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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!

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Written by bethkoz

November 4, 2013 at 5:25 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

In a Fog . . .

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I sit at the patio table and watch the sunrise.  I am still caught in my dream . . .

I have returned to The Agency, to visit.  Everywhere I see young mothers with newborns, some with their mothers in tow.  I’ve just come to visit!  There’s a staff meeting;  I open the door  to ask:  “Where’s Jeanelle? Where’s Becky?  I need a pregnancy counselor out here!”  Melissa smiles at me and says, “They aren’t here yet.  I’ll send them when they get here.”  I turn.  A light-skinned bi-racial woman holds her baby; I realize I knew her when she was Black!  I don’t have time to figure this out.  I say, ‘Follow me,” and we head to the conference room, the one with a big table.  There are other mothers and their mothers gathered here, each holds a newborn.  Two men are sitting at the table, laughing and smiling.  “Excuse me, why are you here?” I ask.  The swarthy man turns to me, beaming, says, “We’re Israeli.  We are friends of ____.  They said when we came to the States, we should go to the agency to see where they got their baby!” ( He doesn’t look Israeli; he looks like the East Indian pharmacy tech who hands me prescriptions at Costco.)  “You’re in the wrong place,” I tell him.  “Go back to the front desk and ask for an adoption worker.”  He and his friend vaporize, as possible only in dreams.  A young blond woman holds her baby up to me.  “You don’t have to do another adoption!” I say to her.  “But I promised I would!” she tells me.  I am prepared to tell all these women they are strong, they can mother their own children, they do not have to do another adoption.  Elliot reaches through the dream skin and gently tugs on my big toe:  “It’s 6:30.  Time to make pancakes.” 

 

I sit at the patio table.  I’ve finished my pancakes and my coffee is cold.  I am haunted by my dream. I still have work to do.

Written by bethkoz

December 18, 2011 at 12:29 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

POV on PBS: “Off and Running”

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Mondays this month of September, 2010, PBS is airing adoption-themed programs on Point of View (POV). The first was named “Off and Running” and is the story of an AfricanAmerican girl adopted by a single white mother who later joined with another single white adoptive mother of a bi-racial boy; still later they brought a Korean boy into their family unit in New York City.  Avery, the protagonist / adopted person and her brothers are being raised in a Jewish home, attending Hebrew school.  In her search for identity, Avery has developed her athletic ability and wins at track meets; she is often the only African American in her social group, but begins to meet others at her track meets. 

When Avery begins to ask questions only her birth mother can answer,  Avery reaches out through the adoption agency to establish contact by letter with her birth mother; this brings more questions for Avery to ask. Alas, her birth mother slows in answering more letters.  Neither of Avery’s adoptive moms recognizes Avery’s need to question in order to understand herself. Instead, the adoptive mothers turn inward and express inadequacy, suggesting to Avery that she has been ‘too intense’ in her questions.

Through years of advocating for communication in adoption, I have heard the complaints of adoptive parents who faithfully send photos and letters to the birth mother, then express anger at the birth mother who does not respond. It has puzzled me, too, so I have asked birth mothers why they stop writing. More often than not, I get an answer that shows they too are stuck in their emotions. Seeing their child happy relieves the guilt but also triggers the recognition that they are missing out on significant moments of the child’s life. “It feels different from what I imagined it would.” Many of the birth mothers feel inadequate to explain their emotions on paper; they may not have a comparable level of education to that of the adoptive parents. Some birth mothers have not had cameras to record their other children’s early years. They measure themselves against the adoptive parents and come up short in their own minds and believe they have much less to give to their child.  The birth mother does not recognize that her gift of life is truly the beginning of what she has to offer her child.

Adoptive parents often misinterpret this as lack of contact as lack of caring. They turn in their unresolved grief and snap at the adopted person: After all I’ve done for you, you want to hear from HER? The one who didn’t want you in the first place?

Unresolved grief on the part of all sides of the adoption is, in my opinion, at the root of the misunderstandings. Seldom do two people (let alone the constellation of people involved in an adoption) reach the same level of understanding at the same time. We as adoption educators are unable to prepare adoptive parents and birth parents for this part of their future; our initial contact is focused on how to handle the information when the child is small.  We give book lists to suggest ways to educate themselves.

Thankfully, there are books to help adopted teens cope with the search for self.   EMK Press has “Pieces of Me:  Who Do I Want to Be?” edited by Robert Ballard, composed of art work and writings of teen adopted people.  “Kimchi or Calimari” is a novel by Rose Kent for teens wherein a Korean adoptee struggles to feel a part of his very Italian adoptive family.  Surely if we can expect a pre-school child to understand the metaphor of a baby bird that falls out of its nest and gets carried to another bird family on the back of the Wise Old Owl (in “The Mulberry Bird: An Adoption Story” by Anne Braff Brodzinsky and Diana L. Stanley) we can count on a teen to read a book about another teen struggling with his cultural identity issues and make the leap that these questions that Avery asks are normal. 

And isn’t ‘normalizing’ adoption one of the gifts we as adoption educators can give to our worried clients?  I look forward to the next installments of POV this month!

Movie Review: Mother and Child. Written and Directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

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I wanted to see Mother and Child a second time before writing about the movie, to test my memory before recording my observations here.  I got so much out of the post-movie discussion with my friend Linda after seeing the movie once, that I wanted to see and discuss the movie a second time in the company of other friends, some of whom are birth mothers, to get their unique take on it.  We planned a party; six of us would attend the movie together, and discuss it over lunch.  Alas, it had too short a run in Phoenix!  We missed it by one day. 

From interviews on NPR with writer/director Rodrigo Garcia and from the website for the movie, I knew that the writer started out to make a movie about relationships of longing, not necessarily an adoption movie.  After interviewing a few birth mothers and adopted persons, as well as adoptive mothers who longed for a child to love, he knew that in adoption, he’d found a subset of relationships to highlight the soul’s longing for its own missing piece. 

The end result — though Mr. Garcia probably didn’t intend for it to be — amounts to a visual demonstration of the changes in adoption practice over the last forty years.  This feat of showing change is accomplished by juxtaposing three characters and their stories: a grown birth mother, an adult adoptee and a prospective adoptive mom.  

Karen (Annette Bening) is a frustrated fifty-ish, never-married woman who fantasizes about the daughter she placed for adoption when she herself was 14.  As the daughter’s 37th birthday approaches, Karen tells her elderly mother of the impending birthday.  Her mother looks at her daughter with a blank stare, reflecting the societal judgment common to birth mothers in the years of adoption secrecy.  Karen turns to her constant companion, a notebook where she records her thoughts in a never-ending Dear Diary entry to her absent daughter.  At work as a physical therapist at a Los Angeles nursing home, she notices and is noticed by a newly hired physical therapist, widowed Paco (Jimmy Smits) whose efforts to befriend her are rebuffed by Karen’s extreme over-reactions.  Karen, at this stage of the movie, is stuck at 14 in her emotional development, a not-uncommon side effect I have observed in some teen pregnancies.  Karen’s transformation to adulthood gives the actor a wide swing of character development, which she does with believable grace and ease.  As her relationship with Paco grows, he encourages her to begin a search for her daughter.  With Paco at her side, Karen cautiously approaches the adoption agency that took her baby for placement, where Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones) explains that she can write a letter to her daughter to be placed in the file. If her daughter contacts the agency, she will be given the letter; otherwise, the case cannot be opened.   Karen hesitates (also a true-to-life reflection of beginning searchers). The significance of the support she gains from Paco helps Karen in her evolution, and allows Jimmy Smits to show a rare soft side of the masculine role in the adoption community.  By the time she does bring her letter to the agency, a mature Karen is ready to face the future. 

The second story line involves Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) as an aloof, self-assured attorney interviewing for a job with the head of a large law firm (Samuel L. Jackson as Paul) in her home town of Los Angeles.  When he asks for details about her personal life, she tells him her father died when she was young, she has no current relationship with her mother; she is adopted and therefore knows nothing about her background.  In a twinkling, she reveals just enough for the viewer to suspect she is the daughter born to Karen.  She soon reveals a flip side to her over-bearing professionalism, as she revels in vindictive sexual promiscuity (another legacy of the secrecy era of adoption: the adoptee with no information may assume her mother was ‘of loose morals’ and therefore, follows suit). Nearing her 37th birthday, Elizabeth decides to start a search for her birth mother.  She visits the adoption agency, where Sister Joanne tells her, as she told Karen, to write a letter to go into her file.  “It works!”  Sister Joanne insists; indeed, as an adoption agency worker for 30 years, I can confirm that such letters can lead to matches!  When Elizabeth returns to the agency, a different worker accepts her letter.   And again, I can confirm that the matching of letter to file is an art that sometimes stumbles, as the process does in this story where a misfiled letter causes a delay that is significant to the plot.

The third story line, the adoptive mother’s longing for a baby to love, is shown through the character of Lucy (Kerry Washington), who with her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) interviews with Sister Joanne to discuss their need for a child to love.  Sister Joanne sets up a meeting between Lucy and Joseph and a 20 year old pregnant woman, Ray (Shareeka Epps) who is searching for the right family to raise her unborn baby.  At her bakery, Lucy is badgered by her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) who struggles to accept this new style of adoption.  Nevertheless, the mother pulls it together to become her daughter’s main support as she faces the unknown future.  Ray is clear, when they meet, that this is serious business:  she will pick them only if Lucy answers her pointed questions truthfully.  Lucy has been carefully framing her demeanor to help them get a baby; finally she drops the effort to make Ray like her, and answers with the bald truth.  The couple leaves the interview sure they’ll not be chosen, but a call from Sister Joanne soon informs them that Ray has chosen them to be parents for her unborn child and invites them to the hospital for the delivery. 

What follows weaves these three stories into one, reflecting the serendipity of life.  Race and ethnicity is an unspoken theme in this movie and, as one reviewer has noted, the movie weaves white, Hispanic and African-American characters without joke or innuendo and (to that reviewer) is ‘the elephant in the room.’  To the contrary, it seems to me that this movie accurately reflects today’s melded communities and models tolerance in a positive way.  Indeed, acceptance of difference, whether race, personality, aptitude or attitude, is integral to the world of adoption.  

To prepare for writing this review, I read other posted reviews of Mother and Child.  Most negative reviews were penned by males who decry the piteous, thin portrayals of men in the movie and declare this a ‘chick flick’ thereby dismissing the power of the issue of adoption.  Indeed, if I were to make changes to the characters portrayed, I would have fleshed out the role of Joseph, who states:  “Lucy, I don’t want to do this; I want a child of my own.”  I would have stuck with Joseph until he discovers, much to his amazement and to his wife’s relief (and like many couples I’ve worked with), that he is up to the task of loving a child not born of his blood line.  And, we don’t need another adoption movie with a prospective father who, like Jason Bateman’s character in Juno, bails out of the adoption, pre-placement!

One more thing about the way the movie looks on screen:  the colors are muted, the sets seem to be real places, the over-all feel is one of authenticity.  The dulling effect is subtle, and contrasts with the highly emotional issues dealt with in the movie.  This is Los Angeles without the glitter; it is the busy ‘burbs without adornment.  None is needed.  The issues are real.  Rodrigo Garcia has, I believe, accomplished his goal of making us aware longing for ‘the other’ of these relationships. 

I still wish to see the movie a second time, and it is unfortunate that this appears to be a movie with limited distribution.  I pledge to post the DVD release date on my blog when I learn it.  When the DVD comes out, I know there will be a screening party with friends, colleagues and adoption circle members – including birth fathers, adopted men, as well as adoptive fathers and significant others.    I invite readers to hold your own screening parties and share your impressions here.  If you write about this movie on another blog, let me know and I’ll cross-reference-link to your blog.  We’d better plan a late night for our screening parties; there will be lots to talk about when the movie ends!

Review: Reading Adoption by Marianne Novy

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First published on January 30, 2009 by bethkoz.wordpress.com

This is a unique read, much out of “the usual” in adoption books. The author, as an adoptee, admits to having been sensitive along her educational journey to themes of abandonment, parental exchanges and orphans. But unlike other students exposed to the Greek plays, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thackery and the Bronte novels — for Marianne Novy, the dark brooding stories of human foibles awakened knowledge of shared fate.  Ms. Novy has written a book that interweaves her professorial knowledge of literature with her personal story of search and reunion.  Her extensive exploration of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Tree and Pigs In Heaven gave me a glimmer of what it would have been like to have found someone to discuss these books when I read them — and longed for that discussion!

And to think, I was under the impression that adoption books started being written about thirty years ago!  I was wrong, as Ms. Novy points out.  The theme was all around me.  And that is her point.  Our view of adoption, of the roles the players “should” play, is unconsciously influenced by what we read, even if we don’t realize it.

Let this be a good ‘heads up’ for all of us educators in adoption (and we are all ‘educators in adoption’), to be aware of the subtle influences on all students!  A great read!  Thank you, Marianne Novy, for opening my eyes!

Written by bethkoz

June 6, 2010 at 7:28 am