Sunday, November 16, 2014

Is the Primal Wound Real?

Ever since I read Nancy Verrier's The Primal Wound, I've relied on it to make sense of what happened to my son and me when I relinquished him for adoption in 1968.  Reading the book for the first time was a revelation, and suddenly my feelings of over forty years made sense.  There are those who say the primal wound is a myth, that it's not scientific and can't be proved.  I don't know, but I suspect those who dismiss the primal wound are "birth" mothers and adoptees who are at least satisfied with their lives.  Some older "birth" mothers may have found peace and laid their grief to rest, while younger ones may feel justified, relieved, even proud. 

I've been reading literature all my life, and it's given me a lot more wisdom than even my long lifetime of experience could have provided.  It's given me a way of interpreting the world, other people, even myself.  I believe that each of us constructs a narrative of our own life.  As David Copperfield implies in the first sentence of Dickens' novel-- "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show"-- every person's life is a story with, if not a hero, a central protagonist--him/herself.  Literature follows Hamlet's precept to "hold up a mirror to nature."  You might ask if Hamlet is true.   Or the Iliad.  Or Oedipus Rex.  Did the events described in these great works actually happen?  Are they real?  They did not happen as depicted historically, but they are true nonetheless.  You don't bring a scientist in when you analyze a text, because some truths are not quantifiable or measurable.  When it comes to human experience, you need a heart as well as a mind to try to understand it.  If a work speaks to you, what it says is true.  If your experience evokes feelings in you, those feelings are real, whether anyone else responds the way you do or not.  There is Truth (measurable, quantifiable, replicable) and there is truth that is uniquely personal. 

The primal wound is my truth.  It explains my own experience and, I believe, that of my son.  Someone with a cold sneezes on you and on me, but only I become sick.  Should you then assume cold viruses aren't real?  There is no need to argue about this, as some have done.  If you relinquished a baby and feel no less intact than you did before, then either you have been unaffected by the primal wound or it has yet to open.  But if you lost your child to adoption and never recovered, then the primal would is as real as love or delight or sorrow or any of the myriad emotions no one would dare dispute.  Of course, the primal wound is real.  I have felt it and known it my entire adult life, and all I can ask is that others respect my own understanding of what happened to me. 

Perhaps it's akin to religion.  I'm not religious, so I suppose in some ways I'm like those who pooh-pooh the idea of the primal wound.  But I know people for whom religious belief is as real as the sunrise.  I respect that, and while I don't understand it, I would be ungracious to argue against it.  I'm not equating the physiological and psychological trauma of mother/baby separation with religious faith, but I suggest that they may be in some ways analogous.  The Bibe is constructed out of stories that many Christians take at face value.  My life is the story I tell myself, just as history is the story human beings tell about their culture and collective experience.  When we look for guides to living, we look to stories, not to the stars or the test tube.  Science tells us what is; stories tell us what it all means.  The primal wound is my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beginning in the Middle

"I have been forced to sit in the audience of my son's life, watching a fictional story being played out in front of my eyes.  The reality being that strangers are living my life as my child's mother and grandmother."--Lily Arthur in Adoptionland: From Orphans to Activists

I've been reading a lot online in recent days about National Adoption Month and Orphan Sunday, and I am flooded with reactions and emotions, most of them none too pleasant.  November has been celebrated as National Adoption Month for about a decade and was initially begun as a way to find homes for the thousands of children languishing in foster care, a notoriously unsatisfactory place for a child to grow up.  It was about children and their needs, not advocacy for those wishing to adopt infants and toddlers, but that has changed.  These days "adoption" is all-inclusive and seldom makes a distinction among the various kinds of adoption.

November is also the month when we celebrate our veterans, acknowledge their sacrifice, and honor their service to our country.  We honor our soldiers, but we do not celebrate the wars they fought.  I see parallels between adoption and war.  Perhaps reflecting on a few similarities will help me understand both a bit better.

War is hell.  No one disputes this.  War always involves suffering, violence, chaos, and loss.  When evil becomes too overwhelming to be ignored, then responsible people step up to combat it, even though they know what it will cost.  In other words, sometimes war is
necessary.  The same can be said of adoption.

For some, adoption is hell as well, but it's a hell that is not acknowledged or fully understood.  Every adoption is grounded in tragedy.  There is no adoption without adoption loss.  A mother loses her child.  A father is dismissed as irrelevant.  A child loses his identity and his heritage.  The only winners are the adoptive parents and those children whose fates would have been dangerously compromised had they remained with their original parents.  But those children suffer too.  Whatever the circumstances of a child's adoption, there is pain preceding it, and the pain doesn't end the day the child goes to his new home.

I keep thinking that if I can find the right words to describe adoption loss, the trauma of separation experienced by both mother and baby, and the near-impossibility of ever being rid of the unique pain felt by adoptees and their mothers, I will be able to convert what is inchoate into something clear and manageable, but that's not happening.  Is it pessimistic to believe that life is one long string of hurts, strung along between good times but always present, the way scars are omnipresent?   You can slap makeup on a scar or hide it beneath a shirt, but without serious medical intervention you can't get rid of it, yet we live despite our scars, both emotional and physical.  I guess I think of life as "despite..." rather than "thanks to...." 

The initiative to "Flip the Script" that some adoptees are urging on Facebook has got me thinking more about adoption from the adoptee's point of view.  I've always tried to do this with my adopted son, though I now realize with how little success.  I no more understand what it's like to be adopted than I can imagine crouching behind a bomb-blasted wall.  In the presence of those who do  know those things, the rest of us should probably maintain a respectful silence, but a sense of shared humanity leads me to try.

Something that many adoptees have commented upon is the difficulty of truly fitting in with either the adoptive family or the biological one after reunion.  It makes me think of Sandra Bullock drifting off into space in that movie, no longer tethered to earth but an alien in the hostile environment of the vast unknown.  When I was very young, I was invited to spend the night with a friend I didn't know all that well.  Our parents were friends, and I suppose that's what led to the invitation.  I remember having dinner at their house, then going to bed in a strange bedroom and longing to be back in my own house, in my own bed, with my own parents in the next room.  What if I'd had to stay in that strange house indefinitely?  What if I'd never seen my parents again?  My friend's parents were kind to me, but I felt no connection to them whatsoever.  Is that how an adoptee feels, amplified a hundred or a thousand times? 

As a "birth" mother in reunion with my first son, and as the adoptive mother of another son, I am trying to see the world from their perspectives.  I know that being a "birth" mother is like being an emotional amputee.  A part of my very self was missing for over 40 years.  I didn't feel like an alien in my own life, but I did feel I was breathing with one lung.  Did my sons look around them, searching for something that was undeniably their own and never finding it?  I've had jobs that twisted me into someone I didn't want to be, and I remember feeling I was in the wrong place where nothing fit.  I worked in offices that enclosed my spirit like a straight-jacket, and I taught in schools that felt populated by hostile forces that I had to control by being a very different person from what I normally am.  Until I settled into  teaching at a congenial university, I never felt I fit in anywhere.  Most people undoubtedly share those feelings at one time or another, but not fitting in at work and not fitting into your family are not comparable.  As Robert Frost wrote, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."  But "home" for an adoptee is always provisional.  Ties of blood are indissoluble, no matter how disrupted the relationship might be.  But adoption is a contract, and everyone knows deep down that contracts can be broken.  Love is not enough to ensure permanence, as any divorced person can attest.

Is it possible for a family to reconstitute itself, for a mother and child long separated to reconstruct Home?  I want to believe it is, but I know now how difficult that will be.  Beginning a mother-child relationship when the child is an adult is rather like building the second floor of a house first.  Until the substructure is strong enough, you have to keep it aloft by sheer will, a will comprised not of bricks and beams but of love.  Somehow I believe love will prove sufficient to the task, that despite lacking blueprints, the new structure will endure.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Flying Blind

Adoption reunion.  Two little words; a vast, uncharted territory.  I remember reading What To Expect When You're Expecting when I was pregnant with my two raised babies, and there were plenty of other books to get women prepared for the rigors of birth that I read too.  I practiced Lamaze exercises and learned breathing techniques as I "rehearsed" for childbirth.  The preparation didn't eliminate the pain, but it did help me at least know what would happen and give me ways of coping with it.  I can't imagine giving birth without those preliminaries.

Finding the son I lost to adoption was a different sort of birth, the beginning of a new relationship that had virtually nothing to go on.  The few days I spent in the hospital, when I was able to hold my son and feed him, were precious and irreplaceable, but a 44-year old man is not a tiny baby.  How is a mother supposed to relate to a child she never knew?  I had no idea.  I was flying blind.

Two books were invaluable to me in early reunion: Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self, both by adoptive mother and therapist Nancy Verrier.  The first helped me understand the trauma David and I had suffered as a result of our separation and its lasting consequences, the second gave me insight into the mind and heart of the adult adoptee.  Both are essential to an understanding of adoption, but when it came to reunion I was a deer in the headlights.

I'd been warned.  The wonderful women from SunflowerFirstMoms have been with me every step of the way, and without them I'd be even crazier than I am, without a doubt.  Still, like childbirth, nothing can substitute for the lived experience.  I had to go through my reunion, which would be like no other, in order to incorporate it into my self.  Every reunion is unique, but the same cast of characters is involved every time.  A mother and her child.  This is what is happening with mine.

First Stage (early labor, if you will):  One day it floated into my head that there was nothing stopping me from searching for my son.  My parents were gone, my husband was understanding,  my raised children were grown, and I was retired from teaching.  The time seemed right, and I immediately took to the internet and began sending out feelers.  A woman who seemed nice actually called me from Florida and offered her services as a searcher--for a hefty fee.  I was willing to pay and had considered hiring a private investigator, but fortunately I stumbled upon N.Y. Liberty Angels and discovered that there are Search Angels who search for family members lost to adoption, and they charge nothing.  I made contact, was assigned a Search Angel, and in no time at all, she came up with a name.  "Look on Facebook, and see if he's there."  I did, and he was, but he didn't get my message until three weeks later, when he finally went on Facebook to check his birthday greetings.  He responded to my earlier email, "Hi, Mom.  Call me."  And the rest is history.  I had found him and heard his voice.  He was real, and he sounded amazing.

Second Stage: (still early labor).  Hey, this is really happening.  Those first flutters were indeed the harbinger of things to come.  Now we're really into it.  Frequent phone calls and long emails.  "We can't talk on the phone every day," I told him.  I didn't talk to my other kids that often.  "Why not?" he replied.  Why not, indeed?  My husband was the soul of patience, watching TV in another room while David and I talked and talked and talked.  We had so much to say, forty-four years' worth of living and wondering, while never imagining we'd ever be together.  It was the euphoria of early love, when all thoughts turn toward the beloved like iron filings to the north pole.  Everything still seemed unreal, or surreal, like a 3-D dream.  I'd read about things that could go wrong in reunion--pullbacks, rejection, anger, the "roller coaster of reunion"--but that wasn't going to happen to us.  We were going to prove the skeptics wrong.  David was thrilled to be found, I was thrilled to have my son, and I couldn't imagine a greater happiness.

Third Stage (transition):  If grief is a mountain, and the grief over losing a child to adoption is like a mountain that adds layers as the years go by, it is inevitable that at some point that mountain will fall on you and bury you alive.  During the first few weeks, David emailed me photos of himself from the age of 3 weeks, when his adoptive parents first took him home, through his toddler and young childhood years, then into the teen years, and finally young adulthood.  There's one picture of him at age six where he looks a lot like I did at that age.  In fact, David looks more like me than any of my children.  Saskia has my eyes, but she and Tanner take more after their dad's side of the family.  It was like an electric shock when I saw David in person for the first time.  He looked so much like me.

I  poured over these pictures, arranged them in chronological order, and studied them so closely I memorized every detail, but gradually it became more and more difficult to look at them.  Those precious images ground it into me that the child in them was lost to me forever.  No matter how wonderful having David was now, there were 44 lost years that could never be recovered.  I felt completely shut out of his life and could no longer maintain either the denial that had helped me endure or the joy of his discovery.  I felt emotionally like those Chilean minors who were trapped underground for so long and as isolated as an island seen through the wrong end of a telescope.  Sadness clung to me like a cobweb.  I don't know how to describe feelings except through metaphor, yet no words can adequately capture what I felt.  I wrote about it all as I lived through it, yet when I go back a re-read what I said, the emotion that I thought I was pouring onto the screen seems drained away.  I went crazy with grief.  The mountain crumbled, which meant it was breaking up and could one day be carted away, but I was stuck in the avalanche.   

Post-partum (I'll end this strained analogy here): Mothers who have experienced post-partum depression--and I am one--know that for no apparent reason a time that is the highlight of your life can also be a descent into darkness.  You have what you've wanted and thought about for nine months.  You can look into your baby's face, smell her hair, and feel her warmth beating against you, and nothing has ever been as wonderful.  But you feel like a peeled egg, with no protective layers.  You are in a tunnel and everything seems to be coming at you from a great distance.  These feelings have no reason behind them and are deeper than a mere mood.  Even your own mind seems to be turning against you, and you are afraid to be alone.

I don't know how it is for other mothers reunited with their long-lost children, but my reunion was a time of both euphoria and despair.  Perhaps the emotional upheaval of reunion triggers a hormonal response similar to that following a birth.  Whatever is happening, it certainly takes over every part of you--physically, emotionally, psychologically.  I felt as if I could barely be contained within my own skin, as if I desperately needed to escape my own body but was trapped.  Sitting quietly was a torment, but movement brought little relief.  I turned to friends, my therapist, and sometimes my kids, though I hated to pull them into what was consuming me.  I thought about my son every moment of every day, and my obsession split me in two.  I felt as if half of me were 700 miles away with my son, while the other half was in my comfortless home.  I wanted to relax, but I was as tense and edgy as an unbroken horse new to the bridle.  Everything became an effort, and I stopped writing my blog, saw only a couple of old friends, and found even the social interaction required by a visit to the supermarket an almost unbearable strain.  My husband was patient, but I knew I was neglecting him, if only because I was so distracted.  I felt completely out of control of my emotions and more than a little crazy.

My son was enduring his own emotional trials, compounded of shock, joy, and a feeling quite new to him: love.  But for him, as for me, reunion unleashed torrents.  Decades of the self-discipline adoptees exercise had left him isolated, lonely, and living on the surface of his life.  Now that surface was broken, and he fell through to a new reality, overwhelming in its power and strangeness.  To compress a long story into a manageable tale, he plunged deeper into his chronic alcoholism and suffered a nervous breakdown that led to hospitalizations and eventually AA and several stints in rehab.  It's my belief that, just as post-partum depression is often a real consequence of childbirth, "adoptee syndrome" is a frequent response to adoption, reunion, and the inherent instability of the adoptee's life, no matter how "successful" the adoption might appear.  A confused sense of self and identity, a feeling of worthlessness and a fear of abandonment, unfocussed anxiety and hyper-reactivity, and relationship difficulties have all been extensively documented in the adoption literature.  Some adoptees in reunion cannot tolerate these extreme emotions and keep their distance from their mother, even though they are often more willing to engage with siblings or more distant family members.  Denial is a powerful coping strategy, and while it's perhaps presumptuous of me to attribute denial, anger, or a feeling of incompleteness to individuals who stoutly deny them, I maintain that all adoptees must at some level experience the strain of knowing their identity is an assumed one, not who they really are.

It's been almost three years since that first phone call, and a lot of the reunion rubble has been cleared away.  Just as I had to accept the loss of my son to adoption and still manage to live, I've learned to accept that I can never retrieve the past.  I have mourned, incorporated the loss, and reached a place of acceptance that not so long ago I never expected to find.  In many ways, the Kubler-Ross stages of grief apply to adoption loss and reunion as well.  There is denial, anger, depression, and eventually acceptance, which must come if one is to move forward.  But acceptance doesn't mean acquiescence.  

When I gave birth to my daughter, my youngest child, I suffered post-partum depression for the first time.  Why didn't anyone warn me about this, I wondered.  I thought I must be crazy and was afraid to tell anyone, not even my then-husband.  To this day I cannot listen to music that was popular in the weeks after my daughter's birth; it's too reminiscent of overwhelming emotions.  Now I can recall that happy time and remember the joy rather than the craziness, but a song by Roger Whitaker will trigger a response I'd rather not feel.  I believe it's important for mothers-of-loss who are in reunion with their children to let others know what this uncharted territory is like.  Images in the media of the first face-to-face meeting of mother and child are heart-warming to be sure, but they gloss over what should never be forgotten.  The mothers we celebrate with today would not be in this position if they'd been treated with as much compassion then as they are now.  Reunion is Janus-faced, and we must not forget the tragic side to adoption, because every reunion, no matter how happy, is like every adoption, no matter how successful, infinitely more complicated than fleeting images of balloons and embraces.  Without that knowledge, every mother and adoptee entering reunion will be flying blind. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Insufficiency of Optimism

I read a column written by an adoption attorney/adoptive father named Bill Pesch, who apparently lives and works in Guam, which is interesting.  I've actually been to Guam, but that's another story.  Mr. Pesch plans to write four columns about adoption to follow up this first, extremely simplistic one  .

If you don't want to bother reading Mr. Pesch's comments, I can easily summarize them for you.  Adoption is, as he puts it, a "win-win," that brings love and happiness to everyone involved.  He loves his adopted sons, and they are grateful to him, which is as it should be.   (Snarky emphasis mine.)  The world is flooded with such bromides: adoption is a beautiful way to build a family, adoption gives a child a forever family,  adoptive families are just as happy--even happier-- than biological families, adopted children are special because they've been chosen.  The list of cliches is endless, and most people believe them because if you repeat a lie often enough, most people will come to believe it.  (Hitler knew something about this.)

When I relinquished my first son to adoption in 1968, I felt I had no other option.  I did not take this step lightly.  In fact, I agonized over it for months and turned for reassurance and guidance to a kindly social worker whom I trusted.  She knew all the cliches by heart and told them to me over and over: If you love your baby, you will want to give him a good future.  If you love your baby, you will let him have a family with two parents and more money than you have.  If you want to be a good mother, you will let someone else raise your child.  I was told these things again and again, always with great kindness and apparent compassion.  Nothing was said about how I would feel afterwards, and I didn't ask because I didn't want to think that far ahead.  Getting through the days and weeks before my due date took all my energy and concentration.  I knew I wanted to do what was best for my child.  I had long since stopped caring about what was best for me.  I had recently graduated from college, and while I'd had to cancel my plans to go to graduate school, I wasn't worried about my education.  I was only going to grad. school because it seemed more attractive than getting a job, even though I was licensed to teach high school.  But I was pregnant.  Would the university even accept me now?  Surely no school would hire me.  My parents had made it abundantly clear that they weren't prepared to take on any role in my baby's life whatsoever.  "You got yourself into this, you'll have to get yourself out."  That's what I was told--in the kindest possible way.  And so I was pushed, gently but firmly, toward the devastating moment when I signed away my motherhood.

What if I had been told the truth about what actually happened to my son?  Of course, no one could have predicted such an outcome, but just what if I'd been granted a glimpse into the future?  My son was adopted by a surgeon and his wife, who was a maternity nurse.  They believed themselves incapable of having a child, so they had already adopted a little girl.  Now they were ready for another child, and wasn't it lucky for them that I happened to have a boy?  A doctor in a college town.  An intact family with plenty of financial means.  A solid, respected family with a secure place in the community.  I was a frightened barely-22 year old young woman.  It seemed that there were more items in their "pro" column than in mine.  But by the time my son was six, he already felt isolated and unloved.  His older sister was mean to him; his adoptive parents never hugged him or told him they loved him.  He tucked himself in bed at night, and when he misbehaved, he was punished with extended periods of isolation, including having to eat his meals alone.  He was forced to strip down to his underwear and wash the playroom walls when his allowance money went missing, even though he hadn't taken it.  By then there were three adopted children, and all had to strip down and scrub until the guilty party confessed.  My son was innocent but confessed just to end the ordeal.  The others were let off; he was made to continue scrubbing.  When he broke his arm at hockey practice, his adoptive parents didn't want to believe him and delayed getting him treatment.  When it turned out that he had indeed broken his arm, they were annoyed rather than sympathetic.  When he was a teenager, his adoptive father told him if he didn't get a haircut within 24 hours, he could move out of the house.  He took the threat seriously, as his sister had already been placed in a foster home.  The adoptive father was an alcoholic, leaving my son with an enduring sense of dread.  His adoptive mother punched him in the face and broke his nose when he attempted to defend his younger brother from his sister's teasing.  She then made him return to the dinner table and finish his dinner, even though his nose was still bleeding.

And what about me?  How did I fare in the years after losing my son?  I shut down emotionally and lived a surface life.  I married, had other children, even adopted a son, and tried to live as if my life had not been broken in two.  No one in my family ever mentioned my son, and I never referred to him.  So far as the world was concerned, my son didn't exist, but I thought about him everyday.  I love my raised children, but no child can be a replacement for another.  This is, perhaps, the greatest fallacy in adoption: the idea that taking someone else's child can make up for the one you lost or couldn't have.  I adopted because I hoped that somehow I could balance the scales, that by raising another woman's child I could somehow make up for not raising my own.  Others adopt because they can't have a child and desperately want one, and that desperation leads them to convince themselves that one child is as good as another, and if it's a baby, who will ever know the difference?  That way of thinking has been proved wrong over and over again by mothers of loss and adoptees whose sense of self is forever compromised.  I didn't know that day when I signed the final papers and walked away from my social worker's office (this social worker whom I had trusted and confided in and whom I never saw again) that I had signed my own life sentence, as well as my son's. 

Now middle-aged, my first son struggles to overcome alcoholism and serious emotional distress, while my adopted son struggles to rebuild his life after yet another incarceration.  The offspring of an African-American soldier and a Vietnamese mother, he had to try to adapt to a strange white family and an endemically racist society.  Had he been raised by a black family who could have helped him negotiate the racism in this country and thus been spared at least some of the difficulties he faced growing up, would that have made a difference?  We can never know, but my guess is it would have helped.  Had my first son been raised by  affectionate, encouraging parents, would he have the persistent issues with self-esteem and and existential loneliness that plague him?  Both these men have intelligence, talent, and character, and I can't help but believe that given better childhoods they would have accomplished amazing things, and I don't just mean economically.  As it is, surviving has been their primary occupation since birth.  My raised son and daughter who were born to me have all the "normal" flaws every human being has to some degree.  No one is perfect, but if the security of a loving mother who was nurturing from their births means anything, then it shows in them.  We can't experiment with children, B.F. Skinner notwithstanding, but my own family is a kind of test case, in that each child had a very different childhood.  Two sons were adopted, and both have suffered and struggled.  Two were not, and they have much more resilience.  I ask myself, what are the common factors they share and what are the different experiences they had to deal with? 

My own conclusion is that babies separated from their mothers suffer permanent emotional damage that manifests itself in various ways, depending on life circumstances.  My evidence is anecdotal, admittedly, but I believe it is compelling.  I look at my children not as a scientist or an outside observer but as someone intimately connected with each of them in various ways and at various times.  I was there for my adopted son's childhood, and I'm now present in my first son's life and can get his adult perspective on his past.  So far, I have concluded that adoption was not good for either of them.  Granted, my adopted son might not have survived had he been left in Vietnam, and I have no regrets there, but I wonder if he's ever asked himself the question I ask myself.  Would he have had a better time if raised in a black family?  I see the similarities between my first son and myself, and I intuitively understand him in a way I've never understood my adopted son.  Despite a lifetime apart, I recognize myself in him and he in me.  This recognition is, I believe, what makes for good mothering, for the instinctive mutual dance between mother and child.  It cannot be imported or imposed from without.  I'm not talking about love.  I love my adopted son, in some ways in a similar manner to the way I love my husband, but neither will ever be instinctively comprehensible to me; whereas, with my biological children, no matter what they do or feel, I can always empathize with them.

Today we need a corrective to the adoption mythology promulgated by the adoption industry and even by well-intentioned adoptive parents with what appear to be successful families.  There should never be the assumption that adoption is an easy option or a human right or merely an alternative way to have a family.  Adoption is never easy.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it is the best option for a child, but the circumstances leading to it are always tragic.  It is impossible for me to convey the enormity of the loss my son and I experienced, but I know that I am not alone.  I am far from the only woman who amputated part of her soul in order to do what she thought was best for her child.  And mothers today, in the era of "open" adoption, who willingly, even eagerly, relinquish their babies are in a denial so deep it will drown them once they wake up to what they've done.  So what can we do now?  Now that we know what separation does and how adoption affects adoptees?  One of the first steps should be the opening of all adoption records and the restoration of original birth certificates to adult adoptees and their mothers or other family members.  The knowledge of one's own biological identity is fundamental to one's sense of self, and it is a crime to deny it.  We also need greater acceptance of and support for women with crisis pregnancies.  No mother should lose her child because of youth, poverty, or lack of education, temporary conditions that can be ameliorated with adequate family and/or social support.  This will require an enormous shift in attitude, but we have seen such shifts in the recent past when it comes to civil rights, equal opportunity, and marriage equality.  The days of the paternalistic imposition of anonymity on mothers and babies must end, and our assumption that adoption is "beautiful" must be replaced by a more realistic understanding of what it really means. 

I will not be celebrating or honoring November as Adoption Month.  We've seen how Columbus Day has become problematic, because we now acknowledge the reality of what the "discovery" of America meant to indigenous peoples.  How in good conscience can a country celebrate the importation of smallpox, the removal of whole peoples from their own land, and the subjugation of populations for the benefit of invaders?  How in good conscience can we celebrate the severing of the maternal/infant bond so that someone else's desires can be fulfilled?  We memorialize the Holocaust with sorrow.  We sanctify the battlefields of the Civil War, not because we are happy about what happened there.  To celebrate adoption as pure joy is a moral abomination.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Religion as Explanation? Or Excuse?

I keep running into comments from some adoptees who say that God put them in their adoptive families because it was part of a divine plan.  The idea of predestination has been around for a very long time, its very persistence a sign of how deeply human beings want their lives and experiences to have meaning--special, God-given meaning, meaning that transcends the apparent chaos and randomness of the lives we actually live.  I don't want a theological debate, but I must say, if I were in fact religious, that I would find it very hard to believe in a God that would allow a baby to grow inside one woman for the purpose of giving it to another. 

One of the most pernicious lies prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) tell themselves is that God wants them to have someone else's baby.  Taking another woman's baby "wet from the womb" is such a heinous act that the best way to make it palatable, perhaps, is to get permission from God himself to allow you to do it. 

I do not believe that God makes "adoption plans," and I argue that those who claim he does are indulging in a comfortable (for them) delusion.  There is absolutely no sense to the notion that God has a plan for you to adopt this or that baby.

Personally, I can't promote abortion, except in some unfortunate cases that should remain the purview of the pregnant woman and her doctor.  So far as I'm concerned, a healthy woman who becomes pregnant has become a mother, whatever her marital, financial, or educational status.  I have friends who have had abortions because they "weren't ready."  I would never condemn anyone for making the decision to terminate a pregnancy, but I don't see how it can be viewed as anything other than ending a human life.  Liberals, like me, may find the right-wing, anti-abortion lobby ridiculous and/or intrusive, but they are right about one thing: terminating a pregnancy is ending a human life.

That said, I believe there are other choices that can be even more problematic.  An early termination presumably leaves only the mother to feel the weight of what has happened.  I would like to think an embryonic fetus doesn't suffer during an abortion, but surely a fetus is as sentient as an amoeba or a beetle.  Poke an amoeba, and it recoils.  Threaten a beetle, and it tries to run away.  If those creatures felt nothing, sensed nothing, why the reaction?  A fetus is not dead matter waiting for the flame of life to be lit; it is a creature, still unformed but definitely alive.  If you choose to kill it, you should have a damn good reason--something more than embarrassment, youth, or your desire to do something other than be a parent to your own child.

Adoption is offered as the solution to the problem of abortion, and many Christians and others urge a pregnant girl
 or woman with an unexpected pregnancy to "choose life" and give her child to a couple just waiting to give that baby a picture-perfect life, a life that she might not be able to provide for many years to come, if ever.  The implicit argument is that this stable, financially secure couple would be better for a child than his own mother, as if material comforts were the measure by which we judge families.

The desire to have a child can be very strong.  For many humans it can feel like a basic need, like food, sleep, or love.  We will go to almost any lengths to meet these needs, sometimes even committing crimes or telling lies to get what we so desperately want.  Potential adoptive parents (PAPs) tell themselves lies when something in nature denies them what they want: a child.  And they buy into the lies told by adoption agencies and other adoption professionals (doctors, lawyers, politicians) who depict adoption as a "beautiful way to build a family" or simply as one alternative among several.  The desire for a child can even be couched as a whim, as when a mother of boys decides to adopt a girl so she can have a daughter.  A designer child, if you will.   When the element of choice is brought into the picture, what is to stop PAPs from ordering up exactly what they want?  Age, sex, race--they all become options.  There is something inherently dehumanizing and debased about this way of thinking.

My real objection is to infant adoption, where a newborn is taken from his mother and given to another woman to raise "as if" he were her own.  It is this kind of adoption that has become a booming business, because so many PAPs want a baby and are willing to pay to get one of the relatively few who are available.  The shortage of domestic adoptable infants has led to an increase in foreign adoption, which has in turn led to widespread corruption and exploitation.  Kathryn Joyce explains how evangelicals and international adoption have become mutually reinforcing in her book The Child Catchers.

Is there not something ghoulish about a couple (or anyone, gay or straight) procuring a child, waiting anxiously for a woman to go through the pain and anguish of her thwarted motherhood so they can be assured of a child's arms round their necks and an identity as "Mommy" and "Daddy."  It's like the parents of a sick child, hoping for an accident that will take the life of another child so they can have one of its life-saving organs, only instead of taking a liver or a kidney, they take the whole child.  A dead child who can save another is one thing, a baby denied his mother is quite another.  In both situations, the parents might be happy, but they must realize the tragedy their joy is rooted in.

Thankfully, the stigmas of unwed motherhood and homosexuality have greatly lessened in recent years, and we have grown to accept that human beings can live joyful, purposeful lives under circumstances that fifty years ago would have been untenable.  We are, in fact, more free.  But with that personal freedom there has come a retrenchment on the part of those who see life differently.  As more and more single women decide to parent their babies, fewer are available for adoption.  The strategy, ingenious when you think about it, is to get God on board.  After all, if adoption is a divine plan, how can there be anything wrong with it?  It is only a "divine plan" because certain groups of people have decided it is, and if that isn't a perversion of faith for self-interest I don't know what is.

Adoption should always be about doing what is best for a child, not what adults who want to be parents feel entitled to.  No one has a right to be a parent.  Parenthood is a gift--from nature or from God, depending on your point of view--it is a privilege, not an entitlement.  I imagine people with disabilities often wonder at the unfairness of life, just as unhappily childless people bemoan the unfairness of being denied something they want so desperately.  Those of us with sound bodies and minds are fortunate and should be grateful, even as we recognize that nothing can be done to make a blind man see.  We should no more pluck an infant out of his mother's arms than pluck the eyes out of a sighted man. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Can Complex Adoption Issues Be Made Simple?

The older I get, the more I feel like Socrates: the only thing I know is that I don't know anything.  Having lived adoption for 46 years, as a mother of loss to adoption and an adoptive mother myself, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know.  For most of those years I was a strong advocate of placing children in need in families that wanted and could care for them.  Sounds simple, doesn't it?  What I have learned is that it is far from simple, and what I didn't know proved to be the source of much suffering--for my lost son, for me, for my adopted son, and for my other two children who grew up in the fallout.

I was told by people I trusted that relinquishing my son would be for his benefit, that, even though I was an adult with a good education, I was not fit to be a mother simply because I was unmarried.  To protect my family and provide for my son, I should do the "right thing" and give him to strangers to raise.  So far as my family, the adoption agency, and the adoptive parents were concerned, a problem was solved.  I'm sure they all felt certain that I'd "get over it" and proceed with the rest of my life untroubled and unencumbered.  That didn't happen.

I believed that love was all you needed to raise a healthy child.  I loved my first raised son and knew I could be a loving mother to a child in need.  I didn't feel capable of dealing with a disabled child, but I could easily love a child of a different race.  I would promote racial equality and rescue a baby from desperate circumstances by adopting a Black/Vietnamese child at a time when U.S. troops were scrambling to get out of Vietnam, leaving thousands of mixed-race children behind.  More problems solved.

Today I am in reunion with my first son and have discovered that there is nothing simple about forging a relationship with a stranger who just happens to be your own flesh and blood and who looks just like you.  There is nothing simple about the mother-child bond that persisted through 44 years of separation or the flood of grief that reunion unleashed.  There is nothing simple about my son's psychological and emotional difficulties or my adopted son's turbulent life.  There is nothing simple about my raised children's growing up with a single mother and no money because my first marriage broke apart, in large measure because of the role adoption played in it.

During the past three years I have had a crash course in adoption--its history, effects, and policies.  The more I learn, the more I realize the terrible complexities that arise when good people follow good intentions into thickets of unforeseen difficulty.  On one side (though, in truth, there are many sides), you have the pro-adoption advocates: infertile couples hoping to build a family, gay couples hoping for the same, altruists who want to make a real difference, and evangelicals who see adoption as a divine mission.  On the other you have the adoption-reform activists working toward legislation that would grant adult adoptees the right to their original birth certificates, mothers of adoptees who want to find their children, adoptees who want to find their mothers,  those hoping to curtail the rampant corruption in foreign adoption, and those who want to see an end to adoption altogether, at least as we have come to know it since the era of closed adoptions began in the 1940s.  There are many sub-groups, but these are the major categories of those pro- and con-adoption.

It's only human to stake out an opinion about a vexing issue, then marshall all your resources to defending your position.  Often this involves demonizing your opposition.  Despairing mothers-of-loss (MOLs) accuse their children's "adopters" or "adopteraptors" of greed and selfishness, and potential adoptive parents (PAPs) see themselves as heroes in a fight to save children from drug-addicted, juvenile, or rejecting mothers.  I follow several blogs and read many others, and I am amazed by the vitriol expressed on both sides.  MOLs feel their babies were stolen from them, and adoptive parents tend not to think much at all about the women who gave birth to their children.  Many contemporary PAPs assuage their consciences by opting for "open adoption," whereby they keep the mother informed about her child's progress and perhaps even permit some visits. 

Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike, and for decades adoptive families have presented a facade of typical domestic happiness.  Adoptive families were held to a higher standard, what with all the home studies and intrusions by social workers to determine their fitness, so the stories that got told were filled with sweetness and light.  What adoptive parent was going to admit there were difficulties?  Adoption was beautiful, even noble, and adoptive parents were special people.  Adoption was a story with a happy ending--every time.  That's what most people believed, and that's what most people wanted to believe.  But we live in more transparent times now, and adoptees who were helpless infants when they were placed are now able to speak for themselves, and not all their stories have happy endings. 

It turns out that adoption is more complicated than anyone knew.  Mothers who lost their babies suffered grievous, life-long consequences, and many adoptees, even "happy" ones, were left to wonder who they were and how they came to be with people they weren't biologically connected to.  Knowledge that most people take for granted was denied to those most intensely involved, and this abyss of unknowing and alienation was papered over with pretty pictures and sappy commercials that portrayed adoption as so beautiful it would bring tears to your eyes.

What I find regrettable these days is the inability of the various factions in adoptionland to understand each other and find common ground.  In my enthusiasm I became completely anti-adoption.  I still cringe when I hear the word, but I realize my reaction is personal and emotional.  I know that not all adoptive parents are selfish, and I know that there are children born into circumstances that require an alternative.  Perhaps adoption is a Gordian knot that cannot be untangled.  If it must be simplified, then let's determine the few things both sides can agree upon and proceed from there.

There are three things I believe all parties of good will should be able to agree to: 1. equal rights for adoptees, ie., easy access to OBCs, 2. an emphasis on family preservation and the end of adoption for profit, 3. the elimination of corruption in international adoption.  The first is easy and could be accomplished tomorrow with a Presidential order.  Failing that, we should work state by state to overturn antiquated adoption laws that discriminate against adoptees and their mothers.  Ending adoption for profit will be more difficult, because many agencies and lawyers have a vested interest in the status quo.  There is big money in adoption, and there is big money promoting it.  It is a David and Goliath contest, and Goliath has all the stones.  The corruption in international adoption is the most problematic for obvious reasons, but the United Nations, UNICEF, and the Hague Convention are all making efforts to ameliorate the desperate plight of too many children around the globe.  Much more needs to be done.

It's easy for me to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the adoption problem (for lack of a better term).  For things to change, I believe society itself will have to change.  The Left will have to give up its conviction that everyone has a right to be a parent, and the Right will have to concede that God does not make adoption plans in a game of cosmic bait-and-switch.  Mothers who relinquished babies in the BSE (Baby Scoop Era) will have to come to terms with the fact that they were never promised anonymity, and if that was their understanding at the time, well, times have changed.  Adoptees must own their own stories and not be afraid to tell them, and no one should assume that because Aunt Sally or the neighbor next door had a successful adoption there can be no other kind.  Those who abhor adoption, as I admit I do, must understand that for some children it is far and away the best option, but no one should be able to maintain the delusion that adoption is anything other than a tragedy for the child and, yes, for his mother.  Happy adopted children grow up to be adults with gnawing questions about identity, and relieved mothers who leave their babies behind may well wake up decades later, finally fully aware of all that they have lost.  We must create a space where everyone can feel free to tell the truth and free to determine the course of her own life, without the interference of "professionals" who profess to know better.  Shifting social attitudes is never simple or easy, but it can and does happen when enough people see the right thing and do it.  Slavery, racism, gender inequality, discrimination, adoption.  One down, at least four to go.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce

When I used to teach literature, I'd sometimes ask my students if a book had ever changed their lives.  I don't remember any answers, mostly the blank stares, as if in amazement that any book could change any life.  But for me at least there are a few I can point to as life-changing, not because they were great literature, though they might have been, but because they were somehow prophetic and changed the way I saw the world from that point on.  Brave New World and 1984 are on that list, along with The Brothers Karamazov and Middlemarch, which ARE great literature.  These are all fiction, though they deal with matters central to every life.  To this list I must now add another title, non-fiction this time, and having read it I will never be able to think about adoption the way I once did.  The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce (Public Affairs, 2013) is a book with the potential to change the face of adoption forever.

The subtitle, Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, gives an indication of the book's thrust, which is to expose the current trend of adopting domestic, as well as foreign-born children, by Evangelical Christians.  I am biased.  I have to admit it.   I lost my first-born son to adoption in 1968, and in 1974 adopted an infant from Vietnam.  I also have a son and daughter I gave birth to and raised.  Even though I may not be an entirely disinterested bystander, I have struggled to be honest--with myself above all--about the effects of adoption and my part in the damage done to my children by this "peculiar institution."

Adoption is not natural, and it is not traditional, at least not the way Americans practice it.  Until the mid-1940s, orphans or babies born out of wedlock were sent to orphanages or raised by family members, but after WW II there was an increased demand for babies to adopt, as many American couples scrambled to restore what they had feared might be lost forever: the happy, nuclear family.  Many GIs, returning from the war, had contracted venereal diseases and were infertile; that was one reason adoption emerged as it did.  Joyce does a good job of explaining the sociological and historical forces that led to the increased demand and the unscrupulous operators who capitalized on it, though she slights the roles of Georgia Tann of  Tennessee, who made millions by arranging adoptions, and Governor Herman Lehmann of New York, who colluded with her to enact legislation that closed all adoption records, thus ensuring that birth mothers and their children would never be able to find each other.  Everything was done to protect the adoptive parents, who were told their adopted children were no different than if born to them.   The stigma of single motherhood, and even the stigma of adoption, made every birth mother's lost child a dirty little secret and every adoptee's inevitable curiosity something to be dismissed out of hand.  Birth mothers were told they'd forget and go on to have other children (over half did not), and adoptees who asked too many questions were blamed for being angry or bitter.  These were what contemporary adoption professionals term the "bad old days."  Supposedly, things are more enlightened now that the stigma of single parenthood has all but disappeared  and there are many fewer healthy infants available for adoption.

The response to this diminished supply (and adoption agencies do think of children in this commodified way) has been a turn to international adoption, and this is where Joyce's extensive research is most illuminating.  After the Korean War, an Evangelical Christian from Oregon, Harry Holt, made a pilgrimage of sorts to South Korea, where he was overwhelmed by the plight of the thousands of half-Korean/half-American children our soldiers had left behind.  Although it was illegal to adopt eight children all at once, Holt was able to finagle the American government into allowing him to bring the first Amer-Asian children to the United States, where he and his wife Bertha adopted all eight of them, adding them to their already sizeable family.  And thus began the international adoption trade, which eventually spread to China, Vietnam, other parts of Asia, Latin America, India, and now finally Africa.  Joyce explains how what began as a humanitarian effort to rescue children created by a war that had left them desperate morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry that required an increasing supply of children to meet an ever-increasing demand from would-be adoptive parents.  The tail began to wag the dog, and the adoption propaganda machine went into overdrive to convince mothers in difficulties to relinquish their babies, whether born here or abroad, to couples who could "give them a better life."

For domestic adoption, the response to the dearth of relinquishing mothers was the novel concept of "open adoption."  Instead of trying to persuade a mother to give her baby to an adoptive family outright, adoption agencies assured the expectant mother that she would be able to have contact with her child after placement, receive regular letters and photographs, even pick the couple she wanted her child to go to.  The idea was to give the birth mother some sense of control, as well as the assurance that she was being selfless, even noble, in making this sacrifice for the benefit of her child.  It was never mentioned that open-adoption agreements are not enforceable by law, and, in fact, most open adoptions close once the paperwork is completed, if not immediately, within a few years, leaving the birth mother to grieve a second loss of her child. The birth mother would be shown videos and testimonials by other birth mothers who were pleased as punch with their decision to relinquish but never told that years later her grief would catch up with her and erupt in a volcano of pain.

Joyce mentions three important books by adoption-reform activists: Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self by Nancy Verrier, herself an adoptive mother and therapist, and The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler, an adoptee from the BSE who also made a widely praised documentary on the same subject, women who lost their babies to adoption in the Baby Scoop Era (1945-1972).  I daresay these books are not on the list of suggested reading offered by adoption agencies.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of adoption currently is a new form of Baby Scoop, the adoption of children born in third-world countries who are easy pickings for well-off Americans (and Canadians, Australians, and Europeans, who do the most adopting.  Australia has recently reversed progressive legislation, thanks to the efforts  of celebrities like Hugh Jackman and his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, who are working to streamline adoption and eliminate protections for birth mothers and their babies.)   Joyce's first chapter chronicles the disaster of the earthquake in Haiti, when hundreds, if not thousands, of children were hustled out of Haiti before it had been established whether they had living family members or not. 

Then there's the situation in Guatemala, where the "adoption boom went bust" in 2008 because of widespread corruption, and the country stopped all adoptions in an effort to clean up abuses and implement the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which was adopted by the U.S. in 2000.  When Guatemala shut down, agencies simply moved on to other countries where the Hague Convention was not in force.  Ethiopia became a new country of choice, sending a "total of 4,500 children abroad each year in both 2009 and 2010."  One local radio host, Ellene Moria, opined that children "were becoming the new export industry for our country." 

Joyce doesn't indicate whether she believes adoption, as an institution, is inherently good or bad, but she offers such an abundance of compelling evidence of the abuse and corruption the adoption industry has engendered that I, personally, can no longer support it, except in rare cases of extreme need or for older children in foster care.  As an alternative way to build a family, it is quite simply unacceptable.  When any industry swells to the extent that international adoption has, corruption is inevitable, especially in countries with shaky legal systems and very different cultural traditions of the family.  Adoption has become not the unselfish way to rescue children from harm's way but a recourse for infertile couples, gay couples, and Christian proselytizers to achieve their own ends.  According to Joyce, whose book is heavily researched as well as peppered with accounts of individual women who have been coerced in one way or another to relinquish their children, the myth of adoption as a "beautiful choice" is being disproved around the world everyday.

The deplorable orphanages in Romania that have become the template for orphanages everywhere in the American psyche are not the rule.  Adoption is a permanent solution to a temporary problem--for both a mother in distressing circumstances and a country with internal challenges.  If we really want to help children, the way to go about it is to help their families, not by separating babies from their mothers or children from their native cultures.  The money spent on a single foreign adoption could support an African village for a year, could help build a school or a hospital that would serve not just one child but many.   The numbers of "orphans" around the world may sound staggering, depending on what sources you accept, but the truth is, many of these so-called orphans are not orphans at all.  It is not uncommon for an African family to send a young child to an orphanage during the harvest season or to get an education without ever intending to leave the child there permanently.  Joyce documents many cases where parents were misled into signing away their children in the belief that the kids would be educated in America, then would return to help their families.  The idea of adoption as a permanent, legal separation was not part of their lexicon.

When there is demand, a supply will be found to fill it.  If Americans weren't buying illegal drugs, we'd have no drug problem, but the demand is there, and the narco-traffickers exploit it.  The same is true with international adoption, and the opportunity for corruption is similar.  Of course, some children do need families, and for some a foreign adoption is the best or only option.  What we have, though, are facilitators and recruiters who search out vulnerable families, promise them the moon (which may be a few hundred dollars), and take their children.  These recruiters are paid by the agencies per child, so the incentive is to find more and more.  In Guatemala the situation became so bad that children were being snatched off the street and poor women were becoming pregnant solely so they could sell their babies.  Historian Karen Dubinsky calls this "a culture of 'missingness.'"  In 2007 nearly one out of every hundred babies born was being sent to America.  Documents are forged, uneducated people manipulated, and it's very difficult for Americans to be sure the child they adopt is genuinely adoptable.

What is the answer?  I know many, many adoptive parents who love their children and want the best for them and many adoptees who are content with their lives, or so it would seem.  Just because an adoptee doesn't ask questions or seem unhappy doesn't mean he  doesn't think about his birth family, especially his birth mother, wonder how he came to be adopted, or feel adrift in a world where most people have some idea of others in their family tree. 

In a speech given in Toronto in 2001, "Adoption and Loss--The Hidden Grief,"  ( Evelyn Robinson, herself a mother of loss to adoption, a social worker with extensive experience in grief counselling and an author, describes the dark side of adoption that most people never see: the unresolved grief of the birth mother and the loss of family and identity for the adoptee.  The very normal reactions to a significant life crisis are ignored or suppressed so that adoptive parents can get what they want and feel good about it.  Robinson lives in South Australia, which has undoubtedly the most enlightened adoption laws in the world.  At age 18 adoptees have full access to their personal information.  When a woman is in difficulties, she is not encouraged to consider adoption; she is asked what she needs in order to raise her child and that support is sought.  In the rare case where an adoption goes forward, no placement is made until after the baby is born and the mother has time to reconsider her choice.  No coercion is ever involved, not even the gentlest.  Robinson is appalled by the laws in the United States that allow an adoptive placement to be made before the birth, that close all records and fabricate new birth certificates, that disenfranchise fathers, and severely limit the time allowed for the birth mother to change her mind.  

For many years I was an avid advocate of adoption.  I believed in adoption as if it were a brand of faith.  I assumed I'd never again see my first son, and while I thought of him every single day, I didn't feel maimed by the loss.  Once I found him, however, I came to realize just how broken I'd been.  Having never properly grieved, I plunged into an abyss of despair that left me feeling totally unmoored.  I had not escaped my grief; I had merely postponed it--with interest.  While the emotional scars will never disappear, I do feel restored and whole as a result of my reunion.  Knowing what I know, having experienced the full weight of adoption loss, I cannot remain silent.  We each are responsible for charting our own course through life, but it helps to have a map drawn by someone who has gone before.  I offer The Child Catchers, Primal Wound, The Girls Who Went Away, the blog (Land of Gazillion Adoptees Magazine), and my own story as a beginning.  Adoption is not win-win; it is zero-sum.  Every adoption is predicated on loss.  We should never forget that.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Set Up To Fail--Adoption Rehoming

Accounts of adoptees being "rehomed" are cropping up more and more often in the media these days, indication of a disturbing trend in adoption, but many people who see these stories jump to the wrong conclusions.  (Leave aside those egregious cases where adoptees are abused by psychotic parents.)  It sounds so awful.  You adopt a child, then when he turns out not to be what you expected, you dump him on someone else.  Birth mothers are praised for doing the selfless thing, the noble thing, by giving up their babies, but adoptive parents who are unable to provide adequately for their psychologically damaged children are excoriated.

I am a birth mother and have written about my experience elsewhere.  I am also an adoptive mother, and I've wanted to write about that for the longest time but haven't been able to find the words.  This is another attempt to try to understand what happened in my family and explain just how difficult adopting any child, but especially a foreign-born child, can be.  The difficulty is not for the parents alone.  Any adopted child will face issues of identity and abandonment, but a culturally displaced child has extraordinary obstacles to overcome.

When I was 27 years old, I had already lost a son to adoption and given birth to another, Tanner, a beautiful blond, blue-eyed boy with an easy-going temperament.  Without going into all the intricacies of my emotional state at the time, I'll just say that being a mother was the most important thing in the world to me.  I was bubbling over with maternal instincts.  By the time Tanner was three, I was desperate for another baby.  I was also moved by the plight of Vietnamese orphans and felt America owed those children left behind by our soldiers something pretty substantial.  After all, it was because of the American presence in their country that they even existed.

My husband and I had little money.  He was an artist, and I was teaching high school English in Indiana.  We could barely make ends meet on my salary, but we were both confident that it was only a matter of time before Bob achieved success as a painter, if not fame.  He had dreams of being on the cover of Art News, and I had dreams of a house filled with children--well, three or four at least.  Infertility was not our problem, but I began to feel that my arms were empty without a baby in them.  All I had to do was see the photo of a baby available for adoption in the Indianapolis newspaper and my pulse quickened.  I remember one such picture of a black infant, "Mr. Curtis."  He was so tiny, and my heart went out to him.  We should adopt a black baby.  I knew black and mixed-race children were the hardest to place, and I believed that integrated families would lead the way to an integrated society.  We began our quest to find a child.

If you are paying attention, you will see that there are already plenty of red flags waving.  My husband was unemployed (being a struggling artist with no income is essentially unemployment).  We barely had enough money to support a family of three, even if Bob stayed home to look after the kids.  Contrary to what many black social workers were saying at the time, we saw nothing wrong with placing a black child in a white family, in a white community, in a not-so-covertly racist state.  This tiny baby, or one like him, would not be a cute infant forever.  He would grow into a teenager with attitude, a black male with no one to teach him how to get along in an often hostile world.  All I could imagine was holding a baby in a rocking chair, reading him bedtime stories, and filling my own emptiness.  I didn't bother to think about what I'd need to do to raise a black, male child.

Ultimately, we signed on with Holt International, the first adoption agency in America to place Korean children with American families.  Eventually Holt would bring children from all over the world, including, for a time, children from Vietnam.  The war was a horror any way you look at it, but all I could see were those babies abandoned and orphaned and in desperate need.  I admit it; I wanted to do something big.  I wanted to redeem myself for giving up my own son.  I'd given in to external pressures to relinquish him, and I had nothing left to lose.  I didn't care about what people thought any longer.  I knew what I believed, and having set aside my own instincts once, I wasn't about to do it again.  Let people stare.  Let people say, "I could never do what you've done."  Let black social workers argue that race does matter in forming a child's identity.  Perhaps I wanted to punish my mother, with her southern roots, for her role in the loss of my son.  I didn't think this consciously, but subconsciously I was screaming, "I can't have my own baby?  Well, then, how do you like this black one?"  I feel a pain in my gut as I write that.  Never until this moment have I allowed myself to face up to my own selfish motives, my own need for some kind of revenge.  I would take my revenge and force my very conservative mother to accept a black grandchild, and as I did I would be praised by all the good liberal Christians who underwrote the whole thing.

In the early 'seventies there were no pre-pacement services, nothing to advise us about what to expect when you adopt a baby from half a world away.  We were getting a baby, and that's all that mattered.  He was half black and a boy, the hardest to place, and we felt lucky to have been chosen to be his parents.  I knew enough to understand that the first year in a child's life is critical, but I didn't realize just how critical.  No baby is a blank slate, and a nine-month old baby from a war zone has suffered more trauma than you can imagine.  There were scars on his ankles where he'd been fed intravenously because of starvation.  He screamed if put down and clung to Bob and me like a terrified monkey.  His rage was overwhelming, and in frustration he would bang on his chin with his fist until I wondered if he were autistic.  He suffered from chronic diarrhea that lasted for years.  I didn't know that Asians are often lactose intolerant, and I kept pumping milk into him as fast as he kept splurting it out.

My son was intelligent and a survivor.  Described by the orphanage he came from as a "relatively crying baby," he was obviously not one of those passive, listless infants often found in orphanages.  This kid was going to get attention if he had to yell the place down.  I can never know what went on in his mind because much of his trauma occurred before he had speech, so his memories, though undoubtedly vivid, were not accessible to him.  He came to us a desperate, outraged child, and so he remained.  As he grew older, his behavior followed a consistent path of defiance, acting out, theft, and lying.  As a young child, he suffered from night terrors, when he would scream and flail and not be able to wake up.  If all this sounds as if I'm blaming him, I'm not.  

We did everything we could: had him evaluated by a psychologist, sought out family and individual counselling, and spent countless hours in conferences with his teachers.  By age twelve, he was out of control, stealing cars, staying out late, and finally getting in trouble with the police.  Thus began years of reform school, group homes, more counselling, and my marriage ended in divorce.  Bob's alcoholism had not made our family situation any better, and, though I was unsure how I would manage with Dabbs and my two other children (by now I had a daughter) on my own, it had to be better than managing the three-ring circus my life had become.  Never, at any point, did any counsellor or therapist address the issue of Dabbs's adoption.  A couple of the "family-systems therapists" we saw insisted upon getting Dabbs to identify with members of our extended family, even those who were deceased.  How on earth could a hyper-active, angry Black/Vietnamese boy identify with anyone in a family of middle-class white people? We were expected to adapt to the paradigm, no matter how ridiculous the fit.

Who or what is to blame for all this turmoil?  I am, first of all.  For whatever reasons, I took on a challenge that was beyond me.  I like to think I did my best, but I'm too aware of my failures to let myself off the hook.  But there are others who are answerable too, or should be.  The social workers who did our home study were as naive as Bob and I were.  We presented as a nice, educated couple, good parents to our little boy, so why wouldn't we be suitable adoptive parents?  The red flags I mentioned earlier did not get their attention.  In fact, the entire social-services enterprise was not yet ready to address the needs of adoptive families with foreign-born children, so it was a systemic failure.  When a system is at fault, who can be held accountable?

Now we read accounts of disturbed children whose adoptive parents can't cope.  I understand their desperation.  I understand that they love their children but cannot allow their families to be torn apart.  When parents have to lock their bedroom door, hide all the knives and hammers in the house, and sleep with one eye open, they might be forced to take steps that seem to others uncaring.  I tried to get help for my son and me, and it was all thin gruel.  As a teenager, Dabbs lived in five other places than with me: with his dad, in reform school (court ordered), two separate group homes (also court ordered), and with an earnest young couple who had befriended him during his stay at one of the homes.  Many kind and dedicated people tried to help Dabbs, including a black counsellor at a group home who had been a soldier in Vietnam.  Like so many others, this man took Dabbs under his wing, and like so many others he was ultimately let down.  Those defenses and survival instincts Dabbs developed as an abandoned infant morphed into a pattern of behavior that persisted as he grew older and, for all I know, persist to this day.  Every success was followed by a catastrophic event of Dabbs's own making.  I've always believed that Dabbs can't tolerate success, and when things are going too well, he self-sabotages.  
I don't want to rake over the past, but I have a few suggestions for social workers, adoption agencies, and prospective adoptive parents: Recognize that international adoption does not bring you a child who is a blank slate.  Every child, no matter how young, who is adopted comes from circumstances of trauma and will be affected by them.  When Dabbs was three years old, he told me he remembered soldiers coming into his house and killing his mother.  He couldn't have been more than a couple of months old when he made it to the orphanage, so how could he possibly remember such a thing?  Maybe he did, and maybe he didn't, but he believed he'd seen his mother murdered.  How could such thoughts not have a profound effect on his concept of self?

Be aware that it takes a great deal of knowledge and a lot of patience to parent a hurting child.  Professional training would not be amiss.  People who might make perfectly marvelous moms and dads under normal circumstances may find themselves overwhelmed by the challenges their adopted child presents.  The child should not be blamed but helped, and the parents shouldn't be blamed either.  In many cases a different living situation is what all parties need.  I am dismayed by comments like, "Well, you adopted him.  Now you have to make the best of it."  Each child has unique needs, adopted or not.  Most parents of biological children have an intuitive understanding of each of their children, but the parents of adopted kids don't have that intuitive connection, which is at its root a physical matter of cells and genes.  To blame desperate parents who can't cope with a traumatized child is as cruel as telling someone suffering from depression to snap out of it.

 Americans think of poor little orphans and want to scoop them up, take them home, tuck them in bed at night, and keep them safe, but international adoptees come with baggage they often don't understand themselves and may try to hide.  The best place for any baby is with his own mother, and every effort should be made to keep her there.  Now adult adoptees, many of them Asian, are writing blogs, forming support groups, and challenging our notions of what child-rescue ought to mean.   We need to heed their words and amend our ways. The best way to help children is to help families, as Jane Jeong Trenka, a Korean adoptee who has returned to her homeland to advocate for single mothers and their children, is doing.

The entire adoption paradigm must be re-examined.  No mother should be told to give up her baby; she should be asked what she needs in order to parent.  Cultures in crisis should not be mined for their children so that American parents can satisfy their desires.  Too often what passes for altruism is actually self-serving idealism.  I know this not because I have seen it but because I am guilty of it.  I don't blame adoptive families who already have children.  They did the best they knew how.  But we must wake up to our mistaken assumptions about what children, babies especially, need.  Youth and poverty are not necessarily permanent conditions and should not be reasons for relinquishment.  Temporary safe havens can see children through the crises of war and famine until better times arrive.   

Adoption is not simple or straightforward, and my attempts to cover all bases are admittedly insufficient.  Friends tell me that Dabbs is better off living in America than he would have been if he'd remained in Vietnam.  I don't doubt the truth of  that, so why am I now arguing against international adoption?  I find this hard to answer.  It would be unthinkable to send a Korean-American or an Ethiopian-American kid back to where he came from.  Dabbs is thoroughly American and would be no more at home on the streets of Saigon than I would.  But we should look at things the other way around, from the child's point of view.  Imagine yourself as an infant, put on an airplane with strangers, looking for whichever caretaker you had last lived with and not finding her.  Then imagine the magnitude of an American airport with strange-looking people who want to hold you and speak to you in bizarre accents.  Imagine being given strange foods that make you sick.  Imagine being a stranger in a strange land with no idea what's happening to you or why and no words to say what you need or to form memories you'll be able to access later.  You world has become a nightmare of gigantic proportions that  is terrifying but that you can't wake up from, so you cry yourself into exhaustion.  You feel abandoned when left in a crib but not comforted when held by someone you don't recognize.  You are a baby who is designed to feel and believe he is physically part of his mother, and this strange woman who keeps picking you up is not she, so you feel disconnected and adrift.  This is a feeling that will never leave you, even after you acquire language and coping strategies.  That dislocated, abandoned child is yours to keep forever.  That child is you.

Adoption is ALWAYS about loss.  To see it in any other way is to be emotionally and psychologically blind.

Monday, July 28, 2014

It's time to end the adoption fairy tale

Saturday, July 19, 2014

To Be or Not To denial? That is the question.

What does it mean to be in denial?  We hear a lot about denial these day, as an explanation and as an accusation, but what is it really?   Obviously, anyone who is in it doesn't know it, but how can we know who is and who isn't when we can't peer into another person's mind?  When a birth mother says she's happy with her decision to relinquish her baby, is she being responsible or is she in denial?  When an adoptee proclaims her delight at being adopted, is she truly grateful or is she in denial?

I know I risk being accused of projection or putting words in other people's mouths, but I'm going to chance it anyway, because I know what being in denial feels like.  I've been there.

When you're in denial, you aren't lying to yourself; you actually believe that what you think is true.  It's easy to lie to yourself--my marriage IS a good one, I'm NOT jealous of my best friend, getting fired IS the best thing that ever happened to me--but deep down, you know the truth.  Being in denial is different.

Relinquishing my son for adoption in 1968, when he was three weeks old, was the hardest thing I've ever done, the hardest thing I will ever do.  In many ways, losing a child to adoption is worse than if your child died.  I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but think about it.  Death is an ending that can be mourned.  There are rituals that surround it to ease the pain, and sympathy pours in.  The sympathy may be awkwardly expressed, but it is at least expected.  Death can't be undone, so the loss is permanent and must be dealt with on those terms.  They say time heals all wounds, because the mind can't tolerate the rending of loss forever.  Either you recover and heal, or you go mad or die yourself.

Adoption is not a death; it is a parting.  Most of us have the experience of parting from friends, from lovers, even from spouses, and we eventually recover and move on.  But there is one parting from which recovery isn't possible: the loss of a child to adoption.  The mother-infant bond is the strongest bond in nature (unless you're a reptile, and even some of them demonstrate maternal behavior).  Our very survival as a species depends on it.  When that bond is severed, the damage to mother and baby in incalculable and, I suggest, permanent.  Because of the intractability of this specific kind of grief, the only way to try to integrate it is to go into denial, to shut that mental door and make sure it never opens.  The experts call this "ambiguous loss."  The parents of missing children experience it, as do the families of soldiers missing in action.  We all know this.  Yet as a society we remain in denial when it comes to adoption.

For years and years I was a believer in and supporter of adoption.  I BELIEVED in adoption and adopted a baby from Vietnam myself in 1974.  I subscribed to the Holt Adoption Agency's newsletter for many years, read many books that praised adoption, especially transracial adoption, and joined parent groups for families with adopted, foreign-born children.  Whenever I saw another family with a child of a different race, I wanted to go up to them and say, "I am one of you."  I believed I was "paying it forward" when I adopted my Vietnamese son.  Someone had given my first son a home; now I was in a sense returning the favor.

It took a long time for me to recognize that I was in denial, and it didn't occur with a sudden epiphany, but if I try to isolate the moment when the light began to dawn it would have to be when I interviewed for a job at Guilford College many years ago.  My interviewer was an English professor, probably about my age, and during our conversation he mentioned that he was adopted and had recently met his birth mother and seven siblings for the first time. He told me his mother was thrilled to meet him and had "suffered the tortures of the damned" ever since giving him up.  I remember at that point getting up and closing his office door.  I was about to confess something, and I didn't want anyone else to hear it.  I told him I had given up a son for adoption myself.  I confided that I had never stopped thinking about my son and that he, Prof. X, was one of the very few people I had even told about him.  I only shared my  story because he had shared his, and I wanted to assure him that his mother had indeed thought about him for all those years.  "The tortures of the damned" kept running through my head after I left the interview.  I didn't think I had experienced anything like that.  I was OK, wasn't I?  I remembered my son's birthdays, sure, but I didn't come unglued.  I had three children whom I loved.  I was divorced but felt emotionally fulfilled by my kids.  Anything having to do with adoption always caught my eye, but I wasn't obsessed or anything.

Looking back now, I can see plainly enough just how deep in denial I was.  I couldn't have survived otherwise, but the choices I made, including adopting myself, and the depression I endured indicate just how disturbed I really was.
It was my third husband who made it possible for me to finally come to terms with the most crucial event in my life, so after finding security and stability in our marriage, I was able to entertain the idea that it might be possible to find my son.  When I asked him what he thought about my searching, he said, "Go for it."  Having never told my raised children they had a brother, I knew my next step had to be to tell them, which I did right after Christmas in 2011.  I won't try to summarize their reactions, but they were unanimously supportive.  It only took a few weeks, and on January 26, 2012, I spoke with my son David for the first time.

I think the denial ended when I asked my husband what he thought about my searching.  He tells me now that that was the first time I had even mentioned I'd given up a child.  I was shocked when he said that.  How could I not have told him?  I must have, surely.  He says I didn't, and I conclude that my denial was so deep I didn't even dredge up the truth for a man I loved and had committed the rest of my life to.

Coming out of the adoption fog is not easy.  I may be stretching an analogy here, but it's rather like struggling not to drown.  You're gulping for air and treading water like a maniac, which takes all your strength and focus, but you're managing to keep your head above water.  Then you finally make it to shore, and the first deep gasps of pure air are like the elixir of life itself.  You can't get enough, as you lie there panting, then the aftermath sets in.  You begin to shake all over, you wet yourself and worse, you realize with horror that you nearly drowned and can't stop thinking about it.  You have nightmares for weeks afterward.  Would you say to that nearly drowned woman that she'd have been better off just to slip beneath the waves and let go?  Or would you say that the shock and terror of being saved were worth it?

Denial is a way to cope with the unbearable.  It is a blessed escape when no other escape is possible, but when the danger is past, it can become as debilitating as the event that caused it.  When I hear a birth mother say she's happy with her decision and her child's life without her, I hear a mother in denial.  When I hear an adoptee who, for whatever reasons, says he isn't interested in finding his birth mother or knowing his real family, I hear an individual in denial.  I don't blame either the mother or the child.  Denial is the best they can do at the moment.  But I pray (or would, if I were the praying kind) that a day will come when they'll come out of  the fog and realize how much better life can be when it's lived in openness and truth.