It’s my 68th birthday and besides the usual busyness amongst so much sorrow and reasons for global level concern, I’m a bit short on time too. So sharing this worthy blog from my adoptee friend, Ande –
I have been asked if I think losing a parent is the same as being adopted. No, it is not. Plenary adoption is the legal loss of identity, history, family.
Being adopted also does not mean you won’t then lose one of your Adoptive parents. Many of us do. Some to death, like I did. Others to divorce or the end of a relationship. Then, if we are able to find out who our parents are, many of us discover that they are dead, or emotionally unavailable.
People who, while still children, have lost a parent to death know that this is a pain other do not understand. The only people I have ever met who understand what that was like for me, are people who also had a parent die.
But it’s not the same as the pain of adoption.
I have lived for almost forty years with a person whose father walked away when he was a small child. I know from talking with and observing him that this loss has had a profound impact on his life. I do not in any way want to invalidate that loss. It is real, and it is painful.
It’s just not, the same. Adoption is another layer of trauma that non-adoptees do not understand. Please grant us the same respect you wish for us to show your lived experience.
We feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in. At such moments we feel humiliated, exposed and small and are unable to look another person straight in the eye. We want to sink into the ground and disappear. Shame makes us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light.
I came upon the powerful graphic above yesterday and felt there was more that I could personally say about it. On my Facebook profile page yesterday, I shared – I have owned up to this before. I had an abortion at the age of 23 or so – mid 1970s. I am glad it was safe and legal. I was not being reckless. I was driving an 18-wheeler with a partner. Our dispatcher didn’t get us home to where my pharmacy was in time and I ended up pregnant. Neither he nor his family were the kind of people I would be glad to have been tied to through a child today. At the time, I had breakthrough bleeding. My ex-SIL and ex-BIL had a child with serious birth defects. I just felt the pregnancy was not progressing normally. Also, to be honest – I didn’t want to commit my life to 7 more months of going it alone with no financial support. I’ve never regretted it but pro-Life propaganda has definitely haunted me. In writing this, I searched my memory for all of the reasons why I chose that course of action.
The mothers and women in my family, and to whom I am genetically related, chose other courses of action. Back in the 1930s, the mothers of both of my own parents, chose to carry their pregnancies, spent the first few precious months with their babies, and one way or another lost that first child to adoption. I wrote, and it was true, “I didn’t want to commit my life to 7 more months of going it alone with no financial support.” In some people’s minds I was simply being selfish and I will accept that judgment, though in truth I have no regrets about doing what I did and for the reasons I did it at the time.
Yet, I felt enough shame for having chosen a different path (both of my sisters carried unplanned pregnancies to term but also gave their babies up for adoption) that it was a long time before I admitted to anyone what I did earlier in life. It was my private decision which no one but the circumstances influenced. Maybe influenced in no small measure by the legality and safety of the choice at the time. Only as Roe v Wade has come under increasing opposition have I started sharing my own story of what it was like to have made that choice and my gratitude that I had it available to my own self when I felt I needed that.
The father of my own conception made it clear he would not stand by me if I chose otherwise but I don’t think that was my major motivation. In reflecting on my statement that I would have had to “go it alone” above, I also know my parents supported one of my sisters throughout the pregnancy and then, remarkable to me now that I know more about adoption in general, my own adoptee mom coerced my sister into giving up the baby she wanted to keep and then, encouraged a lie to me that the baby had died. Intuitively, I knew it had not and concocted fantastical stories about what had actually happened to the baby believing it had been stolen and taken into Mexico (my sister had delivered at a hospital in El Paso TX very near the national border). Because of this, my mom finally admitted her truth regarding the whole situation to me.
Many women bear a cross – maybe they suffer their whole lives knowing their child is out there somewhere out of their own reach. Many of these original mothers suffer a secondary infertility and never have another child. Many struggle as single mothers to keep and raise their child. Our society does nothing to help them. My sister actually sought financial support during her pregnancy but was denied it based upon our parents financial condition. It was not my parents seeking financial support but my sister and not in increase my parents financial condition either.
After I divorced the father of my first child, I had to go to work and that meant child care. When one “family style” child care that she loved at first became a tearful battle, I left work to check on her and discovered through the window of a half door, an older child bullying her and no adults in sight. I pulled her out that day. I often had to go to my mother to beg $20 to make it through to payday. She never denied me but financially it was always difficult. At the time I divorced her father, he told me he would never pay me one cent of child support because I would just party with the money. Such a horrible perception he had of my own integrity and ethics. I didn’t want to spend my life in court fighting him for it even though the judge insisted in awarding me $25/mo “in case” I changed my mind and wanted to seek an increase. I never did. Instead, I left my daughter with her paternal grandmother while I tried to build a financial nest egg for the two of us by seeing if I was capable of driving an 18 wheel truck cross-country.
I always intended to return for her and would have never given her to her father to raise but his mother did that. He remarried a woman with a child and then they had a child together. Unintended consequences of financial desperation. And now, in a sense my story has come full circle, my shame – not even listed above – is that I gave up raising my child for financial reasons. Back when she was in day care, I couldn’t hardly answer the pediatrician’s questions, because she was away from me all day. After her father and step-mother raised her, I struggled to find birthday cards for her that reflected the lack of a daily, physical relationship I had with her. There were no role models for an absentee mother back in the mid-1970s, even though the absentee father was a standard reality.
Shame. Oh yes, I am well acquainted with it. As my daughter knows, I have struggled to find peace with not having “stuck it out,” as my own mother said to me that she would have done, to do the right thing by my daughter. It is a work in process. Recently, I reflected on all the things I did right by her in the brief early years she was physically under my care. I told her, I realize that when I was mother to you, I was a good one. And the abortion ? I atoned for it, by giving up my own genetic connection to have two egg donor conceived sons (same donor both times), that my husband might be able to have the children he desired, even as we both realized I had gotten too old to conceive naturally. Even so, they are now almost 18 and 21 years old. They have proven to me that I can “mother” children 24/7 throughout their own childhoods. At least I have no shame in that. I even breastfed both until they were just over 1 year old. I also have the knowledge that I didn’t put adoption trauma onto the fetus I aborted early in that pregnancy.
The closed, sealed adoption records of yesterday are much easier to pierce with today’s inexpensive DNA testing. Today’s story from Severance Magazine.
It begins this way – in 1967, I’d given birth to my first-born child in an unwed mothers maternity home in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had been a typical 17-year-old high school senior with plans for the future that evaporated overnight. In the sixties, it was considered close to criminal for a girl to become pregnant with no ring on her finger. The father of my child had joined the Army, preferring Vietnam to fatherhood. After my parents discovered my shameful secret, I was covertly hurried away and placed in an institution for five months. There, I was expected to relinquish my baby immediately after giving birth to closed adoption and I was repeatedly assured my child would have a better life without me. After his birth, I was allowed to hold my son three times. My heart was permanently damaged when I handed him over the final time. The home allowed one concession—I could give my baby a crib name. I named him Jamie.
In the Spring of 2016, this woman and her husband submitted DNA tests to Ancestry.com. By October 2016, a ‘Parent/Child Match’ message popped up on her iPhone, causing me to stop me in my tracks, as my knees gave out from under me. After 49 long years, Jamie had found her. Who was he? Where was he? Would he hate me? How would this affect my life? My family? His family? She had always dreamed of finding Jamie but never thought past that point.
She relates – that night I heard my son’s voice for the first time. The wonder I felt when he said, “I know your voice” transformed me. In minutes, the secret of my son changed from fear of anyone knowing about him to wanting to shout out to the world, “My son has found me!” She also learned she had three new grandchildren. Within four days, her son flew from Louisiana to California to meet her. She describes that first meeting as magical. She says, “My son was back in my life, and suddenly I was whole.”
Due to severe depression brought on by the COVID pandemic as a messy divorce, the loss of his job, and unhealthy isolation began to destroy him, she worried from a distance. In February 2021, they had what would be their last conversation. Before hanging up, her son said, “I love you, Mom. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” Two days later, the son she had mourned for 50 years, the son who had found her, left her again. He took his own life. Now she had lost him twice and this time was forever. Even so, she cherishes that phone call.
She ends her story with this – “I wish I could speak to all the birth mothers out there, who continue to carry the shame and guilt that society placed on us. For those who refuse to allow their relinquished child back into their lives. I want to say I know your fear. I know your uncertainty. I lived it and still live it. It is deep-seated in us, regardless of the circumstances that resulted in us leaving our children. Please know if you are brave enough to welcome that lost child into your life again, you may create a peace and a bond worth all the fear and guilt. There is nothing quite like reuniting a mother and her child, and you may be giving a gift of connection to that child and yourself, as it should have been all along.”
This morning has been a learning experience for me. Infertility is a leading cause of adoption. One adoptee wrote – I find it hard to sympathize with infertility and I’m aware it’s because that was the only reason I was adopted by my adoptive parents. I’m angry because of the abuse I’ve suffered because of that issue. In the adoption community, women are counseled that they must deal with their mental and emotional issues related to infertility before choosing to adopt a child. An adopted child will never be a replacement for a baby you lost or failed to conceive. An adopted child was conceived and birthed by another woman who will always be that child’s first mother.
Is infertility a disability ? – turns out that legally it is.
In 1998, the US Supreme Court found in Bragdon v Abbott that reproduction is a “major life activity.” And the Court held that the risks of passing the disease to offspring constituted a “substantial limitation” on reproduction. Consequently, infertility met the ADA’s criteria as a disability.
According to the World Health Organization – Infertility has significant negative social impacts on the lives of infertile couples and particularly women, who frequently experience violence, divorce, social stigma, emotional stress, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. A diagnosis of infertility is determined as the inability to get pregnant after a year or more of trying. Infertility can trigger feelings of shame and a sense of failing to live up to traditional gender expectations. Infertility can strain romantic relationships that included the expectation of shared parenthood. (We watched the 2020 movie Ammonite last night which dramatizes that strain.)
The National Institutes of Health notes that – infertility could be a source of social and psychological suffering for women in particular. In some communities, the childbearing inability is only attributed to women, hence there is a gender related bias when it comes to a couple’s infertility.
Psychologists also must understand that infertility is a kind of trauma, often a complex trauma. Anxiety, depression, grief and loss are part of the psychological impact of infertility. There may even be more to the experience when defined by the individual. At the extreme, the process can be so stressful that a woman who undergoes fertility treatments may develop a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While defining infertility as a disability may have legal and medical applications, most women do not see their infertility as a disability. When I experienced secondary infertility, I never thought of myself as disabled. I simply had reached an age where my own fertility (I gave birth to a daughter at 19 and had a pregnancy aborted at age 22 or 23) naturally had ended. While it did make me sad that my husband now desired fatherhood after I was too old to gift him with that, I still did not think of myself as disabled. Women in my adoption community who have experienced infertility do not consider themselves disabled either.
Part of my learning experience today was learning about all the “baby” symbolic concepts that I didn’t know before. Angel baby always was understood by my heart. I find it interesting that a mom’s group that I have been part of for over 18 years initially gave our group the name Sunshine Babies because our babies were all born between April and August. Later, we simply changed that to Sunshine Moms. We knew nothing of the use of such words when we chose that concept as our group symbol. We never knew that word “sunshine” had a larger meaning outside of our group.. We all conceived via assisted reproduction. Therefore, a sunshine baby can have different meanings for different families.
My own daughter experienced a still birth prior to giving birth to my grandson and later my granddaughter. It was a sad and traumatic event to be certain. The terms acknowledge the complexity of pregnancy and infant loss as well as any pregnancies that follow such a loss. For those as clueless as I was before this morning – here are some commonly used phrases related to pregnancy outcomes.
The term rainbow baby refers to a baby born to a family after a miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. The concept of a rainbow baby relates to the concept of a beautiful rainbow appearing after a turbulent storm. The concept symbolizes hope and healing. I always have loved rainbows. After every storm there is a rainbow. A rainbow baby brings an unimaginable amount of joy and a sense of peace, knowing that you now have a beautiful, precious little baby.
The sunshine symbol is often used to refer to calm moments before a storm. Therefore, a sunshine baby is the child who was born before you encountered a loss. Your loss could be the result of a miscarriage which is defined as the loss of a pregnancy in the first 20 to 24 weeks. A sunshine baby represents hope. Their presence allows you to believe that you can conceive a baby successfully. Your sunshine baby is a reminder that you are fully capable of maintaining a pregnancy and delivering a healthy baby.
There are even more terms as well – a Golden baby: a baby born after a rainbow baby, a Sunset baby: a twin who dies in the womb (I did experience a “vanishing” twin in my first son’s pregnancy), a Sunrise baby: the surviving twin of a baby who dies in the womb.
If you have a biological child, you are simply lucky. Some people will never have that chance or will have had the opportunity to parent taken away from them by miscarriage or infant death. When an intractable infertility may become an awareness after a first pregnancy results in a loss. Some women will mourn that loss all the more, realizing that they will never, ever experience having a child of their own genetic biology. This can be extended as well to a birth mother who loses her child to adoption for whatever reason, especially if that mother never experiences a reunion with her child (as happened to both my maternal and paternal original grandmothers).
The truth is, when you lose a baby from any cause, you develop a permanent psychological scar. In some women, it is difficult to imagine that they will ever have another baby. Losing a baby can change a person’s dreams and hopes of any future that includes being a parent. Some people will tell you that you should just “get over it.” This is not helpful advice to extend to a bereaved parent. The overwhelming feelings experienced following a loss are normal. Usually with grief and sorrow, the intensity does lessen as time passes.
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.
No one ever told me that there was a cut-off point. I had been pregnant twice – gave birth once, had an abortion with the second one. Then, I remarried and after 10 years of marriage, my husband suddenly decided he wanted children after all. We had seen a news clip that women who conceive at an advanced age live longer. Then we saw another one maybe the next day that indicated my odds of conceiving were very low. We had been trying all the usual things, timing intercourse, using ovulation predictors. Nothing was working. And so we saw a doctor who worked in fertility issues recommended to me and he tried a injection that was supposed to boost my last egg which we had just seen on ultrasound. That didn’t work either. I was in my mid-40s at that point.
Yesterday, I spotted a link to an old 2016 article in The Guardian titled – “The foul reign of the biological clock“ by Moira Weigel. I think that is a good thing. Many women are unaware that their reproductive years are as limited and short as they naturally are. Personally, I think Mother Nature needs to catch up – save women who are immature and really too young from conceiving and extending the age at which a woman can conceive to be more equal to that of men. My having given birth with the help of reproductive assistance at 47 and 50 informs that perspective.
Moira writes – “Any relationship that does not ‘work out’ – which is to say, does not get a woman pregnant by a man committed to helping her raise their offspring – brings her closer to her expiration date. At the stroke of midnight, our eggs turn into dust.” Close to the truth that I found out for myself.
Female life came to be defined in terms of motherhood, or the failure to become a mother. The story of the biological clock is a story about science and sexism. It illustrates the ways that assumptions about gender can shape the priorities for scientific research, and scientific discoveries can be deployed to serve sexist ends. We are used to thinking about metaphors like “the biological clock” as if they were not metaphors at all, but simply neutral descriptions of facts about the human body. Yet, if we examine where the term came from, and how it came to be used, it becomes clear that the idea of the biological clock has as much to do with culture as with nature. And its cultural role was to counteract the effects of women’s liberation.
As a beneficiary of the woman’s movement of my mother’s generation and before, I had been granted the mandate to be a “super” woman – keep a marriage together and have children, while working full time and going to college part time to earn a degree. As for myself, I failed miserably. Ended up divorced, my daughter ended up being raised by her dad and step-mother, and I never got the college degree. Struggled financially all the time, until I met my second husband who stabilized my life with a business he owned that I could help manage and contribute directly to our financial support. We live in a paid for home in a beautiful, peaceful forest.
The psychologist Jean Twenge has pointed out that “millions of women are being told when to get pregnant based on statistics from a time before electricity, antibiotics, or fertility treatment.” Another problematic element of data on fertility is that, in general, the information we have comes from patients who visit doctors because they are experiencing fertility problems. As a result, it is difficult to assess what is going on with the population as a whole. How many couples are not conceiving because they do not want to? How many are using contraception? It is nearly impossible to control for all these variables.
Though I mention that woman should be able to conceive at an advanced age as men can, there is also some truth that they too have biological clocks that affect their ability to reproduce. Male fertility also declines with age. Since the 1980s, a large and growing body of research has shown that sperm counts, and quality, diminish over the years. The children of older fathers have much higher risk of autism and other complications than those of younger ones do. Often “old sperm” simply flail and perish around an egg they are trying to fertilize.
According to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, of couples seeking treatment for subfertility in the United States, 40% discover that the problem is being caused by the “female factor”, 40% of the time it is the “male factor”, and 20% of the time they cannot tell. Women and men are found to experience fertility problems at roughly equal rates.
What does all of this have to do with adoption ? Infertility is one of the main drivers of couples deciding to adopt. Certainly not the only one. Population concerns have been one. Religious imperatives to convert and educate the heathen masses to increase the number of Christians has certainly been on. A misguided belief that there are ALL these millions of children (“orphans”) with no family to love them is certainly a common one.
Some circumstances in life are just plain hard to judge. I understand the point of view of this adoptive mother, even so, where is the compassionate middle ground. I haven’t decided. Here is one adoptive mother’s point of view –
I had to discuss with my son’s biological mom that there are boundaries and if she wanted to be involved in any way then she needed to understand them and honor them. My son is MY son, not hers. We came up with a special name that we refer to her as. Never mom. Also we discussed social media. She is never to address him as her son. He is not her son. She is to call him by his given name. I understand that biological moms have to deal with the emotional aspect but so do the adoptive moms. She is no longer his mother. A mother is far more than giving birth. A mother raises you and puts you first. I am very close with his biological mom. I have a great relationship with her for my son’s sake and it was a surrender. She was not forced in any way. But she is not his mother any longer. I am. I accept her role in his life as a special person who loves him. But I am his mother, not her. And she understands and respects that. She is thankful that I allow her to be a part of our family. I didn’t take his mom away from him. She took her role as mom away from herself including by making bad choices and choosing drugs over parenting. I’m his mom and will always be. She will always be a special person in his life but never his mom. Advice to other adoptive moms – set boundaries and don’t let biological moms walk all over you. Let them know their role in the family now.
The person who revealed this mindset commented – I find this very sad and very controlling. What if the child decided one day to call his birth mom “mom” ? She can’t call him her son ? This is sad. Birth parents grieve too. They hurt too. Even parents from foster care. They grieve. They lost their child. I wish we can offer empathy to birth parents especially from foster care instead of looking down on them and using innocent children to hurt them and the child.
I do feel that putting a child in the middle of this situation isn’t fair to the child. The same kind of thing happens very often in divorce. I remember trying to walk that difficult middle ground. “You still have a mother who loves you. And you still have a father who loves you. But we are not going to all live together anymore.” Life is complicated enough. So how to simplify the situation suggested above ?
I do agree with this perspective – “I’m sure the only reason the biological mother agrees with this is so she can have something to do with her son. There is a difference between a ‘mom’ and a ‘mother’ but it is ultimately up to the child to decide how to view each one of these women. Not the biological mom or the adoptive mom.” These two should not be playing their own issues off with the child caught in the middle.
Someone else disagreed and I do see this point as well – No difference between a mother and mom to me. I have two moms and two mothers. Same difference. It’s not confusing. I see no reason to distinguish a difference or set them apart.
And in fact, this is a valid point – If it wasn’t for the biological mom, the adoptive mom wouldn’t even have her son in the first place. I don’t give a damn if the biological mother’s rights where legally severed, she is still his mom at the end of the day and always will be the woman who gave birth to him.
I am still seeking what I sense is an important middle ground. I understand the need for the adoptive mother to be the final say in most of what happens in this child’s life, to maintain her parental authority to make decisions – at least for a minor child. Yet, emotions and feelings are less clear. I believe that most children actually are capable of keeping the two women in a separate yet proper perspective. My heart tells me that is the truth.
What I am sensing is a possessiveness, an ownership of one person over the love of another person, by putting the magical role of motherhood into the middle of this situation. As the divorced mother of a daughter who’s step-mother married her father and so, the two of them raised my daughter, I already understand what a difficult balancing act these situations are. I did attempt to put my daughter’s feelings and interests ahead of my own. My daughter and I have discussed how similar her childhood was to that of someone who was adopted.
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.
I’m realizing a day late that yesterday would have been my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Her father died on Christmas Day in 1953, one year before I was born to his first grandchild, who he never even knew. I can imagine Christmas was not the usual kind of holiday for my Stark family but then I don’t really know. My mom was adopted away from them when she was 7 months old.
Relinquishing a child has lifelong consequences for women and for adoptees. Between 13–20% of birth mothers do not go on to have other children. For those in an era of birth control, a few may consciously feel that to have another child would be to betray the first child which they lost to adoption. For many, and especially in my grandmother’s generation, there was either no known reason for infertility or something about their life circumstances precluded having more children.
After receiving the adoption file from the state of Tennessee that they had previously denied my mother, only breaking her heart and motivation to search by informing her that her birth mother had died several years before, it took me forever to make real contact with one of my grandmother’s remaining family members – this one is a niece. She would actually be my mom’s cousin, that same generation of descendants. She is the warmest person and gave to me the gift my heart was yearning for, some intimate, personal memories of my grandmother along with this picture of her with her second husband.
In some belated post-Christmas communication with her today, I felt compelled to correct the seeming misperception that my mom was the child of the couple in this blog. Here was my reply –
My grandmother never had another child. My mom was her only child (and this is not uncommon among women who lose their first child in such a tragic manner). Her father appeared to have abandoned them, at least to my grandmother’s perception of events, though a super flood on the Mississippi River in early 1937 must have been a factor. My cousin that shares him as a grandfather with me, believes he cared deeply about family. So why did he not come to Memphis to rescue the two of them ? There is no one alive now that can answer that question for me and so, there it sits forever unanswered. Of course, once Georgia Tann knew about the precarious situation my mom and grandmother were in, she swooped in to acquire yet another human being to sell. Awful but a definite truth of it all. I am happy that my grandmother found happiness with her second husband after the divorce between her and my maternal grandfather occurred (and it didn’t happen until 3 years after they first married and my mom was already permanently beyond the reach of her original family).
She later corrected that “seeming” misperception, of course, she knew my mom was not this man’s child.
It is a tragic story. Why my grandfather left her after only 4 months of marriage, causing her to be sent away to Virginia to have my mom, there is no one left alive to tell me. Why my grandfather didn’t respond to the letter from the Juvenile Court at Memphis when my grandmother came back with her baby, there is no one left alive to tell me. My grandmother was so desperate to find a way to stop my mom’s adoption that she called Georgia Tann’s office 4 days after being pressured into signing the surrender papers, under a threat of having Tann’s good friend, Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, declare my grandmother an unfit mother (which she absolutely was not !!). Then, she took a train to New Orleans to prove to Miss Tann that she did have friends there who would take the two of them in resolving at least the issue of stability, even if only temporarily. Everything she tried to do, including taking my mom to Porter Leath orphanage for temporary care – FAILED tragically.
I have all of my original grandparent’s birthdates on my yearly calendar now. I wasn’t able to know them in life but I don’t forget them in death. Maybe someday in the nonphysical realm to which my grandparents (and adoptee parents) have all gone, I will meet them once again and receive the answers my heart cannot acquire in life.
Such an irresistible story, I just had to share it today. The story is “old” but still sweet. The baby that tore two Kentucky teen-agers apart 25 years ago united them in marriage in August of 1991. Mark Kitts officiated at the wedding. His adoptee effort to reunite with his birth parents prompted them to speak to each other again for the first time since his mother learned she was pregnant.
“I’ve always been in love with him,” Karen Caldwell said of her high school sweetheart and now husband, Roger Caldwell. “I’ve never been in love with anyone else.” Karen Waterfill was a 15-year-old Western High School cheerleader in 1966. Roger Caldwell was an honor student and a basketball player at the same high school but by then a freshman at the University of Kentucky.
This is so much like the story of my parents. My mom was a junior in high school and my dad was a freshman at the U of NM at Las Cruces when I took up residence in her womb. My story turned out happier (I believe) than their son Mark Kitts, though he has no complaints. My parents were also high school sweethearts – both of them adoptees – and they remained married for over 50 years until death did part them.
Karen was sent away to a Lexington home for unwed mothers. On Sept 11 1966, she gave birth to a boy. I will always be forever grateful that this didn’t happen to me and my own parents. It could have so easily been my story as well as that was the norm in the mid-1950s. “I remember him crying, but I never got to hold him,” Karen said. The baby was adopted within a week.
A few months after the birth, Roger Caldwell, who did not know the child’s birth date or sex, married another woman, joined the Air Force and left town. But he told his wife, whom he divorced in 1988 after they raised two children together, that he really loved someone else. Karen eventually would say the same thing to two husbands. About six months after the baby was born, Karen returned to the home to ask about him. They would tell her only that he had been adopted by “good people.”
This is so much like what happened to my mom’s mother with Georgia Tann who wouldn’t tell her anything about who adopted my mom or where she went.
Mark’s adoptive parents were Gene and Linda Kitts of Lexington, who adopted their second son, a baby they named Mark. In all, the Kittses, who lived in Louisville when this story was published, eventually had six children — five of whom are adopted and three of whom have found their birth parents. It was a search that the Kittses supported. Linda Kitts said that she often wondered about the women who gave birth to her children.
John Ellis was a mutual friend of the Caldwells in high school. Karen and Roger each quizzed Ellis about how the other was doing. Roger occasionally drove by Karen’s house, hoping she would be outside. Karen got dressed to go to the visitation after Roger’s mother died, but then changed her mind.
When Mark’s wife Dee-dee became pregnant, he start thinking about his own birth. He obtained a court order for the state to attempt to locate his birth mother. Karen Williams was married and living in Frankfort. She eventually agreed to meet Mark Kitts and to see whether Roger Caldwell would meet him as well.
They agreed to meet and discuss Mark’s request. So. Roger came to Kentucky and picked Karen up. The couple cried and talked, then began seeing each other every day. Their relationship went so smoothly that when they met Mark, he thought, “Wow, this is odd. This couple really gets along well.” Karen said it was like giving birth to Mark all over again. Only this time Roger was by her side.
Karen Caldwell also had a 22-year-old daughter and a grandchild living in Frankfort but she quit her job in Kentucky to marry Roger and move to Tennessee. Karen filed for divorce — something she says she had been considering anyway — and then Roger asked her to marry him. Three days after the divorce became final, Mark officiated at the couple’s wedding in Covington, Kentucky.
Mark said, “I’ve been very happy with my life. I don’t wish it was different. We’re trying to build a relationship on the future, not the past.”