Shame

I’m only going the summarize this article but provide you with the link because it is well worth your time to read it – I Kept My Family’s Secret For Over 60 Years. Now, I’m Finally Telling The Truth by Yvonne Liu – published in The Huffington Post.

I believe shame had a lot to do with adoption records being sealed to begin with. Closed to access by the very person – the adoptee – is the information matters most to. Early in my “adoption issues” education I encountered the issue of dumpster babies. There are also babies left in a basket. For most of my life, I thought my own father had been left in a basket on the doorstep of The Salvation Army in El Paso TX because his Mexican national mother lacked her family’s acceptance of a mixed race baby who’s father was an American national. Nothing was further from the truth but I was well in my 60s before I knew that. My father never expressed any interest in learning the truth and details of his own adoption and I believe it was because he was afraid of what he might learn. By the time I knew the truth, my dad was already deceased and knew next to nothing.

Today’s story relates to a baby left in a basket in a Hong Kong stairwell near Sai Yeung Choi Street. She was taken to St. Christopher’s Home, the largest non-government-run orphanage on the island. Officials at the orphanage named her Yeung Choi Sze, after the street where she was found.

Infertility was the shame her adoptive mother hid. That is not uncommon among adoptive mothers, especially those of Chinese descent because Confucius believed a woman’s greatest duty was to bring a son into the world. This adoptee’s mother couldn’t produce a son, much less a daughter.

In June of 1960, this baby girl from China landed at O’Hare International Airport. Her adoptive mother was disappointed in the baby she received from the beginning. She was a sick and scrawny baby, clearly malnourished. Her mother’s first reaction upon seeing her was, “Why couldn’t I have a healthy baby like everyone else?” Throughout her life, the family’s story about her was a lie – that she was born in Chicago. Every school form, all of her college and job applications, and even her medical records listed her birthplace as Illinois. 

The adoptee’s parents were never warm emotionally. From a young age, she was afraid to upset her mother, who was often emotionally volatile. Her mother showed her attention when she needed her daughter. If she dared push back on the relentless demands to refill her teapot, type her Chinese cookbook or vacuum the house, her mother would retreat to her bed, sob, and say, “You don’t love me because I’m not your real mother.” Hugging her, the adoptee would desperately proclaim her love for her adoptive mother, telling her, “You’re my only mother.” Then she would quickly and quietly fulfill her mother’s commands.

Her adoptive father was not any warmer emotionally. From her time in the third grade, she threw myself into becoming a star student in hopes of earning her father’s love and attention. After immigrating to America with $50 in his pocket, her adoptive father earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry while working as a dishwasher on the weekends. He was chronically depressed and withheld any affection from her, even though she wanted that desperately.

The adoptee won a full scholarship to attend a top MBA program and enjoyed a solid business career. She even married the nice Chinese man her mother chose for her. But for as long as her parents were alive – and even after they died – I continued to keep the family’s secret that she had been adopted. Eventually, she told her husband and children but asked them to continue keep the family’s secret. That’s how deep and dark she considered her secret shame to be. I truly believed I would carry it with me until I died. The ancient Chinese beliefs that she must have come from an immoral mother, would mean she was tainted by her origins.

In 2020, locked down by the pandemic and having just turned 61 years old, she finally began questioning why she had internalized her adoptive parents’ shame about infertility and adoption. Feelings of low self-esteem, insecurity and anxiety as well as lingering questions about identity, rejection, belonging motivated her to learn more about adoption. She did a lot of the things I did as well – read books about adoption and joined Facebook groups for adoptees. Like her, I was already in my 60s as well.

She came to realize that there was no reason to hide her truth any longer. It was time to live an authentic life. She had nothing to hide. She choose to tell her truth publicly in The New York Times. A 98-word Tiny Love Stories piece about her adoption. Then my brother (also adopted) gave her a dusty manila file he discovered during pandemic cleaning. It was labeled “Yvonne’s Adoption.” At 62 years of age, she finally read the documents her adoptive parents had deliberately kept hidden from her when they were alive. The yellowed tissue-thin papers held the truth of her beginnings.

She writes, “My heart ached for the baby who languished in that orphanage for 15 long months. Surely a caretaker would have picked up my malnourished and anemic body when I wailed. Surely someone helped me when I still couldn’t sit on my own at 9 months. Surely a hired helper gazed into my eyes as she fed me diluted Carnation formula, water and congee. I sobbed, imagining how that tiny baby must have experienced those first few months of a life that would turn out to be mine.”

For much of her childhood, she was a quiet child, afraid to be a burden. On the rare occasions when she complained or questioned her parents, they would answer, “Where would you be if we didn’t adopt you?” They never said the same thing to her adoptive brother because he fulfilled their traditional Chinese filial duty to have a son to carry on the family name.

Then, she wanted to understand, why the lies ? So she learned Chinese history, read cultural and sociology books, pored over Chinese memoirs and novels, interviewed Chinese cultural experts and people who lived in China at the time her parents had. Now she is able to recognize that her adoptive parents were a product of tradition, circumstances and time.

She was able to realize some gratitude for the circumstances of her life. Because her birth mother loved her, she left me at a busy stairwell to be found. Because she made that choice, the woman has lived a full life. She is also able to be grateful her adoptive parents chose her. She is no longer ashamed of being an adoptee.

You can read more of her writing at YvonneLiuWriter.com. She is currently writing a memoir about adoption, childhood trauma and mental health. 

Inside Grandma’s Womb

I think I already knew that all the eggs a woman has were there in her ovaries at the time of her birth. Since we did not grow up with my maternal grandmother (due to my mom having been adopted), I feel a definite fondness for my maternal grandmother who never had another child after having lost my mom due the the schemes of Georgia Tann during her days of stealing and selling babies in Memphis TN to enhance her own wealth. In some strange way, it makes me happy to know that even though Tann could take my mom away from my grandmother, she couldn’t take my grandmother out of the core beginning of each of us.

My mom certainly yearned to know her own mother and was devastated when seeking her adoption file from Tennessee (who denied her as her father’s status of alive or dead was not ascertained) told her that her mother had died some years before.

There is a strong maternal line running down from my grandmother to my mother to me and to my daughter and then my granddaughter. My mom looked a lot like her mother at a certain age. I love feeling that mirror showing through. It is also a happy thought that when I was in my mom’s womb, my daughter’s seed was forming and when she was in my womb, my granddaughter’s seed was forming. We are all connected. Sweet.

Adoption Does NOT Make It All Better

I was reading about one of the common sticky situations that often appear in my all things adoption group. This part really got my attention – “Everyone is like ‘this is going to be so great!’ and I am just feeling like… yes and no. They will be safe, but adoption doesn’t just make it all better.”

The standard narrative in society is to celebrate and be joyful when anyone adopts. Truth is the yes and no part is probably closest to being the truth for the adoptee themselves.

Today would have been my mom’s birthday but she died back in 2015. She never was entirely comfortable with how she ended up adopted. Trying to be polite, she would say she was inappropriately adopted. Since Tennessee rejected her effort to get her adoption file (a file that I now possess in its complete form), she really couldn’t know for certain. She did know that Georgia Tann had been involved in her adoption in 1937. She knew something about the scandals surrounding Georgia Tann’s placement of children and she had a had time reconciling the fact that she was born in Virginia but adopted at less than 1 year old in Memphis Tennessee.

I will forever be disappointed that Tennessee promised my mom to do everything in their power to determine if her original parents were alive but only sent an inquiry to the Arkansas Driver’s License Bureau who could find no record of her natural father. No wonder, he had been dead for 30 years at that point and was buried in Arkansas. Could they have at least checked Social Security death records ? But they did not.

Instead, they broke my mom’s heart by telling her that her natural mother had died several years earlier. My mom had to have seen some of the many adoptee/mom reunions on TV in the early 1990s when she was seeking to obtain her adoption file. All Tennessee gave her for the $180 she paid them was a NO and heartbreak. That I cannot forgive Tennessee because having seen her adoption file, I know in my heart that how hard her mother was fighting to keep her when up against a master baby thief would have been important to her.

Even so, in her moment of accepting all that would never be, she said she was glad she was adopted. I never truly believed that she was – glad. Being adopted was not “better,” just different. However, if she had not been adopted, she would not have had me. It causes in me conflicting feelings because I am glad that I am alive and that I had my mom (and my dad) in my childhood growing up and until death did us part. I can hope that my mom and her mom had that reunion after death that many people believe in.

Uprooted

This kind of discovery is happening more and more often with the advent of inexpensive DNA testing. I belong to a circle of mom’s who all gave birth in a 4 month period of time in 2004. We have pretty much stayed in contact – at least a majority of us. At one point, way back when, our group ended up divided on the common question for those who conceived via Assisted Reproductive Technology over whether we would tell our children the truth or hide it. Some definitely chose that second path, my husband and I did not. I am grateful for that choice.

It’s not as though we’ve ever made this a big issue in our household and I’ve not made it a public issue locally as well (in the early days I received some hints of questions seeking to know). One of the strategies early on was to let our children tell if that was their choice and not make that choice for them. Only recently, have I become more outspoken about our family’s origins because – gee, I will be 68 this coming May and I have two sons, one that is almost 18 and one who will be 21 this February.

There is another strategy that we owe it to other woman who could be deceived by our having given birth at advanced ages that they have all the time in the world – as I believed in my 40s when my husband decided he wanted to be a father after all after 10 years of marriage. He was always glad I had “been there and done that” so no pressure on him to parent, as I do have one daughter who is now soon to be in her 50s and she has gifted me with two grandchildren. Then we learned how low the odds of that actually happening were due to my own advanced age. A nurse practitioner recommended her own fertility doctor saying “you don’t have time to waste.” He is the first one who told us that there was “a way” and that way for us was via egg donation.

We have stayed in contact with our donor since day one. Facebook makes that easier today. The boys have met her in person more than once but distance limits that contact. I do show them pictures from her FB page from time to time. When she tested with 23 and Me, I gifted my husband with a kit, and then when my oldest son turned 18, I gave him one, and rather than wait for the youngest one to turn 18, went ahead and gave him a kit.

Doing this also allowed us to tell our boys, now that they are older, all of the reasons that we chose to do what we did. Also to emphasize that they simply would not exist or be who they are any other way. There is no “if only” things had been different. And that no one could be more of a mother to them than I am and it is clear by their behavior towards me that I am precisely that to them even with this complete knowledge.

While it is decidedly strange to see another woman listed as their mother at 23 and Me after having carried their pregnancies in my womb and breastfeeding each of them for a year, as well as being in their lives 24/7, I do not regret making private message access to her available to them if they so choose.

I understand the yearning for truth about our genetics. Both of my parents were adoptees who died 4 months apart, still basically ignorant of their origins. My mom did try to get her adoption file (a file I now have complete possession of) in the early 1990s. Within a year of my dad’s death, I had identified all 4 of my original grandparents and have contact with some cousins and a couple of surviving aunts.

There are very real and serious issues with donor sperm. It has produced a lot of children with the same genetic paternity and has existed under a protection of privacy. Unlike egg donation which we are aware that our donor went through a painful process as well as a fraught experience with powerful drugs, it is relatively easy and painless to donate sperm, as my own husband did in order to give birth to genetically, biologically related sons (our sons do have the same maternity and paternity and so are 100% siblings). Some egg donors were also promised privacy in the early days of assisted reproduction.

Here is some information about the book, Uprooted, that I have featured today (but which I have not read) –

By his forties, Peter J. Boni was an accomplished CEO, with a specialty in navigating high-tech companies out of hot water. Just before his fiftieth birthday, Peter’s seventy-five-year-old mother unveiled a bombshell: His deceased father was not his biological, genetic father. Peter was conceived in 1945 via an anonymous sperm donor. The emotional upheaval upon learning that he was “misattributed” rekindled traumas long past and fueled his relentless research to find his genealogy. Over two decades, he gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the scientific, legal, and sociological history of reproductive technology as well as its practices, advances, and consequences. Through twenty-first century DNA analysis, Peter finally quenched his thirst for his origin.

​In Uprooted, Peter J. Boni intimately shares his personal odyssey and acquired expertise to spotlight the free market methods of gamete distribution that conceives dozens, sometimes hundreds, of unknowing half-siblings from a single donor. This thought-provoking book reveals the inner workings—and secrets—of the multibillion-dollar fertility industry, resulting in a richly detailed account of an ethical aspect of reproductive science that, until now, has not been so thoroughly explored.

The Audiobook and ebook have been available since January 4 2022. The print book is to be released tomorrow on January 25 2022.

The What If Of It All

Michele Dawson Haber

Today, I was first attracted to a blog by this woman, Michele Dawson Haber, in which she shares imaging her father talking to her while making coffee. “What’s this? Why so many steps? Do you know the coffee we drank in the old days was just botz (mud) at the bottom of our cups? A life like yours, with such complicated coffee—Michal*, it makes me happy that you’re not struggling as I did.” *Michal (מיכל) is her Hebrew name.

I come from a long line of coffee drinkers. The pot was always prepared for the timer to begin the brewing before any inhabitants of the house woke and wanted a cup. After my mom died, I spent several quiet treasured morning drinking coffee with my dad out on their deck as we watched the dawn turn into sunrise. When I returned to my parents’ house following my dad’s death, as I walked through their kitchen, I heard him clearly say in my mind, “You miss your old dad, don’t you ?” Exactly as he would have said it in life. I admitted that I did miss him already. With my mom’s passing, . . . oh, I heard her a lot say “You’re doing really well.” many times while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom where she died in her jacuzzi tub. So much that I finally had to let her know – “enough, I don’t need to hear this any more” – and it stopped.

Yet, what really touched my heart was Michele’s piece in May 2021 in Salon about her mother’s letters – “It’s my mom’s fault I stole her letters.” I found letters like that among my parents things as I cleared out their residence after their deaths only 4 months apart. I wish I had read Michele’s piece before getting rid of my parents’ love letters to each other that my mom treasured enough to keep for over 50 years. Just before I began that work, I had read a piece by a woman who’s mother had destroyed her love letters from her father. The mother had said these were private between your father and I – and for that reason only, I let the letters go after having coincidentally read only one but a very relevant one – as though my mom reached out from beyond the grave to make certain I at least saw that one.

Michele writes in her personal essay for Salon – “I felt guilt wash over me. The debates with my two sisters over whether it was ethical to steal her letters replayed in my mind. In the end, we decided that the information in those letters belonged not only to our mother, but also to me and my older sister.” But I had not and so chose a different course based upon someone else’s story. Michele goes on to say, “the question of privacy continued to gnaw at me. I knew that if I had asked my mother 20 or even 10 years ago for permission to read the letters she would have said, ‘Are you kidding? No way. What’s in those letters is none of your business.’ And so I did what I always do when faced with a conundrum: I researched. In her book The Secret Life of Families (subtitled How Secrets Shape Our Relationships and When and How to Tell the Truth), Dr. Evan Imber-Black distinguished secrecy from privacy. A secret, she wrote, is information withheld that “impacts another’s life choices, decision-making capacity and well-being.” Conversely, if a piece of information is truly private, then knowing it has no impact on another’s physical or emotional health. 

Michele goes on to share, “In my fantasy argument with my mother, I would say that her secrecy about my biological father did impact my well-being, that depriving me of my genetic heritage handicapped my ability to shape a strong identity.” I agree with her reasoning on this one.

I had read one note (not even a letter) from my mom to a friend, stressing about how my father might react to learning she was pregnant. She had conceived me out of wedlock as a 16 yr old Junior in high school. My dad had just started at the U of NM at Las Cruces and it appears they wrote each other almost every day, though mostly these were the letters she received from my dad, except the note I read. I remember when I figured out that I had been conceived out of wedlock and how in my heart (though only for a few months) I turned against my mom because of that. I didn’t want her to touch me, such as take my hand. Hopefully, she thought only that I was asserting some independence because I was growing up. It was just all those “nice girls don’t do that” lectures she had given me. As a grown woman now, I know that she didn’t want me to make the same mistake. I hastened to get married with a month yet to graduating from high school even though I was not pregnant. My parents supported me and we had the fully formal church wedding and reception in my parents’ back yard. I suspect my parents were afraid I might turn up pregnant like my mom did and so did not discourage me from a marriage that lasted long enough to conceive a child 4 months after I married and then ended in divorce when she was only 3 years old.

Finding that letter further softened my feelings about my conception because I could clearly feel my mom’s emotions and concerns before my dad knew he would become a father. Anyway, this long story shorter. I didn’t keep the letters but sent them to the local landfill along with other items my mom had kept from their many journeys – souvenir booklets and the like. Reading Michele’s story makes me regret that all over again, and I have felt that regret before.

After my dad died, I learned from my cousin, who’s father was my mom’s adoptive brother, that it was possible to get the adoption file that the state of Tennessee had denied my mom in the early 1990s. It is a pity they didn’t let her have that because it would have brought her so much peace. My own journey to rediscover my original grandparents (both of my parents were adopted) only took me about year after my dad’s death; and then, I knew who ALL 4 of them were and something about my ancestors. What I didn’t expect was gaining cousins and an aunt. Even though I am very happy to now have family that I am biologically and genetically related to – I will also admit how difficult it is to create relationships with people who have decades of history lived that I was not any part of. Thankfully, they have all been kind in acknowledging me (and sometimes the DNA makes it difficult for them not to).

Do read the links above to Michele’s stories. I’ve made this blog long enough that I am not going to include any more excerpts beyond the coffee bit and some of her thoughts about personal letters.

Contemplating Death

Yesterday, I was stung on my little finger by a Red Wasp. Whether we simply collided or it came after me as I passed by the wooden post that has become nest – through a knot-hole opening into a large hollow space, I do not know. It happened so fast, I never saw it. I only felt the hot iron pain. All I could do was put a couple of ice cubes on it at the time where I was.

It brought back memories of the time when my adoptive maternal grandmother gifted me with a trip to England with her. We were going to attend a 4 week long summer session at the University of Cambridge and it was a lifetime experience that I do not regret. That morning I was stung on my middle finger also by a wasp I never saw. There was no time to do anything about it, even if we would have had some remedy.

My hand became painfully swollen over the time it took to make the transatlantic journey. My grandmother pretended not to notice my suffering and I knew better than to make a issue of it. In my dorm, not even having washcloths and towels yet, I used my socks to make compresses and by dinner time it was bearable. Last night I reflected on how it must have been for my mother growing up with such an emotionally cold woman. I do know that when she died, lots of appreciative comments about her mother came my mom’s way and simple reminders of her perfume on her clothing were bittersweet for my mother. My mom yearned for a reunion with her birth mother but she had died several years before my mom’s effort, which came months before the state of Tennessee changed its own perspectives to allow the adoptees or their descendants to have the adoption files related to the scandalous Georgia Tann. I now have that file that would have brought my mom so much peace. In my own spiritual perspective, I believe she was reunited with her birth mother after death and now knows even more than I do.

In my all things adoption group this morning I read –

I was surprised at how many adoptees truly loved their adoptive moms and were devastated when they died. Is it strange to not seem to feel much of anything? Some days I think I might be sad and then I realize it might just be residual feelings from long ago. I’m so confused and feel so cold.

A soothing comment followed – Know that your feelings, whatever they are, are valid.

The next comment was this – My adoptive mother and I were not close. I loved her, but didn’t much like her.

One honest adoptee admitted – My adoptive mom was an awful person. I only felt relief when she died. Yet another wrote – I won’t grieve, I have no relationship with my adoptive mom or adoptive dad, as cold as it sounds ill feel like a weight will be lifted from my shoulders when they pass. They still think they haven’t done anything wrong and blame me for everything

I could appreciate this perspective – I think how people grieve and process loss depends on their relationship with that person, whether it’s adoptive family, biological family, friend, coworker. If you’re close to someone and love them, you might feel sadness, a sense of loss, emotional pain. If you weren’t close to them, you might not feel much at all. None of these feelings are bad, they’re just a reflection of your relationship to that person. Not missing or grieving someone doesn’t make you any less of a person with emotions.

The original commenter went on to share – It’s sad because I could never connect with her. She had bipolar disorder and always asked me why couldn’t I just love her. She tried to live her life over through me and it seemed to suck the very soul out of me. It’s hard to love someone when it’s only one sided. It’s like we are baby dolls meant to fulfill all their dreams instead of human beings with our own destiny, personality, and dreams to explore.

Another wise perspective was this – I think every relationship is unique and one should always honor whatever they feel, or don’t feel when dealing with death. Try not to compare your experience with loss to others. This also, grieving is different for everyone, and the way you grieve (or seemingly don’t) is valid.

There is this sad story – The last few months of my moms life were difficult. She was difficult (in general). Our relationship was difficult. I had to step in and took over care the last 4 days of moms life. She had a rapid health decline. I didn’t know for sure I was adopted at that point. And I never got that moment. My adoptive mom was a broken person. The Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents book helped me see that this year. I’ve been able to see her different and with a kindness that wasn’t there before. We had a hard relationship. And it’s helped me reach some of the grief that I’ve had shoved down inside.

And yet another sad story – My adoptive mom is still alive but I feel absolutely numb towards her. I think it’s the abuse and bullying and constant threat of sending me away as a child. I had one moment once where I felt for her, it was some random moment by myself that made me realize that perhaps underneath the hurt, I did care for her, but I am unable to feel it because of how much she has hurt me.

Another perspective – As adoptees, we have *all* lost our mother, during our formative years. So when my adoptive mother died, I felt that pain of losing a mother again. My adoptive siblings don’t quite understand why I reacted so strongly (and they also don’t realize how deeply her death impacted me, because I never really showed my grief in front of them). They are all her biological children, and also much older than me. So while we all lost our mother, I was losing *another* mother. As adoptees, we have difficult relationships with our adoptive parents, and however you felt is completely understandable.

Glad I Was

I almost didn’t know what to write today. It seemed as though I had said it all in the last few days. But then an exchange with my mom, not long before she died, came back into my mind. She gave me editing privileges on her Ancestry account. She had done the family tree thing but it was all based on the ancestral lines of her adoptive parents and my dad’s adoptive parents. She admitted to me she just had to quit working on it. It wasn’t real, she knew that deeply, not in the sense Ancestry is meant to record. But quickly, she added, “you know, because I was adopted. Glad I was.”

What else could she say ? She didn’t know anything but her adopted life. Scarcely knew anything beyond her parents names of Mr and Mrs J C Moore – that doesn’t tell a person very much, though it proved to be accurate. She knew her name at birth was given to her by her mother as Frances Irene. Oh, she tried. Tennessee would not give her her adoption file even though she carried a deep certainly all the way to her death that she had been “inappropriately” adopted. Such a careful way she worded that. She knew Georgia Tann was involved and she knew about the scandal. She actually learned about it when it came out in the newspapers in the 1950s while she was yet a school girl.

She was devastated to learn from the state of Tennessee that her birth mother had died. Closing the door to her ever being able to communicate with that woman who gave her the gift of life through her own body.

It is that “Glad I was.” that haunts me today. I didn’t know about adoptee fog until recently. In fact, when I first entered my all things adoption Facebook group, wow, was I ever in it !! Adoption seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me. It was so natural that both of my sisters ended up giving up children to adoption.

What I want to say clearly this morning is – Adoption is the most UN-natural way for a child to grow up. Having one’s birth certificate altered to make it appear that total strangers actually gave birth to you when they did NOT. Having your name changed to suit the desires of your adoptive parents ? It is a fantasy. A pretend life and adoptees feel it keenly, as my mom clearly did “it just wasn’t real to me”.

The thing my mom could be glad for is that she had a financially comfortable upbringing and some perks such as travel along with her adoptive mother. She also suffered some coldness and harsh judgement because her natural body structure would never be lithe and thin as my adoptive grandmother took such pains to make her own. I know, I suffered a humiliating embarrassment in a public restaurant in London from her over the sin of taking a piece of bread and putting some butter on it.

My maternal adoptive grandmother was an accomplished and phenomenal woman. I grant her that. But I am convinced she bought her children when she found she could not conceive. I am no longer a believer in adoption and until I run out of things to write about – I will continue making an argument for family preservation and an end to separating babies from their natural mothers. I will defend allowing such children who are unfortunate enough to be adopted to keep ALL the ties to their identities – their genuine birth certificate and their name (unless and until, it is their choice to change that).