Maternal Abandonment

I haven’t read the book, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, but now I want to. A movie based on the book is coming to theaters this summer. In looking into the book, I find that the mother abandoned her children. In 1952, six-year-old Catherine Danielle Clark (nicknamed “Kya”) watches her mother abandon her and her family. While Kya waits in vain for her mother’s return, she witnesses her older siblings, Missy, Murph, Mandy, and eventually Jodie, all leave as well, due to their father’s drinking and physical abuse.

The story follows two timelines that slowly intertwine. The first timeline describes the life and adventures of a young girl named Kya as she grows up isolated in the marsh of North Carolina from 1952 to 1969. The second timeline follows an investigation into the apparent murder of Chase Andrews, a local celebrity of Barkley Cove, a fictional coastal town of North Carolina. Stories of children raising themselves with wildlife for companions have always fascinated me.

This story touches a sensitive place in me. While it was never my intention to abandon my daughter, could it be perceived that way ? Could she have experienced my “disappearance” as abandonment ? She was only 3 years old at the time and the realities were not something I could easily explain to her. Her dad and I had divorced. He had informed me that he would never pay child support because I would just party with the money (as though child care and pediatrician bills and all the normal daily expenses didn’t add up, leaving nothing leftover to even think of doing something like that). Therefore, I didn’t ask the court for any child support during the divorce hearing (which my husband did not attend) but the judge awarded me $25 in case I wanted to come back and ask for more. I never did but I did look for “better” (ie male dominated) employment that would pay enough to support the two of us.

It was always my intention to come back for my daughter with a bit of money saved, earned from driving an 18-wheel truck with my romantic partner of that time. A financial foundation for our mutual support. I left her with my former mother-in-law, who eventually gave her back to her dad. He remarried a woman with a child and eventually they had a child together. Since I could not give her a stable family life as a single impoverished woman, I let it be. I stayed in contact with my daughter and had short visits with her during her summers out of school. Still, it has always troubled me . . .

I feel fortunate that she doesn’t hate me for it and that we do have a good relationship as mature women raising children (she gave me a grandson, then I had a son, then she gave me a granddaughter, and then I had another son). I’ll never fully get over my own shame at not having done “better” by her.

Evolving Approaches

There may come a day when adoption is a rare occurrence but that day isn’t here yet.  What is happening is that adoption is experiencing a more honest, truthful and open approach to the reality where adoption has already occurred.  And there is at least one group (I know because I belong to it) where the members seek to convince mothers-to-be who may be considering a surrender of their baby for adoption to at least try parenting first.  That is one of the ways that adoption may become rare someday.

One question may be – how young is too young to tell a child they are adopted ?  Some advice is – not to ever wait.  Putting off talking with your adopted child about how they came to live with you often becomes a never good time to tell.  I know of one case where that situation has become very very complicated and the truth is still not shared with young adult adoptees.  It has become difficult in an unusual way, so understanding this, I am not judging it, but it is an example of what can happen when telling is put off until the child is “older”.

One adoptee shares – I had an adoption story that was bare bones to start with, as I got older, more information and whys were added, discussions evolved from that retelling. So, create a short TRUE story of how you came to adopt your child – 4 or 5 sentences long at a very young age. Practice telling the story to a friend, in the mirror so YOU are comfortable telling it. Then ask your child if they want to hear about when you adopted them….and tell your child that story.

Waiting until the child is older means they’ve lived that many years without you being truthful with them about who the child is. Just don’t wait.  You want your child to trust you and they will if you are always telling them the truth. Set a date on the calendar to do it soon, a very short story of how you came to adopt them…

Another issue that often comes up with transracial adoptions is about teaching these children about their culture of origin.  It’s never too early to start introducing things from the child’s heritage. 

For example, a Puerto Rican child adopted by a white family. Some suggestions – Introduce Spanish as a normal part of your household, even if that means everyone learning it. Watch as much cultural content about Puerto Rico and its history as possible, and try to find opportunities to connect the child with their culture. Connect with the child’s biological family’s religious traditions – if that is a possibility – so it isn’t foreign to them. Always speak positively about their family, heritage, and culture. Plan a family trip to Puerto Rico when the child is of elementary school age, and then return as frequently as your finances allow. Bonus – learn about your child’s roots and connect to them in tangible ways. Try making some local friends who are Puerto Rican and see them regularly. If this all feels like too much, just recognize that your child is currently surrounded by American culture 24/7.

It goes without saying that this advice applies to all other ethnic groups and countries from which Americans adopted children on an international scale.

Even in those situations where the biological parents are addicted and may even be violent, or maybe the mother never wanted to keep her child, leaving the hospital as soon as she gave birth . . .

There is likely to be some extended family somewhere who would be open to some form of contact. Every child should have those biological ties as much as it is safe and of course, desired by the child themselves.  And don’t forget – people DO often change over time.  How they were at one point in their lives evolves and they become more conventional in their lifestyle and behavior.

Finally, it’s okay if a young child doesn’t understand what being adopted actually means.  An adoptive parent should openly talk about it anyway.  The child will always remember being told their story, about their birth or whatever is known and can be shared in a positive manner.  Adopted children will talk about being adopted, if they have always heard that, even before the child fully understands what it means. Truly, it IS simply a part of who the child is.

Privacy Issues

The sad truth is sexual abuse is way too common in society and it has always been so.  That’s not to say we can’t all work to make things better and one of the ways we can make things better is to face the truth that it happens with an open heart and an understanding mind.

There are children removed from their natural parents when abuse is revealed.  Some of these children end up adopted.  Often if there are several siblings, they end up in a variety of homes.

Sometimes, enlightened adoptive parents become aware of how to reach these siblings who do not live in the home of the child they adopted.

A question sometimes arises, how to explain the cause of removal to the child they are parenting in an age-appropriate way.  A complicating factor could be the perspectives and desires of other adoptive or foster care or extended family (as in where the natural parents have divorced and remarried another person) when they do not want to reveal what any person deserves to know.

I wish adults never foisted their sexual impulses on children.  The reality is that it happens.  The question is how to reduce the incidence by the revelations of truth.  It may never be possible to end these horrendous acting outs on the part of some men but we can definitely make them less comfortable doing so.