Older Adoptive Parents

I read an adoptee’s story this morning. It reminded me of my adoptee mom’s experience as well. The woman wrote, “My mother did not teach my too cook or sew or quilt or any of the things she did so well. ‘Its easier to do it myself.’ When i got married at 16 to escape I had virtually no life skills.”

My mom was pregnant with me at 16. Thankfully, my dad married her (he had just started at university). He had to teach her how to cook and clean house. He was also adopted but his adoptive parents were humble and hardworking with a small business making draperies. I assume they expected him to help around the house as well.

She writes, “I was adopted by older parents- 39 and 41. By the time I joined their family who they were was pretty ingrained and they never really adjusted to having a small child or a teen.” When I had my second family with my second husband, I was 47 and 50 when my sons were born. I have seen people our age who seem much older to me than my husband and I. I guess we are both just young at heart. Certainly, for my own self, at 67 this May, some physical decline is setting in. However, we adjust. I remember thinking when I turned 60, that my youngest son will only be 20, when I turn 70. It was a sobering thought. When we told my parents we wanted to have children, my dad honestly said “I question your sanity.” Like his other saying, “You have to eat a little dirt.” it has stayed with me.

We stayed with my dad’s adoptive parents many weekends (to give our parents a break from us or simply because my grandparents really wanted to have us – though I suspect as much to save our souls by taking us to their Church of Christ on Sunday). They loved to fish and so often took us fishing with them. Mostly we just played outdoors. At home, we were outdoors a lot too. I am grateful for that actually because it instilled a love for nature in me.

The woman writes, she got her first car at 15. I believe I was 16. My parents gave me a car so I could take over the transportation services for myself and my middle sister who was 13 months younger than I am.

The woman writes, “I was the perfect child. Smart, self reliant, great grades, active in church.” I smile. I, at least, pretended to be a “good girl.” I did make good grades and I didn’t depend on my parents very much. They were a bit weirdly detached. I blame it on their adoptions.

The woman asks the rhetorical question, “Would I have been better of with my first family? Probably not.” In coming to terms with both of my parents adoptions and learning about my original grandparents, I realize I would not even exist had this not happened. My mom would have grown up in poverty in her early years, though he father eventually owned his own little grocery story, so things might have improved. I learned from the daughter of my mom’s genetic half-sibling that her mom remembered going to bed hungry and seeing the chickens under the floorboards of their shack.

I have a great deal of compassion for the woman’s who’s story I read today. Her adoptive father was a violent, functional alcoholic and other men with associated access to her sexually abused her as a child. One was a family member, another a family friend, one was part of her church, another her babysitter’s husband. All these assaults occurred between the ages of 6-16. She writes, “I told the very first time, nothing happened and I never told again. I didn’t see the point.”

She ends her piece with this – “Abortion should be legal. I am making my life now and I am happy with my husband and my ‘made’ family but at 60, I should not still be trying to over come my early life.”

Evolving Perspectives

Bernice Dittmer, 1989

The topic came up with my husband last night as he is organizing lots of family history and photos into labeled binders for our sons if they ever should become interested “someday”. How should he label my Grandmother Dittmer ? I said adding Adoptive was just too cumbersome though it was necessary in certain communities and situations.

I was so excited when after 60+ years of living I finally knew who all 4 of my original grandparents were (both of my parents were adopted, they died knowing next to nothing about their own origins). I realize I am fortunate to have achieved so much in so little time. My dad’s mom was unwed and his father would have been lost to all of us but she knew who the father was and left us breadcrumbs. DNA has done the rest.

For awhile since, when I think of grandparents, I think of these original ones. They are the blood and genetic lines I am honestly related to – but I never knew them. I know “some” about them from meeting cousins and an aunt (though most not in person) and receiving photos and stories from these relatives that I am truly more grateful for than my words can ever express.

Lately, something else has happened in my evolving perspective. I am able to re-own my adoptive grandparents. After all, they were the only grandparents who reside in my childhood memories. They had a great deal of influence on me in so many ways. Primarily, that had a lot to do with the proximity I had to them that sadly my own grandchildren now do not even have them me and much to my own sorrow that the circumstances of all of our lives as such.

My dad’s adoptive parents taught me humility. They were poor and god fearing Church of Christ people. Since learning my origins, I also realized the “miracle” that my mom was not sent away as a high school student un-wed at the time of my conception to have and give me up to adoption as well. I believe I have my dad’s adoptive parents to thank for that and primarily my Granny. I also have her to thank for waking me up to leave an unhealthy long-term romantic relationship which opened the way to meet my husband (now for over 30 years). We spent many weekends with these grandparents and attended church on Sunday many times with them. I honestly do love them both.

My mom’s adoptive mother (shown in the image above) was a wealthy, formal kind of woman. My mom called her “Mother” to her dying day and we called her “Grandmother”. She taught us the manners of the upper class and what life is like for them by taking us on fabulous trips as her companions after my adoptive grandfather dropped dead shortly after his retirement in his 60s. My adoptive grandmother lived to over 90 years. She could be very difficult and cruel in her judgements. I respected her. Love might not be the best word but she had good intentions. She grew up in Missouri in much the same circumstances as I live now. By the strength of her own will, she made her life better than the world she originated in.

So, I can acknowledge today, a subtle shift – I have two phases of grandparent. My childhood grandparents who were that for decades of my life. And my actual grandparents who are forever lost to any ability on my part to know them in person but I am somehow – who and what I am – because of them.

My Dad with my Granny & Granddaddy

The Gift Of My Parents’ Adoptions

If they were still living, today my parents would have celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary. Their anniversary was always special to me because I was already there the day they married. My high school junior mom was pregnant with me. I believe I have my dad’s adoptive parents to thank that my mom’s adoptive parents didn’t send her away to have and give me up. Just the fact that they got married in a church that my dad’s parents attended – the Church of Christ – and not in the church my mom’s parents attended – Episcopalian – speaks volumes to me.

I don’t think I would realize just how fortunate I am, if I had not learned the stories of my parents’ adoptions. When I was in junior high, I realized that there was only 7 months between my parents wedding and my birth. I was angry with my mom about that for a very long time and wouldn’t let her touch me. Strange I wasn’t as angry at my dad. I was a child and as a girl I had gotten all those good girl lectures and though I don’t remember it clearly now, it was probably my mom delivering them and why I blamed her and not him. I was probably only troubled by the perceived hypocrisy.

But they did love each other very much. They stayed married for just over 60 years. My mom died 20 days before their 61st wedding anniversary. At first, I didn’t think my dad would be able to carry on but somehow he mustered a bit of will to try. However, he died only 4 months after she did. That is how much not having her in his life anymore just made life no longer worth living. Not that he committed suicide but on New Year’s Eve he had a stroke. He came out of the hospital not believing it until he read the discharge papers. Then on the morning of February 3rd, he simply stopped breathing and let it all go with a slight smile on his face after a good night’s sleep.

Realizing the conventional norms in the early 1950s when my mom became pregnant with me (often referred to as the Baby Scoop era due to the high rate of babies surrendered to adoption) while researching all things related to adoption as I began to learn what my parents died still not knowing – who their original parents were as well as reuniting with cousins and one aunt – made me appreciate that I did not become another victim.

If my parents had not been adopted, I simply would not exist, nor would my two sisters. Our children, my parents’ grandchildren, would not exist. Though the circumstances that led to my parents’ adoptions were far from perfect, I can now say they were imperfectly perfect for my own self. My sense of wholeness has been restored. My sense of identity has been returned to me. And so much wisdom about all things adoption and foster care have made themselves known to me and that would never have occurred but for the gift (to me) of my parents having been adopted.

Losing My Grandparents

My Granny, My Dad and My Granddaddy

Both of my parents were adopted.  So the grandparents I grew up with in my childhood were never actually related to me.  They were influential though.  The two people shown above often cared for me and my sisters over weekends.  I think mostly to get us into their church, the Church of Christ, as contrasted with the church our mom was raising us in, the Episcopal church.  My dad didn’t go to church at the time.  He worked shift work in a refinery, often double shifts, and so was mostly asleep when he wasn’t at work, except for meals.  Maybe he would watch a little TV or read a news magazine or the local paper.

My mom conceived me while she was still in high school and my dad had just started at the university out of town.  I think these two people shown above made certain my dad quit his dreams of a higher education and married my mom and went to work to support his young family.  Not that he didn’t want to marry my mom.  They were married over 50 years until death did them part and they died only 4 months apart.  My dad’s adoptive parents insisted I have a biblical name to save my damaged soul because of my illegitimate conception.

All of my grandparents had already died – and in fact my parents had already died as well – when I went in search of my original grandparents.  Though I doubted I would ever know who my dad’s father was because his mother was unwed and he was given her maiden name at birth.  I do now know who ALL 4 of my original grandparents were, their names and their ancestry.  I didn’t expect, that in learning who my original grandparents were, I would in effect “lose” my grandparents (those people who adopted my own parents as infants).

But I did.

Though I know I have a “history” with these people who adopted and raised my parents, they no longer feel like my grandparents.  And my true biological and genetic grandparents have taken their place in my heart and imagination, even though I have scant knowledge (but some) of these people whose genes are in me and helped create who I am at the level of physicality.  I have connected with some cousins who share the same original grandparents and what I know of my original grandparents is thanks to anything they have shared with me about these people.

I don’t love the people who raised my parents any the less but they are so far back in my own past now.  Though I had occasional interactions with them up until their deaths, as living people they are receding for me.  They are fading . . .

My original grandparents didn’t lose my parents due to anything worse than poverty and a lack of family support.  That doesn’t say much for my parents own original grandparents, who did not seem to care about my parents very much.  I’ve only heard that my mom mattered to her dad, which was a happy surprise for me and quickly warmed my heart towards that man.  My dad’s father probably never even knew he existed.  His mom was self-reliant and he was a married man, so she just handled it alone.

It is strange.  I was robbed of my original grandparents by the Great Depression, Georgia Tann and the Salvation Army.  Both of my grandmothers eventually re-married.  If they could have been sustained somehow, I know they would have raised their children because every indication is that they loved their babies and mourned their loss until they died.

Nothing makes up for these losses really but at least, I do know where I came from – which is more than my parents knew.  They died completely ignorant of who their own original parents were.  And that is very sad.

Harmed By Religion

I grew up Episcopalian.  I always thought of that church as do what you want Catholics.  We were similar but with more freedom to choose.

My mom conceived me out of wedlock and she once admitted to me that she believed she had sinned and that baptizing me in the Episcopal Church (which was against the wishes of my dad’s Church of Christ adoptive parents because they baptize much later in life) was a way of securing my bastardized soul.

It is known generally that the Catholic Church has done a lot of bad things in its existence.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame is about torturing a young woman.  Then there is the burning of Joan of Arc and the Spanish Inquisition.  I grew up in El Paso Texas, a heavily Catholic region of the United States and so, I have some familiarity with that religion.  As a school girl we always had fish on the menu at school on Fridays because of the church.

An early adoption story is the tale of Moses.  His mother Jochebed put him in a basket to spare him from being killed along with all the other Israelite baby boys.  The Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses and adopts him as her own, sparing him the fate suffered by other Hebrew boys.

For old-time Catholics, the laws of the Church took precedence over the laws of any secular government.  Catholic teaching dictated that the manner in which I was conceived made me illegitimate, a bona fide bastard.  Fortunately, my parents married before I was born.

Some children, like my dad, became legitimized when they were adopted by a married couple.  At that time, in the 1930s and 40s, his birth certificate (and later his baptismal certificate) was altered to make him appear “as though” he had been born to his adoptive parents.  The Salvation Army played a role in his becoming an adoptee.

I believe that my mom’s maternal grandfather and her paternal grandmother both played some role in her becoming an adoptee by not being willing to be supportive of my mom after her birth nor my grandparents’ marriage.  I can’t know that for certain.  I just feel it in my soul.

Throughout it’s history, the church has refused divorce, my dad’s adoptive parents could not be elders in the Church of Christ because of their divorces from spouses before they found one another.  And I do believe churches in general continue to look down upon women who do what comes natural and have sex outside of marriage.

Validating a strong and moral family life has always been at the heart of most church teachings.  I won’t argue that such a family is not a blessing.  My two sons have grown up within such circumstances and thrive.  I also have friends with children my children’s age who chose to be single parents.  Their children thrive as well.

What seems to matter the most is that the child was truly wanted.  When a child is born “accidentally”, meaning unintended, it is a hurdle to overcome but not impossible to.  Love matters more than any other factor.