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Lies We Have Told

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When I started working in adoptions in 1979, it was a paternalistic realm. Adoption agencies knew that secrecy, the standard of the day, would protect them from anyone knowing what went on behind the nursery door — or in that ‘baby close’ where kept all the goods.

I started as a pregnancy counselor.  I was told that I should inform the pregnant person (unwed mothers, we called them then) who was considering adoption that her baby would be placed with a couple who were ‘professionals,’ who had been married at least ten years, owned their own home and could afford to give the baby all the things she couldn’t give him at this time in her life.”  A few young women had questions.  ‘What kind of a professional?  Law? Medical? Education?’  ‘What kind of house do they have?  A mansion?  A condominium?’

As to what was told to the adoptive parents:  “Your baby has a background much like your own.”  If details were asked, there were general statements:  ‘Eastern European’ background. The age of the mother.  The situation with the father of the baby.  Very little else, until early 80s when a Texas couple sued their Texas agency for not disclosing mental health issues in the background; then every placement agency had to give, in writing, the background information, though it was pretty skimpy.  Health: ‘excellent’ or ‘normal’ or ‘good.’ We didn’t know how important information on diabetes, heart disease or cancer would be to the futures of these children we placed with families we trusted, and who trusted us!  Research would eventually show that even preferences for tv watching is genetic; an adopted child is more apt to watch the same kind of TV shows as their birth parents, listen to the same kinds of music;  be athletic or studious; good at math or science – we simply didn’t know that then.

Those were the easy lies; the lies that didn’t matter much (or so we thought).  Even worse were the lies of omission.  Not to tell the adoptive parents who were receiving a child who was six weeks old why the child was that age.  This led to little boys and girls, who learned of their ‘advanced age’ at placement to wonder why their mother had given them up at six weeks – were they ugly?  Cried too much?  What was wrong with ME?  The truth was that the mother signed relinquishment papers at the legal time (3 days in AZ), and then it was up to the agency to find a family for the baby.

In the 1980s,  most moms and babies were kept in the hospital three to five days for a normal birth, five to seven days if a C-section.  Moms were encouraged not to see their babies, not to hold their babies, even if they wanted to, because it would make it ‘too hard’ to relinquish, which after all – society believed – was the best thing for them to do.

The truth is that the babies were placed into foster homes (all foster homes that I knew were very loving homes, by the way) to get ‘pretty’.  Misshapen heads were rounding out, newborn pimples were healed, issues with formulas were solved, so the babies weren’t ‘spitters’ by the time they were placed; they were even sleeping through the night before they were placed!  A pediatrician checked them over, to declare them ready for placement.  All the better to help those inexperienced first time parents accept their perfect baby!  We knew nothing about bonding and attachment – that it’s pacing the floors with a crying baby that helps parents bond with babies and where babies are reassured their needs will be met — whether they are adopted or born into their families!

The first year I worked in adoptions, there were three cases that I knew of where someone from ‘old files’ contacted the agency:  perhaps to update their address in case the child came looking for them one day; some birth parents who knew nothing of where their child went, who cried every year on the birthday asked for some sliver of information about the kind of home they’d gone to.  Gradually more people called in, so that by the eighth year at that first agency, the 3 inquiries per year had gone to 28 per year of contacts over an old case.  A timid voice would say to me:  “I gave up a baby for adoption fifteen years ago. . . .” (or five , or twenty or forty}.  One young woman hesitated, and when I said, “Yes, how can I help you?”  She said, “You mean you’re not going to hang up on me?  I thought you’d slam the phone down as soon as I said that.  You want to help me?”

Once, I had a woman who said she’d given up a baby fourteen years ago, and on the day she came in to sign the papers, she was told they hadn’t found a family for her bi-racial baby (half black, half white).  She knew he was in foster care that day, and she’d gotten her life together now, and if her child was still in foster care, she could take him back.  I assured her the baby was surely in an adoptive home, and I took her name and number and promised to call her back.  I looked at the cross-referenced index cards.  Her baby had been placed with a family the very next day after she signed relinquishments, yet no one had called to tell her!  I called her immediately and apologized that she had to wait fourteen years to learn that her baby had a home the very next day after she signed the papers!  That was cruel!

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only cruel thing I found.  A woman called and asked if there was any health information about the birth family of her 12 year old son, received as a baby.  She told me her son had a possibly genetic condition where the bones developed ulcerated growth near the joints.  He’d had many surgeries; he was bullied at school.  Her marriage had failed under the stress of the problems. I promised to find the file, type up the information that was there and then have her come in to receive the information in person.   I studied over the file; the birth parents were a married couple who had three children with this same disease!  The experts had told them three out of four of their children would have this affliction.  Did some person think because this was the fourth child born to him, he wouldn’t have it?  When I had the mom come in the next day (she brought her son with her), she was relieved to hear that this was the genetic type of this disease, but then she told me this was the third time since he began to have problems that she’d called the agency.  She’d been told there was ‘no information’ in the file.  Worse, there was no record of her having inquired about her son’s background!  I was livid.  Not only did my predecessors LIE to her, but they didn’t have the courtesy to write in the file so I knew how to proceed with her!

Yes, lies were told.  I don’t think it was ever malicious.  The belief was that the cloak of secrecy would shield the agency and its personnel from ever being found out! It was paternalistic thinking; it was ‘we know what’s best’.

It was a pattern of thinking that I’ve worked to correct ever since my early days in adoption.  I listened to stories of adopted persons and birth mothers from the years of secrecy, and I learned how secrecy always hurts.  It’s the stories of former clients that made me decide change was needed.  It’s the reason that I advocate for change in the way adoptions are done today.

Please keep encouraging adoptees and birth parents in search to go back to the agencies.  The people who work there now need to know what effect lies have had on the lives of their clients. The Boards of Directors that have some adoptive parents on them who may fear they will lose their children to their birth parents are learning, too and are now less fearful.  And to go to the Legislatures whose attorney members fear their own dalliances will be revealed, They have to hear from adopted adults and birth mothers and adoptive parents!  It’s time for ‘best needs of the child’ to mean something!

Written by bethkoz

November 4, 2013 at 5:25 am

The Comfort of Lies, a review

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When the 80s brought successful novels based on courtroom drama, I began to seek out novels with an adoption theme, for I know that adoption has as many interesting story lines as the legal field – sometimes even the same stories!  Thus I eagerly looked forward to reading Randy Susan Meyers’ book, The Comfort of Lies, published in 2013 by Atria books, a division of Simon and Shuster.

The novel links three women who are bound by an adoption that is five years old (or in adoption jargon:  five years post-placement): Tia, the birth mother; Caroline, the adoptive mother; and Juliette, the wife of the man who fathered the child.  The connection comes when Tia forwards photographs sent to her by Caroline per their open adoption agreement, and Juliette intercepts the photographs addressed to her husband.

The comforting lies are trifold:  Tia hopes that when he sees the pictures of the daughter who was placed for adoption, Nathan will leave his wife and two sons, return to Tia and fulfill her fantasy of a perfect life; Caroline has hidden her feelings of personal failure because she hasn’t lived up to her expectation of the ideal mother; and Juliette, without a word to her husband, lures Caroline and the child into her lair and then builds her own fantasy incorporating this female child into her family peopled with boys, half brothers to the adopted girl child.

The novel is set in Boston, and recent events in Boston lent a special cache to sitting down with a book and reading of Brandeis University, Jamaica Plain, Waltham and South Boston neighborhoods.

What the author got right:  the expectation by participants that an infant adoption will solve problems on all sides of the adoption circle; the dilemma involved as modern women choose between career and family.

What left me unsatisfied: Sadly, this is book expands the ‘otherness’ of birth mothers in general; and, in an effort to wrap up all the flayed ends of this drama, there’s an oversimplification of how the main characters arrived at their transformations.  Will Tia be successful in staving off her flirtation with alcoholism?  How will Caroline accept her husband assuming more parenting their daughter?  Will Juliette ever communicate to Nathan what she wants from him?  The affects on the child are virtually ignored, without a hint of the potential trauma that awaits the child as she grows up.  These issues provide cliffhangers.  Perhaps this begs for a new saga from the child’s point of view when she grows up and incorporates these three women – Tia, Caroline and Juliette – into her understanding of “mother.”

There is precedence for correcting adoption misinformation in one book by writing another.  In 1988 Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees, was published. The story involved an adoption of a three year old Cherokee by a single woman ‘just passing through’ Oklahoma. This first novel met with much literary acclaim, but the world of adoption screamed at the author’s lack of awareness of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which dictates how a Native American child can be adopted.  In 1993 Pigs in Heaven, Ms Kingsolver continued the story with the same characters in a chase to complete the adoption by Indian Child Welfare rules.

Leaving the reader calling for more is a good way to end a novel, isn’t it?

Written by bethkoz

May 3, 2013 at 4:21 am

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

Review of TV Documentary, Sperm Donor: 74 Kids and More.

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Caught an interesting program on BRAVO on Saturday; Sperm Donor: 74 Kids and More.  Years ago a student worked his way through law school in the Boston area by making deposits to a sperm bank, earning $900 per month.  Now in his early 30s and planning his marriage, Ben signs up with a Donor Sibling Registry to see if he’s actually got children ‘out there.’ He finds 74, with the potential of even more(!)  There’s no obligation that Ben meet with any of these offspring, but being a good and gentle Ben, he agrees to make himself available to answer questions about medical conditions at the very least.

A woman in northern California has discovered Ben is the donor of her two children: a girl, age 8 and a boy, age 4.  With the support of her parents, she decides to take the children from CA to MA for a weekend visit.  She prepares the kids:  the daughter nods and smiles smugly when asked:  “Do you think you look like him?”  (The viewer sees that she does, as does her brother!)  Her mom tells her that this man is getting married soon and they are going to fly to Boston to meet him.  The daughter asks in all innocence:  “Does this mean he’s breaking up with you?”   So much for ‘old enough to understand.’

Meanwhile, the donor is explaining to his bride-to-be.  “How many more are going to come looking for you?”  No doubt she’s imagining the phone calls to set appointments with 70 or more children who want to ‘get to know him.’  The skepticism in her eyes tells us she’s discovered there’s more to Ben than she’s prepared to face.

In a lighter vane (and on the same program) the Donor Sibling Registry has connected two girls who are half siblings through their SD dad.  Both girls were raised as “onlies” and have no siblings. The older one, now in her early 20s is touched to learn that her younger half sib has been orphaned by the early death of her mother, and decides to fly to Arizona to play Fairy Godmother:  to take her sister shopping for her prom dress, get her nails and hair done, and see her off to the high school prom.

In one poignant scene, the sisters stand before a huge mirror, comparing faces.  “We have the same smile!” exclaims one.  As the day wears on, they notice gestures and other similarities, and although their facial features aren’t so much alike, they do have similar coloring.  This relationship has a chance of developing into something meaningful.

As off-putting as it is to think of having 70 or more half-siblings, this documentary brings the human element to a fact of modern family-making.  Nothing short of seeing the physical similarities between Ben and his biological offspring in the first story and the deep longing for family in the second can prepare someone for the issues that real families made by extraordinary methods must face.

Thanks to the company that brought this documentary to life! Watch for it on cable!

Written by bethkoz

November 15, 2011 at 6:31 am

Review: Good Girls Don’t by Patti Hawn

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If you are female, and older than, say sixty, I’ll wager you instantly ‘get’ the title.  Good Girls Don’t . . . have sex before they marry.  It’s a line used to control us wanton women when our hormones began to itch.  That line solidified the implicit message that It’s the girls’ duty to control the male.   In those lively days before The Pill and Roe v Wade, we girls accepted that line, and the social controls that lead us blindly down the path of convention.  A pregnant girl in the late 50s and early 60s conformed by allowing themselves to be herded off to a maternity home, to place the ‘unwanted love child’ for adoption. 

 What hooked me was the author’s recall of the intensity of love at 16 and the convention of the day.   Feeling responsible for ruining her boyfriend’s life and her family’s reputation, Patti Hawn acquiesced to the expectation to do ‘the right thing.’ When her body revealed her secret, off she went to a maternity home until the birth of her baby.  Patti had her baby, then found work rather than return to school.  It’s the way things were done. 

 Patti was pregnant again within a year.  With the help of her mother, she finessed a marriage to the father of her second child just before the baby’s birth.  A divorce followed, and Patti kept this baby and resumed her life.  Nevertheless Patti was unhappy.  She floundered in one meaningless job after another.  She struggled as a single parent.  Finally Patti followed her younger sister Goldie to California where she established herself in a career on the  fringes of the film industry.  Patti had fun; she lived the Hollywood lifestyle of successful yet detached female who dared not let herself love again.  When she did let a man inside her protected world, death took him suddenly and unexpectedly.

 Finally, on a journey of self-discovery Patti traveled to Tibet to ponder mountain climbing.  Her epiphany was to decide to reclaim the part of herself she gave away at 16; she needed to find her son.  What and who she found forty years after relinquishment tested her mettle in a new way.  Dealing with the reality of her son’s life caused her to realize she still has no control except to accept what is. 

 This book came into my life at the same time as the news that my first love had lost his life in a car accident in our home state;  I read this book to escape from the reality of that death.   How much of my personal journey was wrapped around reading this book is difficult to parse.  I can only say that this book gave me permission to recall my own first love, and reading this book allowed me to mourn his loss.  Thank you, Patti Hawn, for helping me recall those days and to celebrate that we, as females of the 60s, have earned our strength to accept que sera sera, whatever will be will be.

Written by bethkoz

August 27, 2011 at 7:07 am

Review: I Beat The Odds by Michael Oher

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Like many movie goers, I was swept up by the magical story of “The Blind Side” the 2009 movie that brought Sandra Bullock her Oscar for the role of the foster/adoptive mom of Michael Oher, the professional football player for the Baltimore Ravens.  But with many years’ experience in child welfare, I wanted to know the child’s side of the story– and this is the book!  The story of the foster child, nearly homeless, who found the right family to help him reach his goal – to amount to something in spite of his rocky beginning in life.

 As told to Sports Illustrated writer Don Yaeger, this book tells how Michael decided at an early age to resist the streets of Memphis’s poor section, and to find a way out of the ‘hood.  His chosen path was athletics.  He found a way to play baseball, basketball, track and – yes—football and to work to achieve his goal.  His determination shines through this book, and trims away the ‘cutesy’ from the movie.  Yes, Miss Sue is there; yes, so is S. J., the younger brother (who last year emerged as his own man in the field of basketball) and Collin (the sister whose life revolved around cheerleading),as well as the parents, Sean and Leigh Ann – all the characters from the movie are there, but Michael is clearly the star of this telling of his story.

 Which is as it should be.  He encourages other children of the ghetto to hold onto their dream — that they CAN amount to something in a positive way.  I gave the book to a young client fighting her way to respectability at age 17.  Her review was:   “This is better than the movie!  It tells the ‘real’ story!” So take it from me and Lupita:  This is a great book for teens!

Written by bethkoz

August 27, 2011 at 6:07 am

Damaged books!

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Ah!  Something burst in the ceiling at my office, above my credenza.  Five books were ruined by the ensuing flood!  Today I went online to look up the prices for replacements.  I was amazed at the prices of two of the books, which are out of print (I think) but available as used or library copies.  They were all children’s books, which I had on display:  A is for Adopted by Eileen Tucker Cosby.  Life sure feels different living in a separate house from my brother by Pamela and Camela Rollins.  Lucy’s Feet, by Stephanie Stein.  Sacred Connections by Mary Ann Koenig. and Active Interventions for Kids and Teens by Jeffrey Ashby, Jerry Kottman and Donald DeGreat.  I’ll soon be back in business!

And grateful that nothing else was ruined!