Me: I got pregnant when I wasn't supposed to. Thus, I am a stupid--didn't I know about birth control? Should have, I was 22! So, I failed.
This thought ran through my head when I was reading New York magazine and came upon a discussion of shame. Shame is more crippling than guilt, I read, because while guilt focuses on an act that we can recall doing--I can't believe I did that--and pinpointed enough that we can apologize for--I will never do that again.
Shame, however, is global, all encompassing: "Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide." The piece goes on to quote a social psychologist who has studied shame since 2000, Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, calling it an "incredibly painful feeling that you're not lovable or worthy of belonging...."
THE SHAME IS CRIPPLING
Bingo! That's the reason that some birth mothers cannot deal with reunion and reject their children--even before reunion. They are unwilling to go back to that time when the shame they felt was the most intense emotion they have ever felt. They are frozen in that time and cannot get past it.
Brown says that most of us use of one three strategies to cope with that shame: We move away from it, "by secret keeping, by hiding"; or we move toward it, "by people pleasing"; or we move against it "by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression".
I'm thinking back now to those first years after I had to admit I was pregnant--the shame of telling my parents I was dumb enough to get pregnant--my mother who stopped talking to me for a while when I announced I was taking a job in another city after college and thus moving from home (only bad girls did that), and my father who was against my going to college because I was only going to get married and have kids anyway. Now I had proved to them that I was both a bad girl and dad was right--I was just gonna have kids anyway. So there goes the career I said I was going to have. The thought of telling them --since living in a faraway city I could avoid that at the time--was more than I could do. I was so engulfed by shame that I could not do those things which might have led me to keeping my daughter--that is, go home and tell my parents.
I'm so ashamed of my inaction now, dammit, coming up on five decades later, partly because after I finally came out of the closet with my mother (my father had died by then, making this a whole lot easier), she said that she and my father had talked about what if the unspeakable happened--I got pregnant. She said they had decided they would raise the baby. I can hardly admit that this conversation was held, and who can know if it would have actually happened, but I am so ashamed. And telling you all this makes me feel incredibly vulnerable to the brick bats that I can feel already coming at my back. So why didn't you do this, you bad person?
LYING TO KEEP MY SECRET
As for the other shame of the pregnancy, and the giving up, obviously I first hid my secret, from friends, from lovers, from employers. For a health insurance examination, for my first job after my daughter was born, I lied to the doctor when he asked if I'd ever given birth. To this day, I can remember sitting up on the examining table, after an internal, saying No. Did he know I was lying? Could he tell I had been pregnant? Did he think I had had an abortion? In 1966, abortion was somewhat shameful too--even to some girlfriends--but not nearly as bad as being so stupid as "getting caught," as the euphemism was then for getting pregnant outside of marriage. And like Jane, I was twenty-two--old enough and supposedly smart enough not to "get caught." But the world's attitude towards sex, and birth control was so very different then.
Consider this: Not until 1965 did the Supreme Court rule in Griswold v. Connecticut that it was unconstitutional for the government to prohibit married couples from using birth control. In 1967, the year after Jane and I had our babies, activist Bill Baird was arrested for distributing a contraceptive foam and a condom to a student during a lecture on birth control and abortion at Boston University. Baird's appeal of his conviction let to the United States Supreme Court case, Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which finally made it legal in all states to allow unmarried couples to have and use birth control, and thereby legalized birth control for all Americans. While these rulings were catching up to the fact that unmarried couples were having sex and not hiding it, they do indicate the puritanical ethos of the era that Jane and I came of age in. How different it was back then is hard to convey to many adoptees today.
Fast Forward five, six years. After reading in The New York Times about the pain of adoptees who wanted to know and Florence Fisher, ALMA, and the burgeoning Adoption Reform Movement, I felt immensely freed up. The adopted want to know the other side of the story, they want to know who their parents are, barreled through my mind like a Mack truck. Maybe she does. And now, it wasn't just me who was so screwed up. I wasn't alone. I had told my then husband when he asked me to marry him--I told him before I responded, this he had to know about me, I felt--but I hid my sordid past (older married man at my office, me old enough to know better about birth control) from the outside world.
Yet the shame of being a "one of those women who gave up their babies," was still so great a few months after that piece that when I first went to interview Florence, as a magazine writer doing a piece for Cosmopolitan, it took me well over an hour of nervous tension, sitting in Florence's aqua living room on a steamy August day, to come clean and admit I was a natural mother myself. Florence said she had guessed I was either a mother or an adoptee by the way I acted, the questions I asked.
After that, my "coming out" as a mother proceeded by steps, and each step helped clear me of some of the shame: first I wrote a couple of magazine pieces as merely an interested journalist who found a good story; then I was asked to testify in court for adoptees in search, hoping to get their records unsealed, and I used my own name, timidly at first, then boldly the second time. But my real name. Then I knew I was going to write about this more thoroughly. I told my mother, and my two brothers, all separately so I had to go over it again and again, over a weekend. Then I came out in a magazine piece, in Town & Country, of all places in a section on children I was editing at the time I worked there (my co-workers and people at the magazine I barely knew were incredibly kind); that led to the Today show, and then another magazine piece for a magazine called New Woman, and then I wrote Birthmark. Each step of the way, the magazines and I got hundreds of letters.
Jane and I would fall in the category of using shame to fight shame. If it's not a secret who I am, or what's the worse thing I ever did, you can't shame me.
"Unlike other first mothers whom I've met, particularly those raised in conservative religious homes, I never thought I did anything wrong in having sex outside marriage. After college, I was fairly open about relationships with men I dated. I was not an innocent sixteen-year-old (they were supposedly innocent back then), a Tess of the d'Urbervilles, more sinned against than sinning. I knew about sex and birth control. Admitting I had a child "out of wedlock" was admitting I was not the competent, educated professional, a wife in a solid marriage, the mother of three fine daughters, the image I wanted to project, but a woman whose life once had been out of control. I remember my high school English teacher saying Tess was a foolish girl. Foolish, that was the epithet I feared. Fear of being thought foolish would keep me in the closet for years.
"Fifteen years ago my daughter found me, and I began telling others about her, including the three daughters I raised, close friends, and my and my husband's relatives. Over time, I have come out in many ways, including being photographed in 1998 for a full-page newspaper advertisement for Measure 58, a ballot initiative that would unseal Oregon's birth records. That actually wasn't as hard as telling my raised daughters and other relatives because I didn't have to actually face people. I've written letters to the editor, as well as numerous book reviews and articles on adoption-reform and law publications, and spoken in the media about the experience of being a first mother. Currently, I'm serving on a work group preparing adoption-reform legislation in Oregon. It's no secret what my connection and expertise is."
WORKING THROUGH THE SHAME TO VULNERABILITY
After reading the incredibly poignant comments from adoptees who say they did nothing like fellow blogger Jane wrote about in her recent post, Why first mothers walk away from their children after reunion, but whose first mothers still retreated, and thinking about a woman who wrote me last week because she is freaked out by the prospect of celebrating the birthday of her newly reunited son (he found her) with him, at his request, and her husband supports this reunion, but she is still thinking of walking away--I thought about shame. I thought about all those mothers who cannot deal with reunion, who reject adoptees, who simply can not wade into the awful swamp of feelings that reunion causes to re-emerge.
They are the women who refuse reunion; or who walk away. My Confidential Intermediary friend in the Midwest sweats bullets every time she has to call either an adoptee or birth parent because she fears the individual will reject reunion. If that happens, she says she goes over and over in her mind what she might have said differently, how she might have brought them along. When she realizes that the birth parents have married each other, the likelihood of a rejection is higher. Now the couple feed on each other's shame--the man because he is reminded of the shame of feeling weak and vulnerable (and what is worse for a man) and the woman because she is reminded of the shame of being less than good, less than perfect, a slut. Put those two giant stumbling blocks of shame together, and you end up with a couple unable to move. They are so engulfed in their shame that they cannot feel their child's pain, or think about what why their child is desperate enough to track them down, even with the knowledge that she might be rejected.
A 'PROUD AND HAPPY' BIRTH MOTHER?
Everyone's story of shame is different, but the sense of shame, the awful feeling of what we want to hide about ourselves in the same. Both Jane and I today, despite how open we are about our children lost to adoption, and our reunions (consider First Mother Forum!), neither of us are at ease when talking about adoption, and our lives, outside of adoption circles. Both of us do it only because we believe it is necessary if we are to champion reform in adoption. I avoid it at most social events, and will say, when I encounter someone who wants to explore this subject with a magnifying glass--and will probably have some "happy" adoption story to tell me--that I don't talk about adoption at social events. Or I will just come out and say, "Can we change the subject?" That almost always works.
For everyone, the steps moving away from shame and into the sunlight will be different, but they are all hard. Those of us who have embraced reunion have found a way, often stumbling, through the mounds of shame that we feel when this comes up. Certainly the shame is greater for us old birds who gave up decades ago; those involved with promises of "open" adoption may feel the shame less strongly. The way adoption is treated today, wrapped up in pink and blue ribbons with "love" written on them, with role models such as Catelynn and Tyler, may convince some young and needy teens, they are "proud" to be a birth mother. I suspect they are from conservative religious backgrounds and are buy into the idea that God had this plan for them. I've seen such comments on Facebook, and one recently told me she was a "happy" birth mother after I wrote, "Show me a "happy" birth mother and I'll show you a delusional woman." But for many, if not most, of the mothers today whose children are looking for us, the shame factor still looms large. It is the unspoken elephant in the room.
In the past, I've explored the subject of birth mothers who reject reunion, but I couldn't figure out their motives. But reading these few paragraphs in a piece about shame in a story about how high school shapes us made it heart-breakingly crystal clear. I don't have the answers as to how to reach these women, still imprisoned by shame, for they are not trolling the Internet looking for answers. Yet we can hope that talking about this subject is a start. Secrets only hurt us as long as they are secrets.--lorraine
Why You Truly Never Leave High School
Why first mothers walk away from their children after reunion
When birth/natural mother-adoptee reunions go awry, Part 2
Why did my mother keep me a secret?
After the Birthmother/Adoptee Reunion: Navigating the Turbulent Waters
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Researcher and thought leader Dr. Brené Brown offers a powerful new vision that encourages us to dare greatly: to embrace vulnerability and imperfection, to live wholeheartedly, and to courageously engage in our lives. There are over a hundred five-star reviews at Amazon, so she must be saying something right. Personally, I can't wait to get this book, her latest.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” —Theodore Roosevelt
Every day we experience the uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure that define what it means to be vulnerable, or to dare greatly. Whether the arena is a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation, we must find the courage to walk into vulnerability and engage with our whole hearts.--Amazon
Tess of the d?Urbervilles: A Pure Woman The whole title. Jane says the 1981 Roman Polanski movie of the Thomas Hardy movie is being re-released in art houses.