Thursday, May 29, 2014

Introduction--Some thoughts on adoption

Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound is crucial to understanding the effects of separation upon mother and most especially upon baby that occur when Nature’s essential dyad is sundered.  We have long known that the experiences of earliest childhood, even though not remembered in later life, do in fact profoundly affect the human adult.  We humans are tangled in our social arrangements and messy in our attempts at order, and throughout history we have failed to listen to what our biological nature tells us.  An essential fact of life is that a mother and her baby are one unit--until birth.  It takes several months for the baby to realize he is a separate being, and he relinquishes his connection to his mother reluctantly.  His wellbeing, his very survival, depends on staying as close to her as possible.  It is as natural for a new mother to suckle her baby immediately at birth as it is for a cat to lick her newly born kittens.  This, then, provides a strong argument from nature for preserving the maternal-infant bond, even in the face of difficult circumstances, such as the youth or poverty of the mother.  

What happens when the bond is broken, whether by adoption, death or illness of the mother, or medical interventions necessary for the baby to survive?  I am not a social scientist nor a statistician, and while a quantitative analysis of the effects of adoption is useful, it is the human angle that is ultimately most persuasive.  The story is all.  I have only my own story to tell, and I’ve revised it many times over the course of my life.  Whether this will be the final version remains to be seen, but, based on my own life experience, this is how I see things.

Americans are great believers in the second--and third and fourth--chance, despite Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American life.  We are a people of possibilities, futurities, not fatalistic acceptance, which is perhaps why it is so difficult for many people to accept and admit the damage caused by adoption.  After all, the mother, who may be young and poor, gets a second chance at getting an education or a stable marriage and her own independence.  The adoptive parents, who are most likely infertile, get a second chance at having a family.  Broaden it out, and you could say that a Chinese baby girl gets a second chance for a successful life when she is adopted by financially comfortable Americans parents.  I adopted my own son from Vietnam with the conviction that I was  saving his life and giving him a future free from destitution and social ostracism.  There can be no counter-factual narrative.  All we can know is what in fact happened, and I think I have a better understanding now of what transpired between Dabbs and rest of our family.  

When you have a baby, your body and mind prepare with the release of chemicals and hormones that facilitate bonding between mother and baby.  A father who spends time with the pregnant mother of his child also experiences hormonal changes.  Men become less aggressive, more nurturing,  less interested in sex and more interested in other kinds of touch.  When a baby is adopted, these physical triggers are lacking.  The adopted infant experiences the loss of his whole world and is confused by the strangeness he encounters.  The smells, the sounds, and the heartbeat of his mother vanish, to be replaced by an alien being.  The current thinking among many pro-adoption advocates is that the earlier the baby is placed with the adoptive mother, the better for both the baby and the adoptive parent.  This is a bait and switch that cuts no ice with the infant, because mother and baby are already bonded AT BIRTH.  Every adoption, no matter how young the infant, is a traumatic loss for the baby, as well as for the natural mother, who at least, unlike her baby, knows what is happening.

David was three weeks old when he was moved from a foster home to his adoptive parents.  Dabbs was apparently abandoned (details are lacking), then taken to an orphanage at two months of age.  He was severely malnourished and had to spend weeks in a hospital getting stabilized.  From there he went to a foster home, then at nine months, he came to us.  At the very least, he suffered four major disruptions before he was a year old.  Did that have an effect?  You bet it did.

Picture a Fourth of July, with the whole neighborhood outdoors, kids playing, dads grilling hamburgers, everyone waiting for nightfall and the fireworks that would be visible from the hill where David’s house was located.  Then imagine David, sent to his room for God knows what reason, forbidden even to open the curtains on his window to look out.  He sat alone in that room, listening to the shouts of his brothers and the other kids  and finally the whistle and thunder of the fireworks that bloomed and fell in his imagination.  Such utter loneliness for a child.  I don’t want to tell David’s story.  He can and should tell it himself, but I can offer my response, my own version of what I believe happened to him, based on what he’s told me.  My judgments may be predicated on untruths or semi-truths or the skewed memories of a miserable boy, but the pain I have witnessed  David go through is true enough, real enough, reason enough to search out its roots, causes, and effects.  Since finding David and learning more about the aftermath of adoption, I think I understand my adopted son Dabbs better, why my efforts to be a good mother to him so often fell short, and why he was an angry child.  We are each responsible for who we are and what we become, but we are also shaped by our genes and our experiences.  When I look at David, Tanner and Saskia, I see a genetic mirror.  Dabbs has that with his children, but he can never have it with me.



Where does the story begin?  Perhaps it starts with my happy childhood with loving, attentive parents.  Dad was a coach at a small Christian college in western Pennsylvania; Mother stayed home and took care of my older brother and me, sewed clothes for me and my dolls, and  baked the best pies I've ever eaten .  Tolstoy famously said, Happy families are all alike.  I certainly agree with the second part of his observation—every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—but I'm not sure I agree that happiness is as bland and uniform as his comment suggests.  Even as a child, I recognized that my happiness was not universal, that there were many people all over the world who suffered.  We used to go on shopping trips to the big department stores in Youngstown, Ohio, where we would pass through black neighborhoods.  From the cocoon of my father's car I would peer out the window at people who seemed to inhabit a different world from mine and my heart would lurch with sympathy.  

Yes, I was happy, but there were constraints.  Sunday was the bleakest day of the week because I was made to stay in my church clothes and not allowed to play with my friends because of something called “Blue Laws” that closed the movie theaters and the swimming pool in the park on Sundays.  It was decades before I was able to enjoy a Sunday and not feel the gloom of repression and guilt.  There was no anger in our home; it was simply not permitted.  My dad, the football and basketball coach, was a gentle man, so  I was astonished when I'd see him pacing the sidelines at  games, shouting at the referees or scowling at
 his players.    

 “Why do you get so mad?” I asked him once.  “It gets the players fired up,” was his answer.  

Anger, then, was not something natural or inevitable, it was a tool to be applied for a purpose when nothing else was working.  I learned from my parents that expressing anger was a  failure, a regrettable lapse, almost always inappropriate.  I knew this because my mother never got angry.  Never in my entire life did I ever hear her raise her voice, not even to call the dog.  If I misbehaved, she went coldly silent.  Her look of disappointment was more potent than any spanking.   

I loved my parents and when they went out for the evening I couldn't fall asleep until they were safely home.  I adored my big brother and craved his attention.  I must have been about five when Jim once told me he was going out and would be back in an hour to play with me.  I sat on a kitchen chair and stared at the clock on the wall for a solid hour, watching the minutes tick by, waiting.  As much as I loved my parents, I perhaps loved my brother even more.  He was eleven years older than I, so he always seemed to me to belong to a different generation, not quite my parents' but not mine either.  His age, even when he was still a teenager, seemed to confer wisdom and worldliness,
so when he teased me I took his attentions as compliments.  The day his draft card arrived in the mail—this was in those long-ago days of a military draft—I was sure it meant he was about to go off to war and be killed , and I was too frightened to mention it to anyone.  Later, when we were both older, he became my confidant, the person I'd turn to first if I had a
problem.  By the time I found myself pregnant with David, I had a long history of looking to my brother as a kind of hero, as someone who would help me without judging.