Posts Tagged ‘birth mother’

Reviewing: “Without a Map, a Memoir” by Meredith Hall

January 13, 2009

The year was 1965; the place was a small town in New Hampshire. A 16 year old high school student with plans to go to college finds herself pregnant after a brief summer liaison. The ensuing unraveling of her life begins with the admission to school staff that indeed, she is pregnant. The swift reaction of her parents, her family, her church, her community is unexpected. She finds herself shunned, sent away and given no option but adoption for her baby. A casualty of “pretend it never happened,” Meredith Hall spent the next 21 years a lost and wandering soul. Although she never uses the word “forgiveness,”  she does recount the years of rebuilding her life. 

This intense memoir tells in poignant prose the extent to which an erasure of those nine months of her life affected who she became. And who she became is a strong female writer, a voice of that era caught in the cusp of social transition. It’s as if one of Anne Fessler’s interviewees in “The Girls Who Went Away” published in 2007 stepped out of the book to tell her personal story.

Halfway through reading this book, I did the math. Meredith Hall was 16 in 1965; so was my little sister, who also got pregnant that year.

My parents — with Sis in tow — appeared unannounced at the office to take me to lunch. Overjoyed to see them, but wary because they had never driven 50 miles to meet me for lunch, I drove the family car off the lot of the business where I worked as a secretary. In the backseat, my mother burst into tears. “Your sister has to get married.” “Be careful,” said my dad, “she’s driving.” (Like I couldn’t see this coming, I thought to myself.) My sister piped up: “But we wanted to get married anyway. This way, we just hurried it up a little.”

My mother was mortified. Raised on ‘what will people think,’ a generation of girls had come to put our parents’ reputation first — their standing in the community. “What must her mother think” my mother would say every time another peer got married and had an eight pound premature baby less than nine months later. “Her Mother!” I would silently think to myself. “What about HER!”

It’s hard to remember the binding morality of those days. Teenagers today hardly believe those seering days of control by image, although as I did private interviews of prospective adoptive parents through the years I would hear them say, “I never misbehaved. I wouldn’t have dared to; it would have killed my mother!”

So, are we better off as a society without that crushing burden of protecting our families’ reputation? Is the trend of pride about being a parent at 16, at 15, even younger — a healthier attitude? What about the fatherless boys and girls growing up wondering what they did to drive away an absent parent?  When I started doing pregnancy counseling in 1979, in my mind the student had four options: marriage, abortion, adoption, single parenthood. “I’m too young to get married,” my startled students would say, realizing the magnitude of sustaining a relationship over the years. Why didn’t they also think, “I’m too young to be a parent”? But they didn’t. These young women would blythly step into parenthood, more often than not to be disappointed by the friends who promised to ‘help’ them. I began to suggest to my clients: Ask them How will they help? Will they provide a ride to the 24 hr pharmacy to pick up ear-ache medicine at 3 AM? Will they buy formula for your baby? Will they provide diapers? Shoes?

The teen pregnancy recidivism rate is high; I pressed onward, informing the students of their options. Maybe in a few years one would say to me, “I remember you. You came to my school with a panel of teens who had placed their babies for adoption. I didn’t want to listen to you then.” And she would drop her eyes to her hands in her lap and say, “I never thought I would be where I am today.” She would explain how deserted and alone she felt with the decision of what to do with a second, a third or a later baby. All their ‘helpers’ were going on with their lives; had new boyfriends, were going away to school — these young women had learned that ‘helping’ meant ‘come and talk to me when you’re blue.’

The decision of adoption is still a lonely path. Getting to know other women who have made the same choice somewhat eases the pain, but it’s still an isolating event. In my new career as counselor to people with adoption-related issues, I listen as women in their 30s, 40s and even older — recall the baby they never met. As they prepare to search, as they wonder if they have the audacity to interrupt a life they said goodbye to years ago, I encourage them to open the door and seek the child, now grown. I have a new quote for them, from Meredith Hall:  “He looked for me.  I didn’t realize I should have been the one looking for him. He needed to know I loved him at least that much!”

And onward we travel that path, finding a few friends along the way to share the journey.

Who Is She?

October 14, 2008

I’ve been keeping statistics for the programs where I worked for thirty years.  Let me outline the statistics on birth mothers in these programs in Arizona.

Her age:  In those beginning days of my adoptions work, it was common for the woman who placed her baby to be as young as 15 or 16, but more frequently between 18 and 21.  The baby was usually her first born.  Today women who place their babies for adoption tend to be in their late 20s or in their 30s (confirmed by workers from other states whom I’ve spoken with at National conferences).  A few teens still make a placement plan as do a few women in their 40s, but more commonly she is a woman in her 20s or 30s who already had children, whether they were raising them or being raised within the birth family. 

Her marital status:  Though most are single, about 10% are married; about 2% are divorced.

Ethnicity:  When I started working as a pregnancy counselor in Tucson in 1979, my supervisor, who handled the adoption side of the agency, explained we needed Hispanic and Black families as prospective adoptive families because pregnancy clients who were Caucasian whose baby was bi-racial (the baby’s fathers were Hispanic or Black) would place, but pregnancy clients who were themselves Hispanic or Black did not place.  That was pretty much the case (with some exceptions) for the early 80s, but things changed, including the politically correct terminology.  These days the ethnicity of the birth mothers tend to reflect the makeup of the community.  In Phoenix that has meant that the birth mothers for the last few years have been about 55% Caucasian, 40% Hispanic, 2% African American and 3% Native American.  In our State we seldom see Asian birth mothers, unless they were themselves adopted.

Reasons for adoption:  In fact, familiarity with adoption is one of the reasons cited by women who carry through their adoption plan.  If she is adopted, or if she has an adopted sibling or if one of her parents or grandparents is adopted, she has seen first hand the benefits for a child, and she may consider adoption even if her peers do not. 

In recent years as high as 17% of the placements have been from drop-in birth mothers.  It is preferable, from the agency standpoint, for a pregnancy client to come to the agency by the sixth month of her pregnancy. 

Birth Fathers:  Having a few months before delivery gives the pregnancy counselor time to work with her client to contact the father of the baby, for in almost every state, it is necessary for him to be made aware of his rights.  It’s sad but true that adoption is the only one of her options where a pregnant woman must notify the father of the baby about the pregnancy and her decision.  She can terminate the pregnancy without his knowledge; she can even parent the child without telling him of the pregnancy — but if adoption is the plan, he must be notified and given an opportunity to participate in the plan for the child’s future.  In Arizona, he has thirty days after the notification in which to step forward and file a petition for paternity if he wants to halt an adoption plan for his child. 

Moms don’t always like to hear this.  They may say, “He left me!  He doesn’t deserve to be involved in this child’s life!”  The goal of the pregnancy counselor is to gently shift the focus to the child.  Making the adoption plan safe by having his rights dealt with prior to the delivery is much preferred to waiting for his notification to take place after the baby is born.  Under Arizona law, if she doesn’t know how to find him, the agency must show the Court they made ‘due diligence’ to find him, which may mean hiring a private detective to locate him.  If he cannot be found, then publication of the notice — which has her name and address in it — must appear in a newspaper. 

Seeing the adoption from the child’s side also helps her understand the benefits to the child of the father’s involvement, even if it is minimal.  The child will grow up with medical histories from both sides of his family, as well as a social history.  One adoptive mom wrote a letter to the previously uninvolved birth father requesting information.  She wrote, “We’d like to know if we have the potential for a budding musician or a little Jay Leno that we can help to develop to his potential.” 

I’ll expand on the role of the birth father in subsequent posts.  The next post, however, will review Dear Birthmother by Kathleen Silber and Phyllis Speedlin.  This classic, first published in 1982, introduced the idea of open adoption.

(If I failed to adequately explain something, or used terminology that is unfamiliar, please write a comment, and I’ll address those issues.)

Beth Kozan, Phoenix, AZ

Bibliotherapy in the World of Adoption

October 10, 2008

It is my intent to blog about adoption from the viewpoint of the adoption professional.  After almost 30 years in infant adoptions, mostly in Arizona,  I have observed many changes in the adoption community.  The bulk of my experience has been in working with birth parents: women and their partners who have placed infants and toddlers for adoption through private adoption agencies. 

When I began to work in adoption in 1979 in Tucson, I realized it was a field in which I was not well versed.  There are no ‘adoption classes’ taught in any formal learning environments, i.e., grad schools of social work or counseling.  Many people who come to adoption as a profession are participants: people who have adopted a child or adopted persons all grown up, who have a desire to help others in a field close to their hearts.  Fewer professionals are birth parents because it is still hard to admit one’s role as birth parent; therefore many birth parents are still ‘in the closet.”  However, the movement toward open adoption has brought the cleanser of sunshine to adoption, and with it, a lessening of the stigma of being a birth parent. 

So in 1979 I went to the Tucson library to check out books on adoption; there were three:  Orphan Voyage, The Adoption Triangle and Shared Fate.  Today, there are LOTS of books on adoption.  Most of them are written to the audience of adoptive parents (how-to books, mostly) and adoptees (picture books for children to help them understand adoption, and search-for-self for adult adoptees who wonder about searching for the original parents who are by-and-large unknown to them).  Fewer books are available for birth parents.  That is the area that I intend to address, over the next few months, in this blog.   But first, a little more about how I got here.

Orphan Voyage  was written in the 1950s.  The author, (as I recall; this book is out of print now) was the wife of an adoptee who wanted to talk to other adoptees, but in the fifties adoption was a shameful topic seldom discussed.  The author put ads in big city newspapers inviting contact from individuals who were adopted, to tell their stories of growing up adopted.  Many people had not been told they were adopted and only learned after the death of their parents, or were told but in a negative way and cautioned by their parents to keep it a secret.  Adoptees who had told their friends were ridiculed and socially exiled.  I experienced a flash back to a childhood memory. 

Two new kids who rode the school bus from our country community were living with their grandmother because their daddy, a soldier, had been sent overseas and their mother had to work full time.  Diana was my age; we were in the same second grade classroom.  Her brother Donnie was in first grade.  One day I overheard my mother exclaiming to my dad that an older ‘busybody’ neighbor had cornered Diana and asked her if her grandmother with whom she lived ‘treated her the same as her brother.’  She wondered because, after all, her daddy (the grandmother’s son) wasn’t really her daddy, like he was the daddy of her brother, and she was just wondering if her dad and his mother treated her as if she was loved the same way that Donnie was loved.  Diana’s grandmother had been in tears as she told my mother what the busybody had said: that Diana was adopted and this raised the question of ‘equal love.’

The Adoption Triangle was written in 1961 and is a ground-breaking and still-revered book about adoption.  Written by Reuben Panner and Annette Baran, two social workers from Vista del Mar, an adoption agency in the Los Angeles area, brought to the fore the issue of sealed records and the adoptee’s right to information about who they are and where they come from.  That edition that I checked out of the library identified Arizona as an “open records state” which meant that the original birth certificate was available to an adoptee when he/she reached majority.  I hadn’t worked in adoptions long, but I knew that Arizona was no longer (by 1979) an open records state.  What I learned was that the law had been changed and applied retroactively, because in just a few years we started getting calls from adoptive parents who had been telling their children “when you turn 18 we’ll get your original birth certificate and we’ll find her to get answers to your questions.”  These adoptive parents felt they had been lied to, and passed that lie on to their children because the lawmakers closed the records that they felt their children had a right to.

Shared Fate by H David Kirk read as if it was a doctoral dissertation (perhaps it was) written by an adoptive father who worked to help his children and other adoptees and adoptive parents to see their lives as interwoven, with the suggestion that the adoptive parent should help the adoptee understand Self.  He went on to write other books on adoption. 

It is my belief that people learn a lot from books, and that the current market of self-published and small press books have brought an awareness of adoption issues.  However, unlike when there were fewer books, it’s seldom these days that a book on adoption is advertised.  There are websites like Tapestry Books and Perspectives Press and EMK Press that showcase books in this niche market.  In each upcoming blog I will discuss books on adoption. 

I welcome your feedback and comments.

Beth Kozan – Phoenix, AZ