Disarming Trigger Words

Disarming Trigger Words

It seems that many people needn’t go very far to find a reason to be offended. Occasionally, the offense is real … or serious … or intentional. Most of the time, however, people seem to go out of their way to look for reasons to take offense at a comment someone has made. I’m grateful for the light being shone on the dark pattern of the sexual abuse of women by powerful men, and at the same time, I see us heading down a dangerous path where we’re policing every comment, parsing every joke, turning the figurative furniture upside down to find the intentional slight that might not actually be there. After the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, the center on any issue is the place of common ground – and yet it’s often the most challenging to achieve.

I am concerned that in this overzealous watchful state we’re in, we may be losing our collective sense of humor. Now senses of humor run a large gamut – and there’s all kinds of comedy. I’ve never been a big fan of puns or slapstick, for instance, yet my husband loves the Marx Brothers. When I was in high school, my boyfriend and all of his friends were huge Monty Python fans, so much so that they’d committed every word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to memory and would spout lines from it at the oddest times. It wasn’t until years later that I could even crack a smile at a sketch from those crazy Brits. Go find the Dead Parrot Sketch if you’ve never seen a Python skit.

It would be interesting – from a purely sociological perspective – to be able to rewind the scenes from my childhood to see what went into my humor development, or lack thereof. My sister seemed to share my humor-challenged state, so I have a suspicion it had to do with my dad. I remember telling Mary, my social worker at the adoption agency, how serious my dad always was – almost as if he regarded pleasure of any kind as frivolous at best, and sinful at worst. She referred to him as an ascetic – a word I had to look up at the time. In case you’re wondering, the Google dictionary defines it as: “characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.” Dad loosened up toward the end of his life. I couldn’t say what, exactly, triggered the change, but it was nice to see him enjoy dessert or laugh at a goofy joke.

So it’s really no wonder that my own sense of humor was slow to develop and then to evolve. I thank my husband, John, in great part for helping me with that, although I don’t think we’d have hit it off very well if I hadn’t already done a lot of personal work in the area of lightening the fuck up.

When I was in high school, I went to a Spring Training game with the Monty Python boyfriend. We were at the snack bar, and I went to get some napkins. There was a pile on the counter, so I grabbed them, not realizing they were sitting on top of another fan’s tray. He looked at me a bit perplexed and asked me what I was doing, so Anthony and his friends laughed at my goof – because it was funny. But I was humiliated. At that time, I had zero ability to laugh at myself or let a silly mistake like that roll off my back.

Years later, I was back in Phoenix working as a substitute teacher, when one little girl in my class tripped and fell. Immediately, most of the other students laughed at her. I chastised them – someone falling isn’t funny. They piped up to me that their teacher always laughed whenever any of the kids fell down. I was incensed and told them told them that their teacher was WRONG! People falling down is never funny. But if that were true, America’s Funniest Home Videos would never have been the hit it was, right? It wasn’t my kind of humor – still isn’t. I think it’s because I find it difficult to take pleasure in humor that comes at another person’s expense. But a lot of people do find it funny when someone else falls down or otherwise blunders.

Yet there are things I find funny today which I realize would anger – perhaps enrage – other people. Religious humor, for one thing. John and I watched a 2009 Jim Jeffries comedy special the other day, and his anti-religion jokes were simply scathing. Funny – but really, really harsh.

So having discovered my sense of humor a bit later in life, I also learned that I needn’t be offended every time someone makes a toss-off comment about adoption. You might have heard a parent say, when their kid has misbehaved in some way, “You’re not my kid. You must have been adopted” or “I should have just put you up for adoption.” It’s probably not the kindest thing to say to a child in any circumstance, but I get that we all say things in frustration, at times. What I no longer do is get my back up when I hear it the way I used to.

I have a friend whose adult son struggles with mental health issues. Her trigger words are “crazy” and any derivation or synonym thereof. For others, it’s anything to do with addiction or obesity or the word “retarded.” I’m willing to bet that many of us have a word or a term or a topic we think is just taboo for joking about – maybe more than one. While I do believe that most of us could probably use some sensitivity training and take more care with our speech, I also know that people are just going to say things.

I don’t believe the world owes us a bubble in which to live. Sure – speech that incites hate or violence is a real problem, but for the most part, that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the habit we seem to be developing of feeling superior to others by finding ways to make them wrong. If we walk around all day listening for words or jokes or speech patterns that offend us, we will find them. And then what? Do we make it our mission in life to educate every person who “misspeaks”? Do we publicly shame them or call them out because we felt slighted? Worse still, do we go out of our way take offense on others’ behalves? Do we make YouTube videos or write endless Facebook posts about how wicked this person or that category of people is? This seems to be happening more and more these days, and all it’s doing is sowing more division, rather than in any way bringing us together.

Perhaps we can try – again – to meet in the middle. Let’s all be a little more aware of the language we’re using, and at the same time, let’s all just relax a bit, realizing that it sometimes might be OK to laugh at ourselves.

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Beforehand

Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Beforehand

As far as I’m aware, there’s no rule that a pregnant woman considering adoption must have counseling, although it is highly encouraged. I remember hearing once – again, research to support this piece of anecdotal information yielded nothing – that by law, counseling had to be offered to a woman considering adoption, even a private attorney adoption, but that’s pretty much the extent of things. As you might imagine – particularly if you’ve ever dealt with (or been) a pregnant woman – she has lots of bonus hormones looking for a place to land. Combine that with an ill-timed, out-of-wedlock, and/or crisis pregnancy and a woman considering adoption, and you’ve created the emotional perfect storm.

It’s not the time for remembering details – or hearing, let alone acting on, the information. Particularly when someone says, perhaps as a casual comment, “Oh, by the way, counseling is available if you want it.” That’s why an agency adoption is so important for the prospective birthmother. She is assigned a caseworker who makes sure to talk her through the most essential details – and offers an ear to listen, as well as (hopefully) wise counsel and answers to any questions the pregnant mom does think to ask in her flustered state. That’s the problem, though, with a first-time pregnancy. You don’t know what you don’t know.

On the other hand, I don’t envy the job of an adoption social worker – or any social worker, for that matter. At least a baby usually finds a (better) home at the end of an adoption, so I guess there are pluses. But I imagine there’s a lot to know and remember to explain along the way. Still, it would seem there should be a checklist of topics for the caseworker to discuss with the pregnant mother, whether or not she decides to keep the baby. If she’s going to carry the pregnancy to term, things will come up and decisions will need to be made.

Yes, there’s that ubiquitous book, What to Expect When You’ve Got Anything at All to Do With Having a Kid, EXCEPT Be a Birthmother. That book – and all the others like it – focus on the happy event, assuming the baby will go home from the hospital with the same people it went in with, which is exactly what does not happen in adoption. Not ideal reading for the prospective birthmom. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Patricia Roles’ book, Saying Goodbye to a Baby, came closest to answering and addressing my questions, but (a) I didn’t find it until after my son was born and living with his other family and (b) even it didn’t cover some of the more basic issues.

As a matter of fact, after scoping out the Amazon reviews for Roles’ book (two 5-star reviews; two 2-star reviews, and one 1-star review), I think I’m going to order another copy so I can re-read it, 22 years later, as it seems my perspective just may have shifted. I do get the sense that the writer of the 1-star review is one of those people I wrote about in a prior post who has no desire to release her grief or heal from the adoption wounds. Yes, her pain is real, and there is no timeline for getting over it. But forward movement after any trauma is probably a healthier option than choosing to live in that pain forever. Yes – for many people, birthmothers included, living in pain is a choice.

So here are the things I wish I’d known before they occurred:

My scoliosis would matter when it came to the epidural. Epidural is a drug commonly used during labor and delivery. It is inserted into the spine by an anesthesiologist, with the command, “Hold still or you might wind up paralyzed.” I had a single dose that helped for the first little while, but the second dose didn’t “take.” We later deduced that the curve in my spine meant the epidural hadn’t gone where it was supposed to go. The nurses told me the pain I experienced was the equivalent of natural childbirth. You’re welcome, kiddo!

Those little red dots all over your neck and chest are capillaries that broke during the “pushing.” Nothing earth-shattering here, but it would have been a good thing to know so I didn’t have to freak out about it.

The birthparents make the circumcision decision. It was a bit surprising to find out after the fact that my OB/GYN did not perform this procedure. So Eric had to go home a happy kid, and come back a week later to be mauled and – some might say – mangled. Although a huge debate churns on about the merits of circumcision, as I understand things, the child still generally does whatever the father did. Had I realized ahead of time that it would be important to know my doctor’s stance, I would have made other preparations.

Breasts are milk producers. Duh, right? But not when you’re not expecting it. No one prepared me for my milk to come in, or informed me of the need for nursing pads even though I wouldn’t be nursing. Not to mention that nursing the baby you will place for adoption is an option. It would seem immeasurably more difficult to surrender a baby with whom you’ve shared that kind of bond, but I have known birthmothers who’ve done it.

I could have had Eric baptized in the hospital and been there for the ceremony. This is, of course, specific to Christian religious belief – in our case, Catholic. It wasn’t until I read in a chatroom about a birthmom who did this that I was even aware it could have been a possibility. Again, this is less important to me now, but it would have been a very special moment to share and is one of my very few regrets.

Grief can show up as anger. Though I discussed this in a prior post, it’s worth noting again here. I spent the entire first year of Eric’s life extremely pissed off at the world, and it wasn’t until someone I didn’t even like very much pointed it out to me that I recognized that anger as grief. I’m not sure there would have been anything to do differently, but it feels like it would have been useful information at the time.

It seems unlikely that Patricia Roles will update her book – so maybe it is time for a new book. And maybe my job is to write two of them: one, a handbook like Roles’ for birthparents, and the other my own adoption story.

The Unique Pain of Being Adopted

The Unique Pain of Being Adopted

No birthmother is happy at the thought that she’s hurt her child by placing him or her for adoption. I can only speak for myself, but I imagine many must feel, as I did, that we were doing the best thing we could for our babies – or older children, as is sometimes the case. I definitely could have parented my son – I was old enough, with a steady job, and health insurance. In other words, I had the means. But I’m not sure, to this day, that doing so would have been the best thing for him. I’m not unmaternal, per se, but I never felt the overwhelming drive so many moms – and would-be moms – seem to have. I think kids are cute enough, but I’ve never gone out of my way to meet a baby or felt something in my life was missing because I did not live the parenting experience.

That’s a challenging admission to make, given that my son could certainly take it as abandonment. And strangely enough, it’s only through the self-inspection, recollections, and research I’ve begun doing for this blog that I realize how deep his pain might have been. Just because I adjusted fairly well to the separation doesn’t mean he did. It’s long been my belief – and experience – that the older person in the relationship (e.g., the parent, teacher, older sibling) sets the tone for the relationship. So in that regard, the tone I set in my relationship with Eric was that I wasn’t going to be his mother. Partly, if I’m honest, because I didn’t want to be anybody’s mother (it wasn’t about him, personally) – but mostly because I didn’t think I could do a very good job at it. My role models had been iffy, my biological clock non-existent. And the one thing I knew was that he deserved a great mom – great parents. So I went through a lot of effort to ensure he got them.

It took me a very long time to find a life partner in my husband, John. I was 42 when we met, and 43 when we married, a first marriage for both of us. He was the first man I dated seriously after Tony, my son’s birthfather. We met through the Craigslist personals. I’d been posting there on and off for five years when we met, yet mine was the first ad John ever responded to. The thing is, as I look back on it now, all of those first dates were a lot like the profiles I saw for prospective parents. I could have said yes to a second date with any of them – just as I could have agreed to a meeting with any of the prospective parents from the first 11 profiles. But I would have been settling for less than what I really wanted, and I wasn’t willing to do that.

I’m not comparing choosing adoptive parents for my son with choosing a mate; the former was far more important, because it affected a little person who was wholly dependent on me to make good decisions for him. If I dated and subsequently married badly, society would easily allow me to divorce and get a “re-do.” If I chose the wrong parents for my son, there would be no take-backs. So maybe holding out until I met the right people to become Eric’s family was practice for holding out to meet John. One thing is sure: I got it right on both counts.

I will say that as John and I were briefly considering the idea of parenting, it did niggle at the back of my mind to wonder how Eric would feel if I’d had another child I kept after having placed him with Kathy and Bruce. I’m not quite sure how much that thought affected my decision not to have a child with John – perhaps more than I realized.

And even though it seems my son has had a great life, I know he has struggled with the adoption, as virtually every adopted kid has. Fortunately for him, the adoption has been at least semi-open since the start, so he’s known who his family is and has been able to see photos, meet his aunts and maternal grandmother, and have his questions answered as they arose. He has a full medical history for my side of the family, and a few details about his birthfather’s. In short, he has a lot more access and information than many adoptees do, even in today’s era of “openness.”

I was banging around, looking for a photo idea for closed adoption when I came across the website, IAmAdopted.net. Grit your teeth and gird your loins if plan to do any reading there – because a lot of its information may hit you hard in the face, especially if you are an adoptive parent. The goal of the site, it seems, is to foster better, more open relationships between adoptive parents and the children they call theirs. There is helpful, eye-opening information for birthparents, too. For instance, one of the posts I read is titled “If Adoption Was About the Child.” It begins with these lines:

“Every day … I read about the experiences and narratives of adoptees, and the overall conclusion I have made is that adoption is about birth parents and adoptive parents. When will we be real about it and admit that?”

Her point is that it’s only in the rarest circumstance when adoption is solely done with the child’s well-being most central. Usually adoptive parents are adopting because they want a [bigger] family – not out of a desire to help a needy infant or toddler. And likewise, adoption is often a solution for the birthmother. I felt defensive reading those comments – and yet I must admit this blogger has a point.

She then goes on to delineate the ways adoption would work if it were truly centered around the child. I am paraphrasing, unless a direct quote is indicated. But please go read the original post!

  • All adoptions would be open. Check.
  • Adoptees would be allowed consistent contact with their birthfamilies – providing safety wasn’t an issue – without the adoptive parents fearing their child would like their birthparents better. It didn’t start like that, but we got there in a way that unfolded at Eric’s pace, not mine or his parents’.
  • Adoptees would have access to their original birth certificates. I wanted this – but even the birth certificate I have does not name Tony as the birthfather. I must have been angrier with him than I remember. And the one Eric’s family has was redacted and changed to indicate their last name, not ours.
  • Birthmothers would not deny contact with the children they placed for adoption. While I cannot imagine doing this, from what I’ve been reading, the guilt and shame some birthmoms experience is overwhelming and they feel they don’t deserve access to their children. What they fail to realize is that in doing so, they’re creating a second rejection that might be even more painful than the original one. The writer calls the behavior selfish, and I’d have a hard time arguing with her.
  • Adoptive parents would allow their children to search without getting overly emotional and making it about themselves instead of about their children’s need to claim their identity. This was not relevant in our adoption, but given how open Kathy was from the beginning, I doubt it ever would have been an issue.
  • The experiences and narratives of adoptees would be validated – not questioned. Adoptees wouldn’t be labeled as angry or bitter. Adoptive parents and birthparents need to admit that everything won’t always be rosy for their kid, no matter how much he or she is loved. The separation of adoption is a form of trauma, requiring attention and recuperation. Rather than scolding them for experiencing their emotions, it would be far more helpful for the parents to help them express their emotions – even the uncomfortable ones. Check, on Kathy’s end. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t always realized the depth of this pain.
  • There would be no lies told or secrets hidden from the adopted child. Check.
  • Adoptees wouldn’t be expected to always feel grateful for being adopted. Wow – this one caught me off guard. I don’t think I overtly did this – but perhaps I expected Eric to be OK with things just because he had all the information. Well, I’m his first mom and I chose to let another person come in and take what would have been my role. How could any of us expect him never to feel even a little resentment for that?
  • There wouldn’t be an exorbitant amount of money exchanged for facilitating the adoption. Her direct quote is: “(When will birth mothers and prospective adoptive parents learn that they are being duped by the multi-billion dollar adoption industry?) You can change that by demanding lower to no-cost adoption. Adoptive parents hold the power in adoption land.” Yep – I agree with this one, even though I wasn’t on the paying side of the equation. Actually, because I had health insurance, I covered most of the costs for doctor visits and my hospital delivery, which makes fees an even stranger consideration in our case. I did, however, receive a stipend of a few hundred dollars for maternity clothes.
  • We would admit that race matters. This, again, was nonmaterial to our adoption, but I love this thought. Especially this part: “If you are going to adopt transracially, be prepared and don’t make excuses for not being able to move or how far you must travel to the nearest city that is more diverse after choosing to spend thousands of dollars on your adoption. Put it in the budget.”
  • Adoptive parents would help adoptees locate their birthfamilies and demand legislation to open all adoptions and provide adopted persons with their original birth certificates. Yep – 100 percent agreement on that one, too.

So if I were keeping score, I’d say we did pretty well with the items on this list. But I’m not really the one to ask – I wonder how Eric would feel we did. A few are beyond our personal reach, but even though we’re not directly affected, we can still get involved in changing things. If we want whole, healthy adopted persons to come out of the strange relationships created by adoption, openness in every area needs to be the standard.

Popping Juliette’s Bubble

Popping Juliette’s Bubble

Adoption played a starring role in my life the whole time I lived in the NYC area. It seems, in retrospect, that I’d meet someone new, and within a few minutes they’d know about my son. So it makes sense that I told one of the temps working with me in the admin department of the Lehman Brothers Investment Banking division. Her name was Juliette and she was, at the time, making a film about witches. Like many temps, she was a working actor/producer who needed a day job to pay the bills.

If you could picture a woman who’d make a documentary about Wiccans, you might imagine a goth chick. Juliette was most definitely a goth gal. She wore only black, had long straight hair worn loose down her back, and seemed paler than the average woman. We got to talking about my son’s adoption, and Juliette mentioned that she, too, was adopted. The first thing I (still) wonder, on meeting an adopted person, is whether they’ve had a reunion with their birthfamily. As I’ve matured, I’ve become better at discerning the appropriate time to ask that question – sometimes it’s never appropriate. When I met Juliette, I believe I pretty much blurted it out immediately.

And, not surprisingly, I think I put her on the spot. “Um, well, I’ve never really searched for my birthmother,” she explained. She went on to describe an adoptive mom who was the epitome of June Cleaver and told me she’d never felt quite at home in her family.

“You know,” I blathered on, “chances are that you’re a lot like your birthmom. She’s probably arty and interesting and liberal. You might look like her too!”

Juliette’s face fell. She enjoyed being a misfit in her family, in terms of foiling her adoptive mom’s preference for pearls and dinner parties and Good Housekeeping décor. She had chosen to rewrite history in her head, and had more or less convinced herself that she’d descended, fully formed, into this family. And all of the things that made her different – and in her mind, special – were uniquely hers. Although she was 35 years old, it had never occurred to her that she had progenitors and, due to simple biology, was likely somewhat similar to them. Rather than comforting her, the thought that she might be similar to her birthmother seemed to horrify her.

As a new birthmother, I was shocked by her reaction to the idea.

I hated to think that my son might, out of hand, reject me as his birthmother. This was a lot less likely to happen, however, simply due to the timeline. Juliette arrived in her family back in the days of fully closed adoptions, when birth and adoptive families traveled distinct paths which the agencies took great care to ensure never, ever crossed. With our adoption beginning as semi-open, Kathy, Bruce, Tony (to the degree he was involved), and I were much further down the road toward extensive knowledge about each other – which means the mystery never really existed for our son. He knew who his birthparents were, where we were raised, the kinds and levels of education we’d achieved, what our parents had done for work, our religious beliefs, our health histories, and pretty much anything else he or his parents thought to ask – then and since.

Juliette had none of that. Everything was unknown, so instead of assuming she was like anyone else, she preferred to imagine that she had been a blank slate, and that she, personally, had chosen every trait that made her unique. Again, biology tells us otherwise. The nature/nurture debates still rage on, but the fact is that our physical traits, at the very least, are passed down. And likely personality traits, as well as social preferences and much more.

I lost touch with Juliette not long after she stopped temping with us. I did see and recognize her on the news in the days following 9/11, among the ash-covered faces running for their lives in the rubble of the Twin Towers. And I peeked at her Facebook page before writing this post. She’s still involved in acting, but in an entirely other milieu than filmmaking. According to an article in EOS magazine, the witch documentary did get made, though I could find no reference to it on IMDB. The article mentions Juliette’s teenage escape from conservative Orange County, Calif., but it says nothing further about her upbringing. I can’t help but wonder if she ever looked up her birthmom – or if her birthmom might have searched for her and been thrilled to discover what a wildly creative and successful woman her daughter has become.

Adoption is weird – there’s no right or wrong in terms of how the relationships ultimately turn out. We all just do the best we can. I never meant to burst Juliette’s bubble about her imagined story of origin. But at least a tiny part of me would be gratified to know that I planted the idea of a search that might not have taken hold otherwise.

No Longer Such a Thing as a Closed Adoption

No Longer Such a Thing as a Closed Adoption

I was born a researcher – or maybe I was just a good student. My dad started taking me to the library by the time I was 6, and I wrote my first research paper on the Great White Shark in second grade. I’m not sure where it came from, but we had reams of that green and white striped continuous-feed computer paper, which I used to make a stuffed Great White Shark that accompanied the paper. My next paper was on Vermont, including details about Montpelier and how maple syrup is made. Point is, by high school, writing was like breathing and research was second nature to me. No wonder my first real job was as a research librarian at The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

I’m not sure at what point the Spence-Chapin Agency began offering fully open adoption as an option – meaning that both the adoptive parents and the birthparents had full contact information for each other, and some sort of agreement for ongoing contact. The agency would have no role in facilitating the continuation of the relationship, once the adoption papers were signed. Optional counseling would, of course, still be available, should either party choose to pursue it. When I asked about open adoption in 1994, I was told, “We don’t really do that at Spence-Chapin.” Interestingly, that was enough for me at the time, and I moved on without pursuing it any further. Perhaps I knew that if I waited long enough, we’d get there in our adoption.

The thing that’s always perplexed me, though, even way back when I was still pregnant with Eric, was the notion that in 1994 – more or less the dawn of the Information Age – any adoptive parent could believe, even for a moment, that a fully closed adoption was still possible. I’d seen the TV shows. Fictional private investigators could find a person based on a single word scribbled on a matchbook cover. And I once heard of a real-life game (I was unable find details tonight on the interwebs after a comprehensive 10-minute search) wherein a person was assigned the task of finding a stranger in New York City simply by asking random people if they knew that person. On average, it took contestants just 6 hours to locate the person in question.

Closed adoptions? Pshaw – the agencies and attorneys were just conning these prospective parents into believing their adoptions would be closed. If they could string the parents-to-be along under this misapprehension, an adoption transaction would likely transpire – what happened after the papers were signed wasn’t really their concern.

As for me, Nancy Drew Jr., I was stashing away details that Kathy and Bruce revealed to me in the back of my mind for later review and use in tracking them down, if need be. Not to steal Eric away – just to find out who and where these people were. After all, they would be raising my son.

Case in point: Eric’s family lived less than an hour away from New York City by train, in a New Jersey township. Throwaway facts until you realize that there are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each of which falls into one of five types: 254 boroughs, 241 townships, 52 cities, 15 towns, and 3 villages. So now I’ve narrowed down the place to a township within roughly 30 miles of Manhattan. Then, at one point during a pre-adoption visit, Kathy revealed that their church had recently had a new roof installed on it. Bingo! A New Jersey township within 30 miles of NYC whose Catholic church had a new roof – we were in business. I was a trained researcher. How hard could it be to find this church and surreptitiously inquire about the family who’d recently adopted a baby boy born in Hoboken?

As it turns out, I would not need any of this information, as the single detail I would need – their last name – fell, almost literally, into my lap. What began as a “closed adoption” would soon enough become open. Hence my entire premise: regardless of what the adoptive family is promised, in terms of privacy and security, any domestic birthmother with enough will power, information collection savvy, and research tools (now readily available at her fingertips) could probably discover the identity of her adoptive family. And if a birthmom could pony up the bucks for a private investigator? All bets would be off.

Please understand, I am not advocating for birthmothers to go sneaking around to find their kids. A direct approach is almost always a better option. But sometimes, less adequately counseled adoptive parents mean well while the baby is still unborn – yet, once he or she is delivered and the papers are signed, they let their fear take over and they run or hide, regardless of the plans for openness they promised, pre-birth. If such a breach of contract were to occur, should the birthmother just slink away, without any recourse? No – she most certainly should not. And what about the birthmom who didn’t know she really would prefer an open adoption? Should she be shut out because the window for agreeing to something she didn’t know would be important to her has now closed? Again, I say no.

Here’s the thing: like it or not, in the internet age, a guarantee of privacy is a thing of the past. Even people who avoid virtual exposure at all costs can be found. A year or so ago, I found online a copy of the original deed to my parents’ house – the one where I grew up – with my dad’s signature and all. He died in 2005 – and he dabbled with the internet for perhaps 9 months, back in the early days of AOL. He most certainly did not knowingly put that kind of information in a public place where people like me could stumble across it. It’s just the way life is in this technology age.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the search process would be quite as easy for international birthmoms – which seems to be why so many couples find international adoption such an enticing option. In my opinion, however, whatever adoptive parents “gain” by avoiding the birthparent interaction is nothing compared to what their children lose when there is no information available about their bio parents, from medical history to cultural identity to the origin of distinctive personality traits. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, one of the things adoptive kids long for most is a sense of who they are. Yet much of that so often is lost with an international adoption.

According to the bulk of the literature I’m reading online these days about the adoption process, closed domestic adoptions seem to be mostly a thing of the past and are highly discouraged. Thank god! Of course, I met a woman recently who told me she “just didn’t think she’d want any connection” to the birthfamily – something about not wanting them “meddling” and fearing the thought of “being in constant competition” with them. Thankfully, she’s not an adoptive mother – and if she were, I’d hope she’d receive plenty of counseling before being greenlighted to enter into this most unique way of making a family.

Adopted Kids Long to Know Where They Came From

Adopted Kids Long to Know Where They Came From

Back in college, long before I got pregnant and placed my son for adoption, I met a couple through the St. Thomas More Newman Center (the Catholic church on the University of Arizona campus). They’d had a child who passed away in infancy, and I recall them referring to him as their little angel who was looking out for them. I remember thinking that was weird, but touching.

At the time I met them, they had recently adopted a little boy at the age of about 2. He was darling – the mom not so much. Remember, this was back years before I became a birthmother myself. And yet I froze upon hearing this mother say that she and her husband were praying (literally praying to God) that their son would have no memory at all of his first family, his birthfamily. Now, I don’t know the rest of their story. It’s entirely possible that they had adopted through the foster system and this little boy had come from a troubled home. Perhaps he’d even experienced abuse. But just the thought that his new parents should hope to make of him a blank slate with no recollection of – or ties to – his birthfamily was appalling to me. He had a first family. He had a mother who’d carried him and given birth to him. He had a place of origin that was different from his adoptive parents. Wishing that were not the case would never make it so.

As I’ve mentioned, I worked very hard to find the best parents for my son – but I am nevertheless grateful for their openness and transparency with him about the adoption. They never shied away from the topic, and Kathy always encouraged Eric to express his feelings, ask as many questions as he had, and even put him back in touch with their social worker when, as a teen, he seemed to be struggling. Unfortunately, many adoptive parents are not so willing to be that vulnerable, preferring instead to try to pretend the adoption away.

I have posted previously about talking to adoptive and prospective adoptive parents on this very topic:

One thing I was able to do when I would speak to groups of prospective parents was cut through the bullshit. I remember explaining, on more than one occasion, what seemed so obvious to me, but always startled the hell out of these would-be parents: “This baby is never going to be your biological child. He or she will bear no blood relationship to you. He or she was conceived and carried by another couple – and they will always have a tie to your child that you don’t. That doesn’t make you bad or deformed as a parent – it just means that your relationship to your kid is different. And the sooner you come to terms with that – the sooner you stop resenting the birthparents for doing something you couldn’t – the better off everyone will be.”

I recently came across this post, written by an adult adoptee, that contains a list of 10 things adoptees want you to know. Guess what they want people to understand:

  • They want to know where they came from.
  • They want their adoptive parents to be their advocates.
  • They want their parents’ help to make sense of their stories.
  • Their desire to search for their birthparents is important to their identity – it’s not a rejection of the adoptive parents.
  • Even those in open adoptions struggle with feelings of self-worth, shame, control, and identity – particularly when their adoptive families (and pretty much everyone else they know) are so hesitant to talk about the adoption. Talk about the elephant in the room.

What was not on that list was a desire to sweep the adoption under the rug, or the desire to forget their first families and erase all recollection – or knowledge – about their places and people of origin.

I realize that as a birthmother, my perspective is quite different than that of most adoptive parents. If one were so inclined, the two roles could even be seen as adversarial. And although the birthparent chooses not to parent – one could view it as a rejection – the adopted person and the birthparent actually have more in common, in terms of emotions and the aftermath of the adoption, than you might think. Particularly in instances where secrecy/lack of transparency is [still] a factor in the adoption.

As with everything, I think that each adoption is different because the people involved in each adoption are different. However, there are emotional norms and psycho-sociological trends. That data is still coming in, but I’m pretty sure that almost anyone with any stake in adoption would agree that openness is a much better approach to this very peculiar institution.

Like many of the people I met earlier in my life, I have no idea what became of that couple or their child. Nevertheless, I hope for all of them that they came to terms with the way their family was made – and that their child was eventually allowed to be his own person, even if that meant searching for, finding, and meeting the people who gave him life and also made his adoptive parents so uncomfortable.

Birthparent Advocates

Birthparent Advocates

People who get birthparents get birthparents. Four individuals come to mind – all of whom are/were adoption social workers whose job it is/was to advocate for women who place(d) their babies for adoption, as well as birthfathers when they are involved.

The first is Jim Gritter. I don’t know if Jim has any personal connection to adoption beyond his role as a social worker, but according to the National Association for Social Work (NASW) website:

James Gritter is a nationally known champion of open adoptions. He became a child welfare caseworker in 1974 in his native state of Michigan and has been practicing, writing, and educating the profession and the public about the issue of open adoption since then. In 1982 he organized the first conference on this issue, “Beyond the Shadow of Secrecy,” in Traverse City, Michigan, bringing together adoption professionals from around the US.

I met Jim at an adoption conference and have always admired and appreciated him for being such an outspoken advocate for openness in adoption.

The next is a person I’ve mentioned before, Sharon Kaplan Roszia. She is the mother of biological children, adopted children, and foster children. According to her own website:

Sharon Kaplan Roszia is an internationally known educator, presenter, and author who has devoted fifty years of her professional career to the institution of foster care and adoption. While working in public and private agencies as well as private practice venues, she has focused on crisis pregnancy; infertility; infant adoptions; placement of children from the foster care system, including sibling groups and teenagers, and search and reunion. The additional issues of international adoptions; trans-racial adoptions; gay and lesbian built families; and traumatized children with attachment challenges have also become a specialty. In the last twenty five years, Sharon has also paved the way in the world of open adoptions; believing in preserving connections over time.

Sharon impressed me from the first time I learned about her when my friend Lynn Franklin interviewed her for her book, May the Circle Be Unbroken. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Sharon in person, hearing her speak, and reading her books. Like Jim Gritter, she’s been a vocal champion of birthparent rights.

I’ve also mentioned Judy Greene, the birthparent coordinator when I placed my son through the Spence-Chapin agency in New York City. As is probably appropriate, we knew virtually nothing about her private life. I don’t even know how old she is – except that because of the long, completely white hair she usually wore in a single braid down the back, she seemed old-ish to me. Of course, when you’re 27, everybody over 35 seems old-ish. I know she’d worked on the birthparent side of the adoption world for her whole career and had been doing it for 26+ years when I was placing. She retired before I moved back to Phoenix, with a plan to move up to Massachusetts and start a B&B. I would love to have an update but haven’t been able to learn any more.

What I most remember was that Judy was truly a birthmother champion. She arranged for me to speak to many different groups, comprised of prospective adoptive parents, parents who had already adopted, social workers, and hospital staffs. Judy would usually be the one to introduce me, and the other birthmothers, if it was a panel. I’m not sure why – my guess is it’s because I knew that Judy was not a birthmother and had no ties to adoption other than her professional life – but every single time she introduced me (and other birthmothers), I would hold my breath and wait for her to make a mistake. I would wait for her to say something – anything – that misrepresented us or indicated that she didn’t really know what it was like to be a birthmother because she wasn’t one. And I’m really glad to say that every single time – probably a dozen or more – she proved me wrong. Judy never, ever said anything to disrespect, denigrate, or misrepresent the birthmother’s perspective when it came to adoption. I really wish I could find her to thank her for that.

Lastly, I want to tell you about my friend, Beth Kozan. I met Beth here in Phoenix way back in 2005. I had been living here for a few years and was missing my connection to other birthmothers. So I decided to host a spoken word event that I called “The Birthmother You Know.” My intention was to have women come to share their stories, written or oral, as they related to being birthmoms. The only problem was that I didn’t know any birthmoms in Phoenix. So I reached out to every adoption agency and adoption support group in the area to ask them to invite their birthmothers to my event.

Very few responded. We held it at a now-defunct coffee shop, and for a first-time event with little response from the Phoenix adoption community, it was still pretty well attended. Some women read poems, others short stories. One gal read the email correspondence she had exchanged with her daughter before their face-to-face reunion. Beth was a big part of the success of this event, as she brought a number of the birthmoms who attended.

Subsequently, Beth has written a book titled, ADOPTION: More Than by Chance, about the coincidences and synchronicities that occur in so many adoptions. Hers are stories of the more memorable ones she witnessed over her 30-year career. Beth is currently working on a second book, Helping the Birthmother You Know, which will be a resource for friends and family members of women who are considering placing their children for adoption. So many people struggle with what to say and how to behave. Birth-grandparents my try very hard to talk their daughter out of the decision, because if she places, “normal” access to their grandchild walks out the door with the baby. Siblings and friends often just don’t know what to say. I can’t wait for Beth’s book – because it’s so long overdue.

The other night, Beth and I attended a meeting together where we were discussing our goals for 2018. Beth mentioned that she belongs to an adoption triad group in Phoenix that has an incomplete logo. There are images for the adoptive parent and adopted person sides of the triangle that represents the adoption triad – but the birthparents have no image. Almost like they don’t exist. Check the adoption literature, and it sometimes feels that way.

When Beth asked the organization about the missing piece of the logo, the answer was, “Well, birthparents don’t really attend the group very often.”

“Could that be because you do nothing to welcome them?” Beth asked in response. So Beth promised that by May 12, Birthmothers’ Day 2018, she will make sure that birthparents are equally represented on this organization’s logo – and, hopefully, at the meetings. Like Judy, Beth has no personal link to adoption. She fell into it as a young social worker, and has been advocating for birthmothers and birthfather ever since.

I’m sure there are other birthparent champions out there. These are the four I happen to have met, whose books I have read, and whose hearts I know. If you know of others, let me know. Let’s give them a resource page so that we can help them help us to continue to destigmatize the birthparents’ role in the adoption process.