Sunday, July 30, 2006

Part of a Social Experiment

In my quest to place myself on the history of adoption timeline, I came across the following alarming statement: "Adoption was a social experiment in which babies born to unmarried mothers were taken at birth and given to total strangers for adoption." This was written by Wendy Jacobs, B.Sc as the opening salvo of her keynote address entitled, "Known Consequences of Separating Mother and Child at Birth and Implications for Further Study."

Now this was a novel concept. New to me. Certainly not new to others. But a concept so earthshaking to this adoptee finally waking from the long slumber of ignorance that I'm still feeling wobbly one week after reading it.

A SOCIAL EXPERIMENT? I - we - those of us placed for adoption after WWII and up until the 1970's or so were...part of a social experiment? The kind where experts look back and shake their heads and talk about the lack of scientific evidence and misguided theories. In which adoption was once called "a selective operation that included promises of predictability."

As I make my way through books on adoption history, there are numerous references to
important past practices such as "matching" and ways to build a family through adoption...with much discussion of David Kirk's adoption study "Shared Fate" in which he reported that the most significant single variable was whether the adoptive family could accept the difference. That book was written in 1964. Four years after my adoptive parents had come to the firm conclusion -- with the help of the social worker -- that there was absolutely no difference between our family and a biologically formed one. No discussion was necessary or tolerated. Ever. Because there was no difference. Any suggestion there was would be an admission of failure. That the adoption was not successful. This is just one example of how a past point-of-view could impact an adoptee's daily life. Silence and denial was my reality. The price...heavy. To think this was based on a practice that was later criticized as unnatural and unwise.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

They Went Bad

Beginning a conversation with my adoptive father about my adoption has never been easy. His body stiffens. His face takes on a pained expression, as if a headache is about to erupt into a migraine. This time, I lie. It's easier. An excuse to talk about the unspeakable.

"I saw a documentary about adoption last night," I say. In fact, I've been reading about adoption. About birth mothers who are just mothers. About the history of adoption. "It just happened to be on T.V.," I add, as if the accidental viewing makes it more acceptable.

"Oh?" he replies guardedly.

"And I was wondering..."

My father sighs loudly. "Oh God. Here we go again."

The new-more-empowered-therapist-going-me says, "Dad. It's my history and I'm curious. You would be, too."

"Okay, okay," he concedes, sounding defeated.

"Remember the boy next door? What happened to him?"

The boy next door. I had forgotten about him. Until I saw picture of us together. He about eight years old. A beautiful blond boy wearing a western shirt and a huge smile, leaning over the Baby Me reclining in some sort of infant chair. He was adopted, too. By older and wrinkled parents who looked like their health was in serious jeopardy. We had grown up together. He my handsome protector. The boy who always found time to give me a piggy back ride or defend me against the local bully. The boy who grew into a gorgeous teenager with long, shaggy hair and rode around on a motorcycle. A sufer boy living next to East Los Angeles. What had happened to this fellow adoptee?

I ask my dad. "Oh, he went bad," he says sadly. "That's all I know."

"Details, Dad. Details. What do you mean he went bad?"

"He turned out to be a bad one. He got married to a Mexican girl up the street when he was around twenty and she kicked him out after he threw boiling water at her. Then he was arrested for stealing meat from Ralphs. And then he joined the Army. Or something like that."

"He was always so nice," I say. "I wonder what happened?"

"Sometimes they go bad," my dad says vaguely.

Now it's my turn to stiffen. "Who do you mean they? Adopted children?"

"Yes," my dad replied reluctantly. "Thank goodness that didn't happen to you. I guess we got a good one. But remember what happened to Hope's girls? Look how they turned out. Bad."

I had forgotten all about Hope and her girls. Hope was my mother's friend. She had two daughters, around my age. I remember Hope crying to my mother and wiping her tears when I appeared in the doorway. They ordered me outside to play with the girls in Hope's big backyard where we never talked about the one thing we had in common. Adoption. It never occurred to us. The younger daughter was very aggressive and I found her scary.

"Hope had some funny ideas and I had to talk your mother out of them," my dad says, also reluctantly.

"What do you mean funny ideas? How funny?"

"Hope put a lock outside the door so the older girl couldn't get out when she was a teenager. She had a boyfriend and Hope didn't want her to see him and get pregnant. When you started giving us trouble, your mother thought we should do that, too, but I put my foot down."

Which may be the only time his foot hit the ground in defiance of my mother. Because whatever problems my adoptive father had, my adoptive mother had him beat when it came time to being domineering.

"No wonder she turned out the way she did. She was imprisoned. In her own home!"

I am appalled. And then I remember more. The girls were never - on threat of spanking - allowed to discuss their adoption. Hope pretended to everyone that they were biologically hers. Those poor girls. And then there was the boy next door. His adoptive mother died of liver failure due to drink when he was about fourteen, his adoptive dad two years later of lung cancer. His mother had always drank. Was drunk on vodka by ten in the morning. And these were the parents chosen for him. And those girls. What terrible confusion they must have experienced. All that pretending they had to endure. All that rage built up until...what happened to them?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Rights of Adoptive Parent Applicants

Well. Had a very interesting conversation with a social worker in Post Adoption Services in a certain Southern California city. She seemed honestly pleased to learn that I'd connected with my birth mother. I mentioned that my b.m. was very surprised that I had been placed with a working class dark-skinned Mexican-American family instead of a rich, white one as had been promised by the original social worker.

"Was she angry?" asked the Post Adoption Services worker (PASW).

"Not exactly," I replied, reluctant to tell her the truth. I suspect my b.m. was angry. Education topped her wish list for me and a Latino factory worker with an 8th grade education wasn't exactly what she had in mind. However, I didn't want to put the PASW on the defensive as I had more questions.

"So, back in the sixties, what were the social workers looking for in prospective adoptive parents?" I ask.

"Just what you'd look for in if you were in that position. It's all common sense, really. Stable relationship, stable job, stable income, mental and emotional stability, good motivitation for adoption and, of course, positive references," she explains.

Hah! This is where the original social worker got it WRONG. My adoptive father was not, never was and is still not mentally stable. Severely abused as a child, he developed a very bad case of the Narcissistic Wound which translates into: major loner, needy, insulting, racist, self-centered and....self-centered. I suspect - so strongly that I can picture it - that my mother told him to keep his mouth shut during the interviews or he'd botch everything. In fact, my adoptive mother had him so trained that today, when he senses my embarrassment or displeasure at his behavior, he'll look at me, head hanging, and say, "Okay, Okay, I'll keep my mouth shut."

"So how many interviews did parental applicants have to go through?" I asked.

"Ummm, several," replied the PASW.

"As in two...or three?" I pressed.

"More like two," she said.

This is where I wanted to ask...and how long were those visits? Ten minutes? Twenty? For a total of what? An hour. A quick tour of the house and the backyard. How can you really tell anything about someone in less than what? Minimum....72 hours...the length of a visit from distant relatives.

"The real trouble," I finally admit, "was when I announced I was going away to college. My adoptive mom got so mad she cut me off. Financially. And emotionally."

We talked about this for a awhile.

"Maybe it's a cultural thing," the PAWS said. "You know, a good Latina daughter stays by her mother's side the rest of her life."

I agreed, but it still makes me furious. The big proud moment in my life turned upside down by drama and...self-centeredness...and the just-below-the-surface-accusation that I was ungrateful for abandoning them.

So I can't resist. I tell the PAWS of my adoptive father's instability and my mother's expectations of lifelong obedience and gratitude. And then, I don't know why, I say, "Well, I'm sure a social worker can't predict parental behaviors that far in advance. My adoptive parents were okay when I was little, but the real trouble happened when I hit my teen years when I began to act out against their little charades that I wasn't their biological child."

So she sniffs and says, "Well, how can you deny someone the opportunity to raise a child unless there is concrete and compelling evidence that they are unfit?"

How about "Just say no." Of course, I don't actually say this. I think it. I'm still thinking it. Does this mean if a social worker has a gut feeling or instinct or wouldn't want to spend more than one hour hanging out with these people him/herself, then...well, the couple deserves a child because they have some sort of universal right? Did the social worker suspect there was something off about my adoptive dad but thought...oh well, even someone like him deserves an opportunity? What about my opportunities? Obviously, they were outweighed by those of the "parental applicant."

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Overload & Medical History

Major mental fatigue has set in. Exploring the impact of adoption on my life has turned out to be an exhausting exercise. Thinking. Reflecting. Connecting the dots. More reflection. Reading adoptee and birth mother blogs. Trying to educate myself. Joined a really great adoptee group called Chosen Babies hosted on Google and started by Wraith. Whew. All the rage, anger, confusion, ambivalence and guilt expressed by adoptees. And the empathy. For other adoptees. And the support. Reading posts makes me realize no one can understand the plight of an adoptee - no matter how well adjusted - like another adoptee. All this processing - after so much adaptation and denial - takes so much energy.

On the bright side, I'm enjoying talking with my birth mother. She's quite elderly, but still a pistol. She actually used the word "freakin" today on the phone. As in, "you wouldn't freakin' believe it." I like staying in the moment. We spent our first conversation talking about the details of my birth, "the relinquishment." She's a talkative, open person so she didn't seem to hold back. At our respective ages, I don't feel the need to be "reparented." I parented myself and didn't do a bad job. And while I wanted to find my birthmother and find out about my heritage and not the ever-changing fairy tale told by my adoptive father, I also learned CRITICAL MEDICAL INFORMATION. While my birthmother does not have dementia nor has she had cancer or diabetes, she did have a brain aneurysm. Her mother died of one. Given that I'm a hypochondriac, I took the information in stride. Usually, any little ache or pain sends me into a panic. Is it cancer? But this time, I made a note to ask my doctor about aneurysms at my next appointment. The difference? Dealing with FACT is much less scary than not knowing. And if I ever get a nasty whopping headache that won't go away, I won't just pop a Tylenol.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

A Life Determined by Strangers

By some amazing piece of luck, I am one of the lucky Americans to have health insurance. And while we pay more each year, I discover a benefit. Mental health is also covered. For once, the health care system smiles down on me and there she is, my therapist of choice is on the approved provider list. It was not easing finding her. Other therapists with experience in dealing with adoptees were recommended, but most of them were Christian therapists. And while I don’t knock spirituality and have a healthy respect for the man upstairs, I wanted to begin my journey without adding divine hurdles.

I have already told my therapist about my father. It’s him I talk about most. This bigger-than-life-stranger-than-fiction-ready-for-his-own-dramedy man. This man who was abused as a child and never grew up. This man who needed me to parent him. This man who was so singularly unqualified to take on the responsibility of an adopted child, who somehow managed to pass the interview with the social worker.

Why? I ask my therapist. How could this have happened? Obviously, my adoptive father has problems. BIG problems.

It’s not that hard to "pass" she says, looking sad.

I grill her some more. She is tapped into the world of the adoption system. Aware of its closed past and present inner workings.

This is what I gather. The social worker asks some questions, looks at some pay-stubs, checks with a friend or two and maybe with the boss and, unless something is obviously off, gives the seal of approval.

My head spins as it tries to calculate the endless possibilities, to grasp the power a complete stranger has over our lives. Someone made a decision. Rightly, wrongly, perfectly or with disastrous consequences.. To complete strangers we go. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.

No matter how careful or selective or how much time was spent in the approval process, it suddenly strikes me as horrifying. That a child should change hands in such a manner. Arranged by a third party who may have been tired or stupid or overworked or bored or was a bad judge of character. Or new on the job. Or maybe the social worker was having a bad day or a bad month or was taking new medication. Or maybe there were too many babies of a certain ethnicity that month and not enough couples of the right match. Maybe, that month, to make the numbers work, they had to approve someone who wouldn’t have passed just several months before? Or perhaps there was just something about the parental applicant that reminded her of poor Uncle Joe, who deserved the benefit of a doubt. Or perhaps the birth mother had so many problems that just about anybody would be better than her?

For whatever wonderful things that may be said about the adoption system, we all know that it is work for those in it. There are paychecks and reports and good employees and bad ones. That work may be a calling. A vocation. But it’s still a job. And we are the product.

Plenty of children are born to bad parents. To the undeserving, to the idiots of the world. The indifferent. Are we not all at the mercy of fate? But when fate is a social worker with a social security number, a bi-weekly paycheck and a resume, well, that’s something else.