DNA Matters

My apologies for not writing blogs recently. I’ve been out of it with an illness for 5 days (that’s how long since I last shared a blog).

Over the course of my becoming informed, one aspect I had not considered the importance of is genetic mirroring. Really, I should have known sooner. When my niece found us (she was given up for adoption by my sister shortly after birth), she was troubled the most by body image issues. In that situation, she and my mom discovered they had something in common. Our family’s natural genetic inheritance came from stocky, big boned women. Both my mom and my niece were adopted by thin, stylish women. It is only natural, they were never going to look like their adoptive mothers.

Today, I read this –

Something that makes me so mad as an adoptee is when people say “biology doesn’t matter” or “DNA doesn’t make a family” or any other version of that statement. Yes, to an extent we create our own family, and we can choose who to have in our life. But do you know how f***ing PRIVILEGED you (general you) sound when you say “DNA doesn’t matter?” It doesn’t matter to you because you have the choice whether or not to have your biological family in your life. But for adoptees, former foster youth, and donor conceived persons, we don’t have a choice. DNA and biology mean so much more to us BECAUSE we were robbed of it as children, when we had no say in the matter.

It’s also really easy for you to say “biology/DNA doesn’t matter” when you have never had to worry that the pain in your breast could be breast cancer in your early 30s, because you know nothing about your family medical history; or when you have never had to worry about what hereditary diseases you may be passing on to your own children; or when you’ve never had to put “adopted, history unknown” on an intake form for a doctor’s appointment. It’s easy to say “it doesn’t matter” when you’ve never had your children ask why none of their cousins look anything like them. It’s easy to say “it doesn’t matter” when you aren’t having to explain for the thousandth time how your siblings could be so much older than you. It’s easy to say “it doesn’t matter” when you don’t have people asking if you’re actually your mother’s grandchild when you’re standing up at her funeral, because you’re so much younger than all her other children. It’s easy to say “it doesn’t matter” when you’ve never felt like a stranger in your own family.

So please, next time you find yourself about to say “DNA doesn’t matter,” think about how that sounds to people like us, who didn’t get to choose whether we grew up with biological connections. It f***ing hurts when people are telling us that the one thing we can’t have, and the one thing we want more than anything else, “doesn’t matter.” Trust me: DNA MATTERS. And if you didn’t have access to your own genetic mirrors, you would realize that.

It helped my niece when she understood that her body was exactly as her genes intended it to be. Among the many ways adoptees are expected to be something they are not, it is to fulfill some idea the adoptive mother has that she can remake the child’s physical presentation into what she wants it to be. Clearly not a realistic expectation but you would be surprised at how common it is.

When I saw the photo of my maternal grandmother holding my mom for the last time at surrender, I understood that her Scottish farm girl body was the whole reason we were built like we were. Learning who my original grandparents were (both of my parents were adopted) has brought me so much peace with my appearance. Too bad my parents never had that opportunity. Seeing people who look like you, because they share many of the same genes makes such a difference in a person’s life. Seeing how much my paternal aunt looks like my dad or how much my dad not only looks remarkably like his father but they even shared the same interests in life, somehow – these all make everything make so much natural sense.

My sons are donor conceived. At the time we chose that path to parenthood, inexpensive DNA testing was not a reality. Fortunately, being as ignorant as we were about issues I’m so much more informed about now, somehow we still made all the best choices given our circumstances. Our egg donor is known to us – not intimately but well enough. Of course, the boys have had their father as an important male genetic mirror. However, from the beginning, I could see the donor in my sons faces and especially similarities with her biological children. It always made me smile as a reminder of the gift she gave us. Fortunately for the boys, they are 100% genetically related.

Recently, the oldest half-sibling got married and the youngest was the best man. Though my sons are fully informed about their origins and the reason they were conceived in the manner they were, I literally forced them to look at photos of these half-brothers and current photos of the egg donor. One seems more interested than the other but I made them look anyway. True we have been in the donor’s presence more than once but not of her children. But time passes. I want them to know what these people look like – at least. They have direct access to her and the one that recently married through 23 and Me without my involvement – if they want to communicate privately. So far, they don’t seem to need or want that but its there if they did.

I know families in my personal donor conceived circle (we’ve been collected together as a mutual support group of 20 families for 18 years now) who made other choices not to be honest with their conceived children. I won’t judge their own choices but I have been forever grateful we have handled our own choices the way that we have – with total transparency and honesty. It was so much more important than we ever imagined at the time we were doing what felt ethical and correct to us at the time.

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).

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

Patterns speak to human beings. Watching the movie, The Goldfinch, built around a real painting by a Dutch artist who tragically lost his life at the age of 32 in an explosion in Delft in 1654, sent me on a journey through my own relationship with this bird and it connects to both my mom’s adoptive mother and my in-laws and this bird. Our Goldfinches are much more brightly colored than the one in this painting.

I didn’t know what those yellow blobs on the bushes were until my grandmother visited me and drew my attention to them. She had stayed the week hosted by my in-laws which provided her with more comfortable accommodations than I could. I was driving her to visit her friends in Joplin but we had stopped in Branson and she wanted to buy my in-laws a thank you gift. She selected a pair of Goldfinches and said they reminded her of the two lovebirds. She had seen expressions of love between my two in-law’s during her week stay. Interestingly, though I was already married to my husband, she bought a single Goldfinch to give to me. Strange that I do not at this moment know where my own is.

And so last night I was reflecting on why my grandmother only gave me a single bird but my in-laws a pair. It was as if she was giving them her seal of approval for in essence “adopting” me into their family. My in-laws, the parents of 3 boys treated me as the daughter they never had. They stood by me during a legal tussle with my ex-employer going with me to the sheriff’s office to help me retrieve the car (it wasn’t free and clear but had a lien on it making it officially not mine for my ex-employer to take). My dad was on the board of the credit union I had borrowed from. When I called my mom about my trouble, she could only say to me, “Don’t let your dad find out.” My in-laws also went with me to the hearing the in judge’s chamber. Just one example out of many of their kindness and support for me as their adopted daughter.

I reflect on my own mother. In the movie, all 3 of the main young people depicted had lost their mothers, just as both of my own natural grandmothers had. Like the bird in the painting, my mom was trapped by the fact of her adoption. Prevented from knowing the true details of what happened to her by the sealed adoption file the state of Tennessee refused to give her. Details that I now know, that would have done no harm at the time she asked for it because her natural mother and natural father were both dead but she could have known aunts and uncles who could have told her about her mother and half-siblings on her father’s side. Seeing the photo of her mother holding her for the last time would have brought her so much peace. My mom struggled with body image because she could not achieve her adoptive mother’s trim form but my mom had the genetic big boned body of her natural mother.

I believe my mom’s adoptive parents would have sent her off to have and give me up for adoption when she turned up pregnant, unwed, a high school student had my dad’s adoptive parents not intervened to get them married. In my own particularly defiant manner, I chose to be born on my mom’s adoptive parents’ wedding anniversary. My adoptive maternal grandmother was a painter. Today I have a painting of a large oak tree in Autumn hanging on our wall that my grandmother painted. She also painted an oval bust of my infant self and this hung on her own bedroom wall all the years I remember her living.

Therefore, I was close to my grandmother. She once took me to England with her. During the visit that caused her to buy the Goldfinch figurines, the Wild Azaleas were blooming. She decked herself out for a portrait of herself surrounded by them. She had grown up in rural Missouri and her visit here was a trip down the memory lane of her own origins. We even visited her childhood home as I drove her to visit her friends. That photo of my grandmother started my own tradition of taking photos on Mother’s Day and me and my boys.

Bernice Dittmer

Oh, the patterns of our lives and how these can inform our hearts at the most surprising kind of emotional trigger, like watching a movie . . . and then seeing the movie of our life reflected back to us.

With my boys in 2010

Is It Really ?

One hears this a lot from people who want to adopt a baby – “I applaud you for your courageous choice to give your daughter a chance at a better future. There are so many women with infertility issues like myself who would love to adopt a child. Please keep me in your thoughts if you know of other women in your situation. I have a lot of love to give.”

One cannot really say if being adopted gives anyone a “better life”. Both of my parents were adopted. They both would have grown up with some degree of poverty had they remained with their original mothers. And the truth of the matter is, my dad still grew up with some degree of poverty. In fact, he actually experienced food insecurity and hunger as a child. We always had more food on our table at dinner than we could eat. My mom told me that was the reason why. And my dad was so obese as an adult, he relished his nickname Fat Pat.

I do appreciate his adoptive parents. My granny was hugely influential in my life. We often spent days and weekends with her. A word from her that was very serious about some issue had the power to change the direction I was traveling in. Having learned my parents more or less full background stories, I believe had it not been for my granny, my teenage mother who conceived me out of wedlock, would have been sent away as so many girls in the 1950s through 1970s were, to have and give me up. I believe my dad’s adoptive parents insisted he do the right thing and quit college and go to work, after quickly marrying my mother so I would be born legitimate. And my nuclear family experienced hardships but we knew we were loved, even though our parents were strangely detached, having had their own familial bonds broken before the age of one year.

And how about my mother ? Her dad was the vice president at a large bank in downtown El Paso Texas. Her mother was a socialite and charity do-gooder. She was also influential in my own life for different reasons than my granny. She modeled for us good manners and good taste in home decor and clothing. However, my mom – while wanting for nothing of a financial basis – struggle with her adoptive mother. My grandmother was always thin and trim (she would starve herself if necessary, her mother and sister were quite rotund) and my mom’s body type was never going to be that – big boned Scottish farm girl stock that she was. My grandmother also dangled her wealth as a carrot and a stick over my mom.

My mom’s father was very poor and her mother’s family was also poor. My grandmother lost my mom when she gave birth while separated from her lawfully married husband during a massive flood on the Mississippi River. Unable to contact him for support or reconciliation, Georgia Tann along with her enablers the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley and the Porter-Leath Orphanage supervisor Georgia Robinson (to whom my grandmother turned for temporary care while she tried to get on her feet financially without family support) exploited her financially precarious situation and coerced her into surrendering my mom for adoption. She tried to undo this 4 days after signing the papers but Tann was not letting my mom loose as her soon to be adoptive mother was already on her way from Nogales Arizona by train to Memphis Tennessee to collect her. My grandmother had previously adopted a son from Tann.

One cannot actually say my mom had a “better” life either. The truth about adoption is – the child has a DIFFERENT life from the one they would have had with their original parent(s). Better is a subjective concept that adoptive parents like to believe in order to justify taking a child, due to their own infertility, from another woman. It honestly is that simple.

The Baby Thief

I was surprised today to learn there may be a new “Georgia Tann” movie coming based upon the first book I ever read about her, The Baby Thief by Barbara Raymond.  One of my favorite actresses, Octavia Spencer, has optioned it.  I should not be surprised because it is a story that returns time and time again.

The story is personal to me.  My mom was adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, from the Memphis branch that Tann was in charge of for decades.  The book is hair raising.  I read it just one month after my dad died, only four months after my mom first died.  All I could think of as I read so many horrendous and tragic stories was “thank god my mom and her brother ended up with the Dittmers”.

The truth is it was a comfortable placement.  My grandfather was a banker, my grandmother a socialite.  My mom disrupted their fondest hopes and dreams for her life when she conceived me out of wedlock while only a junior in high school.  Thus my mom was never a debutante nor did she marry “well”.  Instead we grew up the working class children of a oil refinery worker.  Even so, we had good enough lives.

My grandmother was over the moon happy about both of her Georgia Tann babies, considering them to be geniuses and brilliant.  As my mom grew up, tensions occurred.  I understand, having spent some one-on-one time with my grandmother when she took me to Cambridge University in England with her for a summer session.

My grandmother was always very concerned about her body image.  Her mom and sister were rotund Missouri farm gals.  Not my grandmother, who artistically made herself into a remarkable woman.  So my mom never felt she lived up to her adoptive mother’s expectations.  Turns out biology gave us big bones and stocky frames from our Arkansas/Tennessee farm stock.

My mom died believing she had been stolen from her parents due to the stories she consumed about Georgia Tann and her methods and the odd circumstance of being born in Virginia but adopted as an infant in Memphis Tennessee.

Octavia Spencer with author, Barbara Raymond

After Good Housekeeping ran an article written by Raymond, she received many letters from people asking her if she could help them find their child who had been stolen.  She decided to research and write a book about Tann.  She placed ads in newspapers and received 900 replies.

Because of Tann’s ties to Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley and Memphis political Boss E H Crump, as well as other important people around town, she was able to falsify birth certificates as well as hide or destroy records.  In my mom’s adoption file, I found clear evidence that Tann was certainly not above fudging some details.  Tann’s efforts to hide her criminal activities were instrumental in the extensive use of sealed adoption records all over the United States.  I have my mom’s records (which she was denied in the early 1990s) only because Tennessee decided to make them available to the victims.