Leaping in Headfirst

August 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

self publishing

I’ve always been a storyteller.  Nothing gives me greater joy than crafting a story.  Writing is not something I consciously chose to do, but rather it’s something I have to do.  Growing up, I was most comfortable and happy when I was lost in a book.  By the time I reached high school, I had probably read more books than most people will read in their lifetime.  It was when I decided I needed to be a writer, a professional author.  That was the only way I would truly be happy and satisfied in life.  I wanted to write the stories I had never had a chance to read.  A story that featured adoptees and strong empowered women in the role of heroes.

When I reached college, I had become jaded by the closed-door policy of the publishing world, particularly when it came to genre writing.  I had received just about every sexist rejection you can imagine:  I was “too feminine to write serious fantasy” (or “too feminist”), nobody is interested in “women-driven fantasy”, etc. etc.  Basically the message I was getting was the same:  I was a nobody and I didn’t know any of the right people.  And on top of all of it, I’m a girl.  Girls don’t write “serious genre,” so beat it!  I have a literal stack of rejections hidden under my desk (which are ordered from most sexist to just basic form rejections).

Dealing with sexism is an unfortunate part of being a woman, particularly if you’re going against the tide and trying to get into a field dominated and run by men.  Blatant sexism is still rampant in publishing and in genre.  If you’re a woman and you don’t write romantic horror/fantasy/scifi, you aren’t going to find a traditional publisher.  Adversity has never been a deterrent for me.  If anything, it makes me fight even harder.  I’m a novelist, dammit, and I had already decided that’s what I was going to be.  If I couldn’t get published through traditional means, then it just meant I would have to make my own way.

So, in March, I decided to plunge headfirst into the scary and exhilarating world of self-publishing.  I can’t remember a time when I’ve been more terrified.  I’m poor and in debt, I don’t have any kind of name recognition, and I’m so new to this that I don’t know anything!  But I do have passion and determination.  I have also met many supportive genre feminists who have been there every step of the way to offer kind words of encouragement.  I joined an organization dedicated to highlighting women’s voices in speculative fiction:  Broad Universe.  It’s one of the rare organizations open to both traditional and self-published authors.

I’ve started attending conventions and participating in panels.  Public speaking is the last thing I ever expected to do.  For most of my life, I’ve struggled with crippling stage fright.  I used to be unable to answer questions in classes because of the sheer terror I felt when attention was focused on me.  Even today, I find talking in front of a group of people to be somewhat frightening.  At my first convention ever, I was put on my first panel ever, where we discussed Art & Activism, and I thought I was going to die.  That may sound a little overdramatic, but I actually thought I would have a heart attack.  My heart was hammering so hard in my chest.

I got through it, but I did stumble in my reading.  My voice got shaky and my insides turned to Jell-O.  I didn’t use up my allotted time.  Thankfully, the convention was full of some of the nicest and most supportive people.  I had plenty of people come up to me afterwards to reassure me I did just fine.  The experience was good enough to convince me to submit a panel on genre feminism for my next convention and one on strong women.  Both panels went exceedingly well.

The novels I’ve released have both been learning experiences.  Sere from the Green, my first, was a very rough novel.  I made the mistake of having it only proofread instead of an in depth edit.  I learned from that experience and enlisted my brother, an English major with a knack for finding inconsistencies in plotting, to tear apart my second novel.  After many sleepless nights and near-nervous breakdowns, Through Storm and Night came out in July.  It is cleaner, reads better, and is a definite improvement on my first novel.  Now, my third novel is coming out in October.  It’s in a much better state than my first two books were and I can’t wait to release it.

I’m currently on a tour of the Midwest, hitting whatever conventions I can.  I am speaking about genre feminism any chance I get.  I’m pissed off about traditional publishing’s stranglehold on the market.  Women are still being actively discouraged from writing genre.  As a result, fantasy/horror/scifi is overwhelmingly told through the male gaze.  Diversity is practically non-existent and it isn’t right.

When I first started writing, my goal was simple:  I wanted to write an adoptee heroine.  The one I was never able to find growing up.  I want to write a story for adoptees where we’re the heroes and heroines.  I want to write about diverse heroines of all different races, sexual orientations, backgrounds, abilities, and ages.  I may not accomplish that with my current series, but I have so many other stories to tell.  I haven’t put down my pen yet and I don’t plan to in the near future.

If you’re interested in my novels or my upcoming appearances, they’re listed on my blog under “Published Works” and “Upcoming Appearances”: http://lifeandtimesofawriter.blogspot.com/

 

 

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A Ghost that Haunts Me

November 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Adoptive Families, Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

Not that long ago, I was reviewing some work and got distracted by a common element that turns up in just about every story I’ve written: separated siblings. It struck me because although this was completely unintentional, it clearly reflects an important, but still unknown, part of my life.

As I’ve previously written, I’m an adopted child. Unlike some other adoptees, I’ve chosen to forgo any kind of contact or reunion with my biological relations. To put it simply, I want nothing to do with them. This decision is due to a discovery that could have possibly affected my health and was undisclosed for purely selfish reasons.

Still, there is one biological relative of mine that remains shrouded in mystery: my older half-sister. All my life, I’ve known this person has existed, but other than that, I haven’t the faintest clue about her. The extent of my knowledge is that we share the same biological mother, she was given up for adoption through the same agency as I, and a few years back she was experiencing health problems. Being the naturally curious individual that I am, I’ve spent most of my life wondering about her. What kind of person is she? Does she know about me? Is she anything like me?

Perhaps, not surprisingly, this wondering plays out in my work quite often. Very few of my characters are only children. The ones that have siblings are often separated from them, usually due to forces and circumstances outside of their control. I’ve written a fair amount of stories that revolve around one sibling’s search for another, most often from the older sibling’s point of view. That’s interesting to me because technically, I play two roles in life. Among my adoptive family, the one I know as my own, I am the older sister. However, in my biological family, the alien backdrop, I am the younger half-sister. So am I writing from the mystery half-sister’s theoretical point of view or from my own?

Occasionally, I’ve found myself running Internet searches using a couple key terms and phrases. Sadly, since I don’t have that much information, these always prove fruitless. Does she run the same searches? Or does she share my distaste for our despicable biological relatives? Perhaps we’re both afraid of the same thing: that our mystery sibling is the apple that didn’t fall far from the genetic tree. Then again, maybe she is completely unaware of my existence. This seems to be the most likely scenario.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever look for her. I don’t think it’s very likely I ever will. I started to once, but then discovered the metaphorical skeletons that populate our biological family closet. That has soured me on the whole idea of any kind of reunion with anyone even remotely connected with that past of which I want no part.

I’ve come to accept that the lack of closure on this part of my past will likely continue to manifest in stories and dreams. Perhaps that’s another reason I’m reluctant to search. I don’t want to lose that last bit of mystery in my life, which can be a great driving force, creativity-wise.

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National Adoption Month: Mother

November 19, 2012 by  
Filed under Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

My brother often asks me why I chose to major in anthropology rather than creative writing. Surprisingly the answer has a lot to do with my work.

I’m an adopted child. I’ve grown up knowing that and so I don’t see it as all that unusual. I’ve always been upfront about my background, which surprises a lot of people and leads to some rather insensitive questions. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, a major running theme through most of the things I write is a search for identity. A lot of my characters are searching for where they fit in the world and what that means.

Whenever I’ve mentioned that I’m adopted, there is almost a knee-jerk reaction question: “But don’t you miss your real mother?” When I was very young, I had no understanding of what this meant and would often reply quite comically, “Why would I miss my Mom? She’s coming to pick me up after school.” This would then lead to the other kid repeating the question and me still not understanding what in the hell they were talking about.

As I got older, I became a little less open about my being an adopted child because I got sick of answering that same question. It didn’t matter how many times I carefully explained that I was adopted when I was two weeks old and therefore had no memory nor attachment nor feelings towards my biological mother; people just couldn’t accept this. So I basically gave up trying.

Our society has a very narrow definition of what a mother is. People want to fit everyone into neat little packages and roles. Even feminists sometimes fall into this trap. There is actually an anti-adoption movement on the basis that it is unfair to the biological mother. I’ve even heard closed adoption, which is where you give up all rights to the child like my biological mother did, called “the dark ages”. Being pro-choice, I find this incredibly hypocritical. It’s saying that a woman can decide up until she has the child and then all choice is eliminated. That just isn’t right.

Some months back, I had decided to search for an older half-sister. I was curious about what she was like since she was the one I knew least about. I even knew more about my unnamed biological father than I did about her. I have since given up the search for a variety of reasons, one of the main ones being that I stumbled across some rather important family medical history that had been withheld for purely selfish reasons. Furious at the irresponsibility of this action, I decided that I wanted nothing to do with my biological family. To date, my biological mother has made one attempt to contact me. It promptly wound up in the paper shredder.

The immediate reaction to this was my being chastised by some close to me for being cruel. Automatically, the offensive term of “real mother” or just plain “mother” came back into conversation. “How can you be so cruel to the woman that loved you so much?” I wanted to yell and scream. I wanted to snap that they had no idea what adoption was like and therefore were forming an opinion on something they knew nothing about. It was as if my own mother didn’t exist or was just some person in my life, nowhere near as important as this other woman who happened to share the same DNA. It was aggravating and offensive as hell, but I remained patient since I had been expecting such a reaction.

A couple months after this, I met with my adviser and former anthropology professor for a friendly visit, just to catch up. During the midst of our conversation, I let it slip that I was adopted and he was immediately fascinated. I was scared that this was going to be another bout of justifying my actions or feelings, but he surprised me with how open-minded he was on the topic. He told me that the island where he works, a small island near Papua New Guinea, is the adoption capital of the world. It is not unusual for a sister with many children to give one or two to her childless sister. They practice matrilineal descent, which means they call their mothers and aunts by the same terms.

That kind of understanding was refreshing to me and was exactly what I needed. Here was a person that actually understood adoption and was completely nonjudgmental about it. I had already decided that I would major in anthropology, but that wonderful discussion cemented my decision.

My professor mentioned that our culture has such a strange definition for kin. It’s very true. Western Culture seems to think blood is the be-all end-all of everything. We put too much emphasis on biology and not enough on kinship. We romanticize parenthood and family in much the same way we do matrimony. Anything outside our understanding of these concepts can’t possibly be right or healthy.

Perhaps I’m doing the same thing and over generalizing a complex issue. I can only speak from my experience. My mother raised me and loved me as her own and I have always felt like I was her daughter. Does it really matter that we have a different set of genes?

.

Lauren is a freelance writer living in Illinois

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Siblings in All but Blood

November 9, 2012 by  
Filed under Adoptive Families, Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

He’s the light-haired, dark-eyed Swede.

I’m the dark-haired, bright-eyed Irish/Cherokee mutt.

To look at us, nobody would guess that we were related in any way, much less siblings. We look nothing alike. When I was in elementary school, I frequently had people tell me that it must be so much easier for me than for my brother because I look somewhat like my family with my dark hair. He, being blond, obviously didn’t fit in the picture. Yeah, kids are great when it comes to tact. We’ve never been able to fool anyone. We never thought to try. Yet despite the very noticeable physical differences, our personalities are frighteningly similar at times.

We’re both atheists, democrats, and cynical to the bone. We don’t enjoy crowds, gatherings, or get-togethers and much prefer to be left on our own. Growing up in a fairly outgoing Roman Catholic family, we were the peculiar ones in the happy-go-lucky holidays. You’d think this would lead to some sort of camaraderie in our impressionable years. It did not.

When I found out my parents were bringing home another kid, I threw a tantrum. Being five years old at the time, that was pretty much my response to everything that I didn’t like. My parents kept insisting that a baby brother would be a present for me, a blessing in my life. I was skeptical and that skepticism only grew when I wasn’t even allowed to name him. I wanted to call my new baby brother Jack. They settled on Michael. I hold my choice was better and Mike agrees with me.

As Michael grew up, we had some of the nastiest, all-out, brutal battles imaginable. Sibling rivalry doesn’t even begin to approach the kinds of fights we had growing up. It was war, plain and simple.

Eventually, we both grew up and matured. Sometime around my teenage years, I realized having another person around wasn’t so bad. Well, except when he would have his friends over. I’d be trying to write and was constantly interrupted by the raucous video game parties they held every weekend!

Today, I’m closest with my brother. We’ve gone from bitter enemies to allies fighting for survival in the trenches of family holidays. Being the only atheists, and by extension, open to the idea of scientific explanations and solutions, we’re the lone wolves. Michael has a better grasp of science and math than I do and I frequently find myself seeking his help when trying to explain why someone’s argument is illogical. I’ve learned so much from him, just listening to his explanations.

He’s my toughest critic, my only one at the moment, and nothing gets sent out without his once over. He’s got an amazing grasp of literature and even though we don’t always agree, he can at least give me a coherent argument about why something doesn’t work. His criticism gives me something to think about, even when I don’t agree with it.

There are still some things that we don’t see eye-to-eye on. When I see something as sexist, he usually sees it as merely old-fashioned. He doesn’t think our genders affect the way our family treats us –such a male opinion. He is much better at social situations than I am. Where he can hide his disdain for someone, I’ve never learned how. I sometimes seem like the younger sibling, despite being five years older. Still, I know he always has my back and I have his.

Michael will be going back to college soon and I find myself hoping that he applies to the college that I attend. Being much older than most of the student body, I’ve found myself feeling out of place. Having my younger brother would give me another person to interact with. Neither one of us is a fan of academic settings, probably because of our dislike for crowds.

I find that we seem a lot closer than most siblings, in our own quirky way. Is it because we are the only two adopted people in our family? Perhaps. Or maybe we’re just two of a kind. Whatever the reason, I wouldn’t trade him for the world.

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Constructing a Family

March 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Adoptive Families

By Lauren Jankowski

Recently I led a discussion in my Gender and Culture class on a chapter from “Families We Choose” by Kath Weston.  The chapter was entitled “Exiles from Kinship” and it was about how the Bay Area gay and lesbian community began constructing their own families in the 80s.  These created families challenged the common definition of “family”, particularly the anthropological definition.  Up until that point, anthropology defined kinships almost solely on biological ties.  This overly simplistic definition overlooked the fact that family is not a purely biological construct, not entirely.  Rather, family -even kinship -is a lot more fluid than we realize.

As an adoptee, I find that I don’t put as much stock in the importance of blood ties.  Throughout my life, I have constructed many different families.  I have noticed other adoptees often do the same thing, sometimes without even realizing it.  I grew up with a large Italian family, emphasis on large.  Everyone was an aunt or uncle, regardless of whether they were related by blood or not.  Along with my parents’ siblings, there were a number of family friends that my brother and I referred to as “aunt” or “uncle”.  Their children were our cousins.

As I grew up, I began to find my personality, beliefs, and goals were completely different.  My family is very child-centric to the point of being old-fashioned.  Every birth is celebrated and every woman is expected to settle down with a nice man.  Holidays and gatherings are filled with discussions of whose child did/accomplished what, along with the normal sports talk and economy complaints (with the occasional chat about television).  Being a natural bookworm with an independent streak, I found this environment to be stifling.  When I decided very late in high school to marry myself to my work and lead a life without romantic attachments (I decided long ago that having a family was just not for me), this was met with “Well, you’ll feel differently when you meet the right man and have children of your own.”

While I do love my family, I realized that I needed a new support system.  So I turned to college and friends, creating my own eclectic group of individuals that I adore and admire for different reasons.  Some began from a mutual love of the written word.  Others shared my love of really great stories and myths.  Some share my desire to live a completely independent life.  Others are people that I find to be fascinating, either due to their personality or because they showed me a new way to think about the world.  Still others are accepting and offer me the intellectual conversations that I so love and crave.  The one thing that this created family shares is that everyone in it accepts me as is, even when I’m at my worst, and treats me as an equal.

In 1991, Kath Weston wrote that we need to move past our rigid biological definition of kinship and explore alternative families, ones that aren’t necessarily based on the biological model.  When I recently visited The Cradle again, Gabby told me about an annual picnic that is held for adoptive and biological families.  The kids wear two different nametags: one with the name given by the biological parent(s) and the second given by their adoptive family.  As I write this, I think about how my definition of family has changed as I’ve grown and matured.

As a society, we need to accept that there are different kinds of families and kinships.  Not all of them revolve around biological ties.  In the grand scheme of things, biology is probably a lot less important than most people think.  In my mind, I have two families, both of whom I love dearly and would do anything for.  I do not favor one over the other and would never choose between them.  In my book, they are equal.  I’d be very surprised if I were alone in feeling this way.

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An Interview with Lauren Jankowski

January 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Adoptive Families, Family

Interview with Lauren Jankowski by The Next Family

TNF: How has it been blogging for TNF?

It has been incredible. I have learned so much about writing and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I never thought I would write nonfiction, but I am happy that I chose to take advantage of an opportunity to do so.

TNF: How is your family like every other family and how is it different?

I think people would be surprised at how normal adoptive families are. My family is really no different from any other. We have the same dynamics and do the exact same thing. People are often shocked when I tell them I’m an adoptee. As for how we’re different, I can’t really think of anything in particular. I’m a very artistic personality whereas my family tends to be more straight-laced.

TNF: Did your family accept you and your lifestyle? If yes, explain and if not, explain what you have done to help them to accept your decisions and your lifestyle.

I can’t think of anything my family had difficulty accepting, aside from my feminism. (Reproductive rights has never been all that popular with old-fashioned Catholics, even if they’re lax.) My mother probably would have liked grandkids and I’m sure she still holds out hope that one day I’ll settle into a traditional relationship. However, she is gradually accepting that I’m not a family-oriented person and decided long ago that I do not want children.

TNF: How do you juggle the work at home with your jobs?

I’m finishing up an undergrad degree, considering (sometime down the road) grad school, freelancing, writing, and working on my own novels and short stories. I have no idea how I juggle all that and I’m sure I’m not always doing a stellar job of it.

TNF: What lessons do you feel are the most important to teach children in this day and age? Are there any lessons they, or perhaps we as parents should unlearn?

What concerns me most is the rigidity of gender roles that continues to pervade our society. Girls are expected to like pink, dresses, frilly things, and domesticity. Boys are expected to like blue, trucks, action, and “being a man”. We need to unlearn these rigid roles that continue to reinforce the glass ceiling that all women encounter, among other things. Girls need to be taught that they can be whatever they want, love whomever they choose, and will be loved no matter what. Some girls may want to play with trucks instead of princess dolls. Some boys may prefer to wear dresses. They should be allowed to explore their personalities and find what makes them happiest.

TNF: Any words of wisdom to pass on to our readers?

Find whatever makes you happy and pursue it. We only get to live once, why spend the little time we have miserable? As cheesy as it sounds, I think the best advice that anyone can give is to be yourself. Oh and read. A lot. Read things you like, things you normally wouldn’t. Just whatever you can get your hands on.

TNF: Anything you want our readers to know about you or your family?

I hope that I am a good example of an adoptee: just a regular, well-adjusted individual. I would also like other adoptees to know that genetics are not all that important. As I wrote in my last piece, I recently found out that my biological family is not exactly the most well-adjusted bunch of individuals. Also, as an adoptee, I feel that the family that raised me, my adoptive family, is my “real” family. Biology doesn’t really matter that much to adoptive families. Love is love, regardless of genes.

Thank you for sharing Lauren!

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Surviving the Nightmare

October 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Adoptive Families, Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

This is one of the most difficult things I have ever written, but I felt it important to write. I believe it is a situation that many adoptees either fear or feel alone in experiencing. I was able to write it because there are people in my life who love me just the way I am and I am forever indebted to them for that. I would particularly like to thank Julie, Marco, Alex, Catherine, Robyn, and Professors Bolyanatz and Voss. They have had a profound impact on my life and writing, for which I remain forever grateful.

Normal. That was all I ever wanted.

I have often heard that many adopted children fantasize about being the sons or daughters of royalty or celebrities. Someone important, someone famous. I never held these kinds of high aspirations as I knew how exceedingly unlikely it was.

Me? I just wanted normal. I wanted the medical records to be accurate, as they told me I had nothing to worry about. No medications, disorders, diseases (psychiatric or otherwise), clean bill. Nothing to worry about.

Alas, it was not meant to be.

A little more than a year ago, my natural curiosity led to my world being turned upside down. I opened my records in the hopes of finding my mystery half-sister. Unfortunately, there was nothing in my records about her but there was another name: my biological mother’s. What happened next happened within a matter of days. A general internet search turned up a mug shot and brief criminal record. A neighbor, who was an accomplished investigative journalist, and my trusted mentor, turned up a lengthy and colorful record. An accurate medical history emerged and it was not pretty.

Bipolar paranoid schizophrenic with a history of suicide attempts and violence towards animals. Was on heavy medication, which she often didn’t take. Her mother, afflicted by the same disease, needed to be taken care of and could not live on her own as she was a danger to herself and others.

How I wish I could write that I reacted to this news with stoicism and grace. That it did not affect me in the slightest and just rolled off my back.

I cannot because I did not.

I started out fairly okay and was more annoyed than anything. Nothing changed drastically.

Until the following week, when my mentor and I had a very nasty falling out. The man that I had trusted implicitly, who had been a teacher and friend, suddenly wanted nothing to do with me. Though our falling out had nothing to do with the revelation about my biological family, the proximity of the two events linked them in my mind. Suddenly, it felt like there was a neon sign over my head declaring that I was the offspring of an animal-slaughtering nutcase. “Look! It’s the daughter of a crazy person!”

I began to isolate myself, particularly from my animal-loving friends. When attending a vegan festival in Chicago, I found myself hiding. I suddenly felt like I no longer had a place in that world. I stopped writing for fear it would somehow trip the crazy switch that had to be lurking in my brain. Schizophrenia suddenly started popping up everywhere and it was always tied to violence, murders, and suicides.

My mind, which had at one time been a safe haven and a source of pleasure, had now become an enemy. A ticking time bomb that I could not defuse. I was doomed.

Thankfully, the same curiosity that had led to this crisis proved to be a saving grace. Being a writer, I have always had the need to learn. I enjoy it, flexing my intellectual and creative muscles. In the midst of this nightmare, I decided to take a course in Abnormal Psychology. I wanted to learn all I could about the mysterious disease of the mind. This monster called Schizophrenia, which means “split mind” in Greek.

The first day of class, I sat in the front row. I was in a daze and only half-listened to the professor talk about the syllabus. He was interesting and approachable. I give him a lot of credit. I doubt many professors could have graciously handled a brand-new student coming up to them after class, on the verge of tears, sobbing, “I just found out my biological mother and grandmother are batshit insane! Am I going to be too?!” (Yes, those were basically my exact words.)

He smiled and gently explained how unlikely that was. I was already in my mid-twenties and I had never shown any signs of schizophrenia. Miraculously this brief exchange made me feel a little better. I started to see things clearly once again. Nobody was treating me any differently. My friends were still my friends. I was not untouchable and nobody saw me as the daughter of the crazy woman, the potential future schizophrenic.

I was still me. Just me.

Eventually, I transferred to an out-of-state college. I wanted to finish my undergraduate degree and I wanted to be away from home. There were too many unpleasant memories there and it no longer felt like home. Once I arrived on campus, those old fears were suddenly stirred up again. I was one of the oldest students on campus and I was the daughter of an insane person. Even though I knew no one would know, I still felt isolated and alone.

On top of these fears, I was still communicating with someone that consistently made me feel small, dumb, and less than human. No matter how much my friends told me to cut off communication, I could not bring myself to do so. Perhaps I was trying to hold on to some small part of my identity from that time before I knew anything about my biological relatives. A time when I lived in blissful ignorance.

I lucked out. I took a course in Classical Mythology and rediscovered my passion for stories. The intellectual conversations gradually brought me out of my shell and I was once again reminded that life went on. I could still connect with others. I was not going to be stigmatized and my genes did not define me.

My biological mother was not me and I did not have to suffer for her mistakes.

Since then, I completed my first semester (my junior year) at college. I ended the toxic relationship that left me feeling sub-human and made healthier connections with new friends while holding my old ones close. Over the summer, I achieved a life goal and went to Europe for the first time. To my great surprise, the self-consciousness about my biological background was not as strong as it had once been.

As I journeyed through Greece, Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and other countries, I felt freedom rushing through my veins. I was in awe of the beauty that surrounded me. I was no longer numb to the world and still had the ability to enjoy myself. I was finally learning how to be my own person instead of defining myself based on genetics. For the first time, I was someone other than what people projected on me.

I am not doomed by my genes. I am not defined by my biological background.

A friend of mine asked me some time ago why I did not give my biological mother any leniency. She was, after all, not well. Surely her illness deserves some consideration.

I do not believe it does. Perhaps that is harsh, but the fact is that she knows she is sick and she made the decision to lie about it twice. She put herself over the health of her two daughters and I find that to be unforgivable. I am grateful that she realized that she could not provide for me (or my half sister) and made the selfless decision to give us up. However, that does not excuse her selfish act of concealing her medical history. One selfless decision does not give one a free ride.

At least I know most of the medical history now. It frequently leads to some snarky responses to doctor inquiries about medical history. “Well, I don’t think there’s a history of that, but I can’t know for sure. My biological mother fabricated most of her medical history, you see.”

Sometimes this gets a laugh out of the doctor. Other times the response is a horrified look. I have not decided which is the more amusing response.

So I came out of the nightmare a stronger and better person. I closed that chapter of my life and opened another one.

My name is Lauren.

I am an adoptee. An Irish/Cherokee/German mutt, we think.

I am a writer, an aspiring novelist who has completed four novels, a novella, and a number of short stories.

I am a feminist, a liberal, a vegan, and an animal rights activist.

I am interested in the field of Classics, particularly in myths.

I am graduating from college this year.

I am my own woman, in love with life.

It is very nice to meet you.

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SlutWalks

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

According to RAINN: Each year, there are about 213,000 victims of sexual assault.

Recently, hundreds of people marched the streets of Chicago in protest of the victim-blaming that women are burdened with when it comes to the issue of rape and sexual violence. The protest was in response to a Toronto police officer stating that women could avoid being victimized if they avoided dressing like sluts. Almost immediately, there was a feminist backlash in the form of marches held across the globe. These marches are called “SlutWalks” and they are quite the spectacle.

Sitting in my local train station on a hot summer day, I started to feel woefully overdressed. I had heard that there was a possibility of rain, so I threw on some incredibly tight jeans and a black t-shirt with the words “I ♥ [heart] Female Orgasm” across the chest, the most risqué outfit I could come up with that wouldn’t risk too much sunburn. It was my first feminist protest. I have signed numerous petitions on a variety of issues, but I had never experienced a real honest-to-goodness protest firsthand before. That’s kind of sad considering that I attend college in Wisconsin. Needless to say, I was feeling quite excited.

Upon boarding the train, I reflected on the natural tendency to feel nervous whenever heading into the city by myself. I grew up in a family that held old-fashioned values and as a result, whenever I go on excursions on my own, there’s an instinctual wariness. Being a woman and being alone in the city is synonymous with fear. I can still vividly remember my parents commenting on the “shady” areas in the city –the places, were I to be on my own, to be avoided at all costs. As the train rumbled down the tracks, I started to really appreciate the point of these marches. Why should women feel fear when men do not?

I’ve often thought about the power of language when it comes to our development, starting from the time we’re children and continuing into adulthood. As someone who makes a living through writing, I’ve always been keenly aware of the power of language. Throughout the march, the message was continually reiterated: there are no sex-positive words for women indicating an obvious patriarchal bias in language. As a result, women are seen as less, as “the other”. Until this bias is addressed, we will continue to live in a world where rape is sadly commonplace.

But the question remains: can we reclaim derogatory words and reinvent them to be positive, perhaps even empowering?

This was the question I thought of as I stepped off the train and onto the crowded platform. The day was positively sweltering. I caught a glimpse of orange and the glisten of glitter. The sight of the word “slut” in huge black letters has never been so inviting. A group of four girls was only a short way ahead of me and I caught up with them, asking if I could follow them to the march. Much to my relief, they readily agreed.

When we reached the plaza where the march was to begin, I was heartened by the diversity that greeted us. People of all genders, ethnicities, ages, and orientations stood about in the blistering heat. Men held signs of solidarity, declaring that real men didn’t rape. Women were dressed in all sorts of clothes: from conservative to nearly nude. Women on roller blades skated around, handing out fliers to the next roller derby. All of us gathered together, prepared to take a stand against victim-blaming and sexual violence.

There was a rainbow of signs, each proclaiming a different and important statement. Some women carried signs identifying themselves as survivors and I saw at least one who had written “survivor” across her chest in large black letters. A young blonde girl, no more than eight years old, carried a neon green sign that said, “Go ahead. Call me one. I dare you.”

As I stood in a huge sea of people, I began to think about my own experience with victim-blaming. When I was a senior in high school, a sophomore was raped at a party. The entire school, and the community, only asked one question: what was a 16-year-old doing at a party? The narrative immediately turned the blame on her. She shouldn’t have been drinking. It was consensual but she was afraid of getting in trouble so she cried rape. She was asking for it.

Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t think to speak up against this kind of thinking. She was a nameless, faceless individual. It didn’t concern me so I remained quiet. Standing in that sea of people, I felt somewhat guilty for this silence. At the time, I could only think of getting out of high school and into college. I decided that I would march for that nameless girl in my high school, even though I never knew her personally.

The heat seemed to climb even higher and I began to sweat even before we started walking. Glancing around at the incredibly provocative outfits (one woman came in nothing more than a thong and some very skillfully placed decorative tape), my earlier worry about being overdressed was confirmed. (Though I had no shortage of compliments on the t-shirt.) A few people handed out fliers for various things: the socialists of Chicago, the women from the Roller Derby, a group for the rights of prostitutes. Every group had a unique take on feminism, but women’s equality was the unifying theme.

Then we began walking down Randolph Avenue. I soon got separated from the girls that I had followed, due to my fiddling with my camera. Thankfully, the march was large enough that I was able to fit in nicely in the middle of it. The brief spots of shade were just as hot as the sunlit stretches. The march started attracting attention immediately. Faces peered out of windows, people paused to see what was going on, cell phones were held up to capture the march. It wasn’t too long before the marchers began callbacks.

“Hey-hey, ho-ho, sexual violence has got to go!”

“Hey-hey, ho-ho, yes means yes and no means no!”

“Rape is bullshit!”

At one point, we crossed paths with another group that was marching for breast cancer. We continued on down Michigan Avenue. I glanced to the side when I heard loud cheers and watched as a bus driver gave high-fives to a group of energetic marchers. In the places where traffic was blocked off, we got enthusiastic honks. I choose to believe they were in solidarity rather than annoyance at the inconvenience.

We turned onto Clark Street, the home stretch. By this time, everyone was sweating (I probably more than most), but our energy was not dimmed. We continued shouting. Those carrying signs waved them about excitedly. I found myself smiling, despite the humidity and sweltering heat.

As the march came to an end at Daly Plaza, most of the participants made a beeline for the fountain. They started setting up for the speakers at the huge abstract statue in the middle of the plaza. Music was blasted as they continued to set up. I somehow reunited with the girls that I had followed originally. After a bit, they had to leave and asked if I wanted to go with them. Feeling somewhat lightheaded, likely due to the heat and my forgetting to bring any water, I eagerly took them up on their offer and we hailed a cab.

As the cab pulled away from the Daly Plaza, I looked out the window at the gathering that braved the heat and humidity to make a stand against violence. A rainbow of people still stood around together, cheering and dancing. It was a beautiful sight that I’ll remember for many years to come.

There was no news coverage. The only mention of the protest in the papers was an editorial written by someone who had completely missed the point of the march. There was a blurb online, but that was about it. The march was captured in numerous pictures that can be found online, taken by the marchers themselves.

My disappointment in this stems from the fact that it was an important event for an issue that is frequently dismissed until it affects someone personally. We are living in a culture where rape is often blamed on the victim. We are living in a world where daughters need to be taught that there are dangerous people that will try to violate them. A woman who is raped is someone’s daughter, someone’s friend. Somebody’s wife, lover, child, sister, aunt, niece, possibly even mother.

As women, we are brought into a world where our language is skewed against us. We will all encounter derogatory terms like “bitch”, “whore”, “slut”, and others. They will sting and hurt like hell, but we will have to ignore it because that is all we really can do. But until we find a way to reclaim the language, we will continue to be confronted with issues like sexual violence and other inequalities.

Personally, I hope that the SlutWalks catch on. I hope they are held yearly. I will march in each and every one until victim-blaming is a thing of the past. Hopefully, this was the first step in the much more important process of eradicating sexual violence.

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My Visit to the Cradle

June 13, 2011 by  
Filed under Adoptive Families, Family

By: Lauren Jankowski

How is it possible that I can so vividly remember the architecture of the third floor, but not the front door?

Strange as it sounds, that was my first thought as I stood outside the Gothic structure.  It had been more than 15 years since I last stood on this sidewalk, in front of this place.  I was adopted from this massive stone building, known as The Cradle.  I was brought here when I was an infant, stayed in the nursery for a bit before being taken home, and visited off-and-on throughout the first few years of my life.

So why would I only remember the top of the building and not the front door? It is a really beautiful door. (When I posted the few pictures I took, a friend of mine even said it looked kind of “magical”.)

Still, I had not come to just stand in front of the building on an overcast day to ponder the reasons why I could only remember certain features.  I wanted to see inside, so I went up to the door and rang the bell on the side.  After a few minutes of no one answering, I read the sign above the bell and realized that it was only for after-hours when the place was closed.  I sheepishly opened the door and stepped inside, hoping that I had not made a complete dunce of myself.

Though I did not remember the exact specifics of the inside, the feeling remained the same.  The Cradle has always had an air of old splendor.  It is much more home-like, with a sense of warmth and charm.  One would think an adoption agency would have a clinical feeling, but thankfully The Cradle does not.  I wandered over to the reception desk and told the receptionist that I was expected.  She smiled, gave me a visitor’s pass to clip on my shirt, and directed me to the living room.

While waiting for my guide for the day, I looked around the living room.  It still has the same soft furniture that I remember from my childhood, but for some reason, the room was much brighter than I remembered.  I fiddled around with my camera a bit, trying to figure out how it worked, when I thought about how strange it was that I was now a visitor.  I began to get more eager to explore the place that has been an incredibly important part of my life.

Gaby, my guide for the day and the Interactive Engagement Manager for The Cradle, greeted me in the living room.  We started down the first hall, where she showed me a picture of The Cradle founder: Florence Dahl Walrath.  Walrath first started in adoption when her sister lost a child at birth.  Knowing how much her sister wanted to be a mother, Walrath found a woman who had to give up her baby for adoption.  After this experience, more childless couples that Walrath knew asked for her help.  In 1923, she founded The Cradle.

The portrait of Walrath is one of a determined-looking older woman.  It reminds me of the portraits I’ve seen of suffragettes.  Before we move down the hall, Gaby brings me back to the living room for a bit and points out that most of the front half of the building is from the original 30s structure.  The back half is from the renovation in 1957, when the nurses’ dormitory was made.  In the living room, there is much of the original furniture.  She brings me over to the large bookcase and takes down one of the books from the year that I was adopted.  The Cradle keeps photos of all the children that have been adopted from there.  It’s a very quaint touch that adds to the overall feeling of home, almost like family albums.  Throughout the rest of the building, we will pass by many pictures of children both recent and old.  In the old staircase, there are pictures of some of the first children that were adopted through The Cradle.

On our way to the old staircase, an original feature from when The Cradle first started (on their website, there’s even a picture of the nurses standing on it), we pause at the Hollywood wall.  Gaby points out a couple pictures of Bob Hope, Donna Reed, Pearl Buck, and Gayle Sayers.  She mentions that The Cradle has placed about 15,000 babies.

As we continue on, we stop in a small room that was part of the original nursery back in the 50s.  It is a fascinating look back into the past.  There are tiny little bottles, a sink, an old crib, and other items that had once, in the 50s, been cutting-edge.  Gaby mentions how The Cradle often led the way in infant care, from studies to publications on the sterilization of instruments used to treat them.  As we exited, she pointed out that the current president’s office had once been a little shop where first-time adoptive parents could purchase clothes to bring their newborns home in.

We went up to the second floor of the building (The Cradle has 3 floors and a basement), stopping in a family room.  The family rooms are brightly colored rooms, often stocked with toys and comfortable furniture.  This is where I discovered the first big change since I had last been there: The Cradle now deals solely in open adoption.  The biological and adoptive parents have to meet at least once in what they call a “match meeting”.  When I asked Gaby about the change, she explained that studies have shown that open adoptions are better for all the parties involved.  I couldn’t help but wonder if my own experience would have been different had I been an open adoption.

There are two teams of counselors at The Cradle, one for the biological parents and another for the adoptive parents.  They are able to provide 24/7 support for biological mothers.  The counselors organize the “match meeting” between the two sets of parents.

The third floor is where the nursery is located.  My mother had mentioned, and Gaby confirmed, that The Cradle is the only adoption agency in the nation with an on-site nursery.  They are incredibly expensive to run, but provide a phenomenal amount of support both for the biological parents and the infants too.  As we stopped in front of the large windows, a nurse and two “cuddlers” (Cradle term for the volunteers who hold and care for babies in the nursery) were at work.  One was walking about, feeding an infant while another was rocking one near a window.  The second volunteer was holding a particularly fussy baby while rolling two more in a stroller.  Gaby mentions that there were five babies in the nursery today.  Last week there were nine.

In Illinois, a woman must wait 72 hours before she can surrender her rights to the child.  The Cradle allows biological mothers to stay in the nursery if they wish.  Birth fathers have to be notified and they are given 30 days to respond.

After the nursery, we continued to the Belonging Room.  This is a feature that Florence Dahl Walrath insisted on.  It is a room where adoptive parents meet their infants for the first time.  It’s a simple room: chairs, a sofa, a changing table, and even a crib.  When looking in the small room, the first thing I noticed was the gigantic Winnie the Pooh in the crib, which was slightly creepy.

After this, we went down to the first floor again and back to the living room.  Gaby mentioned that The Cradle mostly places infants, but will take children up to two years old.  They only do domestic placements but do home studies for international adoptions.  That was another surprise.  I remembered The Cradle had once had a Russia program.  Gaby explained that international adoption has gotten increasingly difficult.  Laws are always changing and the wait times are continually getting longer.  Adoptions on the whole are down, but The Cradle continues to provide full service.

The biggest change that I found, aside from the open adoption, was that The Cradle has now added classes –both online and on site –for adoptive parents.  Most of these classes are seminars on relevant topics, such as open adoption.  Their website has grown quite substantially.  There are new sections dedicated to adoptee stories and families that are waiting for children.  Scrolling through the profiles, it is heartening to see the variety of families; there are single people, same-sex couples, heterosexual couples, and mixed race couples, all hoping to start a family.

Another interesting thing that has changed at The Cradle is their naming practice.  Since switching to open adoption, the yearly reunion held at The Cradle now sees children with two nametags: one for the name given to them by their biological parents and one for the name given to them by their adoptive parents.  When I had been adopted, I went through three names.  My biological mother called me Adrian (a name that I’ve always hated), The Cradle called me Mia (a name that I’ve always loved), and my mother decided on Lauren (a name that she loved –me…not so much).  My brother went through the same thing, though he didn’t like any name that he had been given.

As we parted, Gaby invited me to come back to film my story for their website.  I said that I would be interested, if I could find some spare time to do so.  It had been an overall interesting experience, particularly in regards to the long history of the place that has been such a large part of my life.

As I went down the three short steps towards the front door, I glanced to the side and noticed a simple painting.  It looks like a watercolor, stark contrast to the somewhat shadowy alcove, and it’s a simple painting: a path winding through the countryside.  There’s a similar painting across from it.  They are both quite pretty and appropriate for the agency.

As I left the gothic building, I took a few final shots of the exterior.  I’m determined not to forget that door again.

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Stories for Adopted Children

March 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Adoptive Families, Family

By Lauren Jankowski

I’ve always been logical to a fault, even as a child.  Perhaps this is why I never particularly enjoyed stories that were written specifically for adopted children.  To me, they just seemed too straightforward: “Look.  This character is also adopted.  See, s/he is just like you.”  Yeah, and…? Even the beautifully illustrated story “The Mulberry Bird” just didn’t do it for me.  Being an animal lover, I just couldn’t get over the fact that the author seemed to think birds had the same concept of adoption as humans did.  Also, a seagull would never adopt a chick from another seagull, much less the chick of an entirely different bird.  Most children probably don’t think of things quite so literally.  I’ve always been a rather old soul.

This extremely logical approach to literature brought about my first dilemma fairly early in life: where were the stories for me? It was hard enough to find a story with a strong heroine.  Harder still, finding stories with unconventional families.  Every story seemed to have the same cast of characters: Mom, Dad, biological kid(s).  Even stories like Hansel and Gretel –biological brother and sister.  They knew their parents (awful as they were).  The focus was always on biology.  It soon became clear that there was a norm…and I was outside of it.

Then, one day, I happened to stumble across an Egyptian myth: Isis and Osiris.  Granted, it was an extremely watered-down version of the original –one that had been written specifically for very young children –but the basics of the story remained more or less intact: a single mother raising a son after his father was murdered.  This story was unlike any I’d ever read; I loved every last word.  Soon, I was devouring Greek and Roman myths as well.  In classical mythology, I found what I had been looking for: the unconventional cast as heroic.  Children with an unknown parent accomplishing great feats.  Parentless goddesses portrayed as equals to deities with more traceable lineages.  It was amazing and refreshing.  I’d found my stories.

As I grew up, my love for myths remained strong.  When I read the original myths (the un-watered-down versions), I found some of the more problematic elements of these amazing tales: blatant misogyny, violence, incest –aspects that made the feminist in me positively cringe.  Still, at their core, they remained the stories that I’d grown to love.  The exciting tales of heroes and heroines, many from unconventional backgrounds.  They were flawed, but also heroic.  I came to view myths as a celebration of humanity in all its different forms.

As I continue trying to survive college, I often find myself in Classics courses.  I’m a Women & Genders Studies major, but my heart will always belong to the Classics.  My best experience was in a Classical Mythology course and the field still stimulates my natural curiosity.  These centuries-old tales taught me that being outside the “norm” isn’t a bad thing.  I’ve come to find that myths are an important part of whom we are.  It’s a shame that we’re not exposed to them at an earlier age.

I’m not a parent and I know next to nothing about kids, but I think that parents of adopted children should try to expose their kids to these amazing stories.  People who were adopted should try revisiting these tales as well.  There’s something new in them every time.  Speaking from personal experience, it’s always nice to know that being different is okay.

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[Photo Credit: euthman]

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