' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: The adoption trigger: To hang on or let go?

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The adoption trigger: To hang on or let go?

A few days ago a friend emailed me about seeing the Judy Chicago Birth Project--a series of impressionist and graphic woven images--recently. My friend who writes about art added that Chicago had observed 150 births and noted that the beautiful colors and striking images which "belie the agony and the tearing."

Here is how I responded:
"Birth scenes! I hate them! I can watch them if I have to, but I'd rather speed dial through the screaming and baby's first cry and all of it, and do whenever I can. I allowed myself to be even more "triggered (that currently trendy word) in the first decade after [my daughter's birth] but as they became more common in everything, I just said, time to get over it, girl."
That pretty much covers my reaction to triggering today. There is so much around us all the time about birth and adoption that if I had to go
into a tailspin every time either came up, I'd be too exhausted to do anything else, for such scenes and story lines have become much more common in movies and television. I dreaded the scene that was sure to come up in the movie, Philomena, though I loved the movie for its strong message. I'm not a fan of doctor/hospital shows partly because I can't stand looking at open-chest cavities and all the bloody graphic stuff they show today, but also because they will eventually get around to a story about a difficult birth; or a woman who is giving up a child; or a teenager considering adoption for her baby and some nurse runs in to ever-so-sweetly encourage her to stay the course to adoption; or the bad teenager who decided to take her baby home when such a good couple is praying for a baby and they are devastated, or god-knows-what but it's likely to piss me off and who needs that?

I do watch The Good Doctor, but what interests me is Dr. Shaun Murphy's autism and savant syndrome as well as the cutting-edge solutions they do on the show. But as for the rest, I am quick on the remote to change channels.

Is it self preservation? Yeah, maybe. But there are so many adoption references now that they are impossible to avoid, and they pop up surprisingly and can't be foreseen, and there you are, caught by surprise. So I look upon them as a bellwether of American attitudes toward adoption. And they are changing. Ten years ago it was pretty much what I say above; today you will find more stories about searching or some wrinkle that connects to DNA. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has had a lot of storylines that revolve around adoption. On that comes to mind  is that of the young couple who stole their baby, and the deceptive adoptive mother who didn't reveal she and her husband were divorcing at the time of the adoption, and he just pretended to go along as a gift to the woman. In this case, the adoptive mother was the bad guy.

On this long-running show the star, Olivia Benson, is an adoptive mother to a biracial child who was, as I recall, available when her drug-addicted mother died in a horrific murder. Whoa, I just Googled "Olivia Benson son" and you get a long and complicated storyline that includes an absent father, a drug-addicted prostitute mother, a near-death, several foster homes for the son, Noah, and a mother struggling to get clean, a relapse and a horrifying death...well, the show has been on for a long time and a child-in-trouble rescued by Olivia made for plots for numerous episodes. What I did see by dropping into the show sometime last year was that a middle-class grandmother had appeared, and Olivia was letting her spend time with Noah. Of course, that got complicated when Noah disappeared and...for some reason I did not see the end of that show, or the following episode for the denouement. The website says that the grandmother arranged for the abduction because her plan was to take and child and raise him secretly...but that would be an unsatisfying up-in-the air ending. So grandmother is caught, and Noah goes back with Olivia. The boy has already been through a couple of different actors and is now five.

Mariska Hargitay, who plays "Liv," is a biological and adoptive mother in real life. I was neutral about that--trying not to be prejudiced against all Hollywood people who adopt--and then I read an article about how she willingly gave back an infant after the natural mother decided two days later she wanted the child back. Hargitay, in fact, had helped deliver the baby. Here is what she said about returning the child:
“It was nothing short of devastating,” Hargitay explains. “But … it was probably the greatest, happiest ending. I mean, it was so painful for us, but it was deeply joyful and deeply right for her.”*
So. I am deeply sympathetic to Hargitay. If I ever met her, I'd probably bring that up and say, thank you, and tell her how aware I am of the opposite end to those stories.

Adoption: You find it on Bull (a reference to "feeling alienated" from humanity; Madame Secretary (the vice president has an unusual interest in Russian adoptions and the show seems bent to favor adoption in general, including Russian adoptions); Lifetime movie a few years ago was about a terrible baby broker illegally getting babies from South America, and they have had numerous adoption-themed movies.

Recently I watched via Netflix Private Life, a 2018 comedy about a couple in their 40s struggling with infertility and dealing with adoption, IVF, a surrogate who loses the baby. At the end, the couple still doesn't have a baby and are waiting in a restaurant in a distant state for a pregnant young woman...who may or may not show up. Directed by a woman, Tamara Jenkins, who also wrote the screenplay, it is indicative of more women-directed movies that are coming, a welcoming sign--but we are going to have more movies about subjects that are touchy to us. I enjoyed the film as well as had my quibbles with it, but not about anything to do with the difficulties in getting a child, for that is treated with honesty and humanity, it's both tender and pointed. (See trailer in sidebar for the next few weeks.)

Let us not forget The Kids Are All Right, about a lesbian couple raising sperm-donor babies, and a surprisingly touching comedy about the too generous use of the same sperm: Delivery Man. And on television, NBC's This Is Us had a stellar first year examining many sides of the adoption of one of the main characters.

Enough. The triggers are everywhere. When I was researching my book on women and the law, Still Unequal, I dropped in on a class of Alan Dershowitz at Harvard. Rape law was the subject that day, and how what is considered rape varies from country to country. Later I would read about how colleges have "safe spaces" for sexual assault survivors if the subject comes up in class, and how students are able to avoid tough-for-them subjects. And I wondered what they were doing at Harvard Law today.

But college is a preparation for real life outside academia; rape, and adoption, come up all the time if you go to movies or turn on the TV. Yes, I was raw in the first years after my daughter's birth, and time does make one more inured, but I think I was wise to not let my emotions throw me over the edge, or keep quiet when something came up that reminded me of my own deep and abiding loss.

I did have a meltdown when I saw the movie Juno (alone and at home), and hated that Diablo Cody won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Cody later  said she imagined what she would have been like if she had been the character. I wonder. It was all so damn pat. Of course my crying about my loss and my daughter is not over, but it has receded, especially since her death a decade ago. I dealt with the normal grief then, the kind of grief that lets you move on. As for Long Lost Family on TLC, I find I can't watch it all the time, and don't. I haven't watched a single show that hasn't made me cry, sometimes deeply.

I know there are times when you have to cry, and should. Holding in tears is hard business and may do us harm. But eventually if we are sane, we need to take hold and in our own time, decide that our loss of a child should not govern every waking moment. We will never be the same as if the experience of having a child and then giving it for adoption had not happened to us; nor can adoptees ever be not borne of someone other than the parents they grew up with. I can't be not a birth or first mother; adoptees can't be not adopted. But we must find a way that emotionally juggles our particular sorrow and loss, and lets us live an otherwise full, rich life.

As for Long Lost Family? Sometimes it is just the tonic I need, tears and all.--lorraine
*Mariska Hargitay: Adoption Is Not for the Faint of Heart

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  1. Oh Lorraine. It is amazing to me that whenever I come here, you have written just what I need to hear. My daughter just gave birth to a premature son. So much of the birth reminded me of the first born son I relinquished. I was triggered but able to breathe through and not give in. The challenge came when she was released but her son had to stay in the NICU. I kept it together, recognizing that this was her pain and not my own. I kept it together walking out the hospital doors, a 60 year old woman feeling the pain of my 24 year old self.... shaking. Sick to my stomach. Afraid. I went to bed that night and wept 36 years worth of grief.

    I, too am mindful of those TV shows, movies, and books that trigger me. It is the unexpected that takes my breath away. Thanks for this column when I needed a reminder that I'm not alone.

  2. Another good movie is Second Act (in theaters right now). It's not a tear-jerking downer but it does get the real feelings and behaviors many of us have after losing our child. I thought it was pretty well done.

  3. Noah's biological grandmother was played by Brooke Shields. I didn't like it when they had her kidnap Noah. I would have liked it if she could have stayed in his life as he was growing up.

    To be fair, the show did have Noah ask about her in subsequent episodes, and I think it was implied that Olivia did not necessarily think that she would never see Noah again for the rest of her life.

    1. Steve, I think that plot line ran over two episodes, right? I too thought the grandmother would be a continuation in Noah's life, and hoped it would go that way. But that's not very dramatic and so....Recently Noah asked about his father and Olivia tells Noah that his father loved him (but that hardly seems to coincide with the earlier plot) and that one day she would tell him everything. We'll see. SVU is in its 20th year!

    2. Actually, Brooke Shields appeared in 5 episodes. Three of them were before the kidnapping, one was the episode that Noah was kidnapped in, and the final one was where we learned that Sheila was the kidnapper.

      Yeah, it was Ellie, his first mother, who loved Noah. Johnny Drake was only interested in him as a bargaining chip to hold over Olivia's head.

  4. I am a fan of SVU, and of Mariska/Olivia. You probably know that she was Jayne Mansfield's daughter and that her mother was killed in a horrible accident, so she knows about losing a mother.

    I tend to avoid adoption themed shows and movies: I've never watched "Call The Midwife" for that reason although I watch lots of British shows. Childbirth themes are fine with me as long as they end happily, but won't watch anything about stillbirth, miscarriage or abortion, or horrible complications of pregnancy. Of course cheery adoption shows come under that category too

    A bit of medical reality is ok, I did watch a friend give birth as i was her labor coach. She had given up her first child years ago, and was keeping her second although she still was not married. That worked out great, her son is in his 20s and successful and happy, and she worked out a relationship with the father so he has been involved too. I love happy endings, no longer a fan of sad stories. Life is too short and there is enough tragedy and sadness in real life.

  5. This may be the reason I prefer to keep my distance from the topic I am so intimately a part of through academic discourse. I do want to understand the why's and the wherefore's, but need to divorce my personal story from my investigations.

    I used to watch ch This is Us faithfully, but haven't had the heart (broken) to do so in a very long time. Same with Call the Midwife. These shows were critical for me at the point when my grief had surfaced with a vengeance and I needed a powerful catharsis to help massage the processing of that. But I can't stay in that place all the time because I need to function on a daily basis. I spent a few years of uncontrollable sobbing (even in my private work office with the door closed). I even had a couple of severe PTSD episodes during that intense period of reunion which threw me back to the point of that 21 year old at a loss for a better solution and absolutely no familial or other support (except for the 'kindness' of those who wanted to 'help'. But no thought of family preservation in the Baby Scoop Era, and very little today. I think the best we can do with our experiences is to help in whatever way we can to produce a world wherein there are genuine and healthy options with support.



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