It’s Complicated And Confusing

Kimberly Mays with Robert Mays

Mention of a television program called Switched at Birth led me to today’s real life story and it fits with the Missing Mom theme of my blog and so I share. The 1991 American miniseries, directed by Waris Hussein, is based on the true story of Kimberly Mays and Arlena Twigg. The two babies were switched soon after birth in a Florida hospital in 1978. Today the relationships between Kim Mays and her two living mother figures remains strained. “I don’t really feel like I’ve had a mother growing up. That’s where the confusion comes from,” Kimberly has said.

It does appear that the switch was intentional. In November 1993, Patsy Webb, a nurse’s aide from the hospital where the babies had been switched, came forward, claiming that Dr. Ernest Palmer had told her to switch the ID bracelets. She refused to do it, she claimed, but told the doctor she would keep quiet, fearing that she would lose her job and health insurance if she spoke up. She said she saw the next day that the babies had been switched.

Webb decided to come forward because she was dying and she wanted to clear her conscience before she died. There were two or three people involved in the switch she has said. The one baby was very sick. While Webb didn’t make the decision, she went along with it and that made her feel like a guilty party to it.

Yet for Kim Mays, the shocking and incredibly emotional twists and turns of her childhood, have not served her life well. “I had a rough childhood,” Kim Mays said. “I lost a parent.” When her first mother died, her father remarried. Until she was 6 years old, she thought her stepmother was her mother. After 7 years of marriage, he divorced that woman and remarried again. Kim Mays now says the man who raised her, Bob Mays, was very controlling and she ran away from home several times.

When she was 15, she ended up at a YMCA shelter and then asked to live with the Twiggs (her actual genetic family and who she had “divorced” just a few months earlier through the courts). “I was going through a lot of emotion. So I ran away, and I went to the Twiggs’ house. I stayed there a year and a half to two years almost,” she said. Mays left the Twiggs two weeks before she turned 18. She got married to her first husband and they had a son together.

“Losing my mom at two, to (Bob Mays) getting remarried right away, to him divorcing her, then finding another relationship to jump into, then (learning about) the switch, and then, other stuff that occurred,” she said. “It’s a lot to process as a child. I just didn’t handle it very well at the time, unfortunately.” Nor did she handle it well after that. She and her first husband divorced and their son, now an adult, was raised by her ex-husband and his family. That is an aspect of her story that I can relate to as my own biological, genetic daughter ended up being raised by her dad and step-mother. She has had six children by four different fathers.

“I feel bad for both sides, (the) Twiggs and everyone involved,” Kim Mays said. “(Arlena – the baby she was switched with) passed away (at 9 years old) and then they poured everything into finding me, so they went through a lot.”

You can read the complete story here – Kim Mays, Switched at Birth. The entire original 20/20 series is also available at YouTube.

Don’t Say It’s Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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