Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Power of Secrets

Shining light on secrets. That's what all this keeps coming back to for me. By writing about adoption, I hope to diminish the power that those secrets wield.

Often, while bathing or dressing my young son, anytime I catch a glimpse of his bellybutton’s curved, labyrinthine contours, I am compelled to touch his navel and tell him “This is where you were connected to me before you were born.” It’s a comfort and an inspiration to do this; his bellybutton is evidence that he is mine and I am his: we share the singular connection I have longed for over many years. I have been thinking about the idea of the navel of the world—a concept that exists in many cultures: the Hopi Sipapu, the Greek Omphalos; it is human nature to connect our existence with the earth’s—to create the cosmology of where we came from, to ground and connect ourselves with that which came before us and that which is larger than ourselves.

In this country, kinship is defined by biological relatedness, while in other cultures, genetic inheritance is not the main focus of kinship. Perhaps in those cultures, adoption is a non-issue; a child can belong to everyone, to everything, including the granite domes, basalt cliffs, and winding whitewater of the landscape. Perhaps one could belong to the earth; yet, here, because of the secrecy surrounding my birth and the circumstances under which I was relinquished, because my birth certificate—our culture’s signifier of belonging, heritage and kinship—was amended after my birth, and a second document replaced it while the first one was sealed in a envelope and hidden in an inaccessible vault, because of this early secrecy and scrambling of my personal information, I have not felt that grounding, that rootedness, that sense of belonging.

Despite the fact that if I wanted to, I could now put my hand on my birthmother’s belly, touch her navel and remind myself, “this is where I came from, this is who I was connected to before I was born,” a long-ingrained feeling of disconnection persists.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Ok, so it seems like the notion of broken links and whole links and restored links is something that many people, not just those touched by adoption, identify with in profound ways. In her comment, Lori B. says, "..the idea that mother and child are both link and broken link I share with you." And as I noted before, Maria wrote that she feels we are all broken links struggling to find wholeness.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On Gratefulness and Controversy

First, let me say that I really, really appreciate all the feedback I've gotten from everyone to this blog. I have been reading and considering what you've written to me, and frankly, I'm so new to this medium that I'm still figuring out how to respond to comments, etc., so I'll do that soon in the Comments section, I promise! (It matters to me a lot that you're reading this blog and commenting on it, and I definitely don't want you to think otherwise.

In the meantime I want to touch upon a few things. I have gotten such a strong response from people (both via the blog and in person) about my reticence to adopt a child myself, that I think the topic deserves some more time here. On Thursday night at my knitting group, while we all knotted away on our various projects, my friend Meredith said something that has really stuck with me: when I was trying to explain to her how I think it would be too hard for me to be the mother of an adopted child because I have all my own pain about being adopted to deal with, she said "but don't you think that most of the time, the way we feel about things before they happen is completely different than the way we feel about them once they've happened?" (At least I think that's what she said; it's a hard idea to recap.) Anyway, she has a point. For me, things almost always turn out differently than I expect them to, especially emotionally. So does that mean that I should go ahead and adopt a child? I don't know.

One friend of mine who is an adoptive parent is currently dealing with her 9-year-old daughter's occasional statements of "I don't want to be adopted!" The thought of trying to someday deftly handle those sentiments from my own adopted child stops me in my tracks. My immediate response would be to say, "I don't want to be adopted either!" Making your child not be adopted is not something anyone can undo, even our parents, supreme protectors from all boogeymen real and imagined. And adoption can really be a boogeyman, a shadow, an apparition that follows us around, no matter how hard we try to shake it or ignore it. The specter is still there.

Some would argue that my adoptee status qualifies me to empathize with and deeply understand the pain of an adopted child, so I would be a good choice to be an adoptive parent. but there's a part of me that thinks that exposing myself to that specter of pain would be my undoing.

But who knows, it might be the thing that makes me feel whole. The stakes are high, and I don't yet know how to make this decision.

I was so glad to hear from Dawn, an adoptive mom, that she appreciated my need to have children who are biologically realated to me. I also really respect her opinion that adoption has its positive and negative aspects; it's not perfect. I concur.

Finally, I want to say that Maria's comment that fundamentally, we're all broken links, and that each moment in our life "is an effort to connect to [our] broken parts" is well-taken. I agree that as humans, we all feel alienated in some way, whether we're adopted or not. Sometimes our feelings of alienation become our strongest points of connection with each other. That's why I'm glad that so many who are not touched by adoption are reading this blog anyway; it's another way to forge a bond.

Thanks, everyone, for reading.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fall is a Good Season for Reading

It's getting cold and dark earlier and earlier here in Philadelphia. This morning I finally turned on the heat, although I was having a secret contest with myself to see if I could make it to November before turning it on. October won the contest. Last night I was so cold, I crawled into bed at about 9pm to curl up with a good book (as they say) and with the frosty tip of my nose sticking out of the covers. I mentioned in a recent post that I've been reading adoption memoirs like crazy lately. I've also been reading other adoption-related books. It took me quite a bit of research to find them all, so I thought I'd compile a list here to share with anyone who's interested, and to save you the trouble of finding them all by yourself.

However, let me say that this list is in no way exhaustive, nor is it representative of everyone's experience with adoption. For example, most of these books are by or about white women. That's because I'm a white woman who was adopted into a white family and I have been looking for books that reflect my experience. So there's almost nothing about the transracial or transnational adoption experience in this list. Please feel free to add a comment with your recommendations in these or other areas I've missed; I'm always looking for the next good book to huddle under the covers with.
Here goes:

Adoptee Memoirs:
The Mistress' Daughter, A.M. Homes
Beneath a Tall Tree, Jean Strauss
Mother Me, Zara Phillips
All My Mothers and Fathers, Michael Blumenthal
Swimming up the Sun, Nicole J. Burton
Twice Born, Betty Jean Lifton
Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found, Sarah Saffian

Birthparent Memoirs:
Giving up Simone, Jan L. Waldron

Birthparent Stories:
The Girls Who Went Away, Ann Fessler

Books about Reunion:
Lost & Found, Betty Jean Lifton
BirthBond, Judith S. Gediman and Linda P. Brown
Adoption Reunions, Michelle McColm

Psychology Books about Adoption:
The Family of Adoption, Joyce Maguire Pavao
Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, Sherrie Eldridge
Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self, David Brodzinsky, Marshall D Schechter, and Robin Marantz Henig
Journey of the Adopted Self, Betty Jean Lifton

Fiction and Poetry about Adoption:
Ghost at Heart's Edge, edited by Susan Ito and Tina Cervin
An Adoptee's Dreams, Penny Callan Partridge
Then She Found Me, Elinor Lipman

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Word About the Not-So-Wonderful World of Infertility, as it Relates to being Adopted

I am a mother of one, and I'm darned lucky to be, as near as I can tell. It took a year of trying to conceive before I got pregnant with my son, and we were fortunate to be able to avoid the gaping maw of Western Infertility Intervention--that time.

I had hoped to be the mother of two, so when our son was two years old, we started trying to conceive again, thinking that once again, it might take awhile, but having faith that it would happen eventually. The short version of this story is that my son is now five-and-a-half years old, and it hasn't happened.

The long version is that we did end up looking into the gaping maw of infertility treatment, jumping down its throat, and eventually getting chewed up and spit out by way of 4 medicated intrauterine inseminations; 2 in-vitro fertilizations; an early miscarriage; a second mortgage on our house; and untold stress on my marriage, my son, and my psyche.

Throughout the grueling process of infertility treatments, my husband and I frequently visited the idea of adopting a child instead of continuing to try to conceive one. My husband has two adopted siblings, so he grew up in a family of adoption, and feels very comfortable with the idea of us adopting. For me, the issue is not quite so cut-and-dried.

This is the part that gets very difficult for me to explain. Since origins and sense of belonging are very important and raw issues for me, part of my reluctance to adopt stems from the feeling I have of being the broken link of a chain. The idea of me (an adoptee) adopting another person conjures up an image of one broken chain link trying to connect to another broken chain link. It just doesn't make sense to me. What I have found is that this description doesn't make sense to other people. Often I get a very quizzical look from those I tell about it. This has long frustrated me. But recently, I had two breakthrough experiences about it:

Last fall, I went to a conference about adoption with the intent of learning about the adoption process--we were investigating starting the adoption process. I went to a talk by Zara Phillips, author of Mother Me: An Adopted Woman's Journey to Motherhood, and without identifying myself as an adoptee, I asked her what she thought about adoptees adopting children. She said "I don't know of any adoptees who have adopted; we tend to want children who are genetically related to us." It was so gratifying to me to finally hear another adoptee's view on this issue. I no longer felt like I was crazy for wanting children who were biologically my own.

Next, another adoptee in the audience contributed his point of view, which was that he felt very strongly that he wanted an adopted child, and in fact, he had recently adopted a little girl. He also said he hoped that when the time came, his daughter would also adopt. Obviously, this is an emotionally charged topic. People have strong opinions about this one, and they're hard to sway.

Later, when I read B.J. Lifton's Twice Born, I saw my broken link sentiments expressed by another adoptee for the first time; she writes "I was like a link from a chain that had been allowed to break..." Yes. That's how I've felt, and both sadly and thankfully, I'm not the only one who feels this way.

I departed from that adoption conference pretty sure I would be unable to adopt. Yet my husband and I are still grappling with the idea that our family will remain a family of three, when we would really like it to grow to four. Nothing is set in stone: maybe I'll find a way to forge that chain link back together into a stronger whole.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

An Adoptee's Arboretum

I cannot believe that until now, I hadn't read Betty Jean Lifton's Twice Born: Memoirs of An Adopted Daughter. I have been hungrily reading adoption memoirs steadily for about a year, and have enjoyed and found resonance with most of them, but Twice Born is possibly the most satisfying one I have read to date. It was published in 1975, just as the adoption rights movement was beginning, and it chronicles Lifton's life as an adopted person, and her search for and reunion with her birth parents. One would think that something written over 30 years ago on the topic of adoption might seem dated, but sadly for us adoptees, much of what she says still holds true.

In one section of the book, her school-age son, whom she has not yet told that she is adopted, approaches her with a class assignment to create a family tree. He wants her to help him with her side of the family tree. She resists, wondering "Does the adopted person go on the tree she was placed on biologically or the tree onto which she was transplanted? Who's to say?"

I have been wondering how to explain to my five-year-old son that I am adopted. He knows he has three grandmas, and he thinks that's awesome--the more adults who love him and get on the floor with him to play Thomas the Tank Engine, the merrier. But he doesn't know why he has an extra grandma, and he hasn't asked, so I haven't told him. I want to, but I don't know if he's developmentally ready. How does one know these things?

My parents told me I was adopted from the moment they got me, and I thank them for that; I am so grateful that there was never a time I didn't know I was adopted, and more importantly, that there was never a time when I suddenly found out I was adopted, which I think would be incredibly difficult to deal with.

The time is soon coming when I will explain to my son the intricacies of what Betty Jean Lifton calls her family "arboretum." I love the idea of a family arboretum rather than a family tree (or, as I have heard suggested for adoptees, a "family orchard"), partly because I love arboreta, especially the arboretum near my house, which boasts not only lots of cool trees and plants that make me very happy, but also a garden railway, which makes my son very happy. Also, sometimes I get to teach creative writing classes there, and that also pleases me greatly.

I look forward to describing the adoptee's arboretum metaphor to my son, when the time is right. I thought it might happen a few months ago, when we were eating dinner one night several weeks before getting on plane to visit my birth father for the first time, and I said "We're going to visit _____ when we go on vacation!"
"Who's _____?" he replied.
"Well, that's a very good question," I said.
And I took a deep breath, preparing to tell him that Mommy has two dads, one is Grandpa Bob, and the other is this man we're going to meet in a few weeks, etc., etc., but before I could get a word out, my son asked "Can I have dessert?" and with that we had moved on to another subject, entirely eliding my personal arboretum. I took his response to mean that he wasn't ready/ it wasn't time, but who knows? I could have probably just hauled off and told him, and he would have said, "OK, Mommy,"--he is, after all, one of the most flexible children I've ever met, the kind of kid who rolls with whatever comes his way, and I really appreciate that about him.

So I have to surmise that my reluctance to spell it all out for him is really about me, not about him, dangit. I'm afraid that when I tell him I have two dads and two moms, he'll wonder which one is the "real" dad and the "real" mom, and then he'll wonder why didn't I grow up with the parents to whom I was born. I'm worried that this information will cause him to wonder if he's likely to be given to another set of parents, and I'm worried that I won't be able to dispell that notion, no matter how hard I try.

So the issue is really still mine--all this stuff probably won't bother him, but it bothers me. After all these years, I am totally freaked out that he will ask me, "why did your original parents give you up?" and I'll be flattened because I still wonder that myself, even though intellectually I know that the 18-year-0ld girl who was my birth mom could not keep me, could not parent me alone, didn't have support from her family do do so, was shamed by society for getting pregnant out of wedlock, etc. There are so many reasons she couldn't keep me, but there is the part of me, the part I call the "Baby Self" who will never understand or accept why she was given away. And I don't want my son to see that part of me because I think it would scare him. It certainly scares me. But when the time comes, I'm going to call upon the strength of the oaks and cedars and redbuds, and all the other trees I love-- to explain to him my arboretum, and then we'll build a swing hanging from one of the tree's branches, and we'll play and play on it.

So, Who is being Sought After Here, Anyway?

Recently I was reviewing the materials I kept from the long search I conducted to find my birth mother (more to come on that), and I looked up the organization that allows adoptees born in Colorado (like me) and their birth parents to use a confidential intermediary service to find one another.

Back in 1996 when I was searching, this website didn't exist, so it was interesting to see how the program was described on its website. One of the terms used on the website particularly intrigued me: it described the person being searched for as "the sought-after." The air of mystery and the inclusivenes of this phrase piqued my imagination. In a sense, the sought-after could be anyone; obviously in this case, it refers to someone touched by adoption: a birth parent, a child who was adopted, or any member of their families.

However, for me this term also conjures up the sense of longing for connection and belonging that I and many other adopted people feel as a result of the way that closed adoption obscures our origins. In the end, The Sought-After becomes more than a euphemism for the birth parent or birth child we seek; The Sought-After is also the elusive self we are trying to find and trying to become as we grow into ourselves as people touched by adoption.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Introduction to The Sought-After

Hello, Everyone:
Welcome to The Sought-After, my blog about being adopted, and about my experiences with search and reunion my birth families. I've had adoption on the brain for ever so long, and have been writing about it in secret, during the interstitial scraps of time between being a mom and being an English professor and learning how to do plaster repair on the walls of my century-old house, and, well, you get the idea.

I have been closeted about writing about being an adopted person mostly because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings: I love and respect my parents and my brothers, who have been very supportive about my search to find my birth parents, but I'm scared of hurting them by writing about my experiences of alienation and longing; I love and respect my birth parents and my newly found half-siblings, and don't want to hurt their feelings either. I also worry that writing about my experiences as an adoptee might offend other adoptive parents and birth parents who read this blog, so I am scared to do it.

But do it I shall, because I find the perspective of the adult adoptee strangely scarce out there in the current discourse about adoption. Adoption is a huge, important topic in our society and in our world right now, with so many parents choosing to adopt domestically or internationally these days; I am thankful that the adoption process in the United States now includes educating adoptive parents about issues adopted babies and children may face with with regards to attachment, grief, identity, and abandonment, just to name a few.

Don't get me wrong; I am not "anti-adoption." My parents are loving and kind, and they raised me well. But being adopted made me different; it made me feel different and it made me act different, and it took me a long time to figure out why because I was born at a time (in the late 1960s) when educating parents about the special needs and circumstances of the adopted psyche was not the norm.

So I'm here to tell the story of my journey as an adopted girl who really needed to know where she came from. I'll write about my search and reunion with my birth families, my thoughts about contemporary adoption, and my reactions to adoption literature. I'll do this in hopes of shining light on the secrets of adoption, especially closed adoption, to diminish the power that those secrets wield against adopted people and those who love us. I hope to generate discussion that will help us all feel more whole and more understanding of each other.

Thanks for reading, and tell me what you think!