I must admit to crying a bit reading many of Denise's posts. She endured a great deal of trauma surrounding the forced relinquishment of her baby son as a teenager. Then, after 25 long years of wondering, they were reunited. Hollywood would have ended the story there, but this is real life. And in real life, Denise's happy reunion with her son was marred by the realities of his mental illness. Their relationship has gone through difficulties and an estrangement, but they are currently reconnecting and trying again to form a relationship.
It reminded me, once again, that the story of adoption is usually presented as a beautiful one. A child is rescued and given to a grateful couple who go on to be wonderfully marvelous parents and they raise the child into a wonderfully marvelous human being. Adoption, though, isn't a fairy tale, and sometimes, the brokenness it causes never heals enough to allow the broken to become whole again.
Denise shares her story on her blog, write-o-holic, and in her memoir, Second Chance Mother. I would say that her blog touched me because I'm an adoptive mother. But that's not entirely true. Her blog brought me to tears simply because I am a mother, and the trauma she and her son endured when they were ripped apart broke my heart.
Please visit Production, Not Reproduction to read further Adoption Blogger Interviews. You can read my answers to Denise's questions on her blog at write-o-holic.
You relinquished your son in a different era of adoption. Many would say that today's adoption practices do not mirror those of the past. Do you feel as though adoption has changed all that much in the past 40 years? More specifically, do you think there are women today who are still being coerced into relinquishing their children?
I think the main difference between adoption practices then and now is that adoption agencies have had to get more creative — and yes, coercive — to fulfill the increasing demand for adoptable infants. From the forties through the early seventies, society was on their side. Single motherhood was unacceptable (unless she became a widow). Parents of teen mothers, especially those in the middle class, were mortified and would do anything to make the situation to go away. Thus, few provided support for their daughters, emotional or financial. And until 1973, abortion wasn’t legal.
Today, there are more couples than ever wanting to adopt. Some say it’s because professional couples defer starting families for so long that they are unable to conceive once they are ready. Yet, there are fewer infants available for adoption, due to abortion becoming legal and the elimination of the stigma against single mothers. Of course, there are many children languishing in foster care who truly need a family, but most adoptive parents want a newborn (or a baby in their first year) — so much so that they will go overseas to adopt, rather than opt for an older child. Which also, by the way, means they won’t have to deal with their child’s first family; I wonder if this is another incentive to go with international adoption.
Adoption is a multi-million dollar industry. I can’t swear to this, but I suspect the fees associated with adoption are far less through county social services than through agencies or private adoption attorneys. However, from what I’ve read, that process takes longer and is subject to more regulation. Adoption agencies are not regulated, can charge whatever they want, and often promise faster results.
The other change I see is the movement toward open adoption. I’ve heard of mothers who are undecided and thinking about keeping their baby are being coerced by the promise that they will be in touch with the adoptive family, receive regular updates and photos, and have visits with their child. I’ve also heard that this agreement is not legally enforceable in any state, and if the adoptive family breaks contact, first mothers have no recourse.
I’ve read that open adoption, maintaining the birth connection, is better for both the child and the first mother. I suspect, and hope, that is true. I applaud adoptive parents who are committed to upholding this agreement and maintaining the openness.
Your post on the word saudade resonated deeply with me. Saudade means: A feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. You ended by saying that you finally have a word for how you felt those 25 years separated from your son. Do you think first mothers ever are able to "move on" with their lives after adoption? How have you been able to process the grief from your own loss and move on with your life?
That post was inspired by my first mother friend, Suz, who blogs at Writing My Wrongs. I had never heard the word before, but embraced it. Yes, it was somewhat descriptive of my feelings. On the other hand, a mother’s loss of her child is not simply “a nostalgic long” for someone we were “fond of.” It is primal.
I “moved on” at the time because I was told to. It was expected, and when I couldn’t I thought there was something wrong with me. So I tried harder. I buried the grief, pretended that the experience of being pregnant, giving birth and relinquishing my son never happened. But the grief, the longing for my baby, the truth of what I had been through, never went away.
Because I was emotionally “in hiding,” from myself and others, I wasn’t able to process any of those feelings until I reunited with my son. And then they hit me with a vengeance. It took years and a lot of therapy for me to begin healing from that loss and make some semblance of peace with the past. And there are still residual effects.
So, yes, we move on as best we can. But no, I have to say that I doubt that mothers like me ever truly recover.
I have heard many adoptees say that they will always be adopted, and that adoption cannot help but influence so many aspects of their life. Do you feel that this is also true of first mothers?
Yes, they will always be adopted, and we will always be the mothers who “surrendered” them — whether by choice, force, or anything inbetween. There is no undoing of that, even in reunion. Hence, it impacts both of our lives forever.
Much has been written lately comparing the PSTD (post-traumatic stress disorder) experienced by soldiers returning from war to emotional repercussions among first mothers. I can attest to being easily triggered by the memories — whether by something someone says (examples: when people innocently refer to a new baby as “a keeper,” as if my son wasn’t, or an adopted child being “chosen,” which implies I didn’t choose my son), the sound of a baby’s cry, or the smell of hospitals.
Your post (Perspectives) talked a bit about the complex relationship you have with your granddaughter as a result of your son's demands on you and your estrangement. You also talked in another post (Birth Granny), about how adoption runs in your family. What can you say about the complexities of adoption and how it doesn't just impact the immediate people involved, but extended family and even generations down the line?
Excellent question, and a difficult one to answer briefly or in one concise swoop!
I should note that my son and I are no longer estranged. We’ve been in and out of contact for a number of reasons during our 16 years (so far) in reunion. The last time we ceased communication (and it was my call) lasted for a few years. Although we were already having some new problems, the major cause was his threat not to let me see my granddaughter if I didn’t bend to his needs and wants. Eventually I was able to see her when she visited his ex-wife (the “mother” with whom she’d spent the most time as a child).
My g-daughter didn’t understand why her dad and I weren’t speaking. I don’t know what he said to her and I did my best to explain without trashing him. She was the impetus for my decision to “try again” with my son. I saw him at one of her chorus recitals in May and I invited him to lunch for his birthday a week later. Some air was cleared, although I am still gun-shy and careful not to let myself fall into any of the old traps. Right now, it’s going very well.
As for my family history of adoption… I didn’t know until after I reunited with my son that, 1) he and his first wife had relinquished two sons (a two-year-old and a newborn) when their marriage failed, just five years earlier; or 2) that my mother and her eight siblings (ranging from age 17 to newborn) had been given up by their mother after their father died in 1929. My mother was raised by an elderly couple in their small town, and had been so ashamed that she didn’t tell us, not even my father. She said that she was an only child, both of her parents had died, after which she was taken in by another family. The truth was revealed only after her youngest sister found and contacted her. Imagine what a shock it was to learn this, all within a year of reconnecting with my son and after two decades of believing I was the only one in my family who had suffered this loss.
So, yeah, lots of complexities. No one in my family except my parents — not even my sister and brother — knew that I’d had a child. My mother wanted to keep it a secret even after I reunited with my son. In the end, I stood up for my truth and shared with everyone. My aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and siblings were thrilled to learn about my son and welcomed him with open arms.
I worked hard to integrate my son into the family, introduced him proudly and encouraged them and him to build those relationships. Perhaps what most saddens me is that he was the one who defaulted on those connections. He said that he wanted a family more than anything and yet he did not reciprocate, and in fact his behavior around those who lived close by drove them away. As a result, even though he and I have made peace (again, for now), I cannot rally others to let him back in. They have lost interest and, like me, trust in him.
This adds to my sadness, yet I realize that, like my initial loss of him, I have to let go of what I cannot change.
You wrote a memoir about the relinquishment of your son, your eventual reunion, and the fallout from it. What compelled you not only to write your book, but to continue to work so hard to get it published when you were repeatedly told people only want to read memoirs about famous people?
My original intention, about four years after I reconnected with my son, was to write a reunion guide for mothers like me. I had experienced so many ups and downs, made lots of mistakes, and I planned to research (with input from therapists and those who had been through reunion) and provide advice that would help other mothers. When I pitched this book to agents and publishers, I was advised to write the memoir — probably because of the multi-generational aspect of adoption in my family. It’s a pretty sensational story.
Writing my personal story was cathartic. Then I realized that I could still help other mothers, adoptees and anyone with a dysfunctional family history, as well as educate the public about adoption issues, by publishing it. The rejections I received in response to my queries — especially those that said there was no market for my book, despite there being six million first mothers in the U.S. alone — simply reinforced my determination. I worked on the manuscript until I was certain it was the best it could be, and I kept pitching it until finally a publisher accepted me.
Sharing my story has been even more healing for me than writing it. In fact, I’ve discovered that I actually enjoy talking about it and answering people’s questions. The feedback I have received as a result has been so rewarding. I’ve come to believe that I was meant to write Second-Chance Mother. I hope to write another book (definitely not about adoption!), but even if I don’t, I feel as if I have accomplished my goals — and more.
I started blogging simply because I love to write, and raising my daughter was my main focus at the time. After our adoption, I incorporated that aspect of my life into my blogging because it fit in with now being an adoptive parent. Why do you blog, and especially, why do you blog about adoption?
My initial objective with blogging was to create a following for my book, which years ago I thought would be published any minute (LOL!). That didn’t happen, but ultimately I did have a following among adoption-related bloggers, which has been invaluable since the book came out. More importantly, I have developed some very close friendships with other first mothers and adoptees, and learned a lot from their perspectives.
My first blog was totally focused on adoption issues. It got too personal, which was my fault. I revealed too much information about myself and my son, without his knowledge or permission. First mothers and adoptees were fighting and slamming each other in the comments. So I shut it down and, because by then I was addicted to blogging, I started a new one — http://write-o-holic.blogspot.com/ — where I address a wide variety of topics.
Thank you, Denise, for sharing your heart and voice. I feel as though this interview project did not just give me another perspective on adoption but also connected me with a new friend.