Graduation Letter to My Son – 5 June 2013

Graduation Letter to My Son – 5 June 2013
A letter I wrote but never sent…

Dear Eric –

Congratulations, again, on a fine finish to your high school days – and best wishes for a great start to the next phase of your life. Your mom keeps telling me how anxious you are to get out on your own and be independent. It’s definitely something to look forward to – fortunately for you, you’ve got a great family to support you, even while you’re busy forming your own independent thoughts and choices and life.

I am so grateful for the invitation to be a part of your graduation weekend. I know you didn’t have to invite me – and I also know your mom left that decision up to you. I enjoyed getting to meet the extended relatives and family friends and to spend a little time with you. I’m constantly amazed by your mom’s generosity in making me feel both at home and included in every aspect. I lost count of the number of times in just those few days she’d say to people, “Do you know who this is?” about me – as if there were any way they could have known. But it was cute – she was so excited to share our relationship. Giselle, the amazing waitress at that diner, definitely took the cake, though! You’ll have to let me know if you go back and see her again before you head up to Boston.

So funny how things work out, isn’t it? I’ve been wanting to move to Boston since I originally moved to New Jersey in 1992. I intended for New Jersey to be a temporary stop – but you’ve probably heard that quote from John Lennon about life happening while you’re busy making other plans. I would one day still like to get there, but it will be awhile, at least as long as Mary – John’s grandma – is still with us. And by then, who knows what we will have decided…

Your mom tells me you’re very interested in visiting Italy. Samantha, my sister’s daughter, was there for a study-abroad semester – so if you have questions, she might be a great resource. One of my cousins on my dad’s side was working on a family tree some time ago. I think Corina has a copy somewhere – I’ll try to get it for you, just so you can have an idea of where we’re from on my dad’s side. I’ve always felt that was something I should know – and yet I still don’t really. I know a tiny bit more about the Irish side (my dad’s mom), but just barely. I imagine part of the reason I’m so detached is because we grew up away from the rest of the family. I’m so glad you’ve got the experience of a large extended family. We have one, too – but they’re in Michigan and various parts of Canada, so we rarely see either side, and have never all been together at once. The closest we came to that was at my dad’s funeral, when relatives from both my mom’s and dad’s families were in attendance.

And speaking of families – you have another one out there, as you know. I feel now as if I should have asked if you even wanted the information I was able to find about where Tony lives. You never really expressed an interest to me, one way or another. I guess if I were in your shoes, I’d want to know – who he is, where he is, probably to see him at least once. Of course, if I were in your shoes, I’d probably have driven by his house already, but that’s just me. 🙂

Now that you know where Tony is – I’m sure you can also find a phone number if you dig just a little further than I did – you get to decide what your next move is. I can’t imagine the kinds of thoughts and feelings you must be experiencing right now, but I would understand if you wanted to try to meet him and also understand if you have no interest. The thing is, now you have the option.

I’m guessing your mom might have told you I also found him on Facebook. He looks exactly the same as he did the last time I saw him, except that he seems to be growing a weird ZZ Top beard. Your dad is concerned that Tony may not want to be found – and it’s certainly a possibility. He’d made more progress than I’d expected the last time I saw him. He’d just broken things off with a woman he’d been seeing when I went out there in February 2002, and he told me he’d told her about you. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that. But I don’t know that he ever told his parents, his sister, his aunt – or now, his wife. He’s different from me in lots of BIG ways – all of them reasons we’re not still together. I’ve always been an open book about who I am, how I feel, who I love, and everything in between. I don’t know if I ever told you that for the rest of the time I was at Lehman Brothers after you were born, I kept a picture of you on my desk.

One of the other birthmothers I knew told me that I made people uncomfortable because I was so open about the adoption. But that’s not how I saw it. If other people were uncomfortable, that was their problem. I never was. And I was never ashamed, never guilty, and very seldom regretful. Most birthmoms are all of those, all the time – or at least until they get counseling and come to terms with the grief. In our case, I saw my social worker at Spence 21 times while I was pregnant with you and 12 times after you were born. She told me the average birthmom sees the social work six or seven times, total.

And I promised you – and myself – while I was pregnant that I would never deny your existence. So I can probably still count on both hands the number of times in the last 18 years when people have asked me if I have children and I’ve said no. Those were usually toss-off questions, questions from busybodies, or questions from people I felt I just didn’t owe an explanation to. Otherwise, if people know me for longer than about five minutes, they know about you.

But that’s not how Tony is. I’m not sure why, exactly, either. Maybe he’s changed, but when I knew him, he buried and stuffed all of his emotions. They came out every once in a while when he’d been drinking. I’d known him for more than eight years when I found out that his only aunt on his mom’s side is a birthmother in a closed adoption. He didn’t know – probably because she didn’t know – whether the child was a boy or a girl. She’s in her sixties now – and back in those days, once the woman gave birth, they just whisked the baby away. She never got to hold him, rock him, talk with him, or even see him. Very different from my experience when I got to hand-select your parents. You’d think that would make him more willing to talk with his parents, but for reasons I still don’t understand, the opposite seemed to be true. Again, a lot of time has passed since then, and he may have told them by now. I hope so. But I can’t promise that. And I have no idea how receptive he’d be to hearing from you – or how much he might stonewall you. I was talking with John about all of this over the last couple days, and he said something that is such a picture into who he is and why I married him: If Tony doesn’t want to see you, he’s the one who loses out.

Corina’s the only other person who ever really got to know Tony at all – and even that wasn’t very much. Hell, I knew him for 6 years longer than I’ve known John at this very moment, and still never got to know him very well, because Tony didn’t want anybody to get to know him. But when I spoke with Corina about this whole crazy episode last night, she said three things: (1) she’s sure Tony would recognize himself in you if he saw you; (2) getting married may have settled him down somewhat and made him more receptive (especially since he has a stepkid – who golfs!); and (3) that seeing you face-to-face, Tony would have a really impossible time just walking away. My sister’s the most intuitive person I know – so I rather trust her instincts on this. But again, it’s up to you. It’s not up to your mom and dad anymore. You get to decide this one.

My instinct is that even if Tony THINKS he doesn’t want to be found, he’d be more receptive to direct contact from you than from me. But if for any reason you want me to reach out to him for you, I’m more than willing to do that. I’m still guessing you’re just going to want to sit with things for a while.

Eric – just know that no matter what you decide about this, no matter what happens in school, where you go, what you do with your life – I will always love you, and I will support you in any way I can. I used to get really aggravated when people would tell me I was lucky to have found such great parents for you. It wasn’t luck, though. I worked really hard to get to the right people.

That was another place I broke the averages for Spence Chapin. Most prospective birthmoms used to choose a family after seeing three or four profiles. Your parents’ was the 12th profile I saw. And I had to demand to see it, too. After the seventh or eighth, the adoption department started to doubt I was serious about going through with it. For whatever reason, they could not hear me when I said I just hadn’t found the right family yet. It wasn’t until I threatened to leave Spence to go somewhere else that they relented and let me see more families. And your parents had just come into the process, so their profile wasn’t even fully complete yet. Before they’d let the prospective birthmom see the profile, they’d redact any identifying info. They hadn’t got there yet with your parents’ profile, so Mary, my social worker, read it to me instead of letting me see it for myself. And then she got up and left the room and left the folder with your folks’ info in it on her desk. I have no idea whether that was a deliberate move on her part, but as I look back on it now, I suspect it may have been. And I was so tempted to look at it – had I done so, I’d have immediately had all the info I eventually learned on my own. But I had made a commitment not to do that, so ever the good girl, I behaved myself. I love that the universe conspired to allow that info to come to me a little later, when I was ready for it.

As you are no doubt aware, we’ve had soooooo many coincidences, it’s beyond uncanny.

I love your family – and I love seeing you with them. They are very different from me, to be sure. Your life with me would have been very different. But I hope that even if you might wonder about that untaken road – a perfectly normal thing to wonder – you never experience regret. I have always believed that life takes all of us precisely where we need to be – and you, my smart, beautiful son, are precisely where you need to be. I’m pretty sure I would choose differently if I had it to do again, but only knowing what I know now about taking one moment at a time. At the time I was choosing adoption, I was trying to make the very best decision for so many people: for you, for Tony, for myself, and for each of our families. I didn’t realize that everything always works out, and I’d have been OK, no matter what. But instead, this is where our journeys have brought us. This is what we were meant to do and who we were meant to be to each other. And it is fine. I have always been at peace with it. Your situation, of course, is different, but I hope that you have – or one day soon – will find peace, too.

I love you, kiddo, so very, very much. Thank you for inviting me, including me, and sharing your special time with me. If there are every any questions I can answer – or you just want to talk – you know how to reach me.

All my love –

Laura

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NOTE: I wrote this letter the day after I returned from Eric’s high school graduation, uncertain whether I would ever send it to him. As it turns out, I didn’t. But I have, in the interim, told him most of these things. At the time, in June 2013, we were still unaware of the string of serious losses we would all face: Eric’s aunt, John’s dad, my sister, and most recently, John’s grandmother. I also recently discovered through some Facebook research that Tony’s dad passed away almost two years ago.

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Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

“Outed” as a Birthmother

“Outed” as a Birthmother

Open adoption is a form of adoption in which the bio and adoptive families agree to provide access to varying degrees of each others’ personal information and have the option of direct contact. Although open adoption is becoming more and more the norm (67 percent of private adoptions in the U.S. have pre-adoption agreements of at least a semi-open adoption*), secrecy still often surrounds the adoption, in terms of birthparents revealing that they have placed children.

I’ve long thought that revealing one’s status as a birthparent must be similar to coming out as being gay, particularly for those who have kept the information secret, for whatever reason. You’re never sure how people will take this bit of news. Mostly, they seem to wonder why it took you so long to get around to telling them. How badly must you have thought of them to have been fearful of confiding in them?

A birthmother friend of mine, whose son is a few years older than I am, had the unusual experience of trying to remember exactly to whom she had revealed her secret over the years. She was 19 when she got pregnant in the 1960s, and was forced by her parents to go to a maternity home. Shame and secrecy shrouded her entire adoption experience, and she told very few people. Eventually, she put her name on the international adoption reunion registry, and in his 30s, her son found her. She met him – and their reunion went well. Having him in her life going forward, however, meant having to tell a certain number of people about him. She laughed as she explained, “I just didn’t remember which ones I’d told about my pregnancy, and which ones I hadn’t. Some people I assumed knew didn’t know – and with others, I was sure I was revealing a big secret, and they said, ‘Yeah – you told me years ago.’”

Up until my son was nearly 5 and I moved away from the New Jersey area, I did a fair amount of speaking to adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, social workers, and hospital staff. Typically, Judy Greene, the Spence-Chapin birthparent coordinator, would introduce me and any other birthmoms who happened also to be speaking. Judy wasn’t a birthmother – she was a social worker who’d ben working with birthmothers for about 26 years at that point. Nevertheless, every time she would introduce me, I would hold my breath waiting for her to trip up, to say something to misrepresent the birthmom experience. And never once, in all the times she made those introductions, did she ever misspeak on behalf of me or other birthparents.

Judy would begin by cautioning the audience that our identity as birthmothers was confidential. If by chance, we later happened to run into each other, they should be discrete about having met us and where. This came about because one birthmom who gave similar presentations to me was sitting on the stoop of her Brooklyn brownstone with a friend when an adoptive couple she’d met a few weeks earlier strolled past and yelled out, “Hi, Cheryl!” When Cheryl didn’t recognize them, they announced that they’d met her at an adoption panel. In this particular birthmom’s case, Chery’s friend knew about her adoption, but if she hadn’t, it could have been a very uncomfortable situation.

I never had any worries about being “outed,” and always told my audiences as much before I began my presentations. But I can respect any woman’s decision to keep that information private.

Here’s the thing, we can’t normalize adoption until we destigmatize the birthmother’s role. It really is rather strange to me that people seem to have more of an emotional reaction on hearing that a woman placed her baby for adoption than that she had an abortion. A good friend of mine, a birthmom I met through the birthmother support group at Spence-Chapin, got pregnant her senior year in high school. This would have been in the early ’80s in a Baltimore suburb. She said that a number of girls in her class got pregnant – but they either got married the week after graduation or they had abortions. She was the only one who chose adoption, and she was ostracized for it.

I’m not sure what makes people so uncomfortable about birthmothers. My guess is that it’s birthmothers themselves who unintentionally further the stigma. Many have unresolved issues with grief and guilt and shame. And if you walk around feeling bad about something – like many gay people did in the past (and, sadly, some are still made to today) – it’s hard to own up to it, wear the mantle proudly, identify with it, or be public about it.

We made a start by formally acknowledging birthmothers with Birthmothers’ Day, which has been commemorated annually since 1990 on the Saturday before Mothers’ Day. We say commemorated – not celebrated – because being a birthmom is, typically, bitter-sweet at best and has, for some women, been downright harrowing. Even those of us who have had pretty positive adoption experiences and/or reunions still went through some level of emotional trauma before, during, and after the placement of our babies.

And as nice as it may be, having a day that acknowledges us is a small step, really. A look at the adoption literature – even on a website dedicated to adoption-themed books like TapestryBooks.com – shows a dearth of books by, for, and about birthmothers, especially when compared to the scads and scads of titles written by, for, and about adoptive parents. And if you think birthmothers get short shrift – imagine being a birthfather! They are still pretty much personas non grata throughout the adoption world, so I’ve gotta imagine that guys coming clean about their status as birthdads is even rarer and more isolating than what birthmoms experience.

It’s time for birthparents – mothers and fathers – to throw off that mantle of shame that so many of us picked up somewhere along the way, and instead wrap ourselves in cloaks of majesty and dignity. We made a tough decision in choosing adoption over parenting or abortion. Whether others think it was awful, brave, or somewhere in between should not be our concern. However, we’ll give them a lot less reason to think badly of us if we come out voluntarily, speak openly about our experiences, and freely educate anyone willing to listen.

*SOURCE: 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents