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.