I am Philomena

Adam Pertman, adoptive father, author of books such as ‘Adoption Nation’ and ‘Adoption by Lesbians and Gay Men,’ researcher, and president of the Even B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, recently wrote an article for HuffPo about the movie, “Philomena.”  It can be found here: Big Lessons That Transcend the Movie: There Are Philomenas All Around Us

I felt a profound sense of relief when he acknowledged my own reality:

“…the reality is that during the mid-20th century and beyond, severe religious, social and familial stigmas against unwed motherhood were the norm far beyond Ireland. As a consequence, it’s almost certainly true that there are more Philomenas in the United States than in any other country — i.e., women who, given a choice, would have parented their children rather than suffering the anguish of losing them” (Emphasis added.)

He is right. And I am one of them.

Me in 1992, seven months pregnant with my daughter.

I am Philomena.

I am a mother, who without the extreme social, religious, and familial pressures of the LDS church and culture, would have raised my daughter and done a damn fine job of it, too. However, my reality is that unlike most other mothers of loss to adoption, it took eight months and 27 days from my daughter’s birth until I was overwhelmed by the unforgiving social and religious stigmas against unwed mothers in the LDS church.

Like a tide that only flowed in one direction, it seemed a foregone conclusion from the moment I found out I was pregnant that it wasn’t if I would relinquish my oldest daughter, my beloved “Boo Bear,” for adoption, but when. That try as I might, it was God’s will for her to be raised by someone other than me and I should just stop fighting the inevitable outcome and ride the rolling swells out to sea.

My reality is I was peppered with questions and comments reinforcing this idea. When are you finally going to do the ‘right’ thing and place her for adoption?  When are you going to stop thinking of yourself and what you want? Why are you choosing to fly in the face of the prophet’s counsel by raising her on your own? Why are you putting your wants ahead of her need for the sealing ordinance? What are you trying to prove by raising her on your own – don’t you see she deserves a family who loves her? Why are you depriving her of a saving ordinance? If you really loved your daughter, you would let her be adopted by a married couple so she could have the saving ordinance performed. You know Melynda, the likelihood you will ever get married if you keep her is extremely low. Temple worthy men don’t date girls with babies. Doesn’t your daughter deserve so much more than to just be raised by you? If you truly love your daughter, you would place her for adoption with parents that can offer her more.

My reality is my bishop at the time said things to me like, “You know Melynda, it’s never too late to do the ‘right’ thing. I happen to know a wonderful couple looking to add to their family…”

My reality is the more I fought to keep my precious child with me, the more I was told I was being selfish, even cruel. Yes, a person I respected and trusted told me it was CRUEL and un-Godly to “selfishly” raise my daughter as a single mother. I was also told it was abusive to keep her. Not that *I* was abusive, but the mere act of raising a child as a single parent was inherently abusive.

My reality is I didn’t see those comments for their absurdity – I took them as indictments against my personal character and my ability to mother my cherished daughter. Those kinds of comments and questions created a chasm of self-doubt in me, a crippling worry I was going to “ruin” my daughter if I didn’t place her for adoption. Those kinds of comments fostered the thinking that by keeping her, I was damning her to a life of misery and “selfishly impeding her eternal progression.”

My reality is after eight months and 27 days of being a single mother, my faith in my ability to raise my daughter collapsed under this kind of extreme shame-based cultural coercion.  My sense of worth to anyone, God included and certainly my children, was pulverized and crushed to a fine powder during those months. It has yet to fully recover. I’m not sure it will ever make a full recovery in this lifetime.

“First and foremost, shaming or coercing parents into parting with their children…inflicts profound and lasting psychic wounds.”

Mr. Pertman doesn’t make such an assertion lightly – years of research back up his statement. Shame and coercion in adoption inflict “profound and lasting” wounds on birth mothers.  Research wasn’t wrong about that, at least not in my case.

As difficult as Mr. Pertman’s summary of research findings is to read, it is comforting to know a *man*  – an adoptive father, at that! – can understand what many others fail to grasp about losing a child to adoption. One should note I do not sit around nursing these “profound and lasting” wounds 24/7, regardless of what some readers of this blog think (and express in their emails to me). Just as many other Philomena’s have done across the years, I have carved out a great life for myself in the midst of this loss. I have learned to live well in spite of this ambiguous loss and unresolvable grief. I have come to terms that these “profound and lasting psychic wounds” are in my life to stay for some time – perhaps permanently – but they needn’t dictate my relationships with my children or others. Yes, the wounds are still there 20+ years on, but now they are mostly like old curmudgeons reminding me to listen more closely, love more readily, and treat myself and others with greater compassion.

There are other important things Mr. Pertman has to say about the lessons Philomena can teach a broader audience, so please take the time to read his article. There are broader lessons to be learned, if only people will listen and are willing to be taught.

My Soul is a Tree in a Hurricane

Dear Ms. Feverfew:

Perhaps you don’t know the significance of today in our life together apart. Perhaps you do. Perhaps your parents have told you. Perhaps they haven’t. If they haven’t, I won’t do so now, not here, not in this medium. Perhaps someday I will, if you don’t already know.

Just know these three things:

  1. You were loved and wanted from the moment I found out I was pregnant with you.
  2. You have never been anything but a joy to this mother.
  3. I am sorry.

Much love,

M.

On the 20th Anniversary of a Daughter’s Passing From a Mother’s Life and Into Adoption

It was Wednesday, March 17, 1993. Not more than two months before, all 50 states celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the first time and then inaugurated one of the youngest Presidents in its history, Bill Clinton. In Los Angeles, four of the five officers accused of beating Rodney King were on trial for the second time.  Whitney Houston’s version of Dolly Parton’s country classic “I Will Always Love You” had just finished a 14-week run in the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 playlist.

waco_fig06aThe siege at Waco, Texas was 18 days old. On February 28, a gun battle had erupted between the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the Branch Davidians, a Seventh Day Adventist splinter group. Four BATF agents and eight Davidians died during the initial raid. FBI authorities had been in negotiations with them for nearly three weeks but the leader of the sect, David Koresh, and his followers at the Mount Carmel Center showed no signs of backing down. The news reporters said there were women and children in the compound – Koresh had asked for milk for them.

I watched the events unfold on the nightly news, riveted to the story that gripped the nation. Perhaps it was because I could imagine what those mothers must be going through, under siege and trapped within a religious community that values conformity more than compassion.

~

I am ashamed to admit I don’t remember with any extreme precision what words were exchanged that night in Bishop F.’s office.

In fact, for many years I have struggled to remember if I even have the date correct. Was it March 16th or March 17th? Tuesday or Wednesday night? Or another date entirely? A deep shame rises up from the seat of my soul. How does a mother not remember with unyielding certainty the exact date she last held her daughter in her arms? Intellectually I understand the psyche’s need to repress such events and I have worked tirelessly to forgive myself for this all too human reaction to the trauma of losing a child, but still…the question lingers.

I have carried a heavy burden knowing I may never be able to pinpoint the exact moment in time I last saw her, what she was wearing, or how she physically got from my arms to G.’s. Did she crawl to her? Did I hand her to her soon-to-be adoptive mother? What did I say to her as I stood to leave? What did I say to my daughter? I know what I felt as I am feeling it all again at the moment I write this, but what did I do? Did I place my lips to the downy soft curls on the crown of her nine-month old head and bestow upon a Judas-kiss? What did I do in those last moments with her?

Dear God, what did I do?

As I try to write about my last hour with my daughter there in Bishop F.’s office, I can find very few landmarks to help me recall the order of how things unfolded.  Those minutes have stretched into an eternity and are a vast and empty desert, the salt flats of my life. Memories struggle to put down roots in the alkaline soil.   For the past two decades, I have not allowed myself to linger in this parched and blinding landscape. This is where the bones of my motherhood were picked clean and left to bleach white under the intense heat of the Great Basin sun.

Bonneville Salt Flats 3When I do visit, I am like a driver at the Bonneville Speedway. I only catch brief flashes of landmarks as I race onward at the speed of sound. The color of the thread in the hem of my pants – orange against a weathered blue.  The small scrap of paper that has fallen underneath the edge of Bishop F.’s desk. The dusty leaves of the artificial plant on the shelf just behind him.  The dense weave of the Prussian-blue fabric on the chairs.  The small hairline crack in the cover for the electrical outlet to my left.  The smudge of a hand print on the dark brown door frame. The unimportant and trivial visual minutia surrounding me that night are the things I remember.

It is strange what the human mind will do to ensure our survival, and stranger yet is what trauma across the decades does to a person’s mind, how it distorts and plays with patterns, colors, sights, sounds and memories. Clearly, the thread in the hem of my pants, the dust on the leaves, and the weave of the fabric posed no threat to my psyche. However, those are the things my brain paid attention to that night.  The fact I remember those things but cannot remember the vital events – the more threatening event of discussing the plans to hand my daughter to these strangers – is because my amygdala took over, a residual survival trait left over from tens of thousands of years of ancestral women living in fear of annihilation. This phenomenon is a testament to the extreme amounts of stress under which I functioned that chilly March night.

I can not remember leaving. My mind will not allow me to go there, even two decades later. My memory always skips ahead to five miles to when I am in the parking lot of the LDS chapel where Carolyn’s funeral was held three and 1/2 years before.

I sit slumped over the steering wheel, sobbing in deep guttural gasps while the windshield wipers struggle to push away the late winter rain, thick with the chill of the Rockies in March.

~

Today, on this perhaps-anniversary of that day, I am fasting. I am fasting that I might finally allow myself to be in that moment of exquisite vulnerability when we were last together. I am fasting to have that moment revealed to me with mindfulness, clarity, and most of all, compassion. I am fasting for the ability to attend and befriend the deep and hidden grief of that evening. I am fasting for wisdom to know how best to take action to offer up some recompense to the world for my wrongs.

Most of all though, I am fasting for my once-upon-a-time daughter, that she may find support and healing on her own path through this social experiment called adoption.

Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Living Well in Spite of Adoption Grief

During my little vacation last month, I read  “Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss” by Pauline Boss. It changed the way I think and feel about myself and this adoption “stuff” that just won’t go away.

Last night, I started re-reading it and taking notes, trying to come up with ideas on how this model applies with natural mothers and the unique situation we face within our culture and society at large. The book is directed towards therapists, but since I can’t seem to find a therapist who knows much about grief and even less about ambiguous loss, I figured I should read it and see what I can learn that might help me in my journey. I am going to be a bit bold here, but I believe this book and this model of loss with its attendant therapeutic approaches is the key for a natural mother to learn how to live with the grief brought on by the loss of a child to adoption.

The premise of ambiguous loss and its unresolvable grief is there are two types of loss within a family system that do not fit the traditional definition of “loss (i.e. death).” Family members may be gone physically but are present psychologically (as in adoption loss, kidnapping, soldiers who are MIA, divorce, etc.) or family members may be present physically, but gone psychologically (mental illness, dementia, drug and alcohol abuse).

“Absence and presence are not absolutes. Even without death, the people we care about disappear physically or fade away psychologically….This ambiguity between absence and presence creates a unique kind of loss that has both psychological and physical qualities” (Boss, 2006, p. 1).

In ambiguous loss, family members are left to cope with the enigmatic nature of what this loss-that-is-not-recognized-as-a-loss means for their family. These coping mechanisms end up looking A LOT like those who suffer from PTSD. A lot, to the point that sometimes people struggling with ambiguous loss are treated for PTSD, when in fact that isn’t what ails them. With PTSD, the loss/trauma is contained within a short time period or experience. With ambiguous loss, the loss/trauma is persistent and unresolvable. There are no solutions to fix what is hurting in ambiguous loss. There is only learning healthy ways to live with it.

Unfortunately, society (especially in the U.S.) does not tolerate ambiguity well at all, especially when it comes to the grief brought on by ambiguous loss.  As a society, we expect people to do their grief work the “right” way (Kulber-Ross, anyone?), get over their grief, and do it quickly, too. According to that model, healthy people are the ones who find closure. How many natural mothers were told we could expect to “grieve for about a year” and then we would feel better? And how many of us, when that year passed and we were still suffering, were made to feel like it was somehow our fault, that we didn’t do something “right”, that there was something maladaptive and pathological about our continued grief?

“Many people never achieve the complete detachment described by Western psychotherapists as necessary for normal grieving. A lack of closure after loss, however, is not always an indication of weakness in the individual or family. The force that causes loss to remain fresh decades later and thus be labeled pathological often lies in the context outside of the person rather than in their ego, psyche, or family.…From this more contextual perspective, pathology is attributed to a client’s situational context and environment rather than to the psyche” (Boss, 2006, p. 2).

The history and systems of psychology have long focused on the symptoms of loss and how to treat them.  When a person’s grieving didn’t fit within the prescribed model, (ahem, Kubler-Ross), it has been labeled as “complicated” and “pathological.”  Traditionally, the focus has been on the “maladaptive” coping mechanisms people develop to deal with ambiguous loss. Boss reminds us that when the focus is on the “symptoms of ambiguous loss, we fail to see the healthy adaptations and unique ways people have come to live well in spite of the chronic trauma and stress inherent to ambiguous loss. (Boss, 2006, p. 2).”

This is what the letter to my daughter titled, “Samba de Uma Nota Só or a Symphony?” attempts to explain. In spite of the chronic trauma and stress brought about through her loss to adoption, I actually have learned to live quite well. Unfortunately, most people just see the symptoms of ambiguous loss (the unresolvable grief, the sadness, the guilt, the difficulty handle other smaller losses) and fail to recognize the incredible accomplishment that I am not curled up in the corner eating Twinkies and drooling.

I dare say there are plenty of other natural mother bloggers who have encountered the same treatment from society at large and even their own family. When we speak out about the pain of the loss of our child, we are told (a) something is wrong with us- i.e., our coping mechanisms are maladaptive and (b) the healthy (and UNIQUE) adaptations we have learned are completely discounted. We are told we need to get therapy, get a life, etc.

Another point of the theory of ambiguous loss is that society at large does not usually even recognize it as being a loss. Consequently, it is impossible to find “closure.”

“Ambiguous loss is inherently traumatic because the inability to resolve the situation causes pain, confusion, shock, distress, and often immobilization….In our culture [there] is a tendency to deny loss. Grieving is acceptable, but we should get over it and get back to work. Whereas finding closure is difficult with ordinary losses, it is impossible with ambiguous loss because there is no official recognition of there even being a real loss.” (Boss, 2006, p. 4).

As natural mothers, we are told we are heroes who redeem ourselves when we give a more “deserving” couple the “gift” of our child. We are told it is a miracle and a blessing, that it is an act of love to sacrifice our “wants” for our child’s “needs.” We are patted on the head by social workers, therapists, and the broader culture and told, “There, there. Stop fussing – don’t you see how happy you should be? You are like a God – a family maker!!! a bringer of fertility!!! a giver of children!!!! Plus, it’s not like this baby is really ‘yours’ – God is just using you to get it to the right family and you’ll get over it when you have children of your own.”

(Side note = That last sentence is ONE OF THE THREE BIGGEST ADOPTION LIES EVAH’. Having more children only serves to remind a natural mother of what she has lost. It doesn’t make it any easier, folks. Not. by. a. long. shot.)

When an ambiguous loss occurs, families freeze and boundaries become unclear. A natural mother may become “stuck” at the age she was when she relinquished her child, unable to move past the loss and resulting trauma. As her families grows, defining the boundaries of who is family and who is not family grows more difficult.

This is particularly evident in reunion situations. A natural mother may have spent a lot of time convincing herself (and others) that her relinquished child was not “really” her child, that her child “belonged” to another family. When she is confronted with a person who says, “Actually, I am your child” all. hell. breaks. loose. People and families become preoccupied with the lost person and may think of little else. Other relationships are neglected. Behaviors revert to the time period the ambiguous loss occurred.  Boss says, “The premise is that ambiguity coupled with loss creates a powerful barrier to coping and grieving and leads to symptoms such as depression and relationship conflict that erode human relationships” (Boss, 2006, p. 1).

Wow. Just wow.

Think of that in context of an adoption reunion and how many of them go south eventually. A family system endures the ambiguous loss of a family member, usually the firstborn child. Then natural mom finds adoptee or the other way around. All of the sudden, the natural family has to redefine roles and boundaries and the adoptee does, too.

The more I think about it, the more I understand why reunion is so difficult, particularly for adoptees. Not only do they have to deal with the ambiguous loss of their natural family and those redefined roles, but also the shifting definitions of “family” with their adoptive family, too! And if they end up with a set of adoptive parents who are not supportive or flexible in their relational roles once the adoptee enters into reunion with their natural family? Wow. I can’t even begin to imagine that burden.  As if those kinds of pressures aren’t enough, add in a shame-based, guilt-driven religious culture that has created a golden calf of the two-parent family with a stay-at-home-mother and frankly, it’s a recipe for a reunion disaster of epic proportions.

So how do we – meaning those of us who have endured an ambiguous loss –  deal with the unresolvable grief? How do we survive this loss? We try to make sense of it in any way we can (that is what these letters are about, me trying to make sense of this loss-that-my-culture-does-not-call-al-loss*) and we focus on shoring up our resiliency.

“…not knowing if a loved one is absent or present, dead or alive, can create so much ambiguity that the stress is traumatizing and immobilizing. This new view of loss, trauma, and resiliency centers on this psychological family and making sense of ambiguous absence and presence” (Boss, 2006, p. 2).

In short, we adapt and find unique ways to learn to live well in spite of adoption loss, we find ways to learn to live well in spite of the grief that never goes away.

Boss’s theory of ambiguous loss is it is less pathology-based than most models of loss and grieving. It recognizes, “The intellectual and relational uncertainty of living with someone both here and not here produces a terrible anxiety of bizarre human experience.” (Boss, 2006, p. 5). Unlike traditional grief models, getting rid of ambiguity is not the goal. Learning to live well with it is. I also appreciate it focuses on the family system, because the truth of the matter is, I didn’t just loose my daughter, but my entire family lost her. She lost me and her siblings, and countless uncle and aunties and cousins. Our whole family system is affected by adoption loss.

I think most natural mothers are very familiar with the symptoms of unresolvable grief and ambiguous loss. What has been lacking is a clear model to treat this loss within their family system.  Boss offers up a model that is compassionate and realistic and perhaps most importantly, doesn’t blame natural mothers for the symptoms that endure across the decades.

Watch for more letters about this topic in the future as I digest this book and its teachings. Right now, I am off to see if I can locate any journal articles about studies applying this model to natural/first/birth families. I don’t have high hopes of finding any, but I have to start somewhere.

___________________________________________________________

*P.S.* The other day, someone left a comment asking why I keep writing these letters. She implied there was something maladaptive or pathological about them (her exact words were “strange” and “disrespectful“).  I didn’t feel the need to explain myself to her then, and I still don’t. However, I had to smile a bit when I read in Boss’s book about one of the unique and normal ways some (though not all) people learn to live well with the ambiguous loss of a family member: They talk to the missing person. And not in the crazy-tin-foil-hat-wearing way, but in the you-are-still-in-my-heart-even-though-you-aren’t-here-with-me kind of way (Boss uses more technical language than that in her explanation, but that’s my quick distillation). Since I am not a big talker but I am a writer, writing letters is my way of talking to my daughter, my missing family member.

So there it is. My unique method of learning to live well with her loss is not strange, disrespectful, maladaptive, or pathological. It is normal. It is healthy. What is strange, disrespectful, maladaptive and pathological is a culture that seems to think a woman should “get over” losing a child to adoption, that her grief and coping mechanisms should fit within a little tidy box, and that she should just “move on already” because it wasn’t really a loss, after all. She “chose” it, didn’t she? Now that is strange indeed.

I’m All In.

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

I just posted this over on Facebook in response to the comments some of my LDS friends have left on my posting about the open letter to potential adoptive parents. It marks the first time I have publicly come out of the closet in such an overt manner. It is the first time I have ever told my LDS friends at large what adoption has done to me and my family.  I don’t know what will come of it but I do know it is going to make the ward Christmas party tomorrow night very interesting.

Much love,

M.

You know the hymn that says, “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see”? Well, that’s me. I have a universe of sorrow I have kept hidden from the vast majority of my church friends because I have feared the exact reaction that has just occurred.

Look, I am just going to lay it all out on the line.

I am a mother who lost her oldest daughter to adoption.  After parenting her for nearly nine months, I was finally worn down by the dominant cultural rhetoric in the LDS church that told me I was being “selfish” by parenting her and that “good mothers” make “adoption plans” and “place” their children for adoption.  My bishop at the time also told me the only way I could take the sacrament again was to “prove” my repentance by relinquishing my daughter – the daughter I had nursed and loved and mothered all those months. He believed that adoption was a redemptive act on my part and would not let me partake in that sacred ordinance until I gave her away.

I now know how wrong he was in his treatment of me and my daughter.  I now know that I was forgiven of my sins INDEPENDENT of relinquishing her for adoption.  I now know the Atonement didn’t stop short of my front door simply because I was a single mother. I now know that I was relying on the arm of the flesh instead of my own personal revelation when I made the decision to relinquish my daughter. I know these things now, but I didn’t know it then.  I trusted him. He was my bishop. As a woman who loved God and wanted to please Him, what else should I have done?

However, I didn’t know the potential affect adoption can have on my daughter even if she grew up in a fabulous, amazing, incredible adoptive family. It still hurts. And it can hurt badly. If I had known the truth about the toll adoption could extract from some people, I would have never made the decision I made. My daughter would have remained with her people, the people that GOD sent her to. But I wasn’t told the WHOLE truth because NO ONE was willing to tell me the whole truth about adoption, about disenfranchised grief and the continual marginalization of “ birth” mothers and adoptees alike, about the primal wound and the adopted psyche, about sealed birth records and falsified birth certificates, about what the loss of my daughter’s Polynesian heritage would mean to her and her Samoan grandmother and aunties.

Consequently, my daughter paid the ultimate price for my mistake. And yes – it WAS a mistake for me to relinquish her for adoption. God and angels did NOT rejoice that day – I believe they wept for two of His precious children, needlessly separated by cultural practices.  The ONLY “crime” I had committed was being single. That’s it. I wasn’t abusive, I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I was actually in school and had a job, much like many other LDS mothers that were my age. I went to church every Sunday. I did my visiting teaching. I held Family Home Evening with her. But none of that mattered. My single-ness was enough to bring down the wrath of my culture upon me and my daughter.

Yes, she was adopted by a good family and has had a good life for all intents and purposes, but God sent her to me. He trusted ME to be her mother. *I* am the one who didn’t trust God enough, I am the one who trusted in the arm of the flesh instead of trusting God’s grace and mercy for me.  In the end, I have to live every day with the fact that I chose my bishop’s approval and the LDS culture over my own daughter. This shame and sorrow is something I will carry with me until I die, perhaps longer. I have to live with the attitudes of well meaning people who believe that adoption is a “miracle and blessing” to my family and me into the eternities.  I have to live with people telling me that angels rejoiced when I lost my daughter and that the destruction of her first family is something to be celebrated.

However, nineteen years in to the eternal sentence of being a “birth” mother, I have yet to see one single moment when adoption has been a miracle or a blessing to my family or me. I challenge ANY of you who think it is to look into Luke’s eyes and tell him that NOT knowing his sister is a blessing to him, to tell him that angels rejoiced when he lost his sister. I challenge them to look into Matthew’s eyes and tell him his life has been blessed by adoption, a social practice that has rendered his older sister a complete stranger to him. I challenge them to convince him what a “miracle” it is that his sister wouldn’t recognize him from Adam if they were to ever meet. I challenge any of them to take my sweet Penelope into their arms and tell her that her life is blessed because her mother gave her only sister away to strangers.  There are no more chances for me—I can’t have any more children. She will never have a sister because of what I did—what adoption did—to our family. Remind me again—how is this a blessing and a miracle?

I challenge them to look in to the eyes of my husband—a man who would have adopted my daughter as his own, a man who stands witness to nearly two decades of the marginalization and poor treatment of his wife by members of the LDS church, who has held me for countless hours as I have wept for what adoption has done to all of my children, who has cried with me—I challenge them to tell him that adoption has blessed me and will continue to bless me into the eternities. I challenge them to tell any one of my sisters, who lost their oldest niece and long for her nearly as much as I, that adoption is a blessing. I challenge them to look into my mother’s eyes, the woman who sat next to me as I labored my daughter into this world, who held my hand and was the first to hold my daughter after she was born– I challenge them to tell my mother that angels rejoiced over her losing her first granddaughter.

How is that God’s plan?  Does the God of your Universe and His angels look at the sorrow stitched into my family’s hearts, woven into our very existence and rejoice over it? If so, then I want no part of your God. The God I believe in is full of mercy and grace. He is full of long-suffering and love unfeigned. He believes it is wrong to pluck the fatherless from the breast of their mother and he believes that TRUE religion is to care for the fatherless in their need. The apostles of my God quote prophets when they say, “You devoted sisters who are single parents for whatever reason, our hearts reach out to you with appreciation. Prophets have made it clear ‘that many hands stand ready to help you. The Lord is not unmindful of you. Neither is His Church.’ (Quinten L. Cook, “LDS Women are Incredible, Ensign, May 2011; Gordon B. Hinckley, “Women of the Church,” Ensign, Nov. 1996).”  It shouldn’t have mattered why I was single. Me and my daughter were just as deserving of the love and compassion of the church community as any other mother and daughter.

My heart was shattered into a million tiny shards the day I finally caved in and “placed” my daughter with her adoptive family. I became a dead woman walking from that moment on. It has only been through extensive counseling and the unending love and patience of my husband that I have been able to carry on in any semblance of normalcy. Most of you would agree I have done a damn fine job of acting “as if” I was just fine. But the drive to excel at everything I do is firmly rooted in the reality that the LDS culture convinced me I was not good enough and would never be enough.  I struggle each and every day with my self worth and my belief that I am worthy and capable as a mother because I allowed myself to believe I was such a horrible mother that my daughter deserved to be raised by other people.  I struggle each and every day to believe I am worthy and capable of parenting the three children I have with me because honestly, I am the same mother to them as I was to my daughter and if I wasn’t good enough for her, then why am I good enough for them? My faith in God and in the Atonement have been shaken to their very core by the wreckage adoption has left behind in my life, in my parented children’s lives, and in my relationships with my sisters and mother.

In my life, adoption was a permanent solution to very temporary problems. It has not turned out to the great panacea that I was promised it would be. It has not been a win-win-win. I did not “move on,” I did not “forget.” I had other children but they will never, in all of the eternities, replace the one I lost to adoption. I know that sometimes, in the case of abuse, neglect, or drug use, adoption is a necessary thing. I accept that fact. But none of those were present in my life 19 ½ years ago and have never been in the intervening years.  Adoption was an unneeded and unnecessary social practice that I allowed to enter in to my family system. It has robbed my parented children of their sister and it has robbed my daughter of her true heritage.

In the past five or so years, I have had the distinct “pleasure” of discovering that adoption may not have been all it is cracked up to be for my daughter either.  I started reading accounts of adopted women and books written by and for the adopted person—not by and for adoptive parents, not by and for first families, but by and for adopted people. I discovered that regardless of my intentions or purest motivations, I inflicted a wound on my daughter which my culture tells her (a) to be grateful for and (b) doesn’t exist in the first place.  And this is even in the *best* of circumstances—the ideal outcome. I have come to witness firsthand how those who have the MOST to teach us about what it feels like to be adopted are the ones who are told to shut up and move the back of the bus, over and over and over and over again. I have witnessed first hand the rampant discrimination against adoptees, the ONLY class of U.S. citizens who are denied access to the full and factual accounting of their birth simply because the ADULTS in their life made choices that preclude them from having that access, even if they are now 65 years old themselves.

I have stood mutely by until now.  But I can’t any more.  My intent of sharing that link to the letter written by an adoptee was simply to give them voice, to allow the ONLY ONE in the adoption transaction that had NO CHOICE in the matter the ability to speak to us about adoption, to teach us what it means to be adopted from her perspective.

I know I am going to lose friends over this post, but it is what it is. I am tired of hiding this hurt, of pretending that I am OK with a culture that rejoices over the destruction of families under the guise of the “miracle and blessing” of adoption. And yes, my daughter and me were a family.  A family that the Lord was mindful of regardless of the reason I was single, a family that church members should have stood by with hands “ready to help.”

Instead, my culture used my cellular deep maternal instinct to protect my daughter from harm as a battering ram to convince me that I was not good enough to raise my daughter and that she deserved “more.”  My love for her was used as a tool to pry her from my arms.  The idea that my culture—that sisters in the gospel—rejoice and celebrate this loss? Well…it sent me to bed weeping afresh last night and kept me up into the small hours of the morning. It follows me around the house this morning, no longer the little dog yapping at my heels that it usually is, but a full-grown wolf, ravenous and dangerous, shadowing me as I move through the necessary daily routines of motherhood.

For Whatever Reason

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

Last April at General Conference, Elder Cook gave a talk titled, “LDS Women are Incredible!.”  I have to agree, for the most part. Most of the women I hang out with who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are pretty amazing, accomplished, and intelligent women. They are women who have figured out how to balance the rewarding demands of being a mother with the rewarding demands of a life “outside of the home” as well. And GASP (said tongue in cheek) some of them are even single women. In fact, a few of them have never married but have adopted older children from the foster care system. Yes, that means they are single parents. By choice. Single mothers of previously unwanted and unruly teenagers who flourish under their loving, consistent care.

An overarching theme of this spring’s General Conference was that of service and charitable works for others.  Elder Cook’s talk was tucked in amongst others such as Elder Eyring’s “Opportunities to Do Good” and Elder Ballard’s “Finding Joy Through Loving Service.”   I particularly loved Elder Ballard’s emphasis on showing our appreciation of the Atonement of Jesus Christ by doing as He did – “simple, compassionate acts of service.” To me, this is where true Christianity is manifest – when we do as Christ would have done.

But back to Elder Cook’s address. When he gave his talk, one phrase jumped out at me. Perhaps it is because of my history of being a single parent, both with you and with Captain Knuckle that my ear and heart are attuned to these kinds of things. But for whatever reason, I was heartened by his words,

“You devoted sisters who are single parents for whatever reason, our hearts reach out to you with appreciation. Prophets have made it clear ‘that many hands stand ready to help you. The Lord is not unmindful of you. Neither is His Church.’ ” (April, 2011. Elder Quinten L. Cook, quoting President Gordon B. Hinkley from 1996; emphasis mine).

Single parents. For whatever reason.

Here is a man I believe to be an apostle of the Lord, admonishing His followers to reach out to single mothers — regardless of how or why they became single parents. He is telling us to reach out with hands ready to help and appreciative hearts.  His words fortified my courage – my future efforts to reach out to single expectant mothers is in complete keeping with newly established official policy and directly in line with divinely inspired advice from a modern-day apostle of Jesus Christ.

While my heart and mind soared at the possibilities this new authority could afford my efforts, another part of my heart sank into despair.

I wondered…why didn’t this include me all those years ago? Why didn’t it include us? The moment I found out I was pregnant with you, I turned my life “around” and returned to church. At the time I relinquished you, I had been actively participating in church services for over 16 months. I did my Visiting Teaching.  I attended Relief Society events. I held callings. I paid my tithing. I sang in ward choir.  I attended Sacrament meeting faithfully.

Was I not a devoted sister? Were you not just as precious and irreplaceable as my future children? Where were the many hands that should have stood ready to help me? Instead of support, I felt tremendous pressure from my culture and my priesthood leaders to “do the right thing” and place you for adoption, simply because I was single. That phrase, “It is never to late to do the right thing” is seared into my soul. Why was I held up as the paragon of a “good mother” by giving you away to strangers so you could have  “better” life? How completely sick and wrong is that??? More importantly, how is telling a young mother that her child was entitled to more than she could offer (at that moment in time) in keeping with the teachings of Jesus Christ? How is that loving, for either the mother or her child???

And where was God in all of this? An apostle of the Lord just told me that the Lord was mindful of me during that time period in my life as a single parent…but where was He?

I reject the idea that you had a “better” life than you would have had with me. Different, yes, but better? Was it better for you to grow up completely divorced from your culture, from your people? Was it better for you not to know your Samoan grandmother and aunties? Was it better for you to be raised without the knowledge of whose blood courses through your veins? Of the history of the mitochondrial DNA that powers your every breath? Was it better for you to be raised by people who don’t understand your love of words and the deep longing you have for education? Was it better for you to be raised not knowing your brothers and your sister?

Bottom line: Was it better for you to be raised by strangers or would it have been better for you to have remained with me?

Sure, there might have been more money (initially), but can money truly replace your heritage? Was that extra trip to Disneyland worth the loss of a mother who loves you beyond all reason and has from the moment she discovered she was pregnant? Were the piano lessons worth the sorrow your brothers feel at your absence in their lives? Was the college tuition worth not knowing you are an exact carbon copy of your mother, right down to the rhythms in your poetry?

Those are questions only you can answer.

And then I come back to the here and now and the lessons I learned from Elder Cook’s talk: We are called to love, support, and serve sisters who are single parents for whatever reason. This tells me it is not for me to determine who is worthy of my efforts, who is deserving to be a mother and who isn’t deserving. My role is to support and care for these single mothers and help strengthen their parenting skills. Period. Not convince them they are not able to parent. Not convince them their child would be better off with strangers, to be adopted and sealed away from their natural families for time and all eternity.

Support and love them in their role as mother in every way possible. That is the sum total of what we are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are called to do. Not convince them they are not capable or able to parent.

I could spend another couple of hours pontificating, but I can hear little Penelope over the baby monitor. “Ma, ma, ma, ma, ma, ma, ma” she says, with ever increasing intensity. It makes me wonder how long you called for me all those years ago and the heartbreak you must have felt when I never came for you. You didn’t understand I thought I was doing what was best for you, that I was trying to protect you from the “horrors” of being raised by a single mother.

All you knew is that you called out for me and I never returned.

I am so sorry for that.

M.

“Some people rob you with a six-gun…”

“…and some with a fountain pen.” (Woody Guthry)

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

I got word early this morning that my friend’s adoption has now been slammed shut by the adoptive couple because she has the temerity to speak out about her pain of losing [her little son]. There is no legal recourse for her…and what is worse, she has to live with the knowledge for the rest of her life that she chose these people to parent her son. On the upside, the adoptive parents told [my friend] that if she can “be happy” about the adoption and “learn to handle her pain” then they might allow some form of contact. Might.

I am sure [my friend] is much like me (at least prior to this latest stunt that [this little boy’s] adoptive parents have pulled). I am sure that her problems with adoption are NOT with the adoptive parents. Our chief complaint is with the institution of womb-fresh, still wet with their mother’s amniotic fluid infant adoption and with the culture that supports and condones this type of treatment of women who would make exceptional mothers.

Lest anyone think that the cultural attitudes and norms of the Baby Scoop Era are a relic of the past, they are not. They are alive and well in Utah and the LDS adoption scene.

I keep wondering what is going through that woman’s mind right now, the woman who is now holding [this little boy] hostage, using him as a bargaining tool to force [my friend’s] compliance with the culturally mandated norm of  a  “good LDS bee-mommy.” You know the kind I am talking about, the birth mothers who go around “advocating for adoption” because it is such a “miracle and a blessing” in their lives and they feel so “privileged” and “lucky” to give their babies to complete strangers. It makes me wonder how many of those women are just going through the motions, regurgitating the party-line so they are not cut off from their child’s life forever by their adopters.

A person doesn’t always have to have a gun pointed at their head, locked and loaded, in order to be forced into complicity.

And then I get to thinking of how this could be handled differently. Since we know that [his] adoptive parents have now claimed total and utter ownership of him, of course they are well within their “rights” to do whatever they please. We also know they would never in a million years consider giving [him] back to his mother because he was bought and paid for, signed, sealed and delivered and is now theirs forever and ever amen.

But what if, instead of acting like a petulant 5-year old little girl who is angry at someone because they dared play with her dolly, what if this woman were to suck it up and be the mature person she claims to be? What if she were to call [my friend] and say, “I know you are hurting. I know this isn’t what any of us thought it would be. It is what it is so we have to find a way through this. What can we do together to make this the best for all of us?” We all know the best possible thing for [him] is to have his mother in his life. If this adoption was REALLY about [this little boy] and his needs and NOT about his adoptive mother and HER NEEDS, then she would say a prayer, suck it up, and do what is needed to ensure that [he] has his mother in his life. Period. That includes setting aside her prideful need to exert ownership over this precious child.

And then I get to thinking about [this little boy] and how this will affect him. He is being raised by people who detest his mother enough to intentionally cut her out of his life. This is no longer the era of closed adoption. They cannot claim ignorance or innocence about their behavior. They will be fully responsible for the fallout of this in [his] life. They will have NO ONE to blame but themselves for what happens when he discovers how poorly they have treated his mother. And make no mistake about it – he will find out.

There are many other things I have been thinking but for now, I need to get back to my writing for my dissertation. I have 22 more days before I need to have it in the hands of my committee and I am starting to get a wee bit anxious.

Much love,

M.

_______________________________________________________

P.S. I had to edit this post and the comments tonight to remove identifying information of my friend and  her son. Things have gone from bad to impossible and I don’t want provide the adoptive mother any more ammunition to use against my friend. Any changes to the post or comments are [bracketed]. I *hate* having to do this, but I don’t know any other way to protect her yet tell her story at the same time. My apologies to those whose comments had to be redacted.   03/10/9:37 p.m.