It’s 2 degrees in Minneapolis tonight, the windchill ratcheting us down to minus ten. There are mountains of snow on every street corner, and driving a across an intersection is a cross between a thrill sport and a game of peek-a-boo. It’s a thrill sport too, to take a sip from your travel mug of steaming hot coffee because you will spill it as your car lurches through ruts of snow that have crusted into random jagged weapons of whiplash.
Mostly this is theoretical for me. I go outside to shovel (even when there’s just nuisance snow because I like to shovel) and to take out the trash. I very seldom find myself in a car.
This indoor life is lovelier than you might think. It’s cozy in this little house. There’s love, music, movies, popcorn, ping-pong, houseplants. I zoom with friends, and take some online art classes. We eat fabulous meals here. Homemade baked things, thick soups, and roasted meats and vegetables.
I spend a lot of time making collages. Most nights, in fact, I’m in my studio, snipping, gluing, listening to podcasts or just enjoying the silence and the cocoon of my cool blue walls.
I have a new essay in Under the Sun about losing my first child to adoption.
A writing accident
I never meant to write about any of this. For decades I was a reader, not a writer. Then a terrible thing happened. And I began writing a story about it. One morning my husband went to work and left a legal pad on the kitchen table. I filled most of it that morning, making the terrible thing into sort of a fiction. Over the next weeks, I kept writing, even though I hadn’t done any creative writing since high school. I was processing the terrible thing by making it into a story.
At some point I stopped into one of my favorite coffee shops before picking my kids up from school and saw a stack of flyers about a writing workshop that was going to be held in their backroom on Saturdays. Cool, I thought. Because I think the thing I’ve been writing could be a novel. I folded the flyer in half and put it on my bulletin board in the kitchen.
Without ever unfolding the flyer and reading the bottom half of it with the description of the workshop, I showed up. That’s when I found out it was a memoir workshop. The story of my secret teen-age pregnancy poured onto the page. At the end of this weeks- long workshop there was a reader’s theater type performance. It made me brave. And I found out people wanted to hear the story about the son I had lost.
Writing on purpose
I took the workshop again. And again. At every performance there was always a birthmother or an adoptee in the audience. Even though starting to write memoir had been an accident, the telling of the story became more and more important to me. And it seemed important to other people too.
I also kept writing the story that was a fictionalized version of the terrible thing. When I was 54-year-old empty nester/new divorceé I got into an MFA program, and the novel about the terrible thing became a my master’s thesis. But all the while I was sending out personal essays about adoption and they were getting published. I thought my essays and the other essays I was reading about adoption might change the adoption industry.
Time has passed. I’ll be 70 this year. I am marching forward while the world marches backwards. A new Baby Scoop Era is coming. Amy Coney Barrett as much as told us so when she touted adoption as an alternative to abortion during her confirmation hearing. The recently leaked Supreme Court draft opinion has confirmed it.
One dozen ways to be with a birthmother on Mother’s Day
Here’s the thing. It’s not easy to be a birthmother on Mother’s Day.
Try this. Google birthmother. The search results will lead you to sites promoting adoption. This is how the world is. It is pro-adoption. Not pro-family preservation. And certainly not pro-birthmother. Unless you’re planning on handing over a baby. Let’s say someone who’s recently relinquished a child goes to the internet seeking support this Mother’s Day. Well, she’s going to be gaslighted.
If you know a birthmother/first mother, reach out to her in the next few days. Don’t let her sit alone staring into a screen, reading stuff that makes her feel sad and crazy.
I’ve published this list of things to talk about with a birthmother before, but here it is again, with a couple of additions.
I know you’re a mother, so I want you to know I’m thinking of you.
Is there a way I can bring some comfort to you today?
Do you feel like telling me your story? I might not know all of it.
Would you like to go out for some coffee, or a walk, or maybe a movie?
Have you searched for your child? or How is your reunion going? Tell me about that if you feel like talking about it.
How do you think your life would be different if you’d raised your child?
What would you do if your son/ daughter contacted you?
What’s the hardest thing about Mother’s Day for you?
Do you like the term birthmother? Or is there another word you prefer?
I really appreciate your friendship, and I want you to know I’m here for you.
I am a girl in Mississippi in my heart. In my churning stomach I am a girl in Mississippi. I am a girl in Mississippi even though, really, I’m an old woman in Minnesota. An old woman old enough to remember when the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term did not exist.
I was 16 when I got pregnant during my first sexual encounter. A couple of months into my senior year at a Catholic high school in a small Catholic town, I knew that I could not breathe a word of my plight to anyone. For months I could not even admit it to myself. Everyday I awoke with morning sickness and struggled through breakfast with my parents and my little brothers. I put on my school uniform as if it were a shroud and zombied my way through my classes. I needed help and couldn’t get it.
Dead girl walking. That was me. A girl with big questions. Should I drive my car in front of the train? People did that sometimes in my town. Should I carbon monoxide myself in the garage? Hang myself? Slice my wrists? I had to do something to spare my family the ruin of my predicament. I tried to cut my wrists. Sliced a little into one with a razor blade I took from my father’s shelf in the medicine cabinet. I couldn’t finish the job.
This was my plan
Run away then, I decided. Because my weight had stayed about the same due to the morning sickness, I could wait until near the baby’s due date. No one was suspicious. I could wait, and not be gone for more than a few weeks. And then I’d come home with a story. I was good at stories.
There was a Greyhound bus to Chicago. On a day in mid-June of 1970, I would be on that bus. That was my plan. I’d been to Chicago with my high school chorus to sing the Messiah in a Christmas concert with a bunch of other Catholic school students. I would go to the convent that was part of the school and church where we sang. The nuns would take me in, and I would beg for their mercy. And… This part will sound ridiculous, but I’ll tell it to you anyway. I was going to pretend that I had amnesia. So I wouldn’t have to tell the nuns my name. Really, this was my plan.
But this is more ridiculous
It’s ridiculous to pretend that desire does not exist. Ridiculous to think that telling teen-agers they will go to hell if they have sex before marriage will deter them. It is beyond ridiculous, repugnant actually, to tell a teenager she is dirty, guilty of mortal sin, ruined for life for any reason. It is especially repugnant if you are a member of a religious order purporting to spread god’s love.
It’s abusive and wrong not to educate teenagers about sex. And children too, in an age-appropriate way. Every decent piece of research tells us that preaching about abstinence does not work. There are other stupid things that don’t work either, yet those are the things we do.
Roe v. Wade
Those of us who care about women’s rights and reproductive rights have, for years, heard the oncoming rumblings of the train wreck that will most likely overturn Roe v. Wade. I can see that future clearly because I can remember my past.
The story of my secret teen-age pregnancy will repeat itself over an over again. In Mississippi and probably another 20 states. Maybe eventually the whole country. Birth control might be on the chopping block too. And so the stories will grow more numerous. More gruesome. Because there will be no exceptions for rape or incest. And here’s a detail. It’s not mostly teen-age girls who are terminating their pregnancies these days. “According to the Guttmacher Institute, 60 percent of women seeking abortions are already mothers, and 75 percent are living below the poverty line or are categorized as low-income.” Margaret Renkl gives us a nice big picture of our current terrible reality in her opinion piece in the New York Times. Mothers are already second class citizens.
The nation’s Ministry of Social Policy has declared a moratorium on adoptions because of the war. They clearly state that “under current conditions inter-country adoption is impossible.”
The National Council for Adoption in the U.S. states that the identities of Ukrainian children and their legal, social, and familial status cannot be verified at this time, and this is not the appropriate time for adopting them.
But still, the persistent persist. A crusade to capture “orphans” in the name of Christianity charges forward. And the brazen unscrupulousness is enough to bring you to your knees. Because Evangelical Christian adoption is a serious thing. A devoutly serious thing. Devoutly serious Christians want to do good. Or do their version of doing good. However, international adoption has not been unabashedly good.
A brief history
Japan, Germany, and Korea
After World War II the plight of Japanese “orphans” and German “orphans” began attracting attention in the U.S. However, these children were likely not orphans at all. They were the offspring of departing U. S. servicemen, and often stigmatized for their mixed race status. This made it difficult for their mothers to raise them. So organizations promoting adoption of these children sprang up. Lots of organizations. And of course, lots of money changed hands.
Then came the Korean War and the Holts. You’ve maybe heard of them if you’re at all familiar with international adoption. They were an Evangelical couple from Oregon. After the Korean War they adopted eight Korean children. Laws were changed to make this possible.
The idea caught on. More laws were changed. Proxy adoptions became popular. Therefore, American couples did not even have to appear in a foreign country’s courts to finalize the adoptions. According to the University of Oregon Adoption History Project, Americans adopted 15,000 foreign children between 1953 and 1962. The Holts and the agency that grew out of their family adoption project were thought to be the gold standard in international adoption for a long time.
Viet Nam, etc. etc.
If you’re of a certain age, you might remember Operation Babylift as Saigon fell at the end of the Viet Nam War. That story had a second chapter as some of the “orphans” brought to the U.S. returned to Viet Nam and sought their birth families. In fact, many foreign adoptees have returned to their homelands seeking family members that were there all along.
The sources of children for international adoption were endless. The one child policy in China. The Ceausescu orphanages of Romania. The conflict in Ethiopia, the earthquake victims of Haiti, the poverty in Latin America. This is not a complete list, by any means. Wherever disaster strikes, adoption agencies swoop in.
What we know now
What we know now is that foreign adoption is even more complicated than domestic adoption. Every adoption begins with loss. But foreign adoption begins with every loss. Mother, family, country, culture, language, cuisine. All gone.
The word is out that Ukrainian children are not fair game for adoption right now. It seems unlikely that everyone wants to hear that message. But maybe the tide is turning. Bethany, one of the most fervent Christian agencies, now has a new stance. According to an article in the Atlantic a few months ago, that stance is family preservation. Yes. Family preservation.
King James VI of Scotland and subsequent rulers vilified people believed to be witches with great fervor during the 16th and 18th centuries. They tortured and executed over 2500 during two centuries of Satanic panic. The witches have recently received a formal apology. This apology, delivered by first minister Nicola Sturgeon in early March, was a very long time coming. It’s been hundreds of years since the witches of Scotland, most of them women, suffered their terrible fates.
“I am choosing to acknowledge that egregious historic injustice and extend a formal, posthumous apology to all of those accused, convicted, vilified, or executed under the Witchcraft Act of 1563,” Ms. Sturgeon said. The apology was the result of an activist campaign. The campaign asked for three things. A pardon. An apology. And a national memorial. Discussions regarding the memorial are in progress.
Between 1950 and 1980 over 60,000 Scottish women gave up their children for adoption. A group of activist birthmothers began asking for a formal apology for these forced adoptions around a decade ago. In 2015 Scotland decided against issuing that apology. But the struggle continued. By the end of 2021 the Scottish parliament was reconsidering. Australia had apologized to its birthmothers. And Ireland apologized. And England’s families minister, Vicky Ford, apologized. Way back in 2013 the Catholic Church in England and Wales apologized. At long last, the government of Scotland is now seriously considering an apology. But as of yet, Nicola Sturgeon has not made a formal speech.
It is easier to apologize to the dead. There are no surviving witches from Scotland’s execution heyday. Officials do not have to look into their eyes. The dead witches will not sit at the table to discuss the details of the memorial. They cannot shake anyone’s hand or say thank you. Or stand there weeping inconsolably while a politician awkwardly ponders what to do. Modern day witches will, no doubt, participate in discussions about the memorial. But their ancestor’s fates are long-ago history.
Movement for adoption apology
Thousands of Scottish birthmothers are still alive. The Movement for Adoption Apology is asking for mental health support for these birthmothers. They want changes in the management of adoption records, which currently are closed for 100 years. And they want an adoption reunion registry. And a memorial. They also want a formal apology.
Will they get it? I don’t know. But it seems Scotland finds birthmothers more frightening than witches.
According to the New York Times, a new memorial will be developed in the last remaining “Magdalene laundry” in Dublin. The compound with its convent and laundry buildings is the only facility of its type in Ireland that has not been demolished. Narrowly escaping development as a hotel, the memorial will become an education center and a museum know as the National Center for Research and Remembrance. There is an awful lot to research and remember.
Fallen women and girls in trouble
Ireland turned its “fallen women,” its “girls in trouble” into slaves. According to most sources, from the 18th century to the late 20th century some 30,000 women were confined in these institutions. But there are no official statistics. Secrets are by nature resistant to statistics. Imagine a family desperate to rid themselves of the shame of having a pregnant unmarried daughter. There may have been tears and regret when she was delivered to the gates of one of these places. But I’ll bet you your firstborn child there was also an immense sigh of relief by the parents who left her. By some estimates, in Ireland alone there were 41 of these facilities and perhaps as many as 300 in England.
My own troubles
I lived in a small Catholic town in Iowa when I got pregnant in 1970. I was in my final year at a Catholic school–the only high school in my home town. It seems like a miracle, but I kept my pregnancy a secret throughout my senior year. I went to prom. I graduated. When my parents found out I was pregnant I was due to give birth in six weeks. Plans were made very quickly.
After I confessed my plight to my mother she went downstairs to the phone. She called my father and asked him to come home early for lunch, and then she called the home for unwed mothers in Dubuque, a city of approximately 30,000 a half hour’s drive down the highway. I figured a place like this would be my fate. I imagined girls who smoked and wore too much mascara. Girls who were mean, perhaps, and way wilder than I was. I needn’t have worried. There was no room at the inn. Imagine, there I was feeling completely alone, and there was so many girls like me that there was not enough room to house us.
I went to stay with a foster family in the deep Iowa countryside. I helped the mom, Sarah, take care of her four kids while her husband was away on National Guard duty. There’s a lot more to this story, but here’s the thing–I was treated with love and kindness.
A Magdalene baby in Iowa
If you want a personal story about the Magdalene laundries, watch this movie. And believe it or not, my family had a connection to the real-life son of Philomena. You can read about him here. My mind was pretty much blown to find out he was adopted into the family of my brother-in-law. A Magdalene laundry baby in Iowa.
This story about keeping adoption secret was first published a decade ago. The advice columnist Amy Dickinson chose to re-publish it a few days ago while she takes a brief break from her column. Keeping adoption secret is a vampire of a subject in the world of adoption. Will it ever die? Apparently not.
A decade is a long time. The adopted girl the letter writer asks about could be sitting in a bar now, downing her third mojito. Maybe she’s telling the bartender about her recent discoveries on 23andMe. Maybe she’s estranged from her family. Or maybe just her mother. Maybe her siblings are her best and most stalwart friends. Maybe she just found out she’s been dating her biological brother.
The letter, written by the 16-year-old sister of the adopted girl, was simple. Straightforward. She knew that keeping her sister’s adoption secret was a terrible idea. However, Amy Dickinson’s response requires a closer reading. “Your mother’s refusal to tell your sister her adoption story has now devolved from lying by omission to outright lying,” she writes. I don’t think there’s much devolving here. Lying by omission to a 10-year-old about the fact that she’s adopted is already subterranean.
That said, I like much of Amy Dickinson’s response. “Your sister… was always old enough to know this story, because the story tells the truth about her life.” Beautiful.
A Reader comments
Dear Amy: I disagree with your advice to “Distressed Sister.” Adoption is between the parents and the child.
Everybody else should stay out of it. This sister should be told, “If you ever adopt a child, you can handle it the way you like.”
Amy’s answer to “Also Distressed”
Amy’s answer to “Also Distressed” opens on a strong note. “Adoption is not only between the parents and the child. Keeping this a secret affects the entire family system.” But the answers drifts a bit after that.
Adoption can be a painful and emotional subject for parents, in part because they cannot imagine that the child they chose to join their family wasn’t always in their family. They also worry about any future complications regarding the child’s curiosity about — or contact with — biological relatives.
Complications? Complications sounds like something one might die of after surgery or an illness. Certainly, having a birth family and an adopted family is more complex than having simply a birth family. Having a birth family was probably pretty simple until adoption stepped into the picture. That’s when things got complicated. Birthmothers and other birth family members are not complications. Unless of course you’re adoptive parent who lies or otherwise deceives your adopted child into thinking they’re your biological child.
The rights of the adopted person
Despite the fact that the adopted daughter was only 10 at the time the column first appeared, I wish Amy Dickinson had included something about the rights of adoptees. While the following applies to adult adoptees, probably every adopted parent should be acquainted with it from the beginning. Because a 10-year-old is not going to remain 10 forever. It’s the mission statement from Bastard Nation.
Bastard Nation is dedicated to the recognition of the full human and civil rights of adult adoptees. Toward that end, we advocate the opening to adoptees, upon request at age of majority, of those government documents which pertain to the adoptee’s historical, genetic, and legal identity, including the unaltered original birth certificate and adoption decree. Bastard Nation asserts that it is the right of people everywhere to have their official original birth records unaltered and free from falsification, and that the adoptive status of any person should not prohibit him or her from choosing to exercise that right. We have reclaimed the badge of bastardy placed on us by those who would attempt to shame us; we see nothing shameful in having been born out of wedlock or in being adopted. Bastard Nation does not support mandated mutual consent registries or intermediary systems in place of unconditional open records, nor any other system that is less than access on demand to the adult adoptee, without condition, and without qualification.
It’s been years since I’ve spent a Saturday morning in a room, passing around a box of kleenex while listening to birth parents and adoptees weep through their stories. I used to regularly attend Concerned United Birthparents meetings back when I was searching for my son. Until I went to one of these meetings, I thought I was somehow maladjusted. Some rare freak who was unable to forget that she’d given away her baby. Because of the secretive nature of being an unwed mother, I’d never met another girl like me. I knew they were out there, but I told myself that they (whoever they were) were fine. I was the defective one. The meetings demonstrated how wrong I was. I witnessed the evidence of harm.
The ongoing legacy of adoption
After I read this article a few days ago, I realized that adoption’s legacy of harm extends far beyond the borders of the Baby Scoop Era (1945-1973) here in the U.S. The U.K. Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights recently published its first batch of written evidence after gathering testimony from mothers who relinquished babies between 1949 and 1976. Although the dates don’t match exactly with what’s generally considered the Baby Scoop Era, a couple of years on either end is a mere detail. Adoption practices in the United Kingdom as well as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland were similar to those in the United States. And when we speak of the Baby Scoop era, we’re really talking about all of these places.
Writing down the evidence of harm
The U.K. Parliament has published their evidence–both transcribed oral testimony and written testimony. There are many pages. And of course this is a fraction of all the stories out there. In the U.S. alone, at least four million babies were relinquished.
Here’s a quote from one of the testimonies made to the U.K. Parliament:
“I was severed from my birth family, and they were severed from me. I was prevented access to familiar faces and the people that I look like. I didn’t have information pertinent to familial medical history. I grew up without the facts surrounding my life. I was raised with the knowledge that I am adopted, although my experience of dialogue around my adoption is shut-down. It is not talked about. Adoption has deeply impacted on my sense of self, my self-esteem, my relationships to others, and my relationship to the world.”
Harry Barnett (ACU0091)
As for me, I’m reunited with my son. I guess I’d say that I have one of the happiest birthmother/first mother stories that I know of. But I’ll repeat what Mr. Barnett says above. Losing my son “has deeply impacted on my sense of self, my self-esteem, my relationships to others, and my relationship to the world.”
Surrogate motherhood is a big thing in Ukraine. I didn’t know about this thriving business until the war. Now I can’t stop thinking about it. In my previous post I wrote about the couple from California who went to great lengths to get their newborn daughter out of Kyiv while the surrogate mother who gave birth to the child stayed behind. The Los Angeles Times wrote a follow-up story, which made me think about the general issue of surrogate motherhood–both traditional and gestational. You can click HERE if you want to get a clear idea of the difference between the two.
Surrogate motherhood’s price tag
Like in the adoption industry, money–lots of it–changes hands in a surrogacy arrangement. According to some info on the web from the Fertility Center of Las Vegas, surrogacy costs in the U.S. range from110,000 to 170,000 dollars. Understandably (if you can understand the concept of renting another person’s uterus,) couples go searching for a better deal. Surrogacy services have been legal in Ukraine since 2002, and the cost is reportedly between 30,000 and 40,000 U.S. dollars “for the complete package.” It’s easy to see, with that price difference, why business is thriving. Couples from all over the world turn to Ukraine to fulfill their dreams of having a family.
Basements full of babies
But first there was Covid. And now there’s a full-blown war. So there are basement bomb shelters full of babies in Ukraine. Judging from the photos some newspapers are running with the current articles about babies stuck there because of the fighting, there are lots and lots of babies. From the look of things, with some babies holding up their heads and looking around, legs dangling to the nannies’ waists, these babies were born long before the first shell dropped–probably months ago while travel was restricted due to Covid. And as if things aren’t horrific enough, there’s been worry about another wave of Covid due to crowded conditions in shelters and from the massive crowds crammed together in the exodus. It’s an unthinkable situation.
The complications of surrogacy
Like adoption, surrogacy is fraught with complications. At its heart the ethics, I think, are questionable. If you want a bit of a lengthy read, there’s this Supreme Court brief from 2018 . Having been guided on my own journey as a birthmother by Concerned United Birthparents, it’s worth noting that much of what’s in the brief was guided by CUB’s position paper on surrogacy.
For the past two weeks I’ve seen the images on TV of Ukrainians fleeing their country. People in their beautiful winter coats, their thick hats and matching scarves, the furry boots. The children bundled and looking quite cozy despite the frigid temperatures. I have no way of knowing if there were surrogate mothers in the crowd, but I’m thinking maybe not. Maybe they’re like the surrogate mother in the California story. She has two other children and a husband who’s fighting in the war. Their house is old and the basement “is closed off because it needs repair.” It doesn’t sound like she’ll be going anywhere.
The economics of surrogacy
Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Surrogacy is big business because women need the money. Of course, their cut of the 30 to 40 grand is around 15,000 dollars, and the agency, of course, gets its piece. Economics and ethics get wound into a tangle with surrogacy, just like in adoption.
The surrogate child
Certainly, there will be no uniform point of view from the Ukrainian children who emerge from the basements into family life– just as there is no uniform point of view from adoptees about their own past trauma. But now, with the delays due to Covid and this terrible war, it is certain that harm is being done.