Thursday, November 30, 2006

Adoption: Nature vs. Nuture (Nervios lives on!)

The scoreboard is filling up.

Temperament? Nothing in common with adoptive parents.

Outlook on life? Nothing in common with adoptive parents.

Intellectual curiosity? More in common with birth mother.

Love of reading? My adoptive parents never read a book in their lives and I started reading Jane Austen at 15. In fact, one of my favorite pastimes is hanging out at the library or bookstore. Birthmother not big reader, but does reference non-fiction.

Resilience? Definitely take after my birthmother...which, oddly, made me a fairly good candidate for adoption. While being adopted remains my biggest struggle, it's also not destroyed me, either. I was a good kid, a decent student and have enjoyed steady work, a solid marriage and parenting my amazing daughters...both great girls....which leads me to....


Adoptive mom scores a BIG one in the nuture column.

In fact, it's a win for the entire adopted extended family.

For those of you who have no experience with this affliction associated with Latinos, it's like watching someone falling apart. Life deals some unpleasant blow and the (usually female) recipient staggers, begins to cry uncontrollably, screams a lot, maybe throws things around and, sometimes, goes into a sort of disassociative state often leading to a trip to the emergency room or, at the very least, a call to the doctor's office. Later, the "patient" reports heart palpitations or clammy skin.

A sort of sliding scale exists. Attaque de nervios being the worst and just plain Nervios following second...ending with Susto, whereby the "victim" receives a fright (which may be mild or severe). All highly dramatic and mostly physical manifestations of psychological turmoil.

My adoptive mother suffered several bouts of Attaque de Nervios, once triggered by a simple question about my adoption and another time when I was a pissed off teenager who got revenge by intentionally not getting her anything for Mother's Day.

Daily life was like walking around a boobytrapped landscape laced with tripwires hooked to my mother's nervous system.

And then there was my adoptive dad. Perhaps my favorite story (sorry for telling it again). When they drove me to college (against my wishes-after all, they refused to financially help and I was footing the entire bill) my adoptive dad was soon discombobulated by nervios, which sent him to the hospital with a racing heart and stomachache, which the doctor diagnosed as an anxiety attack.

As it turns out, all these behaviors are LEARNED. My birthmother and her kin do not experience life in this manner. And usually, I don't either. But it's insidious, this affliction. Like a virus. Highly contagious. And it's possible it can lay dormant for many years until....your teenager does something upsetting and OFF YOU GO! Babbling away at her, heart racing, stomach flipping and, when her big sister stares at you as if you're absolutely insane and begins to argue (like a lawyer-in bullet points) her little sister's case...what comes out of your (okay, mine-I'm having a hard time admitting this) mouth? "Puleeze! Can't you see I'm a nervous wreck! I'm on my last nerve, girls. Seriously. My nerves just can't take this anymore."
And then I slammed the door and made myself a cup of tea, hands shaking. Behind that closed door must have been much eye rolling and giggling. I FELT ridiculous and acted ridiculous and when my husband came home, my daughter gleefully told him about my conniption fit.

Which is very disappointing when I despise Attaque de Nervios and all it symbolizes! Especially upsetting when one aspires to the Atticus Finch school of parenting, until one remembers that he was a fictional character who probably never had to take his parents to the doctor for upsetting them.

Damn!!! I wonder if there is some sort of Mexican-Catholic exorcism ritual for Attaque de Nervios?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Adoptee Identity: When Bad News is Good

There is always a flip side: a more positive view of what at first seems repulsive.

Those unflattering photos of my birthmother (see previous post for details) led to the discovery that not only was she an ordinary (not fantasy) woman who has struggled with addictions to alcohol and men, it appears that my extended line of kin is distinguished by its excessive enjoyment of liquor. Ditto my birthfather. After all, she met him in a seedy bar.

Not exactly the kind of information to jump up and down about.

Then again, it's the whole enchilada. The inside story. The skinny. The what's what. The lowdown. Or, in the parlance of politics, intelligence. And what, ideally, do we do with intelligence? We process it and take action or change course or do whatever is necessary.

Without access to our history, as painful as it may be, what are we? Deprived. Half-people. We are denied the opportunity to reframe and rethink ourselves. How can we "individuate" when we don't know what we're trying to separate from? In adoloscence and young adulthood, we break away from our parents in order to find ourselves, but we are only achieving partial independence. The mysterious past still has its hold, admitted, denied or repressed. It's still there. The great unknown.

We know gasoline is gasoline because it's composed primarily of hydrocarbons. How can we know who we are when we don't know what we're made of?

Take for example my adoptive dad. His father died a street bum on Skid Row in Los Angeles, leaving my dad with a festering narcissistic wound so big that it never healed. But my adoptive dad made a choice. He says it to this day, as if he were still a teenager and his father still a young man. "I don't want to end up like my dad." A single glass of wine is all it takes for my adoptive father to begin shaking his head and pushing away the glass. Another sip may lead to ruin. He is terrified of this prospect. That alcoholism is a disease that runs in his genes and he must resist its terrible pull. For this I respect my adoptive dad. After suffering abuse at the hands of a boozed-up monster, he could have chosen to drown his memories but instead opted for a life of sobriety and hard work.

But he had a choice. He had information.

What has this new knowledge done for me?

When I was stressed and upset the other day, I may have opted to open a bottle of that lovely Grenache-Shiraz and pour myself a glass. Instead, I had the words, "I don't want to end up like my mother," running in my head and instead chose to climb into bed early and read The Dogs of Riga by Manning Henkell (excellent Swedish police procedural-bleak!-page turners!) and woke up early the next morning, refreshed.

A bit of an overreaction? Maybe. But I suspect I might have been able to make better, more mindful choices in the past. And that's the good news. The flip side to some unpleasant genetic information. Without our backstory, we are are stripped of our right to healthy development.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Sacrifice to Adopt?

The peculiar language of adoption strikes again, this time in Parade Magazine.

A reader writes in asking Personality Parade's Walter Scott to weigh in on Madonna's controversial attempt to adopt non-orphan David from Malawi.

Scott's reply? "We agree with the reader who wrote us: "It sounds like Angelina Jolie and Madonna are genuinely caring people to make the sacrifice needed to adopt a child, but why go to Africa when so many children right here in America deserve to be adopted?""

Ah. Sacrifice. There it is. The language of saints, martyrs and angelic souls. Those with no needs of their own who surrender something for the sake of something or someone else. The adoptive parent described in the most generous of terms, elevated from ordinary parent to extraordinary because she has taken the courageous leap of faith that is required to raise someone else's child. And what, exactly, is the adoptive parent sacrificing? Time? Love? Money? All of the above? Isn't that what a biological parent does? Yes. But still, the adoptive parent is held apart as especially beneficent.

The selective language of adoption continues to favor the reward her for her Good Deed. Is an adopted child ever described in such lofty, say, a sacrificial lamb so a woman may know the joys of mothering? Of course not. It's as if the adopted child has nothing to offer except its relentless demands that require sacrifice of its rescuers.

What DOES motivate some people to adopt? For some it is the need to parent. To love and raise a child. And then there are the motivations of others which seem a little suspicious....who themselves, perhaps unconsciously, use the language of martrys, a little to quick to say all they wanted to do was rescue a poor child from certain death and poverty...people who need the admiration of the public.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Those (Unflattering) Birthmom Photos

At first, I couldn't exactly say what bothered me about those photos of my birthmom. Yes, she wasn't as attractive as I'd hoped. But in some of them, there was something off. Rather disturbing. The kind of pic I would have tossed straight into the trash because they were less than flattering. And I would certainly never have thought of mailing them to somebody!

So what was it?

Another birth relative had some insight. She says my birthmom was considered quite attractive when she was young. But, she says, my b.m. had a big alcohol problem and suspected the pics showed her, well, "lit."


That's exactly what it looked like. Why I found the pictures so upsetting. People who are drunk look off. Far from their best. In the pictures, she looked remote and distorted. My b.m. is very old now and probably doesn't have the best judgment. My (newly discovered) relative kindly offered to find some photos she thought better represented my b.m. and her features, seeming to realize how important this was to me.

To those of you who've read my previous post and have commented, a HUGE thank you. While there are many troubling aspects to being adopted, none have jarred me as much as seeing those damned pix! It's probably one of the most upsetting experiences I've had lately. But necessary, too. My b.m. has now been revealed as: 1) alcoholic 2) addicted to really bad men 3) the type of woman who puts partying ahead of her children (my half-sibs).

Of course, she is human and has her faults just like the rest of us do. But these are pretty big issues in my book and a clearer picture is better than a foggier one. I was probably reacting to seeing a bit of myself in someone else who was out of it.

And, of course, it highlights that my birth mother is still only 50% responsible for adding to whatever that is me.

There is my father. The man of mystery whose last name she can't remember...even though they dated for almost a year. She's probably blocked it out.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Beauty Contest: Adoptive vs. Birth Mom

It's official. Adoptive mom wins. Hands down.

Big sigh.

I have received the very first pictures of my birth mother, about my age now, reaction is rather disgusting. I am disappointed. Do I feel a connection to this woman? Do I recognize her? How can I not? The same thick hair. Something about the nose. An overall similarity that is not familiar.

But she is no beauty.

And this comes as a surprise.

Had I somehow internalized the undeniable beauty of my adoptive mother? For she was beautiful, in the way that a long face, high cheek bones and clean jaw line can achieve. And her overbite was devine! Do not mock it! It makes for a photogenic goddess!

All of those features I have disliked in myself. There they are...magnified ten times in the profile of my mother!

I have no experience looking at pictures of relatives. This is only my second and the most significant. The first picture was sent by my biological niece, not much younger than myself. But she was beautiful. And I was thrilled. The same low forehead. The thick dark hair that tends to redden in the sun. And I breathed a sigh of..what...relief?

My husband looks like his mother. And his dad. And his two brothers and his sister. Like them but not like them. Totally himself. But I have no experience.

When I see my birth mother, not as attractive as I'd hoped and imagined, I AM her. The very same. The adoptee's coping strategy of "merging" kicks in. I have no boundaries. I am whatever people want me to be. That's the power of a photo. I suddenly am the picure I see because she is my mother.

Yet I am not her. I am me. This requires lots of concentration and writing.

I am me. I am me.

I see myself in her pictures...sort of.

And once again, my adoptive mother's sheer power asserts itself...just as her personalitycommanded. She was heartbreakingly beautiful. The kind of woman who looks good at all angles in People Magazine. The kind of beauty that can't be diminished by disease or age or temperament.

I am trying to reconcile these two images. The gorgeous adoptive mother and the not-so-attractive biological mother. Much of my confidence, I realize tonight, may have actually come from gazing upon the face of such a beautiful imperfect and rejecting as she was.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Secrets & Story Shortage Weaken Adoptive Ties

What happens when a family, ruled by secrets, adopts a child?

Nothing. Relationships can't develop nor can they thrive.

Did I ever really know my adoptive mother? Was it even possible?

She has been dead eight years and her secrets continue to fall out of the closet. Some small. Some big. All profound. Symbolic of the distance between us. The closeness that could have been...tantalizing upon reflection.

With a little more patience, empathy and armed with just a fraction of what is known today about adoption and its life-lasting impact on the triad, we might just have had the mother-daughter relationship we both longed for.

Bad timing doomed us. Secrets sunk the ship.

What kind of heart-to-heart can take place between a mother and a daughter if a daughter doesn't know her mother's real name? This is a small secret. Not even my adoptive father knew her real name. I discovered it recently on a birth certificate given up for lost. She'd been given one of those names she used to sneer at as, "Typical Mexican," something like Aborita. Once changed, the old name was forgotten, accidentally or purposefully. Intentionally I suspect. She would have been ashamed of the name. Hated it. But for me, no stories about her embarrassment and indignation at being saddled with such an old-fashioned name and how she'd gone about picking a new one. Instead, the first name became a well-guarded secret.

And then there was her first marraige to the neighborhood "bad boy." A BIG secret. Accidentally learned during one of her Alzheimer's episodes. And it wasn't a short marriage, one of those teen affairs that lasted months. She was married to him for years. A cousin, fifteen years my senior, this week stunned me by asking if I'd like to see pictures of her first wedding. "My (adoptive) Dad told me she'd eloped," I said. He laughed. "Then he told you wrong, honey, because that was a big wedding."

So there it is. Pictures exist of a big wedding I knew nothing about. No stories shared between mother and daughter about the perils of marrying too young, too quickly or too foolishly. No hard knock life lessons to be imparted...just endless attempts at control I could not understand. And just beneath all her tireless efforts to control every single aspect of my teen life? Fear. Unspoken fear that I would make mistakes like her. Fear that I would end up pregnant like my biological mother. Fear than I would find another life that did not include her and abandon her, sending her straight back to her childless life.

And then there was that other secret. The one that would forever link my adoption to her infertility. No discussion - ever - of my status as an adoptee would ever be allowed. Not by me. Not by family members. All questions by friends and strangers to be rebuffed and denied. "Look," my cousin said to me once when cornered. "All I know is they brought you home, you were a beautiful baby and my mother told me you were adopted and that I was never to talk about it with anybody."

But I know he did. His daughter and I once got in an argument and she ended it by shouting, "And you're not even my real cousin because you're adopted!" So some kind of discussion about my adoption was going on. It just didn't include me.

What is real life without stories? A false one. Incomplete. Stories about where we come from. How we came to be who we are. The choices we make. The good ones, the bad ones. Stories of family. The members who made the brave move out of Mexico to a new country in search of opportunity. These stories couldn't be shared because that would have meant admitting Grandpa was an illegal immigrant. And how about how Grandpa ended his life? By suicide. That was a secret, too. Mental illness was also taboo. Some will say the era or the culture is to blame. People just didn't talk about things like that. But they will only be partly right. Because I know the difference now. My biological family is the proof. Also of the same vintage, ethnicity, culture, socio-economic footing and...storytelling. All the warts and mistakes and ugliness revealed. And there are lots and lots of warts. Now that the One Big Secret has been revealed (the existence of Me-the Matriach's Shocking News), the phone rings and the stories begin. This person is related to that person. This uncle was alcoholic and that aunt drank beer at eleven o'clock in the morning and my father used to be married to a Hollywood extra and...

So, in a way, I was cut off twice. Once through the severing of ties imposed by a closed adoption. The second time by being adopted into a closed family system, where stories of the past did not get passed down.

What kind of life is this? A barren one. How ironic.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Challenges of Foreign Adoptions

With LeRoy Dissing's permission, I am posting his comment because I find it very hopeful. A sign that adult adoptees from the Closed Era can contribute to the discussion on current adoption practices and that there are people who are willing to listen to our stories without minimizing, marginalizing, dismissing or correcting. And to any prospective adoptive or adoptive parents, I understand that it must be very hard to hear that the child you love may feel pain and a host of other uncomfortable and confusing emotions...despite your best efforts. But take heart. You can avoid some of the whopping mistakes made by pioneer adoptive parents. Think of it this way: You can blaze ahead like you know what you're doing and end up in Donner Pass and watch the victims pile up. Or you can ask for directions.

By LeRoy Dissing:
We (my wife and I) considered adopting two Ukrainian teenage siblings this past summer. We hosted them for five weeks here in the USA. While I know most families wanted to adopt pre-school or infants, we felt it might be easier (for us and them) to adopt teens. I often asked folks why did they want to adopt from Ukrainian. Much of it had to do with adopting someone who looked like them.

After reading some blogs written by adoptees and bmoms, I am rethinking this whole notion about closed adoptions. I know the primary reason given for closed adoptions is that it provides the adopting parents privacy to raise their adopted child without any interference by the natural parent(s). I have also known of independent open adoptions and they do appear to do well. I do not believe one shoe fits all feet when it comes to adoption. T

he general rule today is that adoptions are closed. That is too rigid. Each situation probably needs to be decided on what is brought to the table (family dynamics; maturity of adopting and natural parents; extended family, ect.)I am not a big proponent of foreign adoptions because of the cultural divide, language barrier, cutting family ties by distance and time, ect.....and most importantly how these adoptions are done and followed along.

Many, many failed adoptions in this country are foreign adoptions. Why??? For the reasons stated above and also there is no pre-placement of any kind to speak of. People fly overseas "blind" to pick a child from a series of photos, adopt them and then bring them here. No nine months of getting ready, bonding or anything.....just whosh and here he/she is with new parents who have good intentions. Some work, but many have multiple issues and that is right from the get go.

From what I read here and on other blogs, all the issues you mentioned Nina are probably compounded in a foreign adoption. What do you think?

Nina's reply: I suspect that's true...especially reading about the experiences of adoptees from Korea. The Evan B. Donaldson hosted a "Gathering of the First Generation of Adult Korean Adoptees" and much can be learned from their insights.

Even when social workers "matched" us to our adoptive parents and we looked something like them...the similarities were often superficial. Dark hair to dark hair. Brown eyes to brown eyes. But then are face shapes, body types and temperaments. Not seeing yourself mirrored does something to a child. It's confusing and disorienting. I can't imagine being a different skin color or of a different ethnicity. It would be some formula like, Regular Laundry List of Closed Adoption Stressors X Scary Unknown Factor plus I Really Oughta Be Grateful Because I Could Have Died in A Third World Country baggage.

LeRoy Dissing continues:
BTW, we had a wonderful time this past summer but decided not to adopt and after reading what you folks have written, I am much more inclined to aid children in their own families rather than re-create a substitute one for the children. Probably better for all concerned.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Future Issues of Today's Adoptees: Disturbing Language

Most adoptees from the now infamous social experiment that is Closed Adoption have struggled with some of these issues: insecurity, identity formation, feelings of loss (unrecognized by society), fear of abandonment and rejection, genetic bewilderment and a laundry list of adoption related stresses.

That's us.

But what about the babies and young children being placed today? I'm thinking of all those foreign adoptions amid the disturbing language of market forces at work. What will it be like for them? What issues will they face that are specific to their era?

Some of us Closed Era adoptees feel like voiceless transferred from one person to another. But often, especially with public agency adoptions, significant amounts of money did not change hands.

Today, babies are being bought. Oh, some will argue these are legitimate fees for facilitators or lawyers or for birthmother compensation or whatnot but money is trading are lots and lots of babies. And, as market forces dictate, there are variable rates (fee to adopt healthy white baby: $40,000, fee to adopt mixed-race infant: $10,000-18,000).

A Closed Era adoptee doing research on the history of adoption, as have I, in an attempt to place myself in context encounters such terms as secrecy and shame and conspiracy of silence and broken narratives and lots of discussion about the validity of psychic trauma to relinquished infants.

But what kind of language will the (Foreign) Adoptee of Today come across when she is all grown up and trying to place herself in historical context? It will be the language of THINGS. COMMODITIES. Articles with titles like, "A Historical View of the Foreign Adoption Rush Between 2002-2010" will feature terms now popular in today's news stories about adoption practices: babies are in short supply, babies are in high demand, source countries, waiting lists, average wait times and sliding scales.

With so much money at stake, so much INVESTED what sort (if any) additional expectations will be placed on these Chosen (Bought?) Babies - and you know I much I LOATHE that term! - by their adoptive parents and society at large? Because that's what much of society does. Tell us how grateful we should be. Tell us how lucky we are and that we should be happy to be adopted! Will it be harder for adopted children where big money has changed hands? Will some, when they finally grow up and develop opinions of their very own, feel like they have been bought?

Mercifully, it's not one thing I've ever had to think about. Coping with the smorgasbord of adoptee related stresses is enough...without the money angle thrown in.

Good luck little children. I hope we're around to support you and hear your stories...whatever they may be. Perhaps advances in adoption education will help take the sting out of coming across something that reads like the latest issue of the International Infant Commodity Market Report.

And if you'd like to read about one couple's creative attempt to defray some of the whopping costs of adopting from Guatemala:

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Adoption: No Big Deal?

An (odious) online column by psychologist John Rosemund, titled "Don't Make Adoption Into a Big Deal," came to my attention thanks to Wraith.

And just in time for National Adoption Month, too!

And while I better not cut and paste the whole thing, here's my favorite quote:

"Today, however, adoption-babble uses words and phrases like "attachment disorder," "bonding issues," and, of course, "trauma" - all of which greatly increase the likelihood that adoptive parents will tread on eggshells. It is almost always the case that these eggshells eventually crack and beasts emerge."

One such beast is the adopted teenager who suddenly decides, in the throes of the "Poor, poor pitiful adopted me" soap opera, that all of her problems would be solved if she could find and go live with her "real" parents. Every single time adoptive parents have asked my advice concerning this adolescent drama, they have affirmed that they followed the standard advice and made the adoption a Big Deal from day one."


1) Adoption babble? Is he referring to important advances & contributions made in adoption (triad?) research and literature by respected experts such as Brodzinsky, Schechter, Lifton and Verrier (herself an adoptive mother), etc., etc. etc.;

2) Being educated and mindful adoptive parents who understand the importance of the way adoption is communicated is a GOOD THING. It doesn't mean they are wimps or sissies or afraid of the subject or their children. They are empathetic.

3) Send this man back to pre-Lifton adoption dark ages, puleeze! Children who are upset by the revelation that they are adopted are BEASTS? For what? Expressing natural curiosity and understandable sadness that they were relinquished? My how these children are villified and cast out of the human race! For their impudence they are called crude lower animals. Or perhaps he was talking about the other beast? Satan?

4) And then he attacks the ultimate loathesome creature...the teenager! The confused and hormonally challenged teenager, trying to grapple with his identity while it is both hidden from him and emerging, merits a mocking?

and finally...and then I'm DONE with this noxious column!

5) the very real feelings of young people troubled by or grappling with their status as adoptees are dismissed as nothing more than manipulative conspirators in an "adolscent drama" and their adoptive parents scolded for botching things up by making a fuss because.....adoption is no big deal. Except to the adoptee.

Any adoptive parents out there? Don't listen to this man or people like him! Educate yourself. Try listening to some of us older adoptees from the failed social experiment that is closed adoption...learn from the mistakes made by pioneer adoptive parents and don't repeat them. Adoption IS a big deal. You can make a big difference in the life of your child if you are open, honest and EMPATHETIC. So you walk on a few eggshells. What the hell. Maybe a whole person will emerge and not a beast!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Birthmother: How Weird is THAT?

Need to take a break from writing stories about being adopted (in "honor" of National Adoption Month.) It's just too depressing and overwhelming. Can only reflect so much on the past before...the past drags me down and makes me mopey. Which I hate.

So...a few thoughts on birthmothers.

I can't believe I have one. It's as simple as that.

After forty-some years of denial, minimization and outright ignoring that I was adopted and all the meant...the very acknowledgment that I was really born is, well, strange.

Which makes searching and finding your birthmother such a weird experience. She really exists! Not some mythological creature, not a fantasy, a real person. I've been in reunion (still haven't met her) for about six months and it still takes me a day to mentally prepare to talk with her and at least a full day to recover. Not that our conversations are that difficult. Some are. Of course they are! How could they not be?

But I find I have to put myself in a certain mood. Okay. You're going to talk to your mother now. It's soooo big. Like I can't afford to think about it too much. It's almost impossible to comprehend...the hugeness of having a living, biological connection to the world. And then, when I talk to her, sometimes I think, Oh my God, I'm talking to my mother. I actually have one! She really does exist. That must mean I'm real. Not a pretend person after all.

Really, this whole aspect of being adopted in the closed era is mind-boggling...SURREAL.

Friday, November 10, 2006

National Adoption Month: Attack of the Nerves

Taking Saturday off to visit Berkeley, California...where I broke free from my adoptive parents to begin college and where I immediately felt....LOST. Not because I was lonely. No. Because I was totally unprepared for the demands of college life, its financial costs, its emotional burdens.

While my adoptive parents refused to pay for my college education, they insisted on driving me the 400 plus miles. I resisted. At first. But finally caved in. Within hours of arriving, my adoptive father began complaining of a stomach ache. I spent my first weekend in Berkeley in the Alta Bates Hospital emergency room with my dad instead of moving into my co-op. My mother said, "You made him sick. You take him." By this she meant by choosing to move away I had caused his illness and now must pay the price. So I did. That was 25 years ago. The compliant, dutiful daughter. It was a classic case of attaque de attack of the nerves...a documented affliction that sends Latinos into hospitals seeking help...unable to distinguish between mental and physical distress.

I didn't see them for a year, at least. Out of self-protection. It was hard enough to go to school and work five nights a week as a legal secretary to pay the bills. At least I didn't have to wait tables! The distance between us began. And grew. Until years passed between our visits. It was the only way I could survive. Instead of support and pride, I only heard grim predictions and ridicule.

An expert I interviewed on the subject of Latinos and adoptions, a woman who grew up in my general neighborhood, was an unexpected comfort. The problem, she said, wasn't just my adoption. The problem, she said, was also CULTURAL. Mexican (American) girls are not encouraged to be independent. A good girl stays close to home and takes care of her parents. She is loyal. Often, daughters are preferred over boys for this very reason. Girls are easier to handle. This is true, so the research says, of adoptions in general. Girls are preferred.

How very VERY disappointed my parents must have been. My education the ultimate threat. What confusion and loss they must have felt that weekend. What anger. What sense of betryal at their ungrateful, adoptive choose something other than them. They father mother fuming.

But there is a new generation on the horizon. My daughters. Teenage girls with a ridiculous load of advanced standing high school classes and a eye toward Berkeley. At 14 & 15, they already know the libraries, the bookstores, the cafes and to avoid Telegraph Avenue at night. It's now nearly impossible to get in to the university. I couldn't do it today. But they eye it with's a goal...and it gives me the greatest pleasure to show them around...this place of so many happy and sad memories. My girls help me make sense of my college struggle. The alienation. The isolation. Wherever they go, they will have encouraging words and financial help. And I vow, if ever and wherever they go, I will NOT have an attaque de nervios!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

National Adoption Month: My Mother's Anger

This is the month that those touched by adoption are encouraged to contact their local media and share a positive story of adoption. Won't do that. As an adoptee from the now infamous closed era (secrets! shame! more secrets! half-truths! in the best interests of the adoptive parents!), it's hard to find something positive to say. Instead, an ongoing series of little stories in hopes that adoptive parents today will avoid the pitfalls of the past and embrace a more open and healthier attitude toward what can only be called a surreal which a child born to one family is transferred to and raised by the best interests of the child.

My Mother’s Anger Part #1

My adoptive mother died at 72 after ten long years with Alzheimer’s. The first signs of her disease? Change in personality and attitude toward me, her only child. Gone were the loud laugh, the mood swings and the ever present simmering anger and resentment. And while it was sad to see the disease rob her of her personality, it also came as a relief to be in the presence of a softer, gentler version of my adoptive mother.

It’s her anger I remember most. It ruled my life...and hers...for so many years.

When I look at pictures of her as a young woman, she is beautiful and laughing and smiling at the camera. The center of attention. The beautiful clown. Taller than everybody else. A commanding woman. A woman of many secrets. In my mid-thirties, during one of her hallucinatory episodes, she revealed she'd been married and divorced as a teenager. This came as a shock. She'd always portrayed herself as the perfect daughter, obedient to her mother. In the course of her Alzheimers, I learned she’d kept many secrets. Some small. Some big. The biggest, of course, was my adoption.

I understand now that her infertility (its cause mysterious) must have been a source of great and continuous pain. That my adoption, five years after her second marriage, her last hope. That my very presence in her life served as a public reminder of her shame. At the time, there were no popular books that talked about the harm done by unresolved i fertility and even if they'd existed, she wouldn't have read them because she would have had to admit that I was adopted. The subject was so taboo that when my adoptive father finally got up the nerve to express some early concerns about my behavior (or hers?), she threatened to divorce him if he ever dared the mention the "A word" again.

As an adult, I am trying to understand her. She grew up poor. And while she had a big, loving, extended family, it was dysfunctional , ruled by shared secrets (suicide, death by alcohol, divorce, cancer and even the fact that some members had been born in Mexico) and the Myth of Matriarchy, where daughters gave lifelong loyalty to the mother before them. She was undereducated and made no attempts to widen her world. You would not think this to look at her pictures. In them, she is imposing and perfectly dressed. And while she had street smarts and a certain savvy, she was still the Mexican girl from a small village where girls did not get an education and stayed close to home.

I remember my mother as loving and caring. When I was young. Her attention slavish to my bodily needs. Sweltering in a sweater in sixty degree weather to ward off cold chills, the homemade food, the panicked trips to the doctor at the first signs of a fever. But around the age of reason, around seven or eight, things began to change. Small disagreements between us, over matters such as cleaning my room or coming inside when called, became symbols of a bigger struggle. My struggle for independence. Her struggle for control. The more I resisted, the more she clamped down.

And then there was the haircut. The haircut of 1968. She hated my long, dark hair. She wanted it cut and tamed. She had just the solution. A pixie cut! She showed me a picture from a magazine. I was horrified. In 1968, the ideal hair was straight, long and blond. I had to make due with slightly curly, longish and brown. But the super short pixie? No one had hair like that at school. I refused. My mother grew alternatlely sullen and tearful. She called her sisters on the phone. Snippets drifted down the hall. "Obstinate," "ungrateful," "she has to have her own way or no way at all." But still I refused.

My mother took me to the hairdresser "for a trim." I didn’t like this man. He had mean eyes and fat red hands with fingers like hot dogs. I watched him nervously in the mirror. He yanked my hair this way and that and told me my face was too small for so much hair. I shook my head. He rolled his eyes and exchanged glances with my mother, who nodded and walked away. Then he cut off all my hair. I was so shocked I dared not move or make any noise. In silence I endured the rest of the haircut until he was done and I was sporting the Pixie. A school picture shows me, my lips pulled down in a frown, the thick brown hair sticking up in all the wrong places, an awkward looking helmet instead of a trendy style. Of course I cried.

I hated her for tricking me. For making me look ugly. Looking back on it, I think she was trying to make me look like her. To take some part of my features and shape them into something familiar. For she wore the Pixie cut. But she looked beautiful. She with her big, angular features and high Indian cheekbones. Even she seemed disappointed by the results, blaming my thick course hair that defied gobs of Dippity-Do. But no matter what she did, I would never look like her. We may have shared the same ethnicity, but there the similarities stopped. She looked like Pochahantas and I looked like...someone else.

To be continued.

Monday, November 06, 2006

National Adoption Month: Story #2 Resemblance

The Power of Resemblance

My much beloved aunt, dead at 89, lay in an open casket. Family members stood around, gazing at her with tears and smiles of fondness.

Cousin Letty joined me and said, "Oh my God, look at her! Then look at Albert! El mismo! El mismo!"

The same, the same, she was saying. She was remarking on the striking resemblance between my aunt in her coffin and her surviving son, Albert. The same beaky nose, the strong jawline and luxurious iron gray hair. He was the living version of his mother.

And there it was. The power of resemblance. The primitive urge to compare features. It happens all the time. At holiday parties and, more frequently, at funerals. Almost everyone in attendance looks like someone else. A nose here. A set of eyes there. A nose that reminds one of sepia tinted pictures of Indians. All but mine. My frame is not large but small. My facial features are also small, including my nose. My jawline is square and my hair with its annoying tendencies to curl and redden in the sun.

What is it like to grow up in a world where you look like no one and no one looks like you? Bewildering. Isolating. Strange. And again, that word I find so appropriate to describe the state of being adopted: Surreal. All the comparing swirls around you, family members, friends and strangers oblivious to the fact that you can never be included, and you sit and nod and, because it happens so often, maybe don't even realize why you feel so peculariar.

Even at a funeral, the urge to compare physical features is irresitable, the need to connect to others in the wider group basic and profound.

Is there a solution to this particular challenge of being adopted? For some of us: searching and finding our birth families.

When my niece, five years my junior, sent me a picture of herself, there I was...bits and pieces of similar features. The low forehead, the thick hair, something about the eyes. Finally, a connection to another human being! I rushed to the closest mirror. Like something out of a science fiction movie, my features seemed to be reassembling into a new face: mine. Suddenly, I realized I never actually knew what I looked like! I grabbed a box of old photos and dug through them. There I was at three. Five. Ten. Fifteen. I was seeing myself for the very first time in the fourth decade of my life.

Friday, November 03, 2006

National Adoption Month: Yuck's that time of the year again: National Adoption Month.

The time those in the industry go crazy promoting adoption, courthouses across the country rush to finalize adoptions and those who've adopted are invited to celebrate.

There are calendars of events and tips like, "contact your local newspaper and encourage them to run a positive story of adoption" and, for those who've gone the international route, "post a map of his or her own country in a prominent place in your home" (to remind them how far away it is?). And, as we are in a more open era, "write a letter to his/her birth parents (who) will cherish this gift!" Some public agencies include testimonials from pre-teen and teen adoptees expressing their gratitude for a loving, permanent home.

Of course, there's no mention of the now infamous closed era of adoption which many social scientists today call a "failed experiment."

Of course, it wouldn't be official without....

A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America

During National Adoption Month, we encourage the adoption of young people in need, and we honor the adoptive and foster families who have offered children a loving and supportive home.
The best of America is reflected in the many citizens who have adopted children as their own.

And there it is folks...AS THEIR OWN.

One interpretation, as stated in my Decree of Adoption: "and each respectively shall have all the rights and be subject to all the duties of natural parent and child..." In which case "as their own" if the child was their natural child.

But there's another interpretation. A more disturbing one. Nine lines up and tucked between a sudden outburst of "thereby's" and "wherein's" and whereby's"...."said child shall be adopted and treated in all respects as their own lawful child."

Meaning...original owner of child (birth mother) transferred title and ownership of child to said petitioners.

Which explains why reading my Decree of Adoption, which was locked away in a steel box for more than thirty years, is such a creepy experience. This official document...filed with the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the County of Los just a longer, fancier version of a DMV Vehicle Reassignment/Transfer Form, except for humans. The basic underlying concept is that children are property that can be...henceforth!...conveyed from one person to another or, as defined by Merriam-Webster: to make over the possession or control of _______.

Just in case you think I'm overreacting to or misreading the decree, some words of support authored by Ann Hartman & Joan Laird in an article entitled, "Family Treatment After Adoption: Common Themes" (Chap. 12, The Psychology of Adoption by Brodzinsky & Schecter):

"In our society, the legal foundations and ancestral definitions of adoption rest in English common law. Children 'belong' to their parents. Children's rights have been sharply limited by the conception of the parent-child relationship. For example, translated into adoption, 'this not only means that parents may give their child away,' but may also deprive children of the right to know their families of origin."

The very wording in such a Decrees of Adoption, the repeated references to "Baby Girl _____" and "the child" and "said minor," seems to forever relegate us as Forever Children, as the property of others, as if our majority would never be achieved. A contract was entered into, on our behalf, by others...without our approval and consent. Should that be legal? No wonder everyone seems to talk about adoption except the adoptee and only and occasionally the adoptee with certain stipulations: that they are happy and grateful and positive about the benefits they've received in this $1 billion dollar-plus- a year social institution...or hmmm....industry.

To borrow George Orwell, language shapes thought. Those of us adoptees who have unlocked the steel box to read our decrees with ambivalence or dismay or horror can't help but be affected. The very language of adoption as practiced in the U.S. shapes our sense of reality making some of us....Forever Children.

But it's my birthday, dammit which, ironically, falls at the beginning of National Adoption Month.

So, in honor of my special day, I'm making my own special contribution to National Adoption Month by protesting the language of adoption!

(This post does not apply to the millions of children in foster care in need of permanent homes and is intended to target infant adoptions, especially those placed during the closed era and those adopted by families intent on maintaining the fantasy that an adoptive family is no different than a biological one)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Confessions of an Adoptee

The girl is long gone. So is the young woman. Separated by education and years of experience and a hard knock or two or twenty.

Time for a confession.

Back in my early twenties, I wrote a letter to the editor of a major newspaper voicing my opinion on an article featuring adoptees searching for their birth parents. In it, I expressed my outrage and disgust for these pitiful creatures. I knew my real parents, I protested. They were the ones who raised me. What was this stranger - the birth mother - to me? Why, nothing, I concluded. Those who searched must be maladjusted or angry. By contrast, I was perfectly adjusted, thank you very much; the type of person who got on with life! Why dwell on something that could not be changed? A proactive, positive person, that was me.

And for a long was. Go Go Go. Do Do Do. Busy Busy. Productive. Unreflective. Reactive. Talking too much to hide my discomfort.

So what changed?

What accounts for such a radical transformation as this? From staunch defender of the sanctity of the adoptive family unit to one of the institution's more obnoxious critics?

One can only suppress and deny for so long. One day all that tight wrapping is going to come it finally did for me back in April...when an unpleasant family encounter left me reeling and sobbing and sputtering. Just like that. Went to pieces. I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't pretend. Something was wrong. Really wrong. My reaction to this incident was out of proportion to the offence. An extreme overreaction. This nasty relative had managed to trigger my biggest fears which were always there...lurking: abandonment; rejection; insecurity. Bit by bit I've unwound the wrapping. Layer by layer. Uncovered troublesome behaviors: the people-pleasing; the over responsibility; the need to be liked and approved of; the tendency to save or rescue others.

The closed adoption system and all its secrecy and lies and half-truths did us a great injury that so many people call a blessing. Family, friends and even strangers tell us how we should feel and what we shouldn't...until we're brainwashed. Look at all the language that is directed at us. Lucky. Special. Chosen. All words designed to comfort and explain, yes. But also serves the dual purpose of shaping our thinking and keeping us compliant and silent and forever children...muffled.

Without all the protective wrapping, the air is a lot colder and certainly more uncomfortable, but it's a whole lot fresher! And what of that young woman who wrote that editorial twenty some years ago? She's a stranger to me now. One I feel sorry for. She was miserable and scared and very confused and terrified to admit it. The extent of my self deception? I couldn't even admit - not even to myself - that my adoptive parents were childlike and self-absorbed. At the time of that editorial, they had cut me off financially and emotionally because I had chosen to attend college several hundred miles away from home. They were lacking in empathy and used shame, guilt and blame as a cudgel. Still, I defended them and adoption. I'm still trying to figure out exactly why and I guess I'll be trying to figure out that one for awhile.