Category Archives: Birth parent

Trajectory: Birth Mother Stories Through the Decades

We are products of our times. What’s going on around us has has a huge effect on what goes on within us — the pressures we face, the opportunities we have, the decisions we ultimately make (or have made on our behalf). I’m realizing that this is especially true for birth mothers and the stories they’ve had to tell that span the last five decades.

What brought me to this brilliant realization?

Adoption in the 1960s

I was approached recently by an icon in Adoption World, Lee Campbell, PhD. Lee was a typical teenager of the 1960s who went on to become a mover of mountains in the 1970s. What happened in between?

She tells all in her first memoir, Stow Away, but the short of it (really, you should read it — it’s excellent) is that she became pregnant unexpectedly as a teen, faced the pressures of her time and felt ambiguity about her “decision,” and moved on with her life as a dutiful and proper wife and mother. But despite her attempt to forget the fact that she’d borne a son (as women of that day were told to do), her memories would not stay away — instead they’d been stowed away and eventually would not be denied. In integrating her past of 1963 with her present of 1976, Lee worked through her grief, came up with a legal maneuver called Release of Protection, searched for and found her son (but did not yet reunite with him), connected with others affected by adoption, and ended up founding Concerned United Birthparents,. Lee explains here why CUB decided on the term “birthparent” — which has been controversial through the years.

I just condensed a lot of juicy history into one short paragraph. I recommend getting the narrative and fleshing-out from Lee herself via her books.

I’m currently reading Lee’s second memoir, Cast Off, which focuses more on how he got a start in her extraordinary adoption activism (I’m told she was an influencer of Jim Gritter). It’s a treat to get the insider’s view of reforming adoption from back in the early days. You can see how much Lee and her cohorts have contributed to the changing the culture that exists currently.

When Lee approached me she suggested I watch this, an episode of Donahue from 1979. I found it fascinating so I shared the show via social media. I had already decided that I wanted to get to know Lee better, so I asked her for an interview. As the newly appointed curator of CUB’s History Project, she graciously agreed.

The video I caught the eye of Kim Court, a woman who placed her son in the 1980s and was featured in a documentary that aired on Oxygen. Kim, struck by several commonalities between herself and Lee and transfixed by Lee’s memoirs, jumped at the chance to interview Lee with me.

With a “the more the merrier” mindset, I also asked Monika Zimmerman, a woman who placed her daughter in the 2000s, if she would like to join us. The result is this Roundtable, which will publish here in two parts.

Birth Mother Roundtable: Experiences Over the Last 50 Years.

Lee, 1960s | Kim, 1980s | Monika, 2000s

birth mother stories

Please share the basics of your adoption story.

Lee: In the spring of my junior year in high school, I became pregnant by my first love of several years during our “first time.” His mother denied his paternity, resulting in what was then a scandalous court case. I thought my devastation was complete but there was still more to come. My school kicked me out due to my pregnancy and my parents shipped me to a home for unwed mothers in another state — both cruel but “standard operating procedures” for 1962. After I delivered Michael, I begged my social worker for “permission” to see him in his foster home. Although she condescended to allow my visits, there was a cost. For payback, she kept shoving the surrender papers across her desk at me but I kept pushing them back, saying I couldn’t do it.

As a middle-class young mother, I didn’t know about social assistance programs and my social worker did nothing to inform me. Meanwhile, as the eldest of five, my parents expressly told me their duty was to protect my younger siblings from the harm to their reputation my “situation” had caused them. After a debilitating year, including four months of visits with my son Michael that had been like pulling my social worker’s teeth, I remained without help and without hope for any help. I finally caved under the pressure. I surrendered.

Kim: I became pregnant at 17 with my longtime boyfriend. It was our first time. I was a smart young high school senior, but an extremely naïve teenager: I concealed the pregnancy for five months. Just days after my high school graduation, my secret was finally discovered. It was a shock to both of our families and a dark cloud of shame and guilt fell over me. I had disrupted the “nobody-needs-to-know-our-business” image of perfection our family diligently presented. I felt horrible. It was agreed that I would travel across the country (literally from the east coast to the west coast) to live with relatives. I wasn’t forced, but I really didn’t have a say in the matter.

My west coast family was warm and welcoming and didn’t look at me in the same disappointed way my parents did. Looking back, I can see that my parents’ disappointment was also mixed with sadness for what they knew I would go through. My mother accompanied me to the west coast to get me settled. Before she left, she found the number for Catholic Social Services in the yellow pages and encouraged me to call to speak with a counselor about adoption. That was early June; I didn’t call until mid-August. My views on adoption were based solely on what I could research at the local library. Unfortunately, in 1988, there were few books that presented anything other than a negative perspective on adoption.

My social worker was a wonderful woman named Judy. Unlike other stories I’ve heard – including Lee’s heartbreaking experience – Judy did not coerce me or sway me in one direction or another. She talked with me, but more importantly, she listened to me. I met with her about five separate times before telling her that I was ready to consider placing my baby. Part of the reason I feel there was no heavy coercion is because I would be 18 when the baby was born. Legally, my parents would have no say over what I should or should not do. However, since the option of parenting my child was never a consideration, and my resources were limited, the decision was basically made for me. She brought me several photo albums prepared by prospective adoptive parents. I found one family that really resonated with me. I kept going back to their album, finally deciding that they were the family I wanted to raise my child. In early October, I gave birth to a very healthy 10lb little boy and placed him for adoption one week later.

Monika: I didn’t know I was pregnant until the day I gave birth. With my daughter’s biological father in the military and deployed to Iraq, I was alone. I was 34 at the time of her birth, so I wasn’t a “typical” mother who surrenders her child. I was neither emotionally or financially prepared to have a child – in fact, I’d never wanted to bear my own children. Growing up, I could always see myself being a foster parent (and perhaps adopting from the foster care system), but never wanted any biological offspring. I also knew that if my daughter’s biological father and I stayed together that he’d most likely stay in the Army, and I knew that military spouses are single parents.

I wanted my daughter to have at least two consistent authority figures in her life, so I chose to surrender. I was having seizures at the time of her birth (pre-eclampsia, not a seizure disorder) and the hospital social workers didn’t believe my choice, so they put her in state foster care and I had to go to a couple of court hearings to prove I was of sound mind surrounding my decision. On the second court date, nearly two months to the day after my daughter’s birth, my daughter was released to my custody, and that was the day I signed over legal parental rights to the state, who then turned over legal parental rights to my daughter’s adoptive parents. That was also the day I first met them in person, though we’d all individually expressed a desire for a phone conversation prior to surrender day. The agency definitely dropped the ball on that one.

What were two things that needed to change systemically (not just your circumstance) from your era?

Lee:

  1. Social workers should have been oriented toward helping new families stay together. Any disequilibrium caused by external circumstances should have been righted.
  2. Social workers should have presented options both verbally and in writing and provided help to exercise the options that were selected..

Kim:

  1. There was still such a stigma in the 1980s about becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Although the pendulum has swung a full 180 degrees since then with reality shows seemingly glamorizing teen pregnancy, I do believe that this stigma about what “everyone will think” put an enormous amount of pressure on me and others to atone for our sins and right our wrongs.
  2. My social worker was wonderful when it came to pre-birth counseling; however, she was in California and I returned to Massachusetts a few days following my son’s placement. Back home, there was no mention of any follow-up counseling. It was assumed I would go on with my life as planned. This was devastating for me, although I didn’t realize it at the time. The full effects of the pain of relinquishment wouldn’t show up until years later when I was married and parenting our two daughters. I cannot overemphasize how important I believe pre and post-placement counseling would have been for me.

Monika:

  1. The biggest thing for me is that I believe the system needs to be oriented toward foster care and foster-to-adopt, and NOT private infant adoption. I think that needs to be the last thought in a couple’s mind as they consider adoption for their family. I’m not certain how to accomplish that. Greed is too prevalent.
  2. Though my personal experience was decent, I agree with Lee. There needs to be more support pre-birth for mothers who are wrestling with a decision about their babies, and not just a push toward surrendering.

More to come…tune in for part 2, in which the ladies of this Roundtable will address progress made, wish lists for today, thoughts on open adoption, and looking forward and looking back.

If you’re already hankering for more and can’t wait for my next post, see Claudia’s take on the Birth Mother Trajectory.

For those of you who have placed a child for adoption (or had one placed), how do these stories compare with your own? What would your answers be to these questions?

3 Buttons Your Child Will Push

For such small beings, children are incredibly adept at pushing their parents’ buttons.  Many of us come to adoptive parenting with extra buttons exposed, practically begging small and grimy fingers to give them a fresh press. Or two or three.

Why do children push buttons? Because they feel powerless against giants. And when children can’t get what they want through non-manipulative means, they will resort to whatever tools they have available.

Enter our buttons. Here are three I’ve observed in myself and in talking with other adoptive parents:

parenting buttons your child will push

The “Real” Button

This button becomes obvious to your child around age 7 and gets triggered  in parents by the likes of:

These exclamations are usually said when a child is angry or frustrated, when reason is out the window. And when these words are received, your reason goes out the window. Your child senses that these sentiments are inflammatory, and she hopes to escalate a situation and gain power.

So what should you do when your child plays the “real” card? Want to know the secret response that will reduce the odds that your “real” button keeps getting pushed?

You do nothing to your child. You work on yourself. You deactivate this button through your own reasoning.

Thinking it through: What does it mean to be a ”real mom” anyway? Are you fake? Did you really get up all those nights? Change all those diapers? Arrange all those play dates? Then you are real. You did real things. You were there, you have always been there. Nothing fake about you. You are legit. This button clearly can be neutralized in your own mind. Just because you’re not the only doesn’t mean you’re not real.

The Wondering Button

This one is more of a trigger — a button your child doesn’t intend to push but may impact you just the same.

When you notice your child is wondering about his “what ifs,” his roads not taken, it can hurt. You may feel as if he thinks you’re not doing a good job, that you’re not enough, that you’ve failed to establish your legitimacy. Sometimes your child will wonder about his birth parents privately and, if you’re lucky, he may sometimes allow you into his innermost thoughts and wonder aloud with you. He may wonder who his first parents are or what it would be like to live with them. If there is a lack of information available, the wondering may turn to fantasy. Who can compare with fantasy? Give the information you have, age appropriately, to help ground the wondering.

If you have a child who is prone to wondering, such wondering will happen whether you are privy to it or not. Again, neutralize this button using your own reason so that you can be there for your child as he wonders, supporting him and giving space to integrate his two identities — that of biology and that of biography.

Thinking it through: Your child wondering about his genetic roots doesn’t take away anything from you. We fully expect that a parent can love more than one child. Can you also embrace the notion that your child may have feelings for more than one set of parents? Can you understand that such wondering about his biological parents do not cancel out his love and devotion to you? In fact, such thoughts probably have nothing at all to do with you.

Adoptive parenting at its best is about addition, not subtraction.

The Running Away Button

This button is not unique to adoptive families, but it can sting when there is another parent (or two) “out there” who also has a claim on your child. After all, your child may actually have another parent-type to run away to! My daughter, then 9, once set out with her pink hat, trailing her pink suitcase stuffed with her pink bear, to somehow plead her case with Crystal, her birth mom, who would surely allow her to watch The Wizards of Waverly Place before doing homework. (Wrong!).

Thinking it through: Again, we remove the button’s charge within us by realizing that our child is feeling stuck and has no other options at her disposal. If we remember to breathe and also remind our child to breathe, we are in position to re-engage our reasoning faculties and make space for other, more appropriate responses.

Redeeming Qualities of Having Your Buttons Pushed

While maddening, having your buttons pushed by pint-sized tyrants isn’t completely without merit. If you’ve spent any time at all in this space, you know that two of my most frequent topics are (1) adoptive parenting, and (2) how to live mindfully. Over the years I have been manifesting a connection between these two seemingly separate subjects.

Adoptive parenting — if I choose to do it in a way that doesn’t sap my sanity — requires that I become more mindful within myself, that I not parent on auto-pilot. In stressful moments when I want to contract and breathe quickly and shallowly (such as when one of my darlings has brought me to my knees by laying on one my triggers), I am instead cultivating the habit of becoming expansive and breathing deeply. In addition to scanning my environment for what/who out there needs to change, I also scan within to see what I may need to address.  I wonder if I would be so drawn to mindfulness if I didn’t frequently need to center and ground myself due to having my buttons pushed.

I can think of one more way that button drama has a silver lining.  Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my kids have begun with their attempts to push my buttons. From a place of rawness we find genuine connection devoid of artifice. We get real and we grow together.

What are you own parenting hot buttons? What have you done to deal with them?

Image courtesy Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This article is adapted from one that appeared on EmpoweringParents.com.

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Lori Holden's book coverLori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.

How to Survive Mother’s Day if You’ve Experienced Adoption or Infertility

Flickr - Whiternoise - Dead flowers, Pére Lachaise CemeteryNot everyone gets warm Hallmarky feelings about Mother’s Day. While the maternally privileged (like me, currently both having a mom and being a mom) buy cards and flowers and/or receive cards and flowers, others dread this time of year.

Many of these Mother’s Day dreaders are connected through the experience of adoption, some also through infertility. Who are some of these outliers?

  • Women experiencing infertility
  • Women who are waiting to adopt or who have adopted
  • Women who placed a baby for adoption
  • People who were placed for adoption

Though the situations are different, healthy strategies for getting through mid-May with one’s sanity intact are similar (as excerpted from the book I wrote with my daughter’s birth mom, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption). mother's day can hurt, infertility, adoption

3 Tips to Surviving Mother’s Day

1. Find balance. You don’t want to dwell on your pain or discomfort with the holiday, but neither do you want to deny it’s there, because denial gives it power. When emotions arise, acknowledge them — maybe even aloud (“OK. I’m feeling really angry that other people are celebrating what I lack”) — and release. You may have to do this more than once (ha, once would be too easy!). Maybe a dozen or a hundred or a thousand times between now and Monday, May 14.

2. Stay present and in your physical body. When we grieve our wounds, we are in the past in our emotional body. When we worry or are fearful, we are in the future in our mental body. So find something to do that keeps you in your body and present, like physical or creative activities or just plain stillness.

  • Move. In the remaining days leading up to Mother’s Day, plan to walk, run, hike, dance, mountain bike, swim, rock climb, do martial arts or yoga or another activity. Physical movement prevents emotional stagnation.
  • Create. Supplement all that movement with creativity. Write, compose, paint, draw, choreograph, mix a song, rap, blow glass, make pottery, or plant and tend a garden. Creating allows your energy and emotions to flow and not get stuck.
  • Find stillness. Meditate, do tai chi, or simply find focus in whatever you are doing — walking, cycling, washing dishes. Practice finding this place of presence, of uni-tasking and being where you are, of calming the chatter of your mind.

3. Connect with others. Find a tribe of people who have walked or are walking a similar path.

  • Infertility and Adopting: Melissa at Stirrup Queens tends a ginormous blogroll sorted by neighborhood (such as assisted reproductive technology, third-party reproduction, adoption, living child-free). Creating A Family is also a rich resource, both its site and its Facebook community. And Keiko Zoll from The Infertility Voice has compiled a helpful list of infertility support organizations.
  • Birth/First parents: Birth Mom Buds and Concerned United Birthparents are two of many online support group options. For in-person gatherings near you, do an Internet search of “birth parent support” plus your zip code.
  • Adoptees: Adult Adoptees Advocating for Change, the Child Welfare Information Gateway, and Adoption.com offer resource sections for adoptees. You may also conduct an Internet search for “adoptee support” plus your zip code to find face-to-face meetings near you.
  • Everyone: If you don’t find an in-person support group to suit your needs, why not start one?

More Tips from the Trenches

Let’s hear from experts, those who have been there, done that and survived infertility and adoption.

Tips for Women Longing to be a Mother

  • Keiko Zoll of The Infertility Voice reveals 3 tips on the RESOLVE New England website.
  • Cristy of Searching for Our Silver Lining shares her survival guide.
  • Melissa Ford of Stirrup Queens offers her advice and encouragement.

Tips for Women Waiting to Adopt and Adoptive Moms

  • Creating a Family lists 42 things you can do while waiting — any of them during the month of May.
  • Brandy, a Colorado adoptive mom, says, “Don’t let anyone steal your hope, joy or excitement. If it would make you feel good to receive a Mother’s Day card, drop a not-so-subtle hint to someone who would arrange for that.” Sarah, another mom via adoption, offers, “Avoid people who don’t understand or who make you uncomfortable. On holidays, be selfish and indulge in what you need, and not what others expect of you.”
  • If Mother’s Day is difficult because you feel guilty or sad about your child’s first mom (or even if you don’t), says Rebecca Gruenspan, “reach out to her and thank her. Let her know her child is doing well. Give her some peace of mind.” Being kind and respectful makes you feel good, too.
  • Michelle, adoptive mom of teens,advises that you expand your view from the short-term BECOMING a mom to the long-haul BEing a mom. Read a book about adoptive parenting. Ahem.

Tips for Birth/First Moms

  • Chanel Young, birth mom in Texas, says, “Be honest with yourself about how you are really feeling and dealing and if the situation permits be honest with the other mother. I am very lucky to have such an open and understanding couple, I don’t really know how I would deal with this if they weren’t as inclusive of me or if it had been closed rather than open.”
  • Ames Markel, who is an adoptee as well as first mom to a 13 year-old son, says, “It’s OK to cry! Mother’s Day is hard. Let yourself grieve, but always remember that your decisions were made from pure love. And love is a wonderful gift any mother can give her child.”

Tips from the Trenches for Adopted People

Last but perhaps most, for the children-who-become-adults at the center of adoptions…

  • Author Laura Dennis counsels adoptees (and first parents) to allow themselves to heal, especially if they are in limbo about reunion. “For anyone who may have emotional triggers about Mother’s Day, my advice is super simple, but not at ALL easy: Even if you are hurting, you can HEAL. You are not powerless. You can work on your own pain, your own hurt, to make yourself the most whole, ready, emotionally open, and secret-free person you can be, no matter what comes.”
  • Deanna Doss Shrodes, pastor and writer at Adoptee Restoration, says, “For adoptees who do have children and find this holiday hard to navigate with first mother or adoptive mother issues, I recommend shifting the focus to celebrating your own life as a mom.”
  • Cultivate kindness from within, says writer and adoptee JoAnne Bennett. “Feeling bitterness from the losses [of my birth mother and adoptive mother] has not been an option for me, but rather the ‘hard parts’ have strengthened my belief that being a caring and sensitive human being with a genuine love for one another is what is most important.”

If you’ve endured infertility or adoption, what coping strategies have worked for you around Mother’s Day?

Flower image by Joshua Veitch-Michaelis (Pére Lachaise Cemetery) via Wikimedia Commons 2.0. Life preserver image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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Lori Holden's book coverLori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.

Ready or Not, Glasnost is Coming to Adoption

Even though the Berlin Wall fell suddenly a quarter-century ago, in hindsight we were not all that surprised. Historically we note that of course people eventually throw off shackles. Of course the human spirit cannot be contained forever. The human spirit is hard-wired to reach for light, to yearn for freedom, to crave openness. And to settle for no less.

The fall of the Berlin wallGlasnost means openness. Mikhail Gorbachev saw its inevitability and decided to get in front of the parade. Those who today patrol outdated walls that oppress people would do well to follow Gorbachev’s lead. Policy-makers who have dedicated themselves to preserving walls built on a foundation of shame and secrecy are well-advised to study history and consider their own legacies.

We in adoption have seen a movement on many fronts toward openness. More and more, adoptive parents welcome and even seek contact with their child’s family of origin, recognizing the benefits contact can bring to the child. Even in cases in which contact is either unsafe or unwise, adoptive moms and dads are parenting with more openness when it comes to acknowledging their child’s story and their child’s unique needs and being able to talk about these issues. Finally, we see state after state passing legislation that opens birth records to all citizens, no matter their circumstances of birth.

I therefore make a bold prediction: glasnost is coming to adoption.The walls that still exist will fall not gradually and softly but in a rush. A shocking, thunderous rush — just like we saw nearly 25 years ago in Europe. Openness in adoption will be here within the decade, and we’ll wonder how we ever tolerated anything less.

So what are these walls in adoption? What structures have been erected as the legacy of fear and shame since the start of the Baby Scoop Era, post WWII? For one, many people think it’s unnatural or “weird” that my children’s birth parents are part of our extended family. Some are shocked we would let into our lives a presumed “crack whore birth mother” or a “scary birth father.” Coming from a place of fear and duality, some believe there should remain a wall between our family and our children’s birth families, lest our children become confused (Jim Gritter, a pioneer in the open adoption movement, says about such confusion: “Is it your experience that to be fully informed is to be confused?”).

But coming from a place of love and wholeness, inviting my children’s birth parents into our lives as respected members of our family seems as natural as keeping in touch with my own parents and just as important in helping my tweens integrate their identities. “Adoption creates a split between a persons’ biology and her biography. Openness is an effective way to help heal that split.” — that’s the premise of the book I’ve written with my daughter’s birth mom, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole.

As I speak at adoption agencies around the country and connect with people who hope to or have become parents via adoption, I see an opening, a softening, an understanding that openness — with or without contact — is as vital to an adopted child in her identity-building as food, shelter and showing up at soccer games are to satisfying the lower levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The second and more oppressive wall is the one guarding original birth records from their rightful owners — adult adoptees. By circumstance of birth, my children belong to a class of people whose civil rights are not fully recognized. I can go to my county clerk and get my original birth records and you can go to your county clerk and get your original birth records (unless you were adopted), but adult adoptees in 41 states plus the District of Columbia [see the current count here] face a practically insurmountable wall between them and their own vital records, their very identity.

Why? Why the need for such a wall?

Closed systems rely on fear to sustain them. In adoption, this fear is rooted in shame — the shame of being caught in an unplanned pregnancy; the shame of being infertile; the shame of being a “bastard” born to unmarried parents. Isn’t it time to vanquish shame in adoption?

Let’s examine the parallels between this practice of closing birth records and the Berlin Wall.

  • Walls are not for the benefit of those walled in. They are for the presumed benefit of the Elites and those the Elites deem in need of protection.
  • In a repressive environment, large expenditures are needed to repress, diverting funds that could be spent actually helping people.
  • In a repressive environment there is secrecy, and corruption is therefore difficult to detect. Without the possibility of someone shining light in an environment, corruption and rot can flourish.
  • Repressive systems cause people to find ways around it. When support for the system erodes, black markets are created and people find ways to skirt the wall to get what they feel they should have access to.

Why am I so certain walls will fall in states that don’t already allow unfettered access to original birth certificates to all citizens?

  • It’s human nature to resist resist the tyranny of Elites.
  • Repression is not eternally affordable or sustainable.
  • When any system fails to meet the fundamental needs of its people (such as the right to know one’s identity), civil unrest may follow.

The Internet is a great destabilizer of Elite structure. It facilitates connections, joins voices, and democratizes light-shining into previously well-guarded nooks and crannies.

What may have seemed all right yesterday often looks very different after the fall of a wall. The shooting of would-be defectors by East German border guards was justified by the Elites. But post-openness, those shootings were treated as acts of murder by reunified Germany. How will history judge those who repeatedly act to violate the civil rights of a group of people? How will history remember those who refuse to “tear down this wall”?

Fifty years ago, John F Kennedy said at the Brandenburg Gate, Ich bin ein Berliner. In solidarity with my children and others whose civil rights are violated right here in the 21st century, I invite you to say with me, Ich bin ein Adoptee.

More info: Vital Records, a short film by Jean A. S. Strauss.

To get involved in the demolition of adoption walls, visit the Adoptee Rights Coalition.

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Lori Holden in The Huffington PostA version of this article appeared in 2014 on The Huffington Post.

 Image: morguefile