Birthmother shame and postpartum depression are closely related, I believe. My essay, “My Face in the Darkness” explores the link. This essay will be included in a new anthology called Mothering Through the Darkness.
Somewhere in the timeframe of writing and submitting the essay, I came upon this survey. So I took the survey, realizing anew how completely abysmal my first experience of childbirth was. Mind you, my son was born in 1970, and there has been a fair amount of reform since then, but the survey questions did not evoke a single memory of support or compassion. Every interaction with the nurses and doctors in the hospital before, during, and after my son’s birth was tainted with shaming and judgement. I know that this story is not an unusual one among birthmothers
Women, girls, and shame
Women and girls are subjected to a lot of shaming in our society. Our bodies and our clothing choices are shamed, as are other aspects of our appearance. Everything we do is held up to scrutiny in a way that seems bound to our gender. As a mother of two daughters and grandmother to two granddaughters, I think about shame in the context of their lives. You can read more about shame HERE. Or watch THIS. I’m looking forward to reading the other essays in “Mothering Through the Darkness.” I wouldn’t be surprised if, in some way, shame figures into each and every story.
I binge-watched the first season of Downton Abbey after coming down with a horrible flu. I’d heard about it ad nauseum, and finally succumbed while feeling a bit nauseated myself. The show hooked me, and I avidly watched the next couple of seasons until I grew weary of the problems of the English upper class. This year, well, here I am, grieving the loss of the man who loved me. Why not sit on the couch for an hour and escape? And then Lady Edith gets unexpectedly gets pregnant and gives birth to her secret child.
How Lady Edith and I are alike
Edith and me, we have things in common. Edith got pregnant after her first (so it seems) tryst with her boyfriend Michael. The same thing happened to me with my high school boyfriend. She had to keep her pregnancy secret and went away with her aunt as her confidant. (Somehow Granny finds out, but I missed that part.) In my case, only my parents and boyfriend knew, and I went away to live with a foster family in the Iowa countryside. My siblings were in the dark just like Edith’s.
Secrets and shame
Shame and ruination figured mightily in English society in 1924, just as it did in my small Catholic town in Iowa in1970. Edith manages to keep her secret, as did I, and returns home with her reputation in tact. Life goes on, right? Well, no. Sadness overtakes everything. My son was adopted by stranger in a closed records adoption. And though Edith can see her little girl occasionally since she’s been a adopted by a couple who work on Downton Abbey’s farm, she’s beset with grief. Giving one’s child away to someone else whether they are known or not, close or far, is impossible to bear.
An elaborate plan
Edith concocts an elaborate plan to be her daughter Marigold’s special guardian and bring her to the Abbey to be with the other grandchildren in the household. And then she runs away to London with her. At the 11th hour before I signed the papers relinquishing my son, I concocted my own plan to adopt my son.
I asked for a special meeting with my social worker. One evening after supper, with a thunderstorm brewing, he drove out to the farm where I was staying with a foster family. My boyfriend comes to the meeting too, and the three of us sit at the kitchen table while I tell them my latest plan. “I want to keep the baby with a foster family instead of doing a permanent adoption,” I say. “I’m staying with a foster family, and I get to go home in a week or so. The baby can do the same thing; it’ll just take longer. We’ll go to college at the end of August, just like we planned,” I say, looking at my boyfriend. “We’ll get engaged at Christmas and get married next summer.” I’m thinking we’ll be ready to be parents when we’re just a little older. “Then we’ll tell everyone that we can’t have our own kids,” I say, feeling my idea is pretty smart, “and we want to adopt.”
None of that worked out.
I hope Edith makes it work. That she keeps her little girl as her own.
And I’m not the only birthmother breathlessly praying for Edith and Marigold. There are probably thousands of us. Here’s one.
You might also want to read this. Tarikuwa Lemma is as eloquent as a poet about her own adoption.
Every adoption begins with loss.
Crowd-funding for adoption
And as if a National Adoption Month and a National Adoption Day are not enough, there’s now the 4 million bucks that a pastor recently crowd funded to establish International Adoption Day. Here’s a quote from the article in Forbes just in case you’re too busy eating your Happy Adoption Day cake to read the whole thing: “The main obstacle to adopting a newborn child is the cost.”
Checking out their website, I’m willing to concede that maybe these folks aren’t dealing exclusively in newborns from foreign countries… but the pastor did say newborn. Newborns, by the way, have never been the focus of National Adoption Month. According to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, there are currently over 100,000 children in foster care who cannot be reunited with their original families. National Adoption Month was created for them. This four million dollar funding effort is not connecting families with those kids. Adoption from foreign countries is a thicket of concerns, even when older children are being placed. The loss that initiates every adoption is compounded in international adoption.
Every adoption begins with loss
So while you’re toasting to your happy family,I’d like a pause–a deep breath, a nano second of silence in which the happy consider the gravity of loss in adoption. Every adoption begins with loss. That loss is like a stone dropped into a pond. It ripples out, and out, and out. Baby loses mother. Mother loses baby. Grandparents lose baby. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Sisters. Brothers. On and and on.
When is adoption truly necessary?
I want you to know that I believe some adoptions are good and necessary. BUT family preservation should be the number #1 goal. That said, I question the North American Council on Adopted Children’s statement above. Are there really 100,000 children who cannot be placed with family members? Rephrasing the quote from the pastor in the Forbes article, the main obstacle to family preservation is the cost. Crowd fund that.
Now party on. Festoon your house with balloons. I’m going to change my brightly colored clothes and find something black.
What if I’d taken that path instead of the other? Kate Atkinson’s novel “Life After Life” is a grown-up choose-your-own-adventure book. Atkinson takes the story down one path, then backs up to the fork in the road and chooses another. Ursula, the main character dies at birth, strangled by her umbilical cord. But a few pages later the story re-boots and Ursula lives. Thus, the forward and backward motion of the story gives us a variety of possible outcomes for many of the characters. And what happens to each of them in the different versions of their stories changes the trajectory of the other characters’ lives as well.
Birthmothers ask, “What if…?”
Izzie, a birthmother, enters the narrative like THIS. But in another version of the plot Sylvie, Izzie’s mother, raises the baby. In yet another, the baby is adopted, and Izzie lives a life designed to cover her pain and regret. And other possibilities are played out too.
The structure of this novel is unique, and the exploration of outcomes as they turn on life’s lynchpin moments is powerful and poignant. “What if?” the reader is forced to ask over and over again. As I read this book, I asked that question about my own life too. For me, and maybe for other birthmothers who went on to have other children with someone different from the relinquished child’s father this feels like a Sophie’s Choice. If I’d kept my son, it’s unlikely that I’d met the man who became the father of my daughters. It’s complicated–just like Atkinson’s novel. But, what birthmother hasn’t asked, “What if….?” And adoptees ask the question too. This essay from the Los Angeles Times tackles the question from an adoptee’s point of view.
From the beginning I knew I would search for my son. I never let go of the idea that I would find him, 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 how the search for my son began.
Two young mothers
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, with tears in her eyes, that she had gotten pregnant as a teenager. But she had given that baby up for adoption. I stammered my way through my own confession about giving up my son. 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 she had some 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.
A series of coincidences
I made a new friend two thousand miles from where I’d relinquished my son. She happened to be a birthmother, 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.
I recently I read this. It has to do with the birth certificates of children of same-sex couples. The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that both parents in a married same-sex couple must be on a child’s birth certificate.In the past, Iowa’s Department of Public Health has insisted on listing a biological parent on these birth certificates. The court now says that practice is unconstitutional.
I have some personal experience with Iowa’s bureaucracy regarding birth certificates. In 1990 I began to search for the son I had placed for adoption 20 years earlier. I wrote several letters to the Iowa Department of Human services, asking them to provide me with the original birth certificate for my son.I knew this birth certificate would provide no identifying information that would aid in my search for him. However, I viewed it as an empowerment exercise. My son had been taken from me. And they erased the evidence. I wanted someone to acknowledge the wrong. And the erasure of it.
Silenced for two decades by shame, I came out of my closet after the birth of my third child. I wanted the state of Iowa, at the very least, to acknowledge that the birth of my son had taken place. I had my daughters’ birth certificates. And now I wanted my son’s. My name was on it. A legal document. Wasn’t I entitled to it?
The interesting thing here–the thing that relates to the court decision above— is that my son’s biological father’s name did not appear on the birth certificate. The social worker advised me not to name the father of my baby—to protect his reputation. My name, however, would most definitely be on the birth certificate. And so, there you have it. A birth certificate without the names of both parents.
Birth certificate identity crisis
What is a birth certificate exactly? Is it a certificate of ownership? Is it a legal record of birth? A documentation of parentage? What kind of parentage? How many birth certificates can a person have? Can the people whose names are on it have a copy of it?
I did not succeed in obtaining a copy of my son’s original birth certificate even though it has my name on it. Even with the intercession of my doctor and a verifiable need to pass on medical information to my son, the only response from the Iowa Department of Human Services was that “there were no records pertaining to my inquiries.”
And what about these children of same-sex couples? What are their rights regarding knowledge of their biological parentage?
And….there is this: Effective July 1, 1999, Iowa law enables adoptees, their “birth parents,” and their blood-related brothers and sisters to find each other if the birth is registered with the State of Iowa. The “Mutual Consent Voluntary Adoption Registry” was established in order to match those persons requesting that their identity be revealed to registrants “matching” information concerning an adult adoptee. All information provided to the registry is confidential and revealed only in the event that an appropriate match is made and the parties have been notified of the match. A $25 fee in U.S. funds and a certified copy of the applicant’s (?!) birth certificate must be submitted with each consent application. I’m trusting the instructions are a bit oversimplified. Because surely they don’t expect birthparents to supply a birth certificate. We know that’s impossible.
I haven’t posted for ages, and maybe that’s because I’ve been trying to get comfortable in this hat again. My special adoption dunce hat.
In my previous post I exclaimed that I wished I was young enough to adopt a Haitian orphan. That was ridiculously naive. And I’m probably drinking way too much wine. It’s a post divorce thing. Commenters pointed out the foreign adoption scam angle. And 24 hours later the news story broke about the kidnapping of the Haitian children under the guise of adoption. Since then there have been other unsavory stories in the news about foreign adoptions.
I want to believe that if there are children (orphans) who need adopting, that there are decent people who will love them. I want to believe that because I am a birthmother. Unfortunately, in many, many cases the adopters are unscrupulous, and the children are victims.
For years I’ve had this scenario in my head that adoption should include the birthmother (and father) if at all possible. Why not foster a teen-ager and a baby?
Meanwhile, while on the subject of bad adoption news, I was struck by an article in the L.A. Times a few days ago by Marilyn Elias about depression The article isn’t about adoption per se–it’s about parents who suffer from depression and the effect that has on their children. “Evidence is mounting that growing up with a depressed parent increases a child’s risk for mental health problems, cognitive difficulties and troubled social relationships.”
Another ripple in the adoption pond, I thought as I read on. The interminable sadness that is the legacy of giving up a child goes on to effect subsequent children. Well, that’s depressing. And the depression could go on to effect the children’s children. And so on. Adoption. Big ripples in a deep, deep pond.
A poster similar to this one here hung on the wall of my social worker’s office at the adoption agency.
Its message struck my 17-year-old self as profound. I understood it to mean that I should live in the present, forget about the past and the baby I couldn’t keep. Go forward. Never look backwards. These ideas were routinely espoused by adoption professionals in the 1970s. Birthmothers were assured we’d forget the babies we gave away. That the other children we’d have later would fill the emptiness.
For me, it was the opposite that occurred. There were no best days. It was after the birth of my first daughter that I realized the fullness of what I had done. What I had lost. What my son had lost. Those feelings consumed me. Every day I climbed out of a dark hole, only to fall back to the bottom again and again. When my third child was born, I knew I had to search for my son. To at least try to find him. To leave a message in a bottle, so to speak, in the hope that he would someday know that I had always loved him.
All these years later whenever I hear or see, “Today is the best day of the rest of your life,” it’s a shot to the heart.