' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Downton Abbey and what you won't learn from those happy adoption agency websites

Monday, December 24, 2012

Downton Abbey and what you won't learn from those happy adoption agency websites

Ethel Parks, housemaid
I have been watching the reruns of Downton Abbey and last night's episode was the one in which Ethel, the maid who slept with one of the officers recuperating at the estate and got pregnant, tries to get some financial help from his parents, her son's grandparents.

It's a rather moving plot like for first mothers like us, because Ethel is cast out of the house where she works, no small thing in Edwardian times. The officer is a asshole, and won't have anything to do with her, or the baby. No DNA testing, no way to prove he is the father. He's killed in the war, and Ethel is shown living in dire poverty, trying to raise her son, Charley, taking in laundry for a few pennies. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes--at first highly critical--sees the need after the child is born and brings Ethel food. She also arranges a meeting
between Ethel, carrying Charley, and his grandparents when they come to Downton to see where their son stayed. The grandfather is an insufferable jerk, just like his son. His son wouldn't have left he mother in dire need--it can't be true--and they walk out.

But some weeks later, he and his wife, who is much nicer--she says the boy looks just like their son did--return to Downton Abby and make an offer: they will take the son and raise him as their grandson. The many advantages this arrangement will be for Charley is spelled out: He will be educated, he will be accepted in society, he will be able to marry whom he pleases. But Ethel cannot come with her son. She must give him up to them and disappear from his life.

Then maybe she can, as his maid. The grandfather says he will make up a story about their son's quick marriage to someone who died, and Charley will not be told the truth of who she is for many years. Not until he's old enough to reject her, and treat her like a wretch, I thought to myself, having read the memoirs of women brought up in better circumstances than their biological birth mothers would have been able to do. He won't learn the truth until he is old enough to be repulsed by the true story of his birth. The grandfather refers to Ethel a couple of times as a "drudge."

The first time I watched this, I waited, thinking OMG she's going to turn over her son...but she does not. She thinks about their offer and returns to tell Mrs. Hughes to tell them that she is keeping her son, and what they cannot offer him is "a mother's love." She will be poor, but she will keep her son.

Well, I cheered, and I felt good again last night when she walked off with Charley.

This morning I awoke with a dry sobbing. I was having a dream in which I was a guest at a fancy resort, and the story coming up from the staff was that one of the maids had a child and was being pressured to give him or her up. The story had a lot of sidepaths, but they were all around my growing fear that she would give up her child, and I was running around the resort quietly trying to tell everybody what a huge impact this would have not only on her, but the rest of her family, and nothing would ever be the same and it would be much more damaging than they could imagine. I ended up at a counter trying to buy some socks but broke down sobbing as I was trying to explain why this maid should not give up her son.

That is how I woke up this morning. Sobbing without tears. And I thought: this is what adoption does to you, 46 years later, you wake up before seven sobbing after watching a television series that deals with the possibility of giving up a child. This is what they do not tell you, what they cannot tell you, about adoption on all those fancy web sights where they show nice pictures of sweet couples who go hiking, have a nice home, and can provide so much more than you, poor drudge, cannot. They cannot tell you that nearly a half century later you will wake up in the morning sobbing at the thought of watching someone move forward with "an adoption plan."

They cannot tell you this because if they did, no one would give up her baby. --lorraine

I didn't mean to post anything until after Christmas, but I felt if I didn't get this down immediately, the dream and the feeling would leave me. FMF's Christmas thoughts are in the previous post:

Finding peace as a first mother on Christmas

 (Yes, these are the books that came to mind. )


  1. What a coincidence that you brought up adoptee memoirs in this post. I recall the last post on the subject where the authors were referred to as "first family bashers". I am currently reading Jeanette Winterson's "Why be happy when you can be normal" and it got me wondering. Is FMF's critique of this genre based on how connected/close the author is to her adoptive family?

    Winterson's book got a good review and it is very well written but so are the others. And Jeanette's story is tragic. She ended up with barely any family at all what with her deranged mother and passive adoptive father.

    A.M. Homes I recall was very close to her adoptive family. I agree that she was somewhat harsh toward her first mother but she also discovered that her f-mother was involved in white-collar crime. I would not have been too enthused either to find that any of my original family members had been involved in criminal activity.

    Another of your "first family bashers" is adoptee author, Amy Dean (Letters to my Birthmother) who did decide in the end that she felt her a-father and stepmother were her 'true' parents. Amy wanted a relationship with her n-mother but her n-mother was very disrespectful to her. Amy said she needed to take things slowly but her n-mother insisted on integrating her completely into the family immediately and meeting all of her blood relatives at once. She also refused to disclose the name of Amy's natural father. Unless the mother's would be in some kind of danger then it is absolutely unacceptable to withhold the father's name. For most of us adoptees from the closed era, the only way we can find out our father's name is from our mother. I am not surprised that Amy was uncomfortable continuing in the relationship.

    I think you are showing a prejudice towards adopted daughters who feel strongly connected to their a-families without looking at the whole picture.

    I am glad that Ethel kept her son.


  2. "sobbing without tears"

    I'm feeling much like this today also Lorraine.
    Wishing you and all those who come here for a little support, insight, those who know this story all too well, a little Peace this season. we deserve it.

  3. I hated both of these women's books. Although, these adoptee's express their feelings truthfully. I find them unaceppting of their mom's.
    Thankfully, my son is NOT that way. He told his adopter that she knew HER mom after she was upset that he wanted to know me. Love that he had enough faith to trust
    me early in reunion. She could not accept that he needed to know the truth of his birth.

  4. Robin,

    My b-father is not an upstanding man. He was imprisoned in his 20s, and he is estranged from his family.

    But, he is one of my fathers. I accept him for who he is. He never would have been a great father to me. But, I enjoy talking with him. He has a very unique look at things. He's very amusing.

    Would I have preferred that my father was a solid citizen and human being? Sure, but he is who he is.

  5. Why Be Normal When You Could Be Jeanette Winterson?

    Robin: You may have missed this review.

    In the other books I depicted, I believe the obvious class differences between the adoptive families (richer, better educated) and the birth parents (poorer) create a natural bend towards the adoptive family. The strength of the adoptive-family bond in these two memoirs did not occur to me as I wrote the post yesterday morning, but of course as a first mother myself, as I am very sensitive to how the biological mother is depicted in memoir, and these examples jumped out at me. There is a certain superior attitude evinced towards the authors' birth mothers in both books. Given the class differences, this attitude is probably unavoidable. You do get a little bit of thank-god-I-didn't-grow-up-like-that in both of them. As for the argument about the low class of Holmes's birth mother, who knows how it might have been if she had been able to raise her daughter? What kind of stability she might have found? The turmoil and disruption caused for many women by relinquishment is, well, like having a black stain on your record, much like a jail sentence as you move forward.

    Today, especially, most children given up are upwardly mobile, such as the story of Carly of Catelynn and Tyler exemplifies. The future of the relationships between lower class first mothers and their relinquished children is not going to be peaches and roses.

  6. Oh no, prejudice towards adoptees who put down their natural mothers! at a blog called First Mothers Forum. For shame.

    Now show me an adoptee blog where first mothers criticize the author (adopted) for favoring the adopted. This is the most open blog I know.

  7. OMG: https://therickilakeshow.com/episodes-clips/2012/9/LIFE-CHANGING-ADOPTIONS

    Ricki Lake is airing "Life Changing Adoptions" this afternoon, complete with a "birth mother" who just knew her baby really wasn't hers but was instead meant for some AMAAAAZING adoptive parents.


  8. Lorraine wrote, "today, especially, most children given up are upwardly mobile, such as the story of Carly of Catelynn and Tyler exemplifies. The future of the relationships between lower class first mothers and their relinquished children is not going to be peaches and roses".

    Indeed, given the intense pressure to "give the baby a better life" and the slick marketing that makes all adopters appear wealthy and generally superior in all life-style indicators, there are bound to be class-based differences which could be difficult to bridge later in life.

    As a footnote to Catelynn and Tyler - I noticed on social worker Dawn's Facebook page that she has them over to dinner, etc. Any social workers or counselors care to weigh in on this? Is it within ethical guidelines to entertain clients at home, or anywhere else for that matter?

  9. maybe: ohhhh, I missed the awful Rickie Lake show (thank God); it was one at ten a.m. my tine. I don't want to throw up on Christmas. Shows that glorify adoption such as the one you described insure that there will be more adoptions. That includes: I'm Having THEIR Baby, Modern Family, The New Normal, The Ongoing Adventures of Catelynn and Tyler. Just a thought: He is so friggen' adamant "they" did the right thing, Tyler is the one who got pissed at FMF...all this reminds me that when couples stay together and then then found by the adoptee, it is often--usually--the father who does not want to have a reunion, according to the searchers and CIs I've talked to. I think the lost child reminds him how inadequate he was when it came time to provide for his offspring, and now he cannot stand to be reminded of that. So he rejects the grown up who returns.

    Pies are in the oven--apple and pecan--and dinner down the street in an hour.

  10. Nice post, thanks.

    Regarding natural parents who stay together after relinquishment, in the situations I know of, these parents went on to have other children. Often they were "high-school sweethearts". In every case, the searching adoptee really had a hard time and each one seemed to have a special kind of anger that other adoptees do/did not.

  11. Christmas was full of heartwarming adoption stories. Like the boy whose only Christmas wish was to have a brother. And he got one, a Russian adoptee. I just hope this boy doesn't end up in the Montana trashcan for unwanted adoptees.

    I just wish the news media would give as much attention to stories like Joyce Maynard adopting two girls and then passing them on to someone else. Or how about the two Ethopian adoptees in Franklin Park, PA who were severly abused by their 'forever' parents? Maybe if the news media would stress that these types of stories are just as much the face of adoption as the heartwarming ones, our culture would stop being so damned gaga over adoption.

    As for adopted children being upwardly mobile, let us not forget that divorce, disability and death can take away all of those financial advantages in a heartbeat.

  12. Robin and Anon, agree with both your comments. I do think that adopted individuals who find their parents married later on have an especially hard time understanding...if they loved each other enough to marry--and are still together!--why not soon enough for me? It is very hard for such an adoptee truly to understand how much pressure there was--particularly on middle-class girls--not to be pregnant before the wedding, or to give up the child in order to keep face, go to college, finish college, etc. Without DNA boys and the boy's parents could say the girl was sleeping with everybody, as happened to my husband's cousin, whose half sister is still looking for the daughter lost to adoption somewhere in Westfield, NJ, some 50 years ago. (Yes, I put this information here for the obvious reason---that she or someone who knows her will read it.)

    Abortions were extremely difficult to obtain--it was not like getting a joint in a state where marijuana is not "medical" but illegal. I remember the episode of Mad Men where Joan simply takes a train to NJ where she supposedly will get an abortion. That had none of the desperation of ordinary girls who "got in trouble," or the difficulty of finding a doctor who might preform an abortion. It was scary, it was rare, doctors did not conveniently slip the name of a doctor who "might" help you if they would not. Parents presented the "adoption plan" as the ONLY solution. Keeping a child was rare, extremely rare. Even years later, eyebrows were raised, the woman was socially tarred, not much different than poor Ethel on Downton Abby.

    And yes, I wish there were not so many TV programs that glorified adoptions as the way to a couple's--straight or gay--fulfillment and happiness, and showed the young mother or pregnant teen or young woman so happy to complete someone else's family! Those encourage more young women to give up their babies because they never focus on the aftermath. We don't hear enough about women who keep their children, even though Teen Mom is about that, but combined with the reckless, often poor lives of the reality "stars," you do not get a good picture of what keeping a child can be like, nor do the shows really want to delve into the long simmering hurt that we at First Mother Forum are all too familiar with.

  13. As an a-mother, I think often about my son's n-mother. She had lost her parental rights due to neglect and chemical dependency, and I adopted from the foster system. Eleven years later, she is sober, in a halfway house, and very angry that her son was stolen from her. She is haunted by her choices. I pray constantly for her, and that perhaps she will find a site like this one for support. Bless you for your good work.

  14. I'm so sorry for your pain and loss.



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