I've had a hard time coming up with a title for this post. I keep thinking, maybe a riff on a book or movie: Fear and Loathing of My Kids' Birth Mothers: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Adoption [from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream]; or maybe Dr. AdoptionLove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Kids' Birth Mothers [from Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb].
Humor aside, either title would have had some accuracy. Maybe taking it from Dr. Strangelove is the most apropos since birth parents were as scary as a nuclear bomb to me at one time. One major reason (though certainly not the only reason) why I chose China for adoption was that there appeared to be no possibility of birth parent involvement. It shames me to confess this; after all, I had done all the reading prior to adoption about how much better open adoptions were for kids, how important it was for kids to have information about their birth families. But the idea of open adoption, a potential relationship with birthparents, even information about birthparents which could conceivably lead to finding them, scared me to death.
The fear wasn't about the possibility of the birth parents trying to disrupt the adoption and take the child back, which I know many adoptive parents worry about. I'm a lawyer, after all, so I know that MOST adoptions are completely uneventful and final. The media focuses on those where something went wrong in the placement, but those cases represent only a minute fraction of adoptions.
My fear was a selfish one -- what if my child loved someone else best? Again, I'd done all the reading, I could sing the right tune to the social worker: if my child wanted to search for birth parents, I'd be supportive. If I had information about birth parents, I'd share it with my child. But I could say all of that knowing that with China adoption, the chances were extremely thin that I'd ever have to face that decision. And I could justify it to myself with bromides about how confusing it would be for the child to have two mommies (what's the quote from The Big Chill? "I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. . . .")
It was easy to be selfish and scared at that point; not only were birth parents a complete abstraction, so was my child. I didn't have to invest too much in the possibility of my child's pain, because she was not yet real to me. How bad was it? I was actually secretly glad when I found out Zoe had not been in foster care, even knowing how much better foster care is than institutional care. I didn't want to have to deal with the grief of that separation. Again the fear, what if she loves her foster mom more than she loves me? (I've never admitted this to another living soul, but what's the point of blogging if you're not going to strip bare in the hopes of helping someone else who felt the same way?!)
My interest in Zoe's birth mother grew as my attachment to Zoe grew (it's not only kids who have to attach in adoption, the parents have to, too!). As I grew to love her, I became the mama bear who would do anything to prevent her pain, and that meant the pain of not knowing her birth family. My compassion for Zoe's birth mother grew as I could imagine MY pain if I was ever separated from this child. And my longing for information, contact, a relationship, grew as my joy in parenting Zoe grew -- how I would love to be able to share with her birth mother what a wonderful girl Zoe is.
My understanding and compassion also grew as I learned more about infant abandonment in China. I spoke on the phone several times to Kay Johnson, author of Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son, to see if she would speak at a conference I arranged (she ultimately was not able to because she had a research trip to China planned that could not be rescheduled). In the midst of several free-ranging conversations, I asked her who really made the decision to abandon a girl baby and try for a son. She related a story of being at an orphanage when a mother came in, crying, trying to locate her newborn daughter. Her husband had taken the child while she slept, and abandoned her. Kay Johnson said it was often the mother-in-law who insists on the abandonment. I don't know what role Zoe's and Maya's birth mothers played in the decision to abandon them. But from what I know about the status of women in Chinese families, I'm not sure they had much say at all.
My gratitude grew when I acquired more information about Zoe's abandonment -- those 3 layers of clothes, the little hat on her head, all wrapped in a new towel, and all on a day in Guiping with a low of 60 and a high of 84! (WeatherUnderground has great historical information -- just put in a date, and you can find the weather for that date.) When I got pictures of Zoe's finding site, a pedestrian walkway near a bridge , I felt even more thankful. What I saw when I looked at the picture kind of stunned me -- the river was 6 feet away. The birthfamily had a choice: put the child where she could be found quickly, or toss her in the river, never to be thought of again. They gave her life, and then they made sure she had a life. As I wrote last year upon visiting my kids' finding spots, "I don’t romanticize my children’s birth parents. I can’t know if they are noble or venal, selfish or giving, heartless or loving. But standing at these places, I can believe that they did the best they could to make sure that these little lives they brought into the world had a chance to survive. And I am thankful. "
As I became more secure as a parent, I no longer feared the birth family. When Maya's adoption came along, I was thrilled to discover she was in foster care. I'm delighted that we've maintained a relationship with her foster family. I wish we had a relationship with Zoe's and Maya's birth families. There isn't much I wouldn't give to make that happen.
Zoe and Maya know I'm their mom, and no amount of contact with their birth families would change that. Yes, I'm their REAL mom, but their birth mothers are real, too. Even when not visible, they are part of our family. I don't feel threatened by them anymore. When Zoe says "I wish they could have kept me," I don't feel even a twinge of pain or jealousy. I'm left only with Zoe's pain and loss, her birth family's pain and loss, and my enormous gain -- pure love.
This journey from fear and loathing to compassion and understanding is only MY journey. I'm not suggesting that every adoptive parent MUST feel this connection with his or her child's birth family. I'm just talking about where I am right now, and how I got here. I know that all of you know that regardless of our feelings about our kids' birth families, we need to be open to whatever feelings our kids might have about their birth families.
BTW, the drawing above of the breast-feeding mothers is by a Chinese artist -- I bought a book of his paintings and drawings at a bookstore in Xiamen, and I love his stuff. I wish I could share his name, but everything in the book is in Chinese characters, no pinyin in sight!