Friday, November 20, 2015

Why be a parent?

I wrote this in response to someone else's blog post that got me thinking:

This is very compelling, and as both an adoptive mother and a natural mother I relate to so much of what you say. I would like to say one thing though, and that's about why we choose to become parents. You seem to feel a bit guilty for wanting and enjoying your children, as if being a parent were somehow a selfish act. Well, it is. No one has a child biologically because they think it will be good for the child. A woman has a baby (under ideal circumstances) because she WANTS one. Dr. Barry Brazelton said the only reason to have a baby is because you can't stand not to. Having a baby is instinctual for most women; it defies logic and is simply deep desire, and there's nothing wrong with that. Nature intended it that way. I had four children, raised three, and my life would be empty without them. Of course, they're trouble, but as Zorba the Greek said, Sometimes you have to undo your belt and go out and look for trouble! Parenthood is a great risk and a great adventure, not for the faint of heart but worth every dirty diaper, screaming toddler, surly adolescent, and sleepless night. I would not be the person I am without my children, and I say that with humility and with pride. Adoptive parents have the same desire for parenthood as anyone else, but somehow nature throws them a curve ball. This is regrettable, tragic even, but it's no reason to take another mother's baby. I adopted a baby from Vietnam because I wanted to rescue a child from a war zone, not because I was infertile. I now realize I was also trying to replace the son I had lost to adoption a few years earlier. I thought I was saving a child, and I believe I did, but I now realize my motives were largely selfish. I was not acting out of deep, natural, instinctual desire but out of a sense of guilt and remorse. I wanted to feel good about myself, because I felt so bad about losing my first son. I wanted to help, nurture, and love a child, but my motives were more complicated than most. At no time did I ever get the counseling that would have helped me understand and come to terms with all that was going on inside me, and because I stumbled blindly a lot of damage was done. Everyone is screwed up in one way or another, but living with secrets and lies is a sure way to scramble your brains, whether you're a natural mother or an adoptee. All adoptees have the right to their own information and history. No one, not even a natural mother, has the right to deny them that.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

It's complicated

I'm a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders.  I'm also a natural mother from the BSE and the adoptive mother of a son from Vietnam.  Since finding my first son nearly four years ago, I've undergone a sea change in my approach to adoption.  (Read the rest of my blog.)  Now it's November, National Adoption Month, and I'm ready to come out with all barrels blazing in favor of radical adoption reform, as in: Let's eliminate adoption and institute legal guardianship for kids who truly need a different family from the one they were born into.  Infant adoption should end.  Surrogacy should be illegal.  And international adoption needs major overhaul.

These are my principles, based on over forty years of experience and extensive reading and communicating with other first mothers.  So it was with some dismay that I saw--today, on the first day of National Adoption Month--my favorite presidential candidate trick-or-treating with his three granddaughters adopted from China.  I know several families with foreign-born, adopted children, and I know the parents love their children, as I love my adopted son.  I understand the motivations that lead to such adoptions, and I also know the difficulties that are bound to attend them.  Adoption is complicated, far more complicated than the prevailing narrative about it.  Of course, life with a loving American family is preferable to growing up in an underfunded orphanage or in abject poverty.  But growing up with no sense of who you really are, who your people really are, or what your personal history is leaves the strongest, most well-adjusted adoptee with disturbing questions and longings.

When I first saw video of Bernie Sanders with his granddaughters walking down a typical American neighborhood street, I was taken aback.  I've been arguing against adoption for so long that it's become a knee-jerk reaction for me, but when I saw these adorable girls, I knew I could never say anything that would disturb their peace of mind, their place in the family they now belong to, or their sense of self-worth.  It's easy for adoption reformists like me to pathologize adoption, as if it were a guarantee of dysfunction and unhappiness, but that assumption is as simplistic as the one that assumes that all adoptions are happy and adoptees don't care about their original families.

In the best of all possible worlds, adoption would never be necessary.  There would be no war-torn countries, no starving families in developing countries, no offspring of criminally negligent parents.  In the best of all possible worlds, all babies would be born to mothers who want them and are prepared to care for them, but this is not the world we live in.  That said, there could--and should--be far less adoption than there is, especially domestic infant adoption.  My son was born in 1968, during the Baby Scoop Era, when unmarried mothers were told emphatically that they were unsuitable, that if they loved their babies they would give them up, that they would forget and move on with their lives.  This is the ugliness I have known all my adult life.  Babies born in the United States or Canada or Australia or Europe, where the standard of living is high and opportunities are more plentiful than in many other parts of the world, should by default remain with their own mothers.  Affluent societies should do everything possible to keep mothers and their children together, if only to avoid the kinds of problems that afflict adoptees at a far greater rate than non-adoptees: addiction, suicide, mental health issues, infertility, incarceration.  As they say, Pay now or pay later.

There is something inherently distasteful about paying thousands of dollars for a baby, whether through adoption or via surrogacy.  Babies are not commodities and should not be treated as such.  The very idea of organizations set up to "process" adoptions is abhorrent.  Call infant adoption tantamount to slavery or human trafficking, and I won't argue with you.  As I said, I understand the motivations that lead to adoption: the intense desire for a family of one's own, the desire to provide love and a home to a child who needs those things most of us take for granted.  When I adopted my son, I knew I couldn't save the world or bring peace to a fractured country, but I knew I could love a baby.  I already had a child I was raising, so I wasn't infertile and I knew I was a good mother.  I truly wanted to save a child.  What I realize now, over forty years later, is just how selfish I was.  All parenthood is selfish in my view.  Even babies that come by "accident" are welcomed, but no adopted child is adopted accidentally.  There is much deliberateness involved, and adopted children are by definition welcomed.  I know that the babies I gave birth to were babies I wanted--for me, so I could love them--not because I thought I was doing them a favor by bringing them into the world, and I adopted for selfish reasons: to replace my lost son, to save a child who might otherwise perish and so feel noble, to set an example to a racist society.  And my love for my adopted son grew out of that selfishness, just as my love for my biological children grew out of natural selfishness.  Nature intends that we should love our children with fierce selfishness.  We may congratulate ourselves on our altruism and our highly evolved values, but at the end of the day, mothers love their babies (normal mothers) with a ferocity that transcends abstractions like altruism or generosity.  Only the most exigent circumstances should ever separate a mother from her child.  Not youth or feeling unprepared or being in school or being unmarried.  These are all temporary conditions that will be ameliorated with time.  No one is really prepared for motherhood until one finds oneself in the miraculous chaos of it, but good support is crucial.  That is where, as a society, our attentions should go.  Families are the first line of defense.  I read somewhere once that civilization began with grandmothers, a striking observation.  If families are ill-equipped or unwilling, then communities need to step up, but no new mother should ever be faced with the stark choice of being abandoned to her own devices or giving up her child.

Every adoption begins in tragedy.  What worse tragedy can you imagine than losing a child?  Whether you're a sixteen-year old with shocked parents and an unreliable boyfriend or a desperate mother of seven in an African village with not enough food to nourish your children, parting from your child is heart-ripping, yet when you look at pro-adoption websites all you see are smiling "birth mothers" and happy adoptive parents and the nobility of making an "adoption plan."  What I see when I look at these sites are those pictures of babies born in the Nazi lebensborn program.  German women were told that if they loved the fatherland, they would mate with good Nazi men and produce healthy Aryan children.  Their motherhood was manipulated, just as the motherhood of vulnerable women is being manipulated today.  We must see adoption for what it is--a desperate last resort--not the fairy tale it's made out to be.  We do a disservice to adoptees when we raise them to believe their family is just the same as any other.  Adoptive families ARE different.  That isn't to say they lack love, far from it.  But let's base our relationships, including parent-child relationships, on truth not myth.  And let's make sure that all adoptees have full knowledge of their own beginnings, their own biological families, their own identities.  Anything less is theft, pure and simple.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A time for every season

 The Oct. 22 issue of  _The New York Review of Books_ contains a review by Freeman Dyson of Brandon R. Brown's new biography of Max Planck, the distinguished German physicist who mentored Albert Einstein and gave the world quantum theory.  At issue is the choice Planck made to remain in Germany and continue his work under Hitler.  Einstein made a different choice and moved to America.  In 1970, Dyson's Princeton colleague Albert Hirschman published _Exit, Voice, and Loyalty_.  When a person is involved in a large enterprise, be it a government, an industry, a war, or something similarly huge and potentially problematic, he has three alternatives: He can exit and leave the enterprise; he can remain involved but speak out against it; or he can remain loyal and keep silent.  Einstein chose exit when Hitler came to power; Planck chose loyalty to Germany.

Anyone who has lived beyond adolescence has at one time or another had to make the choice to leave, protest, or collaborate.  My generation faced its critical moment with the Vietnam war.  Many young men chose exit and withdrew to Canada; others protested against the war and some were prosecuted as draft dodgers; still others hated the war but went to fight in it anyway.  As a young female college student, I found it easy to oppose the war without risking anything; however, not all choices are made against such a large-scale background as war, the tobacco industry, or massive-scale agriculture, to name just a few.  My own moment of truth came in 1968 when my personal situation jarred dramatically with the expectations of family and society.  Unmarried and pregnant, I had a life-altering choice to make.  Exit, I suppose, would have involved having an abortion.  I quickly rejected that option, not that it would have been easy to arrange that procedure in the days before Roe v. Wade.  I was quite literally silenced.  When I revealed my condition, the first things my parents said was, You mustn't tell anyone about this.  When you can't tell the truth about yourself and are forced to lie (keeping the secret of my firstborn son for over forty years was a lie of omission), your voice is made irrelevant and your autonomy eroded.  That left "loyalty," which in my case meant giving up my son for adoption.  I "collaborated" with my family's wishes and the social mores of the time and made the sacrifice. 

Today when natural mothers like me speak out about their loss, they are often told to get over it.  It was your choice, and you signed the papers, so now you have no right to complain.  But like veterans against the Vietnam war, our voices carry special weight.  A soldier who has lost buddies in a pointless national venture may have been complicit in the action that took their lives, but surely he has the right to point out the injustice.  A young draftee had about as much choice as a young unmarried woman in the 1960s who found herself pregnant.  I, for one, don't fault any young man who was called up and went to fight any more than I fault a young woman whose only available options were adoption or shame and ostracism. 

I don't know if Max Planck ever felt any guilt about the choice he made.  In 1946 the Royal Society of London held a celebration to mark the 300th birthday of Sir Isaac Newton, and the only German scientist they invited to attend was Max Planck.  The members gave him a resounding standing ovation.  Did that reception obviate the guilt he might have felt at his collaboration with Hitler and his cruel racial laws (Planck had dismissed Jewish scientists from his university)?  Should we revere Planck for his contributions to science and his loyalty to his fatherland or should we condemn him for choosing country over conscience?  So often it's only in retrospect that the correct choice becomes obvious.  Most Americans would agree that Einstein made the right choice in fleeing Europe, but did Anna Akhmatova make the right choice by remaining in the Soviet Union when others writers and intellectuals were leaving?  Max Planck's son Erwin protested loudly against Hitler and was hanged for his pains.  Was his the better choice than his father's? 

So often in life we are faced with decisions whose outcomes we cannot know until it's too late to reverse course.  It was over forty years before I realized the real consequences of my decision to relinquish my son.  Anyone making a difficult choice must believe in the moment that she is doing the right thing.  Few people would deliberately make what they believe to be the wrong choice, and the ease or difficulty of the choice is not the issue.  I made a very difficult choice that I believed to be the right one only to discover decades later just how disastrous it had, in fact, been for both me and my son.  Even though I understand that my situation in 1968 was untenable, I still feel residual guilt for setting in train a lifetime of events that were predicated upon that decision, some fortuitous, some catastrophic.  I would like to think that Planck felt some guilt over his decision to go along with Hitler and his minions, but perhaps he felt justified in remaining a faithful German to the end.  I can forgive him for his choice, but I could not forgive him if he felt no guilt.  Every serious decision comes with a cost, and there is no way to avoid paying it.  At least there shouldn't be.

After four years of reunion with my son, during which time I've had to rethink many long-held assumptions and endure  tremendous emotional upheaval, I am sometimes tempted to exit the discussion of adoption that swirls around the internet if not yet in the mainstream media.  I get tired not just of my own feelings but of the grief so very many natural mothers and the anguish expressed by many adult adoptees, particularly because of state laws prohibiting their access to their original birth certificates.  I would like to exit the fray and make a separate peace, but silence is a kind of collaboration, and I can no longer collaborate with the adoption industry and must continue to raise my voice against it.  I know this blog won't reach many readers, but I'd be remiss if I didn't add my cry to the chorus of protest that needs to be heard and acted upon.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Who Knows Best?

Imagine a tug-of-war with not one rope and two sides but many ropes and multiple sides and you have some idea of the tensions within the adoption community, especially when it comes to making original birth certificates freely and easily available to adult adoptees.  Natural mothers from the BSE (Baby Scoop Era--WW II-1972), desperate to find their lost children before time runs out, practically prostrate themselves before intransigent legislators and judges who, for whatever reasons, refuse to grant access.  Adult adoptees who have never known who they are or the truth about their biological roots  are desperate for the information that every other American takes for granted.  When there are medical issues or the need to acquire a passport, this desire becomes even more urgent.  The billion-dollar adoption industry wants to maintain control of its "product," and adoptive parents want to be sure no inconvenient "birth" mother will reappear and upset their lives.  The kind of adoption we're used to--whether closed or open--legally and permanently removes the child from his natural parents and maintains the fiction that adoptive families are just like any other, that adoptive parents are the "real" parents, and those who take issue with this fiction are too often labeled "angry" or "bitter".

Since finding the son I relinquished for adoption in 1968, I have ridden the reunion roller-coaster, had everything I thought I knew about adoption upended, and discovered that, contrary to what I'd believed for decades, it was possible to change my mind about something deeply held and embrace a new reality.  What's more, the change of heart that I had feared has proved to be a greater liberation than I could have imagined even five years ago.  Reunion has not been smooth sailing; there have been waves I thought would drag me so deep I'd never breathe freely again, but having regained my footing, I have turned my attention to those who hesitate at the water's edge, afraid to take the plunge into reuniting with a lost child or a natural mother.  They cannot see far enough into the depths to be sure there will be a bottom, so they remain in denial where there is a familiar kind of safety. 

I will state unequivocally that no mother in reasonable health should ever make an adoption plan, select an adoptive family, or speak with an adoption worker until at least six weeks after the birth of her child.  If after that time of bonding and caring for her infant the mother still wants to consider adoption, that is the time to begin, and she should be given information about resources to help with practical matters like food and rent as well as information about the long-term consequences of adoption for both her and her baby.   I am not at all in favor of surrogacy, but if it's going to occur, these same guidelines should apply.  Even surrogate moms deserve a chance to change their minds.  As they say, Having a baby changes everything.  And money should never be part of the equation,   putting adoption agencies out of business, to which I say, Amen.

Now that all my children are grown and my grandchildren are no longer babies, I find myself thinking back to the years when I was immersed in the comfortable chaos of family life with small children.  I long for the weight of my kids' sweet bodies on my lap and in my arms, the smell of their baby necks, the tidal wave of connection.  I have snapshots in my head of moments with each of my children: rocking my son till he fell asleep when he had a fever at a year old, another son with his first ice cream cone, my daughter with her "mi mi" (blanket) that went with her everywhere.  So many memories.  I can flip through them like a rolodex.  When I taught university students, I used to tell them to have adventures so that when they got old they'd have memories to cherish.  The greatest adventure for me has been my children, not because life was always easy or we always got along like the figures in a Norman Rockwell painting, but because nothing else connects me to the past, the future, and the universe like my connection to them. 

But my memory book has many pages with empty pages.  I didn't raise one of my children.  I lost my first son to adoption when he was three weeks old, and the memories I have of him are as vivid as the ones I have of the other two I gave birth to and the son I adopted when he was still an infant, but a couple of days in the hospital and a short farewell in the social worker's office are all I have until I found him 44 years later.  Now, nearly four years post reunion, I do have a relationship with my first son, which I never expected and for which I am exceedingly grateful.  But regaining my son does not obviate the pain of losing him, nor does it fill in those many empty pages.  I realize now that I am experiencing another loss to add to the losses age inevitably brings.

I am turning 70 on my next birthday and, while I try to be philosophical about it, I have to accept that my life is closer to its end than to its beginning.  The person I am and the life I have are the pinnacle, no longer the preparation.  For so many years I was my kids' mom; that was my primary definition, certainly to myself.  Now I'm just me.  The body I took for granted is beginning to betray me.  A recent diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis has me trying to accommodate a new normal that I wasn't expecting and certainly wasn't prepared for.  It may not be a scientific conclusion, but I am convinced that the stress of the past four years, of finding my son and going through the eruption of grief and anger that reunion unleashed, has triggered my own body to turn against itself.  Anytime there is friction--as when water drops upon a stone or a hammer rubs against a palm--there is physical change.  Could it be that the friction of unresolved grief scrapes against the body in miniscule, unnoticed ways until the body gives way?  Stress is healthy in the short term.  It's what protects us from the inevitable threats of life, and once the threat is vanquished stability returns, but the stress of losing my son to adoption was like a piece of grit in an oyster, only it didn't produce a pearl.

Reunion released an avalanche of stress, and I can imagine friends and family asking themselves if finding my son was worth it.  They wouldn't ask me that, of course, because even though they may wonder, they know what my answer would be.  Yes, it was worth it.  It's better to know my son's fate than to forever wonder, better to live truthfully, better to feel restored to wholeness. 

Incredibly, there are still laws in most states that prevent adoptees from obtaining their original birth certificates.  New York, where my son was born, is one of them.  There was hope that this year, finally, the NY State Assembly would open its adoption records, but a handful of legislators, who have consistently obstructed change, once again quashed the efforts of adult adoptees and "birth" parents working to end these archaic laws.  One can only assume that the motive is financial, because it certainly can't be constitutional to deny a segment of the population--adoptees--their own information.  Who else in America has their identity stolen with the collusion of the state?  Who else is constrained by a contract devised by others without the consent of the person most intimately involved in the agreement: the adoptee?  The comparison to slavery is not far-fetched.

Opponents to releasing OBCs argue that "birth" mothers were promised confidentiality.  Leave aside the fact that more than 90% of mothers would welcome contact by their children, let's look at the issue of rights and whose should be honored.  Does a mother have the right to permanently deny her own child?  No one is forced to have a relationship they don't want.  Releasing information would not require mother and child to embrace and ride off into the sunset together if they don't want to.  But shouldn't the shape of the relationship be determined by those actually in it?  How can politicians, judges, and adoption professionals justify their intrusion into the decisions made by adults they don't even know?  To my knowledge "birth" mothers were not "promised confidentiality."  It was simply taken for granted in the BSE.  I know I was never promised any such thing.  I didn't think I had a choice.  I was able to find my son without the NY Assembly, but I guess I broke the law to do it.  Just twenty years ago Sandy Musser, author of "To Prison With Love," was sent to prison for helping adoptees and their mothers find each other.  A prison sentence for helping families reunite! 

Mothers from the BSE are getting old now.  Many have died without ever knowing the fates of their children, and many adoptees who search will find only a grave.  Other groups that were overlooked for decades--the Tuskegee airmen, Native Americans whose children were taken from their families and put in boarding schools, Holocaust survivors--are receiving the attention that is long overdue.  When will it be time for hundreds of thousands of mothers and their lost children to be acknowledged and, yes, honored?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

It's all personal

I just watched "The Theory of Everything" with my grandson.  In the film Stephen Hawking's efforts to determine the mathematical formula that would explain the universe are poignantly dramatized.  Hawking is an atheist, a scientist who looks for answers in the complexities of physics and cosmology; his wife wants to hold onto her faith in God.  Perhaps there is a point where science and religion can meet, the vaunted "God particle."  If so, we have yet to discover it, but it has to be considered a possibility.  Until mankind can explain everything that is, in such a way as to convince both agnostic scientists and the faithful (whatever their religion), our understanding will remain bifurcated, with science on one side, traditional belief on the other.  There are many things that divide us, and one that is close to my heart is the vexed issue of adoption.  My efforts at reconciling various points of view are a pale shadow of Hawking's search for a single formula, but I can identify with his desire for an answer that will satisfy all parties.

When I relinquished my firstborn son to adoption 47 years ago, I could see no other option.  Unwed motherhood put a young woman like me beyond the pale of respectable society.  I'd be unable to have the teaching career I was trained for, barred from renting an apartment,  shunned by my family for the shame I'd brought upon them.  My son's father declined to marry me, even with the promise of a hasty divorce, and without a husband there would be scandal in my hometown if I showed up with a baby in tow.  My parents, my social worker, and my doctor all assured me over and over again that if I loved my child I'd do what was best for him: give him up for adoption.  There are those in the adoption community who balk at the term "give up," but that's exactly what I did.  I was defeated by the familial and social forces arrayed against me, and I gave up.  I was devastated by my loss, but at the time I had no doubt that I was doing the right thing.  I would suffer so that my son and my parents could have comfortable lives without the stigma of illegitimacy.  (Now there's a word I do hate.)

I believed in adoption.  I had to if I were not to go mad, if I wanted to make a life for myself, so I buried my secret and tried to live as though I were just like any other young woman from a similar background.  I got married, had a baby, eventually moved back to my hometown with my husband and small son, and got a teaching job.  I'd met my husband when I was pregnant with my first son, and he wanted nothing to do with another man's baby, nor did he want to listen to anything I might have to say about my feelings.  What wasn't talked about could be ignored, and so began years of silence and denial.  The culture of therapy was far in the future, and there was little if anything written about the long-term consequences of adoption.  Until I was in my sixties, I never knowingly met another natural mother.  There were hundreds of thousands of us who lost our babies during the BSE (Baby Scoop Era--post WW II--1972), but we were isolated, each locked in our own cell of silence.

When my raised son was four, we adopted a baby from Vietnam.  I believed in adoption as if it were a religion.  Because of my own history, I felt compelled to adopt a child myself, and it needed to be a child who would otherwise not find a home.  American-born children would always be cared for; white infants would always be in demand; I was not infertile and didn't "need" a baby to be a mother.  Adopting a baby from Vietnam, a country America had practically demolished and where thousands of GI offspring faced a grim future, seemed as inevitable as sitting down to lunch.  I had been a frightened girl when I had my first baby.  Now I was a mother, a wife, a teacher, and I no longer cringed at the thought of being a cause of scandal.  In fact, I rather welcomed it.  I was unable to bring my own child back to my mid-western hometown; now I would bring a half-black baby, and I didn't care a flip what the neighbors might say.  I knew that some black social workers argued against placing black babies in white homes, but I thought that was just reverse prejudice.  How better to overcome segregation than by creating multi-racial families?  I would do more than talk the talk; I would walk the walk.  I'd do what so many others said they never could: raise a child that wasn't their own, be mother to a child from a different race.  I was 28 years old, in the full flood of maternal longings, and ready to love.

Forty-odd years later, I was mostly estranged from my adopted son, divorced from my children's father, and in my third marriage.  I was a grandmother, retired from university teaching, and the adoption landscape had changed beyond recognition.  Murphy Brown had had a baby on national TV as a single mother, and despite Dan Quayle's misgivings, the social fabric had not frayed.  The pill and legal abortion had greatly reduced the number of infants available for adoption, even as the demand grew.  International adoption stopped being exceptional, and single motherhood was no longer the social taboo it once was.  What had been an enterprise devoted to finding good homes for children in need shifted to a lucrative industry dedicated to providing families with the children they desired.  Long waiting times and large fees became the adoption norm, and affluent western parents looked abroad to poor countries with children to spare.  (Read Kathryn Joyce's "The Child Catchers.)  Trans-racial adoptees like my son are no longer a rarity, and many of them are no longer children.  As adults, they are finding their own voices and telling the rest of us what their lives have been like.  Their stories often don't match up with the stories their adoptive parents tell, even when the adoptions can be considered successful.

Just when adult adoptees are writing books and blogging about their lives, natural mothers from the BSE are entering old age, when the constraints of our middle years no longer bind us.  My parents, the only people who would be troubled by my resurrecting my adoption trauma, were both gone; my third husband and my three raised children were supportive; so in 2011 I began to search for my lost son.  The archaic, unconstitutional adoption laws of New York, where my son was born, would release no information about him, so I turned to a Search Angel, who in short order helped my find my son on Facebook.  Suddenly I was no longer bound by secrecy.  My family  and close friends knew.  Gradually I told more people, including former colleagues and students.  Absolutely everyone was thrilled for me.  If there was any negativity, I never heard about it, but by now I wouldn't be bothered by it anyway.  I imagine the relief I felt must be something like the relief a gay person feels when finally coming out of the closet.  Now your whole truth can be known; now you are free to be who you really are.

Here's where the adoption community (everyone affected by adoption, including adoptive parents, agencies and lawyers, natural mothers and fathers, and adoptees and their siblings) begins to come apart.  For decades adoption was central to a narrative of unmitigated joy, a win-win situation whereby a child gets loving parents and adults with over-sized hearts get the family they've dreamed of.  Natural mothers, when they were considered at all, were seen as either unfit undesirables or the noblest of the noble.  Adoptees were "chosen," and adoptive families were no different from any other.  Instead of languishing in orphanages, babies could be rescued, given new identities and new lives.  They were as lucky as characters in a fairy tale.  Only now the narrative is changing, thanks to all those "angry" adoptees whose lives weren't quite the happy-ever-after that had been promised and those natural mothers who still, decades later, mourned the loss of their children and longed to be reunited with them.  The puzzle with the pretty picture of happy families began to break up; money played a bigger and bigger role in adoption, forcing families to go to extreme lengths to raise
the necessary funds; and many placing agencies were found to be riddled with corruption.

I have gone from being an idealistic advocate for adoption to its enemy.  I deplore the treatment of mothers during the BSE and am appalled by current efforts to obtain babies from mothers with a crisis pregnancy.  I understand the anger of adoptees whose lives were charted for them by others, who had no say in contracts that they are now bound by.  I have no trouble saying, I hate adoption, and today when I see adoptive families I can't help but cringe.  And yet...and yet, I recognize that for some kids adoption is the best, perhaps the only, option.  How can I be anti-adoption and pro-adoption at the same time?  Much the same way as I can be pro-choice and pro-life at the same time.

We don't say we're "pro-abortion," because most everyone recognizes that no woman ever said to herself, "I think I'll get pregnant so I can have an abortion."  An abortion is never a happy choice, but sometimes it may be a necessary one.  Adoption is never a happy choice either.  Every adoption begins with loss and trauma (Read Nancy Verrier's "Primal Wound").  Because adoptive parents have written the script for so long, the story has been a mostly happy one, but the story line is changing.  How should we deal with children who, for whatever reason, can't remain with their mothers?  The old way has been to construct a house of lies: adoptive families are no different; parents love adopted children the same way they do biological ones; it's the woman who tucks you in bed and wipes your tears who is the "real" mother; happy adoptees aren't interested in their biological families; natural mothers forget and move on with their lives.  If we could get rid of the lies, perhaps we'd be on our way to finding better solutions to the problem of children in need.  Instead of adopting a kid, become her legal guardian, with all the authority and responsibility of a parent but without the pretense.  Never withhold a child's information about her family history, and certainly never prevent adult adoptees from reuniting with their parents.  That is their business and no one else's.  Instead of harvesting babies from poor countries, spend more money helping poor families keep their children.  And yet...and yet.

I know many international adoptees and have no doubt that their lives in America are far better than they would have been in their country of origin.  I knew I couldn't save every Vietnamese orphan, but I could give one a better life, and I believe I did.  Was my son lucky because he lost everything and became a human transplant, or was he denied his true identity and native culture?  He's lived in this country since he was nine months old and would be as alien in Vietnam today as I would be.  The past cannot be undone, nor should it be.  If the engine that drives international adoption is really the welfare of children, then there is much we can do to help children remain in their own homes, but if the intent is to obtain babies for adults, then we have our priorities all wrong.  I wanted to adopt my Vietnamese son because I wanted to "rescue an orphan," but if I'm honest, I wanted to adopt for my own personal reasons as well, to fulfill a deep, unacknowledged need of my own.  I understand the overwhelming desire to parent a child, but I cannot privilege an adult's longings above a child's right to his own family.

What I can't stand hearing are comments like: If we can't have our own, we'll just adopt.  If we don't have a girl next time, we'll adopt one.  It's not fair when people who would make great parents can't have their own kids, yet lousy parents have as many as they can pop out.  (No, it's not fair.)  In every adoption someone gets crushed.  You can deny the trauma to the infant separated from his mother; you can dismiss the natural mother's grief as hysteria or neurosis; you can ignore the statistics about mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide among adoptees; but this kind of lying seems to me rather like citizens in a totalitarian state pretending that all is well.  That kind of cognitive dissonance has to take its toll, whether it's adoptive parents' fear of losing their children to the biological family, the adoptee's sense of alienation, or the natural mother's endless grief or numbness.

I wish I had done more than tell my adopted son how glad I was that we adopted him.  I should have explained more about his past, asked him how he felt, and really listened to him.  I should have empathized with him rather than expecting him to "just [be] one of the crowd," as I described him to a newspaper reporter on the day he became a naturalized American citizen at age 12.  I should not have been so mystified by his childhood rages.  So many shoulds. 

No one gets a "do over" in life, but the stories people tell shape their society.  When adoptees, natural mothers, and adoptive parents peel back the lies, deceptions, and excuses, and honestly tell the truth, the future can be better for others.  If anything I write convinces a mother with a crisis pregnancy to think hard about what giving away her child will mean, to find the courage to fight for her motherhood, then I will have succeeded.  I don't wish my experience on anyone.  Adoption was not beautiful for me and it wasn't for my sons either.  Every adoptee is not crushed by being adopted; many thrive, just as many soldiers return from battle and view their military service as the highlight of their lives.  But we know that many veterans do return broken in mind and body, and we honor them.  We should do no less for those babies, thousands (millions?) now grown up and still hurting, whose lives were changed forever because someone who wanted to be a mother couldn't be.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Politics of Herding Cats

My own reunion journey has had many stages: anxiety mingled with anticipation, the euphoria of discovery, a bottoming-out in long-delayed grief, inchoate anger.  There is no way I could have circumvented or shortened any of these stages, nor in retrospect would I want to.  Each has taught me valuable lessons, and I am still learning.  Today I'm more committed than ever to unsealing all adoption records and giving adoptees access to their original birth certificates, as 14 (I believe that's the correct number) of states have already done.  Anyone familiar with adoptionland is aware of the arguments (overwhelming) in favor of complete access and the resistance of a relative handful of legislators, adoption "professionals," and adoptive parents who want these records kept locked away permanently.  My intention here is not to rehash those arguments but to consider how we can best proceed with what is ultimately a political issue.

Social change is often glacial: slow but inexorable.  It is not inevitable and requires vigilance and commitment to change that may take generations to reach fulfillment.  What I see now is not yet a movement, though I hope and expect it will soon become one, just as Occupy and Black Lives Matter have.  We begin with raised awareness, then lean our collective shoulders against the closed doors of the past.  There is never unanimity among political groups, but such entities that are well-organized around a few easily articulated goals have the best chance of succeeding. 

I'm not an activist.  I've supported various causes over the course of my life--opposition to the Vietnam War, support for civil rights, natural childbirth, adoption, and now adoption reform--but I've never marched in the streets or held a candle in a nighttime vigil.  In any drama the protagonists take center stage, but, as in Greek tragedy, the chorus plays an important role as well.  I consider myself part of the chorus, and I believe that if enough of us shout loudly enough we will be able to push the central actors (legislators, lawyers, adoption agencies) to do the right thing.

Today people who are essentially on the same side, who want access to OBCs, family preservation rather than separation of mother and baby, the removal of the financial incentive in adoption, and total transparency, sometimes quarrel about whether it's better to work within the system or attempt to kick it down.  I'm of two minds about this myself.  In the 'sixties I often heard the arguments, "It's too soon; the nation isn't ready for full equality."  Or "You can't legislate morality."  I also heard, "If not now, when?"  And "Justice delayed is justice denied."  I've often wondered how we can accept an evil today that we know will be anathema tomorrow, but we do it all the time.  St. Augustine understood this: "Lord, make me chaste.  But not yet."  Is it better to compromise in order to get something or to stand on principle and risk gaining everything or losing it all?  This is the very conflict we're witnessing now in our politics with the Iran deal and climate change.  When I look at the problems facing our nation and our world, I favor compromise, anything that will move us toward our goal rather than keep us stuck in an untenable present.  I must conclude, then, that in adoption reform compromise must be accepted.

(I wish there were another phrase than "adoption reform."  I want reform, yes, but what I really want is an end to adoption as we know it.  That's why "family preservation" seems more appropriate.)

Everyday I read posts where people call each other out for not toeing some line or other.  Some cheered when Gov. Christie signed a bill granting limited access to OBCs in New Jersey; others railed against the bill for not going far enough.  Of course, it makes no sense that what is legal in one state should be illegal in another, but that is an inconsistency that has plagued our nation from the beginning.  I don't see Christie as any kind of hero.  He's obstructed adoption reformists at every turn and only gave in when he was forced to.  But he did sign the bill, and that's something.  Many people worked long and hard to get that much.  I don't believe they deserved to be called "sell outs."

It is naive to think change can come without compromise.  Principled intransigence may be emotionally satisfying and morally gratifying, and in extreme circumstances (in Nazi Germany, the struggle for voting rights or gender equality) intransigence may be an effective or necessary strategy, but in the complex world of adoption, with all its exceptions and ambiguities, a monolithic stance is more likely to be an impediment to change than a conduit.  We need to stop squabbling among ourselves, stop seeing our own personal experience as exemplary.  One swallow does not make a summer, and one successful adoption is not an argument for adoption in general.  Whatever the circumstances, it all boils down to civil rights and human dignity, what our country was (supposedly) founded upon.  All citizens have the right to full information about their family of origin.  Adoption (I prefer legal guardianship) should always be the last resort in extraordinary circumstances, and there should be no money exchanged for a child.  Now, what do we need to do to achieve these goals? 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why I Once Worked for an Adoption Agency

If you've visited my blog before, you know that in 1968 I relinquished my firstborn son to adoption and in 1974 I (along with my then-husband) adopted a baby boy from Vietnam.  I also have two more children born to me, a son and a daughter.  This blog is my attempt to explain my own actions in relation to adoption in hopes of better understanding myself and the adoption industry.

When my first raised son was about two years old, his father and I became friends with a couple who had adopted a baby from Korea through Holt International.  When we first went to their house for dinner, we entered a huge, turn-of-the-century stone house with turrets and a giant verandah.  Downstairs was the art gallery K. owned and where she planned to give my artist-husband a one-man show.  The family, that included a little girl about my son's age and the baby, lived upstairs. After looking around the gallery, we followed our hosts upstairs, where the children were waiting. There are moments that remain crystalized in the memory, and my first glimpse of little P.L., their eight-month-old Korean child, stays with me.  That was when I knew what I needed to do: adopt a child myself.  

I realize now that I was motivated by my own deep grief and sense of loss, that I wanted to fill the hole in my heart left by my firstborn and restore balance to my life, but at the time those motivations remained opaque.  It wasn't that I didn't make the connection between my first baby and my desire to adopt.  I did, but I failed to see it for what it truly was: an effort at redemption or atonement, a desire to mother a baby in expiation for my failure to mother my own.  It would be interesting to know what motivated my husband to go along with me.  He had made it very clear that he didn't want to raise my first son and in fact felt betrayed by the fact that I'd been with someone before meeting him.  We never talked about my lost baby, and this untouchable topic eventually destroyed our marriage.  Our financial situation was precarious.  I was teaching high school English while B. sold a painting every now and then, just enough to encourage him to keep trying to make it as an artist.  Our friends with the art gallery were his most generous patrons, so it wasn't as if we had a surplus of wealth to find a purpose for.  B. hadn't wanted my baby, but now, barely three years later, he was eager to adopt one.  We decided to adopt a black or mixed-race infant, in part because we figured white babies had plenty of families that would want them, in part because we wanted to break down racial barriers.  I was aware that some black social workers disapproved of placing black children with white families, but I thought they were just demonstrating reverse prejudice.  Eventually we adopted a baby through Holt, the agency our friends had used.  When asked what kind of child we'd like--rather like placing an order in a restaurant I now think--we specified an infant under a year old, a boy (we knew they were harder to place), and part black (also harder to place).  B. sold a painting just in time for us to pay the $10,000 fee, and our son came to us when he was nine months old.  I was as passionate about adopting this baby as I'd been when expecting our older child.  He was adorable, and as a young mother I had no idea the of depth of trauma he'd suffered in his brief life or how profoundly affected by it he would be.  Surely love would be enough, and we would be an example to the world of what a loving family looks like.  In short, I believed in adoption and saw myself as one of its most enthusiastic proponents.

 What made me change my mind?  

I taught at a state university for nearly thirty years, always part-time or as an adjunct, never with the security of tenure.  During one period of budget cuts by the state legislature, I was one of the lecturers let go to save money.  My life was teaching, and I was devastated.  I believed the career I'd worked so hard to achieve, precarious though it was, was now closed to me.  I was only in my forties, nowhere near retirement, and I had to find a way to make some money.  But more than that, I needed to find another career that would be as fulfilling as teaching had been.  My new husband was retired and, though I didn't know it at the time, deeply in debt.  I had to find a job.  I considered getting a degree in social work; I knew I wanted to help people.  Returning to the editorial work I'd done when first out of college wasn't an option; I'd hated what seemed like drudgery to me.  I wanted human interaction, not a desk beneath flourescent lights.  What do I believe in? I asked myself.  Adoption.  That was something I could embrace and for which I felt eminently qualified.  After all, I'd had lots of real-world experience, so I called around to various agencies that I found in the phone book.  I was willing to start at the bottom, stuffing envelopes if necessary.  A small, independent international adoption agency, which consisted of the director and one part-time social worker to do home studies, hired me to be a secretary/receptionist.  I would not be involved in the actual adoption process, but I would be able to interact with prospective parents, share my story, and offer advice if asked. 

At first I was grateful to the director for hiring me.  I was a lousy secretary, but apparently I had a good telephone voice, and I made people feel comfortable, but it didn't take long for things to begin falling apart, quite literally.  The first week I pulled too hard on a desk drawer and damaged it so much it wouldn't close.  It soon became clear to me that for the director the agency was a business, not a service.  She had plans for me to eventually travel to Guatemala, where many of the orphans she placed originated from.  She had contacts with orphanages and lawyers there, and part of my job was faxing information to them.  I read the guidelines for adoptive parents traveling to Guatemala to pick up their children and was not encouraged.  Leave all your he jewelry at home.  Don't go out at night.  Don't travel alone.  Be prepared for the unexpected.  It was I who typed up the home studies and kept all the files in order, so I became familiar with the adoption process from beginning to end, including the tens of thousands of dollars it cost.  The office was filled with brochures and albums, chock-a-block with photos and bios of available children.  So many beautiful children, and because of us some would have a chance at a "better" life in America.  That was what I thought.  The rampant corruption in the Guatemalan adoption business had not yet risen to crisis level, leading to the complete shutdown of adoption there.  I've often wondered whether the agency I worked for  contributed to the abuses, the kidnappings, the outright buying of babies from desperate mothers. 

Most of the prospective parents seemed like genuinely good people.  Their desire for a child was painful to see, and I could tell that some were terrified they'd be turned down, something that almost never happened.  Because I was privy to all the financial statements, I knew that no one even started the process who didn't have the money to afford it.  I remember one family in particular.  It was the husband's second marriage, and he had a twenty-year old son who was schizophrenic.  The father was a tobacco company executive, and the son lived in his own house next door to his parents'.  The wife wanted a baby, so they were planning to adopt from Latin America, Paraguay, I believe it was.  I never met these people in person, but I heard from the social worker what their home was like.  Everything in their enormous house was white, including the wife's pet poodle.  The dog wore a faux-diamond collar (I assume it was faux) and was obviously the center of attention.  I tried to picture a young child in that environment and couldn't do it.  A schizophrenic older brother, a spoiled mother, a frequently absent father, and a world of white to not despoil.  How would a little child from an impoverished orphanage cope with all that? And how much more could have been done to support the orphanage with what the adoption cost?

I worked at the agency for about eight months, and when the fall semester rolled around, I was rehired at my old university as an Assistant Director of the Honors Program.  I had my old life back, and it was even better than before.  By then I'd grown very uncomfortable with my job and was relieved when I was able to give my notice.  I settled back into academia and as time went by I had time to reflect on my experience.  I was glad to have had the opportunity to see the inside of an adoption operation, but I became increasingly uneasy about it.  My own adopted son had not had an easy time of it, and I was aware of other adoptees who had struggled.  It was one thing when my son was very young and we socialized with other families with internationally adopted children.  Babies, toddlers, and young children are like kittens; it's hard to see anything wrong with them.  But as my son approached adolescence, life was not so candy-colored.  My husband and I divorced when my children were fourteen, ten, and eight.  Let's just say that the next ten years were the most difficult of my life, which means, of course, that they were difficult for my children too, my adopted son especially.  What I had once believed was a near-perfect family had become something very imperfect indeed, and I began to realize that the source of much, if not all, of the difficulty was adoption, beginning with the relinquishment of my first son.  At the time I tended to blame my adopted son for the disruption in our household.  He had difficulties at school, and I was called in for teacher conferences many, many times.  Eventually he got in trouble with the law and thus began years of repeated arrests and incarcerations. 

Through all this chaos, I believed there was something wrong with him.  His first months with us were a nightmare of screaming, clinging, and constant diarrhea.  No one had told me that many Asian children are lactose intolerant, and I poured milk into that child like there was no tomorrow.  He couldn't be alone in a room and was easily frustrated, which frustrated me.  Until he was four, he suffered from night terrors that woke the entire family.  Thinking he would outgrow these behaviors, we remained hopeful.  Seeking help would have seemed like an admission of failure, and there was no one to consult anyway.  I was a good parent to our older son, but the parenting techniques that worked with him were no good at all with our adopted son, and I was too uninformed about adoption to know what was really going on.  Now that he's grown up and there's nothing I can do about his childhood, I realize that his behavior was exactly what one might expect from a black child adopted into a white family.  Not all transracial adoptees end up in juvenile court, of course, but one of my son's counselors told me that most of the kids he dealt with were adopted.  I found that astonishing then. I don't now. 

It's very hard to let go of a belief you've cherished for decades.  It's incredibly difficult to admit that sometimes love is not enough, that patience has limits, and depression is not something you can switch off like a light.  My depression probably began while I was in college, but when I lost my son to adoption it became a constant companion.  Anyone who's suffered from depression knows how hard it is to carry on, but it wasn't until the end of my second marriage that I sought professional help.  My children were raised by a depressed mother, my career was impacted by my illness, and my judgment was in many ways compromised by desperate emotional need.  Now that I'm nearing 70 and am in a third, happy marriage, I can look back at those bleak years and wonder how I managed to get us all through them.  The one consistent element for the past 47 years has been adoption.  It would be impossible to understand anything about me or my family without taking that into account.

Plenty has been written about the corruption in international adoption.  See especially The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce.  Books and articles like hers are important to raising awareness, and they need to be supported and augmented by the individual stories of those who have lived adoption.  Fortunately more adoptees are coming forward, writing blogs and books, and exposing the truth that has been kept hidden and that the adoption industry is still trying to suppress.  The adoption industry and adoptive parents have controlled the narrative for so long most people don't even realize there's another side to it.  Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the arc of history bends toward justice.  I'd like to say that the arc of adoption bends toward truth, but it can't so long as adoptees are denied their birthright and their identity and women with a "crisis" pregnancy are fed the adoption Kool Aid.  I drank the Kool Aid, and I drank deeply; I nearly drowned in it.  But old beliefs can be shed and a more honest life is possible.  If only I'd known then what I know now.  How many times have I told myself that? 

What do I know now?

I know that every mother deserves to raise her own child, and every baby deserves to stay with his own mother.  Shame, poverty, youth, even drug addiction, are all temporary and subject to amelioration.  Adoptive parents aren't better; they're just different, as prone to dysfunction as any other family. 

I know that culture matters, and plucking a child out of his original familial and cultural environment is an insult to his identity and abrogates his autonomy.

I know that natural mothers never forget their children, and most adopted children suffer a loss they often cannot identify, understand, or get over.

I know that some people have children who don't deserve to be parents, and some wonderful people who would make great parents won't have children.  Life can be unfair in that regard, but taking babies from their own families is a cruel remedy.  I feel sorry for anyone who longs for something her very soul seems to need, but I now know that babies are not transferable. 

I know from my own sons how adoption affects adoptees, and there is nothing I can do now to alter their experience or completely alleviate their resulting pain.

I won't try to tell my sons' stories.  Each of my children undoubtedly has a different story to tell, and it would be presumptuous of me to try to speak for them.  I don't pretend to speak for all mothers-of-loss, but I'd feel remiss if I didn't share what it's taken me nearly 50 years to learn.  I fell off the track of my life when I was barely 22, and I never fully regained my footing.  Like anyone with a secret tragedy, I learned to manage, to go on and make the best of things, but rather than being fully present in my own life, whether it was parenting my children or building a career, I was like a marathon runner with one leg or a swimmer with one lung.  Adoptees, I am told and have read, learn to fit into an alien family, to be a human chameleon.  A mother-of-loss learns to imitate wholeness.  Historically, various marginalized groups have struggled to remain invisible: the disabled, minorities, and those impacted by adoption.  It isn't so long ago that a child with Down syndrome was immediately shuffled off to an institution, African-Americans were refused service in restaurants, adopted children were not told they were adopted, and their mothers were told to forget and never speak of their past.  We have made lots of progress in this country when it comes to social justice, but we still have a long way to go to protect adoptee rights and offer adequate support to all mothers.

Part of me is ashamed that I ever thought working for an adoption agency was a good idea.  It strikes me now as rather like working for a tobacco company.  Just because something is legal and common doesn't make it right, and I feel as if I should have known better.  But if I were ashamed of working there, I would have to be just as ashamed of relinquishing one son and adopting another.  The thought of anything shameful being associated with any of my children is extremely painful to me.  I feel guilt for not knowing enough or being strong enough at critical junctures in my life, but I did what seemed best in the moment.  The hardest thing is trying to forgive myself.  When I hear other mothers' stories, I never condemn them because I know what decisions made in desperation can lead to.  Maybe forgiveness isn't ultimately the issue.  I remember a scene from the TV mini-series "Lonesome Dove."  A young prostitute has been captured by Indians and repeatedly raped (if memory serves).  She is rescued by the Robert Duvall character, and they sit together around a campfire in the dark.  "They shouldn't have done that," the young woman says.  "No," says Duvall in his laconic way.  "They shouldn't have done that.  But they did."  For some things there can be no redress, but it's important for there to be acknowledgement.