Friday, August 28, 2015

Who Knows Best?

Imagine a tug-of-war with not one rope and two sides but many ropes and multiple sides and you have some idea of the tensions within the adoption community, especially when it comes to making original birth certificates freely and easily available to adult adoptees.  Natural mothers from the BSE (Baby Scoop Era--WW II-1972), desperate to find their lost children before time runs out, practically prostrate themselves before intransigent legislators and judges who, for whatever reasons, refuse to grant access.  Adult adoptees who have never known who they are or the truth about their biological roots  are desperate for the information that every other American takes for granted.  When there are medical issues or the need to acquire a passport, this desire becomes even more urgent.  The billion-dollar adoption industry wants to maintain control of its "product," and adoptive parents want to be sure no inconvenient "birth" mother will reappear and upset their lives.  The kind of adoption we're used to--whether closed or open--legally and permanently removes the child from his natural parents and maintains the fiction that adoptive families are just like any other, that adoptive parents are the "real" parents, and those who take issue with this fiction are too often labeled "angry" or "bitter".

Since finding the son I relinquished for adoption in 1968, I have ridden the reunion roller-coaster, had everything I thought I knew about adoption upended, and discovered that, contrary to what I'd believed for decades, it was possible to change my mind about something deeply held and embrace a new reality.  What's more, the change of heart that I had feared has proved to be a greater liberation than I could have imagined even five years ago.  Reunion has not been smooth sailing; there have been waves I thought would drag me so deep I'd never breathe freely again, but having regained my footing, I have turned my attention to those who hesitate at the water's edge, afraid to take the plunge into reuniting with a lost child or a natural mother.  They cannot see far enough into the depths to be sure there will be a bottom, so they remain in denial where there is a familiar kind of safety. 

I will state unequivocally that no mother in reasonable health should ever make an adoption plan, select an adoptive family, or speak with an adoption worker until at least six weeks after the birth of her child.  If after that time of bonding and caring for her infant the mother still wants to consider adoption, that is the time to begin, and she should be given information about resources to help with practical matters like food and rent as well as information about the long-term consequences of adoption for both her and her baby.   I am not at all in favor of surrogacy, but if it's going to occur, these same guidelines should apply.  Even surrogate moms deserve a chance to change their minds.  As they say, Having a baby changes everything.  And money should never be part of the equation,   putting adoption agencies out of business, to which I say, Amen.

Now that all my children are grown and my grandchildren are no longer babies, I find myself thinking back to the years when I was immersed in the comfortable chaos of family life with small children.  I long for the weight of my kids' sweet bodies on my lap and in my arms, the smell of their baby necks, the tidal wave of connection.  I have snapshots in my head of moments with each of my children: rocking my son till he fell asleep when he had a fever at a year old, another son with his first ice cream cone, my daughter with her "mi mi" (blanket) that went with her everywhere.  So many memories.  I can flip through them like a rolodex.  When I taught university students, I used to tell them to have adventures so that when they got old they'd have memories to cherish.  The greatest adventure for me has been my children, not because life was always easy or we always got along like the figures in a Norman Rockwell painting, but because nothing else connects me to the past, the future, and the universe like my connection to them. 

But my memory book has many pages with empty pages.  I didn't raise one of my children.  I lost my first son to adoption when he was three weeks old, and the memories I have of him are as vivid as the ones I have of the other two I gave birth to and the son I adopted when he was still an infant, but a couple of days in the hospital and a short farewell in the social worker's office are all I have until I found him 44 years later.  Now, nearly four years post reunion, I do have a relationship with my first son, which I never expected and for which I am exceedingly grateful.  But regaining my son does not obviate the pain of losing him, nor does it fill in those many empty pages.  I realize now that I am experiencing another loss to add to the losses age inevitably brings.

I am turning 70 on my next birthday and, while I try to be philosophical about it, I have to accept that my life is closer to its end than to its beginning.  The person I am and the life I have are the pinnacle, no longer the preparation.  For so many years I was my kids' mom; that was my primary definition, certainly to myself.  Now I'm just me.  The body I took for granted is beginning to betray me.  A recent diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis has me trying to accommodate a new normal that I wasn't expecting and certainly wasn't prepared for.  It may not be a scientific conclusion, but I am convinced that the stress of the past four years, of finding my son and going through the eruption of grief and anger that reunion unleashed, has triggered my own body to turn against itself.  Anytime there is friction--as when water drops upon a stone or a hammer rubs against a palm--there is physical change.  Could it be that the friction of unresolved grief scrapes against the body in miniscule, unnoticed ways until the body gives way?  Stress is healthy in the short term.  It's what protects us from the inevitable threats of life, and once the threat is vanquished stability returns, but the stress of losing my son to adoption was like a piece of grit in an oyster, only it didn't produce a pearl.

Reunion released an avalanche of stress, and I can imagine friends and family asking themselves if finding my son was worth it.  They wouldn't ask me that, of course, because even though they may wonder, they know what my answer would be.  Yes, it was worth it.  It's better to know my son's fate than to forever wonder, better to live truthfully, better to feel restored to wholeness. 

Incredibly, there are still laws in most states that prevent adoptees from obtaining their original birth certificates.  New York, where my son was born, is one of them.  There was hope that this year, finally, the NY State Assembly would open its adoption records, but a handful of legislators, who have consistently obstructed change, once again quashed the efforts of adult adoptees and "birth" parents working to end these archaic laws.  One can only assume that the motive is financial, because it certainly can't be constitutional to deny a segment of the population--adoptees--their own information.  Who else in America has their identity stolen with the collusion of the state?  Who else is constrained by a contract devised by others without the consent of the person most intimately involved in the agreement: the adoptee?  The comparison to slavery is not far-fetched.

Opponents to releasing OBCs argue that "birth" mothers were promised confidentiality.  Leave aside the fact that more than 90% of mothers would welcome contact by their children, let's look at the issue of rights and whose should be honored.  Does a mother have the right to permanently deny her own child?  No one is forced to have a relationship they don't want.  Releasing information would not require mother and child to embrace and ride off into the sunset together if they don't want to.  But shouldn't the shape of the relationship be determined by those actually in it?  How can politicians, judges, and adoption professionals justify their intrusion into the decisions made by adults they don't even know?  To my knowledge "birth" mothers were not "promised confidentiality."  It was simply taken for granted in the BSE.  I know I was never promised any such thing.  I didn't think I had a choice.  I was able to find my son without the NY Assembly, but I guess I broke the law to do it.  Just twenty years ago Sandy Musser, author of "To Prison With Love," was sent to prison for helping adoptees and their mothers find each other.  A prison sentence for helping families reunite! 

Mothers from the BSE are getting old now.  Many have died without ever knowing the fates of their children, and many adoptees who search will find only a grave.  Other groups that were overlooked for decades--the Tuskegee airmen, Native Americans whose children were taken from their families and put in boarding schools, Holocaust survivors--are receiving the attention that is long overdue.  When will it be time for hundreds of thousands of mothers and their lost children to be acknowledged and, yes, honored?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

It's all personal

I just watched "The Theory of Everything" with my grandson.  In the film Stephen Hawking's efforts to determine the mathematical formula that would explain the universe are poignantly dramatized.  Hawking is an atheist, a scientist who looks for answers in the complexities of physics and cosmology; his wife wants to hold onto her faith in God.  Perhaps there is a point where science and religion can meet, the vaunted "God particle."  If so, we have yet to discover it, but it has to be considered a possibility.  Until mankind can explain everything that is, in such a way as to convince both agnostic scientists and the faithful (whatever their religion), our understanding will remain bifurcated, with science on one side, traditional belief on the other.  There are many things that divide us, and one that is close to my heart is the vexed issue of adoption.  My efforts at reconciling various points of view are a pale shadow of Hawking's search for a single formula, but I can identify with his desire for an answer that will satisfy all parties.

When I relinquished my firstborn son to adoption 47 years ago, I could see no other option.  Unwed motherhood put a young woman like me beyond the pale of respectable society.  I'd be unable to have the teaching career I was trained for, barred from renting an apartment,  shunned by my family for the shame I'd brought upon them.  My son's father declined to marry me, even with the promise of a hasty divorce, and without a husband there would be scandal in my hometown if I showed up with a baby in tow.  My parents, my social worker, and my doctor all assured me over and over again that if I loved my child I'd do what was best for him: give him up for adoption.  There are those in the adoption community who balk at the term "give up," but that's exactly what I did.  I was defeated by the familial and social forces arrayed against me, and I gave up.  I was devastated by my loss, but at the time I had no doubt that I was doing the right thing.  I would suffer so that my son and my parents could have comfortable lives without the stigma of illegitimacy.  (Now there's a word I do hate.)

I believed in adoption.  I had to if I were not to go mad, if I wanted to make a life for myself, so I buried my secret and tried to live as though I were just like any other young woman from a similar background.  I got married, had a baby, eventually moved back to my hometown with my husband and small son, and got a teaching job.  I'd met my husband when I was pregnant with my first son, and he wanted nothing to do with another man's baby, nor did he want to listen to anything I might have to say about my feelings.  What wasn't talked about could be ignored, and so began years of silence and denial.  The culture of therapy was far in the future, and there was little if anything written about the long-term consequences of adoption.  Until I was in my sixties, I never knowingly met another natural mother.  There were hundreds of thousands of us who lost our babies during the BSE (Baby Scoop Era--post WW II--1972), but we were isolated, each locked in our own cell of silence.

When my raised son was four, we adopted a baby from Vietnam.  I believed in adoption as if it were a religion.  Because of my own history, I felt compelled to adopt a child myself, and it needed to be a child who would otherwise not find a home.  American-born children would always be cared for; white infants would always be in demand; I was not infertile and didn't "need" a baby to be a mother.  Adopting a baby from Vietnam, a country America had practically demolished and where thousands of GI offspring faced a grim future, seemed as inevitable as sitting down to lunch.  I had been a frightened girl when I had my first baby.  Now I was a mother, a wife, a teacher, and I no longer cringed at the thought of being a cause of scandal.  In fact, I rather welcomed it.  I was unable to bring my own child back to my mid-western hometown; now I would bring a half-black baby, and I didn't care a flip what the neighbors might say.  I knew that some black social workers argued against placing black babies in white homes, but I thought that was just reverse prejudice.  How better to overcome segregation than by creating multi-racial families?  I would do more than talk the talk; I would walk the walk.  I'd do what so many others said they never could: raise a child that wasn't their own, be mother to a child from a different race.  I was 28 years old, in the full flood of maternal longings, and ready to love.

Forty-odd years later, I was mostly estranged from my adopted son, divorced from my children's father, and in my third marriage.  I was a grandmother, retired from university teaching, and the adoption landscape had changed beyond recognition.  Murphy Brown had had a baby on national TV as a single mother, and despite Dan Quayle's misgivings, the social fabric had not frayed.  The pill and legal abortion had greatly reduced the number of infants available for adoption, even as the demand grew.  International adoption stopped being exceptional, and single motherhood was no longer the social taboo it once was.  What had been an enterprise devoted to finding good homes for children in need shifted to a lucrative industry dedicated to providing families with the children they desired.  Long waiting times and large fees became the adoption norm, and affluent western parents looked abroad to poor countries with children to spare.  (Read Kathryn Joyce's "The Child Catchers.)  Trans-racial adoptees like my son are no longer a rarity, and many of them are no longer children.  As adults, they are finding their own voices and telling the rest of us what their lives have been like.  Their stories often don't match up with the stories their adoptive parents tell, even when the adoptions can be considered successful.

Just when adult adoptees are writing books and blogging about their lives, natural mothers from the BSE are entering old age, when the constraints of our middle years no longer bind us.  My parents, the only people who would be troubled by my resurrecting my adoption trauma, were both gone; my third husband and my three raised children were supportive; so in 2011 I began to search for my lost son.  The archaic, unconstitutional adoption laws of New York, where my son was born, would release no information about him, so I turned to a Search Angel, who in short order helped my find my son on Facebook.  Suddenly I was no longer bound by secrecy.  My family  and close friends knew.  Gradually I told more people, including former colleagues and students.  Absolutely everyone was thrilled for me.  If there was any negativity, I never heard about it, but by now I wouldn't be bothered by it anyway.  I imagine the relief I felt must be something like the relief a gay person feels when finally coming out of the closet.  Now your whole truth can be known; now you are free to be who you really are.

Here's where the adoption community (everyone affected by adoption, including adoptive parents, agencies and lawyers, natural mothers and fathers, and adoptees and their siblings) begins to come apart.  For decades adoption was central to a narrative of unmitigated joy, a win-win situation whereby a child gets loving parents and adults with over-sized hearts get the family they've dreamed of.  Natural mothers, when they were considered at all, were seen as either unfit undesirables or the noblest of the noble.  Adoptees were "chosen," and adoptive families were no different from any other.  Instead of languishing in orphanages, babies could be rescued, given new identities and new lives.  They were as lucky as characters in a fairy tale.  Only now the narrative is changing, thanks to all those "angry" adoptees whose lives weren't quite the happy-ever-after that had been promised and those natural mothers who still, decades later, mourned the loss of their children and longed to be reunited with them.  The puzzle with the pretty picture of happy families began to break up; money played a bigger and bigger role in adoption, forcing families to go to extreme lengths to raise
the necessary funds; and many placing agencies were found to be riddled with corruption.

I have gone from being an idealistic advocate for adoption to its enemy.  I deplore the treatment of mothers during the BSE and am appalled by current efforts to obtain babies from mothers with a crisis pregnancy.  I understand the anger of adoptees whose lives were charted for them by others, who had no say in contracts that they are now bound by.  I have no trouble saying, I hate adoption, and today when I see adoptive families I can't help but cringe.  And yet...and yet, I recognize that for some kids adoption is the best, perhaps the only, option.  How can I be anti-adoption and pro-adoption at the same time?  Much the same way as I can be pro-choice and pro-life at the same time.

We don't say we're "pro-abortion," because most everyone recognizes that no woman ever said to herself, "I think I'll get pregnant so I can have an abortion."  An abortion is never a happy choice, but sometimes it may be a necessary one.  Adoption is never a happy choice either.  Every adoption begins with loss and trauma (Read Nancy Verrier's "Primal Wound").  Because adoptive parents have written the script for so long, the story has been a mostly happy one, but the story line is changing.  How should we deal with children who, for whatever reason, can't remain with their mothers?  The old way has been to construct a house of lies: adoptive families are no different; parents love adopted children the same way they do biological ones; it's the woman who tucks you in bed and wipes your tears who is the "real" mother; happy adoptees aren't interested in their biological families; natural mothers forget and move on with their lives.  If we could get rid of the lies, perhaps we'd be on our way to finding better solutions to the problem of children in need.  Instead of adopting a kid, become her legal guardian, with all the authority and responsibility of a parent but without the pretense.  Never withhold a child's information about her family history, and certainly never prevent adult adoptees from reuniting with their parents.  That is their business and no one else's.  Instead of harvesting babies from poor countries, spend more money helping poor families keep their children.  And yet...and yet.

I know many international adoptees and have no doubt that their lives in America are far better than they would have been in their country of origin.  I knew I couldn't save every Vietnamese orphan, but I could give one a better life, and I believe I did.  Was my son lucky because he lost everything and became a human transplant, or was he denied his true identity and native culture?  He's lived in this country since he was nine months old and would be as alien in Vietnam today as I would be.  The past cannot be undone, nor should it be.  If the engine that drives international adoption is really the welfare of children, then there is much we can do to help children remain in their own homes, but if the intent is to obtain babies for adults, then we have our priorities all wrong.  I wanted to adopt my Vietnamese son because I wanted to "rescue an orphan," but if I'm honest, I wanted to adopt for my own personal reasons as well, to fulfill a deep, unacknowledged need of my own.  I understand the overwhelming desire to parent a child, but I cannot privilege an adult's longings above a child's right to his own family.

What I can't stand hearing are comments like: If we can't have our own, we'll just adopt.  If we don't have a girl next time, we'll adopt one.  It's not fair when people who would make great parents can't have their own kids, yet lousy parents have as many as they can pop out.  (No, it's not fair.)  In every adoption someone gets crushed.  You can deny the trauma to the infant separated from his mother; you can dismiss the natural mother's grief as hysteria or neurosis; you can ignore the statistics about mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide among adoptees; but this kind of lying seems to me rather like citizens in a totalitarian state pretending that all is well.  That kind of cognitive dissonance has to take its toll, whether it's adoptive parents' fear of losing their children to the biological family, the adoptee's sense of alienation, or the natural mother's endless grief or numbness.

I wish I had done more than tell my adopted son how glad I was that we adopted him.  I should have explained more about his past, asked him how he felt, and really listened to him.  I should have empathized with him rather than expecting him to "just [be] one of the crowd," as I described him to a newspaper reporter on the day he became a naturalized American citizen at age 12.  I should not have been so mystified by his childhood rages.  So many shoulds. 

No one gets a "do over" in life, but the stories people tell shape their society.  When adoptees, natural mothers, and adoptive parents peel back the lies, deceptions, and excuses, and honestly tell the truth, the future can be better for others.  If anything I write convinces a mother with a crisis pregnancy to think hard about what giving away her child will mean, to find the courage to fight for her motherhood, then I will have succeeded.  I don't wish my experience on anyone.  Adoption was not beautiful for me and it wasn't for my sons either.  Every adoptee is not crushed by being adopted; many thrive, just as many soldiers return from battle and view their military service as the highlight of their lives.  But we know that many veterans do return broken in mind and body, and we honor them.  We should do no less for those babies, thousands (millions?) now grown up and still hurting, whose lives were changed forever because someone who wanted to be a mother couldn't be.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Politics of Herding Cats

My own reunion journey has had many stages: anxiety mingled with anticipation, the euphoria of discovery, a bottoming-out in long-delayed grief, inchoate anger.  There is no way I could have circumvented or shortened any of these stages, nor in retrospect would I want to.  Each has taught me valuable lessons, and I am still learning.  Today I'm more committed than ever to unsealing all adoption records and giving adoptees access to their original birth certificates, as 14 (I believe that's the correct number) of states have already done.  Anyone familiar with adoptionland is aware of the arguments (overwhelming) in favor of complete access and the resistance of a relative handful of legislators, adoption "professionals," and adoptive parents who want these records kept locked away permanently.  My intention here is not to rehash those arguments but to consider how we can best proceed with what is ultimately a political issue.

Social change is often glacial: slow but inexorable.  It is not inevitable and requires vigilance and commitment to change that may take generations to reach fulfillment.  What I see now is not yet a movement, though I hope and expect it will soon become one, just as Occupy and Black Lives Matter have.  We begin with raised awareness, then lean our collective shoulders against the closed doors of the past.  There is never unanimity among political groups, but such entities that are well-organized around a few easily articulated goals have the best chance of succeeding. 

I'm not an activist.  I've supported various causes over the course of my life--opposition to the Vietnam War, support for civil rights, natural childbirth, adoption, and now adoption reform--but I've never marched in the streets or held a candle in a nighttime vigil.  In any drama the protagonists take center stage, but, as in Greek tragedy, the chorus plays an important role as well.  I consider myself part of the chorus, and I believe that if enough of us shout loudly enough we will be able to push the central actors (legislators, lawyers, adoption agencies) to do the right thing.

Today people who are essentially on the same side, who want access to OBCs, family preservation rather than separation of mother and baby, the removal of the financial incentive in adoption, and total transparency, sometimes quarrel about whether it's better to work within the system or attempt to kick it down.  I'm of two minds about this myself.  In the 'sixties I often heard the arguments, "It's too soon; the nation isn't ready for full equality."  Or "You can't legislate morality."  I also heard, "If not now, when?"  And "Justice delayed is justice denied."  I've often wondered how we can accept an evil today that we know will be anathema tomorrow, but we do it all the time.  St. Augustine understood this: "Lord, make me chaste.  But not yet."  Is it better to compromise in order to get something or to stand on principle and risk gaining everything or losing it all?  This is the very conflict we're witnessing now in our politics with the Iran deal and climate change.  When I look at the problems facing our nation and our world, I favor compromise, anything that will move us toward our goal rather than keep us stuck in an untenable present.  I must conclude, then, that in adoption reform compromise must be accepted.

(I wish there were another phrase than "adoption reform."  I want reform, yes, but what I really want is an end to adoption as we know it.  That's why "family preservation" seems more appropriate.)

Everyday I read posts where people call each other out for not toeing some line or other.  Some cheered when Gov. Christie signed a bill granting limited access to OBCs in New Jersey; others railed against the bill for not going far enough.  Of course, it makes no sense that what is legal in one state should be illegal in another, but that is an inconsistency that has plagued our nation from the beginning.  I don't see Christie as any kind of hero.  He's obstructed adoption reformists at every turn and only gave in when he was forced to.  But he did sign the bill, and that's something.  Many people worked long and hard to get that much.  I don't believe they deserved to be called "sell outs."

It is naive to think change can come without compromise.  Principled intransigence may be emotionally satisfying and morally gratifying, and in extreme circumstances (in Nazi Germany, the struggle for voting rights or gender equality) intransigence may be an effective or necessary strategy, but in the complex world of adoption, with all its exceptions and ambiguities, a monolithic stance is more likely to be an impediment to change than a conduit.  We need to stop squabbling among ourselves, stop seeing our own personal experience as exemplary.  One swallow does not make a summer, and one successful adoption is not an argument for adoption in general.  Whatever the circumstances, it all boils down to civil rights and human dignity, what our country was (supposedly) founded upon.  All citizens have the right to full information about their family of origin.  Adoption (I prefer legal guardianship) should always be the last resort in extraordinary circumstances, and there should be no money exchanged for a child.  Now, what do we need to do to achieve these goals?