Friday, October 2, 2009
How Do You Tell Your Family You Had a First Child?
It ain't easy. In my own case, I was able to keep my pregnancy secret from my family, and so I had to deal with coming out of the first/birth mother closet years later. I was living in another state, New York, quite far away from home in Michigan, when I became pregnant. I was twenty-three, less than a year out of college, and kept up the pretense that I was still working as a newspaper reporter in Rochester, when in fact, I had quit my job and was hiding in my apartment.
My window to the outside world was through the father of my child, Brian, who came every day (he worked) after he was done for the day. On a newspaper, the hour one leaves the office is often on a sliding scale--you might work through "lunch" on deadline, you might be filing a late story, you might be out on a long-term assignment. Thus he had a certain amount of leeway. Yes, he was married and had a family. I was the "other woman." Which is why I suppose I have a certain amount of sympathy for John Edwards' other woman, Rielle Hunter, and the father of his last child. Yes, I do, but that's another story.
Eventually my parents tried to call me at work and the operator told them I had not been there for months! But she put them through to the City Editor, a good man who knew about me and knew the secret I and his star political reporter were keeping. He told them I was working on a undercover operation.
Right. I sure was.
But I was able to get through this sticky situation without my having to fess up, and amazingly enough, I had the baby without my family back in Detroit knowing anything about it. Considering all the grief that would have entailed, it was easier to go it alone than have to look my parents in the eye and admit I was pregnant. The year was 1966. A few months after my daughter was born I found a job in Albany.
Two years later, my father died. He never knew. His death was a huge blow because I loved him intensely. We were alike in so many ways beyond the physical. But his death meant I would never have to tell him how I had screwed up. You see, he and I had fought for years over whether I should go college, and then over whether I would ever get a job as a reporter, because he did not believe girls needed to go to college because they were all going to get married and have children anyway. Old world, poor family, old school. After what had transpired between us, telling him that I had indeed become pregnant as a single woman would not have been, ah, easy. I threw two flowers in his grave over the casket--one for me, one for my daughter--but I was relieved of admitting what I had done, how I had failed him, myself, everyone. I was still stinking with shame.
At one time, my mother quizzed me about the "undercover" operation--what ever happened to that story you were supposedly working on, she wanted to know, what was it about?--and somehow the story morphed to me having mononucleosis during that period, I did not want to worry them, et cetera, and while she was doubtful, I kept to my story. Oh, a tissue of lies.
I married the same year my father died, and told my first husband my horrible secret with my heart palpitating, boom boom, feeling the hot flash of an anxiety attack, will he change his mind? when he asked me to marry him. Yes, it was not easy. Yes, I did not know what he would say. Yes, I was terrified, like jumping out of an airplane. But I got through it and we got married.
Fast forward seven years later. I was divorced, and had become involved in the movement to open records for--hell, everyone, not just adopted people, but mothers like me too! Why not? I had only agreed to the ridiculous and stupid "sealed forever" part of the contract because I had no choice. As I noted before, when I protested, Mrs. Helen Mura, my social worker, said, "Well, then we can't help you. You have to agree to this." The law that had sealed all the records from me had been in place in New York since 1935, and the agency, and Mrs. Mura, were not about to try any shenanigans getting around the law with anyone who balked at signing her child away. Northaven Terrace, the agency, would not help me with the adoption unless it was according to the letter of the law, and that meant, she--and I--were doomed to a fate of anonymity. My child would get a new identity, and I was supposed to act as if I never had a daughter. Maybe this is why I do not flinch from comparing the current adoption model in most states to slavery, because I felt totally coerced into signing papers I did not agree with. I was alive and conscious, yes, but forced to enter into an ageement I did not agree with. The state had all the power as surely as if it held a gun to my head.
I had nowhere to turn. I remember going home from the agency that day full of even more tears and sorrow and telling Brian this latest and unbelievable insult being added to the injury of giving away a child in the first place. Left without a choice, I went through with surrendering my daughter knowing full well that the secrecy I was forced to agree to was further punishment for giving her up. What monster wrote this law? I wondered.
Yet because I could, I had kept this secret from my family for years. But after I had testified in court twice for adoptees hoping to get their original records in New York and New Jersey, I knew I had to spill the beans to all and everyone concerned. Now I had to tell my mother. I went home for a long weekend with this on the agenda. I took her to lunch at a nice place, we ordered gin and tonics and fish as the entree, but between the drinks and the main course, I told her. You just have to start saying the words and hope for the best. Somehow a version of I had a baby and gave her away gets the story across economically. You can fill in the details later.
My mother was absolutely great. Her first words were "Oh honey...." She first said that she was sorry that she had not been there to be a comfort to me, and then...after I told her about the fight to open the records and all, that I was going to be public and she might see my name in the paper and the neighbors would talk...she said, I think you are doing the right thing. I think everybody who is adopted must wonder who their real parents are--how could they not? I hope I live long enough to meet her.
We sent back the fish pretty much untouched. Then I had to tell my two brothers, one older, one younger, and since I did not see them together that weekend, I had to go through this twice more than weekend. They were cool about it too.
What a relief to not have this secret anymore! What a relief to share with my mother on Christmas why now I always got teary during the carols sung during Mass. Silent Night has such a mournful tune, and it seemed to be a dirge for the baby I did not have. Now we could talk about this huge thing that had occurred, and I did not have to pretend all was fine when my daughter's birthday rolled around. My mother, a Catholic who never missed mass on Sunday, started praying for this new granddaughter and our hoped-for reunion.
And then I started writing about being a first mother--I didn't use that word, I did not even use birth mother then--I was a mother who had a baby and gave her away. The more I wrote about it, the easier it got. I've had people say nasty things--one psychiatrist who was dating a girl friend told her that she "didn't want to end up like me." And you know, he's right. No one should end up like us. It's a life of grief and tears and sorrow.
Most media interviewers have been understanding and sympathetic--Regis Philbin had me on his show in 1979 when other people wouldn't even touch the subject--but some have been incredibly nasty and accusatory, practically calling me a slut. Most of the criticism comes in the form of: HOW DARE YOU? Who do you think you are that you can disrupt the very very very happy adoption and family that I am utterly positive your daughter is situated in!
Nearly all of the criticism expresses sympathy for the saintly adoptive parents...who took in my poor child when I did not want her (wrong) and now, I'm coming along to bust up their Leave-It-To- Beaver-Cleaver-happy-intact-family existence. The critics never stopped to consider that maybe the adopted individual might have another take on the matter--that they might want to know from whence they came. That seems somehow to not be the concern of those throwing stones--then, or now. They assume that the adopted person is perfectly happy with the way things are. Period.
I still get brickbats thrown at me, as regular readers will remember, and wrote about it here and here. And here. Actually, I don't think it will ever end. Not in my lifetime. That's why I get so crazed when I read on some websites about the great "gift" that a wonderful selfless teen mother made in giving up her child, and go on to praise her, blah blah, blah. But they praise her in absentia. And as long as she remains in absentia.
But to get back to the point: telling someone your secret--if the relinquished child is a secret--is never easy. I was fortunate in that my family and husbands (two) were both supportive and understanding. I never had other children so telling other children was not an issue. Fellow blogger Jane has written about the difficulties of telling her other family.
I'm not saying that you have to tell everyone on every street corner, or everyone you date, or every casual friend you have, or every person in your office, and there are plenty of times when I keep my mouth shut about this issue because it's still a hot topic that inflames people. Whom you tell and whom you do not is a personal decision.
However telling at least those close to you--friends, lovers, husbands, family--sure does ease the mind. And so, if someday you are so fortunate that you receive a phone call that begins...Does fill-in-the-date mean anything to you...you can answer Yes! and simply be thrilled. And not worry about now having to reveal the painful secret you have buried so deep it hurts, hurts like hell.--lorraine