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Why I write about adoption

It can be awkward, this birthmother/ first mother thing. The other night I attended a birthday party, and chatted with a couple I hadn’t yet met here in my rather large condo building.  They passed their 4-month-old back and forth between them as we were introduced. I knew from our building’s private Facebook group that the baby had come into their lives unexpectedly. This little boy, with the face of a wise old man, had surprised his bio parents too. His mother denied her pregnancy until she was rushed to the ER, and the father was even more surprised. 

Denise is a writer, someone said as they introduced me. “What do you write about?” the baby’s mother asked.

“Adoption,” I said, trying not to pull any punches, as I gestured toward the baby.

They might have flinched a little. I might have mumbled a half-hearted qualifier. But then I told them my story, and they told me theirs. “There won’t be any secrets,” the dad said. “He’s going to know the whole story.”

“He’s going to know everything,” the mother said.

“It was so different back in the day,” we said simultaneously, meaning the Baby Scoop Era. “Secrets,” we muttered. “Lies.”

And then neither of them said what I dread most. You were so generous to give up your baby.  No one gives up a baby out of generosity. Here, have mine, says absolutely no one. Really, take him. I insist. C’mon, you know you want him. The most wonderful, kind, intelligent people utter this generosity line. They say it because they don’t know what to say. They say it because they want to be kind. They say it because they know that saying, “How could you do that?” is the wrong thing to say, and they are desperately searching for the right thing to say.

I have so many thoughts about adoption. So many thoughts about what we could say. Thoughts about how we could change things. Here’s a short story (fiction) that I published on Medium.

And here’s an essay (a true story) about giving up my son, also on Medium.

National Adoption Awareness Month is two-thirds over. I’m going to keep posting on Medium until I turn the calendar page. I’ll take a break then, but I’ll be back. Follow this blog. Or follow me on Twitter @demanuelclemen

Bridges

How do you find your way back after believing a lie?

I have a brand new short story here https://medium.com/@demanuelclemen/bridges-232ff31f08f7?source=friends_link&sk=f723d7e29075c8f8defb2b4f6c3a7c2b

And speaking of lies, here’s a shocking piece about adoption from the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/11/08/world/asia/ap-as-south-korea-horror-home-adoptions.html

Secrets

I’m finished with secrets and have been for some time. This November (National Adoption Awareness Month or NAAM, for short) I made a promise to myself to write about my experience with adoption. I’ve been posting pieces on Medium. Here’s another one: https://medium.com/@demanuelclemen/top-secret-my-sons-name-2189f230b6b6?source=friends_link&sk=88543939d1a03e10c52b9c751bcf2f77

Dystopia’s Child

The story in the link below was originally published in LUMINA vol. XVIII, and yesterday I republished it on Medium.com because November is National Adoption Awareness Month.

https://medium.com/@demanuelclemen/dystopias-child-751610605e63

We are all living in the world of adoption

I haven’t blogged here for a long time. Consider the previous post the post that could have been repeated every day all this while. Children and parents are being separated. Many of them will never be reunited.

This weekend I’m at a small writers’ retreat. There are five participants, not counting our retreat facilitator. Around the fire next to the lake over our first glass of wine, we discovered that our group includes a birth mother, an adoptee, an adoptive parent, and a grandmother of a newly adopted infant. Ten years ago I would have probably alienated myself from everyone. It’s not that I feel any differently about adoption in general. It’s not that I feel any less pain about my own experience. I guess what’s different is that I’m more able to listen to the experiences of others and take in their feelings. I’m hoping I’ll leave with friends.

The Truth about Separating Parents and Children

 

from Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis

We weep. Tear our hair. Exclaim to the heavens about the un-American practice of ripping children and parents apart 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. 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..

Let’s add Georgia Tann, a well-known adoption villain–but let’s steady our gaze toward adoption “heroine” Edna Gladney. Peer below the surface there and find more hearts destroyed.

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), do you think some of those children will never find their way back into the arms of their parents?

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.

The Handmaid’s Tale: I lived to tell about it

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, and it pretty much killed me. Ever since I began watching (whenever that was), every so often I would 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 give up. But somehow Margaret Atwood nailed what it was like to be a birthmother in the Baby Scoop Era when secrecy reigned in the adoption industry (hell, secrecy still reigns in many ways) and 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, after taking 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.

And there’s this: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/watching/the-handmaids-tale-tv-finale-margaret-atwood.html?mcubz=1

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.

 

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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.

 

Senior Citizen Birthmother

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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. But I am a birthmother, reunited with her child.

I imagine this meeting will probably draw mostly birthmothers (and maybe some birthfathers) who are not reunited.

Senior Citizen Birthmother!  At this weird intersection of respect and disdain, is a parking lot paved with grief. Imagine it. You gave your child up for adoption 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 (!) years ago, and all these years later you are stalled. Still carrying this grief. Lost. Lost to this baby that hasn’t been a baby for decades, and that “baby” is lost to you.

I think this is a new perspective from which to frame the question for young women who are considering relinquishing children today. Forty years from now, do you think you will still long for your child? How about in 50 years? In 60 years? 70? How do you imagine this might impact your life?