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.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Don't Let Go

I've thought a lot about "letting go" recently.  If you love someone, you have to let them go.  If they love you, they'll return.  Toddlers have to learn to let go in order to become independent.  Teenagers have to let go in order to leave home and establish a life of their own.  Parents have to let go or risk crippling their children.  We all have to let go when we die.  Then there's the song from "Frozen."

It's such a paradox that the best way to show love is by letting go, but it occurs to me that there is a natural rhythm to the process, and it's important to move with the beat.

I stumbled across a blog the other day, called "Birthmothers 4 Adoption."  I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw the title, and when I read further and discovered that it's by two birthmothers who celebrate  letting go of their babies I got the sinking feeling you get when something dreadful catches you unawares.  These women are young yet, and I suppose that when I was in my twenties, thirties, perhaps even into my forties, I might have been able to join them on a panel to discuss adoption.  I'm 68 now, and I know a few more things than I did, and the thought of presenting my birthmother's perspective to potential adoptive parents, as if taking another woman's baby were a loving thing to do, is literally sickening.

My brother used to tell me I had done the right thing: I hadn't had an abortion, had chosen adoption instead.  Every time he said this, something inside me shifted uncomfortably.  Now that I have reunited with my son, I realize why that was.

Feeling I had no choice and having no support from my son's father or my own family, I did what thousands of unwed mothers in the Baby Scoop Era did.  Committing an unnatural act of such magnitude required the suppression of every instinct and emotion that attended the birth of my baby.  I exhibited more strength at barely 22 than I could ever have imagined, and I admit I took pride in that strength.  I let my son go because I loved him more than I valued my own life, certainly more than my own happiness.  I desperately wanted to be a good mother and was convinced by my kindly social worker that giving my baby up to a "good" family was the most loving thing I could do.  At a crucial moment, I trusted not myself but others who were, in fact, virtual strangers to me.

 Even now, young unmarried women are told their lives will be ruined if they "aren't ready to parent."  Their education will be compromised, perhaps curtailed entirely.  They are likely to struggle in poverty and miss out on things their friends will be taking for granted.  They are told a childless couple will be able to experience the joy of parenthood.  Won't that be a beautiful gift to bestow upon someone?  What they are not told is what I am going to say here.

When you give birth, all the hormones that nature has given you will explode and sweep you away to places you never imagined.  You will be slightly deranged, almost as if you were having an out-of-body experience, because you will feel things that are so new you have no context for them.  You will be on the high of a lifetime, and you will feel as vulnerable as a kitten in a thunderstorm.  You will be exhausted and sore, and your body will feel different and actually be different from what it was.  In every way imaginable, you will feel transformed and connected to the universe.  The river of life will have flowed through you into a new generation, connecting you to humanity in a cosmic way.   

This is the time when you will focus on your baby with the intensity of a laser.  You'll feel compelled to examine his fingers and toes, to notice the shape of his ears, and to become intoxicated with his smell.  You will want to touch him, breathe him in, feed him, and keep him close.  But if you have made "an adoption plan" you will have to throttle these impulses.  Rather than bonding with your baby, you will know that with every hour that passes you are that much closer to letting him go forever.  Even if you planned an open adoption, this child will belong to someone else.  If you are lucky you may get to watch from the sidelines for a few years, but an adoption that remains happily open is rare.  It's too hard for the adoptive parents to share their child, and it will be agony for you.  With open adoption, you keep the wound open, so you may decide a closed adoption is best.  Let go once and for all and stuff your feelings into a tightly locked chest and shove it under the bed and leave it there.  You'll always know it's there, but you won't have to look at it every day, and you will know better than to look for the dust bunnies that will gather year by year.

The problem is that you have interrupted the rhythm of life.  You will have spun off in the wrong direction, and you will lose the beat and your balance.  To keep going, you will have to dance faster or sink to the floor.  Everything that happens to you from  here on out will be influenced by your loss.  Perhaps you will find a new love and have other children, but you will never forget.  Perhaps you will never risk experiencing such upheaval again and will withdraw from intimacy.  You may go for years without realizing what's going on inside you.  You'll confide in a friend, and she will tell you you did the right thing, and you will try to believe her.  You may be afraid to tell a new lover about your past, and that will always stand between you.  If you have other children, you will either lie to them by what you don't say or make them question your commitment to them if they know.  You will be unable to grieve, and your grief will become a stone that grows heavier with each passing year.

If you are a pregnant girl reading this, or if you are a birthmother who has relinquished her child, you may say, But this doesn't apply to me.  I don't feel this way.  I'm happy with my decision.  You might even feel that God wants you to  give your baby to the nice couple with the golden retriever and the swing set in the back yard.  What you are not thinking about is how you'll feel when you're my age and can no longer deny the loss, when you finally acknowledge all that you've missed and realize that nothing on earth can ever bring it back.  And you're not thinking about how your baby will feel without you, for he will miss you as much as you miss him, probably more.  His very survival depends on you, and his little infant brain is programmed to cling onto you.  When he loses you, he will lose his whole world, and no matter how happy he may be in his new family, he will always wonder who you are and why you left him.

I know what it's like to be in denial, and my son knows too.  Any birth mother who feels good about letting her baby go is in denial.  Any adoptee who has no questions and feels whole is in denial.  And denial is a kind of death.

Whenever I try to discuss this with folks who have no connection with adoption, I always hear, But what about....what about the mother who really doesn't want her baby?  What about the mother who is  a drug addict or a danger to her child?  What about a baby whose mother dies, and there are no other relatives?  These are the extreme cases, and for these babies adoption can be a wonderful rescue, but a girl or young woman who is healthy and finds herself inconveniently pregnant will find letting her baby go wrenching.  Read the accounts of birth mothers (I dislike the term "birth mother."  It takes something--a mother--and transforms it into a function.  No one thinks that an incubator can substitute for a mother; it's an intervention.  These days the value of "kangaroo care" is recognized as the best way to make sure babies, even premature babies, get all they need.  A baby has only one mother; the adoptive mother is the one who provides the function.)  The accounts of birth mothers I have read don't leave out the difficulty of relinquishment or the sadness that follows, but these apologists for adoption assure us they have recovered, and everything is fine now.  I know they are lying--to themselves, if not to us.  It takes a lot of energy to maintain a lie of that magnitude for a lifetime.

Letting go is a necessary part of life, and timing is everything.  Even when the time is right--your five-year old is ready to go off to kindergarten, your 18-year old is ready to go off to college, your daughter is ready to get married--it's difficult to let go.  These are the moments when tears are shed that are expected and natural.  These are the transitions, often bittersweet, that follow the normal rhythm of life.  But letting a baby go at birth is not natural and it's not bittersweet.  For the baby, losing his mother is a global loss and nothing less than a tragedy.  For the mother, it is a heartbreak like none other.

The "experts" of yesterday were wrong.  Not evil perhaps, but wrong.  To perpetuate that wrong, as the adoption industry and too many legislators, judges, and lawyers are doing today, is evil, because we now know the damage infant adoption causes.  We know how difficult it is for society to come to grips with past errors; no sufficient apology has ever been offered to Native Americans or African-Americans or gays.  Only Australia has formally apologized to birthmothers and adoptees for the forced adoptions of the BSE, and even there pro-adoption forces are trying to undo the progress Australia has made.

I hope I live to see the day when adoption agencies are as archaic as "colored only" water fountains, when no adoptee ever has to wonder who his people are, when mothers and their adult children are no longer kept apart by a paternalistic system that purports, without or despite all evidence, to know what is best for them.   BSE birth mothers like me are getting old now, and we're no longer the frightened, tractable young girls of yesterday.  Our children are children no longer but adults capable of directing their own course through life.  Absent physical danger, none of us needs "protection,"  certainly not when 97% of birth mothers would welcome contact and most adoptees hunger for information about their family of origin.

When I surrendered my son for adoption, and when I adopted a baby myself, I didn't know about attachment theory and infant development as we now understand them.  I have lived with the consequences of adoption for 46 years.  I am no longer in denial or the adoption fog, and I am grateful that I've been able to restore my life and live in truth.  But I cannot remain silent so long as women are still talked out of keeping their babies and adoption records remain sealed.  What's even worse than making mistakes in the first place is refusing to admit them and do better.  It's time for our laws to catch up with our understanding.