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.