“Dystopia’s Child” was originally published in LUMINA vol. XVIII. Yesterday I republished it on Medium.com. Because…
November is National Adoption Awareness Month.
Not just happy stories
As a birthmother, I’m a proponent of lots of different types of adoption stories. Not just the happy ones we’re blasted with all during the month of November. Because, well… not all adoption stories are happy. Every adoption begins with loss. A child losing their mother. A mother losing her child.
We weep. Tear our hair. Exclaim to the heavens about the un-American practice of separating children and parents 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.Throughout history we have ripped children from their parents. 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..
Adoption is another way of tearing families apart. Take a look at Georgia Tann, a well-known adoption villain. But also let’s point our gaze toward adoption “heroine” Edna Gladney. Peer below the surface there and find more hearts destroyed. More families torn apart in the name of greater good.
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), I predict that some of those children will never find their way back into the arms of their parents.
There were six Hart children, all adopted from foster care. 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.
Children end up in foster care after a clusterfuck of 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.” Taking it hard. Can you imagine?
Adoption practices ignore research
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.
The toughest truths
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 oftenmiddle 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.
But sometimes it feels like a secret society, this adoption thing.
I’ve been at a writer’s residency the past month at the Vermont Studio Center. As I read from my book manuscript a couple of weeks ago, I looked out at the faces in the audience. I know that whenever I read from my memoir there will be whispered conversations. Later people tell me their stories. Or maybe not the story at all. Maybe just that they are a birthmother or an adoptee.
I’m still thinking of the young man who waited until the day before he left to tell me how much he appreciated the reading. “I’m a child of adoption,” he said. I saw loss and longing and questions in his eyes. The intensity of it threw me off balance. I had one of those moments wherein I tried to say something right and good. But because I was trying so hard, I can’t remember what it was I said.
I would have liked to have said that I’d bet a million dollars that his birthmother loved him and has missed him every day of her life.
My essay about reunion has been published in “The Beacon,” the newsletter of the American Adoption Congress. Reunion, as we know, is a really big deal. Probably everyone involved in adopted has some fear about it. And of course after you reunite with your son or daughter, you might also meet their adoptive parents. The meetings and introductions might go on and on. Aunts, uncles, grandparents siblings. It’s a tsunami of emotion. I was super nervous about all of it. The title of the essay is “How the World Didn’t End and Nobody Died.” Here’s the link.
The target audience for the AAC is mostly adoptees, I think. And some birthparents too.
But I wrote this essay about reunion with adoptive parents in mind. I would especially like adoptive parents to know that reunion can go well. And that their pre-conceived notions of what birthmothers are like might not be true. So if you know some adoptive parents, maybe pass it on.
In my morning scroll though Facebook, I stumbled across a post that had to do withThe Adoption Museum. The what? I said. The what? The Adoption Museum Project?! The initial exhibit back in May of 2013 had to do with birthmothers (yes, there was an ensuing controversy about the term) and I had no idea that the project existed or that the event occurred. I missed it.
In 2013 I was still adjusting to my first year as a caregiver. In May I was obsessing over my mother’s CPAP machine.All of that. My life as a caregiver, living with my mother, weekends with the man who loved me visiting us, doing what I could to support my younger daughter as she worked on her master’s degree. All of that seems so long ago as if the four of us here together in this house was a dream.
I suppose there are plenty of days that the memory of giving birth to my son and then giving him up resides in the background too. But some days the experience lives inside me close to the surface–not just his birth and the subsequent relinquishment or even the two decades of secrecy or the visceral memory of shame and grief. It’s that girl–the girl I was then. I was a different person then. The other big events–the deaths, divorces, estrangements– happened to the person I now know to be me. But that girl. That girl in the photo above. A visit from her is like time travel and space travel rolled into one. She’s an alien. And she is me.
Anyway, there are still ways to get involved and a newsletter you can subscribe to. They are open to feedback.
So I’m just shouting it out. And thinking about what feedback I’d like to provide–where to begin, actually. I am nothing but feedback when it comes to adoption.
Here’s the link to a newspaper article about Simone Biles’s birthmother. I read it twice. And I also read another interview with her in the Huffington Post and in the New York Daily News–all based on an interview with her from TMZ. It’s worth a read. After you it, read the comments. If you can stand a foray into the meanness olympics.
So, here’s the deal. Shannon Biles says she’s glad she and her daughter are not estranged any longer, but their relationship is still fledgling.
And that she wished her dad hadn’t thrown her under the bus in a recent interview of his with the press. Also, she said she thought he was insensitive about the way he described her battle with addiction.
She admits that she took the loss of her children very badly. That she yelled at her father, and that she was hard-headed, and that she didn’t understand then why she couldn’t see her kids. But she says she understands it now. She admits that she wan’t able to care for them back then.
And she admits that she was an addict, and says that she’s been clean for nine years now.
She is raising her two youngest children herself. She has a job.
It seems pretty clear that Shannon Biles’ s children were in jeopardy. “In and out of foster care” is not a good thing. It worked out well, probably better than imagined. Simone’s grandfather and his wife legally adopted Simone and her sister and are now their mom and dad. Hooray for all that. Gold medals all around.
Stop the hate
While I understand the hunger of the media for a story and the curiosity of Olympic viewers and the general public about all this, I don’t understand the hate directed at Shannon Biles in the comments sections.
Shannon Biles was an addict. She lost custody of four children. That’s a clusterfuck of hurt for a lot of people, including innocent children. It’s personal disaster beyond measure. BUT this woman who lost her children and the respect of her father is now clean. She has turned her life around. In the olympics of her personal life, that’s pretty damn golden.
Birthmothers are human beings
Birthmothers/first mothers/bio mothers are human beings, deserving of compassion. We did what we did for a million reasons. Put on those shoes, haters. Try a little running and jumping in them, and when your feet are bloody, give thanks for your perfect life and your shiny veneer over your hate-filled soul. I have to try a little bit not to wish you ill, but I can do it. I wish you well. I wish for you understanding, and some personal peace, and an inclination for you to share that with the world instead of hate.
There are millions of us birthmothers. For every adoptee, there is one of us. We’re your sisters, your friends, your aunts, your cousins, your teammates, your co-workers, your wives and girlfriends, that person next to you on the plane who’s flying home to see her mom and tells you everything after her 4th rum and coke.
Do you know what to say on Mother’s Day?
Each of our stories is unique, and they’re all the same. What you say to the particular birthmother(s) that you know probably depends on the story. Think about what you know. Step into her shoes. Is she still keeping her secret from others with you being one of the few in her confidence? Is she happily reunited with her son or daughter? Has her child refused to meet her? Is she searching? Does she have other children? Maybe you invite her over for coffee or take her out for a drink. Maybe you tell her you feel enriched by knowing her story, or you give her a card or a take time for a conversation. Maybe you ask her what she thinks of Birthmother’s Day, which is today, by the way, in case you didn’t know.
I don’t exactly hate the idea of Birthmother’s Day, myself. But I don’t really love it either. The phrase Happy Birthmother’s Day pretty much gets stuck in my throat. I’d rather cough up a carving knife than say that, but the idea of commemoration is a good one. We’re here. So, I’m thinking of us and all of our stories.
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. In the poem we read about the suffering of a daughter in a strained relationship with her sister. Loss and grief are deep and primal in this poem. Like the loss and grief in 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 empty-handed. He drew his sword. Then, of the two women, one renounced her share: this was the sign, the lesson. Suppose 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.
“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. Chockfull of wit and humor, it mocks social conventions. And, though the word adoption is never uttered, it’s also a play about adoption and coincidence.
The complicated plot
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 invents 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 so things begin to unravel most comically.
Ernest is known as Jack at his house in the country where he lives with his ward Cecily and her governess Miss Prism. Jack frequently excuses himself to travel to London, ostensibly to rescue the made-up brother he calls Ernest. Keep in mind that he himself is known as Ernest to those who keep company with him in the city. Because Cecily has a mad crush on the fictitious Ernest, she longs to meet him. Finally, she gets her wish when Algernon, in his plot to unravel Jack’s lies, shows up at the country house, impersonating Ernest. Unfortunately, Jack has ,moments before, in an effort to simplify his life, announced that Ernest has suddenly died.
The big plot twist
Meanwhile, 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.) 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. With his parents unknown to him, his standing in London society is jeopardized.
A few twists later we learn that it was the governess Miss Prism who accidentally left the infant Jack in a large handbag in a train station when she worked for Lady Bracknell’s sister. Are you ready for it? Yes indeed, the friends, Jack and Algernon, are really brothers. Jack investigates further to find out what his original name was before he was re-christened after being taken in by a benefactor. You guessed it….Ernest!
Real life adoption coincidences
Most adoption/reunion stories I’ve heard are full of co-incidences. They’re just not as funny. You need somebody like Oscar Wilde, I guess, to pull that off.
My search for my son yielded its own amazing coincidences. He was adopted in a closed adoption in a state that still has sealed records. Yet a coincidence led me to a person who helped me find him. After I learned my son’s name and whereabouts, I called directory assistance, (which was where he happened to work) to double-check the phone number I’d been given for him. He answered my 411 call.
Who’s in the audience?
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. Every time, I think about all those strangers I’m sitting with in the dark as they realize they’re watching a play about adoption. How many of them are adopted? Do they 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.