The Tragic Story of Lizzie Lou and Frances Irene

My grandmother with her second husband

I’m realizing a day late that yesterday would have been my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Her father died on Christmas Day in 1953, one year before I was born to his first grandchild, who he never even knew. I can imagine Christmas was not the usual kind of holiday for my Stark family but then I don’t really know. My mom was adopted away from them when she was 7 months old.

Relinquishing a child has lifelong consequences for women and for adoptees. Between 13–20% of birth mothers do not go on to have other children. For those in an era of birth control, a few may consciously feel that to have another child would be to betray the first child which they lost to adoption. For many, and especially in my grandmother’s generation, there was either no known reason for infertility or something about their life circumstances precluded having more children.

After receiving the adoption file from the state of Tennessee that they had previously denied my mother, only breaking her heart and motivation to search by informing her that her birth mother had died several years before, it took me forever to make real contact with one of my grandmother’s remaining family members – this one is a niece. She would actually be my mom’s cousin, that same generation of descendants. She is the warmest person and gave to me the gift my heart was yearning for, some intimate, personal memories of my grandmother along with this picture of her with her second husband.

In some belated post-Christmas communication with her today, I felt compelled to correct the seeming misperception that my mom was the child of the couple in this blog. Here was my reply –

My grandmother never had another child. My mom was her only child (and this is not uncommon among women who lose their first child in such a tragic manner). Her father appeared to have abandoned them, at least to my grandmother’s perception of events, though a super flood on the Mississippi River in early 1937 must have been a factor. My cousin that shares him as a grandfather with me, believes he cared deeply about family. So why did he not come to Memphis to rescue the two of them ? There is no one alive now that can answer that question for me and so, there it sits forever unanswered. Of course, once Georgia Tann knew about the precarious situation my mom and grandmother were in, she swooped in to acquire yet another human being to sell. Awful but a definite truth of it all. I am happy that my grandmother found happiness with her second husband after the divorce between her and my maternal grandfather occurred (and it didn’t happen until 3 years after they first married and my mom was already permanently beyond the reach of her original family). 

She later corrected that “seeming” misperception, of course, she knew my mom was not this man’s child.

It is a tragic story. Why my grandfather left her after only 4 months of marriage, causing her to be sent away to Virginia to have my mom, there is no one left alive to tell me. Why my grandfather didn’t respond to the letter from the Juvenile Court at Memphis when my grandmother came back with her baby, there is no one left alive to tell me. My grandmother was so desperate to find a way to stop my mom’s adoption that she called Georgia Tann’s office 4 days after being pressured into signing the surrender papers, under a threat of having Tann’s good friend, Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, declare my grandmother an unfit mother (which she absolutely was not !!). Then, she took a train to New Orleans to prove to Miss Tann that she did have friends there who would take the two of them in resolving at least the issue of stability, even if only temporarily. Everything she tried to do, including taking my mom to Porter Leath orphanage for temporary care – FAILED tragically.

I have all of my original grandparent’s birthdates on my yearly calendar now. I wasn’t able to know them in life but I don’t forget them in death. Maybe someday in the nonphysical realm to which my grandparents (and adoptee parents) have all gone, I will meet them once again and receive the answers my heart cannot acquire in life.

False Narratives

Recently the post of a new mother who just gave birth a few days ago and is giving up her child for adoption asked what items from his birth she should keep. She received over 700 comments, mostly from adoptees and birth mothers, urging her frantically to back out and keep and raise her child. The responses spoke eloquently of the reasons why. I thought this one excellent –

Obviously none of us could possibly understand to the full extent your situation or circumstances which led you to this decision, and I don’t doubt for one second that is consumed you entirely the past 9 months. Knowing that you only have just one more day before making probably the most difficult and life changing decision of anyone’s life, I’m sure you’d want to consider absolutely everything, especially if there was anything new which you hadn’t considered before.

Most of the people in this group are either fellow birth mothers or adoptees, so more than anyone else they understand exactly what you and your baby are going through, and will go through.

Knowing the main reasons why women choose adoption being financial and/or relationship instability, we’re all just here to let you know that if those are factors in your decision, there absolutely is support available so that you don’t feel as if you have to make this decision. No one should be coerced or forced into making a decision under the guise of being “best for your baby.”

If finances are an issue, there’s lots of support out there; not only from this group, but government programs, and there are so many church programs and charities. There are so many people here who can help you find whatever services you need because we’ve needed, and used those services ourselves.

We just want to make sure that you know the reality, that it’s actually far more important to have your birth mother in your life rather than having two parents who are non-biological. So if a lack of a father figure is affecting your decision, just please don’t be fooled into believing this false narrative that it’s more important to live in a two parent household, because that’s simply not true.

I’m sorry if you’re feeling guilt tripped, I truly don’t believe that was anyone’s intention.

We all just want to show you that you’re not alone and that you don’t have to make this decision if you don’t want to. We just want you to know that all those typical reasons that society tells us is why women should choose adoption, every single one of those reasons is complete b***sh*t in the real world. But so many people still believe the lies and the false narrative, so that’s exactly why this group is here, to show everyone there’s another way.

One more adds something important – Our mothers’ decisions caused preverbal, pre-personality developmental trauma that we have lived with for decades. It isn’t rainbows and butterflies. Adoption does not guarantee a better life, just a different one. Adoptees are overrepresented in mental health care. We are four times as likely to try to kill ourselves. This is our life, you are about to choose for your son. That is why we are speaking up.

You can find this group – Adoption:Facing Realities – at Facebook. There is a 2 week read only rule because the perspective is rather different from most adoption oriented groups. The comments of adoptees are given priority. Anyone in the triad (birth mother, adoptee or adoptive parent) is welcome but you should be warned that the rainbows and butterflies fantasy narrative of the adoption world is not what you will find there. However, you will find honesty, detailed personal experiences and a belief in family preservation. The group also includes former foster care youths now grown and transitioned to the adult world.

Open Adoption

Some time ago I read this book by Vanessa McGrady about her experience with an open adoption. Today, the topic of Open Adoptions came back up in my all things adoption group and I thought I would re-visit the topic.

Today’s questions are – What does your open adoption look like? and How is the child connected to their first family?

I will share selective comments because there were 70 and I’m not doing ALL of those. LOL

This one is an adoptive parent of two little girls (biological sisters). We are very fortunate to be able to have a very open adoption with mutual respect. I feel it is similar to co-parenting with the exception they do not stay at her house. (Her personal choice that I support due to varying circumstances in her life.) We speak almost daily. We spend every birthday/holiday together. Mom comes to school programs, recitals and sports games. My husband and I make the normal day to day decisions, but discuss with her major decisions. We value her input on beliefs, values and overall wellbeing of the girls.

Another situation – I talk regularly with mom, though not daily now, as we once did, because she is now working and life happens. Kiddo is able to email mom and text sister as often as she wants (she has her own devices and I do monitor her messages to all but sister and mom). They don’t talk as often as *i’d* like them to, all chat, but I can’t force any of the three to have a relationship. All I can do is say “hey have you emailed mom recently?” We exchange gifts at holidays and when we can afford it, we fly mom and sister out to visit and they stay with us. Unfortunately, dad doesn’t want contact and has kept his kiddo a secret. I’ve made efforts to reach out over the years and his position hasn’t changed. I have made it clear that he needs to get his things in order because kiddo will come knocking when she’s older (she’s 10 now).

And another – We all live in the same city, so we are able to see each other often – mom, dad, both grandmas, aunts, uncles and cousins. We do the usual family stuff like celebrate birthdays and holidays, but we also just do regular life together too – parks, stores, video calls, restaurants. Facebook access to all family members which has been a great tool for keeping our daughter connected to her family (she’s only 2, so we feel like we are responsible for keeping communication open until she’s old enough to do this herself). Her mom and I both enjoy crafting, so we’ve done several projects together. We also did family photos at Christmas! Many of these choices have been continued and enhanced because of this group (thanks!) and the podcast Adoptees On.

A slightly different kind of situation – an adoptive parent of 2 little girls (who are not biologically/genetically not related). One family does not have much contact (their choice). Our other daughter (just turned 7) can call/text/video chat/reach out whenever she wants (she has one of our old phones that is hooked up to wifi) and her parents can contact her that way whenever they want as well. They also have frequent visits and pre-covid would come to dance recitals and school programs and everything… they typically have their own birthday parties for her (their request).

In my all things adoption – one of the suggestions for reform is to turn to guardianship – not adoption. Here’s one that is guardianship. We see both paternal and maternal family members each week, we have photos around our home of their family, they can call/video call their family members anytime they like off my phone or their iPads, I speak with their family members nearly daily with updates/photos about how the girls are going and reach out for advice quite frequently, we go away on holidays together.

Open adoptions are mostly a recent development and so in many of these, the children are still quite young. Here’s another one like that (families are making it up as they go along – I believe closed adoptions are becoming a archaic thing of the past) – Grandma, aunts, cousins, and some adults siblings all call, text, and have access regularly. (More than weekly for texts and calls. Visits were monthly or more before covid. Not as much since then but we are planning for more now as situations are improving.) They attend birthday parties and holiday gatherings. We share photos and have them on my social media account. Our little is only 2. They are welcome at our home anytime and we have been to theirs several times. One of the sisters has been on vacation with us. She will be meeting us at the beach in July for vacation again. Parents are not in a position to parent or be safe at this time. I hope that changes and they can have some kind of relationship. For now they do get updates from family members and have photos of him. He knows all family members just as “Grandma” and “Auntie.” We make no distinction between the biological or the adopted. The siblings are his sisters – whether they are biological or adopted. They all love him and that is what’s most important to us.

Another example –

Fictive kinship (*) adoption but didn’t not know parents prior to fostering—I knew his sisters. Several months after Termination of Parental Rights and no contact – mom reached out. I told her I didn’t care about her personal life and business. I told her that we—specifically her son—needed her in his life. That was the game changer going forward. We have what I’d call a true open adoption to where there’s unlimited access to him, if she wants it. I don’t wait for her to ask either because I know sometimes asking isn’t easy. I’m off summers and include her in our daily/weekly activities—pool, park, splash pad, etc. We talk every week or 2. Our son talks to her too. We just made the switch from calling her momma (insert name) to just momma. We see her every holiday and birthdays too or just on a whim, if we’re both not busy. I don’t like how adopters claim open adoption and all that involves is a Christmas picture. That’s not the intention.

(*) “Fictive Kin” means an individual who is not related by birth, adoption, or marriage to a child, but who has an emotionally significant relationship with the child; “Kinship Care” is the raising of children by grandparents, or other extended family members within the fourth degree of kinship. From Alec.org – Model Legislation suggestion.

The Broken Birth Mom

This sculpture speaks so strongly to my own heart.  I empathize with my grandmothers who gave up my parents to adoption.  In a sense, though less permanently, I am one myself.  Each of my sisters truly are.  There are no words for how this haunts a person.  No mother should have to live without her child, even though I do understand that sometimes the safety issues are so strong because that mother is so broken as a person, the child isn’t safe with her.  I get it.

Adoption isn’t just a one-time event and it’s over. It is never over, it can’t be and it isn’t.  It is something that follows an adoptee and their original parents throughout their lives.

I have obsessed in my guilt for not raising my daughter. Just like my maternal grandmother, I never intended to leave her daily life permanently. In my effort, just as it was in my grandmother’s effort, to work things out financially, circumstances changed and it was no longer the best outcome for her to take her back. Both my maternal grandmother and myself would have, if it had been possible or truly made sense to step back in.

There were no role models for absentee mothers in the early 1970s though one read a lot of stories about absentee fathers.  I realize I caused the situation for myself. My grandmother stepped into a serious trap without realizing it when she turned to Porter-Leath Orphanage in Memphis TN for temporary care of my mom.

The superintendent there betrayed my grandmother and my mom to a master baby thief.  Miss Georgia Tann was backed up by her good friend, the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, in her pressure campaign to exploit my grandmother and wrest my mom out of her possession so that she could sell her to my adoptive grandmother.

Being a birth mom who permanently surrenders her child is not a club you should want to join.  It is a grief that lasts a lifetime. The pain of that wound will change over time but it will never go away. It will always be there.  I have spent years trying to resolve my own.  I know the reasons and the causes but there is no recovering lost time and those precious memories of your child growing up.

If you are an expectant mother, especially a single and financially challenged young woman, seek out the help that will make it possible for you to keep your baby. You will be glad you did.  Here’s one place – https://savingoursistersadoption.org/