Thursday, November 19, 2009
Talking out about adoption is not always easy. In fact, almost never.
The shock of recognition hit me hard when I read that passage because that is how I often feel about my status as a birth/first mother. That I am a woman with a story. That precedes me into any situation. Sometimes I merely want to be a woman without such an interesting story.
So I often keep my mouth shut. Do I announce to casual strangers, like someone I might meet at work (if I worked out of the home) that I am a first/birth mother, walking freely among the non-birth mothers of the world? No. Do I tell a dinner partner whom I have never met before that I had a child who I gave up for adoption, and that I searched and found her, and now she is dead, when asked if I have children? Do I sometimes just say no? Depends. (Actually, it's easier now that my daughter is dead, because saying that my daughter died usually kills further questioning and only elicits sympathy.) Do I join a new group of people and introduce myself, if asked, Do you have children? as a woman who gave up a child for adoption, or a birth/first mother? No. That's a question I have dreaded ever since 1966, the year my daughter was born and I surrendered her.
I have to have some privacy about this. I have to not let my adoption sadness and grief and activism take over every aspect of my life. I can not handle being on a soap box every moment. Thank god for good friends, because with them, adoption is only a part of who I am.
If you are a woman with a story such as this, first and foremost most people go, Ohh that's too bad, and Ahh, how are you today? Where's your daughter, how did her parents handle this, did you regret giving her up, why did you do it, who is the father, why didn't you get married? That takes up the rest of the lunch/hour/group session/afternoon. I do not want to be a woman "with a story," a story that precedes me everywhere, obliterates all other information about me. It's what Jane talked about in her last post.
Sometimes I just want to be a woman joining a reading club, a writer and magazine editor, someone with Francophile tendencies, someone who finds amazing stuff at the local thrift shops, a fan of Elizabeth George mysteries and Preston Sturgis movies, a lover of triple-creme cheese, Indian food, horseback riding, dogs and ballet. It is exhausting to be first and foremost an activist birth mother.
Some may think that because I wrote Birthmark way back in the dark ages of the open-records movement--and been interviewed about adoption reform literally fifty or sixty times in the media--it is a piece of cake to speak out all the time about adoption issues. Wrong. If I have to debate a gang of angry adoptive parents (who usually turn out also to be lawyers with their tongues sharpened), it's emotionally draining and exhausting. If people wonder why I sometimes are not overly sympathetic to adoptive parents without knowing more about them, it's because so many have been gunning for me over the years. One guy I knew slightly told me at a party that he knew people "who wanted to kill me." They lived in his building, he said, they were friends, and yep, they were adoptive parents.
On the day in 1993 that Baby Jessica/real name: Anna Schmidt was returned to her natural parents, Dan Schmidt and Cara Clausen, from the the DeBoers, the couple who fought in the courts for two-and-a-half years, I was the only one speaking up for the Schmidts on the then MacNeal-Lehrer Report on PBS against a group of about six people, including adoptive mother and Harvard professor, Elizabeth Bartholet. You bet that was exhausting. Similar hostile interviews were common after Birthmark came out in 1979.
On the other hand, having people know who I am (reunited birth mother, adoption-reform activist, writer) does make some encounters easier, since I do not have to explain this part of my life. People who might say nasty things about birth mothers are likely to hold their tongue if I'm within earshot. Prospective adoptive parents do not invite me to Gladney fund raisers. Yes, the agency urges prospective adopters to have them, and adopting parents I know held a cocktail party for that purpose. I was not on the guest list. They got a boy soon after.
However, if someone has never talked to a first mother before (that she is aware of), and the situation allows, she is typically riveted in exploring every possible aspect of the story. She has a million questions, and so it goes for the next hour. I remember spending most of an afternoon at a friend's house one summer day and her sister-in-law was full of such questions as we paddled about in a pool. There was nothing to do but answer her questions; to do anything else would have been rude.
But if I can do so, and say, I'm at a social event and someone wants to launch into a discussion of the pros and cons of open records, adoption, my searching, whatever...I do what adoption-reform pioneer Florence Fisher taught me: She says, I am at a social event, I want to have a good time, this is such an emotional issue, I just can't talk about it now, OK? Smile broadly, hope for understanding. If that doesn't work, I add, You know, giving up my daughter was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and revisiting it now is like talking about the time I was raped. (I was.)
I put Florence's advice once to good use on a couple of occasions. Once I "helped" a friend's college-age daughter who was to argue that "adoption records ought to remain sealed" in a debating class (true story). At her father's request I sent her a packet of material (though what I sent argued for the opposite of what she was looking for) about sealed records. I don't know what her father was thinking, as he had already met my daughter, and knew that I searched for her. I did not hear from the young woman, or learn what happened in debating class. Several months later, however, here she was at a Christmas party. She introduced herself and a half hour later called me over and introduced me to another woman as, "This is Lorraine who wrote a book about adoption."
Gulp. Who is this woman? I'm thinking, Somebody about to adopt? Err..."This is a woman who wrote a book about adoption, too," the young woman making this awkward introduction said. "Bye." And then our go-between was gone.
Is this woman my enemy, I'm wondering now. Is she an adoptive mother against open records? About to adopt? What? It turned out that she had been a social worker (not an adoptive mother) who indeed had written a book about adopting for adoptive parents. We stared at each other uncomfortably. After hearing about her book, I said my piece about not talking about this at a party. We parted and have been cool to one another on the infrequent occasions our paths cross. We smile, nod, and turn away.
Being public about your status as a birth mother and lobbying for open records in Albany or Trenton or Boston or Philadelphia or Austin is a whole different ball game. You are with people of like mind, you meet legislators and their aides and tell your story succinctly and hope to open minds and hearts, and it is exhilarating, a great good feeling that gives back more than you give--even when you encounter the folks who will never vote for open records for adoptees and most certainly, not for first/birth mothers.
But sometimes someone I've just met strikes me the right way, and I end up revealing my story. I've told strangers in airports who turn out to be understanding and sympathetic adoptive mothers; I told someone sitting next to me at a dinner party and it turned out that she too, had given up a child many years before, and we spent the next hour talking barely above a whisper; I once told a man I met on a vacation half-way around the world and it turned out he was a birth father and now, with plenty of money, wished he could find a way to help his child, if he needed it. I could send him to college, he said. Just before Birthmark was available, I told a stranger in a bar in Sag Harbor, and he turned out to be adopted, and was excited with the idea of what I was doing. I never met him again. However, a few weeks later he sent a dozen red roses to me on the set of the first media appearance I did for the book. I never knew how he even knew where I would be--the interview was in Detroit, where I grew up, it was not a national talk show.
I think about him now and then. I hoped he found whom he was really looking for, and she was gladdened in her heart. We birth/first mothers have to make the call every day: whether to tell or not. Speaking out and speaking up is what we need to do, but sometimes a woman gets weary and needs a little room.