Sunday, February 22, 2015

What Happens When a Natural Mother Grows Old?

In earlier posts I've discussed how it felt to be young, scared, barely adult, and faced with an unexpected pregnancy and a boyfriend who had other plans for his life than me and a child.  I've also read posts by natural mothers who are either planning to relinquish their babies or already have.  These posts are uniformly sad, as one might expect.  There are few things sadder (that I can think of) than bearing a child and giving him to someone else to raise.  It breaks my heart to read about these mothers' grief, but that isn't what disturbs me most about these cries from the heart.  The really amazing thing is that these new mothers defend their actions as "in the best interest of the child" or a beautiful way to help a childless couple.  In other words, they declare that they are at peace with their decision and are moving on with their lives.

As with so many of life's conundrums, the question of adoption is vexed, more so now that adult adoptees are speaking out about their experiences with greater candor.  I get so tired of those who defend adoption because theirs was happy, who view outspoken adoptees as angry and bitter, or who argue that everyone has the right to be a parent even if that means taking another woman's child.  We need to listen to all adoptees' voices, rejoice with the contented ones and sympathize with the wounded.  Adoptees have been expected to remain unquestioning and grateful.  Now we are learning that everything we'd been told by the adoption industry was not, in fact, true.  Since a child has no say in what happens to him, he is subject to the decisions of others.  If those are good decisions, the child flourishes, but if they aren't, then we must see that child as a victim.  Our sympathies go out to victims, so it is easy for most people to at least listen to what adult adoptees are now saying in books, articles, and on the internet.  But there is a group that has been even more marginalized than adoptees: their mothers.  If adoptees were expected to be grateful, their mothers were expected to remain silent.  The mothers were not seen as victims but as perpetrators.  They broke the rules, so they had to pay by sacrificing their own happiness.  By having an untimely pregnancy, they demonstrated their lack of responsibility.  The way to atone for that lack was to admit they were unfit, by reason of youth, poverty, or lack of education and/or employment, and let "better" parents raise their children.

In the Baby Scoop Era (post WW II-1972) being an unwed mother was virtually out of the question, at least for white women.  African-American women have a different story to tell.  Renting an apartment, finding child care, even getting a job were all but impossible, to say nothing of the stigma.  A ruined reputation could make an unwed mother unmarriageable, a shame to her family.  A girl who became pregnant would be kicked out of school, her chances at anything like normal success abruptly cut off.  Those were the circumstances of a bygone era.  Times have changed, but girls and women are still making adoption plans for their babies with the encouragement of a vigorous adoption industry and an endless supply of would-be adoptive parents.  Why do some women still make a decision that is not in any way as imperative as the one made by mothers in the BSE?  I believe the explanation is two-fold.  One reason is that adoption agencies, lawyers, pro-life Christians, and social workers offer help and support to women in crisis, taking advantage of their vulnerability.  Slick brochures, showing glowing young couples who offer to love your child, testimonials from other "birth" mothers praising their lost babies' new families, and the message that relinquishing a child to adoption is beautiful, compassionate, responsible, even noble, comprise what I would call "soft propaganda."

A "crisis" pregnancy, like a death sentence, has a way of focusing the mind.  Awareness contracts to the here and now.  How will I care for a baby when I'm only 15?  Does this mean I'll have to give up that college scholarship?  I have no money, my boyfriend left town, and my parents won't speak to me.  I'm all alone and simply not ready for the responsibility of a baby.  What options do I have besides abortion or adoption?  I don't believe in abortion, so that means I must give up my child.  That way he can have a good life with parents who want him, and I can finish my education, stay in my parents' good graces, and with an open adoption I can even stay in contact with my child.  Surrender your baby for adoption, and all your problems are solved.  Sure, it will be hard, and you will suffer, but that will be temporary, and you'll get over it.  So some mothers, seeing the walls of social pressure and perhaps poverty closing in, make the decision that the "experts" assure them will bring the most happiness to the most people.  Your sacrifice will bring joy to others.  Isn't that better than being selfish and denying your child a better life than you can give him?  Than you can give him today.

What does a tiny baby need?  A safe place to sleep--a basket or a drawer will do as well as an expensive crib.  Food--you can supply that for free for at least six months.  Clothes--thrift stores and churches can supply what you need.  (In Finland every new mother is given a baby box at the hospital before she goes home.  The box is filled with everything a baby needs to get started in life--clothes, diapers, everything--and the box can be used as a crib.  Every mother gets this supply of essentials worth about $200.)  When you think about it, a baby doesn't really need all that much, though try telling that to a middle-class mom who thinks you're a failure if you don't own a jog-stroller.  What does a tiny baby need?  He needs his mommy, for whom there is no substitute.  We have turned adoption into a huge money-making scheme, babies into commodities, and their mothers into an impediment to fulfilling a demand.  Mothers, caught up in a crisis situation, and adoption agencies, concerned only with placing children, think only of the present and leave the future to take care of itself.  But there are those who have to live that future: mothers of lost children.  It is of them I wish to speak.

Actually, I can only speak for myself, but I don't think I exaggerate when I say I'm fairly typical.  I succumbed to the propaganda and thought only about the moment I was caught in.  I made an adoption plan for my baby, and I saw it through.  I didn't know at the time how badly my spirit had been broken or how I would never be the same person I had been before my pregnancy.  My parents didn't throw me out, but they made it clear that I could not come home with a baby.  They said so in so many words.  My mother was 40 when I was born, and at 62 she didn't want to take on a baby, something I, at age 69, can understand.  My parents were good people and loved me; they helped me by buying me a VW bug and finding me a place to live with a family that had two young children.  I never met the minister who put my father in touch with this couple, but the wife put me in touch with her doctor, who put me in touch with the headmaster of a small private school, who was apprised of my situation and, dear man, gave me a job teaching English.  So I did have help of a kind, at least until my son was born.  Here's what might have happened: I could have remained in the large basement bedroom with my son.  After a few weeks, I could have returned to the school; my day lasted from 8:00 until 1:00.  The stay-at-home mother in whose house I was living could have looked after my baby while I worked.  My social worker could have warned me about how difficult life without my child would be.  My parents could have accepted their grandson, and honestly, if given the choice between returning to my hometown or keeping my child, I would have chosen my child without question.  My mother was devastated, so I let my son go to lessen her anguish.  The man I'd met while I was pregnant, the man I later married and had three children with, could have stepped up and been a father to my baby, but he didn't.  In other words, I made the decision others wanted me to make.  No one ever asked me what I wanted.

Every time I see a single mother doing a bang-up job with her kid, I ache with longing.  Every time I hear a successful adult express gratitude to a single mom who raised him or her, I am reminded that I wasn't brave enough or strong enough to do what many other mothers have done.  When I walked away from the adoption agency that placed my son, leaving him behind for what I believed would be forever, I felt as if my insides had turned to stone.  I literally felt as if the blood had frozen in my veins, as if I no longer inhabited my own skin.  I became a walking, talking statue, emotionally disconnected from my past and my own sense of self and self-respect.  I was a failure in my own eyes, and in 47 years that has not changed, despite earning a PhD, teaching for 30 years, raising three wonderful children (one of whom is adopted), and finally achieving a happy marriage.  I didn't know that fateful day that it would take many decades for me to realize the enormity of what I had done.  I feel I must tell any mother who is considering placing her child for adoption that the way she feels today won't last.  The sense of doing the right thing will fade, and the grief will intensify.  Giving away a child is not something you can undo.  Your child will always wonder about you and why he wasn't kept.  Even if he has loving adoptive parents and a "good" life, he will always know he doesn't fit his adoptive family any more than a kitten adopted by a lactating dog fits into the canine world.  If you have other children, you will love them, but they will never replace the one you lost. 

I've heard younger "birth" mothers proclaim their satisfaction with their decisions to relinquish, and I've heard many, many mothers-of-loss express the incredible sorrow they still feel years and decades later.  Each of those mothers believed she was doing the right thing for her child too.  At the time.  I have never heard a mother who kept and raised her child say she wished she hadn't.  My own first son's father was the child of an unwed mother who raised him on her own, making his abandonment of me and our son even more inexplicable.  He adored his mother, and they were very close.  She struggled to raise him and provide a good education, and I would have saluted her if I'd ever had the opportunity to meet her. 

That brings me to the question of fathers.  We now have laws that compel fathers to support their children, whether married to the mother or not.  I made many bad decisions, two of which involve the fathers of my children.  When my first son's father told me he didn't want to get married, I let him off the hook.  He was English, and I was American, and once we parted the ocean between us proved to be infinite.  He should have helped me, and I should have demanded ongoing support.  My first husband and I divorced after 17 years.  At the time I was supporting the family (three children) with a graduate assistantship and some part-time jobs, while he drifted deeper into an alcoholic haze and joblessness.  By the time we separated, he was virtually penniless, and I signed away my rights to child support in exchange for the house we lived in.  He had nothing, so I didn't press the issue.  Within just a few years, however, he did have money, but it was too late.  In the moment, all I wanted was to be quits with him.  My children and I paid for that decision and are still paying. 

There are decisions you make when you're young that are so irrevocable I shudder to think about it.  Youth, in its optimism, often sees a sunny future, a second or even a third chance.  Americans are a people of the "do over."  But you can't regain what is truly lost, so I say to anyone considering adoption for their child, consider the future, which certainly won't be what you see today.  Have some thought for the woman you'll be when you're 50 or 60; have some thought for the child who will always miss you and wonder if you ever think of him.  This is not an argument I'm trying to win, and I'm not "bashing" adoption as some have claimed.  This is my experience, and I offer it as a warning.  There are more options than you may think and more sides to every story than you may realize.  At least stop to consider what I've said.