Tag Archives: family and adoption

National Adoption Month

Me, age 17 and a secret mother

How N. A. M. began

National Adoption Month began in 1976 in the state of Massachusetts as a way of bringing awareness to the plight of children in foster care. Designating a month to this consciousness-raising effort had its heart in the right place. Children need families.

This year’s theme

This year the focus is on sibling connections–which I hope means that siblings ought to remain together, rather than be separated by adoption. All of this is mostly good. Although, I’d prefer a campaign that got more to the heart of things. Something like “Adoption: Designed for Children Who Need Families.” Maybe even throw in a subtitle. Like, “Not designed for families who want children.”

N. A. M., a different perspective

National Adoption Month can be a festival of pain and frustration for people who’ve been separated from their loved ones through adoption. Adoption is often touted as a fairy tale. But what if the tale doesn’t end happily ever after?

Explore adoption

Adoption is more complex than you think. Explore it from all points of view. There’s always plenty to read about adoption. Type adoption into the search box on Facebook and see what turns up. Then try it on Google. Check out the links under the “take action” tab in this blog. Maybe check out my book. Keep your eyes and ears open, and ask yourself how often it’s really necessary to remove an infant from a  mother simply because she is very young, economically disadvantaged, or lacks family support. Is that ever really necessary?

Ask if adoption is necessary

I don’t think it was necessary in my case. If my narrow minded hometown/Catholic Church/Catholic school environment would not have made the lives of everyone in my family miserable, I could have kept my son.

My sister was already married and living far from town out on a farm. What if I’d had a hideaway deep in a cornfield–a little cabin or house trailer? Every night I could have carried my baby down a stubbly path to her house. I might have had supper at the kitchen table with her and her husband and her two little kids. We might have sat together after the dishes were done, rocking our babies and feeding them their bedtime bottles. Then she’d carry her baby upstairs, and I’d carry mine back through the cornfield, fireflies lighting our way.

In our secret abode I would have loved my son, and he would have loved me. No one would learn my secret. Happy years would go on in this secret place, my clothes wearing thin while I witnessed my son learning to walk and talk. He would grown tall, and my braids would grow long, so long that they reached the ground.

That was the fairy tale I imagined as a 17-year-old. It’s not what really happened.

Multi-Generational Loss

Every adoption begins with loss.
This can turn into multi-generational loss. Without reunion, I would have lost my grandchildren.

Unknown grandchildren

I 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 in a closed adoption as a newborn. Without reunion, I would not know that any of my grandchildren exist. Adoption can result in a multi-generational loss.

Without reunion, this loss would have extended to everyone in my family.My daughters would not be aunts. My mother’s number of great grandchildren would be cut in half. Adoption is a very large stone dropped into the pond of life. The ripples of loss just keep expanding. And with each subsequent generation, the loss expands to include more and more family members. Here’s an essay from the Washington Post where a six-year-old explains it.

Reunion unites a family

Reunion always focuses on the reunion between the birthmother and adoptee. While it may be the central relationship, it’s not the only relationship. Think about your favorite aunt, the cousin who is so close they feel like a sibling, that uncle everyone says you resemble. Reunion unites a family. Not just two people.

I sometimes wonder what my life would be like, had I not met my son. I don’t like to think about it, really. There’s been so much joy in our get-togethers. Four generations of us. Partying, talking, laughing. How would we have survived without each other?

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.

Family Resemblances

A strong family resemblance between me and my mom
as we watch pelicans dive into the marina a few years ago.

Mother/daughter resemblance

A substitute teacher, the mother of my regular teacher, taught this morning’s t’ai chi chih class. It was eerily wonderful to see the same tilt of the head, the same gesture overtake the fingers on a smaller set of hands, a similar look of joy on an older face.

Across 3 generations

This past week during the visit from my son and his family, my younger daughter and my son’s wife pointed out the family resemblances between my son, my older daughter, his oldest child, and me. It’s the way we walk, they said. Our basic body language.

This is not remarkable at all–unless you have been separated by adoption. When you meet your child for the first time when he’s 20, seeing those resemblances is a profound experience. It’s a reminder that you’ve been connected all along by genetics even though you had no idea where your child was. Even though you didn’t even know his name.

I see some of these resemblances in the next generation, too. In my role as grandmother it feels sometimes that I have been yanked backwards in time when I catch my older granddaughter out of the corner of my eye. Like some portal has been slit open and I’m slipping back a dozen years into my older daughter’s childhood. Once again, not remarkable at all. Unless I’d never found my son. In that case, I wouldn’t know that my granddaughter existed.

My granddaughter at age 11
My older daughter at age 25.

Adoptees and resemblances

The day I met my son for the first time, he told me what a shock it was to see the resemblance between us. It was weird to learn he was not unique, he said, as he always felt he was. Other adoptees have told me they have the sense of having “fallen to earth”—they feel alien, unconnected by the family resemblances that bind biological families. Biological families engage in a running commentary about who looks like Mom or Dad or a particular sibling, aunt, or uncle. The discussion extends beyond physical attributes too. In a biological family, talents, temperaments, and failings are all attributed to genetics without a second thought.

Eric Mueller, a Minneapolis based artist and an adoptee has a book called “Family Resemblance” which includes photos of family members with shared resemblances.

A Good Age to Be A Mother

What’s a good age to be a mother? Probably not 16. Or 17. In 1970, the year I had my son, it was 21.


Pregnant at 16

“Grandma, did you want to give my daddy away when he was a little baby?” I’m sweeping the floor in preparation for my eight-year-old granddaughter’s birthday party when she asks her question. In a couple of hours the house will be overflowing with pizza and kids and presents, but right now, an emptiness seizes me in the pit of my stomach.
“No,” I say. “I didn’t. It was sad to give him up.”
“Why did you do it then?”
“It’s what girls had to do in those days if they had a baby too young.”
“How old were you?”
“I was sixteen when I got pregnant with him.”
“That’s so old. That’s a good age to be a mommy.” She’s sitting at the table with a glass of milk and a cracker, her eyes wide as she watches me. I must seem ancient to her.
“Not really, I say.” And then I explain about high school and college, and how a baby should probably have a grown-up mother.
“Bompa and Grammy said that the first time they saw Daddy they knew he was the baby for them!”
“I bet they did,” I said. “Your daddy was a really beautiful baby.”

Now a grandma

A couple hours later we’re all singing Happy Birthday together–Bompa, Grammy, and me–along with a the other guests. I’m wearing a black fringed shawl as a gypsy skirt, a scarf wrapped around my hair, borrowed bangles, and silver hoop earrings. It’s a costume birthday party. There are pirates, a witch, an old man, a couple of versions of bat girl, cat woman, and a knight.

I think of the first time I met my son’s adoptive parents twenty years earlier. I stood in my hotel room that evening changing into and out of every article of clothing I’d brought on the trip. A costume party might have assuaged some of that nervousness. I’d probably have chosen to be a saint or a nun. Maybe the first woman president or a high-powered executive to disguise the bewildered and shamed teen-age girl that  lived inside me in those days, not far at all from the surface.

After the cake has been devoured, the games played, the princess unwraps her presents. She sits on her chair next to her mom, dutifully reading her birthday cards, one minute in the reality of party thank yous, the next in whatever fantasyland her new toy conveys her to.

At the end of the evening my son’s adoptive father comes up to me to say good-bye. “I’ll bet you haven’t had a hug yet today,” he says.
“Not from a tall person,” I say. He laughs. My son’s mother and I hug, too.

In my perfect fantasy world, I would have kept my son. I would have decided that 17 was a good age to be a mother. But in the post-reunion reality that I live in, I can’t imagine things being any better.

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.

Family Traditions

Family traditions with my son and his family have included 4th of July fireworks.
collage by author

Family traditions are important. Ritual and rhythm in the life of a family are good things. The same vacation spot every spring. The Christmas candles on the mantle. The turkey centerpiece. But it’s harder to establish traditions in a family separated by adoption even after there’s been a solid reunion. An adoptee in reunion can be going in a lot of directions.

There’s a lot on the calendar already if you’re a 21-year-old. Ditto, if you’re a birthmother with other children, and a husband, and in-laws, and a big extended family. And as everyone gets older more complications (albeit mostly happy ones) spread through our calendars like kudzu. Nineteen years post reunion my son has his own family. My other children are grown with mates of their own.

Then a new complication! Three years ago my husband left me for another woman, and what was left of our shifting sense of family rhythm veered completely out of sync. So now my daughters have a new brother and a new household to visit.

This 4th of July (cue the big sunburst-like golden fireworks) my son and his family came to spend the holiday with me for the 2nd year in a row. The same park, the same blankets in the same spot.
It made me insanely happy.


Family Milestones

image: old road Heddington London milestone

Family milestones mark out our paths in this life.

In a few days, I will receive a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.  It’s a big milestone for me, and I happen to like celebrating milestones very much.

I wasn’t there when my son got his first tooth, went off to kindergarten, finished grade school or graduated from high school. I missed the first 21 years of his life. All of it.
But here’s the thing about reunion--important things continue to happen and we’ve been there for each other.

And each year that goes by, the list of family milestones list will grow longer.

Adoptive Parents, Read This

You might be sitting at the top of the triangle

Dear Adoptive Parents,

When I think about how the past 18 years of reunion have gone with my son and the hows and whys of all of it, I can’t help but think about his parents (his adoptive parents.) Especially his mother. She had lost a child herself, and I think because of this experience, was able to understand what I had lost. In our correspondence through letters and in person, in all these years she has never once been negative toward me, any aspect of the reunion process, or post-reunion life. The last two years, we’ve been at the same Thanksgiving table.

If there are any adoptive parents who stumble onto this blog, I encourage you to imagine yourself sitting at the top of the triangle. Imagine your arms and hands stretching downward. See the strength in connecting all of us.

Family love

Family love is the glue

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of family. It takes effort and grace to keep a family in tact. And of course, it takes love. Love is the glue. My first experience at creating a family was a failure before it began.

It was 21 years until I saw my first-born child. There were 20 Christmases, 20 Thanksgivings and  20 birthdays before I knew my son’s name or where he lived.  Our reunion reverberated through his adoptive family and through my own family. By the time I met my son, I had  a husband, and also two little girls who were surprised to learn they had an older brother. Yet somehow, we blended ourselves into a new family. I thought that family would last forever.

Or how about cement?

All of my children are adults now. We are living in the aftermath of my divorce from my daughters’ father. Now  I’m thinking about the individuals that make up a family as bricks and stones that need regular shoring up to keep the walls from falling down. Each brick and stone needs a regular inspection. Some polishing, perhaps. And maybe love should be more like cement than glue. This year my husband is not in the picture. Our marriage is a pile of rubble. I am picking up the pieces of what remains of our family. That means I will be traveling. This holiday season I will cross both a desert and an ocean with my youngest child in order to visit her siblings. Every mile will be worth it.

Birthmothers and lost children

As I lay on the couch at my son’s house with my oldest grandchild, the two of us singing Christmas carols in the dark beside the lighted Christmas tree, I noticed how our voices blended together. For just a moment in the midst of that joy of family love, I thought about the birthmothers who are still separated from their children. If they don’t know their children, they may have grandchildren who are also lost to them.