' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: August 2009
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Monday, August 31, 2009

Choose Life: The Latest License Plate Trend

As in many states, here in New Jersey you can express yourself through your automobile license plate. The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission lets you proudly display your alma mater, your military service branch, or you can support your cause—Conserve Wildlife, Shore to Please, Conquer Cancer. Until I read about it in the August 30 Sunday Star-Ledger, I was blissfully ignorant of a six-year battle between the state and the Children First Foundation. CFF, a pro-adoption, anti-abortion organization based in New York, wants New Jersey automobile license plates to promote their cause with “Choose Life” written in a childlike scrawl alongside a doodle of kids’ faces. The fees raised from the license plates would go to crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and nonprofit adoption agencies selected by the Children First Foundation. [Italics mine]

There went my quiet Sunday morning. The screaming inside my head turned into out loud profanity. The first thing that came to mind was that any time I see a “Choose Life” bumper sticker (usually on a minivan) I want to roll down my window and scream at the driver, “And are YOU going to provide emotional and financial support to the woman facing a crisis pregnancy who chooses life?!” Then I remembered the chill I’d get up my spine when I’d see the pro-life groups march in local parades with their banners and red roses as though they were a royal procession. For the past several years I’ve been taunted by a large billboard on a two-lane highway I travel enroute to relatives in northeast Pennsylvania—“Choose Life…Your Mother Did.” And then I remembered that those special, chosen babies grow up to be adults who have to fight for the right to access their original birth certificates.

CFF’s lawyer claims that the state agency refused to allow the plates simply because it didn’t agree with the message. The state’s policy is that it doesn’t allow plates that it considers politically motivated. Make no mistake—this is political. And more importantly, it’s personal. While most of my fellow birthmothers did not have a choice, today—until further notice—a woman still has the right to decide what to do with her own body.

Elizabeth Rex, president of the Children First Foundation, defends her side of the argument by saying the CFF slogan is “Adoption is the best choice,” not “Choose Life.” The adopted mother of two children, she decided she wanted to support women with unwanted pregnancies in making that decision. Thanks to Lorraine's previous blog topic, we’ve all been enlightened as to just how “supportive” CFF and similar organizations are.

As for Ms. Rex’s intention to support women with “unwanted” pregnancies, I’d like to smack her. I suspect women dealing with truly unwanted pregnancies make a difficult, different choice early on, so defining their pregnancies as “unwanted” must be wishful thinking on her part. While my pregnancy was unplanned, it was not “unwanted.” My child’s 20 year old father and I agreed we would become parents, and then he changed his mind when I was 5-1/2 months pregnant. I had a choice, and wasn’t afraid to stand up for myself. I was not forced to choose adoption, but I did not receive any offers of financial or social service assistance, either, so that left me—a single, pregnant 19-year-old college sophomore with minimum wage job prospects—with very few options.

The article further reports that 22 states already have Choose Life plates; thankfully, I've never spotted one on the interstates I travel regularly throughout the northeast. Choose Life Inc., the Florida based organization that started the nationwide campaign, has raised over $6 million there from at least 40,000 drivers. Are there any FMF readers from the Choose Life states who were aware the program exists and is sanctioned by their state government? If so, are you comfortable supporting the program? New York and Illinois, thankfully, are facing legal issues of their own. Last year a federal judge said Illinois had the right to restrict content on its own license plates. Choose Life Inc. has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

$6 million. Imagine what we could be doing with that money if it was earmarked to support planned parenthood rather than adoption. We could fund sex education programs, provide easily accessible and affordable contraception and counseling, and offer family preservation support for single women or women of limited means who wish to assume the challenges of parenthood.

Yes, I chose life. And I’ve been slammed by adoption. I’m reminded of it daily and have paid a very dear price for that decision. It’s a debt that compounds interest and will never be paid in full—I’ve lost a daughter, grandchildren, and even a sister because I chose life. I don’t need to be reminded of it while stuck in traffic behind a minivan sporting a cute license plate commanding me to Choose Life.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shotgun Adoptions via Crises Pregnancy Centers

Ever wonder about those "crisis pregnancy centers?" Wonder if they are actually helping women at a time when they need it...or are they just funneling pregnant teens and women into the adoption mill business? Wonder no longer.

The centers are set up as non-profit pregnancy-testing facilities...but they are really antiabortion baby mills. And they get $60 million in federal abstinence and marriage-promotion funds, which right off the bat makes me crazy.

The Nation has a lengthy piece by Kathryn Joyce, "Shotgun Adoption," in the September 14 2009 issue (on line now) exposing the "crisis pregnancy centers" or CPCs, for what they are: baby mills for adoption agencies, particularly the Bethany Christian Service agencies, which have sprouted like mushrooms all over the country--4,000 and counting. And Bethany, the nation's largest adoption agency, is incidentally a mainstay of the despicable National Council for Adoption (NCFA), a lobbying organization for adoption agencies which for years has fought every battle in every state to deny adopted people their original birth records. Make no mistake, NCFA cares not one whit about the adopted individual, their only focus is the business of adoption, and the demands of adopters to have babies furnished under sealed-records statutes. But I digress.

The illustration accompanying the article shows a woman waving from a window with money falling down and a stork taking away a big bundle of babies. Perfect.

According to writer Joyce, the centers give you all kinds of help while you are pregnant and ready and willing to give up your child, but do nothing for you if you change your mind and--god forbid, decide to raise your own child. As long as you are willing to procreate and pass on the baby, you will be taken in by a "shepherding family," whose job it is apparently to make sure that you are fully indoctrinated into giving up your baby not only for the good of the baby, but yourself. One woman, who uses the pseudonym Jordan, tells of being assured she could have an open adoption, but as soon as the birth was over, was informed that "fully open adoptions weren't legal in South Carolina," so the new mother would not receive information about the adoptive parents.

So what about this is "open?" Only "open" from the adopters' side of the fence, as they were in the delivery room.

She asked if she could bring the baby home to the "shepherding family" (who had called her a "saint" before for not choosing abortion), and they refused, "chastising her sharply." She had gone back on her unspoken agreement to supply a baby (let's call it a pre-paid-for baby) to Bethany Christian Services agency.

After learning there could be no real open adoption, she spent the day crying. The Bethany counselor warned her that if she kept her baby, she'd end up homeless and lose her baby anyway. The woman also brought the sobbing prospective adopters (who were also in the delivery room) into her hospital room. They might not get her baby. They might go home childless. When I read about prospective adopters in the delivery room, I squirm; when I read about them actually cutting the umbilical cord, and this is celebrated as a significant symbolic act, I am repulsed. Prospective adopters should not be in the delivery room. Ever. That's like taking delivery on a pre-paid kid.

Which is apparently how the Bethany counselor looked upon Jordan's baby: pre-paid. "My options were to leave the hospital walking, with no money," says Jordan. "Or here's a couple with Pottery Barn furniture. You sacrifice yourself, not knowing it will leave an impact on your and your child for life." Jordan signed the relinquishment papers, and the "shepherding family" was celebrating and wondering why she wouldn't stop crying.

We're not. We know. We've been there, done that, and here we are, all these decades later, writing reams about the pain and sorrow and endless grief and life-changing moment (for the worse) it was when we signed those relinquishment papers. Without question, the worst day of my life.

"Shotgun Adoption" also notes that unaware pregnant girls and women are often shepherded right to states where the laws favor quick relinquishment, such as South Dakota and Utah. "'There were so many allegations about improper adoptions being made and how teenage girls were being pressured to give up their children,' then-state attorney Tim Wilka told the Argus Leader, that the governor asked him to take the case. The Alpha Center [a pregnancy-crises center] pleased no contest to five counts of unlicensed adoption and foster care practices; nineteen other charges were dropped, including four felonies."

Utah is also particularly hot to trot to get those babies out of the mother's clutches. Only two witnesses are required for relinquishments that have occurred in hotel rooms or parks, and having the baby in the state and relinquishing there avoids interstate child-placement regulations. We have written here before about the Church of the Latter Day Saints rah-rah adoption practices, and were not surprised. Utah also makes it difficult for a father to retain custody of his child, and if a woman falls in with a CPC associated with the Mormon megachurch, she--and the father--find themselves under incredible pressure to sign the relinquishment papers and hand over their the baby. It's all so sick sick sick.

Read the story in its entirety. Our friends, Mirah Riben, author of The Stork Market, is quoted, along with Ann Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away, and Karen-Wilson Buterbaugh, founder of the Baby Scoop Era Research Initiative. The piece demonstrates what we have been saying all along: that market pressures have created a huge demand for babies, and that many babies that might be kept in the family are given up for adoption to genetic strangers, to the lifelong detriment of both mother and child.

"A lot of those moms from the '50s and '60s were really damaged by losing their child through the maternity homes," says a Midwestern grandmother who fought doggedly for her son to get his child from the clutches of a Utah adoption mill. "People say those kinds of things don't happen anymore. But they do. It's just not a maternity home on every corner; it's a CPC."

Though I am a birth mother from 1966, the height of the Baby Scoop Era, I did not stay in a maternity home. But against a background of shame and no resources, I gave my daughter up to strangers.

And neither of us ever got over the psychic damage. --lorraine
We are aware that adoptive parents find their way to our site to learn about the other side of adoption, and many of them are shocked and horrified at what we have to say. We do not mince words, or hide our feelings. That is the point of Birth Mother/First Mother Forum. Other adoptive parents, who are more open and real about what adoption is, join in the conversation. As this is an open blog, all readers are welcome, but all should understand this is first and foremost a place for first mothers to feel free to talk about their experiences and feelings.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Letter to Prospective Adoptive Parents

Linda’s, Lorraine’s, and my posts about their relationships with their daughters’ adoptive parents remind us once again how poorly informed many people are when they plan to adopt. Prospective adoptive parents can find help on the internet, in books, and from adoption agencies on composing a letter to convince a pregnant woman to select them as parents for their babies. Here’s a letter we’d like to see adoption agencies give people who hope to adopt.

Dear Prospective Adoptive Parent,

Recently a friend told me that her brother’s 25 year old adopted daughter moved in with her birthfather and his family and changed her name back to her original name. “How could this happen?” my friend asked.

It happened because the birth family remains a presence in an adopted child’s life. You may not want to think or talk about her once you have a child, but as soon as your child comes of the age of reason, he will be thinking about her.

Trying to keep an adoption “closed” and not talking about this reality in your child’s life will not prevent a reunion but it will close off a line of communication and may, in fact, be a source of resentment, estranging you from your child.

Some prospective adoptive parents decide to adopt internationally in order to create obstacles to a reunion; even great distance, however, cannot obliterate the desire to know one’s roots. International adoptees search for their first families just as those adopted domestically do, even though the odds of success are long.

However, because there is so much corruption in international adoptions today (Abuses in International Adoption: The Lie We Love and Babies Confiscated in China and Sold As Orphans) we cannot recommend this as a course of action you can embark upon with a clear conscience. Your chances of having a “clean” international adoption are markedly higher if you use an agency which retains information about birth families so that you can develop a relationship with your child’s birth parents thorough emails and letters and if possible, visits. If a relationship with a woman thousands of miles away is emotionally difficult, you should reconsider your decision to adopt.

In explaining adoption to your child, don’t tell him that his mother “loved him so much, she gave him away” or that he was a “gift.” Only an idiot would accept the logic that mothers give away their children because they “love” them or that he was “gift” to his adoptive parents, the kind that Santa brings. Mothers surrender their children because of poverty, illness, fear, lack of family support, shame, and uncertainty about motherhood. Open adoption allows your child’s birthmother to tell him why she could not raise him.

Keep in mind that no matter how far away the birthmother is, your child is also a presence in his birthmother’s life, and will always be so, in one way or another. My surrendered daughter, Rebecca, said that when she was growing up, her adoptive mother told her that I probably never thought of her. She then asked her father, a physician, who had delivered many babies if any of his patients who gave up children for adoption talked about it when they later came into the office.  She told him what her mother said. He said "Of course your natural mother thinks about you. Every November 17th [Rebecca's birthday] she thinks about you all day long."  He was right.

Keep in mind that even if your child decides not to search for his birth family, he may still reunite with them. Birthmother searches are becoming more common as women shed the cloak of shame.

Finally, don’t blame “bad genes” or prenatal deprivation if your child misbehaves. While these may play a part, adoption, particularly closed adoption, also plays a role. Your child may be stressed because his talents, interests, and personality do not match the rest of the family. Yes, nurture does play a part in who a person becomes, but be accepting of your child’s nature, and that the likelihood he or she will be like you is not greater than random chance. The research indicates that if he or she is like his or her adoptive parents, it’s because the adoptive parents also share inherited traits similar to the adoptee’s biological parents.

Blaming bad genes will damage your child’s self-esteem and make it harder for him to do better if he believes he is hard-wired to fail. Some adoptive parents, particularly those who adopt because of infertility, may unexpectedly find that when their child reaches puberty and is attracted to the opposite sex, that they fear their child may repeat history, and subtly suggest this to her or him, further implanting the “bad seed” idea.

As you explore adoption, prepare for what happens after your child arrives. Adoptee Sherrie Eldridge’s Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew is a good starting place. A more detailed book to guide you through the years and help you understand the adopted person’s psychology is Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self. One of the authors, David M. Brodzinsky, PhD., is an adoptive parent; another, Marshall Schechter, MD, was married to an adoptee.

Read the excellent memoirs by adoptees B. J. Lifton (Lost and Found) and Jean Strauss (Beneath a Tall Tree). For those considering adopting from abroad, The Language of Blood by Korean-born Jane Jeong Trenka and Outer Search/Inner Journey by German-born Peter Dodds are especially helpful.

Learn what adoption means to the woman who bore the child from the memoirs of those who live it: Lorraine Dusky (Birthmark), Margaret Moorman (Waiting to Forget), and Carol Schaefer (The Other Mother).

After you and your baby have settled in as a family, attend meetings of local adoption support groups. The American Adoption Congress has a list of organizations on its website as well as a list of other helpful books. The AAC also holds excellent conferences each year where adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoptees can learn from each other.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Two Mothers, Part 3

As Linda and Lorraine reported, the course of a reunion never does run straight when it comes up against the realities of ”that other family” which is how birth mothers cannot help but see the adoptive family.

In my own case, my surrendered daughter, Rebecca, searched for me for over ten years in order to, as she put it, “solve the mystery of my life.” She found me in 1997 when she was 31. Initially, she told me her adoptive parents, Norma and Nelson French, were “okay” (not thrilled but okay) with our reunion. When Rebecca and I continued to correspond, the “okay” turned to fear. Several months after our reunion, Rebecca traveled from her home in suburban Chicago to spend a week with her adoptive parents in California “to reassure them.”

Rebecca's adoptive parents, particularly Norma, continued to be alarmed by our reunion. According to Rebecca, Norma protested that she “was promised this would never happen.” She asked repeatedly “What’s Jane’s agenda?” The Frenches were politically conservative and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They knew through Rebecca that I was politically liberal and active in women’s rights. Norma suspected that I continued the relationship with Rebecca in order to convert her to feminism, ignoring the obvious – that love and the pull of my own child might have been a factor.

I admit that I did not want to meet the Frenches at first. Rebecca and I had a special relationship which they rightfully had no part. When she spoke of them, it felt like a knife in my heart. Jealously raged; we were competitors for her soul.

Eventually I began to think that meeting the Frenches would be beneficial for all. Over the next few years, I offered to meet them. Rebecca always shook her head and said “They have no interest in meeting you.”

I told Rebecca about adoptive parents and birthparents I met at conferences of the American Adoption Congress that were friends with or at least accepting of their counterparts. The AAC president at the time, Jane Nast, spoke affectionately about her son’s birthmother and introduced her to the audience at the main dinner at the conference. I met an adoptee whose birth and adoptive parents became such good friends that they “ganged” up on her, pushing her to go to college. Another birthmother told me that she always stayed at her daughter’s adoptive parents’ home when she visited her daughter, and despite problems that came up later, that is what fellow blogger Lorraine (see previous post) always did when she visited her daughter. Rebecca could not grasp these kinds of relationships and didn’t see the value of them. It was as though she thought of adoptive and birth parents as natural enemies.

Norma passed away five years ago so we will never meet. I regret this. While the simple act of meeting (and perhaps exchanging Christmas cards and so on) would not have bonded us, I believe it would have made life easier for Rebecca. At least we would have known who the other was and not depended on Rebecca to fill in blanks. Perhaps, knowing the other family might have helped each of us understand Rebecca better. Although it’s unlikely we would have become pals given the differences in beliefs and values, perhaps the Frenches and I would have begun to see each other as partners, working for the well-being of Rebecca and her children rather than as rivals for her affection.

I have read memoirs by adoptees and met hundreds of triad members at support groups and conferences. I am convinced that integrating adoptive and birth families results in the best outcome for all. This does not happen in most cases I am aware of because of the resentments and jealousies built into adoption, particularly closed adoption. And of course differences in personalities, life styles, education, values, and life experiences also play a part. Counseling for birth and adoptive parents, much like that available for parents getting divorced or parties in open adoptions, would be beneficial for parents brought together when adoptees and birth parents re-unite.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Am I Grandma or ...(Birth Grandma) Lorraine? Someone not quite connected.

Names do mean something, as we've written about before here at FirstMotherForum. My surrendered daughter Jane always called me "Lorraine" except when we were kidding, and then it occasionally morphed into "Maraine." Occasionally. However, she frequently would sign her notes and cards, "Your daughter, Jane."

My granddaughter Britt called me Grandma when she was little and spent summers here, but as soon as she hit puberty, I also became "Lorraine." Did that hurt? Oh yeah, a great deal. A great deal. I remember going to an acupuncturist for some other reason and broke out sobbing, thinking about this shift that had occurred, how once more I felt so diminished in my daughter's--and now granddaughter's--life. It was "Don't call me," (see previous post) all over again. If I had not had what seemed like a normal grandmother relationship to start with, this probably would not have affected me; it was the downgrading that was a fresh slice in the heart.

I once told Britt in a letter that it did hurt when she simply called me Lorraine, after years of being Grandma, but it had no impact whatsoever. She lives near the adoptive grandparents, the Schmidts, and it's clear that while Ann, her adoptive grandmother, obviously accepts that I am Britt's biological grandmother, I am first and foremost: Lorraine, the Egg Donor--oh god she really is the grandmother--from Faraway. And of course with Jane, who died in 2007 by her own hand, out of the picture, and everyone living a thousand miles away, Lorraine I remain.

Now I accept it. Her way of explaining it was that I didn't seem like, um, the other grandparents, that that is true. To my step-grandchildren I am of course, Grandma, but never to Britt. Though the adoption issue is a big one, sheer physical distance adds to the separation. Financially, life is, um, hairy for me and my husband, also a freelance writer, and so trips to Wisconsin are not part of the picture. I have not seen Britt for more than a year. What this means is that I am perforce an occasional physical presence, as they all live in semi-rural Wisconsin, and I live on the East Coast, a thousand miles away. Even if I could use miles for a ticket, the ancillary expenses make the trip prohibitive to us now. Plus--I don't look forward to being in the same town (it's a small town) when the Schmidts are there.

I don't mean people are rude or take pot shots at me, the way they did, say, when I publicized Birthmark, but without the "protection" of Jane, I think it would even feel more unwelcoming. Ann's so very negative attitude is a force field that repels me. Even this week, there was a shot heard here, which I can not go into here. Britt knows that if she would like to come here--I tell her every time we speak--we'll get her a ticket, but at seventeen, with a summer job, and her senior year of high school starting the day after Labor Day, that's not happening this summer.

Yet I know that Britt does not mentally disassociate from me. We do not talk frequently, but I happened to catch her the other day when she had time and we spoke for over an hour. About this and that, and I do feel that she is very open and honest with me. And after her mother, my daughter, died, she combed Jane's things looking for the three gold stackable rings that had been my mother's (Britt's great grandmother, whom she had met a couple of times) that I had sent Jane when she graduated from a technical college. Britt was desperate to find them, and told me she wanted them more than anything else her mother had. I believe she valued the connection to a past that went beyond her mother (and her father walked away without looking back), as the rings were not that valuable. But alas, she could only find one. I know she values it.

The other day she told me she had lost her platinum senior ring, before she even started her last year of high school; I told her about a valuable sapphire ring my father had given me in college and how I almost immediately lost it by taking it off when I washed my hands in a public bathroom and leaving it behind. I told her losing rings seem to run in the family. She liked that.

This started out as a comment to the previous post but got long and I decided to make it a fresh blog. Tomorrow we'll have fellow blogger Jane's Dear Prospective Adoptive Parent letter.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Now A Grandmother. Not a "Birth" Grandmother

Over the past two days I've written about my complicated and sometimes troubling relationship with my surrendered daughter's adoptive parents, as I found my daughter when she was fifteen, and reunited with her in a matter of days. Since she was underage, and living at home, there was no question that if I were to have a relationship with her, that would necessarily include her other parents. My daughter Jane had epilepsy, and a passel of psychological problems that unquestionably were a part of everyone's relationship with Jane, and each other.

In time, Jane married and had a daughter. The marriage broke up after two years, and while Jane kept it together for four more years--more or less--her inability to hold a good job with a decent salary, led her to putting her daughter, Britt, into another household, and for a time, none of the grandparents knew about it. Eventually, Jane's adoptive parents discovered the living situation, and though they had retired, and their other three children (another adopted, two younger biological children) were not living at home, they brought Britt into their household when she was six. I did not know about this until after Britt had moved in. In the section below, taken from my in-progress memoir, Hole in The Heart, I describe how my relationship with the Schmidts changed after Britt was in the picture.

Copyright (c) Lorraine Dusky 2009

Relations with the Schmidts were a puzzlement. Though they invited me to their house and let me take care of Britt when they went on vacations (and I happily complied), one would have had to be deaf not to sense Ann’s (Jane's adoptive mother) increasing chill, the clipped tone in her voice, the rapidity with which she turned the phone over to Gary (Jane's adoptive father) once she ascertained it was me on the line. A typical call went like this:

“Hello, Ann, it’s Lorraine. How is everything?”

“Fine, LORRAINE (loudly so as to alert Gary, I presumed, that that dreadful woman was on the phone).

“Ah, well, how’s Britt?”

“Let me get Gary.” And she was gone.

Britt was way more relaxed speaking to me if Grandma were not at home. Do I stop calling and let her think that I’ve forgotten about her? No. Do I call and incur Ann’s wrath every time I do? Yes. Britt was still a kid and I did not think I ought to leave this decision up to her. I would stay in her life just like a regular grandmother, because, after all, I had pretty much been in her life as much as I would have as a grandmother who lived half a continent away. So I made those calls, every couple of weeks. In between I sent Beanie Babies, which were all the rage back then, and books and whatever else I thought an eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve-year-old would like.

Despite Anns' hostility, the Schmidts asked me to come and take care of Britt when they went on two-week vacations at their time-share. I had heard from Jane—who was more than a tad surprised her parents invited me to take care of Britt the second and third time—that Ann had become progressively more infuriated with me. Mention my name and she would either walk out of the room, or make a nasty remark about "that woman." Yet whenever I sent Britt a small gift—and they were small—Gary would call a few days later and put Britt on the phone to thank me. My Christmas presents, usually purchased at the nearby discount store of T.J. Maxx, were another source of aggravation, as the brand names I sometimes found there were too upscale for Ann's taste. Or the wrong size. Or the wrong color. Or too stylish. The DKNY kids dress I’d sent once was the absolute limit. I probably paid no more than thirty bucks for it. The Barbie dolls that I sent at Christmas were kept in their boxes, pristine behind cellophane, so to be more suitable as a collectible item someday, a concept that was not Britt’s.

You name it, I could do no right. While I had a claim to Jane Ann could understand and accept, and Jane clearly was a problem child, it was impossible not to sense that Ann wanted me out of the picture regarding Britt, particularly since they had taken over her care. And it was impossible for me not to see that Britt was the child that Jane had not been. Not only was she incredibly cute—people used to stare at her on the street, I’m not kidding--Britt was coasting through school with nearly all As. Britt was the smart, normal and adept little girl that Jane had ceased to be once she had her first seizure. Britt told no fantastic lies, she was not accusing anyone connected to the family of molesting her, she was the undamaged child, the good daughter, the one who had been denied Ann.

I was determined Britt should not think I deserted her—as her father had done, as her mother temporarily was doing when she had moved to another city; her paternal grandmother was no where in sight or had ever made any attempt to know Britt. So I braced myself and made those calls every couple of weeks. And despite Ann’s antipathy, photographs of Britt wearing the clothes I sent would arrive, as would pictures of her at school, her school reports and every now and then, one of her art projects, or a handmade card. I knew they came courtesy of Gary, who at least remained neutral when we spoke. I think he understood the difficult position I was in, and while Ann was his wife, he saw some redeeming point in having me be a factor in Britt’s life. I only wanted to insure that I would have a relationship with this granddaughter, that I would not be a stranger; I wanted to normalize our connection as much as possible, I wanted not be a grandmother who did not quite count. Or one who had forgotten her.

When Britt came for here extended summer visits, Tony and I always assured her that if she wanted or needed to live with us, she would always be welcome. Her other grandparents were a few years older than we were, and we were in our Sixties by then, and who knew what could befall any of us at anytime? My father had died of a heart attack at fifty-seven. None of us could count on Jane to be able to provide a stable home. Her difficulty in keeping a job and managing her life was, it seemed, beyond her. Britt, we knew was increasingly aware of her mother’s difficulties, but she kept them close to her heart, only rarely admitting her anger and disappointment, but acknowledging them now and then just the same. No one could blame her.

In truth, I hoped Britt would want to move in with us one day. The summer she was twelve, she said that yes, she wanted to, and we said, Great, but you will have to tell Grandpa and Grandma when you get home, and they are probably not going to like it. But she seemed excited and happy, and kept assuring us that she would be able to tell them. I showed her the school she might go to, and she already had a friend there who would be in her class. We live in the village; Britt was old enough to walk downtown by herself, and she had done that during the summer; the Schmidts live in the country on a lake, mostly surrounded by other retirees, five miles from town. There were no friends nearby she could either walk or bike to. So after we sent her home at the end of the summer, Tony—whom the Schmidts have always quite obviously preferred over me—sent an email explaining what had transpired.

Britt stayed in Wisconsin. On the phone, she told us she wanted to stay there. I think she was torn between the two of us, just as Jane would turn out to be, and wanted to please both sets of grandparents. At the time we discussed her moving to Sag Harbor, I believe she was sincere in her wants, but maybe once she got back to Wisconsin, moving here seemed like more of an upheaval than a girl of twelve was prepared for. Though her mother was not living with her, Jane was at least in the same state as the Schmidts, Wisconsin; and Britt had her friends and a familiar school and her own room and grandparents there who also wanted her, and who had already given her a stable home.

But still I had my visits back there when the Schmidts went on two-week vacations and I took care of Britt and the dog. The three times I was allowed to do that were a gift. Ann was usually unfailingly polite, if reserved, while we maintained a respectful calm in our dealings in person. She told me once she had counseled another family with an adopted child that having an open relationship with the birth mother right from the beginning was a good thing. Given the way I knew she actually felt about me, it might seem odd that we always hugged each other upon meeting—I knew if Jane was around she was mentally rolling her eyes—but that is what we did. There was somewhere, underneath all the rest, underneath her resentment, a shared sensibility in relation to Jane. Being invited to spend time in their house, with our granddaughter felt a bit like being forgiven. The first time I went, Jane was still living away, but came down for a weekend to visit; the next time, she was also living at the house, and the third time, she was living in a small cabin in the woods with the man who would soon marry. The visits were, quite simply, wonderful and amazing, amazing that I could be this close to my granddaughter.

Maybe I was letting go of the guilt myself; maybe I was at last forgiving myself.

But nothing was ever simple. The year Britt was thirteen, she was here again for part of the summer, and going back to Michigan with my brother and his family, which included two nieces around her age. She would spend a couple of weeks there, and fly back to Wisconsin from there. As we were saying goodbye on a crowded Manhattan corner, as the other girls were piling into my brother's car, as I was hugging her and saying Don't forget I love you, as she was turning away, the last words she said to me were: Don't call me.

I've never been able to talk about this with her, because why? But in those three words, she told me all I would ever need to know about the depth of Ann's antipathy towards me, and what happened at the house when I called. Jane would later say that she would get mad at she, Jane, when she was upset with me simply because, and even get angry with Britt. Yes, Irrational, but there it was and I could do nothing about it. While I was tolerable enough as a first mother to her imperfect problem child (and undoubtedly the cause of all the problems), I was unwanted, disdained, abhorred now that she had a good, easy granddaughter to raise who only wanted to please everyone.

Now I look back fondly upon the time when Britt was here with her two nieces and decided that she could be quite simply, a brat. She was pushing the limits of our relationship--talking back, throwing clothes pins into the shed, just being disagreeable to me and Tony--because it is clear to me that she grew up not feeling free to do that. And that broke my heart all over again.
Next: A "Dear Adoptive Parent" letter from fellow blogger and first mother, Jane.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Two Mothers, Part 2

Continuing yesterday's post about my up and down relationship with my surrendered daughter's adoptive parents. To recap: I found my daughter Jane in 1981, in the dark ages of open adoption. She was fifteen at the time; she also had severe epilepsy, her parents had tried to track me down before, to no avail, and their reaction to me was a mixture of relief and suspicion and distrust.

But of course I remember Jane's other mother's question, asked after I told her there was no history of epilepsy in my family (it is not an inheritable affliction; it just pops up). And so, she said, grilling me: "There is not history of mental illness in your family?"

No, I said. No.

Lorraine Dusky copyright 2009

I anxiously wanted Jane's adoptive parents, the Schmidts, to approve of me and not see me as the enemy. But like Jane, I always felt as if I were walking on a fence and with any wrong step I would topple off. And of course, they had all the power. Not only were they her legal parents, they were Mom and Dad, and while Jane was a minor, their disapproval could cut off all contact with her. To counter Ann’s opprobrium, I emphasized my Midwestern working-class roots, dropping Michigan into the conversation whenever possible. I didn’t go as far as going to Sunday Mass with them when they visited, but I considered it. Tony, a lukewarm Methodist by birth, a Buddhist at heart, never would have gone. We stayed home; they went to church.

Yet despite any doubts about me, Ann would refer to Jane as “our daughter,” a pronoun which rang like a bell the first time she said it, and for which I have always been appreciative. Tales of other adoptive parents that I heard from other first mothers were not nearly as encouraging as the relationship I was forging with the Schmidts, and we were doing it at a time when reunions of this sort were indeed rare. Other first mothers were told to never contact the children in question; the police would be called otherwise. Adoptees who had the audacity to search, or, what’s worse, find and meet, were cut out of wills, and told by their parents they were now dead to them, and that included the grandchildren. The common solution? The adopted person would keep any relationship with his first family secret from his adoptive family. Many still do.

I hoped--I desperately hoped--my daughter would feel the same indelible connection with me that I did with her. However, that did not mean I wanted her bond with the Schmidts to loosen, for their enduring relationship would be proof that the adoption had gone well, and that would at least assuage my conscience. But navigating between the two mothers would always prove hazardous. As Jane would describe in an email one day many years later: “I feel like a magnet torn between two sides that are pulling at me. To move towards one, you have to pull away from the other.”

Yet Jane maintained she would not have had it otherwise: “You took such a great stress out of my life by finding me,” she said when we recorded the conversation. “I was very lucky to not have to be forced to search….It was a given as I was growing up that I would search. But you coming along made my life a lot less—so many questions I didn’t have to wonder about anymore. Especially when I went through depression—this wasn’t one of the issues.”

Over the years, Jane would sometimes point out that it would have been extremely difficult for me, as a single woman with an erratic income, to cope with raising her, especially because of her epilepsy. Hell, it would have been hard to raise her as a single parent back then, with or without the epilepsy. With Ann and Gary, in Madison, Wisconsin, in a stable family with good health insurance, Jane had the best medical care known at the time, and the control of epilepsy has not advanced all that much since then. I might have been a perfectly acceptable mother—I was a sought-after baby-sitter as a teenager—but I recognized all along how overwhelming raising her alone would have been. I never have thought I would have been a great mother—I have to admit, deep down and always, I did want a career, I was ambitious from the age of reason, I was raised in the Forties and Fifties and in a family where a career and motherhood were not compatible, when being a single mother was an anomaly suffused with shame, and my family had no cushion of money that might have eased the way. Jane understood all this, and so when she said, I don't know how you would have done it, Lorraine, I did not argue.

My relationship with her father, Gary, was far less problematic than the one I had with Ann. He was far more accepting of me, and unquestionably smoothed my incursion into their lives. He unquestionably would have preferred I was someone who went to Sunday mass, had other children, was a "normal" person like he and Ann were, but he showed no overt disdain towards me, or us. But then, I was Jane’s mother—not her father—and that other man was nowhere in sight. Gary had no competitor. True, when Jane visited, Tony took on a role not unlike that of a step-parent, but he was not her father.

Tangible evidence of Jane’s difficult see-saw relationship with her two mothers is a picture Gary snapped one sunny day many years after we all knew each other. We—Gary, Ann and I—imagined it might be a swell record of our rather remarkable relationship. Not great friends, but not enemies--and remember that we were ahead of the curve, when open adoptions such as this one had become were unheard of. The three of us are on a couch, Jane is sitting between us. Ann and I are staring straight into the camera, both of us smiling the way you do in pictures, both of us looking comfortable in our roles. However, Jane is pensive, not a glimmer of a smile. She is looking away from the camera, looking as if she did not belong there, looking uncomfortable sitting between her two mothers.

When I saw the picture, I could not help but remember what Jane had said once: If I told the truth, both of your feelings would be hurt.

Some might say that life would have been less complicated for Jane if I had not contacted her when she was a teenager, and people openly admit that they adopt from Siberia and China and India not only because it’s easier to get an infant there, but because the likelihood of a child’s original mother coming back is pretty much nil. No competition, no complications. One adoptive grandfather not so long ago looked me straight in the eye and said that his son went as far as Siberia to get a child exactly to avoid someone like me--someone who found her daughter, whose daughter had lived with her off and on, had even worked for a couple of summers in town. “You are their greatest nightmare,” he said. (Some of you who have been following another post at First Mother Forum (Open Adoption Is One Giant Baby-Sitting Scam) will be amused at this reference here, and again.)

But prima facie that ignores what the adopted individual might want—in fact, it gives the individual in question no choice. It robs him of a history before he was born, medical and cultural. Adoption then becomes not an arrangement to fulfill the needs of a child who needs a home; it becomes a deal that satisfies the desires of someone who wants a child at any cost—and that child’s need to have and hold his connection to the tree of life be damned.

Jane would not be caught in that trap.

I did not know yet how different the relationship would be when Jane had a daughter with no obvious problems, a girl who was cute, smart, without epilepsy.
(To be continued tomorrow.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Two Mothers, Continued

Continuing the theme of relationships with our first children's adoptive mothers, I'm going to post over the next three days some of what I've written about my relationship with Ann, Jane's other mother, and a bit about her adoptive father, Gary, that continued over several years. Unlike Linda, we had a relationship that spanned decades. For those new to First Mother Forum, I found my daughter when she was fifteen, and reunited with her a few weeks later at an airport with her adoptive father looking on. Yes, it was a tad uncomfortable--for both of us, as she would later relate--but we got through it unscathed.

Two Mothers

copyright (c) Lorraine Dusky 2009

Life seemed to be going on relatively smoothly two years after I found Jane. We’d had several lengthy visits, and the initial intensity had worn off.


I was always thrilled when she was coming, emotionally fraught and fragile when she was here, and exhausted when she left. I tried to act as if I were on top of everything, including my emotions, but I must have not been doing such a great job for my husband, Tony always noticed how fried I was by the time she left. Even if we did much the same things as I did when I visited my mother—lunches, shopping, movies—the emotional quotient was vastly different, especially in the beginning.

Be that as it may, Jane and I were settling into the relationship we would have over the next quarter of a century. We started out before email. We wrote infrequent letters, especially at the beginning. She was a teenager with severe epilepsy, taking strong medication, and frankly, I did not know what to write her. Telling her what I was doing on a day to day basis seemed ridiculous; telling her about my family seemed absurd—she barely knew these people.

So I phoned now and then, but not too often; she was living with her parents, calling often would have been too intrusive. I kept it to holidays, and just now and then. It was awkward to call, and I never picked up the phone except on a holiday without second guessing myself. Should I? Is it okay to call today? How long has it been since I phoned? Don't get me wrong, everyone was always friendly, and if she were not home, she always called back within a day. Yet I felt like an intruder. Say I called when Jane and her mom were having an argument. “Jane, your birth mother is on the phone,” would not be a welcome interruption. In any case, all of us together—Jane, Ann and me—stumbled along without any major problems for several years.

Gary and Ann had come out to visit us without Jane for a few days, and that went smoothly—as smoothly as one could expect for two couples who did not have much more in common other than a daughter. It is unlikely we would have been more than nodding acquaintances had we had lived in the same town. We showed the Schmidts the beach and the lighthouse at Montauk—Jane and her mom both collected lighthouse memorabilia—and we cooked in, we ate out, we watched television, we talked about Jane. As I’ve said, they are salt-of-the-earth types, and they sincerely hoped that my becoming a part of Jane’s life would give her ego a much-needed boost. It was clear to everyone that her self-esteem hovered ten points below zero.

Perhaps for that reason, Ann, who is a private person, agreed to be a part of joint memoir that would include her side of the story. As Birthmark ends before I was reunited with Jane, I tentatively thought of calling the new book Happy Ending. But we always ran into some roadblock. Such as some new crisis from Jane, not a particularly “happy” one. And the story did not seem to have more than a magazine article's worth of words, which is what I ended up doing for the now-defunct McCall's magazine.

Besides, I was of two minds about the project. A part of me wanted to finish the story; another part wanted to move on once whatever good might come out of the reunion in regards to adoption reform was over and done. I wanted to be more than the crazy lady who was always dragging around a soapbox with the words "Adoption Reform!" written on it.

Yet while Ann was willing to let me be a part of Jane’s life, her defensive distrust of me could not quite be hidden behind surface friendliness. It wasn't just me, as Jane’s other mother, it was what I represented: I could never live down my image as a New York City career woman. And to top that, a writer—not something more understandable, more normal, more like her or Jane's father, an insurance adjuster. If only I’d been something else, I could feel her thinking, a teacher, a nurse, a dental assistant, even for god's sake, a dentist. Her attitude was not conveyed in words, at least not to me; it was a pursed lip here, a flinty look there. We were—arty East Coast types. Our politics might be the same, but we were likely to have a suspect moral code—and besides, and this is a pretty big besides, Look what I had done. The unthinkable. Given away a child. Gotten pregnant outside of marriage in the first place. Perhaps it would not have made a difference if I'd been a nurse, just like her. After she met my sister-in-law, a pharmacist, Jane got quite a earful about how great my sister-in-law was. But then, she wasn't the other mother. She was just a bystander, not related by blood. She was a good person. Somehow I got the message: why couldn't I be more like her? Well, uh, she's Chinese.

The Schmidts would call--and often on a Saturday evening--to make arrangements regarding Jane's next visit, and we might be entertaining friends at dinner. Though I tried—Don’t answer the phone now!(because it might be them)—Tony simply could not be broken of the habit of picking up no matter when the phone rang. Obviously, we were party people one could barely trust, while they were good sober citizens who didn’t entertain debauching drunken friends in their home Saturday nights. Twice they had called when we had people over! You could hear all this laughter and noise in the background! (said with a look). All this was disdainfully reported to Jane, who, many years later, let it come out. But I had known all along we were barely trustworthy types.

We could never forget that she, Ann, held the morally superior position.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Can Two Mothers Really Share a Child?

By Linda

FMF recently received a request to discuss our relationships with our children’s adoptive mothers and my hand shot in the air to volunteer for this slam dunk assignment. The simple answer is I have no relationship with my daughter’s adoptive mother. Period. Zip. Nada. Niente. Rien.

I tried. Oh, how I tried. My daughter was raised 40 minutes from me; her mother, divorced since my daughter was in high school, now lives in a desirable empty nesters/suddenly single complex just six miles from me. As I commented in a recent post, I strongly encouraged my daughter to tell her parents that she had found me. I was in the black hole of adoption for 23 years; I didn’t want anyone to be left out. Supposedly her mother’s response to the news was “I always knew you would search. I just wish you had asked me for help.” No help was needed--I left my daughter a trail of neon-colored breadcrumbs; I was just a phone call away.

I was eager to meet the woman who raised my daughter. I naively, foolishly believed I’d be welcomed into the fold; my daughter’s mother would see where those chubby chipmunk cheeks came from, how she earned her title of class flirt (like mother, like daughter). That was the case with her easy going father, but no, she had no interest. She seemed to forget that her daughter had a mother before her, and preferred to believe she was a gift from Santa (the paraphrased text in the formal announcement of my daughter’s arrival). And she was terrified of me.

Several months ago an adoptive father posted a comment for advice about his teenage daughter’s desire to search, and Jane explained the reunion was between his daughter and her mother, not her adoptive parents. I didn’t see it that way when I reunited, but it’s sound advice. In my attempt to create one big happy family, I ended up being the one left out.

When my daughter announced her engagement she said she wanted me to attend her wedding, but she needed to discuss it with her mother. Supposedly the woman’s response was something along the line of “Well, of course, I wouldn’t have you if it weren’t for her.” But I doubt Kay said anything of the sort; I think my daughter was being diplomatic. I suggested that my husband and I meet her mother before the wedding--coffee at Starbucks, anything--there would be enough stress that day, and again my request was denied. Apparently her mother hosted a shower for her here (my daughter lives in the South) and I wasn’t invited; another missed opportunity.

On the eve of the wedding my husband, niece, and I drove ten hours to the hotel where the reception was being held. We were sitting in the vast lobby when the wedding party trickled in from the rehearsal dinner. I walked up to my daughter; she gave me a big showy hug, and immediately walked me over to her mother. “Kay, this is Linda. Linda, this is Kay.” I was David; she was Goliath. Kay is a tall, slender, attractive, classically elegant woman. I’m an artsy, in-your-face, 5’2” free-spirited pear. We limply shook hands and in her soft, breathy voice she discussed her very elderly father’s solo flight from Florida. The wide smile never left her face; I realized the woman was on autopilot. I stood there thinking, “Oh my God, she’s channeling Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and her children are Caroline and John-John!” And then, out of nowhere, my daughter said, “Why don’t you two hug?” I looked to my husband; his face read, “Don’t look at me.” I looked at my daughter with eyes that said, “You’ve got to be @#$%^&* kidding me!” And I looked at Kay, who was as surprised and uncomfortable as I was. There were twenty, thirty people around us…she bent down and we gave one another an air hug that lasted all of one second, and then my husband and I went straight to the bar.

The only other contact we had that weekend was when my husband shared an elevator with Kay and they didn’t speak except for hello. During the reception cocktail hour, the mother of the bride was walking out to the terrace; I was walking in. I instinctively grabbed her and squeezed her tight and told her congratulations.

About a year later I was shopping at my supermarket on a weekday afternoon, which was unusual for me. For some unexplained reason I was drawn to a tall woman wearing flat shoes, a khaki skirt, and a homespun blazer; she reminded me of Miss Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies. I walked up to her and said, “Kay?” She looked at me blankly for a few seconds, gave me a fake hug, and we exchanged pleasantries. According to my estranged sister, who had analyzed the event with my daughter (who at the time hadn’t spoken to me in over a year), Kay thought I was a former classmate; she didn’t realize it was me until I inquired about her grandson. Again, according to my estranged sister (who was surprised I didn’t tell her about the encounter; I explained she had ceased being my confidante long ago and besides, it was a non-event) my daughter claimed her mother had “a right to privacy when she shopped.” I just laughed it off, what else could I do? My reunion failed for several reasons, and I admit I made my share of mistakes, but protecting and remaining loyal to the mother who raised my daughter was near the top of the list.

It’s now more than nine years since that long-awaited phone call, and I’ve spent less than 15 minutes with my daughter’s adoptive mother. I know that’s the rule rather than the exception for triad relationships. The only truly successful birthmother-adoptive mother relationship I can think of is Carol Schaefer; who wrote candidly about her relationship with her son’s mother in The Other Mother. Soon after my reunion Carol and I were attending the same meeting and I asked her for guidance. She took a deep breath, placed her hands on the table, and said, “It takes years.”

I’m still optimistic that the meeting and sustainability of the My Two Moms dynamic will continue to improve in contemporary adoptions. I’ve read a few blogs where adoptive mothers sincerely consider their children’s birthmothers members of the family, the ultimate Lifetime movie plot. Several years ago I knew a Christian couple who were adoptive parents of toddler twins. The birthmother had frequent personal contact with her daughters’ parents, but only received photos of her daughters. It was an open adoption, but complicated, at least to me. I’ve wondered if they’ve maintained their warm relationship, or if it became too much to bear.

I’m not complaining or seeking pity. I’m simply sharing my experience, which is just one of thousands of similar stories, some better, and some far worse. My daughter’s mother wasn't/isn't a horror story and by all accounts is an A+ mom. But I can’t help but wonder: why can’t we all just get along?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The First Mother Club: A Sisterhood of Sadness and Grief

I was married, working at a Madison Avenue PR agency in Manhattan, keeping the secret of the daughter I gave up for adoption from the world at large. I don't think my mother, back in Michigan, even knew I'd had a baby. There was another woman at the firm whom I couldn't stop watching. She was six feet tall, glamorous, a dark beauty. She was way hipper, way cooler than me, somewhat mysterious and had a wardrobe to die for. Could we be friends, I wondered.

She and I did not work on any accounts together so our contact was limited, and she seemed remote, but about six months after I started at the agency we agreed to have lunch. And at that lunch, god knows what came over me, none of my other friends in Manhattan knew, maybe it was the Bloody Mary I was drinking--I took a deep breath and told her I had had a baby and had given her up for adoption.

Oh my god, she said, me too.

Needless to say, we're still friends. She was my "best woman" at my wedding 28 years ago; she gave me a publishing party when Birthmark came out in 1979. We've shared our lives in so many ways. She became a successful novelist and lives in Hawaii now, where she retreated after she dropped out of college when she was pregnant, to live with relatives and finish college there. She is half Hawaiian by birth. Though we live a continent and half an ocean apart now, though we've had our arguments, we've made up, and we'll always be friends, cheering each other on, holding each other's hands when times are bad. We've cried, we've laughed, and we will keep on doing the same.

Shortly after I hired The Searcher and he found my daughter, she did the same and found her daughter. Both of us reunited in short order. Though they live far apart, they have had a rather remarkable relationship, perhaps made easier by the fact that not only did the girl's adoptive mother welcome the contact, she died a few years later. I hate to add that caveat, but I don't know of any terrific relationships between adoptive mothers and first mothers. My own was friendly on the surface, and friendly for several years...but there was always an undercurrent of hostility simmering under daughter Jane's other mother's surface. Maybe there are great relationships between birth and adoptive mother--the pleasant picnic and barbecue mentioned in the last post would indicate there are--in the new world of open adoption where some adoptive parents are truly welcoming, but those stories are not burbling up to me yet. I'm hearing the other kind.

Back to my friend. What did I recognize in her that allowed me to blurt out my story? I don't know, but there it was. I'm thinking of the line in Mick Jagger's song: Sometimes you don't get what you want, you get what you need.

I needed to have a friend who understood, truly understood, what it was like to have a child and feel she had to be given away. And there she was, my sister in sadness and grief. Knowing her, and the other birth/first mothers, especially Linda and Jane, who have come into my life, have enriched it tremendously, and I thank all of you.

And by the way, when any of us get together, it's not all just sorrow and grief. We have good times too.

I'm telling this story now by way of saying that an informal group of women who surrendered children called Heart 2 Heart is having their seventh weekend retreat near Boston, September 11-13. Most of the women who attend are members of other groups that offer ongoing support for issues surrounding the loss of a child to adoption. Some people arrive on Thursday evening, there is an informal get-together on Friday evening, and the dinner on Saturday evening, September 12, at which I'll be speaking. It is my understanding that the weekend is very loosely structured--no one giving papers, no social workers, no adoptees or adoptive parents in attendance, no reason to hold your tongue or feel uncomfortable when you speak what is in your heart--and sight-seeing with new and old friends is part of the plan. Some people just stay at the hotel (there is a swimming pool, naturellment) and talk. Sounds good to me. Anyone interested in attending this year should contact Ronnie McEntee, the organizer, ASAP at verniemac@hotmail.com.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

I did not give up my child because I loved her

From the Boston Globe:
WESTWOOD - When 7-year-old Megan Hurley grows up, she will know she inherited her mother’s hazel eyes and determination. She also will know she was adopted at birth and that the choice to give her away had been tough for her mother, who was 19 and a college sophomore at the time. And she will know the decision was made out of love. (Italics mine.)
We need to change the language, folks. Megan Hurley's mother did not give her away out of love, she gave her away because she could not keep her. Yes this is the kind of obfuscatory language has permeated the ethos to make giving up a child...so clean, no nice, so praiseworthy. But it's not like that at all. "Giving up a child out of love" is pure fabricated malarkey to appease the minds of the a) adoption industry; and b) adoptive parents. "Your mother loved you sooooo much that she gave you away...." Right. Unless you are lobotomized, you are not going to grow up believing that.

Reminds me of that ad on TV where the man asks a little girl what she wants and she says a pony, and she gets a small plastic pony; the next girl gets...a real pony. You can see right away the look of disbelief and sense of being scammed on the first girl's face.

We women who have relinquished children did not send them down the river in a reed basket like Moses because they would be killed otherwise, and this was the only way to save their lives. Anyway, was that an act of "love" of pure desperation? I'd say desperation. Adoption is no different today.

We gave our children up because we could not find a way to keep them, period, end of story. Maybe some women today feel that with an open adoption, they won't tear out their hearts when they give up their children, but I admit, I have trouble walking in those shoes. The story I quoted above was a reporter's view of a "breezy picnic and barbecue" sponsored for nine years by the Bright Futures Adoption Center. The director of Bright Futures, Karen Cheney, said that her agency fosters connection and open relationships that “allows adoptive children to know that they were not abandoned." She added, "They have access to information about themselves that allows them to feel whole.’’

At least this agency does foster openness; unlike the horror stories of "open adoptions" we have written about here that were quickly closed.

But back to what started this post: The language that stated the birth/first mother gave up her child out of love. I gave my daughter up because I was desperate. I gave my daughter up because I could not imagine finding a way to keep her. I loved my daughter and I gave her up anyway.

These words came up in conversation recently when I was talking to my sister-in-law about adoption. Judy is a sensible, sympathetic mother of two girls who happens to be a Chinese American. Both of her parents were born in China; she was born and grew up in the same town in Michigan I did. And somehow in the conversation, she uttered the words..."gave up your daughter because you loved her."

Stop right there, I said, and explained how that did not make any sense. She got it immediately, because it brought up a story in her own life. She then went on to tell me about how when she was three years old, her mother had rheumatic fever, and her father, a doctor, sent her away to live with relatives for six months in another city. She was told that he came to visit once and she cried so much when he left that her aunt and uncle said it would be better if he did not come back until he came back to get her to take her home. She remembers being on the potty and that her mother always cleaned her after she pooped, and there she sat, in this strange house, with these strange people, not knowing what to do. Who was she supposed to call? Her mother was not there. She doesn't remember how that episode ended, she just remembers being alone and confused and feeling utterly abandoned.

Then my sister-in-law added, I never felt close to my mother after that. I did go home after six months and I've been told that I did not care to see my mother, I was very cold to her, and she was very upset and hurt. And you know what, she added, I never did become close to her again. I left home as soon as I could and moved to Hawaii. When she died, I did not shed a tear.

Because Judy understood immediately that being sent away when her mother was sick was not done because her mother loved her, but because she could not care for her, Judy got it immediately that I did not give my daughter up because I loved her. I gave her up because I could not find a way to keep her.

There are a whole lot of things about modern adoption that make me nuts, but this is right at the top of the list.

And so every time, everyplace you see that written, ladies, protest. And every adopted person reading this, understand that you were not given up because your mother loved you. You were given up because there was no way to keep you.

PS: I told my sister-in-law about the Anna Mae He case, in which a Chinese couple in the U.S. gave their daughter to another couple while they got their feet on the ground. Through what appears to be a combination of chicanery and cultural and language differences, they did not understand the temporary arrangement had become a permanent one when they (the natural parents) signed over temporary custody to a wealthy family in Memphis. After several years of wrangling in the U.S. courts, Anna Mae was eventually returned to her natural parents, Casey and Jack He, but she was eight years old by then. To date, the ending of the story is that the Hes, back in China, have separated; Anna Mae and her siblings attend boarding school and their mother visits three times a week in addition to having them return home on the weekends. That was in 2008. Wikipedia appears to have a good wrap up of the story.

My sister-in-law said that in China it was common to have grandparents and others take care of their children while they worked during the day, but since they all lived together as an extended family in the same household, there was no great separation of mother and child. What the new generation hasn't caught onto, she said, is that sending your children away to have someone else temporarily take care of them is not the same...as when everybody lived under the same roof.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Does giving up a child for adoption make you sick?

A new study (Divorce, It Seems, Can Make You Ill) reported in The New York Times the other day shows that people who divorce--even if they remarry--are more likely to be less healthy than married people who never divorce. "Even remarriage can't relive all the stress of a marital loss," the pull quote stated. Here's what jumped out at me:
"While remarrying led to some improvement in health, the study showed that most married people who became single never fully recovered from the physical declines associated with marital loss. Compared with those who had been continuously married, people in second marriages had 12 percent more chronic health problems and 19 percent more mobility problems. A second marriage did appear to heal emotional wounds: remarried people had only slightly more depressive symptoms than those continuously married."
You know where I am going here, right? You know what mental word replacements I made, right? Instead of "divorce" use the word: "surrender." Or "relinquishment." Or this pithy phrase: give up my baby.

What I would love to see is the same kind of large-scale rigorous kind of study done with birth mother and adoptees. (The divorce study was done with more than 8,000 women and men in their 50s and early 60s, and was published in the September 2009 issue of Journal of Health and Social Behavior.) A quick Google found some studies that touched upon birth mothers' health, the most detailed of which is the Birthmother Research project. That study found on average that birth mothers who surrender children are more likely to have hysterectomies. Psychically, that makes sense, as your female organs are the site of our grief. Researcher J. Kelly, M.A. goes on to state:
The survey results supported other research findings (Jones, 1993; Carlini, 1992) that birthmothers experience difficulties with unresolved grief, traumatic stress symptoms, self-punishment, low self-esteem, arrested emotional development, living at extremes, difficulty forgiving oneself/others, being out of touch with feelings, difficulty giving/receiving love, relationship problems, self-hatred and dysfunctional sexual problems. Unresolved grief, self-punishment, and low self-esteem ranked highest among the difficulties identified as extreme, often or severe.
Sounds like giving up a child is the cause of a great deal of stress, and that is the known root cause of so much illness. Kelly also notes that lifting the veil of secrecy that we are told we were "promised," might help lift some of the lasting guilt we feel:
A primary argument against open records has been the safeguarding of birthmother confidentiality. However, lifting the veil of secrecy may have inherent therapeutic value for the birthmother. Gediman and Brown (1991) write that "keeping a secret can make us feel guilty, duplicitous, or unauthentic; and that, over a long period of time, it can have a powerful influence on character and personality" (p. 13).
After reading this, I thought here might lie some reasons birth mothers fear and reject reunion with their relinquished children. The mothers are simply too screwed up to handle the stress of the missing child come back; that and having to admit to one's family about the first child who may have been a lifelong secret.

Other studies that look at a woman's health after relinquishment include John Triseliotis et al in The Adoption Triangle Revisited. He also found diminished health among birth mothers, which we have written about before, (Birth Mothers Happy to Reconnect), but only among "searcher birth mothers." A 1996 study in the British Journal of Social Work concluded that if family doctors were more understanding of a birth mother's needs, they might have less need for "medication." That is, drug us with lots of stuff from Big Pharma (Atavan, Xanax, Valium, Prozac, you name it) into being more, uh, relaxed about giving up our babies. I can just see it among the reasons to be prescribed: relinquishment of child to adoption. Ya, that might help. And turn some of us into lifelong users.

But first, we'd have to admit that we gave up a child. I remember my first visit to a company doctor after I gave up my child. Of course, it being 1966, to stay in my chosen profession (newspaper reporter) I had to move (from Rochester, NY) to another city (Albany) and find another job. And the new newspaper had a doctor run routine tests before I was put on their medical insurance plan. All was going well, and then I hit the wall:

"Any children or pregnancies?" the doctor asked.

NO. I was terrified that if I admitted the truth, it would be duly noted and the publisher and editor of the Albany Knickerbocker News would have access to my records. And would I be able to get this job I so desperately needed? Or would I be told, Sorry, your record indicates you are unstable and a troublemaker.

The doctor just checked off, No, I presume. End of story. But I'll never forget that moment, kinda the way I remember where I was when I heard John Kennedy was killed.

Was I screwed up that first year? Was I sicker than I would have been otherwise? What I remember is getting a stubborn red rash that lasted for months, despite the cortisone cream that the doctor prescribed and told me that it was most likely caused by stress. Was I under any unusual stress, he asked.

I shook my shoulders, indicating, I dunno. Again, I wasn't going to admit who I was: a woman who had given away a child.

But nonetheless, I did find my way to amphetamines, prescribed by the psychiatrist-in-residence who had moved into my apartment building the same day I did, and so we became friends during the many trips up and down the stairs. One night a couple of months later, I blurted out the truth to him. I had just given up a baby for adoption. He prrescribed little green capsules-uppers--for a couple of months. With them, I got through the day without breakdowns, stayed up late so I would be able to find refuge when I did finally lie down.

But I am just a test case of one.

Of course I can't make the connection, but for most of my adult life I have been plagued with an unusual number of sinus infections to the degree that for several years I was in semi-infected state, all related to my sinuses. Over the winter, I felt like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, lying on the couch. I never knew if I would be healthy enough to make plans to do pretty much anything. I always felt--I might be sick. And I often was. Consequently, the teeth on one side of my face have all been removed or had root canals, as the constant state of infection appears to have led to a weakening of the teeth on the side of the troublesome sinus. A operation a few years ago to rebuild my nose (no, I did not do coke) has helped a great deal but...my temperamental sinuses and a normally low white-blood cell count remains an issue. Of course, who can know the cause? I'm just sayin'...this is my story.

I won't call relinquishing a child for adoption a "primal wound," but how about instead, primal stab? Oh yeah.

One last thought, I have become friendly via email with an adoption social worker involved in relinquishment and placement (yes it is possible, there was a surrender and so far, happy reunion in her immediate family), and she asked me if I could suggest any websites that might be helpful to a woman considering giving up her child. I half-jokingly suggested FirstMotherForum, of course. I mean, there is no way I could ever counsel a teenager/young woman/any age woman to give up her child to genetic strangers. If there has to be an adoption, look to your extended family first, and then your friends, and do not keep your real identity secret ever from that child.

Of course the contented first mothers we encountered over at Mormon-driven sites seem to say otherwise--but the grief did manage to burble up now and then--but unless one is lobotomized, I can't imagine that any website would provide help and solace to a woman considering adoption for her baby. Suggestions?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Adoption, It Seems, Is Everywhere, coming to a screen near you

Friday night I happened to catch the opening scenes of a cop show called Flashpoint...and saw that the cops with big guns and even bigger cars (wearing bullet proof vests, no less) were chasing a young couple with a baby. The young woman was cradling the baby, the young man was calling him Owen...and I thought, "It's a story about a young couple who stole their baby back from the very nice adoptive parents. Shoot 'em!"

Right. Baby was two months old, they had missed the cutoff date for changing your mind by a couple of weeks...story ends with the biological father's suicide (just like his daddy, after his mother died, and he was raised in unhappy foster homes) and the happy rich adoptive couple (father says he is a lawyer, natch, their house is very big) ends up back with the baby, the natural mother presumably in the hands of the police. Could we fast forward to twenty years?

Next day, I heard an NPR story ostensibly about judging a book by its cover, but turned out to be an interview with a young woman (well, she was 27) in Seattle who was choosing among the piles of letters she had received from couples and women who wanted to adopt her forthcoming baby. Her fiance died, she got pregnant after a short fling with but did not want to marry him or otherwise have him in her life...so, adoption story number two. Could we fast forward fifteen years?

I hit a trifecta: The next day I got an email about a new series on WE starting this fall called Adoption Diaries...press release here: http://www.thefutoncritic.com/news.aspx?id=20090731we01 Can we fast forward five years and show the well-adjusted, happy birth mothers?

And there is another show on one of the cable channels called: Pregnant at Sixteen, with the adoption-themed segment (done in conjunction with the adoption-as-the-best-outcome-for single-women Mormons). This is the show that several of us active in adoption reform were contacted for when it was being made. I could not bear to watch. There is only so much I will put up with, and this looks mawkish beyond belief.

WE is also where the channel where we watch (usually by DVD) The Locator (see our previous post here) where searcher Troy Dunn finds people who have been separated, often by adoption, season three starting in September. On a recent show that reunited two brothers, the birth mother had refused to meet her first son, but his younger brother decided to initiate the search and reconnect, even without her blessing. Dunn said that this was also the case with his mother, who had been adopted at birth. Troy found her mother, but the woman refused to meet her; some time later, she was contacted (and warmly accepted) by a brother.

And apparently The English American by adoptee Alison Larkin has been picked up and will be a sitcom sometime in the future. Ought to be a million laughs, with a nutty irresponsible birth mother and proper English adoptive mother. Oy vey, I can feel the laughter burbling up.

Then of course, we have the adoption story line on Brothers and Sisters and the numerous times it shows up on Law & Order, all three varieties; and many a medical show where medical histories are missing, such as House. Apparently the world can't get enough of adoption stories.

Let us not forget the brouhaha over the movie Orphan.

It includes the line (I'm paraphrasing here so don't kill me if I have it few words off): It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as one as your own. It seems that a whole lot of people are screaming that Orphan will set back adoption, and mark adoptees as crazy killers, and there has been a petition, and a lot of media attention. Here is a snippet from pressofatlanticcity.com:

Among those signing [the anti-Orphan petition] was Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. His group has launched a Web site - OrphansDeserveBetter.org - featuring a petition urging Warner Bros. to add a pro-adoption message at the end of the film and to donate a portion of box-office receipts to aid orphans.

Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, suggested Warner Bros. could improve matters by helping produce educational materials about the value of adoption.

"It has been a long time since a movie caused this much angst and worry in the adoption, foster-care and orphan-care communities, even before its release," Pertman said.

Obviously, the way we were portrayed as a group in Juno caused not so much angst and worry, because--hey, we're not good people anyway. We are the sluts who give away our babies.

Where were these people when Juno was such a hit? Where was the anti-Juno sentiment when we were subjected to a movie that portrayed birth mothers as a hip-talking teenagers who barely gave a fig that they were about to give up their babies to cool white women in swell houses? Why are adoptive parents typically portrayed as good, worthy people who of course deserve to have that baby at the center of the plot because obviously, they will give him or her a much better life than the first mother ever could? This of course was the subset theme of the long-running Baby Jessica De Boer/Anna Schmidt real life story. And twenty years later, Juno.

Everyone loved Juno (see earlier post), it ended up with an damn Oscar for best screenplay, adding insult to injury.

Where was the objection when Juno was released? Was it our fault that we didn't raise the objection ourselves, get a petition going, write to the movie maker and storm hip stripper-turned screenwriter Diablo Cody's house? Uh, well, yes.

But we first mothers are not an active lobby group, many of us are still hiding in the closet, and we don't have an active lobby of adoptive parents (and they are organized) to stand up for us. We are just the women who gave them our children, and a whole lot of those parents want us off the stage.

Besides, lots of people still want to think that we are Juno's sisters. Dammit, I'm not.