' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Talking out about adoption is not always easy. In fact, almost never.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Talking out about adoption is not always easy. In fact, almost never.

Talking freely about about our children lost to adoption is something that does not come easy, no matter how open one is about it. Reading Stone Diaries recently, I came across a passage where the protagonist, Daisy, is glad to escape from her home town because everybody there knows her marriage of two weeks was not consummated. Her upper-class husband was a secret drunk who fell out of a third-story window on their honeymoon in France. Once back home, Daisy's doctor discovers that she is still a virgin, and tells no one but his wife, who tells no one but her best friend who tells no one but...and eventually this startling news reaches her ex-mother-in-law. Who blames the lack of marital consummation on Daisy, who must be "frigid." Daisy  then became a woman whose story enveloped her around like a coat she cannot throw off.

The shock of recognition hit me hard when I read that passage because that is how I often feel about my status as a birth/first mother. That I am a woman with a story. That precedes me into any situation. Sometimes I merely want to be a woman without such an interesting story.

So I often keep my mouth shut. Do I announce to casual strangers, like someone I might meet at work (if I worked out of the home) that I am a first/birth mother, walking freely among the non-birth mothers of the world? No. Do I tell a dinner partner whom I have never met before that I had a child who I gave up for adoption, and that I searched and found her, and now she is dead, when asked if I have children? Do I sometimes just say no? Depends. (Actually, it's easier now that my daughter is dead, because saying that my daughter died usually kills further questioning and only elicits sympathy.) Do I join a new group of people and introduce myself, if asked, Do you have children? as a woman who gave up a child for adoption, or a birth/first mother? No. That's a question I have dreaded ever since 1966, the year my daughter was born and I surrendered her.

I have to have some privacy about this. I have to not let my adoption sadness and grief and activism take over every aspect of my life. I can not handle being on a soap box every moment. Thank god for good friends, because with them, adoption is only a part of who I am.

If you are a woman with a story such as this, first and foremost most people go, Ohh that's too bad, and Ahh, how are you today? Where's your daughter, how did her parents handle this, did you regret giving her up, why did you do it, who is the father, why didn't you get married?  That takes up the rest of the lunch/hour/group session/afternoon. I do not want to be a woman "with a story," a story that precedes me everywhere, obliterates all other information about me. It's what Jane talked about in her last post.

Sometimes I just want to be a woman joining a reading club, a writer and magazine editor, someone with Francophile tendencies, someone who finds amazing stuff at the local thrift shops, a fan of Elizabeth George mysteries and Preston Sturgis movies, a lover of triple-creme cheese, Indian food, horseback riding, dogs and ballet. It is exhausting to be first and foremost an activist birth mother.

Some may think that because I wrote Birthmark way back in the dark ages of the open-records movement--and been interviewed about adoption reform literally fifty or sixty times in the media--it is a piece of cake to speak out all the time about adoption issues. Wrong. If I have to debate a gang of angry adoptive parents (who usually turn out also to be lawyers with their tongues sharpened), it's emotionally draining and exhausting. If people wonder why I sometimes are not overly sympathetic to adoptive parents without knowing more about them, it's because so many have been gunning for me over the years. One guy I knew slightly told me at a party that he knew people "who wanted to kill me." They lived in his building, he said, they were friends, and yep, they were adoptive parents.

On the day in 1993 that Baby Jessica/real name: Anna Schmidt was returned to her natural parents, Dan Schmidt and Cara Clausen, from the the DeBoers, the couple who fought in the courts for two-and-a-half years, I was the only one speaking up for the Schmidts on the then MacNeal-Lehrer Report on PBS against a group of about six people, including adoptive mother and Harvard professor, Elizabeth Bartholet. You bet that was exhausting. Similar hostile interviews were common after Birthmark came out in 1979.

On the other hand, having people know who I am (reunited birth mother, adoption-reform activist, writer) does make some encounters easier, since I do not have to explain this part of my life. People who might say nasty things about birth mothers are likely to hold their tongue if I'm within earshot. Prospective adoptive parents do not invite me to Gladney fund raisers. Yes, the agency urges prospective adopters to have them, and adopting parents I know held a cocktail party for that purpose. I was not on the guest list. They got a boy soon after.

However, if someone has never talked to a first mother before (that she is aware of), and the situation allows, she is typically riveted in exploring every possible aspect of the story. She has a million questions, and so it goes for the next hour. I remember spending most of an afternoon at a friend's house one summer day and her sister-in-law was full of such questions as we paddled about in a pool. There was nothing to do but answer her questions; to do anything else would have been rude.

But if I can do so, and say, I'm at a social event and someone wants to launch into a discussion of the pros and cons of open records, adoption, my searching, whatever...I do what adoption-reform pioneer Florence Fisher taught me: She says, I am at a social event, I want to have a good time, this is such an emotional issue, I just can't talk about it now, OK? Smile broadly, hope for understanding. If that doesn't work, I add, You know, giving up my daughter was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and revisiting it now is like talking about the time I was raped. (I was.)

I put Florence's advice once to good use on a couple of occasions. Once I "helped" a friend's college-age daughter who was to argue that "adoption records ought to remain sealed" in a debating class (true story). At her father's request I sent her a packet of material (though what I sent argued for the opposite of what she was looking for) about sealed records. I don't know what her father was thinking, as he had already met my daughter, and knew that I searched for her. I did not hear from the young woman, or learn what happened in debating class. Several months later, however, here she was at a Christmas party. She introduced herself and a half hour later called me over and introduced me to another woman as, "This is Lorraine who wrote a book about adoption."

Gulp. Who is this woman? I'm thinking, Somebody about to adopt? Err..."This is a woman who wrote a book about adoption, too," the young woman making this awkward introduction said. "Bye." And then our go-between was gone.

Is this woman my enemy, I'm wondering now. Is she an adoptive mother against open records? About to adopt? What? It turned out that she had been a social worker (not an adoptive mother) who indeed had written a book about adopting for adoptive parents. We stared at each other uncomfortably. After hearing about her book, I said my piece about not talking about this at a party. We parted and have been cool to one another on the infrequent occasions our paths cross. We smile, nod, and turn away.

Being public about your status as a birth mother and lobbying for open records in Albany or Trenton or Boston or Philadelphia or Austin is a whole different ball game. You are with people of like mind, you meet legislators and their aides and tell your story succinctly and hope to open minds and hearts, and it is exhilarating, a great good feeling that gives back more than you give--even when you encounter the folks who will never vote for open records for adoptees and most certainly, not for first/birth mothers.

But sometimes someone I've just met strikes me the right way, and I end up revealing my story. I've told strangers in airports who turn out to be understanding and sympathetic adoptive mothers; I told someone sitting next to me at a dinner party and it turned out that she too, had given up a child many years before, and we spent the next hour talking barely above a whisper; I once told a man I met on a vacation half-way around the world and it turned out he was a birth father and now, with plenty of money, wished he could find a way to help his child, if he needed it. I could send him to college, he said. Just before Birthmark was available, I told a stranger in a bar in Sag Harbor, and he turned out to be adopted, and was excited with the idea of what I was doing. I never met him again. However, a few weeks later he sent a dozen red roses to me on the set of the first media appearance I did for the book. I never knew how he even knew where I would be--the interview was in Detroit, where I grew up, it was not a national talk show.

I think about him now and then. I hoped he found whom he was really looking for, and she was gladdened in her heart. We birth/first mothers have to make the call every day: whether to tell or not. Speaking out and speaking up is what we need to do, but sometimes a woman gets weary and needs a little room.


  1. As an adoptee, I am so glad that there are first mothers who do tell their stories. It would be very sad if the only aspect I knew was thru my first mother's rage.

    There are definitely times that I don't feel like talking about being an adoptee or searching for my families. I don't have many people who don't know me ask questions -- although I do remember my husband mentioning once that I was involved in adoptee rights and all I got were blank stares!

  2. It has almost always been a bad choice to tell people that I relinquished a daughter to adoption. It is as though it becomes the only thing about me or something. Or they think of it as giving your child away like you didn't want her. Or they ask too many questions but remain stupid and say stupid things like she's lucky to have two mothers.
    Or even worse they realize how horrible it is and look at you with pity that you suffered such a terrible loss. Then that's all they see, a victim, someone who lost a child.....

    It's such a strange thing to be. I think it's worse that being someone who murdered or robbed a bank really I do.

    I'm not going to be all open about it. I used to think it was important to be visible but I don't want to be the sacrificial lamb for adoption reform. Sorry but no.

    I totally admire and respect the mothers that do that.

    I have nothing but respect for you mothers who show that kind of courage.

    I just want to be happy.

  3. Lorraine, yes, we do need to rest sometimes. It is a very exhausting trip, this road we travel. Rest well, come back strong and be happy.

  4. Weary indeed. That is putting it mildly. Sound's like you are like me & just want to "be"..minus the titles..I suppose we have to take the reigns and be who we want & tell the rest of the world to go get bent ocassionally..

  5. I want to add that I never keep my daughter a secret, I am proud of her and never denied her existance ever. I just don't tell random people that she was adopted.

  6. I love the story of the roses...

    I'm an adult adoptee in reunion since July of 2008 and it's been a roller coaster. I really enjoy reading your blog :)

  7. I found myself in this very position two days ago at my monthly class. As part of an exercise on diversity we spent 30 seconds with different classmates discussing a variety of topics. For our first topic, we had to explain a time when we felt like an outsider. I've spent 88 hours with this class since January, and this was the first time I told someone I was a birthmother. She took it well, her outsider story was about switching schools when her parents divorced. We hugged.

    On the bus ride home from an afternoon field trip, I was sitting next to another woman who I only knew casually. She was talking about her adult children, and then she asked me, "So how many kids do you have?" And I told her I had none, and smiled when I said "for many unselfish reasons." But I felt dishonest, because, well, I do have a daughter but she has another mother.

    Yesterday I wrote the woman an e-mail explaining my reluctance to share with her. I didn't fear being judged, and my birthmother status is no secret, but there's no graceful way to ease into a conversation with a new acquaintance, is there? She hasn't responded, but she's a busy woman and probably hasn't read it yet.

    My daughter and I had only five years together, it's now 4-1/2 years since she cut off all contact. To remain sane in an insane world, it just makes sense to be embrace what I have and not dwell on what I don't have.

  8. I have found less and less bad experiences telling people, and more surprising good ones. Last year I told some ladies from my water exercise class, and one turned out to be an adoptive mother who dealt with Louise Wise. She was very open to helping her daughter search, and I was able to tell her that Louise Wise records were now at Spence Chapin. Yesterday she thanked me and said her daughter got lots of non-ID through Spence. Several of the other ladies in the class routinely ask about my oldest son as well as the ones I raised, and it has all become normal.

    I used to get a lot of "what about the adoptive parents? etc." but seldom encounter that any more. After all, my son is 41! People are generally supportive. I find it much easier to tell people I gave up a child when he is communicating with me. During the many years that he was silent, I told less and less people and did not feel comfortable talking about him.

    I have realized that my major shame around adoption is not that I had sex or gave birth, but that I was rejected, first by my son's father whom i thought would marry me, and then for many years by my son. That made me feel like a double failure.

    Today, I am feeling very good about the connection to my son,even though it only through email and pictures. One of his beloved kitties passed away, and I sent a card to him and his wife and made a donation to an animal shelter. Today I got an email thanks and my son said the picture on the card, of a kitty sitting in a window partially obscured by curtains, "left him speechless." I had picked that card because it looked like some of his photos of the cats. I somehow feel like we really connected on some deep level.

  9. I can count on one hand the people to whom I've told my story in real life. They are true friends and I only revealed this to them after knowing they could handle it and not be judgmental.

    To anyone else who asks about children, I say I have one, his age (sometimes) and leave it at that. No details are necessary in a casual conversation. Besides, I've learned that most people really prefer to talk about themselves, so it's pretty easy to get them sidetracked to talking about their own children.

    As for the rude or continuously probing question, I've answered with silence or a shrug. They usually get the message that questions won't be aswered. If not, I'm not above being rude and telling someone it's a private matter.

  10. For those returning to firstmotherforum, I added a few things to this current post.

  11. In sisterhood to everyone who has ever hesitated, just for a second, when asked that question: Do you have any children?

    Ah, yes, maybe and others, I also have simply said--after I found my daughter --yes, I have one daughter, and let it go at that. No reason to add details. But since I've been public about the duaghter I relinquished and my search since the Seventies, and in the Eighties and even Nineties did more media, that's often not where the story ends. I remember once being tapped on the shoulder and asked: Are you The Lorraine Dusky?

    No hiding then. But of course, it was a friendly person who asked.
    hugs to everyone today--

    And yes, Maryanne, it was easier to talk about my daughter when she was not estranged, as would happen from time to time.



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