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Well, I Never!

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“Well, I never!”  These words followed the slam of the telephone receiver onto the cradle in the office next to mine.  I took this as a summons, and edged onto the chartreuse plaid love seat in Mrs. Tisher’s room, and stared at the chartreuse carpet on the floor.  It was almost Christmas, 1979; she would be leaving for two weeks, and I would be in charge.  For eleven months Mrs. Tisher had been telling me stories to help me understand the mysterious world of adoption.  The lesson for today: how to handle an inappropriate call.

“Would you believe this:  I could barely understand what she said, she was talking so softly, she says, ‘How do I tell my son that he’s adopted?’  ‘How old is he?’  ’Fifty-eight, we just never told him.  Now I have cancer and I don’t have long to live, do you think I should tell him?’ ‘Was the adoption handled by this agency?’  ‘No, it was before we moved here; our family attorney handled it, and he’s been dead for years, and my husband, too.  Should I even tell him?’  ‘Well, I’m sorry, but you’re just going to have to find your own way!’ And I hung up!  Can you believe it!  She’s asking me for help for something she never took care of.”  “Did she give her name?  Or her number?” I asked.  “Are you kidding? She could barely ask her question; she was too ashamed to say who she is!” 

Not our job.  Or was it?

Over the years since then, I’ve met several ‘late discovery’ adopted people who’ve shared their pain of loss of identity and loss of story – many of them finding out after their parents have passed.  Whatever clues their parents might have been able to give them are gone, and they are left to search on their own, often with almost no information.  I’d like to tell them how the world of adoption has changed.  The openness and ease with which most adoptive parents today approach the ‘telling’ is something that’s come late to adoption.  Adoption used to be treated with shame.  Shame borne from secrecy.  Shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; shame of being unable to conceive.  This shame often leaked over to the adoptee, who felt ashamed to be adopted.  Why not?  If no one talked about it, it must be something to be ashamed of, right?

So Late Discovered, I want to say:  Please try to see your parent from the vantage point of the times.  Your parents wanted to shield you from the shame of being adopted.  Yes, they did you a disservice by not telling you when they had the chance, but they didn’t tell you, because they loved you.  There are lots of mixed messages in adoption.  To the adoptee:  “Your Birth Mother loved you so much that she gave you away!”  So if you love me, will you give me away?  To the birth mother:  “Forget this happened” Then, when they couldn’t forget, they thought something was wrong with them.  To the adoptive parent:  “Love your children as if they were born to you; but never forget that they weren’t born to you.”  See?  It’s a crazy-making world sometimes!  But only if you let it.  There; I did it again.

OK, Mrs. Tisher, I get it that it wasn’t our place to give service to an adoptive mom that wasn’t ‘our’ adoptive mom, but I wanted to help her. It must have been then that I chose the role of adoption educator to the world.

Blog away, Adoption Educator!

Written by bethkoz

December 31, 2011 at 12:06 pm

3 Responses

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  1. While I agree that my mother loved me, and probably most late discovery adoptees I know share that view on different levels, the rest is complex. And unique to each family, like the finger print; many stories have similarities but each a one of a kind.

    It also begs the question, in 1964 did parents who told their children of their beginning not love them? Of course they probably did.

    While my mother loved me, I feel her reason for not telling me had little to do with me. She held the secret, lied, and manipulated out of selfishness.

    I appreciate you sharing this, and i so wanted to ask the adoptive mother, “What about his medical history? Not only did he not know his own but he believed his was that of his adoptive parents.”

    Susan Bennett

    December 31, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    • Thanks, Susan. One reason to post immediately after I write is to get feedback like yours. The prevailing belief in 1979 when I started adoptions work, was that nurture (environment) was more important than nature (family history) in shaping personality and individual characteristics and even health issues. Adoptive applicants were asked which was more important; “Nurture” was the ‘right answer.’

      As to medical issues: Society didn’t realize how important that issue would turn out to be. The health records of most birth mothers prior to the sixties, was covered with one word: “excellent” or “normal.” Long before I worked in adoptions, cancer and asthma (as examples) were thought to be a result of personal weakness. It took quite awhile before intergenerational patterns of health conditions like heart disease and cancer and diabetes were noted. One family before I came to the agency had been placed with a child who was the result of incest; the family was not told. When they read a story in the newspaper as the case went to trial, they called and asked if theirs was the baby in question; only then were they told the truth. The agency thought they were protecting the adoptive parents and the child. “Now they are going to look at every single thing this child does and think it’s because of the incest,” was the reasoning, a common one in social work at that time. Few people questioned authority back then. As adopted persons began returning to the agencies after reunions and reporting the often eerie similarities, we began to realize how important it is to gather and share information of likes and preferences. Families of divorce also contributed to the change, as children of divorce displayed mannerisms and preferences of the parent absent in formative years.


      December 31, 2011 at 9:07 pm

  2. i respectfully disagree with you. avoiding the shame of adoption could be a possible reason, but wanting to pretend to be a “real” family and not have to deal with the situation seems far more likely. it is important to understand the prevailing beliefs of the time and to forgive, but as someone who is removed from the situation, i have no respect for a parent who is dishonest with their child.


    October 23, 2012 at 12:16 am

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