Many adoptees don’t even realize that they are carrying unhealed trauma with them throughout their lives. Because for infants who were adopted, this trauma occurred during a per-verbal stage of their lives, they lacked words to describe what their emotions were saying to them. Both of my parents were adopted when they were less than one year old. My mom was adopted after having been placed temporarily in Porter Leath orphanage as my desperate maternal grandmother tried mightily to find a way to support the two of them with Georgia Tann circling them like a vulture. My dad was adopted after the Salvation Army coerced my paternal grandmother into relinquishing him. So both of my parents were carrying unhealed trauma throughout their lives.
The various ways people anesthetize themselves . . . is a wail from the deep. I once listened to Marianne Williamson’s A Course in Weight Loss on cd. I gained a lot of insight into my own compulsive eating experiences listening to her. I see how clothing our bodies in excess weight is a protective device. Both of my parents were more or less overweight their entire lives. I am told that my father was still breastfeeding with his original mother when he was taken for adoption. My mother struggled with her body image due to an adoptive mother who was obsessed by eating and weight issues. I have one memorable experience of that with my adoptive grandmother when she took me to England and embarrassed me dining at The Dorchester in London when I reached for a warm dinner role. I didn’t talk to her for almost 24 hours but gave it up in favor of not ruining our whole experience there together.
My mom was passive and secretive about eating. Some of that behavior certainly filtered down to me. My dad struggled with some drunken experiences, one that I didn’t even learn about until after he died, when my sister and I found a letter from him about spending a night in jail for DWI and praying not to lose his job and family over it. But after he was “saved”, he didn’t stop drinking – though he was never a violent alcoholic – and able to work even double shifts and nights at an oil refinery.
Joel Chambers writes about The Lifelong Challenges of Adoptees at the LINK> Search Angels website – Adoptees face more traumas, and more challenges, than many other people, and it affects their lives in ways that we are just beginning to understand. He has also written a post, speaking at great length about how addiction, in all of its various forms, is all too common among adoptees. These have experiences such as grief and loss, self-esteem and identity issues, substance abuse and addiction, mental health, and challenges to the types of relationships that they can form with their adoptive families. Adoptees also deal with feelings of grief, separation, and loss for their biological parents and birth families, even if they never knew them.
A healing I didn’t even know I needed started in the Autumn of 2017, when I began learning what my parents never knew – who my original grandparents were. Then, it was only natural that I really begin learning about this thing called adoption. My daughter once said to me – “it seems like you are on a mission.” True, guilty as charged.
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.
At the bottom of this blog, I’ll link the Adoption & Addiction, Remembered Not Recalled video by Paul Sunderland but first, for those who don’t want to watch for almost an hour, I share a few snippets.
The issue of adoption is all about divided attention, it’s all about 2 sets of families. It’s all about the conflicting feelings of wanting to belong, yet fearing belonging. (As the child of two adoptees, I’m certain this has filtered down into my own soul. I have never felt that I added up to be as much as the golden people I surround myself with – whether in social online networking communities or in my writer’s guild up in St Louis – those are just two examples but it probably goes back into my childhood as well.)
Adoption is a pretty weird word because it’s about the only condition that doesn’t really describe what has happened. Talking about adoption is a denial of relinquishment. The relinquishment wounds can be seen as a developmental post-traumatic stress disorder.
The word adoption is a cover-up. When we think about the adoption triangle, we think about the 3 parties in adoption. The adopted child, there are the birth or natural parents and there is the adoptive parent(s). Sunderland’s focus in his lecture is mostly about the adopted child. And as the title of his lecture suggests, his lecture is also about the apparent addition of addiction to that adopted child.
(And I do believe it is in struggling with an abandonment that one is lead into addiction. As an aside, we watched the 2008 Will Smith movie Hancock last night. He is an alcoholic and it seems to me that his alcoholism is due to similar issues of not knowing who one is at the core and feeling abandoned but not knowing by who.)
Back to the Sunderland lecture, he says that when he encounters birth parents in a treatment setting they usually say, “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about what happened.”
Adoptees are massively over-represented in treatment. And that leads to a question, Why is that ?
He has met quite a few adoptive parents, particularly as cross-cultural adoptions have been so popular. It is clear that many are feeling like, this is just not what we signed up to do.
Sunderland’s perspective is that there are NO adoptions without trauma. What he is talking about in his lecture is an enormous grief. A baby who has been waiting 9 months to meet somebody that they are not going to meet. It is about a mother who cannot live with having her child because society has told her that she cannot do it. Relinquishment goes against her biology.
And very often, the adoptive parents come into adoption carrying their own enormous grief due to having been unable to have a child of their own, naturally. One of the problems that Sunderland has with the word adoption is that it covers up the adoptive parents own grief.
So often, an adoptee will be told that they were chosen but the reality is that child has entered into a family that does not genetically fit them and given an impossible job description. They are forced to be someone that they can never actually be to fix the wound that the adoptive parents have. Infertility is an enormous disappointment for a couple and adoption tries to cover that up.
For an adoptee, the issue of abandonment is life threatening. There is nothing worse than to be separated from the one person (your mother) who you needed most at the beginning of your life. This is preverbal – it can’t be recalled – however, it IS remembered.
The word adoption tries to suggest that it is going to be a happily ever after situation. The human brain begins working before it is entirely built and experience is what programs the brain. If the beginning is a trauma and separation, then this is the experience that is wiring the neurons in the brain of the infant. For an adoptee there is a constant desire to attach accompanied by the conflicting sense that it isn’t safe to do so. There is no pre-trauma personality in an adoptee because there is no normal to compare this experience to as there would be for other traumatic events (war, car accidents, etc).
Being born prematurely and placed into an incubator is another kind of relinquishment when the infant leaves that containing environment. If a child is placed into foster care, that is also a relinquishment. Each change of foster family is yet another in a series of relinquishments. And second chance adoptions, where an adopted child is given back, is another relinquishment. In some cross-cultural adoptive situations, the child is born into such poverty, they are separated from the mother into an orphanage.
The bonding of an infant with their human mother actually begins 2 months before birth, while in utero, as proven by multiple experiments. Adoptees will often share that they have heard stories that they cried and cried. And I think of the mention of that in my mom’s adoption file via a letter from her adoptive mother to the Tennessee Children’s Home about the train trip upsetting my mom but that the doctor had her settled down now (and I always think – they drugged her, though it is not said directly). And I can understand now that my mom was relinquished twice because her mother took her to Porter Leath Orphanage in desperation for TEMPORARY care while she tried to get on her feet because her lawfully married husband had abandoned her and did not respond to a letter that the Juvenile Court in Memphis had written to him about his obligations.
Sunderland speaks about the stability of a child being dependent on a mother being able to know herself (which certainly was a black hole, actually for both of my parents, that I had until I was well over 60 years old and began to discover my own adoptee parents origin stories). People who are adopted and end up in treatment, often present themselves as fairly well put together.
Sunderland speaks of “love addiction” as needing to have the positive regard of a significant other. Addiction is genetically proposed and environmentally disposed. The hormonal aspects of having been relinquished are similar to living one’s life on red alert. In an adoption, there is a slow loss of self. A belief that they cannot be them self and get along with the people with whom they have been placed. The hormonal aspects affect sleep and stomach issues (and certainly my mom had her share of gastrointestinal issues throughout her entire life). Real difficulties managing moods (I think of my dad’s underlying seething anger that occasionally popped out).
If you think about serotonin, it is a soothing hormone. Addiction is usually an effort to self soothe. Eating sugar is one such effort to self soothe. Both of my parents were seriously diabetic and myself to some extent (though I am trying to manage my own sugar issues without ending up on insulin). Serotonin also manages shame and let’s you know you are okay but if your levels are low, the answer is “I’m not okay.”
Some people are not given up at birth and that was certainly true with both of my parents who spent 6-8 months with their original mothers before being adopted. People who diet and then give up on themselves, often multiple times. The chemicals in the brains of adoptees who have early psychological wounds are very different from other people without this personal background.
Adoptees have a tendency towards catastrophic thinking, always expecting the worst. The original wound of being separated from their mother was a life-threatening one. Shame is an unacknowledged aspect that is the understanding that I am not good enough, the bad baby (I’m unworthy, unlovable, there is something flawed in me) because if I was given up by my mother, I don’t have value. People pleasing arises from this feeling. How do I need to be to be accepted ?
Being extremely self-reliant (if you want something done, do it yourself) is also an outcome. It is interesting to note that both of my parents’ mothers had early abandonment or separation wounds from their own mothers caused by the deaths of their mothers. My dad’s mother had the worst one as her mother died when she was only 3 mos old. When she discovered that she was pregnant by a married man that she was not married to, she simply handled it herself and he never knew. With my mom’s mother, she was in her pre-teens and had to become “mom” to her 4 siblings.
Shame and anxiety are at the root of all addictions. There is an attempt to manage anxiety by managing the externals out there. Addictions are attempts to put anxieties elsewhere and explain the inexplicable. And there is the belief that somehow it is your own fault. Up until about the age of 10, infants and children believe that everything that happens to them, happened because of them.
In life, it’s not so much what happens to you as how secure you were with your early attachments. Roots, the secure base. Without these, one is less resilient. Adaption is a better word for what is done, not adoption. Adoptees end up with two minds. Real difficulties making decisions. The limbic system – fight, flight or freeze – is what kicks in with the catastrophic thinking. It is the part of the brain that developed before the frontal cortex. If you have an attachment wound, you never learned how to become a separate person. Any successful relationship exists in separateness, not in trying to adapt yourself to be accepted by that other person. The erotic exists in the space between the two. The real challenge for an adopted person is to actually BE their own self.
It’s painful to realize you have been lied to by the adoption agency you turned to in a moment of desperation. Even my own self, in leaving my daughter with her paternal grandmother for temporary care, that turned into her dad raising her and then a remarriage for him to a woman with a daughter (they then had a daughter together), could be perceived as abandonment as well. I have admitted to my daughter that there are similarities in her experience growing up with that which adoptees experience in being separated from their natural mother. At the time, I thought one parent as good as the other (even though I didn’t intend for her dad to get her). I really intended to recover her but it did not work out that way and to this day I struggle with what I did in ignorance.
In my all things adoption group, one woman writes – and then when your baby is *one week old* and you come out of the fog of the agency telling you it’s the right, selfless thing to do and realize what a terrible, life altering decision you just made – it’s too late and you have to spend the next several years in court and hope your family can lend you around $100,000 for legal fees to get your baby back from the wonderful, brave, selfless adoptive parents that have your kid.
Another wrote – this comes off extremely harsh and unproductive to me because these women do not understand the ramifications of the decisions they’ve made. And that is true for me as well. I was 22 years old at the time I left my daughter with her paternal grandmother. Life altering indeed !!
Someone else said – bottom line is regardless of intentions, the infant brain perceives it as abandonment. I’m fiercely defensive of my momma; I believe that the despicable social mores of the Baby Scoop Era and sheer desperation drove her to surrender me. My baby self was damaged either way. That’s what I believe this graphic is trying to convey.
And I agree. Sheer desperation has caused at least 3 of the 4 adoptions that are part of my childhood family (both of my parents and then each of my sisters gave up a baby). One of my sisters simply thought it the most natural thing in the world – I believe – because our parents were adoptees. Unbelievably, my mom who struggled most with having been adopted, coerced my other sister into doing it.
One noted – Just once, why not talk about how the fathers were nowhere around and went unscathed in everything. To blame a mother who was . . .
In my own parents’ case – first, for my mom, her mother was married but he more or less (whether intentionally or not) abandoned her 4 mos pregnant. After she had given birth, she brought my mom back from Virginia (where she had been sent by her own father out of shame) to Memphis. She tried to reach my mom’s father but got no response. Though there was a major flood occurring on the Mississippi River at the time (1937) and he was in Arkansas where his mother lived and his daughters were. He was WPA fighting the flood there in Arkansas. His granddaughter (who I have met) does not believe he was the kind of man to leave a wife and infant stranded. Georgia Tann got ahold of my mom and exploited my grandmother to obtain a baby to sell. My mom was 7 months old when her adoptive mother picked her up but she did spend some of that time in what was believed to be temporary care at Porter-Leath Orphanage. That was my grandmother’s fatal mistake because the superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to my mom’s existence.
In my dad’s case, the father was a married man and an un-naturalized immigrant. I don’t believe he ever knew. My paternal grandmother had a hard life. Her own mother died when she was only 3 mos old (the original abandonment if you will). She was a self-reliant woman. I don’t believe either of my grandmothers intended to abandon their children. After giving birth in Ocean Beach, near San Diego California in a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers, my grandmother then applied to work for them and was transferred to El Paso Texas. I believe they pressured her to relinquish my dad. He was with her for 8 months.
Finally, here is one person’s experience with being adopted – Abandonment is exactly right. And it directly leads to abandonment and attachment issues later. Even with therapy and understanding what happened and learning coping strategies, I still feel this horrible gnawing black hole inside of me when I feel like someone might leave me. And it can get triggered by such inconsequential things. The worst part is that it’s a self fulfilling prophecy, especially before learning how to lessen the effects on others, because the behaviors I’ve done out of desperation drove the people I was scared of losing away. And sometimes that’s felt deliberate, like it won’t hurt as bad if it was my idea and I left them instead of them leaving me. It hurts just as bad.
My blog yesterday was inspired by an article – Intergenerational Trauma: How to Break the Cycle – and the Maya Angelou quote at the beginning of it. Then, I went off on the story of my own version of that. Today, seeing that this article has real value, I return to it’s inspiration. The paragraph below is quoted from the article.
From our families, we inherit genes, foundational life skills, traditions, knowledge, connections, wisdom, identity, resilience, etc. Sometimes we also inherit behavior patterns, coping strategies of our parents, grandparents who did not process their trauma. Children learn to be by mimicking the adults around them but when these adults are acting from their own trauma, children pick up patterns and behaviors that become their norm. The first victims of intergenerational trauma in families are the most fragile, i.e. children. They might suffer from anxiety or depression as adults without being able to pinpoint its origin, indeed intergenerational trauma in families is not easily recognized or its impact is minimized. Intergenerational trauma in families often happens in an overarching societal context which offers the setting that facilitates trauma to be passed down (poverty, patriarchy, war, colonialism, slavery, genocide, etc).
Just yesterday, as I thought an issue had reached a level of acceptance and even an ability to see how I was better off for having gone through the unexpected and unwanted rupture of a relationship, something “new” had happened fully 2 months after the initial events and I was obsessed with it again. Why am I not more mature about this whole thing ? Then, it hit me – rejection – that was what I was struggling with. Rejection is a common emotional experience in adoptees (and both of my parents were – adopted). And it is the very personal kinds of rejection – relationship ending kinds of rejection that hurt me the most. More neutral rejections – from a literary agent I am hoping will represent me or from a resume submission for some job or other – these don’t trouble me. My recent trauma of rejection was decidedly caused by an overarching societal context – COVID.
Again from the linked article – In families with a pattern of trauma, there are many secrets, taboos, things that are not allowed to be talked about. Secrets that are kept but live and manifest themselves as poverty, being trapped in cycles of abuse, violence, depression, anxiety, self-sabotage, difficulty in relationships, etc. The individual is born with and into fears and feelings that don’t always belong to them but that shape their life in ways that they are not always conscious of.
Adoption was a kind of open secret in my family. Meaning when I was old enough to know, I did know. However, the whys, I didn’t know – in fact, my parents didn’t know those either. We really didn’t talk about it in my family other than the factual knowledge that my parents were adopted. In my earliest awareness, I thought both of my parents were orphans. I had know idea that there were people out there living their lives genetically and biologically directly related to me. When my mom wanted to search and find her mother, my father was unsympathetic. Therefore, she could not share her feelings with him but thankfully, she did share her feelings about all of it with me and I am grateful that I now know how she felt, since I now know more about the impacts of adoption.
Milestones in life can greatly affect a person living with intergenerational trauma (finishing university, starting a new job, having a baby, moving to a new country, being rejected by a new partner and suffering unsurmountable grief, etc.). Intergenerational trauma can also impact our physical health through the nutrition habits we develop and our relationship with food.
Food is an issue – it was with both my mom and my dad. First, my dad experienced near starvation and food insecurity in his youth. Growing up, there always had to be more food on our table than we could eat in a single meal. My mom was a lifelong dieter and passed that fear of obesity down to me. I struggle with what I think of as “stuffing disease” – a compulsion to eat every kind of non-nutritive “fun” food in my house – cookies, candy and potato chips. Then, I regret it and try again to “do better” and I do for awhile – until the next restless, rebellious binge happens. My mom’s struggles could have been impacted by spending some time at Porter Leath Orphanage in Memphis as a baby – not because her mother didn’t want her but abandoned by her husband (my mom’s father to whom my grandmother was married) – my grandmother asked for temporary care while she tried to become financially strong enough to support the two of them. I also learned to eat “in secret” from my mom.
At this point, I found my initial link is an excerpt of a longer blog – Miriamnjoku.com‘s blog on Intergenerational Trauma. There is an awesome graphic on the blog.
When one knows the history of abandonment and/or abuse that their parents or grandparents suffered, they are better able to understand why their loved one was/is disconnected. There is a Chinese Proverb that says that “The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name” . We cannot heal what we are not aware of, so the first step is to acknowledge the existence of trauma. Making the invisible visible is the prerequisite for transformation: acknowledging with compassion that certain patterns are the fruit of pain, trauma and oppression.
Learning the stories of my grandparents was the beginning of understanding why my parents were “abandoned” (that is the view of an adoptee), more conventionally understood as surrendered or relinquished for adoption. Especially, I do believe the loss of their mothers at young ages had a profound impact on both of my grandmothers and their choices and experiences in life overall. This quote by Anna Freud really speaks to me in that regard – “The horrors of war, pale in significance to the loss of a mother.”
What are the things that were passed down to us that we do not want to pass on to our children? We can look at the past with compassion and still want to change dysfunctional patterns that do not serve us. It is a hard journey which is often met with misunderstanding from the family. Are you going to be the first one in your family to go to therapy? Take care of your health? We have to be willing to step into the uncomfortable to heal, even willing to risk rejection, being misunderstood to live well, to release the psychological charge even if it means being different.
There is more in her blog – I recommend reading Miriam Njoku‘s full blog.
From the time my mom tried to get her adoption file out of the state of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I had a deep yearning, same as she did, to know who ? Who were my grandparents ? Actually, there was an unconscious version back in my public school days when everyone was going around saying things like – “I’m French.” or “I’m German.” When I asked my mom what are we ? She said “American.” I said I know that but what else ? She said we don’t know because both your dad and I were adopted. Later in life I would tell people that I was an Albino African because no one, including my own self, could prove any different. One birthday, my brother in law gave me a National Genographic test kit. I ran my maternal line. Turns out we (humans) all originated in Africa, at least according to that National Geographic project.
That lead to me wanting something more specific than the disappointing degree of information I got from that effort. I ordered an Ancestry DNA kit on the recommendation of a friend, only to discover my mom had already done hers and what do you know – trace amounts from Mali. There’s my African for you. My mom attempted a family tree but because the only information she could build one on was the adoptive families, she told me at one point, “I just had to quit, it wasn’t real because I was adopted, oh well.” It is so sad.
The state of Tennessee did open the adoption files for the victims of the Georgia Tann scandal less than 10 years after my mom’s futile attempt but no one told her. That is also sad because even though the state broke my mom’s heart by telling her that her mother had died some years before, they didn’t try very hard to determine the status of her father (their basis for denying her) who had already been dead for 30 years. Had my mom received her adoption file, she would have seen a black and white photo of her mom holding her as an infant – probably for the last time at Porter Leath Orphanage in Memphis, who she turned to for temporary care as she tried to get on her own two feet financially. The supervisor there betrayed my grandmother to Georgia Tann. The truth and factual details could have brought my mom a lot of inner peace. The adoption file has certainly has taken me on a surprising journey to self knowledge.
I did not know it then but it was the jumping off point to meet living descendants of my grandparents after first having the good fortune to discover in only one year’s time with persistence and determination who all 4 of my original grandparents were. This included also doing the 23 and Me test. My latest joys are communicating with the descendants in Denmark of the last grandparent I discovered, my Danish immigrant paternal grandfather. Every possible internet channel for ancestry and the inexpensive DNA testing opportunities have been used by me to achieve my own successes.
Most adoptees who do not have open adoptions with open knowledge of their origins and the circumstances of their adoptions have the same issues and desires that my mom and I experienced. The New York Times has a follow on article to Steve Inskeep’s (Op-Ed, March 28) titled “I Was Denied My Birth Story” with a “Letter to the Editor” – this time titled “For Adoptees, a Deep Yearning ‘to Know Where You Come From’.”
Activists continue to push their individual states to open adoption files for adult adoptees. It is a basic human right to know your origins and adoptees are treated like second class citizens by being denied this right in approximately half of all these United States. You can read more in this article – Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates which was updated as recently as May 15, 2019.
I was listening to an African-American group called Sweet Honey in the Rock sing acapella the old spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and read it dates back to the days of slavery when children were often sold off away from their parents and siblings. My heart ached listening.
These lyrics caught my attention –
I’m a motherless child,
I can hear my mother calling me,
I can hear my mother’s voice calling me home.
Across the waters, come on home across the waters.
Of course, my thoughts immediately went to adoption and I guess not surprisingly to my own mother. She yearned to find and connect with her mother. She had a complicated relationship with the woman who adopted her. Never felt like she quite measured up to the expectations.
She felt the loss keenly. Especially when she learned the Georgia Tann story. She never could reconcile the fact that she was born near Richmond Virginia but had been adopted in Memphis Tennessee as an infant. She always believed that her adoption was somehow “inappropriate” as she politely worded it in a letter she wrote to the State of Tennessee trying to get her own adoption file. She was denied on more than one technicality and although some years later a law was passed to allow her to receive that file, that information never reached her.
After her death, I did receive that file from Tennessee. My mom’s belief that a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann had stolen her in Virginia and transported her to Tennessee wasn’t quite the true story. But that kind of story did happen all too frequently with Tann’s baby stealing and selling scandal.
The real story is sad and my grandmother was definitely exploited in the midst of an impossible situation. Her widowed father still raising some of his children as a poor sharecropper refused my grandmother support with her baby when she returned to Memphis. She was a married woman. Why she was estranged from her husband I’ll never know. I have some theories.
He was WPA and the large hospital project that brought him to Memphis had ended. He was widowed too and his mother had his children in her care in Arkansas. His first wife had died 8 months pregnant on a cold and rainy December morning and her baby in the womb died with her. The image shared with me by my cousin haunts me still. A Phil Collins song The Roof Is Leaking makes me think of my grandfather. These lyrics caught my attention –
The roof is leaking and the wind is howling,
The kids are crying cause the sheets are so cold.
I woke this morning and my hands were frozen
My wife’s expecting but I hope she can wait
Cause there’s been signs it will be another bad one
But Spring will soon be here.
Too many sad maternal deaths. My grandmother lost her own mother at the age of 11 with four other younger siblings, including the baby one, in the household at that time.
His employment ended, my grandmother was already 4 months pregnant and due in January. My heart believes my grandfather feared for her and the baby’s well-being as he had no certain shelter to offer her come winter. It may be that his own mother wasn’t happy he had married such a young woman, as young as his oldest sons. She may not have been welcoming either. Then came the Superflood on the Mississippi River in 1937 (at the same time my mom was born) and he was out shoring up the levees in Arkansas, when my grandmother arrived back in Memphis.
Whatever the real story is, that I can never know, my grandmother went to the Juvenile Court in Memphis trying to reach him. No response. Desperate, she took my mom to the storied Porter Leath Orphanage for temporary care. The superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to my mom’s presence. My mom was the blond, blue eyed kind of baby girl that Tann most coveted for her clients. And so began the pressure on my grandmother to separate her from my mom.
Four days after signing the surrender papers, my grandmother called Georgia Tann’s office trying to get my mother back. “I have friends in New Orleans who will take us in,” she told them. It was to no avail because Tann’s paying customer was already on her way by train from Nogales Arizona to pick up my mom.
My image today comes from a Facebook page titled Memoirs of a Motherless Child. She relates a story about Brooklyn and it’s connection to her own mother there. After her mother’s death, she writes –
I later blamed myself for never being able to meet her, know her, experience her because I didn’t go look for her, as if that would have done any good. She didn’t want to be found not because she didn’t love me (took me years to realize that but my inner child still can’t accept it wholeheartedly) but because she loved me so much she didn’t want to hurt or disappoint me. My inner child could very well be making that up too in order to spare me more hurt and trauma. What still hurts the most is I’ll never know what part of me was/is that part of you. So I’ll continue to travel this endless journey of uncertainty until our energies meet somehow.
I believe that is how my mom felt too because by the time she tried to find her mother, her mother was only somewhat recently deceased. That devastated my mom. Now that my own mom has also died, I believe she was reunited with the mother who never gave up hoping she would see her precious daughter again as well. So much sadness when a mother and her child are separated.
From a generally anti-foster care perspective, a question was asked –
Why did the government move away from orphanages/group homes to children living with foster carers ? Bottom line is that it is about money. It is cheaper for the government to give foster carers a stipend than provide for the full needs of children in a modern orphanage or group home.
My mom spent a few months as an infant at Porter-Leath, an orphanage in Memphis TN. Her original mother took my mom there only for temporary care while she tried to get on her feet and estranged from her husband, the father of my mom, who was most likely tied up one state over fighting a SuperFlood on the Mississippi in 1937. He was in Arkansas working for the WPA and that was where most of his own roots and family were. That is how Georgia Tann got involved and my mom ended up adopted.
My family visited Porter-Leath in 2017. It is now an amazingly peaceful place and much changed but still provides some sheltering for runaways who need a safe place to go.
The discussion was not about orphanages of the past though. It was about facilities that are geared towards children’s best interests. A revamped system. An environment where the kid never has to become someone else to fit in with a family he isn’t related to. One that is very consistent and stable. That is vital for kids.
And no competition with a foster carer’s biological kids, or being made to feel like a burden or an inconvenience compared to the carer’s biological children. Modern orphanages are really structured. Everyone there is on the same playing field. It totally eliminates the foster vs biological conflicts. The experience of former foster youth is that biological kids are horrible towards foster kids. Full of disdain and resentment for these strangers being in their homes.
I was intrigued by the mention of modern orphanages, I found a link to an Atlantic article highlighting Palmer Home for Children in Mississippi that is fairly current.
Some charitable organizations endure. When I saw this article, I thought of Porter-Leath in Memphis but the outcome for my grandmother (losing her infant, for which she was only seeking temporary care until she could get on her feet) was not so good.
St. Anne’s Center for Children, Youth and Families in Hyattsville Maryland has existed for 160 years. They were originally an orphanage and a maternity hospital. The organization founded during a crisis has reinvented itself time and again since. The same could be said for Porter Leath as well.
The organization was created in 1860 to serve women and children during the Civil War and it continued to do so through the 1918 flu pandemic, both World Wars, the Great Depression and now, a new pandemic.
Over the years, it has changed its name and purpose. It went from “asylum” to an “orphanage” to a “center” that now houses mothers and children, sometimes for years, if that’s what they need to successfully escape homelessness.
In recent times, they have seen incredible successes like they had not seen before in terms of families leaving them and going into permanent housing. It’s nothing short of incredible how these families are doing that.
When a single mother with a young child comes to St. Anne’s, she and her daughter are given a furnished apartment complete with a bookshelf filled with children’s books. They share a kitchen, laundry room and playground with other families, but otherwise have their own space.
One such mother said –
“I used to say, ‘I don’t want her to remember any of this stuff,’ ” she says of her daughter. “Now, I want her to see where we were, and how we are in a much more amazing place. I want her to see, ‘My mommy did it, my mommy figured it out, she took care of what we had to take care of.’ ”
When they move into their new house, she says, she wants her daughter to know that from these hard times, her mom created something better for them.
One of the saddest things was a video of a brand new baby being presented to a woman, everyone in tears of happiness, excitedly saying, “the mother just signed away all rights!” I mean this is a video of the saddest moment of that baby’s life, and they truly don’t seem to have any awareness of that.
There sometimes seems to be a real disconnect. Adoptive parents in their ecstatic joy totally clueless about what is being done to the mother who just gave birth and what will be a lifelong sorrow not only for her but for that child as well.
It has become well-known that a fetus bonds with the woman carrying it in her womb during the 9 months of gestation. When it leaves the womb, this baby still knows its mother. A newborn infant is not a blank slate with no awareness or memories. That is what people thought for a long time and the well-meaning lie that was fed to prospective adoptive parents.
Georgia Tann who was involved in my own mother’s adoption in 1937 believed this and told her clients this was the reality but we now know that the baby knows differently. In desperation as she tried to work through the difficulties of obtaining financial resources as an abandoned mother (she was married, but her husband had left her, and her father refused to help her and my mom), my grandmother turned to the Porter-Leath Orphanage for TEMPORARY care of my mom. In doing this, she was being a responsible mother.
In doing this, she fell into a trap whereby she lost custody of my mother. After being pressured, exploited and coerced to give up her very valuable little white blond baby girl to the Tennessee Children’s Home, my grandmother was allowed one last visit with my mom who had not seen her own mother for some days/weeks.
The joy expressed in my little mother’s body at seeing her mother is something real to behold as she was only about 8 months old at that time. Throughout her life, my mom never stopped longing for the woman who gave birth to her. When she tried to make contact, she was told her mother had died some years before. My mom was devastated and heart-broken.