Hard Times Don’t Come Around No More

Both of my parents were Great Depression babies – born 1935 and 1937. For that fact alone, it isn’t a wonder they both ended up adopted, though the reasons are much more complicated than that. But certainly, financial hardship in the lives of my two original grandmothers is the key factor.

So this is on my mind this morning after watching Angela’s Ashes on dvd last night and being reminded of the song – Hard Times Don’t Come Around No More written by Stephen Foster and published in 1854. Some of the lyrics – While we all sup sorrow with the poor, Many a days you have lingered around my cabin door, There are frail forms fainting at the door, Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say, There’s a pale weeping maiden who toils her life away, With a worn heart whose better days are o’er: Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day, Oh! Hard times come again no more.

So what was it like in the 1930s ?, was a question on my mind this morning. The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in modern history at the time it occurred. It profoundly affected the daily life of American families in ways large and small. The bleakest point was about 1933 or 34.

The life of a child in the 1930s was very different than a child’s life today. With the Great Depression, children and their families were greatly impacted—millions lived in poverty and had very little to eat, let alone money to spare for entertainment. Times were tough everywhere, and an additional mouth to feed was a burden. Certainly, I believe that both of my grandmothers encountered this mind set when they were seeking aid with their newborn babies.

Food was scarce for a lot of families and many children suffered from malnutrition. As we were watching children die in Angela’s Ashes my husband said, it is the lack of nutrition that makes it impossible for them to fight off diseases.

My maternal grandmother’s childhood family did live on a farm that was not ravaged by the Dust Bowl being west of Memphis in the rural countryside. They probably did grow a variety of crops and raised small amounts of livestock to survive. During the Depression, casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast, chili, macaroni and cheese, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular. Jello was actually considered a cheap protein source (had to believe it would be viewed as that – one serving only has 1.6 grams of protein and the equivalent of 4-1/2 tsp of sugar !!) But Jello still found its way into many cookbooks during the Depression. Potlucks were often organized by churches to share food and provide a cheap form of social entertainment. The board games Scrabble and Monopoly were introduced during the 1930s. Both of which my own family has played recently.

Economic struggle caused mothers to leave the home for work and children to leave school for work as a breakdown in child labor law enforcement occurred. My paternal grandmother was put to work in the Rayon mills in Asheville NC to help support her family. A quarter of the US workforce was unemployed. Those that were lucky enough to have steady employment often saw their wages cut or their hours reduced to part-time. With record unemployment, children competed for jobs with their elders to help contribute to their family’s income, often forgoing further schooling. Many children were technically self-employed, collecting junk to sell or doing odd jobs for neighbors.

The stress of financial strain took a psychological toll—especially on men who were suddenly unable to provide for their families. The national suicide rate rose to an all-time high in 1933. Marriages became strained, though many couples could not afford to separate. Some men deserted their families out of embarrassment or frustration: This was sometimes called a “poor man’s divorce.” So, was this what my paternal grandfather chose when faced with yet another child on the way ? Is this why he failed to show up for my grandmother and mom when they returned to Memphis after her birth in Virginia (where she was sent away to avoid embarrassment for her father, even though she really was a married woman).

Disadvantaged families couldn’t afford much for their children, so most of their clothes were cast offs and children often went barefoot. Most middle-income boys wore t-shirts with overalls and girls wore blouses and plain dresses. Both would have one pair of shoes and an outfit for special occasions. The Depression-era motto was: “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.” I definitely saw these effects in the lives of my in-laws (both born in 1921) and on my dad’s adoptive parents.

A Basic Human Right to Know

Most U.S. citizens raised by their biological parents never question whether the information on their birth certificates is accurate. With the evolution of adoption and alternate means of conceiving a child, “accurate” is an increasingly subjective term.

Is the purpose of a birth certificate to portray a biological account of a person’s birth parents, or is it an account of one’s “legal” parents — the ones responsible for raising them?

The US Census Bureau created Birth Certificates in the beginning of the 20th Century as a means of tracking the effects of disease and urban environments on mortality rates. The task of issuing birth certificates was transferred to the Bureau of Vital Statistics, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. In 1946, the recording births was decentralized into today’s varied state systems (and in reality, based on my parents births in the 1930s, this existed well before the 1940s). This has caused there to be 50 different sets of regulations concerning how, when, why and if access to original birth certificate information can be obtained.

The document has become an important (if not our sole) means of identification when we obtain anything from a driver’s license to a passport. It is an indispensable tool for genealogical researchers.

For adoptees as well as donor-conceived persons, there is oftentimes a clear distinction between one’s genetic parents, those with whom you share DNA, and one’s legal parents, the ones who have rights and responsibilities attached to their parenthood, and most-times, the ones who are raising them.

Our birth certificate practices concerning non-biological parents began with adoption. In the mid-20th Century, there was rising concern that adopted children’s birth certificates read “illegitimate.” In response, states began to issue adoptees amended birth certificates, listing the adoptive parents as if they were the genetic parents, thus hiding the shame of the child’s illegitimacy and the adoptive parents’ infertility. The originals containing the biological parents’ names were sealed and not available to anyone (including the adoptee) except by court order. The new birth certificates showed no indication that they had been amended, which gave adoptive parents an easy way to not tell their children of their adoption. In about half of the US states (including large population ones like California and Virginia as I personally found with my two parents adoptions), adoptees original birth certificates remain sealed.

Women who use donor eggs to become pregnant are listed as mothers on birth certificates. When our donor informed me she had her DNA tested at 23 and Me, I made the decision to provide my children with the information and private access to her (with her consent) that DNA testing and that site’s design make possible. It is unsettling to see someone else listed as my two sons “mother” even though they grew in my womb, nursed at my breast and have been cared for and nurtured by me 24/7 for almost every day of their entire lives. Yet, I knew this was the proper path to establish for my own children their personal reality.

There are a whole host of concerns raised by adoptees and the donor-conceived, including the right to identity, ongoing medical history, biological heritage, and the right to know their genetic parents and I for one believe these issues are valid and should receive transparent answers.

The US Surgeon General reports 96% of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. It certainly has made a world of difference for me as the offspring of two adoptees. I suppose this has given me a broader perspective on the importance of a person knowing from where their genes originated. The United Nations has acknowledged the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations.

I believe that all people have a moral right to know the truth about their personal history. Where the state has custody of relevant information it has a duty not to collude in deceiving or depriving individuals of such information. Growth, responsibility, and respect for self and others develop best in lives that are rooted in truth.

There has been a recommendation made that the Standard US Birth Certificate be revised to expand upon the “two parent only” format to include categories for Legal Parents, Genetic Parents and Surrogates. In the case of adoptees, the child’s birth name and parentage should be recorded along with his or her legal/adoptive name.

The time for birth certificate reform is now. Unfortunately for many, it should have happened decades ago.

The Damage Done

I came of age in the early 1970s. I will admit that I have way too much life history with drug use. In fact, addiction was the primary cause of my first marriage’s failure. So many children are removed from their parents due to addiction issues. The money that should be feeding and housing and providing all the basics for their family goes into drugs. I understand. I remember food and housing insecurity because of that in my first marriage. Today’s blog was triggered by this story of a foster care child.

My 11 year old foster daughter is (understandably) having an incredibly hard time coping with feelings of abandonment by her mother. While I don’t agree with it and have advocated otherwise, she is not allowed to talk to or see her mom until she takes a drug test. Mom has refused and my foster daughter is feeling unloved and abandoned. I’m at a loss for how to help her cope. She often asks me to validate her feelings by saying things such as “If she loved me, she would just go do the drug test, right?” or “She must be on drugs. She loves them more than me, doesn’t she?”. She wants me to answer her yes or no. I don’t know how to answer to help her. I don’t want to speak negative about her parents by agreeing with her but I don’t want to make her feel like her feelings aren’t valid by saying something like “She loves you but drugs are powerful and affecting her choices.” I have reached out to mom and tried to get her to take the drug test so they can have contact and let her know what is going on with her daughter. She always says she is going to but hasn’t yet. It has been over a year now.

She ends with this request for advice – Those who have been through similar situations, how would you recommend I help this child?

The first answers are good ones. Is she in therapy? She needs somewhere to process feelings and learn about addiction. Does she have a therapist? If not, that would be very helpful. Someone who is trauma informed, addiction experience, and foster care and adoption competent would be a good thing for her. Sounds like you and her therapist need to have a discussion about addiction with her.

I didn’t know about this person but it sounds like reasonable advice – I highly recommended listening to and reading Gabor Mate and as an addiction expert and particularly his compassionate, scientifically based approach to addiction. It will help you (and your subsequently foster daughter) understand with compassion rather that judgement, anger, exasperation or frustration.

Personally, I saw this perspective immediately and am glad this was said – Her mom probably can’t pass a test and doesn’t want to make things worse. I would start by explaining that. We wouldn’t make an illiterate person pass a reading test for a basic human right…sad. Being a child of an addict there is a lot of pain and hard days for sure but she should be able to see her mom. All the therapy suggestions are on point and hopefully the therapist can also advocate.

I had not heard of this concept (except from link below) but it also seems right to my own heart – I would advocate for safe use with the social worker on the case about safe use, and creating a safety plan. Passing a urine analysis doesn’t equal safety and not passing a urine analysis doesn’t equal unsafe. I don’t think “she loves you but drugs are powerful….” would invalidate her feelings. That statement and her feelings can both be valid at the same time.

Traditionally, the substance use field has focused simply on substance use and ways to measure, prevent and treat negative consequences. This has led to a continuum of laws, policies and services that runs from restricting supply to reducing demand and, for some, continuing on to harm reduction.

Various versions of this simple continuum have been used over time, all of them beginning with a focus on a disease or harm that must be avoided. While this may seem completely sensible at first glance, it makes less sense when considering that many people use psychoactive substances to promote physical, mental, emotional, social and/or spiritual well-being. In other words, people use substances to promote health, yet substance use services focus on how drug use detracts from health.

Health promotion begins from a fundamentally different focus. Rather than primarily seeking to protect people from disease or harm, it seeks to enable people to increase control over their health whether they are using substances or not.

Since many people use drugs often or in part to promote health and well-being, health promotion along these lines involves helping people manage their substance use in a way that maximizes benefit and minimizes harm. (Indeed, this is how we address other risky behaviors in our everyday lives, including driving and participating in sports.) It means giving attention to the full picture—the substances, the environments in which they are used and in which people live, and the individuals who use those substances and shape the environments.

Someone else shares their personal experience – My kids (adoptees) parents have issues they go through and are not always on the up and up but we make time together happen. It’s always (right now) supervised etc. However soon my daughter will be 16 and she will likely want to drop by their house when she’s driving etc and I have helped her understand enough on ways to stay safe emotionally and legally by going to see her family and having open discussion with her on addiction. Some may not agree but they eventually grow up. I prefer to help her work through it now than stumble more later. She has a therapist who is mainly focused on addictions as well.

One more from personal experience – I would probably say screw the social worker’s orders and let them have a visit. My adopted daughters’ mom had the same type of demand and I followed the rules. Their mom died, and it had been so long since they’d seen her in person. I frequently regret not breaking the rules. Life’s too fucking short and unpredictable. Using drugs doesn’t automatically equate to being unsafe. It’s going to be way harder for this mom to get clean and sober if she’s not allowed to see her child.

Addiction is a VERY complex issue. My heart breaks for the young girl.

Don’t Say It’s Medicine

One of life’s more difficult circumstances – addiction – often causes a parent to lose custody of their child. A foster mother who is going to adopt such a child because there are no family options, still believes in reunification. She maintains a good relationship with the child’s mom and plans to continue to include her in here child’s life as much as is possible.

The question is how to explain to a very young child about the legal system and addiction, while respecting the mother’s right to tell her own story. However, seeing a need to also provide this 2 yr old child with the information she deserves. This foster mother is struggling with how to tell this child about addiction ?

So, she was reality checking her rehearsed explanation and good thing she was – here is what she was thinking of saying. “The judge decided you have to live with us because your mom was having a hard time when you came to live with us. Your mom was having a hard time not taking medicine that made her feel less pain, but that she wasn’t allowed to use while she was being a mommy. That medicine can make people feel sleepy and confused and forgetful. Sometimes people aren’t allowed to live with their kids when they start taking that medicine. Those mommies still love their babies more than anything in the world.”

It was very quickly pointed out to her how damaging it would be to call addictive street drugs (or even misused pharmaceutical drugs) “medicine.”

Do not call drugs – medicine. Have open conversations, age appropriate, with the child regarding the addiction, which is a kind of disease. Unless it is literally a misused Rx, do not call it “medicine.” And if that is the case, you can only really discuss such nuanced distinctions when she is old enough to ask about it and able to understand – heroin vs methadone vs fentanyl vs oxycontin. That probably would not be possible until her later teenage years.

Here’s one reason why – suppose you have an aunt who has cancer, and the chemo she had to take made her lose her hair permanently and even worse, she has an ostomy bag. People telling you, she got very sick and the medicine she took made those things happen to her, will leave a child terrified of getting sick and having to take medicine. The language used needs to be MUCH more specific. Don’t talk down to kids. Always go as specific, whenever possible, as you are able to.

Another example of why you have to be careful about switching words to describe something. While you may feel like it softens the blow to use the word medicine instead of drugs, consider when the child is four and the doctor prescribes medicine for an ear ache. Say someone dear is diagnosed with breast cancer, the child should not be told it is a boo boo. That is a terrible idea. So, explain that her mother takes drugs. Of course, the child will ask harder questions as she gets older, but it will also be easier to explain the situation more specifically then, however it has become by then.

Another possibility is to take that original explanation, leave the word medicine out of it and stay with the mom is going through a hard time. And call the issue what it is directly – drugs, plain and simple. Explain what drugs are and how they can affect someone. Drugs are not something you should ever shield any child from.