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Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Two Mothers, Part 2
Continuing yesterday's post about my up and down relationship with my surrendered daughter's adoptive parents. To recap: I found my daughter Jane in 1981, in the dark ages of open adoption. She was fifteen at the time; she also had severe epilepsy, her parents had tried to track me down before, to no avail, and their reaction to me was a mixture of relief and suspicion and distrust.
But of course I remember Jane's other mother's question, asked after I told her there was no history of epilepsy in my family (it is not an inheritable affliction; it just pops up). And so, she said, grilling me: "There is not history of mental illness in your family?"
No, I said. No.
Lorraine Dusky copyright 2009
I anxiously wanted Jane's adoptive parents, the Schmidts, to approve of me and not see me as the enemy. But like Jane, I always felt as if I were walking on a fence and with any wrong step I would topple off. And of course, they had all the power. Not only were they her legal parents, they were Mom and Dad, and while Jane was a minor, their disapproval could cut off all contact with her. To counter Ann’s opprobrium, I emphasized my Midwestern working-class roots, dropping Michigan into the conversation whenever possible. I didn’t go as far as going to Sunday Mass with them when they visited, but I considered it. Tony, a lukewarm Methodist by birth, a Buddhist at heart, never would have gone. We stayed home; they went to church.
Yet despite any doubts about me, Ann would refer to Jane as “our daughter,” a pronoun which rang like a bell the first time she said it, and for which I have always been appreciative. Tales of other adoptive parents that I heard from other first mothers were not nearly as encouraging as the relationship I was forging with the Schmidts, and we were doing it at a time when reunions of this sort were indeed rare. Other first mothers were told to never contact the children in question; the police would be called otherwise. Adoptees who had the audacity to search, or, what’s worse, find and meet, were cut out of wills, and told by their parents they were now dead to them, and that included the grandchildren. The common solution? The adopted person would keep any relationship with his first family secret from his adoptive family. Many still do.
I hoped--I desperately hoped--my daughter would feel the same indelible connection with me that I did with her. However, that did not mean I wanted her bond with the Schmidts to loosen, for their enduring relationship would be proof that the adoption had gone well, and that would at least assuage my conscience. But navigating between the two mothers would always prove hazardous. As Jane would describe in an email one day many years later: “I feel like a magnet torn between two sides that are pulling at me. To move towards one, you have to pull away from the other.”
Yet Jane maintained she would not have had it otherwise: “You took such a great stress out of my life by finding me,” she said when we recorded the conversation. “I was very lucky to not have to be forced to search….It was a given as I was growing up that I would search. But you coming along made my life a lot less—so many questions I didn’t have to wonder about anymore. Especially when I went through depression—this wasn’t one of the issues.”
Over the years, Jane would sometimes point out that it would have been extremely difficult for me, as a single woman with an erratic income, to cope with raising her, especially because of her epilepsy. Hell, it would have been hard to raise her as a single parent back then, with or without the epilepsy. With Ann and Gary, in Madison, Wisconsin, in a stable family with good health insurance, Jane had the best medical care known at the time, and the control of epilepsy has not advanced all that much since then. I might have been a perfectly acceptable mother—I was a sought-after baby-sitter as a teenager—but I recognized all along how overwhelming raising her alone would have been. I never have thought I would have been a great mother—I have to admit, deep down and always, I did want a career, I was ambitious from the age of reason, I was raised in the Forties and Fifties and in a family where a career and motherhood were not compatible, when being a single mother was an anomaly suffused with shame, and my family had no cushion of money that might have eased the way. Jane understood all this, and so when she said, I don't know how you would have done it, Lorraine, I did not argue.
My relationship with her father, Gary, was far less problematic than the one I had with Ann. He was far more accepting of me, and unquestionably smoothed my incursion into their lives. He unquestionably would have preferred I was someone who went to Sunday mass, had other children, was a "normal" person like he and Ann were, but he showed no overt disdain towards me, or us. But then, I was Jane’s mother—not her father—and that other man was nowhere in sight. Gary had no competitor. True, when Jane visited, Tony took on a role not unlike that of a step-parent, but he was not her father.
Tangible evidence of Jane’s difficult see-saw relationship with her two mothers is a picture Gary snapped one sunny day many years after we all knew each other. We—Gary, Ann and I—imagined it might be a swell record of our rather remarkable relationship. Not great friends, but not enemies--and remember that we were ahead of the curve, when open adoptions such as this one had become were unheard of. The three of us are on a couch, Jane is sitting between us. Ann and I are staring straight into the camera, both of us smiling the way you do in pictures, both of us looking comfortable in our roles. However, Jane is pensive, not a glimmer of a smile. She is looking away from the camera, looking as if she did not belong there, looking uncomfortable sitting between her two mothers.
When I saw the picture, I could not help but remember what Jane had said once: If I told the truth, both of your feelings would be hurt.
Some might say that life would have been less complicated for Jane if I had not contacted her when she was a teenager, and people openly admit that they adopt from Siberia and China and India not only because it’s easier to get an infant there, but because the likelihood of a child’s original mother coming back is pretty much nil. No competition, no complications. One adoptive grandfather not so long ago looked me straight in the eye and said that his son went as far as Siberia to get a child exactly to avoid someone like me--someone who found her daughter, whose daughter had lived with her off and on, had even worked for a couple of summers in town. “You are their greatest nightmare,” he said. (Some of you who have been following another post at First Mother Forum (Open Adoption Is One Giant Baby-Sitting Scam) will be amused at this reference here, and again.)
But prima facie that ignores what the adopted individual might want—in fact, it gives the individual in question no choice. It robs him of a history before he was born, medical and cultural. Adoption then becomes not an arrangement to fulfill the needs of a child who needs a home; it becomes a deal that satisfies the desires of someone who wants a child at any cost—and that child’s need to have and hold his connection to the tree of life be damned.
Jane would not be caught in that trap.
I did not know yet how different the relationship would be when Jane had a daughter with no obvious problems, a girl who was cute, smart, without epilepsy.
(To be continued tomorrow.)