a conference of adoptive-mother academics who were hell-bent to "prove" that the original culture did not matter. But Marianne Novy, the adoptee academic at Pitt who was the main organizer, did invite Emily Prager to speak. And Emily raises hackles in some adoption families (and among those I know) because she did immerse her Chinese child as much as possible in the Chinese culture when they were living in the states, and then moved to Shanghai, where she and Lulu live now. Emily's book, WuHu Diary, is an interesting read. It's about taking her daughter back to China when she was five to see if they could track down her birth mother, or at least more information. They could not.
As a side note, Emily spent a part of her own youth in China with her father, who was a military attache there. And he is a close friend of mine, so I've known Emily since long before she adopted. Lulu, he says, the little girl in question (Emily kept the Chinese name she had been given) intends to come back to the states when she is older. She is just going into high school in Shanghai this fall. As for Lulu, it is almost certain that she will never be able to connect to her first family. She was left on a bridge near a police station, with a note from her birth mother, as I recall from the book.
But if I mention Emily...to another friend who also has a Chinese daughter...she sees red and does not contain her disdain. Which is what happened when I simply said I was going to be away the weekend of the conference, and that Emily was speaking.
This is not to say that these parents aren't good parents, they are; or that the girls who were adopted here are certainly better off than if they were languishing in a Chinese orphanage; or that adoptees do not form strong lifelong bonds with their new families, the only ones they grow up knowing.
But how one views or reacts to the nuances of "adoption and culture" is skewed by one's frame of reference. Absolument.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Given up for adoption when he was four (and he and an older brother played with fire and burned their house down), he was adopted at five, but unfortunately separated from his brother, also placed for adoption. When Reese was 23, and at college, he decided to look for his other mother, and found her quickly on through an adoption website (which one, we don't know) that his mother had posted on two weeks earlier. His mother, on video, says of their separation, "It's always there, you never go on and be happy." Yep, that's exactly what she says. She also is able to tell Reese that he wasn't given up because his playing with fire wasn't the reason he was placed for adoption.
His adoptive mother turns out to be a peach, and though she admits she was somewhat apprehensive, and jealous, she wanted him to "have the answers he wanted." The reunion was seven years ago; his first mother had already found his older brother. Both mothers come off well in this story, and one is left with the impression that this reunion, seven years ago, has a happy ending.
Check out the story at:
Reunions are so fraught! Birth mothers who long for reunion want to pop those kids right back into our families, but the adoptees are thinking: not so fast--I've got this whole other family that I'm a part of now. This was certainly true with my daughter--Lordy, a couple of months after we got together, I did what a lot of clueless mothers do: have a "reunion" gathering of sorts where relatives came by the house. Of course, they were curious. I'm sure she felt like an elephant in the circus.
Fortunately the day was saved by my husband--not her father--who a lot of these relatives had never met either, as we had gotten married earlier that year in New York, and all this was happening back in Michigan, where I'm from. So most of the relatives hadn't met Tony either. He kept Jane company on the couch, and made her feel safe and less of an exhibit.
Would I do the same thing again today? Nope. I'd let her be introduced to people bit by bit. It would have been enough to meet me, and my immediate family that time.
When I read the last section of Birthmark (a letter to my daughter whom I have not yet found) at the Pitt conference last fall, about my family all waiting and praying for her, the room was very quiet. I thought, wow, I hit a nerve.
I'll say, as the room was probably three-quarters filled with adoptive mothers for whom the idea of another family "waiting" for "their" child was anathema. I remember watching one large woman...later I would listen to her describe the practice she called "kinning," by which an adoptee becomes kin to the adoptive family.
One adoptive mother did speak to me after I read. She said, you know, we feel that the child was "meant" for us...that probably...I don't remember how she finished the sentence because we both knew what she meant. Like, yeah, it's hard for us to be behind the idea that we had a child that was "meant" for another family. It makes us seem as if we are breeders, like livestock.
One last note today. If you live in New York, take two minutes and make a call to Sheldon Silver's office in Albany and ask that he bring the Adoptee Rights Bill to the floor for a vote. Say you are calling in support of Bill A2277. It's very simple. You'll be asked for your address, but you don't need to explain why you are calling. The number is 518-455-3791, courtesy of Joyce Bahr of Unsealed Initiative of the New York Statewide Adoption Reform.
How are they gonna know in Albany that adopted people want/need/deserve their original birth certificates, with no restrictions, unless we let them know?
Saturday, August 16, 2008
But we don't live in an ideal world; sometimes abortion may be the best alternative for a woman facing a crisis pregnancy. And yet in the first decade of the 21st century, when single celebrity moms have made out of wedlock births fashionable, we're at risk of losing that choice. I'm particularly confused about this paragraph from the following AP article I found on Yahoo this morning:
Democrats, meanwhile, had it both ways in revising their party platform ahead of this month's nominating convention in Denver. Platform-writers said the party "unequivocally" supports legalized abortion, a stronger phrase than the 2004 platform contained. But they also bolstered the section on reducing the need for abortions. The version awaiting approval in Denver says the party "strongly supports access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education." It says the party "strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and postnatal health care, parenting skills, income support and caring adoption programs."
I'm in 95% agreement with this statement, but will someone please define "caring adoption programs"? Have any of us had the good fortune to experience a caring adoption program?! We've said throughout the ages that if men were the ones bearing children, the rules would be different. Would they ever.
Whew Linda...Lorraine here...you got that right when you point out the careful phrasing "caring adoption program." Caring for whom? Let's see, I assume they want to imply for the birth mother, but gee..exactly what are they talking about? An open adoption that has no teeth of law behind it to force the openness?
When I relinquished I argued at length with my social worker once I found out the insane policy, ie, the real mother will now drop dead and never return...of course, open adoptions changed all that (up to a point, as we unhappily all know), but at the time, my "caring" adoption counselor told me that if I insisted that I someday be able to meet my daughter, or find out what happened, she could not help me...so she passed me the Kleenex and that was that.
Abortion itself is such a tricky issue for adoptees, because ... many of them are aware that they were almost or might have been aborted. My daughter was pro-choice but this was not an issue we discussed at great length. And of course having read Birthmark she was well aware that she might have been aborted. I'd love to hear how adoptees who read this post feel about abortion. It always has to be a "what if" issue...right?
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Though my pregnancy was certainly unplanned, and I admit that I tried to have an abortion in 1966, everything changed for me when my daughter was born. Everything. Giving her up was the worst/hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and I will spend the rest of my life accepting that. So I can't figure these women out.
Several years ago I read about a type of personality in the New York Times that is able to put aside, or internalize, bad things that happened to them--the total opposite of "let it all hang out," and there was some thought that this might be psychologically healthy--perhaps even healthier--than keeping the hurt alive. Well, all that is fine, but when you have a child, no matter what, you end up with a certain amount of responsibility to that child. Even if you are unable to have a relationship--because of the constant pain that resurfaces--you owe that individual at least as much information as you can give, and one face to face meeting at the very least.
The best understanding I can have of these women is that the birth and relinquishment was so painful that they can not deal with having it resurface, as it all does during a reunion. Oh, it does. During that time of initial reunion it feels as if the scabs are all ripped off the grief and you're back to where you were when it happened--but at least with the knowledge that you are able to know your child. Which is the relief. I used to look forward to my daughter's visits (which might be the entire summer) but she had a myriad of psychological problems, many relating to her epilepsy, that drew me and the rest of my immediate family into her vortex. Consequently, when she left there was always tremendous relief, and guilt over feeling the relief. I've hated to admit this, but it's true.
Yet despite any difficulties...
The need for the vast majority of adoptees and their first mothers to reunite was considered by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) nearly three decades ago. After holding numerous hearings on the issue around the country, the agency included these words in a proposed Model Adoption Act in 1980:
“There can be no legally protected interest in keeping one’s identity secret from one’s biological offspring; parents and child are considered co-owners of the information regarding the event of birth….The birth parents’ interest in reputation is not alone deserving of constitutional protection.”While some provisions of the act were promulgated, the recently formed National Council for Adoption (and, FYI, for closed adoptions) led the fight to keep this out the bill. According to E. Wayne Carp in Family Matters, HEW received more than 3,000 comments from the public, 82 percent of which opposed the model act entirely. Ninety percent of the adoptive parents who responded objected to the open-records provision. I'm going to project that if the bill came up today, adoptive parents would not mount this kind of opposition, because a Cornell University survey of more than a thousand adoptive parents found that the majority of them (80 percent) supported reunion. Or at least, giving their children the tools to effect it--that is, the information of their birth.
When the bill passed, the open records provision was rewritten "to protect the privacy of the birth parents."
Every woman who surrenders a child deserves our understanding, but...how do we reach those who reject a reunion? Maybe just by getting more of good reunion stories out there. The biggest hurdle for many is likely to be that they never told their new families, and how are they going to spill the beans? The husband/family is certainly going to feel as if they were lied to for all these years. Just as adoptees who were not told and find out when they are older feel betrayed. Lied to.
And on the other side, there are adoptees who reunite and then walk away, leaving the mother bereft and feeling worse than before the reunion.
Adoption is always painful. We are always making the best of a sad situation.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Folks, I've twice lost everything I have written and so I'm a little nuts...so as lightening strikes overhead I'm going to try one more time because it's important to get our voices heard when adoption reunion stories make news. Today's New York Times (8/11/08) has a story about an adoptee, Mark Cellura, who searched and found that his twin, seemingly an identical sibling, had died in 1987. Reporter Sarah Kershaw does a good job of highlighting the necessity of this man's search, and the long slog it is taking to change laws to give adoptees their birth rights. For us, the only really sorry note in the story is that Mark's mother has not responded to a letter from his intrepid searcher, Pam Slayton. (However, there is one adoptee mentioned in the story who has happily reunited, so all first mothers don't look like--jerks.
I know adopted people are afraid of rejection, but is it really any easier if it's done through a third party? Adopted people should make contact themselves, have the courage to make a phone call. Just by the mere fact of birth, they are entitled by the laws of nature one meeting, one day of answers, all truths revealed, nothing held back. This is the story of their lives. I know some of these women still say no, but I'll go out on a limb here and predict that the total reunion-rejection rate is probably lower than when the contact is made through a third person, via letter. The only exception I can feel good about is when a confidential searcher, as in some states, is also a birth mother, and is able to allay the fears of women deep in the closet.
See "In Adoptee's Search, Loss and Grief Collide" at: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/11/nyregion/11twins.html?_r=1&ref=nyregion&oref=slogin
So, let's use today's Times story to storm our version of the Bastille: Write to the Times (Letters@nytimes.com) and email a copy of the letter to your legislators, all of them: Your state senator and assemblyman, as well as your congressman and senator in Washington. Unless you let them know what you want, they're not going to know. Urge them to get behind a clean bill--one that gives adoptees the rights that should be theirs as a matter of course. Read about the good New York bill at: http://www.unsealedinitiative.org/
You don't have to be brilliant, you just have to voice your opinion. The more letters the Times gets, the more ink we will get in the paper. You do have to remember to include your name, address, and phone number. Be brief, but be quick. Allow yourself to get angry! Me, I'm angry at all those women in the closet. I'd like to pull them out by the short hairs and give them 40 whacks. But how do we reach them? Aye, that is the question. How do we reach them, how do we change their minds and open their hearts? Through my high school grapevine, I know of one woman from Sacred Heart High School in Dearborn, Michigan who apparently is not curious, and never looked back. How do I reach her?
But remember, Well-behaved women seldom make history.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Japanese parents buy an ovum and rent the womb of a poor woman, but alas, the couple divorces before the birth. The natural mother, who provided egg and incubation for money, does not want the burden of raising the child, which is understandable, as we assume that she only took on this life-changing job because she is poor. Baby incubation is not a job middle-class or upper class women take on. Now the Japanese father is willing to take the child, but the Indian law says that only couples can adopt the baby...not a single parent, and there is some problem with the baby leaving India. So while this is sorted out, the baby languishes in a Jaipur hospital.
(read full story at: http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/story.aspx?id=NEWEN20080060225
(Once I figure out how to do a link, I will!)
While this sounds shocking, something similar happened here in the USA a few years back and the whole sorry story was in O magazine. In that case, the surrogate mother--whose eggs were fertilized with man's sperm--had twins and again, due to divorce, neither parent who ordered up the babies wanted them. When they were born, the divorced couple simply turned their back on the surrogate mother. Wouldn't pick up the kids, answer her phone calls, and had temporarily disppeared since they had moved. The surrogate mother, ahem, the real mother, was raising the twins while this was being sorted out. (I tried to find this story on the O website to no avail, it ran about five years ago. If anyone can find it, please do.)
What to do? We humans are so cavalier about baby-farming--it's all about "I want" and "I can pay" that we do not consider the eventual outcome and impact on the children being created. Their needs are seen as secondary, not that important. Love will solve everything, right? Wrong.
Who out there doesn't know, or know of, some woman who has had a baby with an anonymous sperm donor? When one showed up at the AAC conference in Atlanta a few years ago, with the cute baby following her around--she should have been shunned rather than been on the program, where she was largely unchallenged as she told her story.
If we cared enough about the future needs of these children, there would be no anonymous sperm donating--anywhere; if we cared enough, surrogate mothers could not be paid for their eggs, or their wombs available for filthy lucre; if we cared enough, frozen embryos would not be passed around like so many jelly beans; if we cared enough, poor nations would not be exporting babies as a commodity contributing to their GNP; if we cared enough, there would never be another closed adoption anywhere, and open-adoption contracts would have the force of law behind them; if we cared enough, all adopted people, and sperm-donor babies, would be able to access their birth records--with all names--tomorrow.
But we do not care enough. Because the tools to manipulate life are there, a generation of baby boomers and X-geners use them casually, indifferently, without any real thought to the eventual lives they are manipulating. Historically, humans have always foisted atrocities upon each other, but this is the first time it is being done in the name of "love."
As for the baby above, we can only hope that the real father gets to take his baby home to Japan.
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
I don't refer to her child as her adopted child, or make the distinction (except with those in this inner circle of hell we inhabit) when I talk about her. But that's what is so infernally frustrating about life at our end: we are continually asked to be deferential, when as far as I can tell, adoptive parents feel no such compunction.
Shortly after my daughter committed suicide, my husband Tony was at a Christmas party (which I did not attend) and a close friend, who had known my daughter for over twenty years, was asking Tony about Jane, and me...and simply referred to "Lorraine's daughter." An adoptive mother whom I don't know well was in that circle of three, and the second time Genie referred to my "daughter" the adoptive mother corrected Genie and said, "birth daughter."
My husband was irritated, but of course, said nothing. Impolite to point out? Right. But I do feel like asking her one day, how her adopted daughter is.... Why do I think she won't be happy? Guess we won't be good friends any time soon.
While that was irritating, sometimes spontaneous language that isn't "correct" feels just right. At one point during my daughter's wake a woman approached me and asked: Are you Jane's biological mother? She said it without hostility or emphasis, and I answered in kind: Yes. She was with a small group of people who turned out to be Jane's friends from Toastmaster's, and they seemed all delighted to meet me. They woman told me that Jane had talked about me often, in obviously a good way, to judge from their enthusiasm at talking to me.
In that moment, being Jane's "biological" mother was just fine--in fact, it was better than having this woman know the proper language. On that occasion, I preferred "biological" to "birth." When you deconstruct the word, "birth" gives off the vibe of being there only for the birth; biological says it all, clinical and machinistic though it can sound in a different situation. It's all in the context.
I try not to be overly sensitive, but sometimes you just can't help feeling that people on the other side of the adoption equation need to get a grip on reality, and be more sensitive our our feelings. How hard would it have been for the two adoptive mothers quoted above to simply hold their tongues? They can refer for me as "birth" mother or !@#!!* mother not in my presence, but when my husband or I are there, please refrain from feeling you have to put me in my place. I--or my husband--are really not going to forget that--Oh yeah, that's the daughter I gave up for adoption.
But what all this fuss over language does is acknowledge the enormity of the bond between mother/parent and child. If that biological/genetic/blood bond meant nothing, there wouldn't be this tug-of-war over language. I'm willing to be sensitive to adoptive families' feelings, and certainly those of adopted people, and consciously try not to offend them, but it would be nice if the favor were returned once in a while.
Sunday, August 3, 2008
I’m sitting here shaking my head, thinking about how far we’ve come from the dark ages of the closed adoption system, yet there’s so much more work that needs to be done. How can we assure adoptive parents that we’re not going to show up after twenty or thirty years and usurp the adoptive parents’ roles? And why do we have to do the reassuring in the first place?! We’re just relieved and thankful to know our kids were loved and well cared for. Yes, the tears for lost years and what might have been eventually follow, but there’s no way around it, it comes with the territory, we need to grieve. And our children need to be allowed to grieve too. I’ve said this to Lorraine countless times: in an ideal world, women who wanted to bear children and who have the financial and emotional means to do to so would; and unplanned/unwanted pregnancies would be eradicated like polio. But we don’t live in an ideal world.
I have a magnet on my refrigerator that says “Donate Life.” I’ve seen the same magnet/sticker on a locker in the doctors’ lounge on Grey’s Anatomy. It was a gift when I signed an organ donor card a couple of years ago, but now it’s a daily reminder of how I and my fellow birthmother sisterhood gave the ultimate gift—the gift of life! And this—the stigma that still follows us in the 21st century, the unjustifiable fear and loathing from adoptive parents, the children who won’t forgive us for giving them away—is our thanks. Do you know—or perhaps you are—a birthmother who was welcomed with open arms by her child’s adoptive family, one where the adoptive mother isn’t scared to death of you, isn’t intimidated by you because her child resembles you and not her? If so, please tell me what it’s like. Dear reader, I’m not angry, I’m just very, very frustrated. I was the found party in my reunion dynamic, I didn’t seek; it took me about 18 months to recover from losing my daughter a second time. There are two boys--a 2-1/2 year old and a ten month old, who don’t know they have a Grandida and haven’t received the gifts she sent because their mother doesn’t acknowledge the women’s existence. I have no explanation other than this one offered by my sister, who my daughter will contact when she needs information, “She already has a mother. She doesn’t need another.” This just wasn’t what a signed up for. Or was it?
Carole told me she spent quite a bit of time with him, tried to make him aware and sensitive...as long as he agreed not to include in his story her personal saga--that although she had reunited with her son, he had not yet told his adoptive parents. He was an adult at the time, married with kids. Yet he couldn't bring himself to tell his adoptive parents.
When I hear about the "kinning" (a word I heard a the Pitt Conference last fall, there was much talk about how the adopted person becomes one with the new family, never mind the old) that goes on between people who adopt and their children, I can not help but think about the lack of honesty regarding the adoption process that still goes on between many an adoptee and many an adopter, even in our supposedly enlightened era when...it is not supposed to be that way.
On my bulletin board in front of my I have an old bumper sticker that says: Adopted People Are Not Allowed Ancestry Because It Might Upset Somebody. Now I suspect that initially the sentiment was to counteract the idea of the firstmoms in the closet, but it can also be read the other way, now can't it? Adoptees are not allowed to speak of that relationship...that will hurt the adopters' feelings.
I digress. When Tom Junod's story came out--I've been trying to find it on the web without success, help anybody?--it put Carole in a precarious position with her son as well as made birthmothers who simply don't walk away look like loons. Though she was devastated, Carole, a lawyer who worked in Des Moines, considered legal action but ultimately decided against it. I remember a long, long conversation we had about the story. To add insult to injury, the piece was one of the finalists (all of which get a certain amount of publicity, I know because I was a finalist once) for one of the big prizes in magazine journalism, the National Magazine Award. There's a big lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the winners are listed in the New York Times, the editor and the writer go home that day very happy with the bragging rights that come with winning. Before the winners were announced, I wrote an outraged letter to the head of the organization, ccd. the editor in chief of Esquire (who is still there, incidentally) but to no avail. I received no response. At least I let a few people know that he had gone back on his word. As least Mr. Junod did not win that year. Shortly afterward I heard that he and his wife adopted. Hmm, I wonder how open their adoption is?
So...last night on a crowded deck, ice cubes clinking against the plastic tumblers, I hear his name, and BAM! I'm right there, looking to see who he is, and he's chatting it up with other journalists/producers I know. At some point in the evening, we caught each other's eyes they way eyes do, but that was it. Fortunately, the party was big enough that I did not have to meet him. I think I might have at least said: I was a friend of Carole Anderson, and see his reaction.
I am not railing here against journalism or journalists because I've been a newspaper reporter or a journalist, and an editor, most of my life. It's just that when you promise someone you will not include certain information, that's it. If you are an honorable person, you do not go back on your word--no matter how much pressure the editor gives you, or how much better you think the story will be if you do.
Lord, the simplest things take you back. I think that the mothers who really put the children out of their minds, who really do find a way to exit the stage, are better off than we are, but then--they must be the cruel ones, who do not meet their children when the children come calling.
Friday, August 1, 2008
Two decades later, I reconnected with Lorraine after my reunion with my daughter started to head south for the second or third time. I asked her how I could see the glass as have full rather than half empty, and she responded “Well, you don’t.” Since that initial cry for help, Lorraine and I have supported one another through our relationships with our daughters and beyond, and have vented against the adoption industry—from modern day maternity homes to crawling into a cave for most of November (National Adoption Month) to the monumental, frustrating task of granting adoptees to right to their original birth certificates. Regardless of the 10,001 reasons we chose adoption, our journeys led us to the same place—we’re childless mothers.
Since we reconnected four or five years ago, Lorraine and I exchange e-mails almost daily. Happily, it’s not all adoption, all the time, just when it’s in our face, such as when a celebrity somehow sails through the bureaucracy and has a camera crew covering their third world adoption (we’re keeping a tally), or how we can’t seem to sit down and watch a TV show—from Grey’s Anatomy to CSI—without having a [usually deranged or drug addiced, rarely a broken hearted all-American girl-next-door] birthmother storyline, or when a movie like Juno is a blow for pro-choice and reproductive rights.
When we’re not raging against the system, we watch and recommend movies, TV shows, discuss the NY Times and weekly magazine articles. I turned her on to Amy Winehouse (regardless of her personal problems, she rocks). And we both love to cook (but I hate to clean up) and are really, really good at it; we share and compare recipes all the time.
No doubt you’re just like us. You rant and rave, cry on your child’s birthday or the anniversary of the day you signed the papers that said you’re no longer your child’s mother. And once in a great while, you may even manage to find a silver lining in this mess called adoption. Feel free to chime in, have your say. There’s strength in numbers as you know. Help right make right. And cross your fingers that some TV executive will be surfing the Internet and will have the brilliant idea to finally give Lorraine and me the TV show we were destined to host.