Sunday, July 19, 2009
Telling my family about my first child--and then going public
Telling the Family
When my first daughter, Rebecca, whom I relinquished for adoption contacted me through an aunt, I had to deal with telling my three other daughters about her. My husband knew about her – I had told him the night before we got married—but I was concerned, and a bit terrified, I admit, of telling my younger daughters who were 25, 23, and 20 at the time.
None of them were living at home, and the oldest was getting married in a month. It was late November, and I did not want to distract from my daughter’s wedding or the Christmas festivities by announcing a new family member, so I decided to wait until after Christmas to tell them. This also gave me some breathing time to digest everything.
Even though Rebecca and I emailed everyday and spoke frequently on the phone, I waited ten days before I told my husband. It is hard to bring up the matter of child who has been relinquished. As I wrote in an earlier post, it felt as if my world was shifting. And of course, it was.
Although Rebecca and I discovered we had major differences in religious and political views – she was a Mormon and a Republican; I am not religious and a solid Democrat -- we were alike in many ways, having the same sense of humor, enjoying the same movies, making the same spelling errors. We shared details of our lives; we were soul mates. As time went on, Rebecca pressed me to tell my daughters about her. My oldest raised daughter was working in Washington DC, the youngest was attending college in New York, and my middle daughter lived in Salem, Oregon where my husband and I lived.
Rebecca and I arranged to meet in Chicago where she lived in January. I had come to a place with Rebecca where I trusted her and decided to tell my other daughters about her before I left. I believed that the shared pain of our separation had forged an unbreakable bond between us. I wanted her to be part of my life, and I knew this could not be if I kept her a secret.
A week or so before I was to leave for Chicago, I asked my two youngest daughters who happened to be at home to come into the kitchen and talk to me. I began haltingly – “There’s this girl, woman….” (The girls told me later that they expected me to say that I was a lesbian and had a lover.) “She is a daughter I placed for adoption before I met your Dad.” I’ve always been political and my middle daughter blurted out “Oh, so that’s why you never ran for public office.”
I told them I regretted giving Rebecca up. The girls questioned whether their Dad would have married me if I had kept Rebecca. I pointed out that their Dad took in stray cats so that a stray kid would not have been a stretch. After a few more minutes, I left for a walk allowing them to talk among themselves. I forbade them from calling my oldest daughter, telling them I would do it when I returned.
When I came back, they both shouted at me to call their older sister—the one who had just gotten married. She had called from the china counter at Macy’s in the Pentagon City Shopping Mall outside Washington with some questions about her china. The girls told her she had a “new” sister. I can only imagine her expression when she heard the news. I called her immediately and we had a tense conversation. It certainly wasn’t the best way to hear about this new family member.
The girls, especially the oldest and youngest were particularly upset that I wanted to have a relationship with Rebecca, that I could possibly care for this daughter -- whom I did not know, they insisted --as much as much as I cared for them. Their response was much like the lament of an adoptive mother who learns her adopted child is having a relationship with her birthmother: “How can she care for this woman who gave her away? I was the one who changed her diapers, stayed up with her when she was sick, paid for her braces," and so on.
My oldest daughter felt displaced; she was no longer the primo daughter. My youngest daughter, my fourth child, felt that I was excising her. In the twisted thinking we experience when we are stressed, she reasoned that since I apparently wanted to have three children, that, if I had kept Rebecca, she never would have been born. Since I regretted giving up Rebecca, I clearly preferred Rebecca to her.
My middle daughter had less difficulty than the other girls perhaps because as the middle daughter, she did not lose her place in the family. She put together family photographs for me to take along to Chicago.
I gave them copies of B. J. Lifton’s Journey of the Adopted Self to help them understand why Megan searched for me and why I wanted to have a relationship with her. My youngest daughter asked sadly, “Where is the book for sisters?” Fortunately I came across an excellent pamphlet Sibling Reunion: A Letter to Those Who Have Been Contacted by Randolph Severson (1991). I gave my middle daughter a copy and sent the other girls a copy with a letter assuring them that my relationship with Rebecca would not diminish my love for them. (Unfortunately the book seems to be out of print. Amazon is asking $162.65 for its one copy. The only other book I know of that deals with sibling reunions is The Other Sister, by S. T. Underdahl, a fictionalized account of a sibling reunion written by an adoptee in the persona of the raised sister.)
My visit with Rebecca and her family seemed to go well. When I returned home, she began to email less frequently. She came to visit in April and June, though, and met all three girls. They got along well enough and visited each over the next several years. In 1999 and 2002, Rebecca came to our family reunions and met her aunts and uncle and most of her cousins.
Soon after Rebecca and I connected, I learned about the struggles going on across the country for open records. In March of 1998--only a few months after our reunion--I saw a news clip about Ballot Measure 58 that would amend Oregon law to allow adult adoptees to have their original birth certificates. I drove 50 miles to Portland and attended an outdoor rally for the Measure. I knew no one else and felt lost. One of the speakers was a birthmother. No way could I tell a group of strangers about my daughter.
In the fall of 1998, a birthmother friend hosted a fund raiser for Measure 58. I suggested to Helen Hill, the chief petitioner of the measure, that she run an ad in the Portland Oregonian with names of birthmothers who supported the measure to counter the false statements by the adoption industry that mothers wanted confidentiality.
Several days later, Delores Teller, a birthmother working for the Measure, asked if I would appear in the ad along with several other mothers. While I was not yet comfortable with my status as an “out” birthmother, I agreed. This full-page ad appeared two days before the election and was a huge success. I was in a picture along with four other mothers surrounded by the names of close to a thousand birthmothers. Lorraine’s was one of those names. Measure 58 won with 57 percent of the vote.
As for being pictured in the ad, I found that it was a good way to tell co-workers and acquaintances about Rebecca, a whole lot easier than telling them in person. A few mentioned that they had seen it but mostly I didn’t get any response. (Most of my closest friends had met Rebecca when she visited in June.)
Rebecca had tried to get her original birth certificate shortly after we connected, but the State of California, where she was born, turned down her application, as per its law. I had hoped Rebecca would appreciate what I had done, perhaps increasing her esteem for me. I sent her a copy of the ad, but she did not respond.
Once Rebecca met me and I had answered her questions, she began to pull away. She made it clear that I was second best, a bastard mother. The only “compliment” she ever gave me was telling me that “you made the right decision in giving me away,” which was painful to hear. While our relationship continued -- she was responsive to my suggestions that I visit, or that she visit, and we got along when we were together -- I had increasing doubts about her commitment to a continuing relationship. Far from being a soul-mate, she did not even feel like a friend.
We went on in this vein with less and less communication and more and more disagreements through emails, primarily over adoption. Rebecca, a true-believer in Mormonism, insists that all children born “out of wedlock” should be placed for adoption with married heterosexual couples. I believe that adoption often does more harm than good and as a society we should support keeping mothers and babies together. This is the substance of our quarrels, but I think there is a deeper issue. Rebecca believes that God had a hand in her adoption. If she were to question the institution of adoption, she would have to question whether she should have been adopted; thus questioning God, and, more personally, questioning who she would have been if she had not been adopted.
To keep up our connection and to help out their stretched finances, I sent Rebecca and her four children birthday and Christmas presents each year. A year ago she emailed me and asked me not to continue. She said it made her uncomfortable. I think, though, that part of her reason was a desire to deny the bond between us. I could not be her children’s grandmother since God had made her someone else’s daughter, and thus I could not act like a grandmother by sending presents.
In January her oldest child, Rachael, a college student in Utah, asked to come and visit and did come this past February. Rebecca was aware of the visit and apparently did not try to prevent it. I’ve written about these events here. Her next child tells me she wants to come this fall.
I have met adoptees whose birthmothers met them once and said, “I’ll answer all your questions now but I do not want to see you again. I haven’t told my family about you and I don’t intend to.” I have thought this to be incredibly cruel; these mothers were rejecting their children a second time. Now that things have not gone well with Rebecca, I sometimes think I should have done this and spared my daughters the stress of learning about their biological sister. On balance though, I think it was best to tell them.
Next I’ll blog about how my daughters’ reacted to Rebecca and how she reacted to them.