The Basics of Adoption

Raising an adopted child is not the same as raising your biological children.  That is the first thing to understand.  I can just imagine my mom’s adoptive parents (a banker and a socialite) saying something like this – “If it were not for us, you would never have had the kind of life you’ve had. Just always remember that.”  And there is truth in that.  My mom would have grown up in abject poverty.  She was able to go to a university for a degree because of her parents’ wealth.  I was able to take a special summer session as a student at Claire College, Cambridge and see the country of England, thanks to my mom’s adoptive mother.

Different isn’t always better. Also, more money doesn’t always mean happier.  My mom had a difficult relationship with her adoptive mother who used a lure of money against her frequently.  I can see she used money to control my mom when that (to control my mom) was not truly possible.  I do know how blessed my adoptive grandmother felt to receive her two children.  But as my mom grew up that feeling seems to have mutated into something controlling and judgmental.

I will honestly admit, I am grateful I was not adopted. Though I didn’t know family beyond my parents, at least I knew who my parents were. I did not have the name I was given at birth taken away from me. I did not have to pretend to belong when I knew that I didn’t. I was not abused but no one ever tried to convince me I was special because they chose me for adoption. I did not feel abandoned or rejected. My parents believed in honesty and truth.

No one tries to make me feel better by telling me my life could have been worse.  Or that I would be dead if these people didn’t adopt me.  That’s putting a huge burden on a child to meet the adoptive parents’ expectations.

Adoptees suffer a primal wound by being separated from their original mother. Many have symptoms of PTSD. Many adoptive mothers never resolve their feelings of inadequacy due to not being able to conceive naturally. Adoptees are often overwhelmed by feelings that they need to search for their genetic lineage. As adults, adoptees often experience difficulties in achieving a successful romantic relationship.

Closing The Gap

When an adoption has already occurred and given the importance of identity issues, what is an adoptive mother to do when the original mother doesn’t respond very much to efforts to reach out and keep that mother connected with her natural children ?

This was a question in a group I belong to this morning.

Some good advice that came from another adoptive mother was this –

Educate yourself on issues of generational poverty vs privilege and learn to identify what pushback actually indicates.

Get out of your bubble and be willing to have genuine relationships with people who are not like you.  (All of us in this polarized society could actually benefit from that advice.)

Humble yourself.

I remember an issue that came up.  My youngest sister gave up her son for adoption.  She gave me a lock-box full of mementos that illustrated her experiences and thinking at that time to deliver to her son someday as I was the contact in a registry somewhere.

It did come to pass.  As he read some letters out loud to his adoptive mom on their way home from our first meeting in person, she was startled to hear that she had some attitudes towards my sister.  She admitted later that she probably was projecting feelings of superiority.

Not to dismiss that the woman has done a fine job of nurturing my nephew.  She was very supportive of him when he was seeking to know who his true father was (turns out my sister lied about that one but indications from certain post-birth contacts indicate that she actually did know the truth).

Definitely, class differences can be intimidating.  In fact, this was mirrored to me growing up by my two sets of adoptive grandparents (yes, both of my parents were adoptees).  One set was well-off, socially prominent.  The other set lived in capable poverty.  I say it that way because they seemed to manage the situation without complaining.

When this class difference exists between the adoptive parents and the original parents (which is quite common or else the original parents would raise their own child 99% of the time) subtle messages are transmitted such as –

We are better than you and we know it.

Which can leave the original parents feeling they have to walk on egg shells.  They know the adoptive parents have all the power and money to do what they want including withhold information and contact if they so choose.

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.

Class Differences

I learned about the differences in social classes as a child growing up.  My grandparents were the people who adopted each of my parents.  Yes, both were adoptees.

On my mom’s side, her adoptive father was a banker and her adoptive mother a socialite.  There was opulence and wealth in their household.  My grandfather died relatively young.  My grandmother then did whatever she wanted to – traveling the global and doling out charitable largess.

On my dad’s side, they were entrepreneurial and poor.  They lived modestly.  The contrast was always obvious.

In the family I grew up in, my dad was a union worker and my mom held jobs outside the home before I even entered public school.  Eventually, she was able to talk my dad into letting her get a degree in music, supplement the family income by teaching music lessons and working on her own compositions.  Though she never sold the sheet music she offered for sale, she died doing what she loved and was passionate about.

In learning about my original grandparents, there wasn’t really any wealth there.  One of the first stories I heard was that my mom’s father’s family existed in such poverty that the chickens under the house could be seen under the floorboards and sometimes her half-sister went to bed hungry.

My dad’s mom had a hard life.  Both grandmothers lost their own moms to death early in their childhoods.

Many of the children who end up adopted are surrendered due to poverty and a lack of financial resources.  While some extended families actually do assist a vulnerable mother, that was not the case in any of my family’s experiences.  As a society we could do much better and even fewer children would end up relinquished for adoption.

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.

The Sin Of Being Poor

Georgia Tann felt disdain toward poor, white, single mothers directly related to their class difference.  She divided people into two types –

Poor people, including single “cow” mothers, were BAD.
Wealthy people “of a higher type” were GOOD.

Georgia believed that poor people were incapable of proper parenting. Their children needed to be rescued.  Tann could “save” them.  She did it by seizing them and placing
them for adoption.

It would appear that was her perspective regarding my maternal grandmother and the cause of my mom’s adoption.  My mom was not unwanted and her parents were married.  It was the Great Depression and there was a superflood affecting Memphis at the time my mom was born.  Her father, WPA, was out shoring up levees in Arkansas and couldn’t be reached quickly enough to save my mom from the inevitable.  Her mother never got over losing my mom.

In a 1935 article in the Memphis Press-Scimitar, Georgia Tann described the first time she placed children for adoption.  She was only 15 years old.  She had found two children in the corner of her father’s courtroom.

Rather than send them over to the Mississippi Children’s Home Society, she convinced a respectable Mississippi couple to adopt the 5 yr old boy and 3 yr old girl. In the newspaper article, Georgia didn’t reveal the process by which she separated the children from their birth parents.

Yet, her description of the family was indicative of her attitude –

“The father was a man of intelligence but of a mean disposition, who was always getting into trouble. The mother was an ‘ordinary’ woman, from a poor family.”  That was certainly true of both of my maternal grandparents.  Their only sin was poverty.

The children placed for adoption were sweet and attractive in appearance. The girl eventually received a degree in music.  Thanks to the financial resources of my mom’s adoptive parents, she also eventually received a degree in music from the University of Texas at El Paso and that began the profession she practiced for the remainder of her life, right up until her death.

The boy in Georgia Tann’s story received a law degree and practiced his profession as a lawyer.  My mom’s “brother” was also a Georgia Tann adoptee.  He didn’t become a lawyer but still leads the life he has chosen with financial support from his inheritance.

These early placements by Tann, including both my mom and her brother, were given opportunities of wealth and all of them made the most of it.  Some of her later efforts produced some horrific outcomes.  My mom and her brother were very lucky regarding the adoptive parents they received.  In no way would I say that the wounds of separation from their original mothers were not deep within each of them.

A Good Life

Even though I have learned so much about the impacts and issues associated with adoption since I learned the truth related to each of my parents’ adoptions (both of my parents were), I also understand that they did have a good life.

Did my mom yearn for a reunion with her original mother ?  Absolutely.

Did my dad seem to accept his adoption ?  Maybe that was because a baby stealing and selling scandal wasn’t part of it – the Salvation Army was.

My mom’s adoptive parents were well to do (a banker and a socialite) and she definitely had the kinds of advantages that Georgia Tann claimed she was seeking with all of her placements of children born into poverty and bought by wealthy infertile couples.  Thanks to my adoptive grandmother, my mom got a college degree in music composition of which she was justifiably proud, having worked hard for that result.

My dad’s adoptive parents were entrepreneurial and humble.  They had a small acreage (only half an acre) out at the edges of El Paso Texas where as children we wandered the irrigation ditches and picked cotton for fun out in the fields.  Little did I know at the time that it was in my genes for my mom’s original parents were sharecroppers and cotton pickers.

I know in my gut even if I don’t have any real proof that it was my dad’s adoptive parents that kept me in the family so that after my parents’ deaths, I could make us whole again, by discovering the roots we came from.

I too had a “good” life.