' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Jessica Lost: The meaning of motherhood when adoption steps in

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jessica Lost: The meaning of motherhood when adoption steps in

While my hand is still incredibly weak, and typing anything is laborious, I asked Linda, a first mother who used to blog regularly at First Mother Forum, to review a new first/birth mother memoir, (Jessica Lost: A Story of Birth, Adoption & The Meaning of Motherhood). See sidebar for news re legislation in New York and Rhode Island--and of course, New Jersey. --lorraine
Linda's review:

Since my  five-year, on and off roller coaster reunion ended six years ago,  I moved on without my daughter—again—
discovered new passions and social circles, and tried to ignore all things adoption.  Although I’m not in her life, my daughter has maintained a chummy friendship with my younger sister, her aunt, just thirteen years her senior, and other family members.  My mother described them as “two peas in a pod,” and I always wondered how the gene pool mixed up our daughters; my niece was often mistaken for my daughter, while I gave birth to a daughter who’s more like my sister than me in interests, personality, and habits.  My library reserve arrived last week, and I finished the book in 36 hours.  Yes, I liked it.  I appreciate good writing, and mother and daughter did not disappoint.  Most importantly, my adoption sentiments were validated and affirmed by others slammed by adoption.  I’ve lifted parts of the book that seemed to speak directly to me.

Jessica Lost: A Story of Birth, Adoption & The Meaning of MotherhoodIn the first 100 pages or so, Bunny, the birth mother, and Jil, the adoptee, reveal their histories in alternating chapters.  Bunny’s relinquishment was unusual to me in that  she was Jewish (I don’t know any Jewish women who relinquished children to adoption, they usually “had it taken care of,” and she was married to the child’s father.  But the whirlwind marriage was typical of the 1950s; Bunny was a 19 year-old stuck in an awful job at a notorious New Jersey mental hospital, her husband, Jake, was a soldier stationed at a nearby army base.  They barely knew one another when he was sent to Germany, and weeks would go by without a letter.  She eventually joined him in Europe, and when it became apparent that marriage wasn’t going to last, she realized she was pregnant.  Jake insisted he would leave immediately if she kept the baby, so they returned to New York and were counseled by the Louise Wise Planning Services for Jewish Young Women (which became Louise Wise Services and dissolved in 2010, its assets absorbed by Spence–Chapin Services for Family and Children, an adoption agency well known to birth mothers in the New York area).  She named her daughter Jessica (which, coincidentally, is the name Jil gives her baby doll and Barbie doll), was told her adoptive parents lived in a New York suburb, they were Jewish Democrats, and the father was an engineer (not entirely true).  Bunny wrote, “I want to remember everything.  I want to remember being pregnant, and giving birth, and being in the hospital.  But when I gave away The Baby, I lost the memories, too.  I don’t think I would have survived otherwise.”  She simply went numb, and I vividly recalled the moment when I was escorted out of the maternity ward in a wheelchair without my daughter; a nurse on the floor later told a mutual acquaintance that I was like a stone pillar, I just tuned out.

Eventually, Bunny joined CUB (Concerned United Birthparents) and ALMA (Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association, which advised Bunny to use the New York Public Library to begin her search:  There is an Index of Births in the City of New York located in Room 315N, NY Public Library, 5th Ave. & 42nd St., Manhattan, NYC.  You can use this index to verify the date of birth.   “WOW!” I thought.  “Why aren’t NYC-born adoptees lining up for this?!”  It didn’t take long for Bunny to find her daughter’s birth certificate, but it had her last name and “female” rather than Jessica, along with her birth date and place, and birth certificate number.  Around this same time, 1996, Jil made her way to room 315B on the third floor of the New York Public Library. She didn’t have her mother’s luck, but she realized “that very few adoptees move through the search smoothly.  It was usually a matter of fits and starts, and awkward stumbling, picking up a piece of information, trying to incorporate it, slowing down, swallowing it, digesting it, waiting, moving ahead, stopping, going forward again.” In other words, her search was the antithesis of my daughter’s “search.”  One phone call to our agency on a cold January afternoon was all it took for us to speak to one another for the first time seven hours later that same day.  I’ve often wondered if we’d still be on speaking terms if the search took years instead of hours. 

Jil learns her surname at the time of her birth, and after some hits and misses, contacts her father first, and her mother shortly after. Jil was 42 at the time of her reunion; my daughter was 23 when we reunited.  Would it have made a difference if she had been older?  Bunny later writes what we all know so well, “There are no guides to reunions of birth mother and adopted child, no rules, no etiquette books, no hints about good behavior, no lists of what might be forbidden, no way of knowing what would be best… whether we’d thought about it ahead of time or it happened spontaneously, we created our own path and our own map, with its own set of directions. We knew where we had been, and we were learning about where to go:  We proceeded carefully, and from the beginning, we did well.”  How I tried, really tried, to keep all that in mind eleven years ago.  If I had managed to keep my expectations low, and just be grateful for the present and not worry about the past, would my reunion with my daughter have survived, or would we constantly call one another out on rules we didn’t know existed, or what was deemed good or bad behavior?   If I could have kept a level head eleven years ago, would we still be e-mailing daily, would I be a part of my grandsons’ lives? 

Later Bunny writes, “At first I thought that even if I never actually met her, I’d be happy just knowing she was well and happy.”  I chuckled when I read that, because I had said the same thing for 23 years, but, like Bunny, I felt “…it wasn’t enough; now that she was real, I wanted more of her.

Late in the book, Jil writes, “Rereading the e-mails years later, our voices are so similar I have to look at the address…to tell which of us has written.  Sometimes I think we are like a science experiment:  Nature versus Nurture.  How much like a mother will a child be, if raised by a completely different person?...Even as a disciple of the “Everything-is-socialization” school of life, I know nature has won this contest, plump little hands down.”  And I felt like one must feel when they’re struck by lightning.  Our e-mail voices were identical; it was hard to tell which one of us was speaking.  My daughter and I had many Nature versus Nurture discussions; she claimed she was a product of both nature and nurture, and that’s certainly true.  But I also know she was freaked out by the nature overload.  Later in this same chapter, Jil writes, “Life doesn’t imitate art; it imitates soap operas.”  And sadly, unfortunately, that’s exactly what my reunion became, a soap opera.

Jil’s parting words are words many of us here at FMF have uttered:
“Our lives—[Bunny’s] and mine—were marked by adoption.  She lived with the shame of what she had done, as I lived with the wound of what had been done to me.  [Bunny] said she would not want anyone reading this to think she believes adoption is a better option than abortion.

"I would not want anyone reading this to think I don’t believe in adoption, despite how it affected my life.  What I do not believe in, however, is pretending that adoption and biological birth are exactly the same thing, that adoption is the magic wand…, that makes a child you adopt identical, somehow, to the child of your womb.  It is not the same thing.  That does not mean, however, that adoption isn’t beautiful, or wonderful."
Phew. In the past couple of months it seems that every other new person I’ve met has been an adoptee; I’m like a magnet.  I recently had lunch with an old friend who’s considering adopting a child with her partner, and of course she came to me, the Encyclopedia of Adoption, for advice and guidance.  Her colleague joined her on this outing, a woman I had never met.  When I explained I lost my daughter to adoption, and I can’t seem to get away from all things adoption, she said it was karma, this cycle would continue as long as I have unresolved issues. 
When I finished Jessica Lost last week, I sent this e-mail to Lorraine: 

I've just had a feeling over the past few days, you know that feeling, so I just called and let her know I was still here and would always be here for her if she needed anything.  That was it.  I don't want anything, I don't expect anything, hell, I'm not even sure it's her phone number (probably isn't after six years). 

There’s been no return call, no e-mail.  And that’s OK.  And I’m OK. I’ve been OK, and I’ll continue to be OK.  Really.  
Linda and Peter Yarrow


  1. Thanks for the excellent review, Linda. I just finished "Jessica Lost" as well.

    Like you, I found that the writers--mother and daughter--validated and affirmed my adoption sentiments. They both had such great insights and were so much alike which is perhaps why they were able to develop such a wonderful relationship.

  2. Great review, Linda. Perhaps you might submit it to the Origins-USA newsletter. We're gathering articles right now. Just email to me.

    Another good book with both perspectives is Reunion: A Year of Letters Between A Birthmother and the Daughter She Couldn't Keep, by Katie Hern.

  3. Sorry to say bad news from NJ, Christie issues a conditional veto and mashes together the NJCare bill and the really bad adoption industry bill, to create a mandatory intermediary and veto system. Read the full text of this link, not the misleading headline. Very sad. I am sure much more will follow from other sources.


  4. Denise, "Reunion: A Year of Letters" is one of my favorite adoption books. Mother and daughter committed themselves right off to be honest with each and try and resolve any conflicts. A great way to start a reunion and sadly often not the case.

  5. I just couldn't believe how much kool-aid or how many times the b-mother was used!!!

  6. Well I totally agree with Pam's comment about the NJ Bill. Also, since adoptees are required to hire a CI, I assume there is a charge for this. And of course those children raised by their bio-parents will not have to pay this extra fee to obtain their OBCs. Maybe there should be a special tax levied against those who opposed the clean bill to offset the cost. Or maybe Gov Christie's fortune should be used to pay for it or any of the other wealthy pro-adoption New Jersey residents.

    Re: Katie Hern's book "Reunion"
    I thought this book was excellent and that they both took the right approach to reunion by being honest and upfront from the beginning. I especially liked seeing Katie's growth as she went from being a happy dappy adoptee for whom adoption was wonderful and she'd had the most wonderful APs (ad nauseum) to realizing that adoption had affected her in a much more profound way than she had originally understood. And it was not all a bed or roses.

  7. Robin:

    See new blog post and please include your comments there about the NJ/ Christie fiasco.



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