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.
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?
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.
Let’s start HERE. (It’s a WikiHow, and it’ll take less than a minute of your time.)
If you’re an adoptee, you might be rolling on the floor either laughing or crying right now. If you’re a birthmother and you’re trying to obtain the birth certificate for the child you gave birth to and surrendered, these instructions are similarly ridiculous. It is not possible to obtain the original birth certificate (unless you live in one of the handful of states that have unsealed adoption records.) Let me reiterate: Even if you are an adult, an American, a law abiding citizen with medical cause, or any other pressing reason for wanting to contact your birth family, you cannot, as an adoptee in most U.S. States, get your hands on your original birth certificate. Period. Original birth certificates are sealed. The only birth certificate available to you is the amended one, containing your new name and the name of the adoptive parents. A fiction.
This issue is debated regularly in state legislatures. Birthmothers are always mentioned in these debates over unsealing birth certificates. We’re held up as the reason it can’t be done. We were promised confidentiality, they say, and they can’t betray us.
I have absolutely nothing–not a contract, nor a certificate, nor a letter– not a piece of paper of any kind promising me confidentiality or even recording the fact that the adoption of my son took place.
At my intake appointment with the agency my mother took me to in June of 1970, it was explained to me that I would be hidden away for the duration of my pregnancy so my secret would be safe. It was also explained to me that my name would have to appear on the baby’s birth certificate, but that I did not have to name the baby’s father ( and I didn’t.) His name did not have to be recorded, but my full name as well as the baby’s, in the rudimentary form of Baby Boy My Last Name, most certainly had to appear in black and white on the birth certificate. Not a promise of confidentiality at all.
I am far from the first birthparent to bring this up, but it bears repeating because the same confidentiality argument is brought up over and over again. In 2006 The DONALDSON ADOPTION INSTITUTE issued a report on the flawed practices in the adoption industry regarding birthparents. The issue of confidentiality was addressed, yet state legislatures continue to cite the distress of of some mythical band of birthmothers over the breaching of their confidentiality. If I were still searching for my son, confidentiality is the last thing I’d want, and dozens of sources, in addition to the Donaldson Report, support this point of view. Yet, the myth persists. So, dear state legislators and your confidentiality cronies, stop telling us birthmothers what we want.
The baby would be adopted as swiftly as possible. “A respectable German couple, unable to have their own child,” Adelaide said. Sylvie tried to imagine giving away a child. (“And will we never hear of it again?” she puzzled. “I certainly hope not,” Adelaide said.) Izzie was now packed off to a finishing school in Switzerland, even though it seemed she was already finished, in more ways than one.
–from “Life After Life ” a novel by Kate Atkinson
Izzie, the shamed pregnant girl, in Atkinson’s book seems to be a minor character in the beginning. She’s the sister-in-law of Sylvie. I’m a quarter of the way through the book, and now Izzie has reappeared, years later. I can’t wait to see how she is. Will people speak of the baby and her past? Will she? Is Adelaide, Izzie’s mother still alive and has her attitude changed? Will we meet the lost baby? I always read from the birth mother’s perspective. It’s impossible not to.
In my own story, with my own parents, the baby was never mentioned again. When I couldn’t stand the silence or living my big lie or the unacknowledged grief any longer, I called my mother and told her I was going to search for my son. “You’re going to get hurt,” she said.
“I’m already hurt,” I said.
I searched. I found him. So many things have happened since then. My mom lives with me now. She’s still talking about how much she enjoyed “that little girl” who came to stay for a week this summer. My son’s daughter. To think we might never have known her.
The news has been making the rounds in publications large and small. For me, it was a *smacks self in forehead* moment. When I was trying to finish high school in the spring of 1970 while keeping my secret pregnancy, uh…welll…secret. The last thing I could imagine was somehow keeping my baby and going off to college. Adoptive parents have also been found to have higher incomes. Another forehead smack.
Of course the intent of this report is not to surprise us. It’s to gather data. If you’d like to read more adoption stats, you can see the full report here.
Mostly, I think of the personal angle rather than the statistics when I see headlines like the one above. I think of a woman reading the paper over her morning coffee. A woman who gave away a child, believing that someone else could provide a better life. I think of the ache she might have in the pit of her stomach or the pull in her heart.