We weep. Tear our hair. Exclaim to the heavens about the un-American practice of separating children and parents at the border. But we are all amnesiacs, sleep-walking through the history of a county that has never lived up to its ideal of greatness.Throughout history we have ripped children from their parents. In Jelani Cobb’s e sharp-eyed comment on Juneteenth, he sites slavery and the horrors of torn apart Native American families, performed in the name of the greater good, as well as the deficiencies of our social services system..
Adoption is another way of tearing families apart. Take a look at Georgia Tann, a well-known adoption villain. But also let’s point our gaze toward adoption “heroine” Edna Gladney. Peer below the surface there and find more hearts destroyed. More families torn apart in the name of greater good.
Separating children from parents is what we do in this country. It’s what we’ve always done. If you’re too brown, too black, too young, too poor, too foreign, someone will be happy to judge you as unfit to parent your child. What’s new is that now our president and his cronies are actively orchestrating the new version of this terror.
As the policy of separating families at the border is mitigated (supposedly), I predict that some of those children will never find their way back into the arms of their parents.
There were six Hart children, all adopted from foster care. 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.
Children end up in foster care after a clusterfuck of 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.” Taking it hard. Can you imagine?
Adoption practices ignore research
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.
The toughest truths
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 oftenmiddle 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.
But 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. 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 there will be whispered conversations. Later people tell me their stories. Or maybe not the story at all. Maybe 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. 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 birthmother loved him and has missed him every day of her life.
As is often the case, I’m a little late to the party. I just finished watching the last episode of the Hulu version of Margaret Atwood’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale. It pretty much killed me. Ever since I began watching I would frequently google, “Is Margaret Atwood a birthmother?” When that didn’t bring up much, I’d change tactics and google, “Is Margaret Atwood an adoptive mother?” With still no luck I tried, “Is Margaret Atwood adopted?”
Okay. I gave up. But somehow Margaret Atwood nailed what it was like to be a birthmother in the Baby Scoop Era. Secrecy reigned in the adoption industry then. Hell, secrecy still reigns in many ways. Anyway, Atwood’s fictional vision and the real life Baby Scoop are quite similar. Young fertile unmarried women were coerced into giving up their babies to those society deemed more worthy under the burgeoning theocracy known as the United States of America.
In the last episode of season 1 Jeannine is about to be stoned by her sister handmaids for the crime of endangering a child. She took her baby from its adoptive parents and nearly succeeding in hurling both herself and the baby off a bridge. In an act of civil disobedience not one of the handmaids will hurl the first stone. This communal act is what made me weep.
There was very little support for birthmothers in 1970 when I had my son. I labored and delivered alone. And after signing the papers, there was no mourning. The entire experience was a deep dark secret. End of story. For two decades, anyway. After watching that last episode, there’s now a scene In my head in an adoption agency with a contingent of birthmothers, and no one will pick up the pen.
Ms. Atwood pays homage to the women whose reproductive rights were abused under Nicolae Ceausescu and Hitler, and she mentions the 500 babies in Argentina who were disappeared, and the indigenous babies of both Australia and Canada, but there’s not a word about the women and babies from the Baby Scoop Era. According to the Adoption History Project from the University of Oregon, the Baby Scoop Era in the United States pertains to the period between 1945 and 1973. It is estimated that up to 4 million mothers in the United States had children placed for adoption during that time. Four million handmaids.
Probably you’ve at least heard of it–“The Handmaid’s Tale.” It seems like everyone is talking about the Hulu series set in the dystopian future. 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 during the Baby Scoop Era 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 gently guides guides the birthmother’s 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.
Reality was worse
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.
My essay about reunion has been published in “The Beacon,” the newsletter of the American Adoption Congress. Reunion, as we know, is a really big deal. Probably everyone involved in adopted has some fear about it. And of course after you reunite with your son or daughter, you might also meet their adoptive parents. The meetings and introductions might go on and on. Aunts, uncles, grandparents siblings. It’s a tsunami of emotion. I was super nervous about all of it. The title of the essay is “How the World Didn’t End and Nobody Died.” Here’s the link.
The target audience for the AAC is mostly adoptees, I think. And some birthparents too.
But I wrote this essay about reunion with adoptive parents in mind. I would especially like adoptive parents to know that reunion can go well. And that their pre-conceived notions of what birthmothers are like might not be true. So if you know some adoptive parents, maybe pass it on.
Senior Citizen Birthmother might seem like a contradiction in terms, but as the linked article points out, women who lost children during the Baby Scoop Era from 1945-1975 are now senior citizens.
I am senior citizen. I am a birthmother. And a grandmother. But, unlike the women most likely to attend this meeting, I am a birthmother who is reunited with her child. I imagine this meeting will probably draw mostly birthmothers (and maybe some birthfathers) who are not reunited.
Senior Citizen Birthmother! Imagine it. You lost your child 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 (!) years ago. You are still carrying this grief. Dragging the long tail of it with you decade after decade. You are lost. Lost to this baby that hasn’t been a baby for decades. And that “baby” is lost to you.
Keeping that in mind, I think this is a good perspective from which to frame a question about adoption. Let’s ask young women who are considering relinquishing children this question. Forty years from now, do you think you will still long for your child? How about in 50 years? In 60 years? 70? And how do you imagine this might impact your life?
Many years ago I relinquished my baby for adoption. This news story brought my choices (or lack of them) to mind.
A secret pregnancy in a Catholic town
It was 1970. I’d recently graduated from a Catholic high school in my home town–a town so Catholic there was no public high school or public grade school there. Underneath my cap and gown was a well kept secret. So well kept that no one knew that I was pregnant until later that summer–six weeks before the baby was born. I confided in my mother. We told my father and my boyfriend (the father of the baby) and not another soul.
I was fairly certain than I was damned. Yet when it came time to sign the adoption papers, I specified that I wanted my son to be adopted by a Catholic family.
A year or so afterwards I viewed my wishes for a Catholic boyhood for my son as evidence of a sort of Stockholm syndrome. I was a captive of Catholicism, hobbled by the constrained morality of my town and my church. So hobbled that I could not endure the shame and scandal of raising my son myself. Yet I handed him over to be indoctrinated with the same narrow-mindedness.
While it’s true that my son was adopted into a good and loving home, religion is no guarantee of that. And while there’s a bit more leeway in the Catholic Church these days, it seems that there won’t be enough for the mother of the child in the article linked to above. If she is identified, she will be lucky not to be charged with a crime. A church is not considered a safe place to leave an infant, according to the Minnesota Safe Haven Law. And thus, the woman has committed a crime.
What do we wish (pray) for?
Certainly I have the same wish that most readers of the story will have. I wish for the baby to be loved, to be safe, to be given the opportunities in life that everyone deserves. But I also think of the woman who felt so trapped by her circumstances, that she (or someone she had implored to help her) had to climb the Cathedral steps that winter night with the almost insurmountable task of leaving that baby behind. Picture that.
I also wish that the priest had spoken up for the mother. That he’d beseeched those hearing of the story to put themselves in the mother’s shoes. That he’d discussed how the Church has failed women and children like these over the decades. And how about pointing out that the Church has wrongly encouraged the throwing of stones at women in circumstances like hers. I wish he’d put out a plea for the mother to contact him. And when she did, he’d offered her support to help her raise her son.
“Meet your great-granddaughter,” my daughter-in-law said, gesturing lackadaisically toward the plastic doll in the infant seat on the couch. My 15-year–old granddaughter stood nearby, grinning sheepishly. She held her arm aloft, displaying the bracelet that must be swiped across a chip in the doll’s chest to prove that its needs have been met. “Talia” cries when she’s hungry, needs to be changed, or wants comforting. My granddaughter’s mothering skills will be rated. Her high school puts its trust in this robot, touted as a deterrent to teen pregnancy.
I had my doubts from the get-go.
Doesn’t everyone already know that babies are a lot of work?
I loved my dolls when I was a girl. I even wrapped our cat’s kittens in baby blankets, and pretended my brothers were my own babies. The Besty-Wetsy doll that was my favorite still lies in a cabinet, her soft arms and legs atrophied from age. Everyone in a Catholic community prior to birth control knew that babies were work. When I got pregnant as a 16-year-old, it wasn’t because I was ignorant of the care required of a baby. I got pregnant because I was ignorant about sex. I was ignorant about standing up for myself and what I wanted or didn’t want. No one talked about sex, or desire, or birth control. Or a girl having agency in any of those things.
In the 1960s in a town of 3000 Catholics where public schools did not exist, one’s expectations for honest and open discourse about sex were non-existent. I think the bar should be higher now. A lot higher. Birth control is readily available. Tens of thousands of women my age have lost babies to adoption. Mothers these days have sought to raise our children in a more open environment. We now have decades of data and experience to inform us on the subject of teen pregnancy. Four million babies were were adopted during the Baby Scoop. The girls and young women that gave birth to those babies didn’t know what they needed to know.
Sex education is the best teen pregnancy deterrent
As it turns out, my feelings about Talia the robot and the job she’s purportedly performing have been validated by a recent study, published in the medical journal, Lancet. That research has subsequently reported just about everywhere. Newsweek, citing Lancet, reports, “Over 1,000 girls aged between 13 to 15 years old across 57 schools in Western Australia who took part in the scheme were two times more likely to get pregnant by the age of 20 than those who attended standard sex education classes, Australian scientists found.” The kicker: Teen pregnancy rates are even higher in the U.S. than in Australia.
The good news is that teen birth rates are dropping. The rate in the U.S. is at a record low. The Pew Research Center reports that the reason is “Less sex, use of more effective contraception and more information about pregnancy prevention. Furthermore, among never-married teens who have had sex, 79% of girls and 84% of boys used a contraceptive method the first time they had sex.” Holy moly is what I say to that. That never could have happened in my 1970 Catholic life. In my mind, this is the heart of the matter. Education. Contraception. Preparation. Honest talk instead of noise from a robot.
I have an essay here. While there’s only one National Adoption Month each year, the topic never goes away and I always have something more to say. As a birthmother (and a grandmother,) I often feel that respectability and understanding are beyond my reach. People have strong opinions about adoption, strong impressions of what/who they think a birthmother is. Birthmothers and adoptive parents take sides and stand sharply opposed to one another much like we do in the arena of national politics. It’s hard to hold hands and sing kumbaya. Villains are real. Bad things happen. People do things for personal gain without considering the bigger picture. But every story is more complicated than we usually imagine. I respect Carrie Goldman’s efforts to share many points of view during National Adoption Month 2016 in her series 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days on the ChicagoNow website.