The Bandaged Place

4362503381_139e7da5b5_oDon’t turn away, keep your eye on the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.
— Rumi

Earlier this week, Rebecca Hawkes wrote a piece Free-Falling Into the Baby Rage Zone: Another Adoptee Epiphany for The Lost Daughters about what it is like for her, years into her reunion with her first mother. She writes,

“I understand that my parents were tricked into believing that they had no right to behave as parents. But for me, today, the emphasis is on “they” rather than on “tricked.” They allowed this to happen. Whatever degree of power they had or didn’t have, they still had more agency than I did. I was a baby–their baby, their child–and they allowed me to slip away.

I am angry because they didn’t fight for me. I am angry that they didn’t rise up and rage against the system that was tearing us apart. I’m angry that they didn’t realize what was truly being lost until it was too late. I am angry that they allowed themselves to be tricked into believing it would all be okay. Because it wasn’t and it never will be. Not entirely.

If I am the child, I am the child who was lost.
If they are the parents, they are the parents who failed me.”

Oh, how the truth is a difficult thing to hear sometimes.

After wiping away the ugly Oprah-style tears and catching my breath in between the sobs – sobs that originated deep in root of my abdomen and contracted my ribs and left me gasping for breath – I wrote this to my own mother.

…I understand [the baby-rage], I truly do. I would feel the same if you had abandoned me at a day old (or 9-months). …what I did was a terrible thing, a thing against all nature and natural inclinations.

What kind of woman walks away from her 9-month old daughter, leaving her with strangers? Why didn’t I fight for her? Why didn’t I rise up and rage against the system that tore us apart? Why didn’t I realize what was being lost until it was too late? Why did I allow myself to be tricked into believing it would all be okay…because it wasn’t and it never will be? Most of the other mothers in my situation would have NEVER in their lifetimes or a thousand lifetimes over done what I did. They would have died fighting against it. But not me – I believe the carefully scripted coercive tactics put forth by the adoption industry. I bought into the notion she deserved “more,” not realizing I was all she needed.

If I am her parent, then I am the parent who failed her.

M.

Rebecca’s honestly and truth about this facet of her adoption touched a raw place in my soul. It brought back into my immediate awareness that it doesn’t matter how many times I say, “If I had only had all the facts,” If I had only had the truth,” “If I had only known…” the truth remains I still did what I did.

I signed the termination of parental rights papers.

That is my signature on them.  The truth remains my choice may have hurt my daughter – it severed her from her Samoan roots and from a spiritual and intellectual heritage that is rightfully hers.

Acknowledging my part in all of this…this is my bandaged place, a raw and pulsating mess of hurt that sometimes seems as fresh as the day it happened.

I spent a lot of years turning away from this bandaged place. It’s what my culture told me I should do because after all, adoption is “all about love” and my daughter “deserved more” than me, so I should be grateful for this wound.  But I tend not to look away from it these days, as hard as it is, which is why I reached out to my mom.

Dear Melynda,

I know I don’t have a right to walk in anyone’s moccasins, even my own daughter, but that does not mean that from a perspective 25 years further down the road of life, I can sit by and not defend my 18 year old, your 18 year old and this woman’s first mom (probably a teen herself) for not having the kind of personal combination of humility and chutzpa that it takes almost everyone at least into their 40s to develop.  You’re so right.  Hardly any woman in her 40s would do the ignorant, stumbling, bumbling things she did in her teens or even 20s or (for some of us late bloomers) even 30s.

Somewhere there has to be a sliding scale between personal responsibility for choices and social conditioning–especially when that conditioning has been trauma bonded into a child’s soul.  At 18 years old we are all children.  We’ve got plenty of raging hormones, but we have virtually no raging self-worth.  We are sitting ducks to be “tricked.”  Come on, what does it mean to be “tricked” anyway?  That’s the whole meaning of the word “tricked.”  It means to be taken advantage of.  It means to be taken for a ride or for a fall.  It means to be set up, ripped off.  It means not to be told the whole truth and thus manipulated by a half-truth (a euphemism for a lie.  A lie by any other name is still a lie.)

Just some preliminary thoughts poured out.  Please hear my finally maturing acceptance of mortality as being, truly, “but a small moment.” …. I guess its a good introduction to that final acceptance that invites us to experience even death with Thoreau’s deathbed answer to whether he had made his peace with God:  “I was not aware we had ever quarreled.”

It doesn’t do a lot of good to quarrel with God or with the natural course of human development (from young and confused and near-sighted to old and a bit less confused and not quite so short-sighted.)

I once heard someone wise say we have only two things to do in this life:  repent and forgive.   I think it may be even a more mysterious degree of wisdom to realize we only have one thing to do in this life,  because to repent is also to forgive . . . to forgive life, to forgive Life/God, and to forgive ourselves for starting out dumber than we end up.  Which we can only do in direct proportion to how thoroughly we can let go of bitterness….

Upon reading this, Papa-Phil wants me to add that its impossible for someone in 2013 to judge someone’s choices made decades ago in such a different cultural context.  Just a man-logic comment.  Well intended.  With compassion and love from both of us.

Your own Mom and Pops.

My mom does that a lot for me, helps me see how this bandaged place is a place where forgiveness, light, and love can enter my life, too. Forgiving myself and making peace with God (because unlike Thoreau, we have quarreled) doesn’t change what I did, but it does help me hold my own ignorant, stumbling, bumbling 20-year old self with a heart of compassion instead of condemnation.

With well intended compassion and love – for all those who teach me to keep my eye on the bandaged place –

M.

Sangha of the First Mother

It was January 2008 and a bitter cold had settled in to Cache Valley. I had just sent a letter to my relinquished daughter’s adoptive parents, the first one in several years. I was fearful a response would never arrive in my mailbox, a familiar but dreadful experience. I was fearful one would arrive in my mailbox, a less familiar but still anxiety provoking experience. I was afraid of what the imagined letter might say or what it might not say. In short, my life was lived from a very fearful place during that time, one in which I would wake up at night drenched in a cold sweat, shivering in the grasp of a fear so immense I still can’t name it. The frozen landscape of Cache valley in January mirrored my frozen, fearful heart.

There was no one reach out to in the middle of the night to calm my quaking, to help quell the fears that were ready to swallow me whole. My husband was on the far side of the  globe and I felt I was left wholly alone to my own devices.  I had been seeing a therapist at the university counseling center, but on this particular night, it was 2:19 a.m. with a fierce wind was howling down the canyon, and I didn’t think he would appreciate a phone call from me.

I reached over and pulled the laptop into bed with me and turned it on. Into the Google search bar, I typed “birth mother support groups online.” I eventually found Claudia of Musings of the Lame and read every. single. post. Here was someone who felt as I did! Someone who felt things had turned out just as the adoption professionals said they would, but still had a broken and aching heart! Here was a birth mother who went on to have a good life, but never “got over” the loss of her son! All I knew from the LDS experience were the Ensign-sanctioned versions of birth mothers who were SO HAPPY they gave their baby to The Right Family, and so I felt ashamed of my grieving and hid it from the world for nearly fifteen years. Eventually, Claudia’s blog led me to Jane and Lorraine of First Mother Forum and from there, I entered into what I have come to call the Sangha of the First Mother.

The sangha (དགེ་འདུན་) is the community of fellow travelers on the dharma – or the way of truth and enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition.  Sangha is a place were we can find communion and rest with those who know our fears on an intimate level because they have lived with them, too. More importantly, they have survived the sharp edges. These awakened travelers can sustain and nourish our hearts when we lean into our own fears.  When we take refuge in the sangha, it reminds us that we are not alone – we are in good company.

The Sangha of the First Mother is inhabited by many courageous, compassionate, and most importantly awakened mothers. These awakened mothers are moved by love to action – action to protect other families, action to help secure the rights of adopted adults, action to help fathers find their voice, to find lost children, and reunite families. These same awakened mothers provide refuge when my own heart begins to quake, when the fears of loss, of unworthiness, of not-being-good-enough come growling in the night.

This community of awakened first mothers “gets me” on a level no one else possibly can. I can talk to them on the phone and there is no need to explain the sigh, the hesitation to answer the question, “How are you really doing?” They know the steps of adoption grief because they have danced that mournful dance in their sleep, just as I have. They understand the trance of adoption because they were once under its spell, too. With this group of women I have found refuge and community. I have found models for healing and hope. I have found a way forward.

Somehow, I feel different inside when I hold in my heart all of the other mothers who have lost a child to adoption and are, at this very moment, aching for them in the deepest recesses of their soul. While my own fears still exist and at times I still wake up in the clutches of an icy sweat, there is a feeling of shared grief, and with this feeling of grief comes the gift of compassion. Compassion for myself, for my fellow mothers who have awakened from the trance of adoption, for those who are just beginning to awaken, as well as those who are still deep in the trance of adoption mythology. Compassion for our lost children and yes, even compassion for their adoptive parents.

Together, we of the Sangha of First Mothers face the unreckonable loss of our beloved children to adoption. By taking refuge in the compassion and understanding I find in this community of first mothers, I awaken further from the trance of adoption, the edges of my own loss soften, and I am able to more fully embrace this experience here, now, in the present.

I know there is a sangha of Lost Daughters, too. Perhaps my own daughter has found her way there already. Perhaps she have found refuge with other daughters who lost their first mother, too, and perhaps – together with them – she can learn she is not alone. She is in good company.

Blessings –

M.

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Edited to add: For those of you who asked (or are wondering), yes, I have read “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha” by Tara Brach. While it might not be for everyone and I don’t subscribe to everything Brach wrote, the book contains principles instrumental in healing what was once an every-increasing rift between myself and God.

I’ll Meet You There

grassyfield

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

– Rumi

Deus aderit

Dear Ms Feverfew:

Over the past several years, I have learned three critical life lessons.

First, God is good, even when we don’t want to or simply can’t acknowledge him.  As Erasmus said, “Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit.”  Called or uncalled, God is present.  Not only is He present, but He is so very aware of our sorrows and fears. He alone knows how best to deliver the deep medicine we need to heal, medicine that tastes of grace, love, and mercy. Second, God is crazy about us, even when we don’t feel like we deserve His love and attention. Third, everything will be all right, in the end. It might hurt a lot and there might be a lot of tears, and it might take an entire lifetime, but truly – everything will work together for our good. Even this.

Much love and belief –

M.

Let’s Dance

marthaspan

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

“Emotional suffering…is not a sign of mental disorder or illness. It’s a universal fact of life–the Buddha’s first noble truth; an inevitable result of living in a damaged and damaging social context; and a unique pathway to spiritual awakening, growth, and transformation….The emotions that appear to afflict us can be the vehicles of liberation from suffering. Experiencing our grief, fear, and despair in a new light, we renew our capacities for gratitude, joy, and faith. We grow in courage and compassion. We approach the world with less fear and more wonder. We have more energy for changing the things that matter.

These gifts can only be found when we are unafraid to dance the dance of dark emotions in our lives.

Let’s dance.”

Much love,

M.

__________________________________________________________________

(Greenspan, M., 2004. Healing through the dark emotions: The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambhala, pp. 7-8.)

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.

“Found: A Memoir” by Jennifer Lauck Book Tour

"Found: A Memoir" by Jennifer Lauck

"Found: A Memoir" by Jennifer Lauck

Welcome to this leg of the Found: A Memoir book tour.  If this is your first time dropping by Letters to Ms. Feverfew, it may be helpful to know it is not like a typical blog. Rather, it is series of letters I have written to my daughter, relinquished for adoption in 1993. I decided to stay with this convention when I wrote my book review and answered the questions posed by other book tour participants. You can read more about me here and why I write these letters here.

Thank you for stopping by. I hope you find something worthwhile during your stay. ~ M.

_________________________________________________________

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

This is going to be long so grab a cup of tea, make sure your laptop is fully charged, and find a comfy cozy corner in which to curl up. Be certain you are well situated before diving in.

~

It was the peak of summer season and I was between homes, neither here nor there. Rootless and wandering between where I had been and where I was headed. All of our household effects were stored somewhere in a warehouse in northern Virginia and we were living in temporary housing that butted up against the York River. I had just graduated with my Ph.D. and my life was stripped bare of all the trappings of domesticity and academic study. And so I read. A lot.

I read Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search For Self. I read Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience. I read The Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness. I read Adoption and Loss: The Hidden Grief. I read 20 Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. I read The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. I read Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption.  I read The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption. I read Adoption Healing: A Path to Recovery. I read Coming Home To Self: The Adopted Child Grows Up.

And I spent a lot of time crying.

Immersed in the literature of adoption recovery, I was awash in a river of grief. What had I done to you? I was drowning, choking on the question, “Dear God, what have I done to my daughter?”  The literature was confirming what I already knew at a cellular level: adoption, at least for us, was wrong. Completely and totally wrong. Utterly and absolutely wrong. It was my culture’s permanent and brutal answer for the temporary crisis in which I found myself.

Then I read Found: A Memoir by Jennifer Lauck and I stopped crying as much.

In her tale I found a way forward. I found hope. It isn’t so much of what she said, but how she said it. Found: A Memoir is a profoundly moving story of an adoptee’s journey to find her first family and ultimately, to discover herself.  What makes her story different is that Found: A Memoir is infused with a level of generosity and self-awareness rarely found in adoptee memoirs.

This generosity is like the finely aged Tahitian vanilla I have secreted in my kitchen pantry. Sweet, warm, floral, and delicate but never cloying. When used in spicy or acidic savory dishes, vanilla cuts the heat and acidity by half while imparting the warmth only vanilla possesses. In savory dishes, it is harder for the pallet to distinguish the vanilla, but it is still there, lifting and lightening the dish. This is the quality infused throughout the majority of Ms. Lauck’s book, rendering an otherwise acidic and difficult story more edible.

And edible it was. I devoured it both times I read it. The first time through I didn’t even stop to sleep or eat. I just read, like a mother newly delivered of her babe and starving for something of substance, some thing more than the ice chips that had been parsed out by Attila the Nurse during labor. I was hungry and it was hope that wafted up from the pages of the book. It was vanilla scented hope that allowed me to digest the difficult and dangerous passages where Ms. Lauck spoke plainly of hard truths, truths that only adoptess can know and tell.  It was vanilla scented hope that tasted of forgiveness and healing. It was a flavor, which, for the first time, helped me understand that perhaps you – my own daughter – might forgive me for what I had done to us.

~

This last fall, a call was sent out by Lori at The Open Adoption Examiner for participants in an online book tour for Found: A Memoir.  I eagerly offered to participate. As I reread the book in preparation for the tour, I was taken at how many of her words could be my own as I made way towards healing and wholeness. I didn’t remember them from before, but now they stood out like a bas relief to my own journey. For example, Ms. Lauck writes:

“In the way that Spencer’s birth began my awakening process, Jo’s birth continued to unfold my psyche and reveal the many dimensions of truth….My first mother felt very important to me in light of Josephine Catherine. Jo was a link in the lineage of woman that connected me to my mother and my mother to her mother and on back through the generations. I wanted to tell my mystery mother, that troubled young girl from so long ago, that Josephine was here—a granddaughter. I wanted to say, “Come look!” (p. 41)

As I read that passage for the second time, I saw my own experiences in her’s:

In the way that Luke’s birth began my awakening process, Penelope’s pregnancy and birth continued to unfold my psyche and reveal the many dimensions of truth…My first daughter felt even more important to me in light of Penelope Rose. Penny was another link in the lineage of women that connected me to my mother and my mother to her mother and on back through the generations. I wanted to tell my mystery daughter, that eight month, 27 day old baby now grown into a woman, that Penelope was here—a sister. I wanted to say, “Come look!”

And so with wonderment at the synchronicity of an adoptee’s experience with my own as a mother who relinquished a child for adoption, I answer three questions asked by other tour members.

I know what I write will make some adoptive parents extremely uncomfortable and perhaps even angry.  And also I know by writing these things, I run the risk of being labeled “bitter” and “anti-adoption” even though I am neither of those things.  But the truth calls me out; I have the luxury of writing with the freedom of one already marginalized by the dominant culture, of one who can risk everything because she has already lost everything.

Q1: On pp 17-18, Jennifer talks about a baby searching for her mother after being born. How did this sensory-rich passage strike you? What thoughts did it trigger about the role you play in adoption?

Trigger would be the right word. One of the hardest things for me has been to come to terms to with how adoption may have affected you from a life-long developmental point of view. I first became cognizant of the potential negative affects when I was in a human development class and we were studying attachment theory across the life span. Disrupted attachment bonds can profoundly affect a person’s willingness to explore their environment, thus reducing exploration and help seeking behaviors and ultimately impacting learning. Reading the original writings of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth convicted me and set me on a path to seeking a deeper understanding of what loss, particularly early parental loss, can do to a person.

It happened again when I took a human physiology class and the professor talked about the experiments he was running about newborns recognizing the scent of their mother’s milk and even more importantly, preferring it above all others. They also prefer the taste of things that the mother ate when she was pregnant with them. And yet more awareness came when I started pulling primary research articles from medical journals detailing how a newborn’s language center in their brain lights up and their heart rate quickens when they hear their mother speak – not the nurse, not the doctor, not their father – but their mother. And articles about how babies in utero prefer their mother’s voice to any other voice or sound. And articles about fetal-maternal microchimerism, where your cells crossed the placental barrier and now reside in my bone marrow, liver, and blood. And articles about mitochondrial DNA – the stuff that powers life and how it is passed only through the mother to her child. And yet more awareness came when I learned of the specificity of a mother’s milk for the individual child and how it changes across the nursing relationship.  And yet more awareness when I read primary research detailing the impact a mother’s touch and voice on infants in the NICU.*

And on it went.

Taken alone, each puzzle piece is interesting but when examined as a composite…dear God, how could I have been so foolish to believe you didn’t need me? And how can this culture go on thinking that somehow, magically, an adopted infant’s brain and body are exempt from these same physiological responses?

But back to us: I wasn’t a crack whore. I wasn’t abusive. I wasn’t neglectful. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I wasn’t sleeping around.  I was simply single mother, going to school, trying to build a life for our little family. How and why did I buy into the NCFA’s glossy literature that you deserved more than me? That you would be better off being raised by people who didn’t smell, sound, or move the right way? Yes, you adapted, but at what cost to your psyche and your soul?

So as you can see, trigger was the right word to use in that question about how those pages affected me.

The next question was a bit more involved, so I broke it apart into sections:

Q2, part 1: Jennifer writes a lot about the first moms biological bond with her child. She writes of this bond as primal, almost as if adoptive moms will never be able to completely bond with their children… Adoptive mothers have to be honest with themselves: they will never have the same deep biological connection with their adopted child their child’s first mother. Irrespective of the depth of her love for this child,  her mitochondrial DNA does not power every cellular process in her adopted child’s body. Her heart does not beat to the same rhythm within a second of locking eyes with her adopted newborn, her voice will not cause the language recognition centers in her adopted newborn baby’s brain to light up like the Milky Way.  She will not smell right or taste right or move right to a tiny babe. They will never share the bone-marrow deep connection that a first mother has with her child. This primal bond is a gift the first mother is given.

These are hard truths for some adoptive mothers to accept, but that doesn’t make them any less true. However, in spite of these hard truths, adoptive mothers can bond with their children. With love, time, and consistent responsive care-giving, a mother can forge powerful bonds with her adopted child, bonds that can be just as strong as the primal ones. This is the gift that adoptive mothers are given.

Q2, part 2: “…and I wonder what advice she would give to  adoptive parents, particularly, women who want to be honest with their children about their birth stories.”   I can’t speak for Ms. Lauck, but here is my take on it: Start by setting aside any me-I-tis or I-deserve-its and read the letter linked at the top of this page, “An Open Letter to APs and PAPs.”

One can only surmise what Lillie writes is equally hard for some adoptive mothers to read as it was for me but still…but still these are the testimonies of those who adoption is supposed to be helping. We cannot continue to dismiss them and marginalize their voices while paying lip service to adoption “reform”. We must listen to them. We must learn from them.

An adoptive mother can begin to honor and respect their child’s need to mourn the loss of their first family by doing the same for now-adult adoptees.  Learning how to listen and honor adult adoptees’ voices now may be one of the best things an adoptive mother can do for her child in the future. After all, her adopted child is going to grow up in a few short years into an adopted adult. If anything, it will give them a lot of practice in letting others tell their truth and not taking it personally. As the adopted child grows and matures, she can help them find ways to honor and respect their original family (even though this can be very hard in situations where a child was available for adoption due to abuse or neglect – I know this first hand, but I also know it can be done). She can tell them the truth, with love and compassion for their hearts. Respect their humanity. It’s all any parent can do for their child, adopted or not.

Q3: What did you believe was the take-away message of this memoir?  Did that idea change for you when you read the afterward?

Adoption is hard. Reunion is hard. But there is hope for healing and eventually the ability to move through the experience.

I believe things will not and cannot improve until we start listening carefully to what adult adoptees are saying  – even the difficult, upsetting parts – and extracting lessons from what they can teach us. This idea did not change upon reading the afterward. In fact, if any thing, I believe Ms. Lauck lays out a fairly humane and comprehensive agenda for reform when she says, “Adoptive parents must be better informed. Birth mothers must be better informed. Adoptees must be better informed” (p. 264).  The only way we can become better informed is to listen – truly listen – to others stories. Especially adult adoptees.

“Adult adoptees are a primary source for knowledge about adoption as an institution. Their perceptions are unique, for adult adoptees are actually the only persons who can tell us what it is like to live adoption in a society in which most people are not adopted.” —Child Welfare League of America [emphasis mine]

~

After reading Found: A Memoir last summer, I had to walk around for a few days and let it ruminate in my belly.   I was satiated and couldn’t read anything else for about a week. No adoption related books. No academic articles about learning theory, attachment, or problem-based learning environments. No memoirs, no classics, no slim volumes of poetry, no micro-histories about the color of mauve or the writing of the Oxford English dictionary, no books about pre-War II Germany, no histories of our founding fathers.

It was just me and Ms. Lauck during those final days of our stay in the temporary housing.

The high summer heat broke our last day in the Tidewater. Early that evening, before the sun had slipped entirely behind the treeline, I laced up my pink and grey New Balance shoes and took myself for a walk in the opposite direction along the river. As I rounded the last curve before the beaver pond, I saw a pregnant full moon beginning to bloom over the Atlantic. She moved carefully and slowly around the corner of the horizon, taking her time to not upset the balance of the gravitational forces tethering her in her fixed path. I audibly gasped at her sheer beauty when she finally broke free from the curvature of the earth. She slowly cleared the span of the Gloucester Bridge, releasing me from her spell, and then I turned for home.

When I got closer to the temporary housing, I could see your youngest brother dashing home from the pool behind his father. I hurried to catch up to them, my feet falling on the wet footprints left by my husband on the warm sidewalk. Did you see that moon rise!? It was – it was breathtaking! I mean, it almost made me cry!

“Gorgeous,  a lot of things make you cry lately.” My husband’s caterpillar eyebrow wiggled knowingly above his eyes.  “So that isn’t surprising but no, I didn’t see it from here. The trees were in the way.”

“I missed it too, Mom. I was too busy playing to see what happened.”

Oh man, you guys really missed out on one of the most spectacular things I have ever witnessed.

~

Much like my husband and son missing the moonrise, I realize readers’ reaction to this book may be the same. It will affect each person differently, dependent on their position in the adoption constellation and whether they are paying attention or just hanging out in the pool we call life. And you know what? That is OK. We are all at different points on this journey and sometimes it is nice to just float on our backs and enjoy the warm water. But I’ll be honest, it sure was nice to have witnessed something so beautiful.

Much love and belief –

M.

*All research claims will be addressed in subsequent letters, providing references and a brief discussion of how the study findings might impact an adoptee.

To continue to the next stop of this book tour, please visit the main list at The Open Adoption Examiner.

To learn more about Ms. Lauck and her writing, please visit http://www.jenniferlauck.com/

Jennifer Lauck, author of "Found: A Memoir"

Jennifer Lauck, author of "Found: A Memoir"

Still it Comes Ringing, Clearer than Clear

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

A few weeks have gone by, I am getting more sleep now and the crazy post-partum hormones are settling a bit. Consequently, I am more able to deal with the “Toad’s Wild Ride” of emotions that adoption brings up. It’s amazing what sleep can do for a woman.

I was pretty dramatic in that last post, wasn’t I? I guess I could go delete it, but I was truly feeling that way at that moment – defeated, despondent, and full of grief. The truth of the matter is this: I can never, have never, and will never lose the hope that someday, we will know each other again as adults. That someday we will be friends, that you will eat waffles with strawberries and whipped cream at my house for breakfast one day, and that your brothers and sister will get to know you and you will get to know them. I will never give up believing that someday I will get to introduce you to my amazing husband and he will finally be able to meet this daughter-now-woman that I have cried for, prayed for, loved, and cherished from a distance for all of these years.

It has been difficult find that balance between the hoped for future and the here-and-now, but I think I am getting better at it. Now that I am not in constant physical pain, I am much more graceful at dealing with the emotional part of all of this. Speaking of the here-and-now, I can her her hollerin’ for mama over the baby monitor. Until next time –

Much love and belief,

M.

P.S. I still think your parents should have given you that package like they said they would.

Take the Gift and Say Thank You

(Note: I wrote this on 30 April but am only getting around to posting it this morning. Please excuse my tardiness – I had a rough weekend.)

Dear Ms. Feverfew –

It has been too long since I have written, but as I have said in the past, it isn’t because I am not thinking of you. In fact, these past few weeks have been consumed with thoughts of you, of me, of this new little one and how all of this came to be how it now is. My other excuse is that I went for a couple of days without a computer because I knocked over my water bottle onto my laptop keyboard and spilled about 2 cups of water into it. Fortunately, a quick acting husband and several days of drying while propped upside down have rendered it usable again so hopefully I can get back to writing.

Today I went to the ObGyn for my weekly checkup. Blood pressure is 85/62, weight is up 1 lb. (woohoo! and I mean this seriously – it has been a struggle for me to gain weight this pregnancy), heart rate is 59, no protein in my urine, baby sounds great, everything is going along swimmingly.  She commended me for all my laying around and lounging about I have been doing for the past 3 weeks and reminded me that in the grand scheme of life, this time I am spending on bedrest is nothing. And she’s right. It really is nothing compared to having a healthy baby in 11 days.

So there I am, lounging about on the exam table (because frankly if someone wants to talk with me, they have to do it while I am laying down because sitting sucks. Period.) My doctor starts talking to me about the upcoming c/section (did I mention its in 11 more days?) and some of my concerns as it is sooooooooooo not my typical way of birthing – I am much more the water birth/midwife kind of woman. In addition to the normal fears, I also told her how worried I was that I was going to have a complete come-apart there on the OR table. I told her of my struggles I have been having and how this new baby is causing me to really confront what I have spent the last 17+ years avoiding: losing you to adoption. Thus ensued one of the most open, honest, and compassionate conversations I have ever had with a health care professional about adoption and adoption grief.

There was no judgment of me. There was no reaching for the prescription pad to write me an Rx for an antidepressant because my emotions were making her uncomfortable. There were no “There, there now, you just need to let go and move on” comments. There was only genuine compassion for my plight as a woman who had lost a child and never been given the permission to grieve that loss. There were tears, both hers and mine, as I unfolded our story. There was horror and repulsion at how I was treated. There was understanding at my need to reconcile my faith with my experience. There was a willingness to accept that adoption isn’t a win-win-win for everyone involved. There was the ability to see that the successes I have cobbled together in my life are in spite of the fact I relinquished you for adoption, not because of it.

Through all of this, I explained that because of this unresolved grief, I have had a difficult time accepting this pregnancy. It still feels like a dream to me and I have not really connected with this new little spirit who is coming to our family. I am afraid to because what if God decides I don’t deserve to be her mother either? What if He takes her from me? What if, what if, what if?

For some reason, I have been able to subvert/ignore/stuff those feelings while parenting my two boys. I never struggled with any of these emotions when I was pregnant with them. By that point I knew I was a damn good mother and no one could ever tell me otherwise, even my stinky ex-husband and his “perfect” stay-at-home wife who wanted me to relinquish custody of Captain Knuckle because I was now single and they were now married. Even my mother who urged me to do the same thing, to just “let him go” and “move on in peace” with my life. I didn’t listen to them because I knew I was a good mother to my very core and the my children deserved to be with me. More importantly, I deserved to be with them.

Why this pregnancy is so soul-shattering different, I don’t know. I think it might be because it is a girl. I think it might be because she is arriving so close to your birthday. I think it might be because I was pregnant through the fall, winter, and spring like I was with you. I think it is because you are turning 18 in 6 weeks. I think, I think, I think. Perhaps I am over-thinking things.

So back to my doctor. After spending a good 50 minutes blubbering to her about you, she said, “You know, perhaps this pregnancy is a gift because it is forcing you to confront all of these fears and concerns you have. It is forcing you to examine more carefully what happened back then and to find ways to resolve those feelings of loss and grief.”

And she is right. This pregnancy is doing/has done all of those things and I am certain little Penelope Rose will continue to challenge me in ways I didn’t know that I needed to be challenged as she grows. Each birthday, each Christmas, each family pictures, each dance lesson, each piano lesson, each soccer game, each school dance, each date, there will always be a searing awareness of you, what I missed, and the big What If.

Is this a gift? I don’t know at this point. I would like to think that it is but I’m guessing it isn’t the black-cocker-spaniel-puppy-with-a-bow-around-her-neck kind of gift. I think it is one of those paradoxical gifts that is going to hurt but help all at the same time, that will expand my ability to love and to accept life as it unfolds.

Needless to say, I am swiftly running out of time to get as much of this figured out as possible.  Did I mention I only have 11 more days?

Much love,

M.