Thursday, April 30, 2009
To Tell the Truth or Not, Continued: Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't
My coming out as a birth mother happened under quite different circumstances and back in the old days of the Seventies. Once I decided to write Birthmark (after my first marriage ended), the days of not being a birth mother publicly were over, more or less. I'd previously written two magazine pieces under a pseudonym about it.
I already knew how controversial the book would be when I met a prospective publisher for a drink in Manhattan one evening in the fall of 1978, and he brought along an editor with him, a friend as well as employee. This man, Arnold, did not know anything about me but when it became clear to him, BAM! the guy became extremely agitated, red in the face, practically spitting at me. WHAT RIGHT DID I HAVE! etc. I excused myself and headed for the ladies room; when I returned he had gone. It turned out that he had been raised in an orphanage and was more than a little angry with his birth mother. I'm not sure he was ever actually adopted. I felt he would have shot me on the spot had been possible. His friend had no idea he felt this way--or that he had been raised in less than propitious circumstances.
I turned 37 the summer before the book came out in 1979, and was sharing a house in Sag Harbor, where I live now, with other writers and editors. One woman I had never seen before walked up to me at a cocktail party and handed me a hand-written note with that little poem about "you grew in my heart, not under it" or however that goes and walked away, turning to smirk and stare back angrily. I never found out who she was, or whether she was an adoptee or an adoptive parent.
Talk of the audacity of what I had done--write a book about this taboo subject, that is, say that I had not forgotten my daughter and wanted to know her one day--made the rounds and the discussion, I would later hear from a friend who had been there, often became quite heated. So-and-so, I was told, pounded the table one evening in anger: What right has she? Who in the hell does that woman think she is? And all of this was further exaggerated when I wrote my first My Turn on the subject for Newsweek, for if news of the book hadn't reached you--and it was hardly a major publishing event--the Newsweek piece got people's attention.
But my friends were all supportive (only one of them a birth mother, and we were friends before our mutual reveal), and so I was largely insulated from nasty personal attacks. I told myself I had to expect a lot of criticism, but you can never insulate yourself enough. No one has a crocodile skin. Of course I was fair game during the publicity for the book. Most interviewers were sympathetic, but now and then someone who had been civil before the camera started rolling would turn out to be Raging Arnold in another guise. One adopted radio interviewer was so upset that he wore a full face mask--the kind they wear in Venice--during our half-hour chat to show his natural mother that he was going to stay hidden from her! Yet amazingly, this man--while he was plenty angry about being adopted--was not cruel to me.
That was then. Of course things have changed somewhat since then, and naturally, I do not like to make my feelings and status as a birth mother the subject of every conversation with someone new. I dread it when I am introduced, as one adoptive mother used to do, as the birth mother who wrote that book...because then there was no other conversation possible. I hate to talk about this issue at parties because a) it's not fun, and b) you never know what you are going to unearth. Once people hear this about you, they are likely to pepper you with questions for the next hour. (I stopped seeing that adoptive mother mentioned above much.) If I have to be polite to someone because she's the sister-in-law of a friend, and the sister-in-law is crazy curious, I will go along and do my best to educate someone on a subject that seems so amazingly foreign to them. But boy, am I then glad to change the subject! To get away!
So when new people I meet ask what I have written, I typically do not mention Birthmark, the blog, or any of my adoption-reform writings. Books on health and business, lots of magazine pieces on diverse subjects, I reply. I want to talk about gardening, backyard bird watching, movies, books, the sad state of book publishing, our mutual friends, whatever. When people--even acquaintances--ask what I'm working on now, I'm very likely (and so is my husband, if he's asked) to be coy and just say, Ahem, I'm not talking about it, even thought that sounds off-putting. Regular readers of FirstmotherForum know that revealing the subject even to people I felt quite close to has led to some pretty awful attacks, as I wrote about in previous posts. There and here and elsewhere.
About a dozen years ago when friends started adopting (and it is contagious), I had a tearful telephone discussion with one woman who was unable to get pregnant, and her husband really really wanted a child. They eventually adopted from China. A year later, I was sitting with a mutual acquaintance, and she said...X did it, I'm going to adopt, I'm going to get a Chinese baby. And so she did. And so did someone else we all knew, a year after that. A college roommate of X also adopted, this time a white infant who looks Irish and is being raised Jewish. Another friend's sister got two children in the last couple of years from Rhode Island. I walk into some dinner parties and immediately count three, four, adoptive parents and pray the subject does not come up. And so it goes in my world.
Like fellow blogger birthmother Jane, I do not talk about adoption with people who say they are going to adopt. I nod and look away and change the subject. I'd have to say that many of my friends in this adoption-YES! world do not know how I really feel. Adoption-reform pioneer Florence Fisher--the woman who really furthered our fight to open records by opening up the subject for discussion--once told me that if someone wants to talk about adoption at a party, she tells them, This is a party, I'm here to enjoy myself, this is not fun for me, I don't want to talk about this now. I've kept that in mind more than once and have used the same line myself. If they don't get it, I add, "Look, this was the more horrible thing that ever happened to me, it would be like talking about what it was like to be raped." That usually stops them cold. I can't say I've made any friends that way.
One time someone I know told me his daughter in college was doing something about adoption, could she email me? Sure, I said, thinking I might be able to educate someone. It turned out that she was writing a paper supporting this thesis: Why adoption records should stay sealed.
I xeroxed and sent her loads of material and told her taking that point of view was like arguing for slavery. Ah, I thought, I might make a convert. I never found out what she ended up writing--my offering probably got looked at and thrown out. Some months later we were at a big party together, and she pulled me over to meet another woman. "You two have so much in common," said the chirpy college student. "Lorraine has written a book about giving up a child, and you've [to the other woman} wrote a book about adoption..." Turns out the "other woman" was a adoption social worker. Then the college student walked away.
I thought of Florence and told the social worker calmly that giving up my child was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and did not want to talk about it. I did check out her book--it was not written with birth mothers in mind.
Yet saying nothing to friends who are pursuing international adoption is difficult now, especially as the information about kidnapping and various other nefarious means to get children for export is becoming known. For instance, we know someone whose fiancee is trying to adopt from Nepal. We spoke up a bit at dinner (fiancee was not present) at his house, but I could see right off that he was not ready to hear because he immediately said: Well, there are all those poor people in Nepal...Meaning: obviously, we ought to be able to get some kid from a poor family. Later, my husband emailed him and sent him a link to the UNICEF report about adoption from Nepal, that we wrote about here. We did not hear back.
But sometimes it just feels right to reveal. I once told a woman I'd met twenty minutes earlier I'd given up a child for adoption, and her eyes immediately glistened. Right. Turned out, she was a birth mother too, and we had a sweet, private conversation. You just never know. I guess you have to go with your gut.
As for Linda revealing her status to a woman she did not know at work, I can only say, Good job! If she is determined, the woman will probably find a way to adopt, but at least Linda let her know that kids don't come without strings, ancestors, other mothers and fathers. And lots of them are nice people you might know.
So like my fellow bloggers and commenters, being a birth mother is something I will readily cop to when I feel it will do some good, and like Jane says, it is easier being public about the issue without having to confront it one-on-one. But I don't want to be seen as a person who drags around a soap box with me.
Though to some, I am sure that is how I seem.
So it goes. --lorraine