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.
The actress Kate Mulgrew and I were born in Dubuque, Iowa. She went to New York to become a successful actress. I went to L.A. to act with less success. The both of us Catholic girls, our lives were unhinged by our pregnancies. Hers, not so secret at 20 in 1977; mine, buried in secrecy at 17 in 1970. We both searched and found the children we relinquished for adoption–her daughter at 22. My son at 21. We both wrote memoirs. I plan to read hers, Born With Teeth. If you’d like to read mine, you can find it here.
Years ago when I was struggling to make ends meet in Los Angeles, my mother would frequently advise me to contact Kate. Not that our families new one another. My family moved out of Dubuque to a smaller town. And Kate was, after all, in New York, not L.A. Still, my mom knew that she was famous and I wasn’t. I scoffed every time my mother mentioned her name. I wasn’t a soap opera fan and never saw a single episode of Ryan’s Hope. If I had watched it, maybe I would have tried to contact her. Her pregnancy was written into the script. She returned to the set just a few days after relinquishing her daughter while her character on the show was raising a baby. On her first day back on the show, Mulgrew had to hold a stunt baby and deliver a monologue about how she’d love the child until the day she died. If I had witnessed that, I might have hitched a ride (cue the music: “Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained…”) to New York. Given what I’d already been through, it might have been me who’d given her advice.
I recently received the good news that an essay of mine will be included in an anthology called Mothering Through the Darkness. My essay, “My Face in the Darkness,” explores the link between the relinquishment of my first child for adoption and the postpartum depression that I experienced with my subsequent children. All these years later, I still feel unmoored when I ponder how close I came to a breakdown after the birth of my second child.
Somewhere in the timeframe of writing and submitting the essay, I came upon this survey. I took the survey, realizing anew how completely abysmal my first experience of childbirth was. Mind you, my son was born in 1970, and there has been a fair amount of reform since then, but the survey questions did not evoke a single memory of support or compassion. Every interaction with the nurses and doctors in the hospital before, during, and after my son’s birth was tainted with shaming and judgement. I know that this story is not an unusual one.
Women and girls are subjected to a lot of shaming in our society. As a mother of two daughters and grandmother to two granddaughters, I think about shame in the context of their lives. You can read more about shame HERE. Or watch THIS. I’m looking forward to reading the other essays in “Mothering Through the Darkness.” I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some way, shame figures into each and every story.
Though the poem, “Fable” by Louise Glück is not meant to be about adoption, it resonated with me nonetheless. But not in the way you might think. Not pitting adoptive mother against birth mother. For me, it cracked open the suffering of the two daughters, which might be an element in an adoption reunion story (though this is not the real-life situation the poet is most likely drawing on from her own childhood.) The pull of loss and grief is strong in this poem, deep and primal. A piece of the story perhaps for many in the world of adoption.
BY LOUISE GLÜCK
Two women with
the same claim
came to the feet of
the wise king. Two women,
but only one baby.
The king knew
someone was lying.
What he said was
Let the child be
cut in half; that way
no one will go
drew his sword.
Then, of the two
renounced her share:
the sign, the lesson.
you saw your mother
torn between two daughters:
what could you do
to save her but be
willing to destroy
yourself—she would know
who was the rightful child,
the one who couldn’t bear
to divide the mother.
I binge-watched the first season of Downton Abbey after coming down with a horrible cold/flu. I’d heard about it ad nauseum, and finally succumbed while feeling a bit nauseated myself. I got hooked, and then avidly watched the next couple of seasons until I grew weary of the problems of the English upper class. This year, well, here I am. Dan is gone, and why not sit on the couch for an hour and escape to the manor?–or whatever a grand house like that is called.
Now, Edith and me, we’re like this. Edith got pregnant after her first (so it seems) tryst with Michael. The same thing happened to me. She had to keep her pregnancy secret and went away with just her aunt as her confidant. (Somehow Granny finds out, but I missed that part.) In my case, only my parents and boyfriend knew. My siblings were in the dark just like Edith’s. Shame and ruination figured mightily in English society in 1924 as it did in my small Catholic town in Iowa in1970. Edith manages to keep her secret, as did I, and returns home with her reputation in tact. Life goes on. But the sadness overtakes everything. Edith can see her little girl, while my son was adopted in a closed-records adoption. I’m pretty sure that if some relative had been brought in on the secret and claimed him as their own, I would have done what Edith did in the last episode.
I don’t really care about Mary and her exploits. She seems to get away with everything. I don’t care about Cora and her pouty Robert. Rose can have her Russians. Cousin Violet can marry whoever she likes, and Granny can form a menage å trois with the prince and his wife (if she’s found,) just give me Edith and Marigold. Show me how they manage. How Edith makes it work. How she loves her little girl and keeps her as her own.
Of all the adoption stories out there on Facebook, this one has certainly captured my heart. I blogged about it a while ago, and here I am again with the update.
I like the candidness of the interview. I like that there’s so much redemption in the story. And I’m humbled. I didn’t exactly have a solid plan when I was a pregnant seventeen-year-old. The Burger King thing could have happened. Desperate people do desperate things.
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?
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?
I’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.
Kate 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….?”