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.

Infant Saviors

My oldest son at age 4. There are probably baby pictures somewhere but didn’t find them easily on my hard drive. The point here is that I have often referred to him as “my savior”. That is because trying to conceive him alerted me to a danger I didn’t know was lurking in my body – hepatitis C. Had I not gone down that road and been subjected to numerous lab tests, I would have continued drinking alcohol – sometimes to excess. The genotype I have is unlikely to progress and so I have chosen not to embark upon the treatment which is expensive and would disable me for months in attempting the cure. He is now 20 years old and I am healthier than ever, though my almost 67 year old body is showing me signs of wear and tear – especially my knees.

Today, I learned about Megan Culhane Galbraith’s new book The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, which will be published on May 21 and can be pre-ordered now at bookshop.org. An excerpt appears in Severance magazine. As I turn to reading the article myself, I will acknowledge that some people adopt infants to save their marriage and outcomes would indicate that is more often than not – unsuccessful. Others adopt infants thinking THEY are the saviors and that without them the child would fare badly in life and that is generally NEVER true as well.

Galbraith’s book is identified as creative nonfiction. The book is described as experimental in form and structure. It is a memoir but much more. A striking visual art project, an intellectual inquiry into the nature of memory, and a frightful window on the failures and brutalities of the American system of adoption. The book is the origin story of a girl who had three mothers before she was half a year old and the experience of the woman she grew to be, who, only during her own pregnancy, was overwhelmed by the need to know her history and learn about her first mother. The author’s meditations on the nature of identity, her compulsion toward self-erasure, and her fear of abandonment likely will resonate with adoptees.

Snippets from the excerpt that you can read more fully at the Severance link above –

“It is incredible how few concrete details I needed to feel connected across time.” . . . “I began to think about who I was at nineteen—a virgin for starters—and how incomprehensible it would have been to become a mother when my own future felt like it was just beginning.” . . . “What struck me most was that my birth mother had cared enough to update my file.” “within the last ten years” to alert her that she was a DES granddaughter.

Diethylstilbestrol (DES) was a drug given to women during their pregnancy. DES was a synthetic form of estrogen given to women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage. The daughters of women who used DES were forty times more likely to develop cancers of the cervix and vagina. Galbraith goes on to note – “The drug’s side effects were known to skip a generation, meaning, they may have affected me—or worse my unborn child. Late-onset and irregular periods were one side effect for DES granddaughters like me. I didn’t get my period until I was sixteen: my biological mother got hers at around eleven. Other risks included infertility, cancer, congenital disabilities, and fewer live births.”

Against The Odds

A little over 20 years ago, after 10 years of marriage, my husband decided he wanted to become a father after all. True, he had been glad I had already given birth to a daughter, so there was no pressure on him because I had already been there, done that. Imagine my surprise when over a couple of Margaritas at a Mexican restaurant, he told me “I’ve been thinking” and my mouth actually dropped open in utter amazement. When I recovered from my own shock, I said OK.

We had seen a news clip that women who conceive at an older age live longer. I was 44 years old at the time. My GPs nurse practitioner during a counseling session over my cholesterol levels learned I was trying to conceive (we’d been doing all the usual things – timing intercourse, ovulation predictors and pregnancy tests – to no avail). She said to me, “I’m not saying you are infertile but at your age, you have no time to waste” and referred me to her own fertility specialist who was also an OB.

The night before our appointment, we saw another news clip that indicated my chances of conceiving were technically zero due to my age. I remember going to the place alongside the perennial stream that flows past our house to the gravel bar where I married my husband. Hugging our witness tree, I cried because my husband married a woman too old to give him what he was now wanting.

At the doctor’s office, we saw the very last egg in my ovary on ultrasound. The doctor gave us some kind of shot to give it a boost but it failed to produce a pregnancy. While we were there, he said to us – there is another way – and described donor egg technology to us. We utilized a website for matching couples with women volunteering to donate their fertile eggs. We selected one that my husband noted, one of her answers matched my own philosophies in life. She turned out to be a good choice. A mother with 3 children already of her own. She has donated to at least one other couple we know of but we do not know the outcome of that effort for not all assisted reproductive technology efforts succeed. In my online cycle group, only about 50% did.

The doctor in the town our donor was living in at that time did 4 procedures that year with only one success – ours.

Having now learned about the way an infant bonds with its mother in the womb, I’m grateful we rejected adoption as our means to becoming parents. Our donor subsequently donated a second time to help us conceive our second son. Therefore, our two sons are fully genetically and biologically the same – and yet very different people. They have their natural father as a mirror as well. Each of them is some part but not wholly the same as their dad. I marvel that I must love my husband a lot to want 3 of him – though of course, as I just acknowledged that is not 100% the truth.

At some point I became aware of a woman in my Mothers Via Egg Donation online support community who was researching a book. It is titled Creating Life Against The Odds – The Journey From Infertility To Parenthood. The author is Ilona Laszlo Higgins MD FACOG. For contributing our experience to her research, I was given a signed copy of her book. She wrote in the title page – “To Deborah and Stephen who undertook this special journey to bring Simeon and Treston into their lives! With love, Lonny”

Today, my oldest son celebrates his 20th birthday. I have referred to him as my savior because it was in trying to conceive him that I discovered I was positive for hepatitis C. Otherwise, I may have destroyed my liver without ever knowing this virus was there by drinking too many alcoholic based drinks. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since learning about it.

I had to fight with the doctors at the hospital where my c-section took place 20 years ago today to be allowed to breastfeed my son. The lactation consultants there came to my defense. I nursed him for over a year (and at 18 months, each boy tested negative for the hepC virus). When he was about 3 months old, we embarked on a long journey that eventually caused us to traverse through about half of these United States in the Eastern part of the continent. I nursed him in public everywhere we went and to be honest, I had the right kind of clothes to do so with subtlety.

I share all of this to encourage women struggling with any kind of infertility to consider this method. Your baby will be born to the woman in who’s womb the baby grew, who’s heartbeat and internal processes has been the background noise of its development, who’s voice the baby has always known. This is all every baby that is born desires in life – to be with its natural mother. My sons do not have my genes but in every other way, no other person is more their mother than I am.

Not long ago, I read an essay by a woman with a great attitude. She was donor conceived. She accepts that she would simply not be who and how she is any other way. It is my hope that my sons will also understand their origins with that clarity of acceptance. It isn’t all that different than my own self understanding that if both of my parents had not been given up for adoption, I would not exist.

Sometimes the honest truth is the best. We have always been truthful with our sons without making a big issue about their conception. With the advent of inexpensive DNA testing, I’m glad we chose the path often referred to in donor conception support groups as “tell”. Their donor did 23 and Me. Then, I gifted my husband with a kit, then my oldest son with a kit and finally my youngest son with a kit. The youngest one was only slightly disappointed that he didn’t have any of my genes. But I am still “Mom” to him and we remain very close at heart – where it truly does matter.

Losing A Mom

Many of us have lost our mothers.  Whether we had her for a short time, almost no time at all, like my paternal grandmother who lost her own mother at age 3 mos.  Or whether we had her for a bit longer, like my maternal grandmother who lost her own mother at age 11.  Or whether we had her for much longer.  I lost my mother in 2015 at the age of 61.

My mom carried a deep unhealed wound that was caused by the unintended (unintended by her own mother) separation from her mother when she was exploited due to financial desperation.  When my mom tried in the early 1990s to get her origins information and reach out for contact with her original parents, she was told her mother had already died and that devastated her.

There was an emptiness that my mom carried her whole life and it was real and not imagined.  She was alone in a real sense with the issues that her life presented her with and we all are in reality.

Death is inevitable.  I accepted that almost 20 years ago when I learned I was positive for hep C but would never be treated for that.  Even though I knew nothing about my original grandparents and my own parents were still alive, my OB said he was more worried about my heart than my liver.  It seems he was intuitive.

Having now located who all 4 of my original grandparents were, I also know they all died of heart related causes.  Both of my own parents also died of heart related causes.  So I have to take my own health seriously in the aspects related to that.

Even so, no one can save my life.   We are all born to die and the timing of our death is never known until it is upon us.  What matters to me is the quality of the lifetime that I have available to me.  I do my best to honor that gift.

Labor Day

Globally, today is known as Labor Day (although celebrated later in the year in the United States).  I know that usually, Labor Day, relates to paid work but women do the work of Labor all the time.

Every child at this time in human evolution comes into the world through a woman’s womb.  Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World anticipated huge scientific developments in reproductive technology.  And in fact, in my lifetime such developments made it possible for me to give birth at ages 47 and 50.  In Huxley’s novel, citizens are engineered through artificial wombs (which I am happy we have not evolved to yet) and childhood indoctrination programs that sort them into predetermined classes (or castes) based on intelligence and labor demands.

I found pregnancy mostly delightful.  Not everyone does.  And always my labor was not unfortunately memorable.  With my first pregnancy at age 19, my water broke and I was taken to the hospital quickly.  My doctors were busy in surgery at a different hospital.  I was managing my labor just fine but they knocked me out.  I woke up in the delivery room briefly to see my doctor putting on his gloves.  The next thing I knew, I was being wheeled down a corridor and a nurse was showing me a baby and telling me that I had a daughter.  I was so certain I was having a son, she had to tell me three times.  I did see my family’s resemblance in the tiny infant.

Because the experience I had with my daughter was unsatisfying, with my oldest son’s pregnancy I took Bradley classes, wanted to give birth naturally at home with a midwife (which at the time was illegal in my state of Missouri).  It was not to be because just before he was conceived, I also learned I was positive for the hepatitis C virus.  Research had determined we could prevent transmission with a caesarean section.  With both boys, that is what we did and they both tested negative at 18 months old.  A mother does what a mother has to do for her child, not for her own gratification.

For some mothers, going into labor ends their relationship with their child – either because the baby is stillborn (a real tragedy but nature’s way in some cases) – or because the mother is surrendering her child to someone else to raise (also a tragedy but of a different sort).

There are many adoptive parents who celebrate receiving a child in this manner and they would not agree with my perspectives but every adoption begins with a loss for someone else.