Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why I Once Worked for an Adoption Agency

If you've visited my blog before, you know that in 1968 I relinquished my firstborn son to adoption and in 1974 I (along with my then-husband) adopted a baby boy from Vietnam.  I also have two more children born to me, a son and a daughter.  This blog is my attempt to explain my own actions in relation to adoption in hopes of better understanding myself and the adoption industry.

When my first raised son was about two years old, his father and I became friends with a couple who had adopted a baby from Korea through Holt International.  When we first went to their house for dinner, we entered a huge, turn-of-the-century stone house with turrets and a giant verandah.  Downstairs was the art gallery K. owned and where she planned to give my artist-husband a one-man show.  The family, that included a little girl about my son's age and the baby, lived upstairs. After looking around the gallery, we followed our hosts upstairs, where the children were waiting. There are moments that remain crystalized in the memory, and my first glimpse of little P.L., their eight-month-old Korean child, stays with me.  That was when I knew what I needed to do: adopt a child myself.  

I realize now that I was motivated by my own deep grief and sense of loss, that I wanted to fill the hole in my heart left by my firstborn and restore balance to my life, but at the time those motivations remained opaque.  It wasn't that I didn't make the connection between my first baby and my desire to adopt.  I did, but I failed to see it for what it truly was: an effort at redemption or atonement, a desire to mother a baby in expiation for my failure to mother my own.  It would be interesting to know what motivated my husband to go along with me.  He had made it very clear that he didn't want to raise my first son and in fact felt betrayed by the fact that I'd been with someone before meeting him.  We never talked about my lost baby, and this untouchable topic eventually destroyed our marriage.  Our financial situation was precarious.  I was teaching high school English while B. sold a painting every now and then, just enough to encourage him to keep trying to make it as an artist.  Our friends with the art gallery were his most generous patrons, so it wasn't as if we had a surplus of wealth to find a purpose for.  B. hadn't wanted my baby, but now, barely three years later, he was eager to adopt one.  We decided to adopt a black or mixed-race infant, in part because we figured white babies had plenty of families that would want them, in part because we wanted to break down racial barriers.  I was aware that some black social workers disapproved of placing black children with white families, but I thought they were just demonstrating reverse prejudice.  Eventually we adopted a baby through Holt, the agency our friends had used.  When asked what kind of child we'd like--rather like placing an order in a restaurant I now think--we specified an infant under a year old, a boy (we knew they were harder to place), and part black (also harder to place).  B. sold a painting just in time for us to pay the $10,000 fee, and our son came to us when he was nine months old.  I was as passionate about adopting this baby as I'd been when expecting our older child.  He was adorable, and as a young mother I had no idea the of depth of trauma he'd suffered in his brief life or how profoundly affected by it he would be.  Surely love would be enough, and we would be an example to the world of what a loving family looks like.  In short, I believed in adoption and saw myself as one of its most enthusiastic proponents.

 What made me change my mind?  

I taught at a state university for nearly thirty years, always part-time or as an adjunct, never with the security of tenure.  During one period of budget cuts by the state legislature, I was one of the lecturers let go to save money.  My life was teaching, and I was devastated.  I believed the career I'd worked so hard to achieve, precarious though it was, was now closed to me.  I was only in my forties, nowhere near retirement, and I had to find a way to make some money.  But more than that, I needed to find another career that would be as fulfilling as teaching had been.  My new husband was retired and, though I didn't know it at the time, deeply in debt.  I had to find a job.  I considered getting a degree in social work; I knew I wanted to help people.  Returning to the editorial work I'd done when first out of college wasn't an option; I'd hated what seemed like drudgery to me.  I wanted human interaction, not a desk beneath flourescent lights.  What do I believe in? I asked myself.  Adoption.  That was something I could embrace and for which I felt eminently qualified.  After all, I'd had lots of real-world experience, so I called around to various agencies that I found in the phone book.  I was willing to start at the bottom, stuffing envelopes if necessary.  A small, independent international adoption agency, which consisted of the director and one part-time social worker to do home studies, hired me to be a secretary/receptionist.  I would not be involved in the actual adoption process, but I would be able to interact with prospective parents, share my story, and offer advice if asked. 

At first I was grateful to the director for hiring me.  I was a lousy secretary, but apparently I had a good telephone voice, and I made people feel comfortable, but it didn't take long for things to begin falling apart, quite literally.  The first week I pulled too hard on a desk drawer and damaged it so much it wouldn't close.  It soon became clear to me that for the director the agency was a business, not a service.  She had plans for me to eventually travel to Guatemala, where many of the orphans she placed originated from.  She had contacts with orphanages and lawyers there, and part of my job was faxing information to them.  I read the guidelines for adoptive parents traveling to Guatemala to pick up their children and was not encouraged.  Leave all your he jewelry at home.  Don't go out at night.  Don't travel alone.  Be prepared for the unexpected.  It was I who typed up the home studies and kept all the files in order, so I became familiar with the adoption process from beginning to end, including the tens of thousands of dollars it cost.  The office was filled with brochures and albums, chock-a-block with photos and bios of available children.  So many beautiful children, and because of us some would have a chance at a "better" life in America.  That was what I thought.  The rampant corruption in the Guatemalan adoption business had not yet risen to crisis level, leading to the complete shutdown of adoption there.  I've often wondered whether the agency I worked for  contributed to the abuses, the kidnappings, the outright buying of babies from desperate mothers. 

Most of the prospective parents seemed like genuinely good people.  Their desire for a child was painful to see, and I could tell that some were terrified they'd be turned down, something that almost never happened.  Because I was privy to all the financial statements, I knew that no one even started the process who didn't have the money to afford it.  I remember one family in particular.  It was the husband's second marriage, and he had a twenty-year old son who was schizophrenic.  The father was a tobacco company executive, and the son lived in his own house next door to his parents'.  The wife wanted a baby, so they were planning to adopt from Latin America, Paraguay, I believe it was.  I never met these people in person, but I heard from the social worker what their home was like.  Everything in their enormous house was white, including the wife's pet poodle.  The dog wore a faux-diamond collar (I assume it was faux) and was obviously the center of attention.  I tried to picture a young child in that environment and couldn't do it.  A schizophrenic older brother, a spoiled mother, a frequently absent father, and a world of white to not despoil.  How would a little child from an impoverished orphanage cope with all that? And how much more could have been done to support the orphanage with what the adoption cost?

I worked at the agency for about eight months, and when the fall semester rolled around, I was rehired at my old university as an Assistant Director of the Honors Program.  I had my old life back, and it was even better than before.  By then I'd grown very uncomfortable with my job and was relieved when I was able to give my notice.  I settled back into academia and as time went by I had time to reflect on my experience.  I was glad to have had the opportunity to see the inside of an adoption operation, but I became increasingly uneasy about it.  My own adopted son had not had an easy time of it, and I was aware of other adoptees who had struggled.  It was one thing when my son was very young and we socialized with other families with internationally adopted children.  Babies, toddlers, and young children are like kittens; it's hard to see anything wrong with them.  But as my son approached adolescence, life was not so candy-colored.  My husband and I divorced when my children were fourteen, ten, and eight.  Let's just say that the next ten years were the most difficult of my life, which means, of course, that they were difficult for my children too, my adopted son especially.  What I had once believed was a near-perfect family had become something very imperfect indeed, and I began to realize that the source of much, if not all, of the difficulty was adoption, beginning with the relinquishment of my first son.  At the time I tended to blame my adopted son for the disruption in our household.  He had difficulties at school, and I was called in for teacher conferences many, many times.  Eventually he got in trouble with the law and thus began years of repeated arrests and incarcerations. 

Through all this chaos, I believed there was something wrong with him.  His first months with us were a nightmare of screaming, clinging, and constant diarrhea.  No one had told me that many Asian children are lactose intolerant, and I poured milk into that child like there was no tomorrow.  He couldn't be alone in a room and was easily frustrated, which frustrated me.  Until he was four, he suffered from night terrors that woke the entire family.  Thinking he would outgrow these behaviors, we remained hopeful.  Seeking help would have seemed like an admission of failure, and there was no one to consult anyway.  I was a good parent to our older son, but the parenting techniques that worked with him were no good at all with our adopted son, and I was too uninformed about adoption to know what was really going on.  Now that he's grown up and there's nothing I can do about his childhood, I realize that his behavior was exactly what one might expect from a black child adopted into a white family.  Not all transracial adoptees end up in juvenile court, of course, but one of my son's counselors told me that most of the kids he dealt with were adopted.  I found that astonishing then. I don't now. 

It's very hard to let go of a belief you've cherished for decades.  It's incredibly difficult to admit that sometimes love is not enough, that patience has limits, and depression is not something you can switch off like a light.  My depression probably began while I was in college, but when I lost my son to adoption it became a constant companion.  Anyone who's suffered from depression knows how hard it is to carry on, but it wasn't until the end of my second marriage that I sought professional help.  My children were raised by a depressed mother, my career was impacted by my illness, and my judgment was in many ways compromised by desperate emotional need.  Now that I'm nearing 70 and am in a third, happy marriage, I can look back at those bleak years and wonder how I managed to get us all through them.  The one consistent element for the past 47 years has been adoption.  It would be impossible to understand anything about me or my family without taking that into account.

Plenty has been written about the corruption in international adoption.  See especially The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce.  Books and articles like hers are important to raising awareness, and they need to be supported and augmented by the individual stories of those who have lived adoption.  Fortunately more adoptees are coming forward, writing blogs and books, and exposing the truth that has been kept hidden and that the adoption industry is still trying to suppress.  The adoption industry and adoptive parents have controlled the narrative for so long most people don't even realize there's another side to it.  Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the arc of history bends toward justice.  I'd like to say that the arc of adoption bends toward truth, but it can't so long as adoptees are denied their birthright and their identity and women with a "crisis" pregnancy are fed the adoption Kool Aid.  I drank the Kool Aid, and I drank deeply; I nearly drowned in it.  But old beliefs can be shed and a more honest life is possible.  If only I'd known then what I know now.  How many times have I told myself that? 

What do I know now?

I know that every mother deserves to raise her own child, and every baby deserves to stay with his own mother.  Shame, poverty, youth, even drug addiction, are all temporary and subject to amelioration.  Adoptive parents aren't better; they're just different, as prone to dysfunction as any other family. 

I know that culture matters, and plucking a child out of his original familial and cultural environment is an insult to his identity and abrogates his autonomy.

I know that natural mothers never forget their children, and most adopted children suffer a loss they often cannot identify, understand, or get over.

I know that some people have children who don't deserve to be parents, and some wonderful people who would make great parents won't have children.  Life can be unfair in that regard, but taking babies from their own families is a cruel remedy.  I feel sorry for anyone who longs for something her very soul seems to need, but I now know that babies are not transferable. 

I know from my own sons how adoption affects adoptees, and there is nothing I can do now to alter their experience or completely alleviate their resulting pain.

I won't try to tell my sons' stories.  Each of my children undoubtedly has a different story to tell, and it would be presumptuous of me to try to speak for them.  I don't pretend to speak for all mothers-of-loss, but I'd feel remiss if I didn't share what it's taken me nearly 50 years to learn.  I fell off the track of my life when I was barely 22, and I never fully regained my footing.  Like anyone with a secret tragedy, I learned to manage, to go on and make the best of things, but rather than being fully present in my own life, whether it was parenting my children or building a career, I was like a marathon runner with one leg or a swimmer with one lung.  Adoptees, I am told and have read, learn to fit into an alien family, to be a human chameleon.  A mother-of-loss learns to imitate wholeness.  Historically, various marginalized groups have struggled to remain invisible: the disabled, minorities, and those impacted by adoption.  It isn't so long ago that a child with Down syndrome was immediately shuffled off to an institution, African-Americans were refused service in restaurants, adopted children were not told they were adopted, and their mothers were told to forget and never speak of their past.  We have made lots of progress in this country when it comes to social justice, but we still have a long way to go to protect adoptee rights and offer adequate support to all mothers.

Part of me is ashamed that I ever thought working for an adoption agency was a good idea.  It strikes me now as rather like working for a tobacco company.  Just because something is legal and common doesn't make it right, and I feel as if I should have known better.  But if I were ashamed of working there, I would have to be just as ashamed of relinquishing one son and adopting another.  The thought of anything shameful being associated with any of my children is extremely painful to me.  I feel guilt for not knowing enough or being strong enough at critical junctures in my life, but I did what seemed best in the moment.  The hardest thing is trying to forgive myself.  When I hear other mothers' stories, I never condemn them because I know what decisions made in desperation can lead to.  Maybe forgiveness isn't ultimately the issue.  I remember a scene from the TV mini-series "Lonesome Dove."  A young prostitute has been captured by Indians and repeatedly raped (if memory serves).  She is rescued by the Robert Duvall character, and they sit together around a campfire in the dark.  "They shouldn't have done that," the young woman says.  "No," says Duvall in his laconic way.  "They shouldn't have done that.  But they did."  For some things there can be no redress, but it's important for there to be acknowledgement.