Simple enough, unless you are a first mother. The person asking obviously doesn't know you well, so even if you are Out as a first mother, do you really want to go into it right then and there? You may be at the bridge club. You may be meeting someone in an airplane. You may be at a cocktail party and getting along like a house afire with the woman you met over the canapes. You may be with friends of yours having lunch and somebody has brought along a new person, and she is getting to know you and the question looms, and you know the whole answer but geeze, you think, Do I have to go into it right now?
Of course not. Pick your moment. Talking about relinquishing a child is not light party patter.
Since I never had other children, I used to say: No, and elaborate no further. End of curiosity.
After I published Birthmark, it got a little easier, because I was OUT, but since I did not become a household name not everyone knew my story, and so I would still be asked the question. Because I am a writer, I am often asked, What are you working on? I often fudge the answer. Telling the whole truth, at say a dinner party where the wine is flowing, kinda stops the music. I've often answered: I'm not talking about my writing, which is an answer that often works, since writers sometimes do not talk about their work, and are allowed that privacy. But one agent bugged me mercilessly because, as he said, he never met a writer who didn't want to talk about what he was working on. I finally did tell him when we were alone. It was fine.
WHAT I SAY NOW
But away from the writerly world, when simply asked the question--Do you have any children? I say: I had one daughter who died. That stops further inquisition and so the whole adoption business can be ignored. No one is likely to say, Oh, what horrible death did your child die? And the person asking the question is momentarily taken aback, realizing she has just reminded me that my daughter died. She has no idea of the back story and I can leave it at that. Or I might tell the rest of the story, if I feel safe. If my gut says it's okay.
Before my daughter died a few years ago, and considering the fact that we had been in reunion for decades, I might say: Yes, one, and not offer any further information. Usually since I did not appear ready to elaborate further about how she is a brain surgeon in Chicago, the person usually left it at that. Most people who want to talk about their kids launch into what great things they are doing at the moment: they are on dean's list, in the second grade, building a clinic with the Peace Corps in Uganda, or talk about the grandchildren.
Mothers who are married with other children say: My husband and I have three children, not adding on: and I have a fourth....
Or you might say: I have three sons (whom I raised), thinking, but not adding: and also a daughter I gave up for adoption.
SOMETIMES YOU FEEL LIKE TELLING ALL
Only once, surrounded by two very good friends and my husband did I answer the question this way: I had a daughter and gave her up for adoption, and then I found her and we had a relationship for more than two decades, but she died in 2007. At that point, the woman's jaw was indeed dropping. One of my friends said: I wondered what you were going to say. I was in a good mood--feeling enough bravado to tell the whole truth--and we were at the beach, and the sun was soon going down, and I wasn't going to let anything depress me that afternoon. It was reality I answered with, and have made my peace with that. The woman asked, she got an answer. Oddly enough, together we chatted for a few moments about the situation, but the subject changed soon enough. If she had asked me more questions about the details, I probably would have put her off and told her that I'd talk to her another time, but the casual acceptance of my friends prevented more adoption chatter. I didn't feel this was a big teaching moment--maybe it was, I haven't seen the woman since--but at that moment, I simply felt like telling the whole truth. I just knew she was sympatico. My gut spoke up and I responded.
Another time I answered: That is a very complicated question. Of course, that does demand more detail. Once you say that, you have committed to reveal.
There is a scene in the movie, Admission, where Tina Fey, playing a birth mother in the closet, has to say: I don't have any children but I understand the value of teamwork. (I gave the movie a big thumbs up.) But it is that moment--the rest of the world will pass over it quickly and not remember it--that stays with me because I had been there, done that, and knew it was a little stab to the heart. Of course the character Tiny Fey is playing knows she has a child, but must answer the way the world sees her: a childless woman.
So the question--Do you have any children?--is one of those tricky little reminders of the reality of our lives. There are times when it is possible to use the question as a teaching moment for everybody who thinks birth mothers ought to stay in the closet or under a burka. I once told a stranger in an airport (when I was on my way to a CUB retreat) where and why I was going to Richmond. It turned out she was an adoptive mother of a son and didn't want to attack me; she was interested and we ended up having a decent chat before one of us got on a plane. At a dinner party once, when I was asked the question, and was talking quietly to the woman who asked, I told her the whole truth, and she said: Me too. She was deep in the closet. We had a few moments to chat sotto voce at the table, and I hope that my revelation helped her a bit.
SOMETIMES YOU DON'T
Another time I told a man I'd never met before about the memoir I was writing, and he just listened, without expressing dismay or shock. He'd just told me about the film project he was involved in. So when he asked what I was working on, I told him, in a soft voice. I thought no one else heard. Our mutual friends of course knew my bio; all my friends know my story. The man didn't dig and ask questions that were uncomfortable, or start talking about an adoption he was aware of and how wonderful it all worked out for his good friends, the adoptive parents, yadda, yadda, yadda. There were six of us on a boat on a Sunday afternoon. But then a half hour later, our mutual friend, having overheard my whispered revelation, brought it up, the man's wife was stunned and began peppering me with questions and I could see that the next half hour was going to be me defending myself--now all six people are listening--and I basically had a panic attack, and said: You know, could we change the subject, I just can't talk about this now. I felt like I was on trial.
My friend, said, I'm sorry, I heard you mention it. There was momentary embarrassment all around. It ended up quite a muddle, the woman who asked for more information was chagrined, etc., but so it goes. I'm not perfect, nor a paragon of calm even now, after all these years of being Out. I still have to pick my places when being Out is reasonable. That certainly is one big difference between being gay and Out and being a first mother and Out. At least in my circle, no one would ask someone how and why it happened if they were gay, or start talking about their gay friend who got married to a straight woman and how that worked out, and maybe it will for you too.
Do you have children? is a hard question for others too: women who are infertile and wish they had children; parents whose children died, however they died. For us the question is different because we do have children--but.
Yet the more we can be truthful about the question--Do you have children?--the more we can move the ball forward and expose that the confidentiality that legislators cling to when they deny adoptees their rights to their original birth certificates is largely a myth, and anyway, in terms of the rights of the adopted, immaterial.
I'm all for being Out--and I wish all mothers could be Out to their children, all their children, and their extended families--but I recognize in day-to-day social intercourse, we need to pick our moments. Jane wrote about talking about this issue recently with other lawyers in a social setting, and undoubtedly did a lot of good. People need to know birth mothers are the woman next door, in the next office, the nice lady you meet at the park. Apparently on some blogs, birth mothers rarely rise about crack whore, but though some of us are addicted, we are also just like the rest of the world. Except that we had a baby and couldn't keep her.
So the next time someone asks, Do you have children? listen to your gut. You have a nano-second to check in. It may be a moment when you can say, Yes, and tell the whole truth. If it's not, recognize that, and answer however it feels right. You don't have to be Out every moment or every day just because you are reminded by what seems like such a simple question.--lorraine
When a first mother hears people talk about adoption
Admission is a movie with a lot of heart: ♥♥♥♥
Reunion gives birth mothers a 'second chance'
Second-Chance Mother: A Memoir of Adoption, Loss and Reunion "When Denise Roessle became pregnant out of wedlock in 1969, she inadvertently joined the ranks of the million-plus young women who fell prey to the Baby Scoop Era — a time when relinquishing their newborns for adoption was the socially-accepted solution to erasing their sins and filling an increasing demand for adoptable infants. She was told to move on with her life, assured that she would forget and have other children she could keep. She finished college, married, and became a professional copywriter and graphic designer. But she never had more children. And she did not forget. After reuniting with her grown son in 1996, Denise began writing on this more personal topic. Her articles have appeared in national adoption magazines and newsletters, and she continues to be active in the post-adoption, adoption reform, and birthmother support arenas".--Amazon