|Lorraine and daughter, Jane, 1982|
This time, the subject is exactly what the first part of the headline reads, for that is the headline in the New York Times Magazine over his column as The Ethicist. The kicker in this adoption story is that the son in question is "about 25" and the contract was a deal which stated that the adoptive parents could somehow can control the adopted person's relationship with his natural mother up until he was 25. The contract stated that he could search--with the adoptive parents' permission--for his birth parents (mother and father) after he was 18, but not search for them without their permission until he was 25.
Clearly this was a so-called "open adoption" contract that relied completely on the agency staying in business, and that fire or flood or other natural disaster did not destroy any records that connected Mother A with Son B. The letter writer goes on to say that the birth mother somehow found the family's home address (quelle horreur!), wrote them and asked to open up the adoption further.
|One of the first books about|
the failed social policy
of closed adoptions.
Obviously her sleuthing, the letter writer implies, makes the natural mother some kind of criminal. Or nearly so. Because, you see, "The parameters of our adoption agreement were solid, albeit tinged with some regret on the part of our son's birth mother."
|A wakeup call about |
the effect of being
relinquished to adoption.
Now the son is at least 25, as the letter opens with the "about 25 years ago" they entered into this arrangement. The son has met his mother, been to California a couple of times, but the letter writer (Name Withheld) is miffed that the woman didn't uphold the letter of the contract, and the fact that he has a relationship with his other mother is "not the connected, united family situation we were hoping we could offer our son."
|First memoir from natural |
mother, published in 1979
I'm going to start off by saying these adoptive parents are not the horrifically bad adoptive parents I know of who enter into open-adoption agreements without seemingly ever seeming to comply with even a shred of what's in the contract. Even if the agreement was that the mother had direct contact with the adoptive parent or parents--and thus, the child--provisions of contact have been known with regularity to dissolve within days, weeks, months. Parents magically have a new address, change their phone number to an unlisted one, and send photos of the back of the child's head, which technically fulfills the letter of the contract but most certainly, not the spirit. No matter what was tearfully promised with all sorts of emotional inducements, some adoptive parents run like the dickens from any contact and poison the child toward his natural mother. Name Withheld did not do this, but I write this in hopes that it reaches someone considering an open-adoption contract without knowing exactly who the parents are, and where they live and what their occupation is. That way, tracking them later via the internet should not be necessary.
In this case, the boy/man knew he was adopted from the beginning, and Name Withheld says they complied with photos and updates as per the agreement. Where everything went off the rails, however, was that as adoption openness in society changed--and increasing numbers of reunions made the news, perhaps my own included--the natural mother understood that the deal she made had regarding her own child was not only wrong for her, it treated her son as a possession. In effect, such a contract seemingly legalized a kind of emotional slavery that kept him in bondage until he was 25. Twenty-five!
By then he could have enlisted in the armed forces, bought any number of guns and ammunition, had sex, fathered a child, married, divorced, remarried, dropped out of school, taken up cliff diving--one of the most dangerous sports there is--committed a serious crime, been arrested and tried as an adult. But lo! he was supposed to Only Search for his Birth Mother with his parents' permission. I've written before how adoption contracts are akin to slavery, and that usually gets a lot of people upset, but this contract lays bare how keenly adoption is related to slavery. For it treats the infant who will one day grow into an adult as a possession traded between two parties, and gives the new owners supposed control in the execution of how said individual lives his life until age 25. His life. Not that of his parents. His life.
In New York, where we are still dithering with sealed-records laws that go back to the Thirties, a committee of interested parties, the Adoptee Stakeholder Workgroup, recently released its report. In it, we were pleased to see that at least one of the people involved pointed out how adoption is related to slavery: Samantha Howell, Executive Director of the New York State Association of Social Workers (NYSASW), stated that the only other population in our nation’s history who could not freely access their birth records besides adoptees were slaves. Ms. Howell gets it.
In the contract under discussion here, we do not blame the mother who gave up her child for signing such an absurd document, but we sure as hell can lay the blame at the adoption agency or attorney who concocted such a load of bullshit and pretended it was a legal document that the adopted person would have to comply with. And then got the anxious mother, only having recently delivered a child, to sign what was the boilerplate contract presented to her by the agency. No one was looking out for the best interests of the mother, or the child. Every time we write about open adoption, we hear from women whose contracts were summarily ignored, no matter how seemingly heartfelt the promises made, often at hospital bedside.
Mr. Appiah's response notes that the mother making contact with the young man who is also her son was in "her interests" and not anyone else's. He gets around to the point that no matter what, the son is now an adult and can do what he wants. As for any relationship with the birth mother that Name Withheld wants to have with her, Mr. Appiah rightfully points out that the son is the best person to bring that about to "accommodate you." He then asks why she wants that, and points out any any strain in her relationship with the son is likely to arise from the resentment she feels towards the birth mother for not sticking to the letter of the original "open-adoption" contract, and that spending any time with the birth mother while she is still resentful--and of course she is--may not be the best course of action.
Overall, Appiah's response is on point, but for all his degrees and honors, he misses the basic point: that the contract treated the son as chattel, to be traded and contracted for in an agreement over which the said individual had no part. It's obvious that the permission he was supposed to seek until he was 25 was totally bogus, and any good lawyer could have seen that. The provision insisting he ask permission until age 25 was no more than a sop to the adopters, a sop that could never be upheld in any court of law.
And that is what is absurd and upsetting about Appiah's response as The Ethicist in the Times. A few months ago, he dealt with a letter from a birth mother who wrote that she did not want to see the child she gave up for adoption, and gave that mother the go-ahead to not do so, since she had signed away her rights as well as obligations to her child.
While his own black-and-white pedigree is quite storied (check Wikipedia), he seemed to have no regard for the feelings of the adopted individual. In this case, he seems to have made some progress: the last one ended up with 397 comments, mostly from angry adoptees, and of course, yours truly. Following this column, the comments (97 at this writing) are mostly about blithely ignoring the fact that the son who the mother still wants to control is already 25 or nearly so.
And no matter what the Times printed of her letter to The Ethicist, the adoptive mother's desire to be involved with the other mother of their joint son is related to her need to keep control over that relationship. Say the young man broaches the idea of spending a Thanksgiving with his original family one year. I can almost hear her saying, Let's invite 'Susan' and her husband to ours. Not said: That way we can control what happens. That way we can tamp down how you might react to her. That way we can observe and watch and see that you are still the good son to whom we will include in our feelings, and our will, that you are the "good son" we invested all our emotions and money in for years. That way we can see that you are not that enthusiastic about her, but love us better. That way we can see if we should give you that trip to Thailand you are angling for, and pay for your graduate school when you get back.
If I sound harsh here, it's because I've heard of adoptive parents doing just this sort of thing, or adoptees being cut off if they searched or expressed a desire to know their natural parents. When I met my own troubled daughter at 15, her mother questioned me (as in an inquisition) about whether I really didn't have relatives who were institutionalized. Our daughter had epilepsy and at that time, was in a learning-disabled class for algebra. At the same time, she was also writing poetry for the high school magazine.
As for his chastising the natural mother for not wanting to stick with the contract, I was reminded of another incident in my life. Years after I found my daughter, and she was spending summers with us, a childless lawyer/friend, having dinner at our house with his wife, asked this: "What part of your pie chart was not selfish when you contacted your daughter?" I gave up my daughter in 1966, in the era of closed-adoptions only, and I found her and reunited with her in 1981, when she was 15. (Story told in detail in hole in my heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption)
I'd been grilled in court by attorneys opposing unsealing records, listened to agency workers and their attorney berate me at hearings, but I'd never heard such a bald statement of resentment and disapproval directly from anyone before. He is godfather to an adoptee, daughter of mutual friends. I don't remember what I said, but instead of throwing the bum out, I tried to explain about adoption from the adopted individual's point of view and sent him home with some material to read, including The Adoption Triangle. It was eventually returned I am certain, unread. Appaih's response is not as overtly nasty as that comment was, but he certainly still displays little to no understanding of the adopted individual's point of view, or what the contract implies. Mr. Appaih himself is half black, and it is surprising that he does not see how the issue of ownership is implied in the contract, or make note of it.--lorraine
What if Our Son's Birth Mother Wants a Relationship with Him--But Not Us?
What if I Don't Want to See the Child I Gave Up For Adoption?
Adoptee Stakeholder Workgroup (Also see link on FMF Facebook page)
Considering Open Adoption? (Read our permanent page)
MORE FROM FMF
The Adoption Triangle
by Arthur D. Sorosky, MD, Annette Baran, MSW, and Reuben Pannor, MSW.
"A bright glimpse of a previously dark subject.... The book is as true and open as the changes advocated...comprehensive, factual, forward-looking, totally honest, readable and thoughtful." -- Los Angeles Times