My mind is racing. Why had my life gone so horribly wrong? How did it happen that at age 24 I had given birth to a baby, sired by a man who was not committed to me. Should I keep her? How would I care for her? Would she be better off if I kept her? "I can think this through," I think, but I can't.
Thanksgiving, 1997. I am at my mother-in-law's home in a Portland, Oregon suburb with my husband, my middle daughter and her boyfriend. My oldest and youngest raised daughters are sharing Thanksgiving in Washington, DC. A few days earlier, I had the first contact with Rebecca since I left the hospital in San Francisco on that gray November day. When I called Rebecca at her home near Chicago, having learned from a relative she was looking for me, I expected our conversation to last a few minutes. We talked for over two hours. The conversation runs through my head, disjointed pieces of information, married, three children, college, Mormon, raised as the youngest of four children, three of who, like Rebecca, were adopted.
HOW WOULD REUNION CHANGE MY LIFE?
I had thought of searching over the years but never pursued it other than registering with ALMA for a short time. Reunion could not end my pain. While we might look something alike, Rebecca and I would be very different. She was a blank slate when she was born, and now would bear only the marks of those who raised her, I thought. Reunion would not restore my lost daughter. Reunion might, however, upset my raised daughters, and diminish me in the eyes of my family and my peers in my professional life.
On that Thanksgiving Day, my mind races. Who is Rebecca and what does she want? What do I do next? My husband knows about Rebecca but I have not told him about my call to her. What do I tell him? What do I tell others? Or do I tell anybody anything? I have since heard many first mothers describe the euphoria they felt in connecting with their lost child. They rushed to spread the news, calling family members, broadcasting it to their neighbors. I feel like hiding. "I can think this through," I think but I can't.
Rebecca and I exchange emails for the next few weeks, writing every day, sometimes more. She offers to put me in touch with a first mother she met online, Judy Sullivan in Vermont. I jump at the opportunity. I begin emailing with Judy. For the first time in 31 years I communicate openly about my daughter. Judy sends me a list of books recommended by the American Adoption Congress, an organization I never heard of. After I receive the list I check The Other Mother by Carol Schaefer out of the library. Carol lost her child to adoption and suffered as I have. I am not alone. Unlike me, Carol had the courage to search and to tell others about her lost son. I read Lorraine's book, Birthmark. Then books by Betty Jean Lifton. I buy copies and send them to Rebecca. The books challenge all the popular wisdom about adoption. Mothers do not forget; children do not meld seamlessly into their adoptive families.
SHARING DETAILS NEVER BEFORE REVEALED
On the first evening of the conference, I meet a woman in the hospitality room. She asks "What part of the triad are you?" Triad? I had never heard that term in connection with adoption. "A birth mother." I don't think I had ever said these words before. "In reunion?" she asked.
"Were you found or did you find?"
I begin to tell her my story, sharing details with a stranger that I had not shared with anyone before.
The next day I go to a first mother support group with about 40 women. These are the supposed fallen women, forced by families and culture to give up their babies to avoid scandal, to punish them for their transgressions. But their faces are ordinary and earnest, not the faces of harlots. The leader, articulate, attractive, tells her story; she gave up a son, then a year or so later, a daughter, both fathered by the same man, whom she subsequently married. I never imagined such a thing could occur. The rest of the mothers tell their stories, Many were young when they lost their babies, sent to maternity homes, told never to speak about it. Most are in reunion, some have good relationships with their child; others have been rejected, some sobbed; others were stoic.
I meet a first mother, Jeanette, who lives near Portland and who has become a good friend. Jeanette tells me about Oregon Adoptive Right Association, a search and support group, and a first mother support group led by a therapist who was a first mother. I join both groups when I return home.
ADOPTION IS A COMPLEX JOURNEY
I meet adoptive parents and am surprised to learn that they have positive relationships with their adopted children's first parents. I learn about the fight for access to adoption records including original birth certificates and Bastard Nation which is leading an effort in Oregon to pass a ballot measure allowing adult adoptees to receive their original birth certificates. (The measure passed in November, 1998.) I meet members of CUB which I know about only through a mean-spirited article in the New Yorker by adoptive mother, Lucinda Franks, ("How a baby girl became a rally cause for the anti-adoption movement, 5/22/97). I hear about open adoption--surprising because I thought secrecy was essential to adoption. I learn that some regard open adoption as the antidote to adoption pain; others as a ruse to get vulnerable mothers to give up their children. I attend a workshop by international adoptees, one advocating for bringing children to the US, but helping them retain some of their culture; the other opposed to all international adoption. I learn that my daughter and I were part of a mid-century social experiment gone terribly wrong.
The AAC conference taught me--or at least re-affirmed what I had come to believe--that adoption is far more complex than commonly recognized. It marks all participants. Adoption is a journey but not one I had to take alone. Since attending my first conference, I have met many mothers who are isolated. I encourage these mothers to read about adoption, join a support group, and attend a conference. I've also met adoptees whose mothers are afraid to have an open relationship or, at the other end of the spectrum, insist upon being recognized as their mother as though the separation had never taken place. I also encourage these adoptees to help their mothers learn about adoption. I believe knowledge is invaluable in coping with adoption loss. I may have eventually discovered AAC and the books on my own, but I am thankful that Judy led me to them when she did.
I am also thankful for my husband, my daughters and my grandchildren; that I have the time and good health to write this blog, work on adoption reform, travel, play bridge, read, go to movies and the symphony, much more.--jane
Lorraine here: I miss my daughter of course, but her life was troubled and I know that she has found the peace that she never did in life. I will have Thanksgiving dinner with my grown step-children and their families, a friends. and I will think about my daughter, and talk to her daughter, my granddaughter, and also the daughter who might have been.
American Adoption Congress: The next conference is April 10-14 in Cleveland
Thank you Betty Jean Lifton
When "Adoption" Can't Be the Problem...But It Is
After the Birthmother/Adoptee Reunion: Navigating the Turbulent Waters
The Other Mother "I recommend this book to everyone who is seeking to understand the birthparent journey. I am an adoption professional involved with searching for 19 years. I find Carol's book to be a gem. Carol has done an outstanding job of encapsulating the birthparent experience. She raises the consciousness of anyone who reads her story."--A social worker writing on Amazon.
Lorraine's book is listed in the right sidebar. Birthmark, published in 1979, was the first memoir from a birth mother, and was highly controversial at the time. It gives a very clear picture of the crushing pressures that these fallen women were under then to relinquish their children.