Tag Archives: emotional cost of adoption for birthmothers

A Birthmother in a Novel

One of my granddaughters–the one my mother called “that little girl.”
When you give away a child, you also give away your grandchildren.

Izzie in Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life”

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” by Kate Atkinson

Reading from the birthmother’s perspective

Izzie, the shamed pregnant girl, in Atkinson’s book seemed to be a minor character in the beginning. She’s the sister-in-law of Sylvie, one of the main characters.  Now I’m a quarter of the  way through the book, and Izzie has reappeared, years later after giving up her child. I can’t wait to see how she is. Will people speak of the baby and her past? Will she? And is Adelaide, Izzie’s mother still alive? Has her attitude about Izzie and her baby changed? Will we meet the lost baby?

I always read from the birth mother’s perspective. It’s impossible not to.

My real-life story

In my own story, with my own parents, the baby was never mentioned again. After the birth of two subsequent children I couldn’t stand the silence. I couldn’t stand living my big lie–that I had two children, not three. I couldn’t stand my unacknowledged grief.

When I called my mother and told her I was going to search for my son, who was by then 20 years old. “You’re going to get hurt,” she said.

“I’m already hurt,” I said.

So I searched. And I found him. Many things have happened since then. My mom lives with me now. She’s gotten to know my son and his family. 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. But that’s how adoption works. Grandmothers lose grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Babies are handed off to new parents and are never heard of again.

Teen BirthRates Are Low


Birthrates not meeting demand

 Teen birthrates are at historic lows, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed earlier this week. Time Magazine ran a similar article a couple of months ago, reflecting the same trend nationwide. My heart always takes a little leap when I spot headlines like these. I interpret this to mean that there are fewer girls cowering in some secret place, dreading their child’s birth. Fewer girls dreading the moment when they’ll place their child for adoption. But while this is most likely true, the demand for babies for adoption is still high.

Less sex, more b.c.

Teen birthrates reached their peak in 1991. And they have fallen every year since. According to several sources this decline is not due to more abortions, but fewer pregnancies. As to fewer pregnancies, it seems there are two reasons for that. Less sex. And more birth control. That ‘s a winning combination.

The peak of the wave

But it was during the late Baby Scoop era, 1970, that adoptions reached their all-time zenith of 175,000. Non-relative adoptions also hit a high in 1970 when 89,200 babies, including my son, were adopted by “unrelated petitioners.” 1970 was also the year of the highest percentage of adoptions (80%) completed by private agencies. My son and I hit the crest of a triple wave.

Supply exceeds demand

Unfortunately, a reduction in the baby supply (sounds a bit like a supply chain glitch, doesn’t it?) leads to abusive adoption practices. There might be fewer pregnant teens in your neighborhood, but that just means someone else is supplying the babies. In other words the faces and the places have changed, but there are still plenty of birthmothers walking around with empty arms.

photo credit: gail’sangle.net

Adoptee Birth Certificates

I love you, Iowa. But I’m distressed that you want to have this birth certificate thing both ways.
collage by author

Children of same-sex couples

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?

Adoption registry

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.

Steve Yockey’s play “Heavier Than…”


Is the playwright adopted?

“Is playwright Steve Yockey adopted?” I typed the words into Google and clicked. And clicked. I didn’t find an answer. For not being about adoption, Steve Yockey’s play “Heavier Than…” raises a lot of questions relevant to the subject.

A classic from a new P.O.V.

I saw Yockey’s play last Sunday at Boston Court, an excellent theater company in Pasadena that focuses on new works.  

Yockey’s ingenious play turns the ancient Greek myth about the minotaur upside down. Like in John Gardner’s “Grendel” and Barry Unsworth’s “The Songs of Kings,” ancient heros are booted out of the limelight, and the story is told from an opposite point of view. In the case of “Heavier Than…” it’s Asterius, the monstrous minotaur in the labyrinth, who is finally given his say. Asterius is the love child of a snow-white bull (sent by the god Poseidon to King Minos of Crete) and King Minos’s queen, Pasiphae. The queen kept her boy close until he became unruly and incurred the wrath of his step-father. After Minos consulted the Oracle at Delphi, Asterius was cast into the labyrinth that Minos had built solely for the purpose of confining his wife’s monstrous son.

Is the minotaur really a monster?

But in Steve Yockey’s excellently acted and produced play, “Heavier Than…”the relinquished boy is not a monster at all. True, he’s killed dozens of warriors sent into the labyrinth according to local custom year after year. But now on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he wants what he has craved all these years–a visit from his mother. He had a dream about her and he thinks the dream portends a visit.

But the Three Fates, who also inhabit the labyrinth as his guardians, insist that the queen, though she loves him very much, will not appear. The best they can do is invoke their special powers which allow them to conjure scenes of life outside the labyrinth for Asterius. These scenes are rendered as if they were movies, and they show him his mother and his half-sister in action. Asterius watches raptly as Pasiphae laments her youthful past to her daughter. She misses her boy, she says. But she had to relinquish him. She had no choice.

Icarus tells the truth

But the Fates don’t control everything, it seems. Asterius’s only friend Icarus, who is able to fly into the labyrinth on his massive homemade wings, tells Asterius what he knows about the queen, and it doesn’t match up with the version the Fates have revealed. When the Fates do show Asterius the truth, he learns that his mother and his half-sister Ariadne have plotted against him in order to save the young warrior Theseus from certain death in the labyrinth. Why? Because Ariadne has fallen in love with him.

Good mother/bad mother

The duality of the good mother/ bad mother is fertile ground for literature, but I’ve rarely experienced it as heartbreakingly as I did in “Heavier Than….” This mother in question has relinquished a child. Because I’ve written a full-length memoir about giving up my own son, I am always sensitive to the question of what really happened. Did I really have to give him up? Did I really? I wonder too, how subsequent children ever completely trust the mother that gave away a sibling. Do they trust me? Really?

I’m a pretty happy person these days. I’ve made my peace with most of my demons. But I think it’s good to ask the questions. Not to be too comfortable with one’s own story. There’s always another point of view.

“Without a Map” by Meredith Hall

Without a Map
by Meredith Hall
image from Amazon

If you are a birthmother and have not read Meredith Hall’s memoir “Without a Map” I highly recommend it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a book in the pit of my stomach the way I felt this one.

And if you’re not a birthmother, I recommend it too.