Identity. Who am I, really?

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“The Importance of Being Earnest” is, at it’s heart, a play about identity. I saw a production of it Saturday that was a perfect confection. The play is a classic, written by Oscar Wilde and first staged in London in 1895. Chock full of wit and humor, it mocks social conventions AND though the word is never uttered, it’s also a play about adoption.

The plot is immensely complicated with one farcical turn after another, but suffice it to say that the play’s main character, Ernest (a.k.a. Jack Worthing,) lives a double life and uses his obligations to a fictitious younger brother as an excuse to avoid certain social obligations. As the play opens, his best friend, Algernon, good-naturedly traps him in his lies and things begin to unravel most comically.

Ernest, who is known as Jack (his actual name) while at his house in the country where he maintains his ward Cecily and her governess Miss Prism, frequently excuses himself to travel to London ostensibly  to rescue the fictitious brother he calls Ernest (keep in mind that he himself is known as Ernest to those who keep company with him in the city.)  Cecily has a mad crush on the fictitious brother Ernest and longs to meet him. She gets her wish when Algernon, in his plot to unravel Jack’s lies, shows up at the country house impersonating Ernest–whom Jack has, moments before in an effort to simplify his life, announced as having suddenly died while in Paris.

Algernon and Cecily fall in love. Jack gets a visit from Gwendolyn, the London girl to whom he’s engaged, (remember she knows him as Ernest–oh, and she finds the name Ernest irresistibly attractive.) And in the ongoing investigation of Jack’s suitability as a husband, Gwendolyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell, (who is also Algernon’s aunt) prods Jack into revealing that he was a foundling, his parents unknown to him, thereby jeopardizing his standing in London society.

A few twists later we learn that it was Miss Prism who accidentally left Jack, as an infant, in a large handbag in a train station when she was in the employ of Lady Bracknell’s sister…..Are you ready for it? Yes indeed, the friends, Jack and Algernon, are really brothers. And when Jack investigates further to find out what his original name was before he was re-christened after he was taken in by a benefactor….you guessed it….Ernest.

Most adoption/reunion stories I’ve heard are full of amazing co-incidences. They’re just not as funny. You need somebody like Oscar Wilde, I guess, to pull that off.

I love “The Importance of Being Earnest” and I’ve seen it at least a half-dozen different times over the last few decades. I love how the audience always gasps when Jack finds out who he really is and what his original name was. Every time, I think about all those strangers I’m sitting with in the dark. How many of them are adopted, how many might have brothers or sisters they don’t know, how many would give anything to know the name they were given at birth. And how, in real life, that’s not funny at all.

Crowd Funding for Adoption

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This being National Adoption Month, the topic of crowd funding for adoption has popped up here and there and everywhere.

I went to Catholic grade school in the 60s. It was customary to forego one’s morning carton of milk that, I believe, cost two or three cents and instead give over your pennies to the pagan baby fund. When we had raised the required amount of money, Sister would announce that the class had enough money to “adopt” a baby from Africa. These babies were not really removed from their families, but were baptized and given Christian names. We children voted on the names after several nominations were placed on the blackboard. After a show of hands, Sister would count up the hash marks next to each name. Some weeks later a certificate with the baby’s new Christian name would arrive and  be proudly displayed in our classroom. I have no idea if the children were really called Christine Mary, or David John, or whatever it was that we chose. I don’t know if the money was an honorarium for the missionary priest who did the honors–or if maybe the money was used to bestow gifts on the child’s family as an incentive for converting to Catholicism, or if it bought fancy white baptismal gowns.

This practice seemed unbelievable when I recalled it years later as a grown-up former Catholic. It felt archaic and colonial, full of presumption and perhaps even harm. Crowd funding for foreign infant adoption makes the pagan baby racket feel like child’s play.

 

 

Why I’m Wearing Black

 

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What I would like to say to everyone who is happily celebrating National Adoption Month is this: You are happy. Good.

But.

Some of us are dying inside. This piece in the Huff Post by Mirah Riben explains it rather succinctly in rant-less fashion.

You might also want to read this.  Tarikuwa Lemma is as eloquent as a poet about her own adoption.

And as if a National Adoption Month and a National Adoption Day are not enough, there’s now 4 million bucks  recently crowd funded for an International Adoption Day (which was yesterday.) Here’s a quote from the article in Forbes just in case you’re too busy eating your Happy Adoption Day cake to read the whole thing:  “The main obstacle to adopting a newborn child is the cost.” Checking out their website, I’m willing to concede that maybe these folks aren’t  dealing exclusively in newborns, but where is the original focus of National Adoption Month?  According to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, there are currently over 100,000 children in foster care who cannot be reunited with their original families. Is this crowd funding effort connecting families with those kids? Maybe, but it looks like international infant adoption is the focus.

So while you’re toasting to your happy family, know that I’m happy for you if you’re all happy. I know that some adoptions are good and necessary and healing adoptions. I’d just like a deep breath, a pause, a nano-second of silence in which  the happy consider the gravity of the loss also associated with adoption.

Now party on.  Festoon your house with balloons. I’m going to change my brightly colored clothes and find something black.

photo credit: New York Times

Adoptees and Their Medical History

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Adult adoptees are frequently infantilized by virtue of the fact that they are perpetually regarded as adopted children with, in most U.S. states, no access to their medical histories due to closed adoption records. Imagine going to the doctor and filling out that sheaf of forms by simply scrawling across the top “unknown.”

A few months back the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement regarding adoption records.  It’s not unequivocal good news since it contains the caveat “unless specifically denied by the birthparents.” I’m a birthmother, not an adoptee, but I’m pretty sure many adoptees viewed this as only a partial victory. What strikes me is that it was the American Academy of Pediatrics that came forward to voice their (partial) support for open records. My research cannot find a similar policy statement issue by the American Medical Association. Doesn’t their silence perpetuate society’s view of adult adoptees as children? As a person grows older, doesn’t medical history become even more important?

 

National Adoption Month

Begun in 1976 in the state of Massachusetts as a way of bringing awareness to the plight of children in foster care, it seems that designating a month to this consciousness has its heart in the right place. This year the focus is on sibling connections–which I hope means that siblings ought to remain together, rather than be separated by adoption. All of this is mostly good. I’d prefer a campaign that got more to the heart of things. Something like “Adoption: Designed for Children Who Need Families.”

National Adoption Month can be a festival of pain and frustration for people who’ve been separated from their loved ones through adoption when it’s paraded about as a fairy tale. Because it’s often not.

But there’s always plenty to read. Type adoption into the search box on Facebook and see what turns up. Check out the links under the take action tab in this blog. Keep your eyes and ears open, and ask yourself how often it’s really necessary to remove an infant from a  mother simply because she is very young, economically disadvantaged, or lacks family support. Is that ever really necessary?

 

 

Adoption. It’s Huge.

 

imagesI’ve been taking a break from blogging here most of the past month. I’ve been to Albuquerque and to Santa Barbara for T’ai Chi Chih retreats, and I’ve done some traveling with friends in Hawaii. And the thing that usually happens happened. I meet new people, strike up a conversation, and more often than not, I find out that the person I’m talking to is either an adoptee or a birthmother. So many of us or those we are close to have been caught up in adoption.

On the plane to Albuquerque, it was obvious the guy next to me wanted to talk. Business cards were exchanged. He stared at my card (the front image is the cover of my book) and out spooled a stream of questions. It turned out that his best friend is an adoptee and had recently seen a lot of ups and downs with reunion. On Maui, one of the people in our group was an adoptee. Also in Santa Barbara.

When others in a group setting are party to these encounters and learn that I surrendered a child for adoption, the most common comment is something like “Oh, what a wonderful generous thing you did!” A few years ago, I would have mumbled some sort of sheepish reply and changed the subject. These days I’m much more comfortable telling people that it wasn’t like that at all. That I didn’t give up my son to be kind or generous. I tell them I had to in order to survive. I tell them what it was like living in a town of 3000 Catholics in 1970, and how my family would have been ruined. More often than not people seem to get it. It’s not just birthmothers who drank the kool-aid, believing we were doing what was best. The adoption industry has been  really thorough at handing out samples of that beverage to everyone. It always feels good to tell the truth about it.

Adoption and Multi-Generational Loss

20130820193044I became a grandmother 13 years ago last week. But here’s the thing. It’s quite likely that I might never have known that I was a grandmother. All three of my grandchildren are my son’s kids, and I relinquished him for adoption as a newborn. Without reunion, I would not know that they exist. My daughters would not be aunts. The great-grandchildren count for my mom would be halved. Adoption is a very large stone dropped into the pond of life, and the ripples just keep expanding.

Reunion always focuses on the reunion between the birthmother and adoptee. While it may be the central loss, it’s not the only loss. And the loss keeps expanding with each future generation.

I often wonder what my life would be like, had I not met my son. Less than it is right now is the rosiest answer that I can come up with.

More thoughts about Izzie, the birthmother, in Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life”

 

IMG_0278Kate Atkinson’s novel “Life After Life” is a grown-up choose-your-own-adventure book with the writer rather than the reader doing the choosing. Atkinson takes the story down one path, then backs up to the fork in the road and chooses the opposite fork–again and again. Ursula, the main character dies at birth, strangled by her umbilical cord. But a few pages later the story re-boots and Ursula lives. The forward and backward motion of the story gives us a variety of  possible outcomes for many of the characters, and what happens to each of them in the  various versions of their stories changes the trajectory of the other characters’ lives as well.

Izzie, a birthmother, enters the narrative like THIS, but in another version of the plot the baby is kept and raised as their own by Sylvie and her husband–until he’s drowned in a seashore mishap. In yet another, the baby is adopted and Izzie lives a life designed to cover her pain and regret. Other possibilities are played out too.

The structure of this novel is unique, and the exploration of outcomes as they turn on life’s lynchpin moments is powerful and poignant. “What if?” the reader is forced to ask over and over again.  As I read this book, I asked that question about my own life too. What birthmother hasn’t asked, “What if….?”

 

Pro-Adoption vs. Anti-Adoption

IMG_4396My boyfriend died of lung cancer in June. We’d only been together for five years, so there was a lot I didn’t know about him. Dan had been at Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, while I was a boy-crazy 8th grader at a Catholic school in Iowa. Even before that, if I have the timeline correct, he’d joined the Freedom Riders and had gone down to Mississippi. An old friend of his told me that while he was down there he was arrested and taken to jail. “Are you black or white?” Dan was asked over and over again as they were preparing lock him up. Dan, a Korean-American, wouldn’t answer the question, but as the questioning got more aggressive, Dan finally went with white. He was jailed anyway. 

I’m telling this story as an introduction.

I do not imagine aligning myself with the folks who call themselves pro-adoption. But then again, I might if the label were dissected and arranged in such a way that it didn’t mean unethical or illegal adoption. I might if it didn’t mean secrets and shame and sealed records. I might if it didn’t mean child trafficking or endangerment or taking children from poor single mothers and giving them to couples with a bigger bank account.

But I don’t really want to be anti-adoption either. I acknowledge that there are children who need to be removed from their biological families. Still, adoption is no guarantee there will not be abuse. I acknowledge that there are children in orphanages and in foster care that need families. Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy elaborates on the anti-adoption label in her ESSAY  from Portrait of an Adoption and pretty much covers everything. So, yes, if I have to choose, I’ll have what she’s having. But only if it’s served up like that.

Reform of the adoption industry is absolutely necessary. But I don’t like the line in the sand. I’m guessing that a lot of the people who label themselves as pro-adoption don’t really want to associate themselves with the corrupt practices present in adoption today. Or at least I hope not. So I wish they wouldn’t say they were pro-adoption without writing an essay defining it.

Strength is something we seek. Taking a stand is admired. Fervent seems like a nice adjective. But maybe we all have to stand together in the middle of the hurt and confusion explaining every little thing to one another, listening as hard as we can.

DNA Testing, Secrets, Lies, and Discoveries

A friend sent me this 23andMe story recently. While adoption is not part of it, the element of secrecy  is similar to the secrecy in many adoption stories. This Gazillion Voices piece is a good companion to the 23andMe essay and is a how-to on overcoming secrecy in adoption through DNA testing.

I think a lot about the secrecy aspect of adoption and how it’s a burden many birth mothers carry. In order to keep our secrets, lying is inevitable. The web of secrets and lies grows larger and the burden gets heavier as the years go by. When I searched and found my son and we decided we would meet, I had to figure out how to dismantle my decades-long accumulation of secrets and lies. I wrote letters to my siblings, told my mother she could tell my aunts and uncles if she wanted. One by one, I told my friends. When someone asked a question, I told the truth.

When  my son came  to visit for the first time, I had  to tell my daughters that they had a brother. They were two and five years old, and my husband thought the news would be too confusing. “Tell them he’s a relative,” he said, “but not that he’s their brother.” I broke down, sobbing that I couldn’t tell any more lies, that I’d been lying for half of my life, and I’d had enough. My husband relented immediately.

American Adoption Congress has a campaign called, No Secrets No Fear. You can read about it here.