Questioning an Adoptee’s Legitimacy

Today’s story features an adoptee who’s legitimacy to participate in end of life decisions is being questioned.

My adoptive mom has been hospitalized for three weeks. A few days ago I thought she may not make it. She is now improving but I got call from hospital social worker today saying her team of doctors wanted to have meeting with myself and my siblings about medical directives and end of life decisions. I have four brothers…all my mother’s bio kids. I am the only one adopted. Three of my brothers have not seen or visited my mother in over 14 years. Myself and my fourth brother care for her and she lives on our property next door and that brother lives with her in her home. I mentioned I was so much younger because I was adopted after my mother had remarried and had wanted a girl. The caseworker then paused and then started asking “So you said adopted. were you legally adopted? Was it done thru courts?” I immediately knew she was questioning my legal standing to have any say about my mother’s care….when I am the primary one who cares for her.

One adoptee notes – There are so many ways we are belittled and dismissed as not legitimate.

An estranged bio child can show up out of the blue, and nobody questions their relation. They wouldn’t demand that a non-adopted adult child show their birth certificate.

From another adoptee – I lost my adoptive mother 5 years ago, and when we all made the decision to have her go into hospice (which was mainly her own decision but she wanted all of our opinions on it), it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through (with her actual death being the only thing harder).  I didn’t realize how many feelings of abandonment would come rushing to the surface by losing her, and I truly wasn’t prepared for the trauma response that I had. I wasn’t *as* close to my adoptive mother as you are, but she was still my rock, and my first person that I called whenever something big happened in my life. She’s the reason I completely changed career plans at 29 years old and decided to go into healthcare. Her death inspired me to care for others in her position, and I now care for end of life oncology patients on an inpatient unit.

Another adoptee offers – The perspective I’m offering is that I understand the lady was dismissive and rude, but as an adoptee, I saw first hand that the reality is those questions are standard regardless of biological vs adopted. They have to establish legal representatives and so documents are often requested.

A person in a position to know adds – I work at an inpatient unit of a hospital. I have absolutely *never* had to ask a patient’s child for proof of relation. We *never* ask for a birth certificate, as a Power Of Attorney or Health Care Declarations are legal documents (and a person can name *anybody* their healthcare proxy, regardless of relation). When my adoptive mother died, her estate lawyer did not ask for proof that I was legally her child. 

I believe this really explains the issues – it does not matter WHY it’s done. It knocks you on your feet. It makes you feel like your family relationships are precarious. It can be overwhelming to have someone ask you this. The second they hear the word adoption, the words change. It could be innocent yes. It’s for our benefit most of the time yes. It still feels like the earth was pulled from underneath your feet.

With Privilege Comes Judgment

Growing up, I remember being told not to judge, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before judging them. I need to understand the other person’s experiences, challenges, thought processes, etc before judging their own personal choices or lived stories. It is true that judgments keep us safe, help us make friends, accomplish our goals, and all sorts of wonderful, important stuff.

The idea of privilege has become really controversial in some circles, even offensive. Usually the people who are offended by the idea of privilege are the people who have it. And when someone who has had some experience – maybe they have experienced being judged, as being inferior, because they were living in poverty, or they had a bad experience in foster care or in their childhood while being raised by adoptive parents – we should do our best to listen to their stories with compassion, realizing that because we did not have that experience ourselves, we cannot really know how bad it was for them. We need to simply give them the benefit of the doubt and open our heart to their pain and/or trauma.

So, too often when people are simply trying to share whatever awful experience they have lived through, someone will feel triggered and quickly counter this person’s lived experience with the words “not all” – which is simply meant to shut the person up and not allow them to revel their own experience honestly. Maybe you are a foster parent or an adoptive parent or do social work or work for the government in some kind of child welfare or government assistance office and you are feeling judged by the story you are hearing. You are desperate to point out that you are not one of those kinds of people yourself. And it’s wonderful if you are not. However, you should restrain yourself at such a time, take comfort and be confident in the knowledge that the story you are hearing is not about you but about the person telling it and their experience. Allow them to revel their own truth without dismissing it by inserting why you are such a good person (and in fact, maybe look long and hard at your own heart to determine is what it actually is that is being triggered. Is it your sense of being some kind of savior to some segment of humanity ?).

Privilege is something your life gives you that is good. By being able to see those aspects as a privilege, you should also be able to realize that you have had access to something that some other people didn’t.  Often in adoption land, as in real life, those with privilege and those in government service too often treat the underprivileged poorly and that is un-necessary. They have it hard enough without you piling on.

The truth is, adoptive parents hold the dominant view in society. Their perspectives rule when it comes to creating the perceptions that people with no experience with what adoption is like in general, believe it to be. Adult adoptees are too often either silenced or dismissed. Money rules. The financially privileged hold the power in society over the less fortunate – who are too easily overlooked or not seen at all. Adoption is almost always a case of allocating a child. Taking a child out of a poverty stricken family and placing that child into a rich one. Georgia Tann didn’t hide her belief that doing this intended engineering of a child’s life led to better outcomes for that child than leaving them in their original poverty-stricken family. So the truth is, money matters.

Just as it was with Georgia Tann, money continues to be the motivation in our modern times. There are people making a LOT of money by taking money from rich people, in return for giving them the opportunity to experience parenting. An experience that infertility or the tragic death of their biological child may have robbed them of. Money can buy you the opportunity to parent a child. Only people with money can afford a domestic infant adoption. This is the reality. And some determined people without financial good fortune will even set up a Go Fund Me page or some other kind of charity outreach to get the money to adopt a child. But the fact remains – the adoption industry is doing very well at generating a lot of revenue for itself.

Evolving Perspectives

Bernice Dittmer, 1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Dad with my Granny & Granddaddy

Losing My Grandparents

My Granny, My Dad and My Granddaddy

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

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

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

But I did.

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

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

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

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

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

The Influence Of Money

I am enough of a realist to know that the influence of money is not going away anytime soon.  Even so, in adoption, I believe it can be a corrupting factor.

Had it not been for cooking the books and overcharging the prospective adoptive parents, Georgia Tann’s crimes may never have been discovered.  When someone is making a lot of money off of an altruistic effort, it attracts attention.  It also buys protection as in the case of Tann and the Boss Crump political machinery in Memphis Tennessee.

I do believe that my dad’s parents probably paid less for him at The Salvation Army than my mom’s parents paid for her through Georgia Tann.  The Tennessee Children’s Home Society was careful not to document the money that was changing hands or was at least doing so in a very hidden way.  There is no doubt in my mind their eagerness to go looking for yet another baby after my grandparents had already adopted two must be an indication of a monetary motive.

In a novel I finished reading yesterday, there grew an awareness that the Catholic Church was making money selling babies.  I’ve no doubt that it is likely the truth.  Adoption is a kind of human trafficking that has the approval of society in general.  Who can object to people wanting to give unfortunate children a good home ?

But society has no interest to providing enough support for mothers to keep and raise their babies.  Something is terribly rotten in such a system of priorities.  The reason adoption records have remained sealed in most states in the US for so long is for the protection of the people who have the money – the adoptive parents.  Agencies, lawyers and social workers as well as the courts are all making money by taking the product of unfortunate young women and delivering babies to those who can afford to pay.

It was not lost on me in the recent NY Times article that the two men in a stable marriage who adopted out of Foster Care not only had no out of pocket expenses directly related to that but received subsidies for doing so.  This is where money actually helped the situation.

 

They Aren’t My Relatives

Even before I knew who my original grandparents were and something about their stories, back when I was cleaning out my deceased parent’s residence, I began to have an awareness that so much stuff my parents stored in their house as they were executors of their own adoptive parents estates, was not actually relevant to my life.  As a historian, it did pain me to send to the landfill tons of genealogy and binders full of personal recollections from a life of far flung traveling, because in reality, I’m not related to those people.

This awareness came back full force yesterday as my family has been going through an extreme phase of de-cluttering.  As I now approach my own 66th birthday, I seem to be even more able than ever to let a lot of irrelevant stuff go.

Of course, I do acknowledge those relationships that helped to shape me in my youth.  The adoptive grandparents and the aunts, uncles and cousins related to them had influence in my life and I do have fond memories of loving gestures and concern, as well as any opportunities that actually did come my way through these people.  There will always be a place in my heart for these people who chose to love and nurture my parents and because of them – for us who were the children and so were treated equally as being somehow “related”.  Though we weren’t, not really.

Now that I do know who my original grandparents were, it is these people who I think of as grandparents and there are new aunts but most of that ancestral level of relationship has already died and I’ll never be able to know them but second-hand through those who are my true cousins in a genetic sense.

While I honor and acknowledge the more direct relationships that came my way because of the adoption of my parents, the siblings and ancestors of those adoptive grandparents have lost all meaning for me.  I am simply not related to those persons and their familial history holds no interest for me any longer.

My mom belonged to Ancestry and found she had to quit working on the family trees that were based on the circumstance of having been adopted.  She said, “They just weren’t REAL to me.”  I understand.  In a short period of time, I have come to feel the same way.

Family Is Important

Whether genetically related or adoptive, family is important.  Both of my parents were adopted.  All of the “family” I knew growing up was not at all genetically related to me (beyond my mom and dad of course).  My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were actually not related to me.  I marvel at this now.

My adoptive grandparents were influential in my life.  No doubt about that.  My maternal grandmother lived in wealth and taught us good manners and what an abundant life might be like.  I remember fondly sleeping in my mom’s old canopy four-poster bed and coming to a breakfast table set impeccably.  My grandmother also made possible my only trip outside the United States beyond occasional forays into Juarez growing up on the Mexican border.  Thanks to her I had an experience of attending Clare College in Cambridge England.  She was metaphysical actually.  I learned that at some point and she expressed gratitude for her financial comforts by being generously charitable.

My paternal grandparents modeled hard work, entrepreneurial spirit and humble surroundings as well as country living as I was growing up in a dense suburban environment.  I remember going out into the cotton fields to pick boles and now know that my genetic maternal relatives (grandmother and grandfather lived such a life of necessity).  I remember harvesting food from their property – pecans, peaches and asparagus.  I remember the trains that traveled right across the street from their rural home.

I also believe I owe my granny (my dad’s adoptive mother) for preserving me in my parent’s loving care and not allowing my unwed high school mom to be sent off to have me and give me up for adoption.  Later on in life, my granny caused me to realize a romantic relationship I had been in for some years was not a healthy one and I left it.  Her questioning openned the way for me to meet and marry my husband and to have two wonderful sons with him.

The Better Option

There is such a thing as privilege.  It is a privilege to have enough wealth that if you can’t have a child naturally, you are able to adopt someone else’s.  Is wealth a better option than keeping a family intact ?  There are cases where a child is going to need a safer environment but no child needs to have their identity erased and cultural heritage hidden from them.

It is weird to grow up with all these relatives and then reach an age in advanced maturity when one knows who their true genetic relatives are.  Both of my parents were adopted.  That means the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were never really my relations.  It is a very weird feeling to know that with certainty now.

Of course, I acknowledge that there were these couples who provided for and raised my parents.  They were the people I knew as grandparents growing up and they were without a doubt influential in my life.  Now that I know who the real ones were, they are who I think of when I think of who my grandparents were, even though I never had the privilege of knowing them in life.

One of the expectations is that an adoptee is supposed to be grateful and acknowledge all the sacrifices their adoptive parents made to raise them.  On the adoptees part there is this lifelong requirement to live up to the expectations of the adoptive parent.  I know that my mom felt this and I know that she felt like she had failed to equal those expectations.

All parents expect something from their children but most children are quite free to ignore those parental expectations.  An adoptee often fears being returned to a no-family state if they don’t live up to the expectations of the people who purchased their very lives.

It may be hard to read but it is a real thing for those who’s roots have been cut off from underneath them.

Not Real

This is complicated.  It is weird growing up knowing your grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins are not really related to you.  That is what it is like when BOTH of your parents were adopted.  Adoptees experience adoption as individually as any two people experience reality.

My mom had to stop creating the family trees on Ancestry because she said to me, it just isn’t real.  She somewhat hollowly said she was glad she was adopted but I knew from long years as her confidant that wasn’t totally true.  She was glad that as a Georgia Tann baby she didn’t end up in worse circumstances.  She ended up in a wealthy home with privileges.

So much so, that when she conceived me with a boy that came from very humble beginnings, her parents really felt disappointed that she had married below her class.  My adoptive grandparents never shared family holidays until I was well into maturity and then I only remember one occasion when the 3 of them were all present for one Thanksgiving (my mom’s adoptive father having died long before that time).

While my adoptive grandparents certainly played their roles for real and had an enormous impact on all of our lives, now that I know the truth of who my parent’s original parents were, that is who I think of when I think about my grandparents, even though I had no in life real experiences with them.

At my age, it is not uncommon for one’s parents to have died and if that is so, one’s grandparents have also died.  It’s not that I think those adoptive aunts, uncles and cousins are not really “good” people – they are.

Yet, now that I have cousins and one aunt who are genetically related to me, I’m all about slowly without a lot of force, experiencing their lives and all that unfolds in any human life as a way that I can become better acquainted.  To build familial relationships with people that share some of my genetic DNA during whatever time we have left in this world.