I recently came across this piece I wrote some 17 years ago. I didn’t have any way of publishing this then, there were no blogs in 1996, but I strongly believe it is still relevant today. I don’t think adoption has changed much in the past two decades for birth mothers. I am pretty sure making the choice to place a child for adoption is not any easier now than it was then. I know that adoptees still cannot access their records if they were adopted before open adoption became commonplace. I know gays and lesbians still cannot adopt children in many states. I appreciate how fortunate I was to be able to adopt my daughters in the early 1990s. I am no longer in a relationship with my partner and co-parent–we split up in late 1996, just a few months after I wrote this.
Mother’s Day 1996
As we celebrate Mother’s Day at our house, we also celebrate our youngest daughter’s second birthday. The irony is, that two years ago on Mother’s Day, we didn’t yet know that she would even be a part of our lives. Two years ago, her birthmother was in the hospital alone, making a decision to place her fourth child for adoption.
As I look forward to celebrating my sixth year as a mother, I cannot help but think of several mothers who have made such an impact on my mothering. I would not be a mother at all were it not for Deidre and Cheryl. I would not be a sister except for a woman who made an unselfish choice nearly thirty years ago. Much in my life would be different if it were not for a woman whose last name is Wilmuth who chose not to parent her daughter, my mother. I may not be a good mother or a mother in such fortunate circumstances had it not been for my biological grandmother.
In essence, much of my life is the culmination of the decisions of several mothers whom I do not know, women who gave life and gave life away, trusting more than I know I could, in the kindness of strangers to do what they themselves, for whatever reason, could not do at the time. While I know the circumstances and a bit about the women who gave birth to my daughters, I know very little about the women who bore my brother and my mother. And if I as a daughter and a sister feel this void on Mother’s Day, what must my mother and my brother live with every day? What will my children grow to feel and believe about their birth mothers? And what can I do to facilitate their questioning and understanding of their adoptions and families of origin?
This year these questions seem particularly poignant as Mother’s Day comes on the heels of major adoption law reforms: tax credits for families who adopt, removal of racial barriers in adoption. These laws, like so much about adoption, fall short of doing justice for those who really make adoption possible—the birth mothers. As so often happens, the lawmakers are approaching the issue sideways, at an awkward angle, seemingly unconcerned about the birth mothers and where they will go and what they will do after placing their children for adoption. With the noble intention of placing as many kids as possible in permanent families out of the chaos that is foster care, our leaders have inadvertently promoted adoptive parents as saviors worthy of reward and blatantly disregarded birthparents, especially in cases of transracial adoptions. I often hear from people how lucky my kids are to have us as parents, read these kids are so much better off with us than they would be with someone whom they could only imagine as an impoverished, unemployed, welfare-scamming, drug abusing, teenaged illiterates.
Well, maybe and maybe not. We cannot place a value on knowing our families of origin, of knowing where we came from, where we got our eyes, our funny feet, and our predilection for taking risk in whatever form it comes.
I rarely pause to consider my mannerisms and preferences because I know exactly from which parent I acquired each personality quirk and physical characteristic. From my mother and my father both a love of reading, from my mother my brown eyes and auburn hair, thin wrists, and a tendency to sometimes overreact. From my father a disdain for the mundane, my spelling and writing abilities, a preternatural aversion to authority in all forms, and naturally curly hair. Sure, my kids may learn to love to read because I do, and they may become avid gardeners because my partner is, but in the battle for control of the self, nature wins out over nurture 70% of the time. Where will my kids turn for answers when they excel in science or develop a completely un-nurtured talent for music, or a dangerous attraction to alcohol?
How will my kids cope, not just with unanswered medical history questions, but with the color of their skin, the kinks in their hair, the rich and painful history of their (unknown) ancestors? The partial understanding of their backgrounds, maybe the knowledge that their birthfathers abandoned them, their birthmothers kept some of their siblings but not them? I hope that an open adoption and an ongoing communication with my children’s birthmothers will facilitate an increased understanding for each of my kids of where they came from, from whom they got their talents.
But who is going to make sure that the birth mothers survive, grow up, get their lives together? If we are going to reform adoption law, we had better start with nurturing the connections between birth mother and adoptee, we had better start honoring the difficult, no wrenching, decisions birth parents make when they plan an adoption for their child. We had better put out a safety net for those who can’t pull themselves up and carry on. We had better think about offering something to the women who can’t afford to keep their children rather than to adoptive parents who have the wherewithal and resources to negotiate the adoption process and to afford agency and lawyer fees.
Just yesterday we received our first ever communication from our two-year old’s birth mother. For two years we have been sending letters and pictures off into space, an act of faith that imbues the postal service with godlike qualities. Yesterday came the confirmation that our faith was well placed. Yesterday too came a whole new conundrum and set of questions when we received two letters: one was very sweet, telling us how much she enjoyed the pictures we have been sending, how she is still glad she chose us to raise her baby, that she and our daughter will talk one day, that she is a good mother. The other letter asked for money so she wouldn’t lose her house.
Great reflection on what religion has to do with sex and the dysfunction that results. If you haven’t ordered your copy yet of Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme religion, do it now! Twenty six amazing stories from women from all walks of life and religions. Fascinating. Oh, and also, yours truly has an essay in it as well.
Fifteen years ago this week, I picked my eldest up from school. She arrived at my car sobbing, clutching what could only be a Mother’s Day art project, a gift wrapped with lots of construction paper, held together with even more scotch tape. When I asked her what was wrong, she explained between tears and hiccups that she only had time to make the one present. “But I have two mommies!” She whimpered. My heart broke into a million pieces. Gently, I took the gift from her hands and unwrapped it. It was a book. This was a problem easily solved. When I explained we could make a color copy, the relief on her face broke my heart all over again. We drove directly to Kinko’s. “See,” I said, holding up an exact replica, “One for me. One for Mommy M.”
Seventeen years ago, I sat weeping in my therapist’s office, terrified that I had made the biggest mistake of my life, certain that my life as a mother was over. I had just left my children, my partner and co-parent—my children’s other mother—had just moved out of our family home and into a tiny apartment, taking only my clothes, a CD player, and my 1964 Dodge pickup truck with its rusted out floorboards and no seatbelts. In a fit of youthful optimism I’d taken a job that would allow me to spend more time with our girls, keeping them out of daycare, a move that did not go over well with my co-parent. Long story short, she asked me to move out of the house, her house, launching us all into a long and painful custody battle. A war in which there would be no winners.
As I wept in that office, overwhelmed with despair, I could not visualize a way forward. I could not imagine life without my daughters, then six and two years old. We’d adopted both the girls as infants, first as single parents, then as a couple. We stood before the judge in the King County courthouse among family and friends and promised to be a forever family. Our names graced the birth certificates. Our little family seemed solid. I thought my decision to take job with more flexibility was the right one. My diminished salary would be made up in what we saved on daycare for our youngest and after school care for the oldest. We had worked so long and so hard to adopt the girls, had spent so many years dreaming this family into existence, it made no sense to me that we both worked full time and put the girls in daycare.
Full of bravado, and in spite of stern warnings from my partner, I had to follow my instincts as a mother. I had to do what I saw as the Right Thing. What did it get me? No house. No relationship. No kids. I thought, naively it turns out, that being a legal mother of both girls would grant me the right to be a parent, at least half time. Not so. While heterosexual divorced couples with children automatically get kicked into a custody process, “divorced” lesbian mothers, at least in 1996, got nothing. There was no divorce because there had been no marriage. Our commitment ceremony, while a fun little ritual, had no legal ramifications. Really, all that seemed relevant at the time was the fact that I did not have my name on that house title. I had to move out. Having no legal access to the house meant I had no access to my kids. I had no idea when I left that my soon-to-be ex would bar me from seeing our kids, that once I was gone, she would attempt to erase me from their lives.
My days suddenly silent, my nights stretched out empty, I spiraled into a deep depression. My identity as a mother slipped away. No diapers to change. No breakfast to make. No lunches to pack. What was I, if I wasn’t a mother? Everything I had been, I’d given up in our pursuit to adopt our girls, to be in this relationship, to become a family. One social worker along the way even commended me for giving up on being a writer and getting a real job. I’d sold my bookstore. I had become a Mother, and I loved being a Mother so much that I wanted to spend more time with the girls. That love had led me to here. To nothing, it seemed. If I couldn’t be a mother, then maybe I shouldn’t be at all. I thought about moving away, just leaving town. I flirted with razor blades and alcohol. My therapist reminded me regularly and forcefully of the damage done to those left behind.
I decided to stay. In town and on the planet. I upped my antidepressants. I got a lawyer. I worked three jobs and went back to school. I found two housemates, asked my grandmother for an advance on my inheritance, and bought a house. I made a home. I fought to remain relevant in my daughters’ lives. Not one part of this journey was easy. Co-parenting with someone who would rather I just disappear, with someone who had to be court-ordered to share custody sucked, but it sucked so much less than not parenting at all. My legal and therapy bills grew enormous. When I cried and railed against the unfairness of my situation, my therapist told me how fortunate my children were to have me in their lives. When I couldn’t breathe because the initial child support payments I had to make were more than half my meager monthly salary, she helped me strategize a solution. When I despaired that I would have no meaning in, no impact on my daughters’ lives, she reminded me that they would come back to me, they would be in my life, maybe not the next week or the next month, but in a few years, when they were out of school, in their late teens and early twenties. Mothering meant showing up and reaching out, even when I didn’t think it would matter, even when no one reached back. Even when the next week, let alone the next decade, seemed impossibly far away.
But I did it. I showed up. At games. At concerts. At parent teacher conferences. Doctor’s appointments. Most of the time, I felt awkward because the teachers, the doctors, the other parents didn’t know I even existed. I had to show up at the school with the Parenting Plan in hand to get my name on my kids’ emergency contact list. I had to request I be added to the PTA’s little booklet with the kids’ and parents’ names, phone numbers, and addresses. Every year. I had to introduce myself to coaches, principals, other parents. Sometimes, I missed events because I found out about them too late or was too embarrassed to call other parents to ask. The last time I called the pediatrician’s office to get information about my daughter’s medications they hung up on me, refusing to give me information even though my youngest was still a minor, even though I had the paperwork granting me joint medical custody. I had to take the parenting plan to the pharmacy to find out what medicine my child was taking. Often, I felt like a fraud, an imposter. So many times I wanted to give up, to crawl away in shame. The depression and suicidal thoughts stayed with me for years.
Still, I pressed through the fog and darkness. Even when I had to take a job 80 miles from home—I drove back three days a week, arriving in time to pick the kids up from school. I finagled time off. I found a way to be there. I got a MySpace Page. I got a Facebook page. I texted. I emailed. I called. I found a way. I made Easter baskets and bought Halloween treats, Valentines Day cards, swallowed my pride and left them on their front porch if I had to. And if my ex made other plans for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, I had presents and stockings and dinner with the girls on December 23rd. Because what day we spent together didn’t matter. First day of school? I showed up. The day my eldest left for college, I packed my mother in the car with me and we went along too. I refused to be erased.
And you know what? That decade passed and my girls are in my life. They finished high school. My eldest finished college. The youngest just started this year. These are the days my therapist promised. These are the days I couldn’t even imagine.