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.


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  2. Pam you have a gift. Keep writing and sharing your story with the world. It is mothers like you that will make a difference.
    I had the same experience except instead of a lovely social worker, it was my mother telling me all those platitudes. And she was the greatest mothers of all time (except for coercing me from raising my daughter), so why wouldn't I believe what she was telling me?
    How I wish I realized that she was as wrong as wrong can be. My daughter needed me, and she needed my mother, her grandmother. And my mother needed her granddaughter. We all got screwed by adoption mythology.