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.

Restricted Access–As Bad As It Sounds.

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Only 9 U.S. states currently provide adoptees unrestricted access to their original birth certificates. While partial access or restricted access might sound as though it’s better than nothing, to me it feels like heartbreak waiting to happen.

Connecticut is one of the most recent partial access states, and here’s how it works:

On June 6, 2014 Governor Dannel Malloy signed into law Public Act 14-133 (House Bill 5144), which restores the right of adoptees adopted after October 1, 1983 to access their original birth certificates upon reaching the age of 18. This law restores the right of access to approximately 24,000 of the 65,000 adoptees who were born in Connecticut since 1919. –FROM THE AMERICAN ADOPTION CONGRESS WEBSITE

If you were adopted after 1983 as a youngster or an infant, chances are your birthparents are still relatively young–or at least still on the planet. Older adoptee’s parents are probably, well, older. Or deceased.

In Delaware, it goes like this:

Birth parents wishing to block release of identifying information must file a written notarized statement to that effect with the Office of Vital Statistics. Such statements must be renewed every three years.

Vital Statistics will make a reasonable effort to notify a birth parent when an adoptee applies for birth records. If no disclosure veto statement is filed, the original birth certificate will be released to the adoptee approximately 65 days after the initial request. –ALSO FROM THE AAC WEBSITE

I confess that I do suffer a tiny bit of ambivalence here. I’m a birthmother. I understand the shame and secrecy element. I just think the right of adoptees to know who they are, where they come from, and what their medical history is trumps the birthparents concerns.

And that’s pretty much how it goes. There are 7 states with partial access or restricted access. It’s depressing to read the details and do the math.

Concerned United Birthparents–Not Just for Birthparents

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I attended a Concerned United Birthparents (CUB) meeting on Saturday. I went to share the good news of getting my memoir published. I went to check-in with myself. I went to do what one does at support group meetings–get and give support. I went to see what a CUB meeting is like these days.

In 1990 when I was attending regularly,  the group was huge. Thirty folding chairs in a circle with a couple of boxes of Kleenex being passed around. Even back then birthmothers were joined by a few birth fathers,  adoptees, and a couple of adoptive parents. Many attendees were involved in searching for their lost family members, but some were there to celebrate reunion, others for support because it didn’t seem that a reunion would ever be possible. Still others were looking for guidance on their new relationships with mothers, fathers, or adult children.  Every story was different.

In our information age where it’s possible to find your birth family in 36 hours, (oh–if only it were always so easy!) the ranks of CUB seem to have thinned a bit, but the meeting I went to on Saturday was every bit as diverse as the ones I remember from more than two decades ago. An adoptee about to introduce her siblings (one from her adoptive family, the other from her birth family), a birthmother who’d attended CUB for years, searched found nothing, then years later came back and shortly thereafter was reunited with her son who is now getting to know her other adult children. An adoptee read the letter she planned to send to her birthmother whom she’d recently located. A birthmother back from the wedding of her son– the first milestone in his life she hadn’t missed. An adoptive mother sharing her story of her children’s inabilities to heal after their lives of abuse prior to their adoption. An adoptee with her toddler daughter describing what it was like to give birth and realize she’d just met her first blood relative. A birth mother announcing that the first meeting between her and her daughter is now on the calendar. There was more. Each story was unique. Each story opened the door between birthmother and adoptee. Between adoptee and adoptive parent. Between adoptive parent and birthmother.

The meetings are well-moderated. They’re a safe place where people listen. The Internet has made searching easier in some cases, but there are still plenty of reasons to go to a CUB meeting. If you’re a birthparent, an adoptee, or an adoptive parent and you are looking for support, information, or a group where your story will be listened to, a CUB meeting is a fantastic idea. Check the website for the meeting schedule in your area.

 

 

Birthmothers, Confidentiality, and Sealed Adoption Records

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Let’s start HERE. (It’s a WikiHow, and it’ll take less than a minute of your time.)

If you’re an adoptee, you might be rolling on the floor either laughing or crying right now. If you’re a birthmother and you’re trying to obtain the birth certificate for the child you gave birth to and surrendered, these instructions are similarly ridiculous. It is not possible to obtain the original birth certificate (unless you live in one of the handful of states that have unsealed adoption records.) Let me reiterate: Even if you are an adult, an American, a law abiding citizen with medical cause, or any other pressing reason for wanting to contact your birth family, you cannot, as an adoptee in most U.S. States, get your hands on your original birth certificate. Period. Original birth certificates are sealed. The only birth certificate available to you is the amended one, containing your new name and the name of the adoptive parents. A fiction.

This issue is debated regularly in state legislatures. Birthmothers are always mentioned in these debates over unsealing birth certificates. We’re held up as the reason it can’t be done. We were promised confidentiality, they say, and they can’t betray us.

I have absolutely nothing–not a contract, nor a certificate, nor a letter– not a piece of paper of any kind promising me confidentiality or even recording the fact that the adoption of my son took place.

At my intake appointment with the agency my mother took me to in June of 1970, it was explained to me that I would be hidden away for the duration of my pregnancy so my secret would be safe. It was also explained to me that my name would have to appear on the baby’s birth certificate, but that I did not have to name the baby’s father ( and I didn’t.) His name did not have to be recorded, but my full name as well as the baby’s, in the rudimentary form of Baby Boy My Last Name, most certainly had to appear in black and white on the birth certificate. Not a promise of confidentiality at all.

I am far from the first birthparent to bring this up, but it bears repeating because the same confidentiality argument is brought up over and over again. In 2006 The DONALDSON ADOPTION INSTITUTE issued a report on the flawed practices in the adoption industry regarding birthparents. The issue of confidentiality was addressed, yet state legislatures continue to cite the distress of of some mythical band of birthmothers over the breaching of their confidentiality. If I were still searching for my son, confidentiality is the last thing I’d want, and dozens of sources, in addition to the Donaldson Report, support this point of view. Yet, the myth persists. So, dear state legislators and your confidentiality cronies, stop telling us birthmothers what we want.

On Reading the Piece in the New Yorker on the Death of Poet Edward Hirsch’s Son

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The article in the August 4th issue, “Finding the Words” begins:

            In October, 1988, my friends Janet Landy and Edward Hirsch flew to New Orleans to adopt a boy who was six days old. He was collected from the hospital  by their lawyer, who brought him to the house where they were staying. Waiting for her, they stood in the street in front of the house. For several days, they worried that the mother, overcome by love or by guilt might want the child             back, but she didn’t.

             Later in the piece we learn, “Hirsch had a cousin who was a lawyer in New Orleans, who put him in touch with the woman at his firm who sometimes handled adoptions. In August, 1988….the lawyer called and said that a young woman had approached a colleague.” This is all we are given regarding Gabriel’s birth and his birth mother, fitting perhaps since the story is about Hirsch’s grief and the book-length elegy the grew out of his suffering over the death of his son. But from my perspective as a birth mother, even as I followed the trajectory of Gabriel’s life and of Hirsch’s profound sorrow over the loss of him, a piece of my heart lay lodged in that first paragraph with the woman who had given up her son.

Hirsch describes a section of the work as being extremely important to him:

            I did not know the work of mourning

            Is like carrying a bag of cement

           Up a mountain at night            

                       

           The mountaintop is not in sight

            Because there is no mountaintop

            Poor Sisyphus grief

 

            I did not know I would struggle

            Through a ragged underbrush

            without an upward path

            And continues:

            Look closely and you will see

            Almost everyone carrying bags

            Of cement on their shoulders

          Hirsch’s recognition that never ending grief over the loss of a loved one is a common experience connects the reader with an abiding truth, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever thought of the woman who might still imagine her son walking the earth, whole and healthy. She (and the rest of Gabriel’s birth family) has suffered a loss more terrible than his relinquishment, only she doesn’t know it.

I do not mean to say that Hirsch’s grief is any less because his son was adopted. I don’t mean that at all. I just can’t help imagining a mother thinking daily of the boy she gave away, and how, now that he has rounded the corner of official adulthood, it might be a good time to search for him. Perhaps, even though she did not merit a mention in the New Yorker story, Hirsch does give her a nod somewhere in the elegy. I hope so. She has been carrying her bag of cement since Gabriel was six days old.

 

 

 

 

How the Search for My Son Began

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I never let go of the idea that I would someday find my son, but I had absolutely no idea how I would do it. At first I imagined myself as Nancy Drew, the girl detective who would sleuth and sleuth and finally break the case. There was very little reality to this scenario since the adoption records were sealed, and I didn’t have a single clue. Some years later I imagined that serendipity or coincidence would allow us to meet. In a way, that’s what happened.

I made friends with a mother of two little girls who were about the same age as my own daughters. One day at a park playgroup when the two of us were sitting away from the rest of the mothers, she told me she had gotten pregnant as a teenager and had given that baby up for adoption. I stammered my way through my own confession. She told me she was going to search for her daughter and invited me to a Concerned United Birthparents support group meeting. At one of those meetings, I met a woman who told me that, through a series of connections, she might be able to make arrangements with someone who could find my son. To this day I have no idea who this mysterious connection was. But he/she found my son two decades after I’d given him up.

I met a woman two thousand miles from where I’d relinquished my son. She happened to be a birth mother, and the two of us happened to connect on that day in the park. She took me to a meeting where I met someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. And that someone found my son.