Actually Birth Mother Fits

Me and my Sons in 2009

I’ve been thinking about writing on this topic recently and having learned that today is National Sons Day, I decided it was appropriate for me to just go ahead and write about my thoughts.

In adoption circles, “birth mother” is no longer the preferred term for a woman who gives up her child to be adopted by strangers never to see that child again. These women increasingly prefer first or natural mother for their role in their birthed children’s lives. For many, some kind of reunion takes place after the child has reached an age of maturity. Such reunions are becoming common place. Some are happy and others are heart-breaking.

When I embarked on my journey to discover my own genetic roots back in 2017, I really didn’t know much about adoption. In fact, it was the most natural thing in the world for me and my sisters because both of our parents were adopted. They really had almost no idea of where they came from and varied from one to the other regarding how they felt about the situation. Now I know what my parents didn’t know the day they died, I know who their parents were and a bit about each one of them.

Back in 1998, when my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, he surprised me with the announcement that he wanted to become a father after all. I had become a mother in 1973 within my first marriage. He had always been glad I had been there, done that, no pressure on him. Now he was instigating the unthinkable and it proved to be almost undoable as well. We tried all of the advice and used ovulation predictors but could not achieve success. A nurse practitioner in my GPs office referred me to her own OBGYN who delivered the good and bad news to us. I had an egg developing that would prove to be my very last. He gave me a shot of something or other to give it a boost but to no avail. At that same initial meeting he told us there was another way for us to become parents – donor eggs.

We found our donor and everything was simply agreements between the three of us. The first son was the only successful pregnancy out of 4 that the doctor tried to assist that year. We had no idea he had so little experience. We also never anticipated that inexpensive DNA testing would come along or prove so popular and accessible. While still in the maternity ward, recovering from a necessary c-section due to me being positive for hepC to prevent transmission to my baby, my husband was already saying – “Let’s do it again.” We had some leftover embryos and tried that but it failed.

We weren’t certain our previous donor would agree to “do it again” but to our undying gratitude she did and we were by then at a very experienced clinic in Las Vegas with a doctor who’s reputation for success was very reassuring and we did – succeed. We now have two sons that are fully genetic and biological siblings and they are wonderfully close and appreciative of each other. Each one has some of my husband’s traits but each one is also very individualistic. The older one has an artist’s soul and has gifted us with many dvds starring himself and his brother as reminders of their childhood days. The younger one turns out to have a genius IQ and a natural aptitude for composing music and takes to all things computer oriented like a fish in water.

Thankfully, we never hid the boys method of conception from them but we never made a big deal about it either. We have visited with the donor on more than one occasion but distance and financial constraints have prevented us from getting together for quite a few years now. Enter Facebook. Thanks to social media I remain in contact with her and the events that take place with her and my son’s half siblings born to her. I show my sons photos of them when appropriate.

One day, I discovered she was doing 23 and Me. I had also done that DNA testing as had my daughter and my nephew and assorted relatives from my original grandparents that I have since made contact with. So that year, I gifted my husband with a 23 and Me kit. Then with the older son turning 18, I gifted him with a kit and decided to go ahead and gift the younger one as well, so that all was reconnected on a genetic basis. This also allowed us to reiterate the boy’s conception stories to them now that they were mature enough to understand them fully.

So, this brings a unique circumstance into all of our lives. At 23 and Me, the egg donor is shown as the boys “mother”. Neither myself nor my daughter nor any other genetic relatives of mine are shown as related to my sons. Only the younger one has expressed any sadness that we are not genetically related but the truth is, they simply would not exist nor be who they are any other way and they have a happy life as near as I am able to judge that. We have a happy family as well. Generally, I’m not very public about this because I don’t want people to be cruel to my sons but it is the truth and I am able and willing to face that. The egg donor is available now to each boy privately via the messaging system at 23 and Me, if the boys want that, and I’ve told them both she is willing to receive any contact they wish to initiate. She has always shown a caring perspective about them, while understanding with phenomenal clarity about her limited role in their lives.

So where does that leave me as their mother ? Birth mother fits pretty well because by golly I carried each boy in my womb for 9 months and they each nursed at my breast for just over a year. We have never been separated as mother and child such as occurs in adoption. I am the only “mother” they have ever known and I love hearing them refer to me as “mom”. We are very close, I do believe, though the older one is now 20 and forging a bit of independence. We did not fully foresee all of the ramifications of our decision to conceive them at the time we made that decision – we were not inclined to adopt someone else’s baby – and so, we used the only method available to us and I am grateful we were successful because from what I know only about half of all couples who try this method are successful.

While I may not have been fully aware of all the effects of our decision, having these two boys has been a tremendous gift. When my genetic, biological daughter was only 3 years old, I was forced by financial hardship to allow her to be raised by her dad, who subsequently remarried a woman with a daughter and together they had yet another daughter. My daughter has half and step siblings in a yours mine and ours family. I was unable to give her a family life during her childhood and by the time I married this husband she was well along into high school. Never-the-less we are as close as most mothers and daughters may be but without very much childhood history, which I recognize I have lost and can never regain.

I considered myself a failure as a mother and though I’ve done a lot of soul searching over the years, I still do feel that way in regard to my lack of mothering her. I failed her and the effects have been somewhat similar to what adoptees experience within her own life. I am grateful she doesn’t hate me for it. She seems to understand the situation I found myself in at the time. What these boys have given me is proof that I am not a failure as a mother and for that I will always be grateful. It is my hope my sons will always be grateful for the life they have. Some donor conceived persons struggle with their reality. I understand this now, though I didn’t know then what I know now about so many of the messy complications of life.

Seeking To Clarify The Story

Recently a friend alerted me to a writing contest, called the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize that is hosted by The Missouri Review (my home state), that will pay $5,000 to winners in the Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry categories along with a few other perks. At first, I really wasn’t going to add the distraction as I’m in the process of editing my two manuscripts. One is yet another revision of my adoption roots story. However, yesterday, I did a 180 on this. I need to condense down my almost 90,000 word manuscript to 8,500 words. The deadline is Oct 1st and so this is just a temporary distraction that may yet pay dividends for my effort to tell the story.

I realized that at this point in my process (I am almost done with my first read through to correct from a first person present narrative to a third person omniscient perspective and won’t say I’ve caught all of the outliers !!) that tightening up the story to the basic facts might be a good process. Certainly, $5,000 would be welcome and winning this year’s contest would open the door to getting the revised manuscript published. So, yesterday I began the effort in earnest.

I’ve told this story so many times, in so many ways. When sharing it vocally one-on-one with other people, there seems to be some interest. Unlike back in the early 1990s, when my mom was seeking to connect with the woman who gave birth to her (and was devastated to learn that she had died some years earlier) or at least receive her full adoption file from the state of Tennessee, I am seeing today, whereas in my mom’s push few adoptees made the effort, today attempts to create reunions are now common for adoptees and donor conceived persons.

Beyond that, many people are not well versed in their family genealogy and much of my own successful effort was not only connecting with living relatives from each branch of my family (both of my parents were adopted) but learning the stories of my ancestors – some of which stretched back prior to the American Revolution. I found connections to the Civil War that thankfully are balanced in my own personal history by northern Yankees and Danish immigrants in my other family line.

So, I am accepting this pause and this effort for the purpose of getting to the heart of the story of my own journey to know from whom and from where my own origins began.

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.

What Would The Answer Be ?

Why is it, when adoption comes up, that there are a majority of adoptive parents who will say “Well, what was I supposed to do…just accept that I couldn’t have a baby?” What do you want an adoptee’s answer to you to be ? Just take someone else’s kid ? I get that people want children, but is it another person’s job to supply a child for you ?

Life is not fair. If you didn’t complete your degree, do you say – what am I supposed to do ? Would other people tell you to just go and take someone else’s degree off the wall ? Why isn’t it your job, to give all of the money you have, to the people who are poor ? Or leave your current job, so someone who is unemployed can have it instead ? Would you take your dream home and give it someone who is homeless to live in ? How about that fancy car ? Should you hand the keys over to someone without one ?

Sometimes, life requires us to accept something that is true but that we sincerely don’t want to be part of our reality. Certainly, modern medical science does have some solutions that allow previously infertile women to conceive a child using assisted reproductive techniques. Not only is adoption in the process of being reconsidered and reformed but the medical approaches are as well. Not only are adoptee searches all the rage these days – and many of those searches have successful outcomes with the photos from these reunions making my own heart happy when I see them – but people who were conceived using donor sperm or donor eggs (or both) are discovering that the anonymity that was once standard, leaves them with the same black hole of genetic identity and lost familial medical history that adoptees in closed adoptions have been contending with since the beginning of adoption, which adoptees started pushing back against as early as the 1990s. Now donor conceived persons are pushing back against similar issues.

What sometimes gets lost in these conversations is that people are not inanimate objects like a university degree, employment, a person’s acquired wealth (whether by inheritance or hard work) or the home they bought to live in, the car that transports them wherever they want to go. Actually considering the reality that a child is not a commodity. In their desperate attempt to acquire a child to fill their own unfilled need, the humanity of that child and their birth mother is sometimes lost. That reality that these are human beings with feelings and emotions needs to be carefully reconsidered. You won’t die if you never have a child but you could utterly ruin two other lives in the process of taking someone else’s child – the birth mother’s and the adoptee’s lives – for the remainder of their personal lifetimes. Yes, reunions do relieve some of that long-held sorrow but you cannot recover or make up for the time or relationship development that was lost in the interim.

It’s A Fundamental Human Right

I certainly understand the need to know. I believe one of the purposes that I came into this lifetime was to heal some missing family history. I believe because I was aligned with my dharma, doors opened and answers revealed themselves. That black hole void beyond my parents became whole with ancestors stretching way back and into Denmark and Scotland as well as the English and Irish.

I believe in the principle that it’s a fundamental human right to know one’s genetic identity. I remember once talking to a woman who was trying to understand why it mattered that both of my parents were adopted if they had a good life. As I tried to explain it to her, she suddenly understood. She took her own genetic ancestry for granted because she knew that if she had any reason to want to know, she could discover all the details.

Not so for many adoptees with sealed and closed records (which was the case with my parents adoptions) and not so for donor conceived people whose egg or sperm donors chose to remain anonymous – many doing it for the money – and walking away from the fact that a real living and breathing human being exists because of a choice they made. Today, inexpensive DNA testing has unlocked the truth behind many family secrets. Some learn one (or both) of the parents who raised them are not their genetic parent from a DNA test. A family friend might tell a person mourning the death of their dad at his funeral, that their father suffered from infertility and their parents used a sperm donor to conceive them.

These types of revelations can be earth shattering for some people. I’ve know of someone recently who was thrown that kind of loop. The process of coping with such a revelation is daunting and life-changing regardless. Even for my own self, learning my grandparents stories has changed my perspectives in ways I didn’t expect, when I first began the search into my own cultural and genetic origins.

There is a term for this – misattributed parentage experience (MPE). It has to do with the fact that you did not grow up knowing your genetic parent.  That word – experience – best describes the long-term effects. It is not an “event,” a one-time occurrence. The ramifications of MPE last a lifetime to some degree.  I know how it feels, trying to get to know people, who have decades of life experience that I was not present for or even aware of. It is not possible to recover that loss. One can only go forward with trying to develop a forward relationship and whatever gems of the past make themselves known are a gift.

There are 3 primary communities with MPE in their personal histories.

[1] Non-paternity event (NPE): those conceived from an extramarital affair, tryst, rape or assault, or other circumstance

[2] Assisted conception: those conceived from donor conception (DC), sperm donation, egg donation, embryo donation, or surrogacy

[3] Adoption: those whose adoption was hidden, orphans, individuals who’ve been in foster care or are late discovery adoptees (LDA), etc.

There are also 3 primary topics for raising awareness and developing reform efforts – education, mental health and legislation. Right To Know is an organization active on all of these fronts and issues. They are advocates for people whose genetic parent(s) is not their supportive or legal parent(s). They work to promote a better understanding of the complex intersection of genetic information, identity, and family dynamics in society at large.

Seeking Ever More Accuracy

Years ago, the phrase NPE was coined to generally mean when the expected parent or parents weren’t.

  • NPE means nonpaternal event, also sometimes nonparental event.
  • Some folks didn’t like that term and began to use MPE, misattributed paternal event or misattributed parentage.

Of course, today, this situation could arise as a result of an adoption, a donor situation, either male or female, or the more often thought-of situation where the father isn’t who he’s presumed/believed to be based on the circumstances at hand.

There is one in my family. My sister never let on, even though I was supporting her through an unplanned, unwed pregnancy and was aware of her decision to surrender her child to adoption and was in on her thoughts as she made a decision on which hopeful adoptive parents to chose. For many years, I had a little lockbox in keeping for my nephew which I finally gave him in late 2016.

Imagine my own shock when his adoptive mother informed me that they were questioning the official paternity on his birth certificate. The DNA didn’t seem to add up. She was one of those good adoptive mothers who supported her adopted child’s search for the truth of his origins.

The actual father, proven by advanced DNA testing due to some uncertainty over which brother the father actually was, turned out to be my dad’s friend and former co-worker. What is worse is what I learned subsequently – that my sister actually did know who the father actually was. She informed him 6 months after the boy was born as though he had only just been born. Then, when the father indicated he was going to sue for custody because he never agreed to the adoption, very early in the morning on one Father’s Day, she called to tell him his son and the adoptive parents had been killed in a car accident. Imagine his father’s shock when this son turned up on his doorstep already in his 20s.

So, my sister is genuinely mentally ill. I don’t excuse this behavior even so. One can’t make these things up and it happens more often than one might think.

So, as the whole adoption related community (adoptees, original parents and adoptive parents joined by a whole host of friends and related family) seeks more accurate terminology, NPE has now been replaced by MPE – misattributed paternal event.

Inexpensive DNA testing and matching sites like Ancestry and 23 and Me are bringing truth into many adoptees lives, and in cases such as my own as the child of two adoptees, and has made all the difference in making us whole, in contact with our genetic origins and often with family members who’s lives continued to unfold, unknown to us, due to the rupture forced by adoption on the original family trees.