By Lisa Regula Meyer
I, like a lot of people, grew up knowing non-traditional families of many sorts. Some were built through foster-to-adoption, some were non-parent guardians (some of own cousins were raised by our grandparents), step-families, international adoptions, single parents, the list goes on. It’s just how life works, right? I never really thought of these families as different, or the kids as anything other than normal, because in my world they were, and looking back, I feel fortunate to have known that diversity. Needless to say, the families that I knew were families where the story about the child’s creation was open and talked about. It wasn’t until I met a good friend’s family that I thought about how the formation of one’s identity might be altered based on the choices of their parents, and it wasn’t until then that I considered the privilege of knowing one’s own story.
Before I met my friend’s father, he had already explained that his dad was adopted. I was fine with the situation, and didn’t think anything of it, and it wouldn’t be until well over a year of knowing D that I would fully understand what that meant for him. Slowly, the story came out, first about his birth and adoption, and later about his lived experience of the process. D’s family is Scottish, and he’s proud of that heritage. His story let me truly appreciate how far we’ve come in family building and children’s rights, and where we can still improve.
D was adopted when he was three, and had spent most of his life in an orphanage before then. He remembers vague bits of this time, he remembers being called “Danny,” he has the teddy bear that he remembers clinging to, he remembers feeling different from his sister- their parents’ biological child. He wasn’t told until he was an adult that he was in fact adopted, and wasn’t told by his parents, but rather his sister. His parents had maintained that he was theirs the entire time.
Once he did find out the truth, and that his feelings had been correct, he set out on a hunt to find his biological parents. D built up a fantasy of his biological parents- good parents from good families, true love, unfortunate circumstances, regret, and wishing that they hadn’t let go of him. Sometimes his stories even included his family trying to come back for him. He had his stories, but he wanted the truth, and for adoptions done in the late ‘50’s and later, closed adoptions were the norm, and records were shoddy at best.
After loads of work, D eventually got some information, and found out his truth. He found out that he had been born with syphilis. That his mother had been a prostitute. That he had two other siblings, both with different fathers than his. All of this sent him into a tailspin, not for lack of wanting to know his background, but for the huge difference in what he had expected and what was reality.
I don’t write all of this to say don’t adopt, or don’t do a closed adoption, or anything else in the negative. I write all this to say be careful and be honest, whether you go through surrogacy, adoption, donor gametes, or donor embryos. I also write all this to remind us all that it’s not what created a family that matters, but the fact that a family was created. Remove the stigma, don’t judge others for having a different family make-up, and recognize that the one thing that builds all families is love. Love is the defining characteristic of a family; the rest is just the details.
By: Meika Rouda
“How many of you are adopted?” the keynote speaker asked. I raised my hand. The auditorium was packed with people. Who were they? I wondered. Social workers, adoptees, adoptive families, birthmothers? All of the above. “How many of you have adopted children?” I raised my hand again. The woman next to me, a petite blonde in her late twenties wearing uncomfortable business attire turned to me and said “well you are sure in this aren’t you?” I smiled at her. “How many of you are birthmothers?” The woman next to me raised her hand. She had also raised her hand as an adoptee. I found it fascinating that she was an adoptee and a birth mom. She found it fascinating I was an adoptee and an adoptive mom with no biological children of my own.
Last weekend I attended my first adoption conference. I went there expecting to feel like an outsider, the girl who doesn’t want to know her birthmother, the one who isn’t in touch with her children’s biological families. I ended up finding a lot of people there who felt underrepresented. There were several adoptive fathers who I spoke to that were offended that the common idea is that men are the ones who have to be convinced to adopt when that wasn’t their story at all. They had to convince their wives! These were men who didn’t care about passing on their DNA but had to wait for their wives to come around before they could adopt. This was the norm for them, but not the norm for the data.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “The data says…” People love to rely on data. But where does this data come from? Where do they find the people to interview, to do case studies on? There is a lot of data that state it’s better for a child to know their birthparents. To have a concise story with mementos about their birth family. The idea of this makes my skin crawl and I can’t say exactly why. I guess because it feels so unnatural to me. One of the seminars I attended was about how to talk to your child if you have no contact with your child’s birthmother. Most of the people in the seminar had International Adoptions, situations where it was impossible to know who the birthmother was. Their baby was left in a park in China and taken to an orphanage. They wanted to know how to make that story into something positive. “You can tell them that their birthmother left them somewhere that she knew they would be found quickly. That she waited in the bushes in the park to make sure the baby was picked up by the adoption agency. That she wanted a good life for the baby.” It is nice to create a story for the adoptee although at some point, the girl is going to learn about the Chinese government’s one child per couple law and the fact that girls are not valued in that country which led to her being left in the park.
The seminar leader continued coaching the parent. “And usually these women leave a memento with the child, a piece of cloth or a coin. If they did, make sure you give that to your child. Adoptees cherish mementos from their birthmother. ”
Say what? I have no mementos from my birthmother. Oh, actually I do, I have the correspondence she wrote to the attorney handling my adoption. I suppose it is nice to have these letters but do I cherish them? No. I don’t even know where they are. I think in a box maybe in my garage. What is the memento supposed to represent? That they cared for me?
Another group of the underrepresented were birthmothers who don’t want contact with the children they have placed. These were young women, not older ones who may have suffered the “primal wound” or placed babies unwillingly. These young women feel badly that they don’t want contact because the data says… You get what I am saying.
My main takeaway from the conference was that each adoption is different just as each person is different. Just because I don’t want to know my birthmother or birth family, doesn’t make me wrong or make my experience any less valuable than those who are in touch with their birth families and benefit from that. There really is no right or wrong in adoption except of course secrecy and lies which is harmful in any situation, not just adoption. I admit that there was a point during the day that I was sure I would reach out to my children’s birthmothers. That I would keep tabs on them and make sure they were doing well so I could update my kids on their status. The data had convinced me that this would be good for them. But it feels uncomfortable for me. Should I put my feelings aside to do what the data shows is positive for my kids? I decided at the end of the day not to. To just keep their information for my kids for if/when they want to contact them. That is part of their story, not mine. That should be their choice, not mine.
To me the important part is having access to information. To be able to have the choice to be in touch for all parties involved in the triad. It is their choice and the option is there but I don’t think I need to refer to my son’s birthmother as “Mommy Shannon” in order for him to have a good sense of self and strong identity. She is not someone who is a constant in his life at this moment. I know what the data says and I know what my heart and experience say too.
I wanted to talk to the woman who sat next to me at the conference. I wanted to find out her story, how she came to place a child, whether she was in touch with her own birthmother. It felt good to be in a room with other people who have stories either like mine or different from mine but that we are all touched by how powerful adoption is. The woman left before I could talk to her but as I saw her exit the building. I felt a kinship with her. Our stories may be different but our feelings about adoption being a positive experience are the same.