Shame

We feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in. At such moments we feel humiliated, exposed and small and are unable to look another person straight in the eye. We want to sink into the ground and disappear. Shame makes us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light.

I came upon the powerful graphic above yesterday and felt there was more that I could personally say about it. On my Facebook profile page yesterday, I shared – I have owned up to this before. I had an abortion at the age of 23 or so – mid 1970s. I am glad it was safe and legal. I was not being reckless. I was driving an 18-wheeler with a partner. Our dispatcher didn’t get us home to where my pharmacy was in time and I ended up pregnant. Neither he nor his family were the kind of people I would be glad to have been tied to through a child today. At the time, I had breakthrough bleeding. My ex-SIL and ex-BIL had a child with serious birth defects. I just felt the pregnancy was not progressing normally. Also, to be honest – I didn’t want to commit my life to 7 more months of going it alone with no financial support. I’ve never regretted it but pro-Life propaganda has definitely haunted me. In writing this, I searched my memory for all of the reasons why I chose that course of action.

The mothers and women in my family, and to whom I am genetically related, chose other courses of action. Back in the 1930s, the mothers of both of my own parents, chose to carry their pregnancies, spent the first few precious months with their babies, and one way or another lost that first child to adoption. I wrote, and it was true, “I didn’t want to commit my life to 7 more months of going it alone with no financial support.” In some people’s minds I was simply being selfish and I will accept that judgment, though in truth I have no regrets about doing what I did and for the reasons I did it at the time.

Yet, I felt enough shame for having chosen a different path (both of my sisters carried unplanned pregnancies to term but also gave their babies up for adoption) that it was a long time before I admitted to anyone what I did earlier in life. It was my private decision which no one but the circumstances influenced. Maybe influenced in no small measure by the legality and safety of the choice at the time. Only as Roe v Wade has come under increasing opposition have I started sharing my own story of what it was like to have made that choice and my gratitude that I had it available to my own self when I felt I needed that.

The father of my own conception made it clear he would not stand by me if I chose otherwise but I don’t think that was my major motivation. In reflecting on my statement that I would have had to “go it alone” above, I also know my parents supported one of my sisters throughout the pregnancy and then, remarkable to me now that I know more about adoption in general, my own adoptee mom coerced my sister into giving up the baby she wanted to keep and then, encouraged a lie to me that the baby had died. Intuitively, I knew it had not and concocted fantastical stories about what had actually happened to the baby believing it had been stolen and taken into Mexico (my sister had delivered at a hospital in El Paso TX very near the national border). Because of this, my mom finally admitted her truth regarding the whole situation to me.

Many women bear a cross – maybe they suffer their whole lives knowing their child is out there somewhere out of their own reach. Many of these original mothers suffer a secondary infertility and never have another child. Many struggle as single mothers to keep and raise their child. Our society does nothing to help them. My sister actually sought financial support during her pregnancy but was denied it based upon our parents financial condition. It was not my parents seeking financial support but my sister and not in increase my parents financial condition either.

After I divorced the father of my first child, I had to go to work and that meant child care. When one “family style” child care that she loved at first became a tearful battle, I left work to check on her and discovered through the window of a half door, an older child bullying her and no adults in sight. I pulled her out that day. I often had to go to my mother to beg $20 to make it through to payday. She never denied me but financially it was always difficult. At the time I divorced her father, he told me he would never pay me one cent of child support because I would just party with the money. Such a horrible perception he had of my own integrity and ethics. I didn’t want to spend my life in court fighting him for it even though the judge insisted in awarding me $25/mo “in case” I changed my mind and wanted to seek an increase. I never did. Instead, I left my daughter with her paternal grandmother while I tried to build a financial nest egg for the two of us by seeing if I was capable of driving an 18 wheel truck cross-country.

I always intended to return for her and would have never given her to her father to raise but his mother did that. He remarried a woman with a child and then they had a child together. Unintended consequences of financial desperation. And now, in a sense my story has come full circle, my shame – not even listed above – is that I gave up raising my child for financial reasons. Back when she was in day care, I couldn’t hardly answer the pediatrician’s questions, because she was away from me all day. After her father and step-mother raised her, I struggled to find birthday cards for her that reflected the lack of a daily, physical relationship I had with her. There were no role models for an absentee mother back in the mid-1970s, even though the absentee father was a standard reality.

Shame. Oh yes, I am well acquainted with it. As my daughter knows, I have struggled to find peace with not having “stuck it out,” as my own mother said to me that she would have done, to do the right thing by my daughter. It is a work in process. Recently, I reflected on all the things I did right by her in the brief early years she was physically under my care. I told her, I realize that when I was mother to you, I was a good one. And the abortion ? I atoned for it, by giving up my own genetic connection to have two egg donor conceived sons (same donor both times), that my husband might be able to have the children he desired, even as we both realized I had gotten too old to conceive naturally. Even so, they are now almost 18 and 21 years old. They have proven to me that I can “mother” children 24/7 throughout their own childhoods. At least I have no shame in that. I even breastfed both until they were just over 1 year old. I also have the knowledge that I didn’t put adoption trauma onto the fetus I aborted early in that pregnancy.

The Wild Track

I often review books in this blog related to adoption or foster care that I have actually read. I’ve not read this one but will share bits and pieces from a review of this book in The Guardian. I’ve pretty much completed my related reading for now. There is an unlimited number of related books and I’ve moved on to other reading interests such as racial inequality (have pretty much completed that one) and now mental illness with an unusual emphasis on spirituality (now that’s something I can and have really gotten into to!!).

The review begins with this insight – wanting to have children and deciding to have children are acts of imagination that border on egotism. To be a child is to be a particular child but to want a child is not to know who that child will be or how to grant it agency. For Margaret Reynolds these issues were unusually complex because she started grappling with them aged 45 when, single after the breakdown of a relationship, she suddenly experienced the urge to be a mother. She was longing for purpose and joy, for a “commitment that tries and shapes the self”. Yet this was not an urge to procreate. She had already undergone the menopause and wasn’t invested in reproducing her DNA.

And I do get this. In my case, I had already procreated when I was 19 years old. A beautiful daughter who has given me two equally beautiful grandchildren. However, my second husband thought he was happy I had “been there and done that” already when we met because he didn’t particularly want children and didn’t feel financially strong enough to have any children, being the responsible kind of guy he was. When I met him, I knew he was the kind of guy I would be willing to have children with. It took him 10 years to decide that he wanted to and like the author of the book I’m highlighting today, I was also 45 years old. Turns out I had gone past easily becoming pregnant like I could when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Enter medical technology into our picture. That wasn’t the path Margaret Reynolds decided on however.

It took Reynolds 5 years to succeed in adopting a child and becoming the mother to a troubled six-year-old daughter is described as a painful pleasure. Actually – troubled or not – being a parent is sometimes that – honestly. The book is actually about the British adoption system and not the American one that I know more about.

To the book’s credit as an adoption related journey, it is an unusually thoughtful take on becoming a mother, enabled by removing babyhood and biology. Though Reynolds begins by desiring a child, the motherhood that results is a gradual, open process, in which she makes herself available as a mother and waits for Lucy to claim her. At first, they don’t hug and kiss. Reynolds just rubs her daughter’s back at night and it’s Lucy who initiates the process of kissing and cuddling, and finds her own way to calling her “Mum”. I found this moving partly because Lucy is given an autonomy that we perhaps all want our mothers to be capable of giving us and should allow to our daughters.

The question of fatherhood is rightly raised here, given Reynolds was setting herself up as a single mother (a fact that, combined with her previous lesbian relationship, prevented her adopting internationally). There is a long literary history of foundlings – it is peculiarly convenient for children to be orphaned at the start of a story. There’s a touching scene where she reads Anne of Green Gables to her daughter, crying alongside Marilla when she realizes what Anne means to her.

One thing that sets this book apart from other adoption related books is that at the end there are two chapters written by her daughter Lucy. Having heard about their early months together from Reynolds, we hear about them from Lucy, learning, shockingly, that she didn’t yet know when she was driven, crying bitterly, to Reynolds’s house from the foster parents she had grown to love, that this was a permanent move. Lucy’s sections are a testament to the joy of finding home and belonging, but also a reminder that the pain of early separations is perpetual. A few days before collecting Lucy, Reynolds had to remind herself that “my happiness is her sadness”. One of the strengths of the adoption system is that it sends potential parents on courses to think through how to parent children who have trauma ready to be reignited at any moment.

Second Chances

I not talking about what is known as second chance adoptions as sad as that reality is.  I’m talking about the second chance life gave me and I hope those who have suffered their own failures at parenting will take heart.

This Sunday, we will go out into the forest among the Wild Azaleas and make a photo of myself with the two boys I am lucky to have in my own life.  We have done this every year without fail since the older boy was born.  You see, when I was young, I gave birth to a daughter who was and remains very dear to me.  Yet, I struggled to support us and in doing so, inadvertently lost the opportunity to parent her and have her in my life during her childhood.  I remember as the years went by looking for birthday cards for “my daughter” and that causing despair because they did not describe the unique kind of relationship I had with her.  Thankfully, we are close and I am grateful for that much.

When I remarried late in life and after 10 years of being with my husband who never wanted to have children – he changed his mind.  Over Margaritas at a Mexican restaurant he announced to me that he actually did want to become a father and it wasn’t easy for us because I was too old to conceive without medical assistance.  To conceive, I had to accept the loss of my genetic connection to my sons.  They would not exist any other way and they would not be who they are otherwise.

Yet, they grew in my womb and nursed at my breast.  I have been in their lives 24/7 with a few minor exceptions.  Parenting boys has been challenging because I grew up the oldest of three girls.  I was unprepared for the boisterous behavior of male children and through it was far from perfect – they and I survived it.  I was told as I struggled in their younger time that boys are more difficult when young and girls more difficult in puberty.  I don’t know if that is true but the boys are a joy and easy to live with now.  Whatever has caused that blessing, I am grateful.

I am also grateful to know I can actually parent.  It is a life-long sorrow that I lost that time with my daughter.  Children don’t stop growing and you can’t recover what is lost in your absence.  Happy Mother’s Day to all moms.