Category Archives: grief

Broken Hearts/Hart Family Tragedy

There were six Hart children, and now, though not all bodies have yet been found, authorities think all of them perished in the car that was intentionally driven off a cliff in Northern California. The children were adopted from foster care in Texas in two separate transactions, two sibling sets of three each. The adoptive parents were white, the children persons of color. Now everyone is dead.

It’s logical to presume that children end up in foster care after a clusterfuck of parental missteps. A lot of things go wrong. And then things go wrong over and over again. Really wrong. And so children are removed from the home. The Hart children were permanently removed. Their parents lost custody. The children were adopted out. They were removed from the state they were born in, removed from family, both immediate and extended. Maybe things were epic proportion horrible for these kids. But here’s the thing. It didn’t get better. They were “saved” by two white women who killed them.

The birthmothers are always the tragedy in the background in stories like this. There’s a whole cast of characters in this silent background that doesn’t make the newspapers until weeks later, if ever. In this story there’s an aunt who had custody but broke a rule, and so she lost custody too. Now according to THIS,the birthmother of one of the sets of children is” taking it hard.” Can you imagine? If you’re a birthmother you can. But you sure as hell don’t want to.

There’s a long history of adoption in our country, and we’ve learned things that we have yet to put into practice. In Adoption in America: A Historical Perspective, E. Wayne Carp cites an early 19thcentury historian, reporting on four orphan asylums between 1800 and 1820: “But adoption did not emerge as the preferred system of child care in the early nineteenth century because elite families with whom the children were placed often treated them as servants rather than family members. This experience led the female managers to favor blood relatives when considering child placement.” Similar conclusions were made decades later as a result of the orphan trains wherein foundlings and street children from eastern cities were sent to more rural areas throughout the country to live with families that sometimes treated them as indentured servants. Early adoption law in Minnesota was forged to combat the corruptions of the orphan trains.

While there are certainly many kudos deserved to those who adopt children from foster care–those people who have the capacity to love and to work toward healing, there are still uncomfortable truths to be reckoned with. I’ll leave you with these thoughts from Liz Latty and her piece “Adoption is a Feminist Issue, But Not For the Reasons You Think,” :

“Here’s the toughest truth yet: Those children are almost always the children of poor and working class people, people of color, native and indigenous people, and young people. The people who adopt them, who directly benefit from the economic and racial oppression of these groups, are most often middle and upper-middle-class people and are primarily white”.

And if you’re the sort of person who prays, pray for everyone. The social workers in the system, the children, the foster parents, the adoptive parents, and the birth families. I’m really not much for praying myself, but I’ll be thinking of the birthmothers of the Hart children forever.

This Is Us

 

 

Writers working at night in Maverick Writers’ Studio on the Gihon River at the Vermont Studio Center

Sometimes it feels like a secret society, this adoption thing.

I’ve been at a writer’s residency the past month at the Vermont Studio Center, and as I read from my book manuscript a couple of weeks ago, I looked out at the faces in the audience. I know that whenever I read from my memoir afterwards, either right away or in the coming days,  there will be whispered conversations. People tell me their stories–or maybe not the story at all–just that they are a birthmother or an adoptee.

I’m still thinking of the young man who waited until the day before he left to tell me how much he appreciated the reading. “I’m a child of adoption,” he said. I saw loss and longing and questions in his eyes. The intensity of it threw me off balance, and I had one of those moments wherein I tried to say something right and good, but because I was trying so hard, I can’t remember what it was I said.

I would have liked to have said that I’d bet a million dollars that his mother loved him and has missed him every day of her life.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale: Episode 2, Birth Day

Probably you’ve at least heard of it. It seems like everyone is talking about it–the Hulu series about the dystopian future where women with two good ovaries are fated to be surrogates for wives of societal stature who are infertile. For birthmothers this is where the dystopian future meets the dystopia past. Birthmothers have already lived in this world and handed over our children to those that society deemed worthy.

I felt this when I read the book in 1989 (while nursing my youngest child,) but watching it come alive on the screen brought a bitterness that I have not tasted for some time.

In the story it’s customary for all the handmaids in the neighborhood to attend a birth. While the adoptive mother in waiting lies on a white sheet in a stylish living room, moaning though fake labor pains with the other wives coaching her, upstairs the real labor progresses with the handmaid who is lucky enough to have conceived a child in this toxic future world. When the birth is imminent, the handmaid leaves the luxurious marriage  bed  for a birthing chair, the privileged wife sitting behind her as if she too is pushing through the labor pains. When the baby is out, it’s the wife who situates herself in bed and receives the baby. The handmaid, (birthmother) is just a few feet away, empty-handed and anguished, longing to hold her child. A sister handmaid turns her face away from the baby and its new mother. Then the entire room of handmaids converge on her, hovering over her, murmuring their comfort. It’s a wrenching scene, but for those of us who were handmaids of the 60s and 70s, we had no compatriots.

At the moment of my son’s birth, the intern in the delivery room joyfully asked me if this was my first child. Before I had a chance to utter a syllable, the doctor in charge guffawed. “She’s an unwed mother,” he said. My son was wrapped is a blanket and whisked away.

I suspect most of us gave birth that way. No family present. The baby’s father not allowed anywhere near. No murmured comforts anywhere.

 

The Meanness Olympics/Comments on an article about Simone Biles’ biological mother

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Here’s the link to a newspaper article about Simone Biles’ birthmother. I read it twice. And I also read another interview with her in the Huffington Post and in the New York Daily News–all based on an interview with her from TMZ

She said she’s glad she and her daughter are not estranged any longer, but their relationship is still fledgling.

She says that she wished her dad hadn’t thrown her under the bus in a recent interview of his with the press. She said she thought he was insensitive about the way he described her battle with addiction.

She admits that she took the loss of her children very badly. She admits that she yelled at her father and that she was hard-headed, that she didn’t understand then why she couldn’t see her kids but she says she understands it now. She admits that she wan’t able to care for them back then.

She admits that she was an addict and says that she’s been clean for nine years now.

She is raising her two youngest children herself. She has a job.

It seems pretty clear that Shannon Biles’ children were in jeopardy. “In and out of foster care” is not a good thing. It worked out well, probably better than imagined, that Simone’s grandfather and his wife legally adopted Simone and her sister and are now their mom and dad. Hooray for all that. Gold medals all around.

While I understand the hunger of the media for a story and the  curiosity of Olympic viewers and the general public about all this, I don’t understand the hate directed at Shannon Biles in the comments sections.

Shannon Biles was an addict. She lost custody of four children. That’s a clusterfuck of hurt  for a lot of people, including innocent children. It’s personal disaster beyond measure. BUT this woman who lost her children and the respect of her father is now clean. She has turned her life around. In the olympics of her personal life, that’s pretty damn golden too.

Birthmothers/first mothers/bio mothers are human beings deserving of compassion. We did what we did for a million reasons. Put on those shoes, haters. Try a little running and jumping in them and when your feet are bloody, give thanks for your perfect life and your shiny veneer over your hate-filled soul. I have to try a little bit not to wish you ill, but I can do it. I wish you well. I wish for you understanding, and some personal peace, and an inclination for you to share that with the world instead of hate.

 

image at the top of this post is from stargazer-gemini.deviantart.com

 

What to Say to a Birthmother on Mother’s Day and a Thought or Two on Birthmother’s Day

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There are millions of us. For every adoptee, there is a birthmother. We’re your sisters, your friends, your aunts, your cousins, your teammates, your co-workers, your wives and girlfriends, that person next to you on the plane who’s flying home to see her mom and tells you everything after her 4th rum and coke.

Each of our stories is unique and they’re all the same. What you say to the particular birthmother(s) that you know probably depends on the story. Think about what you know. Step into her shoes. Is she still keeping her secret from others with you being one of the few in her confidence? Is she happily reunited with her son or daughter? Has her child refused to meet her? Is she searching? Does she have other children? Maybe you invite her over for coffee or take her out for a drink. Maybe you tell her you feel enriched by knowing her story, or you give her a card or a take time for a conversation. Maybe you ask her what she thinks of Birthmother’s Day, which is today, by the way, in case you didn’t know.

I don’t exactly hate the idea of Birthmother’s Day, myself. But I don’t really love it either. The phrase Happy Birthmother’s Day pretty much gets stuck in my throat. I’d rather cough up a carving knife than say that, but the idea of commemoration is a good one. We’re here. So, I’m thinking of us and all of our stories.

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

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

An interesting article re adoption in Australia

“Forced adoptions have been a major issue in Australia. In 2013 their Prime Minister Julia Gillard offered a national apology to those affected by forced adoptions. The Australian Senate Enquiry Report found that babies of unmarried mothers were illegally taken by medical staff, social workers and religious persons, sometimes with the assistance of adoption agencies and other authorities, and adopted out to married couples.
Many of these adoptions occurred after the mothers were sent away by their families due to the social stigma associated with being pregnant and unmarried.
It was found that some women were drugged, others restrained, some forced to sign, signatures faked, no informed consent and few (if any) chose to give their children away.
This went on up to the 1970s. It is recognised that this has resulted in major issues for generations of families and for Australian society. Many mothers have died early due to stress related illnesses or committed suicide. Many who have survived do so suffering complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Read the rest of the piece here.

I’ve often wondered about general life outcomes for birthmothers from the era of secrecy in the  U.S. I’ve picked up small pieces of information here and there as I researched my memoir, but found nothing extensive. Sometimes it seems that we’re still the girls who are supposed to disappear.

A Poem titled “New Year’s Eve” by Carl Dennis

NEW YEAR’S EVE

However busy you are, you should still reserve
One evening a year for thinking about your double,
The man who took the curve on Conway Road
Too fast, given the icy patches that night,
But no faster than you did; the man whose car
When it slid through the shoulder
Happened to strike a girl walking alone
From a neighbor’s party to her parents’ farm,
While your car struck nothing more notable
Than a snowbank.

One evening for recalling how soon you transformed
Your accident into a comic tale
Told first at a body shop, for comparing
That hour of pleasure with his hour of pain
At the house of the stricken parents, and his many
Long afternoons at the Lutheran graveyard.

If nobody blames you for assuming your luck
Has something to do with your character,
Don’t blame him for assuming that his misfortune
Is somehow deserved, that justice would be undone
If his extra grief was balanced later
By a portion of extra joy.

Lucky you, whose personal faith has widened
To include an angel assigned to protect you
From the usual outcome of heedless moments.
But this evening consider the angel he lives with,
The stern enforcer who drives the sinners
Out of the Garden with a flaming sword
And locks the gate.

 
 
 
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If birthmothers had angels, it seems to me they would be, more often than not, of the stern enforcer variety.


Wishing everyone “a portion of extra joy” in 2012.