Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Explaining Adoption Reform Issues to the Hip, Educated Masses

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the reaction I get as a birth/first mother from people who are not familiar with adoption as it is and what's wrong with it, (Telling a Stranger What It's Like to be a Birth Mother), and how I frequently avoid the issue because it is rather wearing to have to jump on a soapbox and educate against possibly hostile reaction when you'd rather just kick back and relax. So here we are, Labor Day weekend, and good friends have a party, but a party with a fair number of people I know only slightly, or not at all.

We are basically, almost to a person, media types, or married to someone in the media. This is also the class of people that will produce a fair number of adopters ala Scott Simon. Among the twenty people there, I was aware of two couples who had adopted children (college roommates, best friends), and at least one "secret" (not reunited) birth father. Secret in that he's told my husband and me.

A common question among such folk is: What are you working on? or writing?

Ah...the question I most do not want to answer to people I do not know well, or even to the adoptive parents I rather do. If he's around my husband often steps up and says almost immediately: Lorraine is working on something she can't talk about. Which of course intrigues everybody, I get quizzical looks, but at least they know I'm am almost certainly not going to talk about what I'm working on.

BirthmarkThe answer to the question, to you, Dear Reader, is that I am rewriting my 1979 memoir, Birthmark,the controversial first memoir from a birth/firth mother. It is the story of my relinquishment and putting my life back together, but that book ends before I found my daughter. This new as-yet-unnamed memoir has not only the reunion story, it also includes the long slow slog of my daughter's life, her suicide, and my reunion with the granddaughter she gave up for adoption, as well as a section on The Path Not Chosen, i.e., the boy I did not marry and my now amazing connection with his daughter. God knows if I'll find a publisher, given the state of publishing this days and my agent hearing, Adoption books don't sell. I say to myself: Adoption books from out point of view don't sell, but anyway, onward I plunge. 

Back to the party. The host, someone I have known for nearly 30 years, felt that I was somehow removed from the general merriment that night, and said so in front of a very close friend I was chatting with. I shrugged it off, but later emailed my friend about why I can be like that in a group of people I do not know well, specifically do not know their reaction to my subject matter. And this reminded me that a couple of days ago, on FaceBook, at the site You Know You're a First Mother When...(or was it the You Know You're an Adoptee When...) somebody asked why it is that when we first mothers or adoptees bring up our side of the open-records issue, we hear...Oh, I have a cousin/friend/sister who adopted, and they don't feel that way...but we rarely or never hear any support for what was probably the worst event in our lives, or why all sealed records ought to be open. Anyway, I am sharing here below what I emailed my friend, as well as a response I got from my friend Thomasina, who is neither a first mother or an adoptee, but a committed searcher--for one of the major search companies as well as a Confidential Intermediary in her state--when she tells people what she does. First my email: 
"Ah...the adoption thing. It changes the neutral tone of the 'what are you working on?' to one that is often very charged....writing about giving up a child? Shit, that's heavy...and everything drops two octaves, and every other person has a personal story they are going to tell you about on the spot, particularly if they think adoptees don't want to search, or birth parents ought to figuratively drop dead or to their knowledge they have never met a real live first mother.

Still Unequal: The Shameful Truth About Women and Justice in America"Like...well, my cousin/brother/aunt was adopted and she never wanted to know her birth parents, and so what do you think of that... Maybe you shouldn't be touching that subject...hmmm? Or...Wow, I'm adopted and I would never search because it would hurt my mom and dad....or...my best friend just adopted a little girl from Nepal...*(where a few weeks ago the U.N. shut down adoptions again because of the huge amount of corruption aka child stealing there, etc..). Or, the subject is so interesting, you end up having to tell the story all over again...and god is that exhausting. The only thing I can compare it to is say, to being raped, and then saying you are writing a memoir about that and then the person asking...so tell me about rape...You just never know what's going to happen, but trust me, it not like saying you are writing about women and the law (a subject I did write about in the nineties), or the search for the Northwest Passage, or sustainable farming.
"It was very different talking to Fred when he was at your house one night. [Fred was a editor at the publishing house where Birthmark was published and I knew he was adopted but we did not talk about it then. But he shows up 30 years later as a friend of my friend at her house one evening, and in the three decades that have passed has found his mother and sibs in Canada and gets along with them like a house afire, they are all in entertainment. Fred used to be a writer for David Letterman, and we did connect one night with a lot of other people around, but the two of us wanted to talk privately, and managed to, even though we had a couple of interruptions from other guests. We changed the subject as soon as they stepped in our little circle.] With Fred, I wanted to hear his story, he wanted to hear the end of mine, and we were both on the same page and had that earlier connection. That was great.

"Aston Martin, our, er, friend, attacked me quite mercilessly here one night about two years ago when it was just the four of us. Tony [my husband] is still on the board of his nonprofit charity for cancer patients in our area (he'd be off the board if I had my way), but our friendship really went to a much much more distant connection after that.... Aston wanted to know, I'm just curious, he said... 'What part of your pie chart was not selfish when you searched for your daughter?' He was saying, basically, how I was wrecking this family happy family, mom and dad and baby makes three...who never had a thought about where they got their daughter...and that I and others of my ilk outta slink away into the night. (It was hardly worth telling him that in my particular case, they had tried to find me, because of my daughter's epilepsy.)

"And then went on about his friends (whom we know) who adopted from Texas [Gladney] and how they moved to Texas from New York as the wife was originally from there, and what a mistake that was because the real mother might live in Texas and someday want to know who her child was. Forgetting that maybe the kid might want to know too...so talking about adoption to someone I do not know is well, work, and emotionally exhausting and typically turns a simple question into an emotional drama."
I emailed Thomasina about this exchange, and this is her response to the questions she gets when people hear what she does for a living. Remember, she is neither a first mother or adoptee; however, she is married to an adoptee (who searched and found and has at the very least a great relationship with his siblings).
"Man! I get that one ALL THE TIME. I usually respond with my usual 'informative speech' which goes along the lines of: 'Oh, there may be a few people in special circumstances who don't [search], but what more likely happened is that they gave you the 'socially correct / socially polite' answer instead of the truth, so as not to be accused of being the 'disloyal, ungrateful adoptee' that some people will try to make them out to be.

"Adoptees quickly learn, and from a very young age, to feign complete disinterest in their birthfamily, especially if they think that there's even a remote chance that the person questioning them might turn around and say something to their adoptive parents or family members. All too often, adoptive parents make talking about the adoption taboo, especially with regard to the birthparents, unless it's in sanitized, flowery pro-adoption language which makes it virtually impossible for the adoptee to openly and honestly question their origins, or express any desire to learn about their background, let alone search for any birthfamily members.

"Adoptive parents have their own rejection issues, which often manifest as fear, resentment and even outright loathing of birthparents, and they then communicate these feelings to their adopted children, directly or indirectly. That's why so many of the adoptees I work with search in complete secret. Some adoptees I know are in 20+ year reunions with birthfamily members, but no one in the adoptive family knows a thing about it, because the adoptee fears a negative or even a retaliatory reaction.'

"If folks let me get to that last part, they are usually totally blown away, and some will say something like, 'They search in secret?' to which I will reply, 'Oh yes, a large majority. They might tell one or two very close friends, but no one else. It's a deeply personal issue, and it can be very disheartening and downright annoying to be peppered with questions -- or to have your motives questioned -- by people who have absolutely no concept of what it is like to have your identity stripped away from you and obliterated without your knowledge or consent.'

"In most states, adoptees are treated as non-citizens, prevented by law from accessing or obtaining their birth certificate, adoption record, or any information about their birthfamily members, because adoption attorneys and adoption agencies and legislators -- with the backing of contingencies of adoptive parents -- have made the release of information illegal. You have a medical history.... adoptees have zero medical history, and no way to obtain medical information without access to the birthfamily.

"You don't have to worry about marrying and having children with a brother or a sister... but adoptees do, because they aren't allowed to know who their siblings are. You have been surrounded by people who bear physical resemblances to you and/or have similar personalities, traits, interests, talents, etc. etc. etc, so you aren't likely to experience isolation and detachment... but adoptees are... and they aren't likely to tell you about it unless they feel safe in doing so. How you ask the question, and what follow-up questions you ask, lets an adoptee know whether or not you are someone they want to talk with about their 'taboo' desire to know about their birthfamily.'

"I think you did a great job of explaining your situation to your friend, especially with the rape analogy. Aston Martin sounds like a mean little powertripping ignoramus. I understand that his mother died of cancer, and that he oversees a worthwhile foundation, but that does NOT give him carte blanche to viciously attack anyone who doesn't share his warped and narrow worldview on an issue. Fuck him." (Thomasina, thank you for this last comment.)
Wow! What a great response, for it must get tiring to have to defend what you do over and over. Coming from her, neither adoptee nor first mother, her words undoubtedly are given more gravitas because she is a "disinterested party." Reading this morning about the death of Jefferson Thomas, one of the Little Rock Nine--the high school students who desegregated Little Rock's Central High School with federal protection in 1957--I thought: we need a Supreme Court decision to open those damn sealed adoption records and original birth certificates. And we need a federal law guaranteeing equal rights under the law for adoptees, and birth parents who were forced to accept perpetual anonymity when they surrendered their children to the state.

Now we'd love to hear your stories about the reaction you get when educating new folk about why the status quo re adoption in all but six states sucks. And now, back to the memoir. --lorraine 

PS: As regular readers will know, because of having written Birthmark I have been very open about my life and adoption. My daughter lived with my husband and me for a while; she knew our friends. They think it's great I found her, and we reconnected, and lately, found my other granddaughter. But above I am talking about strangers, and as I am writing more about this, it's obvious I am continuing to upset whatever apple carts about adoption these folks have in their minds. Yes, it is weird to be writing something you don't want to talk about.
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* For more on adoptions in Nepal, see: International Adoption: Corruption as Usual,
 and Call it what it is: Child Trafficking as "Adoption".
And check out the Pound Pup Legacy website and blog.

18 comments :

  1. I found my daughter on facebook back in Oct. We have yet to meet. I am still pretty uncomfortable talking to others about her. And when I do, I sugercoat it. I don't really go into the sad details.

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  2. I am an adoptive mother to a nine month old, and often feel like the only advocate for birth mothers in the room when adoption is discussed. The agency we worked with had us do what felt like A LOT of reading about adoption, and we were easily convinced that open relationships were essential to healthy growth - - for all of us who are a part of The Kid's life. Often in social situations, people ask if we ever met The Kid's birthmother or if we have contact with her now, and when we say no (birthmother's decision) they often tell us that it's probably for the best. Sometimes I choose to respond and tell them that we actually hope that that will change someday. Other times, it just feels like too much to be an ambassador for open, honest relationships.

    I can't know what it's like to be a birthmother and approach the conversation from that end, but I do understand that more than a few people feel that they are experts on the topic of adoption... in a way that trumps whatever personal experience you share with them. I like to think that I am far more humble and kind to others in a variety of situations because of these jarring interactions that have taken place.

    Thanks to you and others who post such thought-filled and honest expressions of your realities on this blog.

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  3. Maybe I was just lucky, but when my son and I reunited, I told all of my close friends and they all responded with joy for me. A couple asked if he had a "good life." I've told a few really close friends how disappointed I am in the life he had and the social status of his adopters, but mostly I avoid talking about them. My friends are mostly my age, over 65, and they remember what it was like for women then. One said, "That was me. I married they guy. he otld me I was a slut every week until I got up the courage to divorce him !"

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  4. PS: As regular readers will know, because of having written Birthmark I have been very open about my life and adoption. My daughter lived with my husband and me for a while; she knew our friends. They think it's great I found her, and we reconnected, and lately, found my other granddaughter. But above I am talking about strangers, and as I am writing more about this, it's obvious I am continuing to upset whatever apple carts about adoption these folks have in their minds. Yes, it is weird to be writing something you don't want to talk about.

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  5. It always amazes me how completely insensitive "civilians" can be regarding anything "adoption". I am always shocked at the flippant, careless disregard for the feelings of mothers and adult children of adoption loss. As an adult adoptee, I have been ASKED unsolicited questions, and when I respond honestly, either get the blank stare and quick subject change or some incredibly misguided attempt to "make me feel better".

    It took me a long time to search and find my family. All I had was her middle name and the last name of White (only Smith or Jones would have been harder) I was 42 when the secret finally broke, and unfortunately, she was already gone (she died at 49). I have had people tell me, "well you were probably better off" and "she probably wasn't the kind of person you would have wanted to know"... Excuse me? You're talking about my MOTHER?? I wonder if anyone in any other situation, would consider saying such things about someone's mother.

    Still grieving, it's hard to put it out there, and I often don't want to talk about it, but part of me feels like that's exactly what "they" want... and that's how it will stay the same. If we are all just bludgeoned into silence by the ignorance and insensitivity of others, they can keep on doing what they do.... and there will be more Tamaras and Lorraines, and it will never end.

    Your writing is courageous Lorraine, and I hope you never stop. I'll keep talking too. It does make a difference.

    Thank you for the education, I learn from every blog you write.

    Tamara Whitmore

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  6. Your friend Thomasina's explanation makes perfect sense. I try to explain similar concepts, but of course as a mother - it always feels to me as if I'm making excuses for having searched for and found my son. And I get the invariable question "what do his parents think about all of this"?

    That's when I feel like screaming "Fuck them" what about me and my son who wanted and needed to know me?
    I guess it's easier to explain when we aren't so emotionally invested.

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  7. I have had several encounters with other graduate students about adoption. The women tend to shut down and pretend I am an idiot. The men, oddly, are more likely to listen and ask pertinent questions. One in particular actually was informed and definitely realistic, and not connected in any way to adoption.

    I always try, when asked, to be impartial or to qualify what I am talking about...since I really feel that I am not the person to ask about how an adoptee feels or an adoptive parent.

    I think that the one thing that really amazed me in the one encounter was that the male student I was talking to told me that he had never thought of adoption in that format. He has a friend that was considering adoption and she had only been trying a year. He later came back and told me that she had changed her mind. Adoption was not for her. Which was, in an odd way, gratifying.

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  8. Yikes, yes, we get that all the time--what about the adoptive parents? Well, what about them? Are they entitled to be party forever to a unjust contract that the adoptee or birth mother never had a hand in writing? Excuse me if I feel like saying...them's the breaks. The contract they adopted under was invalid by its very unjust proposition.

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  9. I always enjoy the opportunity to talk about adoption. As an adopted person I think it stands to reason I may be treated with more respect than a first parent. I've been told (online) that another reason I'm treated with respect is that my being adopted has not been a negative thing in my life, but I still disagree with that. I believe it's because I grant whomever I'm discussing adoption with their view of adoption and then attempt to educate.

    What I enjoy the most is watching them process information that had never occurred to them. Information about coercion or about adopted people who have not had a positive adoption experience usually comes as a surprise but I've NEVER had people argue that it isn't so, which is something I can't say about any other debatable topic I've been involved in. I'm always the "expert" in a discussion on adoption and can't think of a time where I wasn't treated as such.

    People in real life are more open-minded and less likely to dismiss my adoption experience, observations and criticisms than the online adoption people are, thankfully.

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  10. Campbell, great point!

    I do think that adopted people can do a great deal to educate the world about the issues involved and help create an atmosphere for reform. I think adoptees are not attacked for speaking up, as everyone understands you did not have a choice. We supposedly did, and we are the ones who will wreck that perfectly happy family where no thought has ever been given to "that woman."

    Thanks.

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  11. I used to get "what about the adoptive parents?" all the time when my son was young, and at that time looking back it was a legitimate question, even though it put me on the defensive.

    Now that my son is over 40, I do not get asked about the parents, and if I do, just say, "they are deceased" and that takes care of that. With people I do not know well I stick to the short form story and prefer to talk about what my son is doing, his running, his cats, pictures he sends me. It gets pretty normal like talking about my other kids, after many years of having nothing to say on the subject of my oldest because I was not in touch and did not know.

    I always recommend "Girls Who Went Away" for those who want to learn more about the experience of mothers who surrendered. I generally find people pretty open minded anymore, which was not the case in the past.

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  12. Let me suggest an answer to those who ask "what about the adoptive parents?" You might say, "the purpose of adoption is to provide a home for a child. If the now adult child would benefit from knowing his history, then I suppose the adoptive parents would support it. Actually many of them do."

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  13. "I am talking about strangers, and as I am writing more about this, it's obvious I am continuing to upset whatever apple carts about adoption these folks have in their minds."

    Thank you for upsetting the apple carts. It takes courage, but they need to be upset.

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  14. I am a firstmother who relinquished in 1976. Fast forward to 2000. I was babysitting for my nephew when he offered to teach me how to use a computer. I got on the internet and typed the word 'adoption' and found a counselling agency that also did searches. They found my son for me.There were all kinds of weird synchronicities-like his favorite toy was a stuffed dog that he named the same name as his birthfather-not a common name My parents were still alive and they made everything so much easier-thank God we all got to meet here on this side. Anyway,my son got a job working with me-his idea- and when people found out they shunned me After he moved away and got married I had to quit There have been many ups and downs but words cannot describe the wonderfully real feeling of finally knowing what happened to my baby and getting to know him.I sometimes think he's too good a person and too handsome to be my kid I don't know what the future holds but at least I'm not still stuck in 1976

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  15. Anonymous ("more than a few people feel that they are experts on the topic of adoption... in a way that trumps whatever personal experience you share with them.") and Super Tam Tam really said it all for me... and Lo, keep up-ending those fu_king apple carts! besides the apples in those carts are all rotten anyway.
    hugz & love

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  17. As an adult(ish) adoptee, I think people should be allowed to be curious about adoption, but at the same time know when to back off. People are going to be curious about things like adoption - it's human nature - but they are prevented from being curious about anything considered 'non-PC' these days at the risk of offending people.

    I know everyone's experiences are different, and I imagine being a birth mother must be emotionally taxing on a whole other level, but at the same time, it shouldn't be that shocking when people want to know about it. If no one tells them otherwise, especially of the emotional part of it, why shouldn't they be flippant about it? Someone who's never experienced either side of the coin couldn't possibly understand.

    My (adoptive) father was on the board of Gladney, and he tried to change the perceptions of the birth mother (perhaps this is why I have such a good view of her). We were raised with the view that giving a child to a better life is one of the most selfless acts a person can do.

    I recently started the reunion process with the support of my family. I want to know about my birth mother - her circumstances and her passions, and also just to put a face to her. And I hope she'll have similar expectations of me. However, I, as a happy adoptee, don't want any more than that, because I know it might not be possible.

    Many adoptees and birth mothers go into the reunion thinking that it will solve every problem in their life, or worse, that they'll be able to create a mother-child relationship out of nothing. Yes, it sucks, but unfortunately it's the truth, and I think people need to realise this if reunions are to succeed. A relationship can develop, but it can never replace what either has lost.

    These are just my opinions, obviously, so feel free to disagree, but I want to stress that I'm not dissing birth mothers in any way. No matter what the circumstances were, I have so much gratitude for the woman who not only gave me life, but gave me the chance for a better life, and I always tell people "I wasn't given UP, I was given TO."

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  18. @ Tara - I'm glad your life turned out nicely. I'm glad you're head over heals in love with your parents. But how in God's name do you know that your life was better because your mother gave you to strangers? Maybe you have a wonderful original mother and wonderful cousins and you would have had a fabulous life living with all of them. Just because your mother (I presume) wasn't married doesn't mean that she would not have been exactly what that little baby needed. And that girl, and that young woman.
    Just remember as you start the reunion journey that mothers are not animals at the zoo for you to go look at, maybe pet, and then go away. Just my opinions, too.

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