By Lorraine Dusky
copyright (c) 2010
My particular roommate turned out to be a chubby teenager with acne and over-bleached hair the color of white sand. That afternoon there had been three women crowding around her bed, talking low. Yet at some point our eyes caught each others across the room as eyes sometimes do.
Later, we verified what we already knew: she was not married either. Her name was Lydia, which seemed like a fancy name for her. She said she was “not yet sixteen.” She and her boyfriend had “tried to elope,” and even though they got as far as Maryland, the police found them at the behest of the boy’s mother and stopped them. Lydia had a boy.
Now her boyfriend wanted her to bring the baby home—not let their child be adopted—they will get married later, she told me. Her mother has said she can indeed bring the baby home, but Lydia was dubious. Her mother has said she would take care of the baby, and my cellmate could get a job someplace. Like Dunkin’ Donuts, I thought, where else is she going to get a job—without even a high school diploma? It all sounded so unsavory, so impossible, so many odds stacked against this kid—both of them, mother and child and for good measure, the baby’s father too—wouldn’t adoption be better? For everyone?
I did not want to be the only sinner in the room. We should both give up our babies so that they could grow up with nice couples who have stable lives on tree-lined streets in a prosperous town such as Rochester was then. A dog, a white-picket fence, a brother or a sister, a mother who bakes cookies, a father who bounced the baby on his knee, the whole works. Lydia’s giving up her child would validate my awful choice, we would both go on to have lives, one way or another, and certainly hers had more prospects if she did not keep her baby. Yes, I was looking for a partner in my crime. That is what I thought then. That was before I knew what lay ahead.
When I gave up my daughter a part of me was flayed raw; some of the sores have never healed. Despite all seemingly logical arguments to the contrary, despite all the logical arguments—it was the times, you were alone, you had no money, et cetera—what I did was a sin against nature and I am not convinced I deserve to forgive myself. I have accepted it. That will have to do. That is the bed I felt closing in on me in the hospital, and this is the bed I lie in today. This is the kind of item that catches my eye today:
“Adolescents who live with adoptive parents may be more likely than their peers to attempt suicide,” began a Reuters report on a 2001 paper published in Pediatrics,* the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. While a majority of adopted teens are not suicidal, a study of more than 6,500 students in grades 7 through 12 found that their rate of attempted suicide was double that of their non-adopted peers—7.6 percent for the adopted teens, 3 percent for the non-adopted. Adopted adolescents were also more likely to have received psychological counseling, 17 percent for the adoptees, versus 8 percent of non-adopted youth."The studies always talk about “adopted” people; the language would be more accurate if they talked about “people given up.” For it’s not the adoption per se that is the issue, in most cases; it’s the being “given up” that is the killer. It’s the sense of being abandoned that adopted people feel, for to be available to adopted, someone had to give up that person first. And there lies the eternal hurt, the primal wound as it’s called, that makes the difference. If you read a lot of reunion stories, as I have, you come across the reunited adoptee often using the word “abandoned” or the phrase “sense of abandonment,” and then adding, Where did that come from? I didn’t even know I felt that way.
Today there are shows called “Pregnant and Sixteen,” many of which end in relinquishment, and I’m sure that they sometimes feature smiling, adoptive parents, relieved that the young mother did not change her mind and keep her baby. When this show was in production, someone contacted me—more than once—asking if I could steer them to possible girls in a fix. I can’t even watch these shows. I have a visceral reaction to any labor scene in a movie or on television; I almost instantly get nauseous and change the channel or cover my eyes, if I’m in a theater.
I hate television shows that feature adoption themes because rarely do they have the outcome I’d like to see. Birth mothers die with obscure illnesses, or are killed off in some convenient fashion—the last such show I saw ended with the mother's suicide; if they are allowed to live, they more often than not, “make the right decision,” and give their children to the upstanding loving couples who are waiting in the wings. I send baby gifts, but avoid baby showers. Understand I do not think every adoption is bad, I know some are necessary, but not in the wholesale fashion they occur today through international channels, and any closed adoption is wrong. The news that someone is going to adopt—and it’s news that I hear often in my professional, middle class life—throws a shadow over my heart, for what I am reminded is that somewhere out there is a grieving woman. So anytime I learn about a teen mother who finds a way to keep her child rather than give him up, I cheer and mentally pat her, and her family, on the back.
Today I would urge no one to give up a child.
Not unless they were hopeless druggies, inveterate alcoholics, absolute crazies, and even then I would urge no mother to accept a closed adoption. Of any sort. Only when the parents might be a danger to the child should the location be secret, and even then, identity and the truth should always be available to the individual at the center of the adoption, whenever they ask for it, whenever they want it. To enter into an arrangement to never know what happened to your child is to willingly enter a prison without an exit. Death at least has the recompense of knowledge. Death has a time for mourning, involves friends and family who send condolences, death has flowers and rituals. Death has a finality that pushes back the sorrow with acceptance and time.
A closed adoption with its secrecy and anonymity is eternal, all the questions and fears and wonder remain unanswered, and thus never can diminish but will always be stirred fresh with the slightest of reminders. But there are so many holes in open adoptions today; in most places the “contract” that is signed cannot be enforced; adoption agencies, and you, the mother, have no power over the legal parents to make the child available. Supposedly mandated visits and photographs are not really required—because there is no policing organization—if the now-legal parents decide they do not want to comply, no one is going to make them. This is not like child-custody disputes; the first mother has no legal standing. The legal parents have all the power. Some stories I’ve heard about “open” adoptions are pathetic; one agency worker from Bethany Christian Services, which advertises itself as the largest adoption agency in the United States, once let slip to another birth mother that “eighty percent” of their open adoptions do not stay that way. They end up as closed adoptions.
Yes, we occasionally read about some of the good ones in The New York Times and elsewhere, yes, I hear from adoptive mothers who actually want the birth mothers to stay involved, to show up when they say they will, but they are the exception, not the rule. I get desperate emails from first mothers who were promised by seemingly good people that the adoption would be “open,” only to find them slammed shut in a year or two. People move, change their phone number to an unlisted one, do not leave forwarding addresses or answer mail. They lied to get a baby, and then, they hide. They are the lowliest of the low, slugs on of the earth, no matter how they treat those children. Their love starts out by conning their mothers to get the children; their love starts out with fraud.
A friend of mine at a major magazine—the kind that stands for consumer rights—told me that one of the editors, a man, refuses to do television spots because “the birth mother” might recognize him, and then be able to locate him and his wife. I don’t know if this was an open adoption or not, but it sounds like one to me. The mother of his child met him once, right? Did he agree to a continued relationship? Or is he simply afraid that the inexorable pull of motherhood will turn her into a stalker? To those adopters who close what started out as an open adoption, I have no good words or understanding. If there is reincarnation, let them come back walking in my shoes.
*Suzanne Rostler, “Suicide Attempts More Common Among Adopted Teens,” Reuters Health, from adoptioncrossroads.org/Suicide.htm. from Pediatrics 2001; 108:e30.