Adoption reform, like all causes that move with the speed of the tilt of the earth, can be grueling. To do the work means you keep revisiting the place of your greatest pain. I try to stay away from adoption as my life’s leitmotif. I might write the occasional letter to legislators—I did get so involved in New Hampshire when a bill allowing adoptees access to their original birth certificates passed that the chief sponsor, adoptive father Lou D’Allesandro, called within the hour to celebrate.
Yet when new acquaintances asked what I’d written, or what I was working on, the words I-am-a-mother-who-gave-up-a-child rarely passed my lips,
even when I’d already begun this book. Most times when they did, the music stopped and I could see the look of Oh My God, followed by what I imagined them thinking—You poor woman. Or I’d be dragged into a conversation that I wanted no part of, and suddenly I’d be on trial.
That’s not to say that once in a while, when it feels safe, I do tell my story in a single sentence. I remember telling a woman I’d never met before at a birthday party—I don’t know what made me do it, but I did—and she looked at me and whispered, Me too. Revelations like this happen more than most would expect. It is as if there is a special radar that hones in on us as we two strangers strip ourselves bare. Sometimes, the person I tell turns out to be adopted, or an adoptive mother, who doesn't think I should be set straight by some adoption Taliban. Sometimes the person happens to be a someone who I sense is simpatico and will not pepper me with accusatory questions, or long discourses about Great Adoptions They Have Known.
Some people still do though. Some throw the verbal equivalent of a bucket of ice pellets at me:
“You are our worst nightmare,”—an adoptive grandfather at a dinner party, while the hostess is getting dessert. His son went to Russia to get a child, it turns out, simply to avoid women like me.
“What part of your pie chart was not selfish when you looked for your daughter?” This from someone I thought of as a friend.
“You are nothing more than a reproductive agent!” An acquaintance, her filters undoubtedly loosened by wine.
I refer to my daughter’s “adoptive parents”—not negatively, mind you—but find myself corrected by an adoptive mother: They were her parents, not adoptive parents. Really? I was speechless and felt myself go white in the face. What am I, then? Only the birth mother, the woman who merely labored a child, as one adoptive mother wrote in an essay I came upon one day? If you mention your daughter’s “birth mother,” am I allowed to correct you too? Is turnabout fair play? Not really. If I said anything, you would think me uppity. Yes, uppity.
Another adoptive mother corrects a friend when she refers to my daughter: “birth daughter” she interjects. As if anyone needed reminding.
Or, “You did a brave thing—I could have never done it.” Heard more than once. Telling someone they are brave in any other context would be a compliment; here is a massive twist of logic and reality, and a slur at the same time. It plays into the idea that since you were a single, poor woman, your child certainly was better off with the wealthier couple who took her in. At the same time, the addition of the “I never would have done it” is an admission that the better choice would have been to keep your child, as the speaker says she would have surely done. When I hear this, I immediately put to rest the idea that giving up a child has anything to do with courage or heroism—Oh, no, I say, I was broken and defeated, I was anything but brave. As for the other comment, I say nothing, but think: Well, good for you. You don’t understand anything about what my life was like.Then there is the seemingly endless number of people who want to engage, often to argue: What do you think about open adoption? Hasn't that changed everything? How do the adoptive parents feel about you? Wouldn't it be better never to know? Why should adoptees rock the boat, open Pandora’s Box? My cousin, he’s adopted, never wants to search, what about that? The woman gave him up, shouldn't we let dead dogs lie? My son/brother/niece is adopted and it turned out swell.
It is exhausting.
I say, it’s a social event, I don't do adoption at parties, this is such an emotional subject for me, I’d rather not talk about it now. They look at me surprised—why you’ve even written a book about giving up a child! Most writers are such egomaniacs they can’t stop talking about their books! The kindhearted are merely embarrassed. Giving up my child was the worst thing that I ever did, the worst thing that ever happened in my life, and though I have written and spoken about it for a purpose, even today—with all the emotional armor I should have by now— I cannot speak of it as if we are debating the fine points of the foreign policy of a country neither of us has ever visited.
And it seems nearly everybody wants to debate this subject, even if they don’t realize they are debating. So many questions! So many wonderful adoptions they know about! So many adoptive parents who are saints, or nearly so! I have a tough skin when I need it, put me up against an opponent in a forum where it might make a difference, and I am fearless. But adoption talk with strangers at a social event where I am required to defend myself over and over means exposing my wound to god knows what and god knows who. Within seconds I can feel my heart beat increase, I feel the anxiety ratchet up. Mostly I just want to sail away in a life boat.
A writer who says she has no affiliation with any side or interest group, without an “ax to grind” when she set out to interview first mothers, wrote: “I began to realize that, to birth mothers, relinquishment was more than merely a life-altering turning point. For most, it was an invisible barrier separating them from the bulk of humanity.”* I stay away from high school reunions since I came out of the closet: I am too much the outlier. People will want to talk about It.
I knew that when I became the woman who wrote that book, this would happen. It’s inescapable. But if it’s a social event, let’s talk about politics, Project Runway, the state of publishing, the melting ice cap, the Taliban’s treatment of women, the Dark Sky movement, a ban on leaf blowing in our town, the Oscars, a woman in the White House, the existence of God, your children, our husbands—even the night I was raped—anything but adoption.
Anything else is a piece of cake.--lorraine
*Merry Bloch Jones, Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories (Chicago Review Press, 1993), p. xiii.
Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories
I got this book long ago but it was pretty much ignored--timing is everything, or as the Bard wrote: "ripeness is all." But whenever I hear that nothing about natural mothers was written until The Girls Who Went Away, I always bristle. First of all...what about memoirs by moi and Carol Schaefer and others...and this book? It was published more than a decade earlier. It's well done and full of good stories and right on the mark, and written by someone who wasn't invested in our story, which is why I have always appreciated it so much.--lo
And thank you all who order anything through FMF.