Tag Archives: adoption

Identity. Who am I, really?

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“The Importance of Being Earnest” is, at it’s heart, a play about identity. I saw a production of it Saturday that was a perfect confection. The play is a classic, written by Oscar Wilde and first staged in London in 1895. Chock full of wit and humor, it mocks social conventions AND though the word is never uttered, it’s also a play about adoption.

The plot is immensely complicated with one farcical turn after another, but suffice it to say that the play’s main character, Ernest (a.k.a. Jack Worthing,) lives a double life and uses his obligations to a fictitious younger brother as an excuse to avoid certain social obligations. As the play opens, his best friend, Algernon, good-naturedly traps him in his lies and things begin to unravel most comically.

Ernest, who is known as Jack (his actual name) while at his house in the country where he maintains his ward Cecily and her governess Miss Prism, frequently excuses himself to travel to London ostensibly  to rescue the fictitious brother he calls Ernest (keep in mind that he himself is known as Ernest to those who keep company with him in the city.)  Cecily has a mad crush on the fictitious brother Ernest and longs to meet him. She gets her wish when Algernon, in his plot to unravel Jack’s lies, shows up at the country house impersonating Ernest–whom Jack has, moments before in an effort to simplify his life, announced as having suddenly died while in Paris.

Algernon and Cecily fall in love. Jack gets a visit from Gwendolyn, the London girl to whom he’s engaged, (remember she knows him as Ernest–oh, and she finds the name Ernest irresistibly attractive.) And in the ongoing investigation of Jack’s suitability as a husband, Gwendolyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell, (who is also Algernon’s aunt) prods Jack into revealing that he was a foundling, his parents unknown to him, thereby jeopardizing his standing in London society.

A few twists later we learn that it was Miss Prism who accidentally left Jack, as an infant, in a large handbag in a train station when she was in the employ of Lady Bracknell’s sister…..Are you ready for it? Yes indeed, the friends, Jack and Algernon, are really brothers. And when Jack investigates further to find out what his original name was before he was re-christened after he was taken in by a benefactor….you guessed it….Ernest.

Most adoption/reunion stories I’ve heard are full of amazing co-incidences. They’re just not as funny. You need somebody like Oscar Wilde, I guess, to pull that off.

I love “The Importance of Being Earnest” and I’ve seen it at least a half-dozen different times over the last few decades. I love how the audience always gasps when Jack finds out who he really is and what his original name was. Every time, I think about all those strangers I’m sitting with in the dark. How many of them are adopted, how many might have brothers or sisters they don’t know, how many would give anything to know the name they were given at birth. And how, in real life, that’s not funny at all.

Crowd Funding for Adoption

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This being National Adoption Month, the topic of crowd funding for adoption has popped up here and there and everywhere.

I went to Catholic grade school in the 60s. It was customary to forego one’s morning carton of milk that, I believe, cost two or three cents and instead give over your pennies to the pagan baby fund. When we had raised the required amount of money, Sister would announce that the class had enough money to “adopt” a baby from Africa. These babies were not really removed from their families, but were baptized and given Christian names. We children voted on the names after several nominations were placed on the blackboard. After a show of hands, Sister would count up the hash marks next to each name. Some weeks later a certificate with the baby’s new Christian name would arrive and  be proudly displayed in our classroom. I have no idea if the children were really called Christine Mary, or David John, or whatever it was that we chose. I don’t know if the money was an honorarium for the missionary priest who did the honors–or if maybe the money was used to bestow gifts on the child’s family as an incentive for converting to Catholicism, or if it bought fancy white baptismal gowns.

This practice seemed unbelievable when I recalled it years later as a grown-up former Catholic. It felt archaic and colonial, full of presumption and perhaps even harm. Crowd funding for foreign infant adoption makes the pagan baby racket feel like child’s play.

 

 

Adoptees and Their Medical History

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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?

 

Adoption. It’s Huge.

 

imagesI’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.

Adoption and Multi-Generational Loss

20130820193044I became a grandmother 13 years ago last week. But here’s the thing. It’s quite likely that I might never have known that I was a grandmother. All three of my grandchildren are my son’s kids, and I relinquished him for adoption as a newborn. Without reunion, I would not know that they exist. My daughters would not be aunts. The great-grandchildren count for my mom would be halved. Adoption is a very large stone dropped into the pond of life, and the ripples just keep expanding.

Reunion always focuses on the reunion between the birthmother and adoptee. While it may be the central loss, it’s not the only loss. And the loss keeps expanding with each future generation.

I often wonder what my life would be like, had I not met my son. Less than it is right now is the rosiest answer that I can come up with.

On Reading the Piece in the New Yorker on the Death of Poet Edward Hirsch’s Son

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The article in the August 4th issue, “Finding the Words” begins:

            In October, 1988, my friends Janet Landy and Edward Hirsch flew to New Orleans to adopt a boy who was six days old. He was collected from the hospital  by their lawyer, who brought him to the house where they were staying. Waiting for her, they stood in the street in front of the house. For several days, they worried that the mother, overcome by love or by guilt might want the child             back, but she didn’t.

             Later in the piece we learn, “Hirsch had a cousin who was a lawyer in New Orleans, who put him in touch with the woman at his firm who sometimes handled adoptions. In August, 1988….the lawyer called and said that a young woman had approached a colleague.” This is all we are given regarding Gabriel’s birth and his birth mother, fitting perhaps since the story is about Hirsch’s grief and the book-length elegy the grew out of his suffering over the death of his son. But from my perspective as a birth mother, even as I followed the trajectory of Gabriel’s life and of Hirsch’s profound sorrow over the loss of him, a piece of my heart lay lodged in that first paragraph with the woman who had given up her son.

Hirsch describes a section of the work as being extremely important to him:

            I did not know the work of mourning

            Is like carrying a bag of cement

           Up a mountain at night            

                       

           The mountaintop is not in sight

            Because there is no mountaintop

            Poor Sisyphus grief

 

            I did not know I would struggle

            Through a ragged underbrush

            without an upward path

            And continues:

            Look closely and you will see

            Almost everyone carrying bags

            Of cement on their shoulders

          Hirsch’s recognition that never ending grief over the loss of a loved one is a common experience connects the reader with an abiding truth, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever thought of the woman who might still imagine her son walking the earth, whole and healthy. She (and the rest of Gabriel’s birth family) has suffered a loss more terrible than his relinquishment, only she doesn’t know it.

I do not mean to say that Hirsch’s grief is any less because his son was adopted. I don’t mean that at all. I just can’t help imagining a mother thinking daily of the boy she gave away, and how, now that he has rounded the corner of official adulthood, it might be a good time to search for him. Perhaps, even though she did not merit a mention in the New Yorker story, Hirsch does give her a nod somewhere in the elegy. I hope so. She has been carrying her bag of cement since Gabriel was six days old.

 

 

 

 

How the Search for My Son Began

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I never let go of the idea that I would someday find my son, but I had absolutely no idea how I would do it. At first I imagined myself as Nancy Drew, the girl detective who would sleuth and sleuth and finally break the case. There was very little reality to this scenario since the adoption records were sealed, and I didn’t have a single clue. Some years later I imagined that serendipity or coincidence would allow us to meet. In a way, that’s what happened.

I made friends with a mother of two little girls who were about the same age as my own daughters. One day at a park playgroup when the two of us were sitting away from the rest of the mothers, she told me she had gotten pregnant as a teenager and had given that baby up for adoption. I stammered my way through my own confession. She told me she was going to search for her daughter and invited me to a Concerned United Birthparents support group meeting. At one of those meetings, I met a woman who told me that, through a series of connections, she might be able to make arrangements with someone who could find my son. To this day I have no idea who this mysterious connection was. But he/she found my son two decades after I’d given him up.

I met a woman two thousand miles from where I’d relinquished my son. She happened to be a birth mother, and the two of us happened to connect on that day in the park. She took me to a meeting where I met someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. And that someone found my son.

Birth mothers in fiction: “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

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.

 

Adopted Children More Likely to Live in Highly Educated Home, Census Bureau Reports

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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.