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Adoption

Whether anybody minds or not, I'm going to be talking about adoption fairly often in the coming weeks. My life has hit a pothole, in the form of Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away. I'll be writing about that book sometime next week, when the dust has settled and I've decided whether or not I'm out of my mind to call the postwar adoption racket an "American Holocaust." For the moment, I want to talk about my reasons for not searching out my "birth mother" - reasons that I decided to override just the other day.

There were three reasons.

First, I didn't want to have the experience that La petite anglaise has had. The initial euphoria of reuniting with her mother did not last, and now petite is left feeling somewhat embarrassed by the whole relationship - or lack thereof. I know how easy it is to take people up without giving a thought to whether you'll ever want to put them down (see below), and I usually have to see a lot of someone's writing before I start thinking of friendship. (A rule that works very well in the blogosphere!) Curiosity alone is not a good enough reason to plow into decades of history.

My second reason is far more peculiar to me. If my "birth mother" wasn't my mother, nobody was. As it happened, I never bonded with my adoptive mother. I never felt that she was my mother, and then I found out (at the age of seven) that indeed she wasn't my mother. I now know that my adoptive mother was untroubled by the caution at the heart of my first reason. She took me up and then she put me down. It turned out that she was interested only in infants - in children who could not speak for themselves. I would learn this much later, when her attention passed from my daughter to my niece, at about the time when Miss G was developing a real personality. Little S could play the role of the new baby doll. I don't mean to say that my adoptive mother was a bad person. But she was not cut out for motherhood. On the contrary, she was a very frustrated career woman who couldn't see her way to flouting bourgeois conventions. She was not heroic. But you don't understand heroism until you realize that nobody can be faulted for not being heroic. My sister and I were problems on her daily to-do list. We made her sigh, heavily and often. I did not love her - a fact that she detected early, and about which I still feel dreadfully guilty, even though I never felt loved by her. We wanted to love each other - we knew that it was the thing to do. But we got off on the wrong foot somehow, and at least for me the love never bloomed.

Having been in a chronically hostile relationship with my adoptive mother from the age of about five, therefore, I was hardly eager to expose myself to another opportunity for maternal rejection. I don't know what it's like to have a mother (although I have learned from my dear Kathleen what it is like to cherished and cared for), and experience has inclined me to be afraid to find out. I believe that I have really come to terms with the issues that made my childhood so unpleasant (without being in the least Dickensian). My primary feeling about my adoptive parents is very deep sympathy.

The third reason is the one that collapsed massively as I read The Girls Who Went Away. The third reason is that I bought the Story. Here's the story: a poor young unmarried woman finds that she's pregnant. Abortion is not available. Happily, there are maternity homes in which she can hide her shame, and, even more happily, there are eager, childless couples who want nothing more passionately than to give a healthy baby a home. Relieved of the unwanted burden, the young woman can get on with her life, and have children of her own, in marriage.

That's my version of the story. "Relieved of the burden" is how I put the part about "abandoning her child." I was always very sympathetic to my mother's plight. I knew that she must have gone through a terrible ordeal. But I thought that she'd have gotten over it, and I didn't want to remind her of it.

Well, the Story was a crock, the precipitate of an unholy admixture of bad science (in the form of social workers trying to apply Freudian ideas to the general public) and anti-Bolshevik xenophobia (which made all forms of sexual "deviance," from unmarried pregnancy to childless marriage, disapprobable). It was a convenient fiction that relieved adoptive parents of any guilt for kidnapping other people's children - interposing agencies worked the transfers, and told reams of lies and white lies in the doing. (Ann Fessler's mother was told that her baby's adoptive father owned a factory. He worked in one.) Adoptive parents - the paying customers - were the beneficiaries of the Story. But the other two parties to the adoptive triad were not so well served. Children (not me, but many adoptees) felt that because they'd been abandoned, they weren't any good, and, as Ann Fessler's oral history makes abundantly clear, their mothers had their noses ground in unworthiness. There is not one single report in The Girls Who Went Away of a mother who "moved on" and "got over it." There may have been mothers who did, but I think I'd classify them as seriously disturbed women.

Hello, people: you do not sign away your child at birth and get over it! You don't! You don't! You don't! You have to be virtually coerced (as woman after woman attests) by aggressive authority figures and extortionate claims and parents who have been turned, by a craven fear of non-conformity, into the sort of people who gave up Anne Frank. You have to be bullied by a judge into signing on the dotted line. And then you get to hate yourself for the rest of your life.

Think about it. Think about how self-serving the Story is. Then think about any new mother you've ever known. Do I have to ask you? I don't think so.

My reason for overriding the three reasons is my belief that Ann Fessler's interviewees have something to tell me: only when they reunited with their adopted children did the women begin to heal. It wasn't always, or even usually, easy. But it was the indispensable event. It may turn out that my mother, should she still be alive and available for contact, will not be best pleased to meet me. She may "abandon" me a second time. That's fine. But I don't feel that the choice is mine to make. I feel, rather, that I have a moral obligation to put myself forward. To let her know, as I said the other day, that I'm okay. To put an end to her grieving, if there has been any grieving. If she wants to, she can even count my toes.

Comments

RJ, I cannot imagine the emotional atmosphere of such an event when your birth mother and yourself finally meet again. Nevertheless, I understand -and whole-heartedly support- your stance (which, by the way, you have again articulated so beautifully). My only regret is that the 'abandoned', even those without any major laments for their dissipated childhoods, are 'obliged' to be open to the rendezvous, and to deal with the fact that they, the children, shall never forget.

What a powerful piece, RJ. May fortune smile on your search.

Hi RJ - while I enjoyed reading your piece, and learning more background facts about you than you usually show, I do feel honor bound to mention the case of one of my best friends, Mary Ellen. She became pregnant when we were both 23 (1989), and she decided that while she didn't want to raise a child at that point in her life, she didn't want to have an abortion. (The father, a co-worker of ours, wanted her to have an abortion, but said he would go along with whatever her decision was.) She herself arranged an adoption, against the advice of her extended family. And she willingly went along wth it. She never regretted giving her son to this couple, who wanted him very badly. (Interestingly, just this year she had another baby boy.)

I was with her back in 1989, right after the birth, and she did cry a little bit while holding the baby, but not for very long. She has a strong resolve, I think. When the baby was about three days old and the new parents came to pick him up, Mary Ellen's mother cried, but she didn't.

A possible difference in this case is that Mary Ellen was VERY much in control of the adoption, in terms of approving who got her baby. And it was agreed that she could write back and forth wth the adoptive parents (which she did about three times.)

I think that your point of view may be based on how adoption may have worked a few decades ago, but not necessarily how it works now? What do you think?

I love the Blague. Keep it coming.

Thanks for several things here petite anglaise in general and particularly her comment on abandonment from the adoptee's view


It struck me as simplistic, tidy way of glossing over a far more complex and messy tangle of feelings. Generalisation, when in fact everyone’s story is unique.

Also, another gem when she speaks of finally having some clarity on her own issues

When I talked to Mr Frog about this, he said it seemed too obvious to have been the subject of some sort of epiphany. But then that’s what epiphanies are about, in my opinion - suddenly finding clarity, understanding, words to express something which has been staring you in the face all along, only you couldn’t see it.

Petite Anglaise's adoption category itself as a whole is really worthwhile proving once again how well anyone can do to follow your lead in reading on the blogosphere. And finally, these sparklingly gems from you here recently

I know how easy it is to take people up without giving a thought to whether you'll ever want to put them down

She may "abandon" me a second time. That's fine. But I don't feel that the choice is mine to make. I feel, rather, that I have a moral obligation to put myself forward. To let her know, as I said the other day, that I'm okay.

Along with what you have termed The Story these are very powerful ideas and well put as usual. If you continue in this pursuit, it will certainly put your idea of ambition as a kind of undistracted energy that achieves results with grace to the test. The results will be beneficial for all of us and we will wait patiently for them.

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